Water is life they say.

And never more so than now. The rains are failing once again and the situation is desperate. Livestock is dying, and so is wildlife. Even the resilient Grant’s gazelle and the tough zebras are dying. Seeking relief from the intense midday heat I sit with Seyia, our six-year-old, on our cottage veranda overlooking the Ewaso Ngiro river.

 

‘Where does the water in this river come from?’ she asks. What a perfect time to grab the marker pen and draw out the water cycle on the childrens’ white board. That will be our lesson for the day, home-school style. The next question is easier to answer: ‘Mum please can we go tubing in the river this afternoon?’

Guests have left, work is done, so we load up the pick-up with the tubes for Johann and the children and a kayak for me, then drive up-river through gullies of soft, deep dust. We marvel at the fact that there is still water in the river, thanks to rain in the Mau and in the hills up-stream. Seyia can now tell you that.

We stop at our unloading tree and pile out of the car into the dust. Two Maasai women are just coming up from washing clothes and fetching water. They stop and stare in wonder at our troop as we head down to the river with kayak and tubes in tow. They giggle at the sight of Taru, our almost three-year old, struggling to carry a tube which is larger than him, insisting on practising his latest and favourite words ‘by myself’.

Their curiosity leads them to put down their heavy loads and follow us back to the river to watch as we try to place children in tubes before the tubes float away, place Diesel the Jack Russell terrier on to the front of the kayak and then my trying to get on to the kayak without tipping both myself and the dog into the surprisingly cold water. All of this finally achieved, they wave us off with a look of mixed fascination and disbelief.

As we round the first bend we see a fish eagle perched in the trees above us. Signalling to each other to be quiet, we drift beneath her, waiting to see if she will notice us. As I pass under with Diesel, the bird cocks her head in curiosity before launching off the branch and gliding to a perch further down river.

A few minutes later we hear splashing and laughter. Schools have closed early due to National re-elections and we see many more children than usual washing and playing while their donkeys, sheep and goats drink. Cows are noticeably absent, having been taken further afield in search of any remaining pasture. Women wash themselves and their clothes at the same time. The sight of us sets off further shrieks of laughter and we practise greetings in each other’s native languages. Many of the children recognise Seyia and Taru and questions are asked back and forth until we are out of sight.

We glide on. A monitor lizard watches us from his sunbathing spot in tangled fig tree roots. More birds are spotted, including the rare Narina Trogon and resident Goliath Heron. ‘Colobus, colobus’ shouts Seyia. We see the native troop leaping through the trees, still shy of us. In contrast the baboons sit like old men watching us drift past with a kind of bored fascination and the vervet monkeys chatter warning calls to each other when they spot Diesel.

Too soon it is time to stop and get out. Our shoes and towels await us, and cups of tea freshly baked camp cake are handed out all round. The river drifts on to the swamp, and then on to its end in Lake Natron, giving life support to all creatures on its journey. And long may it do so. Water is life after all.

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.

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