“Even the small leopard is called leopard.” – Kenyan Proverb

I know this is MyKOREAQuest, but I have been thinking a lot lately about my semester abroad in Kenya. This is partly because I was there exactly 4 years ago (& I call myself a ‘recent grad’ – pfff!) and also because I am thinking about what’s to come in 2013. Okay, enough with the small talk, let me tell you about this one time I was almost eaten by a leopard somewhere in Tanzania…

We were in the middle of nowhere. Now when I think of this radical saying – this is all I can conjure up in my mind. We were living with the Hadza tribe in Tanzania. We were sleeping in tents under the stars in a camp that was only a camp because the safari truck drivers thought it would take the least amount of effort to clear the bush there to put up tents. It wasn’t a campground and we weren’t eating dinner or going to the bathroom unless we helped set up the large cook tent and dig the hole for the discreet lavatory stall. We were living the Hadza life – moving from place to place – carrying only what we needed and depending on the landscape for our survival. I loved the sense of disconnectedness from the outside world. This was what it meant to really be away. This was what they should place in glossy magazine advertisements for the over-worked, stressed individual looking to escape all of it for awhile. I had no control over what was going on in the rest of the world. I couldn’t read about it, watch it or talk to anyone about it. All we knew was where we were now and how far away we were from everything else.

One night toward the end of our stay in Tanzania a group of us got brave. “We should sleep up here,” someone laughed as we lay watching the magnificent sunset from atop a smooth giant rock face a short walk from camp. It had taken a few minutes to climb to where we sat now, and the comfortable breeze and cooler temperatures tempted us to stay and forget about dinner waiting below. My tent mates glanced my way with mischief filled eyes and I knew exactly what they envisioned for our night’s sleep.

After a scrumptious meal, that left me wondering how food could remain so tasty after traveling for days in coolers over treacherous and dusty terrain, we lazily transitioned our focus. The sparkling fire just feet away from the dinner tent had magically jumped to monstrous heights since the Hadza men had begun to dance around its flames. We positioned ourselves around the fire and gave the men plenty of space to continue dancing. They never seemed to tire. Their well worn cloth garments loosely swung back and forth as their bodies shook and spun with traditional Hadza dance. Unable to communicate using language, they shared stories and experiences with us through dance. Laughter, from those seated and dancing, twisted up through the fire’s smoke trail into the African sky.

The group diminished as those fighting fatigue drifted off to their respective tents. My tent mates and I finally broke our silence about our plans for the night. Others agreed it was a good idea. Why not get the most “out there” that was possible while we were here? Our English speaking guide, Thad, clapped in excitement. “Go ahead,” he said. “I always have those adventurous ones who just go for it!” He warned that this was his first time at this camp, but that in the past sleeping outside the tents hadn’t been a problem.

We nervously grabbed our sleeping bags that yearned for a night spent in fresh, cool air after a week of residing in a hot, sticky and small tent. The three of us were the first to climb the rock to settle in for the night. Others gave in to one last Tusker (delicious beer) from the well stocked crates in the food truck and continued to socialize around the fire. We snuggled close together in our mummy-like bags on the safest part of the rock. A blanket of honesty fell from the star spattered night sky. We were in a place where we felt we could say anything. It’s what happens when you feel like you’re at the edge of the earth; it’s the appropriate thing to do. I quietly whispered to my fellow junior friends my fears of an impending graduation and my cluelessness pertaining to a professional career. They listened and we talked and it felt right. It felt so freeing to say whatever we wished as we lay watching the stars and a fire in the distant desert set by a neighboring tribe trying to make the soil suitable for planting.

“Ladiessss!” a familiar womanly drawl floated up the rock reaching us before she herself did. Sara was followed by Paul, the two of them proudly making up the semester’s drunken duo. They enjoyed the occasional Tusker, or two or three or four, and mocked the rest of us when we went to bed on “school” nights at the compound. We refused to rage the night away watching the Lion King for the 45th  time on VHS in the living room or sprawling out in someone’s room to begin writing inappropriate letters to Sara’s boyfriend back home. This time they were singing their way up our small mountain to annoyingly disrupt our pre-bedtime intimate talk. “You’ve got to get down… like right now,” Sara slurred her words a little. “There’s a jaguar coming,” Paul excitingly burst into sight as he made his final careful moves to the top and issued his warning accompanied by a sly grin. Sara shot him a disgusted look. “No, they meant something else,” she searched for the word as we registered that we were the victims of a prank. “A leopard…leopards!” She yelled and glanced furtively around. Only rock and sky were to be seen. We laughed as they tried desperately to warn us.

“So we are going to be eaten and they sent you two to save us,” I giggled from inside my sleeping bag. It had been a production to get up here and we weren’t leaving our comfy cocoons and lugging everything down to camp for the sake of a few laughs. Sensing our disbelief down below, a few others ventured up to our hideout. “They’re not lying,” Alex stated matter-of-factly as he trudged up to meet us, annoyed at the necessity of his intrusion into the discussion. “We were sitting around the fire and one of the Hadza who understands a bit of English figured out where you three went and got very upset.” Alex then explained the realness of the situation. Apparently, this rock was not ours to claim, it was the location of a nightly ritual for the area’s leopards. They met in the dark of night in the very place where we now lay and marked their territory with pools of urine that remained on the rock to warn others of their presence and power.

***

I retold the story to my mom over the phone a week or so later and she commented as usual with the assistance of her computer that always seemed to be within arm’s reach when we conversed. “Did you know leopards can run up to 60 kilometers an hour and will hunt almost any animal it can?” She whispered this fact as I pictured her imagining the “Sorry your daughter was eaten by a wild animal…” call from the SLU Study Abroad office. “It’s a good story,” I tried to get her to laugh it off. Our phone call was coming to an end; I could tell she had had enough for one conversation. “Please don’t tell me another story like this until you are home.” She was part joking and a larger part serious.

*names changed, just in case*

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Even the small leopard is called leopard.” – Kenyan Proverb

  1. Margaret

    A shiver runs up and down my spine each time this story comes to mind. (from the “Mom” in the story….)

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