First Wild Elephant Sighting

April 30, 2010

Rainbow Over the Mpala Research Center

I am in the Mpala Research Library. Again, this place is right out of a movie. I expect Robert Redford or Ben Kingsley to walk around the corner with jodpers and a machete. The swallows are chirping and swooping right outside the window. Maybe they’re showing off for the ornithologist who is staying here.

I saw my first wild elephant today, a single long-tusked male. We saw him from the van, quietly and fluidly moving through the scrubby trees. He was very brown and very big. He was probably about 20 meters (22 yards) away.

Komande Being Helpful as Simon Measures the Cairn

Komande was helping Simon take the measurements of the cairn by pretending to cut off his arm with the machete.

We drove into the bush about 15 winding miles (25 kilometers) and surveyed 13 burial cairns. The cairns are piles of rocks that most likely have a skeleton or two lurking underneath. Mulu led us to the first one that was an impressive collection of rocks about a meter high. I asked if they had ever excavated a cairn to find the body or bodies underneath and Bill said that would be a LOT of paper work. Every single stone would have to documented and labeled and mapped before being removed. Archaeology really is a destructive science. Bill said that the cairns are often “furnished” with other finds around them like stone tools or pottery that help date the burial. Nobody would commit to giving me a date as to when these cairns were assembled. It could be 2,000 years or 10,000 years.

Mulu, who worked for the National Museum and for the Koobi Fora Field School run by Rutgers University has excavated several rock shelters in the area and said they use radio carbon dating to determine the age of stone tools found there. They also found ostrich egg beads, which can be dated using amino acids. Similar to radio carbon, they can determine how long the proteins in the shell have been lying around waiting for an archaeologist to pick them up and make a big deal out of them.


The rocky terrain was speckled with all kinds of dung, mostly elephant. Elephants are like cute walking compost tumblers. I really wish I could take Mutara home.

Peter, our guide from the Mpala Research Center, pointed out some zebra footprints. Unfortunately, maybe fortunately, we didn’t run into any buffalo, matriarchal elephants, or leopards. I asked Peter if he’d ever had a run in with an elephant and he lifted his index finger and said gravely, “Once.” The elephant charged him and he ran up a tree. He also had a similar experience with a buffalo. In that case, the buffalo charged him and he ran up a tree. His leopard experience was quite different. He was walking along and the leopard was already in the tree. Peter ran away behind another tree. So if he’s been doing this for years and only had three near misses… I won’t finish that sentence b/c I don’t have any wood to knock on.


Butterfly on the Total Station

All the guys speak Swahili together even though they all speak perfect English as well as the language specific to their province or in Paul’s case, his tribe. English is the so-called language of education and business, but Swahili is the linga franca of Kenya. Chris was saying that they don’t take Swahili very seriously as a subject in the schools, but that may be changing.

I have to watch my grammar around Mulu. He was complaining about the declining usage among Kenyans. He is annoyed that nowadays people introduce themselves by saying, “Hello, my names are…” because they have so many names. But he insists that despite having multiple names, ones name is a singular grammatical element and should be treated as such. “English has a lot of exceptions, but still, there are rules that you must follow!” he said. “That makes me very sad.”

Speaking of vocab, so far I’ve managed to learn a few words, but I still have to consult my list to make sure my vowels are in the right order.

Jambo (JAHM-BOH): Hello
Karibu (kah-REE-boo): Welcome (as in welcome to my home, or you’re welcome in response to thank you.)
Asanti (uh-SAHN-tee): thank you
Asanti sana: thank you very much
Mzuri (missouri): good
Habari (ha-BAR-ee): how are you?
Twende (TWEN-deh): let’s go
La la salama: good night
May favorite is Sawa sawa (sah-wah sah-wah): literally translated, this means “okey dokey”