Micato Musings


Archive for the ‘Educational’ Category

Dr. Livingstone, We Presume

  • August 25th 2011

In the 12th century, crusaders in Africa returned to Europe with beauty-glazed eyes, raving about unbelievably giant and gentle animals with curved and glimmering tusks and preposterously long noses; they partially made up for this seeming madness by bringing home novelties of sweet-scented oranges and cloves for their wives.

Nearly a thousand years later, when it seems practically impossible to “get off the grid,” there are great swathes of Africa that can still be called virgin wilderness, and much left to be learned from the ways and mores, sights and sounds of this ageless land, where wanderlust so often plants its tattered and brilliant-coloured flag.

Two of Africa’s most iconic explorers were Dr. Livingstone and H.M. Stanley. Their classically British meeting in the jungle is iconic—having been immortalized in film and song—and their individual journeys seem crafted from the stuff of fireside tales and swashbuckling children’s books. Micato has immortalized the men, too, as their adventuring serves as a blueprint of sorts for two of our most popular journeys, the The Stanley Wing Safari and The Livingstone Wing Safari.

Livingstone’s Africa

Livingstone moved to Africa as a missionary, but soon discovered that his passion lay in exploration. He quit his evangelical position and with the help of a very handy friend, the president of the Royal Geographical Society, was appointed to the dreamy-sounding position of Her Majesty’s Consul for the East Coast of Africa.

Thus began his beloved but ill-fated explorations. First he went off to open up the River Zambezi for trade, however the river was completely impassable due to churning rapids. He then attempted to navigate the Ruvuma River, but was thwarted yet again, and his crew disappeared quickly, dying or jumping ship. Alone and unsuccessful in the rough country, Livingstone nevertheless refused to throw in the towel, famously declaring “I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward.”

And, remarkably, he did go forward, safely extracting himself from the wilderness. The wilderness, however, did not extract itself from him, and Livingstone returned to Africa soon enough. This time he was bound for Zanzibar, to seek the source of the Nile. His luck had not improved, and three months in found him down and out once again, with pneumonia and cholera. His supplies were stolen, and with little hope, friend, or food, he hitched a ride with a caravan of traders as far as Bambara, where he was caught by the wet season. In exchange for desperately needed food, Livingstone agreed to eat his meals in a roped off open enclosure for the entertainment of the natives.

He took it all in stride, and his pains and pangs contributed greatly to western science and cartography—he “discovered” Lake Ngami, Lake Malawi, Lake Bangweulu and Victoria Falls, and his many geographical observations enabled large heretofore unknown regions of Africa to be mapped. For his trouble, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London and was made a Fellow of the society, but his wandering heart couldn’t rest, and soon he was back in Africa and, naturally, back in trouble. He lost contact with the world for six years, and was presumed dead.

The Famous Meeting

Enter H.M. Stanley, a decidedly shiftier character. Born John Rowlands in Wales, Stanley moved to the U.S. at 18. Searching for a new life, he found a new name, adopting that of wealthy trader Henry Hope Stanley, whom he worked for, befriended and idolized.

Stanley served reluctantly in the Civil War, fighting first for the Confederate army, which he deserted, then for the Union navy, which he also deserted. Clearly not cut out for the military, Stanley took up journalism, to much greater success.

And thus Stanley embarked on a mission that quickly began to fall into shambles, mirroring Livingstone’s own disasters—Stanley’s horse was bitten by a Tsetse fly and died within days, the members of his entourage either deserted or died—but in the end he was victorious. He found Livingstone.

The moment is enshrined in our cultural consciousness as a pure representation of the famous British calm under fire. After a harrowing journey, accompanied by a skeleton crew of sickly porters, Stanley came across a sole white man in a village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. He approached the man and allegedly said, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

This was most likely Livingstone’s first encounter with a fellow countryman in six years, and these were years in which he had battled illness and even believed himself to be on the brink of death. Upon meeting Stanley, Livingstone reportedly smiled and responded “Yes, and I feel thankful that I am here to welcome you.”

It’s the very picture of a polite introduction at a high society social gathering, and the dissonance of this highly civilized interaction within the highly wild surroundings captured minds and hearts: a triumph of manners over circumstances that is unequalled. The same still holds true in some of our favorite lodges and camps. Come join us in Africa and see for yourself—the grandeur of the days of Stanley and Livingstone lives on.

Tribe in Focus: Samburu

  • August 11th 2011

In the northern reaches of Kenya, in a great swathe of the Rift Valley between Mount Kenya and Lake Turkana, lies Samburuland. As the name implies, this is home to the nomadic Samburu, one of the most fascinating tribes in Kenya, and the de facto guardians of the virgin wilderness of Samburu National Reserve and Buffalo Springs National Reserve.

Samburu warriors

The Samburu, cousins of the Maasai, have been called the “aristocrats of the nomadic tribes” (and in the New York Times, no less). Levis, Dockers and button-ups have yet to infiltrate their lives—they continue to dress as they always have, draped in lavish, brilliantly coloured fabric, the women wearing strings of beads and the men in feather plume headdresses. Their lives are carefully structured in a hierarchy that favors elders and values honor and respect above all else. Life transitions are celebrated with care and great pomp: from circumcision to weddings, births to funerals.

Age and the size of a man’s herd are the primary status and wealth indicators. Both are focal points in Samburu mythology, which traces the Samburu’s origin to the god Nkai, who lives on Venus (a planet clearly visible in Samburuland skies). Legend has it that Nkai sent the Samburu to Earth via a long rope, later using the same interstellar rope to send them a gift of cattle. The Samburu flourished, but over time the respect of the warrior class (young men) towards the elders began to wane, and their contempt did not go unnoticed. Nkai, in a rage, sent forth a massive thunderstorm that severed the rope between Venus and Earth forever.

This story reinforces the dominant roles of the elders in Samburu society,and underscores the belief that an elder has the ability to curse disrespectful warriors. Because this belief is so widespread, elders are careful about who they curse and why, and reckless young men are quick to make amends if they do something to warrant a curse – especially if the elder cursing them happens to have an eligible young lady in the family.

A group of Samburu women prepare for a traditional dance

Cattle are the literal lifeblood of the tribe, and Nkai’s “housewarming present” to the original Earth-bound Samburu. Traditionally the tribe has relied solely on herds for food, living off a diet of meat, blood and milk. This diet is still largely followed, although the popular additions of maize meal porridge and tea with milk and sugar have become staples as well.

This tribal way of life—centered on cattle and warfare, with major transitions marked by age-old rites of passage—is strong in Samburuland, and the people have yet to be lured by the purported benefits of modern life.

The Samburu’s lack of interest in an urban, westernized lifestyle has been an inspiration for Hollywood since the ‘50s, when tribal members took to the screen to act in the background of Mogambo while Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly fought over the attentions of Clark Gable. The 90’s Kevin Bacon movie The Air up There has a Samburu man (Charles Gitonga Maina)  in the starring role, and the Samburu way of life in this movie is eerily reminiscent of the ideal world of the Na’vi people in James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Avatar.

The Air Up There was filmed in Kenya and South Africa

In the information age the Samburu’s authentic way of living, so close to the land and tied to their immediate community, is a refreshing rarity. Travellers seeking insight into genuine African culture need look no further.