by Julie Dawson
I shook his hand, the man with a price on my head. He twisted my wrist but I held firm. He was dripping with ornament. I was dripping with cold sweat. It turned the dust on my skin into slip. Somehow, I found the strength to give him my truth. And that’s when everything changed.
I was riding on the back of Kasaaini’s piki piki. We were speeding along a narrow track through the vast lands of Tsavo. Rust-coloured dust billowed out from underneath our tires. It was 2011, about six months into my first job in Kenya. I worked with small community groups of the most generous people I have ever known. People who live in the semi-arid lands squeezed between the southern edge of Tsavo West National Park and the border of Kenya and Tanzania. No roads led to them. No electricity, no water, no doctor, no shops, all these things were over an hour’s walk away in different directions. They were the forgotten people of a forgotten place. Their lands were borderlands, wild lands where the tracking and poaching of wildlife was big business, and we were in the business of tracking poachers.
The man with a price on my head wanted me dead because I was working with his tribesman, Kasaaini. Kasaaini was a Masaai man who had been tracking the story of this land for lifetimes. He was attuned to every mark in the dust, every broken branch, every change in the air and every voice. As you walked with him, he became animated by the stories he detected. With a few words of broken Swahili and English, he would have you in stitches and tears while he played out the antics and struggles of invisible creatures.
The ability to track is not uncommon among the Masaai, but Kasaani’s devotion to the well-being of wildlife promoted his skill to an extraordinary level. It was his love for the land and his charisma that fueled a group of his neighbours and friends to go out into the bush for days on end, picking out snares and tracking the movements of poachers and injured animals.
I was supposed to help them do their job more effectively. To measure and improve their impact through “organisational capacity building” and “sustainable alternative livelihood creation”. In other words, my job was to attempt to mould their work into something more palatable for the wildlife authorities and NGOs, so that these agencies could get more funding for the work of the community, while the community themselves were made to do double the work and make their own money.
As I recall this day, its memory is in flux. Though these lands of Tsavo and I are physically separate now, I am returning there to learn, once more, from my teacher. My body is still made of its deep red dust. My teacher is a place where animism and ancestor worship has been practised for millennia. Magic was still an everyday occurrence. This landscape had retained the power to reach out and take hold of a numb, ego-centric, environmental activist like me and shake me awake. Even here in 2023, its energy jolts my core behind closed eyes, urging me to see its truth.
Tsavo is calling me back to feel the cool air on my dust-coated skin as we rode. Most of Mt Kilimanjaro’s body was shrouded with clouds, and still, the Mountain’s presence presided over the landscape, dramatically swooping up from the horizon and disappearing under clouds. The Mountain’s influence on us was much more than aesthetic. It was our source of water and fertility, nutrition and weather, wonder and fear. It’s evaporating ice caps were a daily reminder of the urgency of climate change and our work. Water and fertile soils were rare in this semi-arid region. When the glaciers are gone, the face of life here will be forever changed.
The rumble of the motorbike made my tailbone vibrate. My body was alert and focused, making micro-adjustments to my balance, ensuring I didn’t fall off as the bike bounced, dipped and twisted over the eroded and rocky path. I was in flow with the movements of Kasaaini’s body as he steered the motorbike. Together we flowed with the landscape rushing towards us. Our speed added to the feeling of exhilaration.
We had just come from a meeting with the Rombo Group Ranch Committee. A week before, my friend from the community, Simon, warned me not to travel with people I didn’t know. The Rombo Committee Chairman, Sambu, had placed a contract on my head. Initially, I was bewildered, I thought I was doing something good for this community, and now they want to kill me. I tried to act tough and unfazed, but I was wired. If a motorbike misfired, I would drop down to the earth, taking it for a gunshot. I found myself feeling resentful towards the people I worked with and loved.
Simon suggested I go and see Sambu. He said that if I showed him I was strong and honest that he would leave me alone. My boss, an eight-hour bus ride away in Mombassa, agreed with Simon. I had no way to protect myself other than to muster up the courage to go before Sambu’s committee and lay my intentions, and my heart, bare. So I reached out to the Man who wanted me dead and set a meeting for Kasaani and I to see him. I was assured of our safety for the day, but my guts were churning.
We met the committee of men in Rombo town, at the office of the local chief. It was a dark and sweaty tin shed. After a long round of introductions and a prayer, I apologised for my predecessor beginning to work with Kasaaini’s group without consulting the committee first. Sambu wanted me to work in one of the communities of his choice instead of Kasaaini’s group. I politely explained that I could not have moved our work to another community even if I wanted to, as they were outside of my organisation’s jurisdiction, both geographically and ideologically.
For the next few hours, I listened to everyone’s concerns and answered their questions about how the organisation I worked for operated and our project with Kasaani. Sambu was particularly interested in the budget of the project. Once he realised that there was no fat to skim off the top, he gave us his blessing to continue.
We closed our meeting with more prayers. The hairs on my arms were raised, and I felt an inrush of love and gratitude towards the notion of God where previously a tight and muffled feeling of tolerance would rise. I have been given permission to be alive.
As we rode home to Kasaani’s place, exonerated, the grey clouds which had been muting the colours of the day began to part. They rolled off the Great White Mountain like blankets rolling off the shoulders of a sleeping giant. As the skies cleared, the moment awakened around us. Kilimanjaro was looking directly at us. The wildflowers opened and turned towards us as we zipped past.
“Waaaa!” Kaasaini exclaimed, the wonder in his voice told me he felt this too. We laughed. We were without shared language, but in this moment, we could communicate fluently through our hearts. Because my heart was expanding, I could feel that his was too.
We had fallen through a pothole on the path, into a realm where we were alive within The Alive. The Alive turned its gaze towards us and recognised us. We saw the aliveness of the flowers and we felt them in our hearts because we were them in our hearts. The moment stretched forever and nothing.
For the first time in my adult life, the world was alive and turning to meet my gaze. I became the mountain in its vast stillness. I became the wildflowers opening. I became the dust billowing out from behind our back wheel.
We didn’t speak about the experience afterwards. We just got back to work. But I was changed. I began to experience a new feeling of reverence and accountability toward the landscape. I became open to other, more ancient ways of knowing alongside the science I leaned so heavily on. I came to have many extraordinary moments like this, including encounters with darker, more specific energies within the landscape. But those are stories for another time.
So much remains unsaid here. I don’t know that I can finish telling this ever-changing story of my origins in the work of co-becoming. There are so many layers, and each one opens to another like an ever-diminishing, ever-expanding spiral. The moment I try to pin down one beginning, another will emerge. Perhaps you know this feeling…
I would like to say more about Kasaani and all he taught me about the animals he would track, more about all of the incredible and inspiring places, people and wild beings I had the privilege to work with in the dusty, forgotten corners of Kenya. I would like to say more about how my heart aches and my eyes fill with tears when I remember them. But first, I must make friends with this heartache so that I might be able to remember them anew.