Every year, thousands of mzungos travel across the globe and meet in a wildlife park that stretches across Kenya and Tanzania. The Maasai Mara (Kenyan park) and the Serengeti (Tanzanian) provide the mzungos with crucial habitat in their annual pilgrimage. "The Great Mzungo Migration" occurs in July and August when other animals like wildebeast and zebra migrate, which attract the mighty mzungo. In the grasslands of the Serengeti, the mzungo can be spotted on its own as it searches for prey. Once it has found a large enough animal, however, mzungos congregate in groups as large as 20 to consume the hunted. It doesn't stay long though, as it quickly grows tired of the animal and goes off alone in search of more animals.
OK, that was a joke. Mzungo in Swahili means white person. I did go to Maasai Mara this weekend and I was a part of the "Great Mzungo Migration." There is a real "Great Migration" that happens every July and August. Millions of wildebeast and zebra travel north into the Maasai Mara as they search for green pastures. They are accompanied by smaller numbers of other herbivores: zebra, gazelle, giraffes, elephants, several types of antelope and others. This moveable feast attracts predators: lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and more. And mzungos.
It was amazing to see. The East African Savannah is a vast landscape. It reminds me a bit of grasslands in the American West, but there are larger hills, greener pastures, trees and rivers/streams. It's a fairly diverse ecosystem as there are plains with tall grass that stretch as far as the eye can see with only a lonely acacia tree or two dotting the horizon. Large hills, covered by trees and jagged rock formations, erupt out of these plains. In the river valleys, green grass grows and large trees and bushes form dense thickets.
The landscape itself would be enough, but the grass also attracts millions of animals that are new to the mzungo. We saw thousands and thousands and thousands of wildebeast. At the end of the three day trip, we drove out of the park past a herd 100,000-500,000. Honestly, I have NO way of conceptualizing numbers that big so I don't know how many animals there were. While wildebeast and zebra are impressive for their numbers, other herbivores attract for different reasons. I think that giraffes were my favorite. We were lucky enough to be quite close to a pair of young male giraffes that were "necking." Males compete by swinging their long necks against one another, often slamming their horns against the opponent's neck. In rare occasions, the horns pierce the neck, causing death. In the tame necking that we saw, the giraffes mostly danced for position with each other. They liked to be side to side, facing opposite directions, which created amazing symmetry between their long necks. Elephants are also high on my list. They leisurely wander the plains solo or in groups as large as 15 (well at least 15 was the largest that we saw). We saw a mother and juvenile bathing in a small water hole. The adults are too large to lay down, so the mother showered herself with the cool, muddy water, which doubles as protection against insects. The juvenile laid fully in the water, clearly enjoying the bath. There are far too many other herbivores to describe, but different species of antelope (especially impalas and gazelle) stand out as particularly beautiful. Birds too are attractive and brightly colored, when you can spot them.
The predators are also spectacular. There was a pride of lions that had made a den not 10 feet from the road. Obviously, this attracted lots of mzungos. One group of mzungos, in their haste to capture the king of the jungle, dropped a camera case in front of a lone male lion. They convinced their driver to reach outside of his car and recover the case. It's no joke that the mzungo migration is just as fascinating as the migration of the other animals. Cheetahs, I think, were my favorite predator. They are strong and graceful. We saw three as they crouched and began a hunt. Two hours later, we saw them feasting on a gazelle. After eating, the male and female pair laid down facing one another. They licked each others' faces for a good ten minutes, cleaning. It was an intimate moment. Leopards are much rarer and harder to spot. We only saw one as it slept high in a tree.
The Mzungo Migration plays an important role in this ecosystem. On the one hand, the hundreds of vans in the park at any one time tear up the grass. Dirt roads crisscross the Savannah, but mzungos drive off the roads in search of better pictures. However, without the tourists, it's possible that this protected area would not exist. Tourism is a significant source of income for Kenya; without foreign money coming in, the land would be more valuable as agricultural or pastoral land. In the States, we had a very similar ecosystem that was filled with millions of herbivores (buffalo, deer, antelope, bison, hunted by a multitude of predators. Now it's mostly farmland. Would these parks be protected without tourist money? Important caveat: indigenous people lived for millions of years in the African Savannah, preserving it without the "help" of tourist money.
So it was a great great weekend. I had a wonderful time with my friends as well. Being in such a beautiful place inspires singing and laughing in the mighty mzungo. There are lots of pictures that will hopefully be posted soon to picassa and/or facebook. However, I don't think that pictures or my words come close to capturing the feeling of the Mara.
.....Back in Nairobi, we're confronted with images from Eastern Kenya of a humanitarian crisis. It's the worst drought in 60 years, affecting 3.5 million people (in Kenya alone). Kenya borders Somalia to the East, so the area is full of Somali refugees, escaping worse conditions. They congregate in Dadaab, a camp built for 75,000 people. However, 500,000 people are in the camp now, with 10,000 new people entering every day. I think I had been desensitized to pictures of starving African children, but living in the same country as this disaster makes it much more real. It is an absolute tragedy that I have hardly seen covered in Western media. It's so strange to be living in a country where there is so much wealth, both Kenyan and foreign owned, and so much desperate poverty. Surreal to go on a safari in Maasai Mara, carefree and full of joy, while millions suffer and die. The World Food Programme mission to Kenya and Somalia is based out of the UN in Nairobi, so some of my colleagues are involved in getting food aid to Dadaab. They're doing their best to alleviate the suffering, but the structural causes of the famine are not going away.
East Africa/the Horn of Africa is an environmentally marginal place. Since 1989, conflict and war have torn Somalia apart; there is no resolution to this conflict in site. As long as Somalia remains unstable, Somalis will flee to camps in Kenya. While food aid to starving millions is a moral imperative, it is not without unintended consequences. MOST of the food aid given to Somalia in 1989 and 1990 was stolen by gangsters and warlords. Aid was sold for weapons and directly led to civil war. Read The Road to Hell to learn more.
It's impossible to say that any one severe weather event is CAUSED by climate change. BUT, this is exactly the sort of event that climate change has been predicted to make more likely. The Horn of Africa is home to millions of people who depend on the land. Drought, famine and the conflict they inevitably cause will get worse as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere get higher. Climate change is seen as this thing happening in the distant future, but it is affecting people now. It will get worse. From food aid to climate change, the tragedy unfolding in Somalia and Kenya has our fingerprints all over it.