Joanna Goldberg sends communiqués from Kenya, where she’s living with her kid
I’ve been trying to raise Cameron as a lover of all life forms since day one. So far, I believe I’m succeeding. She’ll report to me if she sees kids purposely stepping on ants. She’s told off any number of class mates for poking the chickens in the school playground (this is Nairobi, remember) with sticks. She isn’t afraid of any insects apart from daddy long-legs and picks up everything from worms and spiders to moths and beetles. In fact, I caught her cuddling and – eek – kissing a worm before. We’re vegetarians, of course, and since she was old enough to talk she’s been declaring “We don’t eat meat. We be nice to animals!” But living in Kenya with Cameron has brought her appreciation of creatures big and small to a new level, enabling close encounters with everything from echinoderms to ungulates.
Bushbuck in Aberdares
A four-day camping trip with friends to Aberdare National Park was largely spent cold, wet and trying in vain to push our van out of the mud. But every evening we were rewarded with visits from several bushbucks, a small and beautiful antelope ubiquitous to this park. We could step outside our tent to come face-to-face with an unfazed bushbuck. We’d be brushing our teeth with a bushbuck grazing at our feet. If we ventured out at night into the rain, a dozen bushbuck eyes would glint back at us in the beam of our flashlight. They were especially bold with Cameron, perhaps because she’s about the same size. As she held out a clump of grass and sat patiently nearby for up to 20 minutes, Cameron managed to hand feed a wild bushbuck. No binoculars needed here.
Tortoise in the School Yard
At Cameron’s Montessori school, they try to encourage kindness to animals by letting seven tortoises wander around the school yard, in addition to having a chicken coop, rabbit hutch and aviary. Judging by the surprising speed with which those tortoises move, it seems they’ve had to learn to adapt to a playground packed with obnoxious kids. But mine is constantly chiding the other children to be kind to the tortoises, and will excitedly drag any visitor by the hand to introduce them to all seven, picking up her favourite of them all.
Starfish in Diani
Taking a five-year-old snorkelling is no easy feat. She hates life jackets, especially the ill-fitting ones that tie with rope (i.e., the ones available in Kenya) and keep her buoyant at the expense of choking her half to death. The mask provides short-lived giggles that don’t last long enough to actually get her into the water. And the snorkel, no chance. So if you desperately want to snorkel in a stunning place like Diani Beach along the coast of Kenya, be sure to go out in a glass-bottomed boat. Cameron could watch the marine life from the comfort of the boat and, because most Kenyan men are charmed by her, have creatures brought up to her. While she examined this lovely starfish, mama was below the boat happily chasing puffer, box, parrot and angel fish.
Giraffe in Nairobi
There’s this awesome place in Nairobi where you can go to feed giraffes by hand or, if you’re desperate enough for the photo opp, from your mouth. These fabulous but endangered Rothschild giraffes never seem satiated so you can spend as long as you like offering them pellets from the raised platform. It’s fantastic to be on the same level as a giraffe’s head, to be able to look them directly in their large, pretty eyes and fully appreciate just how huge yet graceful these creatures are. Cameron never tires of this place, and although I have yet to agree to allow her to place a pellet in between her lips for the giraffe to reach in with its long, black tongue (eww), having her entire hand engulfed by a giraffe’s mouth was certainly kicks enough.
Butterflies in Karura Forest
Just a short matatu ride from town, a wonderfully preserved forest awaits with hiking trails, caves and waterfalls. At the foot of the waterfall, thousands of small butterflies seem drunk on the fresh mist coming off the falls and gather in huge clumps. They’re so engrossed by whatever it is they’re enjoying (perhaps some mineral?), that Cameron spent hours picking them up by their wings and examining them closely, watching them flutter anxiously.
Elephant in Karen
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, based in the Nairobi suberb of Karen, is a charity that’s been around since the 70s. You can only visit between 11am and noon every day at which time you follow the crowd and disperse around a roped-off area of mud or dust (depending on the season) that overlooks the plains of Nairobi National Park. Placed at precise points around the perimeter of this area are giant baby bottles full of formula, each one about two feet high.
You wait expectantly. You scan the horizon for trunks and Africa-shaped ears. And then you’re rewarded with what is quite possibly the cutest vision ever – about a dozen baby elephants, ranging in age from 4 months to 2 years, excitedly running down the hill with their keepers, trunks held high as they make a beeline for the bottles. An audible “awwwww….” ripples through the throng of onlookers; you just can’t help yourself.
The Trust cares for orphaned elephants and rehabilitates them for re-introduction to the wild. As the babies and toddlers kick back their formula (in about 20 seconds) while checking out their daily audience with their intelligent eyes, the keepers give an inaudible talk about the orphans. From what I could gather over several visits, most of the orphans are found at the bottom of wells or beside the carcass of their mothers, killed for ivory (yes, it still happens). Each and every elephant brought to the orphanage is paired with a keeper, who acts as his or her surrogate mother. They feed them, comfort them, care for them and sleep beside them. Once the orphan gets old enough, they slowly rehabilitate them into a wild herd in Tsavo National Park – something that can take up to 10 years.
By the year 2008, the Trust had successfully saved and hand-reared over 82 infant elephant calves, two from the day of birth. Currently, over 40 of the Trust’s hand-reared elephants are fully established and living free among their wild peers in Tsavo, some returning to the Trust with wild-born young to show their human “mother” (keeper). How frickin’ amazing is that? All the Trust’s orphans eventually take their rightful place among their wild pachyderm buddies, including those orphaned on the day they were born.
So as you “awwww….” away, the elephants sidle up right next to you for a stroke. And like having her hand disappear inside a giraffe’s mouth, Cameron never tires of patting the tough hide of a baby elephant who has so obviously come close to her for contact.
Alhambra in Mombasa
Before we left for Kenya a year ago, Cameron’s friend gave her a book about a rescued baby hippo named Owen and 130-year-old tortoise named Mzee (Swahili for older man) who unexpectedly became close friends. True story, and they live in a small conservation park near Mombasa. With these giant Alhambra tortoises from the Galapagos freely roaming the park, Cameron had her opportunity to meet Mzee in the flesh and give him a few well-received scratches on the head. We met Owen too, from a distance of course.
Camel on the Coast
I love how public parks in Kenya have not just pony rides on offer, but camel rides as well. But I’ve never trusted these humped desert beasts. They always seem to be hissing or spitting or otherwise miserable, so I’ve ignored Cameron’s pleas every time. But then we met a camel named George on the coast who seemed mild mannered, pleasant even. I could see it took a liking to Cameron, so she was able to convince me to get on the massive thing with her for a very high, very bumpy stroll down the beach.
Follow more of Joanna’s adventures in Kenya over at her blog.