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The Manyata

I went to Africa when I was 19 as part of a rhinoceros research team. Our mission was to document the behavior of the few rhinos in Masai Mara, Kenya, in order to help the Kenyan government make decisions about an upcoming Rhino sanctuary they were building. There were a dozen volunteers, 5 African ascaris (guards) including a cook, and the Professor leading the study in our group.

We had a secondary mission which was to assist in updating the official maps of the Mara. This involved long hikes and detailed notetaking on the geography of the land. We hiked with the anti-poaching unit, a team of armed men who walked in front of us in a row. We followed behind in a silent, single file line (a T formation). There were many dangers in Africa when hiking out on the land, including lions, Cape Buffalo, and the greatest danger of all, poachers.

My favorite task was going out to buy the goats for our meals. I didn’t particularly like the part about the goat, being tenderhearted and wishing we were buying pets instead of food. But going out to buy goats meant dealing directly with the Masai people. Doktari, which is what everyone called the Professor, would go into the small circle of huts, the manyata, and find the person in charge to negotiate the terms of the sale while we waited outside. The women and children would stream out of the manyata like brightly colored clothes being pulled on a clothes line to greet us. They would surround us, offering us beads and other Masai trinkets for purchase, and the children would touch the hair on our arms and heads.

Once we were invited into a manyata and into a hut. This was a rare treat, and I don’t know how Doktari negotiated this. Of course we were not allowed to bring cameras into their home. The hut was cramped but surprisingly roomy, with a sleeping area for the husband, another for the wives and children, and a kitchen area centered around a smoky fire. There was no furniture; it was furnished only with leather mats. We sat around the fire with the man of the house, two wives, and his mother in law who might have been a thousand years old. A single beam of light shone into our space, highlighting the thick atmosphere of smoke. They made us tea, sweetened with honey and goat’s milk. I kept looking back at the old woman who stared at each of us in turn, piercing eyes in a wrinkled face. Eventually I became unnerved and went out of the hut.

It was evening, time to bring the goats in. A young boy rang a bell, and the goats began streaming into the manyata the way the children streamed out. A skinny black dog ran around happily barking and nipping at the goats’ heels. The jangling bells on the goats,the clip clipping of their feet on the dirt, and the quiet singing of a young man nearby mesmerized me.

When I left Africa I cried and cried for many nights, missing the singing of the ascaris at night, the wind playing with the flaps on our tents, the sickly sweet smell of leather tanned in urine. I missed that singular focus of life: watch the rhinos, walk the trails, survive.

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