There was a quiet yet urgent knock on the cottage wall. ‘Mama, mama, you must come now’, Risa, our Maasai watch man called. ‘Elephants, drinking!’ he called excitedly. Dragging Taru from his lunchtime nap, and grabbing Seyia by the hand we rushed to the dining area. Creeping towards the rivers edge we looked upstream and saw four elephants, standing elephant-ankle high in the water and drinking. For us, it was a special sight. Elephants rarely come out into the open here. For the local Maasai too, who gathered around whispering enthusiastically, this was the first time they had seen these gentle giants up close, but not too close.
With the short rains failing in November, the river running by the cottage is at the lowest I have ever seen it in the ten years or so I had been living in the area. With the little water still in the river being the only water left across most of the ecosystem has meant more wildlife on our doorstep, including the elephants which we love, I can’t help but think about our Maasai landlords, struggling daily to decide which direction to take their cows, with most decisions bringing them into close contact with elephants and lions as everyone gathers around critical water sources. Life is harsh for a nomadic pastoralist on so many levels. Even though we all pray for the rains to come soon, I know that even then the agony is not over. Once the rains come, the cattle and ‘shoats’ (a term used to describe a mixed herd of sheep and goats) die even more rapidly, as their shrunken stomachs can’t cope with the new greenery and they get bloat. This drought though is still better than it was back in 2009, when the Maasai from Shompole headed deep into Tanzania looking for forage. This year, the Tanzanians have come here, as have the Purko Maasai from the North. The Purko animals I am told have started to die and even though they present added pressure on dwindled pasture, in true Maasai spirit, they are welcome.
We passed one such Purko cow this morning on our early morning drive with the kids. Seyia, all of five years old, was curious to know why it had died. Being fortunate enough never to have felt true hunger in her life, she struggled to grasp how an animal could have died for lack of food, especially since it looked fat from bloat. She was immediately concerned about her goats, a mother and baby. They were given to her by our Maasai cook, but kept with his herd for safekeeping. When we returned to camp, she rushed to find him to ask after them. She was visibly relieved to be told that they were fine, but insisted that we plan a visit soon to the boma where they live. The thought of sweet, smoky boma chai (traditional tea) was an added draw I am sure.
Sitting watching the baboons settle into their favorite sleeping places in the fig trees as the light fades, I am relieved by the fact that Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania are home to one tribe only for the most part, the Maasai, and lacking the proximity to the availability of guns that seems to be spelling disaster for Northern Kenya. For the time being at least. At the same time I am crying for Kenya, for Laikipia, and for what it means for a peaceful and prosperous year for all of us. As one Maasai elder said to me once…
Samantha du Toit (Russell) is a wildlife conservationist and works for SORALO in the Olkirimatian-Shompole ecosystem in Kenya’s southern part of the Great Rift Valley. She lives with her husband, Johann, and their two children at Shompole Wilderness, a tented camp in the Shompole Conservancy.