A Magical Encounter on the Road to the Serengeti

The road from Arusha International Airport toward Tarangire National Park is a long, straight, two-lane paved highway. The road can be congested in the daytime with cars, small motorcycles, people walking, vendors hawking, animal drawn carts and small herds of animals tended by one or two Maasai. In most places, there are either bare bones retail shops or vacant land…with dust everywhere. When you do encounter people in larger groups, they tend to be colorfully dressed and fully animated…except the shop keepers who seem to be mostly women sitting in front of the stores, looking dejected and bored while waiting for a customer. Open air food vendors seem to be everywhere…cooking corn or other staples on barbecue setups of all kinds. Young men sitting on small motorcycles are omnipresent…waiting for what…I do not know. Miles down that road, our off road vehicle turned abruptly onto a fairly rough dirt road and a few miles later we were at the entrance of Tarangire National Park…a huge park that is completely vacant of any development and filled with all the creatures that nature placed there…lions, elephants, leopards, giraffes, monkeys, gazelle and on and on…a first class safari land for adventure photographers or anyone else who wants to see what nature looks like up close and personal.

Midway along the road from Arusha, one of our party had to “check a tire”…code for “take a leak”. Our driver pulled over, looked around to see if the area looked safe from animals (we were now well out into the countryside or “the middle of nowhere” as I would normally call it) and pointed toward a bush. Our friend headed toward cover and we waited patiently…for about ten seconds. Out of nowhere, there was a knock on my car window. Caught me by surprise, as I saw no one there when we pulled up (my wife tells me she believes a car pulled up and four people got out when I was not looking). I noticed movement to my left…two men heading directly at our lady in the bushes. I started to jump out of the car on the left side to intervene…but the two men veered off in another direction. I then turned back to see who was knocking on my window. It was a tall, beautiful, young black lady. I pushed open my window and she said to me, in perfect English, “This is my son and he has always wanted to meet you.” I looked down, and there was her three year old, good looking, smiling son looking up at me. She then said that he wanted to shake my hand. There was no door on that side of the vehicle and I was a bit confused as to what was really going on…so I just leaned way out the window and shook the young mans hand. He got a huge grin on his face and got kind of emotional. He said something to his mom that I could not understand. As he looked back at me, she said “This is a bit embarrassing, but he would like to kiss you.” I leaned out again…even further this time…picked him up under his arms and raised him up to my level…and I then planted a big kiss on his forehead.

Once on the ground, the young man stepped back, smiled that big smile of his and gave me a double shaka. A shaka is a Hawaiian hand gesture that is kind of like a “thumbs up” in meaning….thumb pointed out, little finger pointed out…middle three fingers pulled into your palm and then the whole hand is shook back and forth…a very friendly greeting in Hawaii. It kind of dumbstruck me..it was the last kind of gesture I expected to see someone give me in Africa. At that, the young lady thanked me and said I made her son very happy and she wished me well. They moved off with the young man continuing to look back and wave at me.

There were four of us in the car and we all witnessed this event. We all went kind of silent, as the tire checker got back in the car and we prepared to drive off. Later I asked the driver if he had witnessed what had happened. He had and spoke briefly to her when they first showed up. He asked her if she was Maasai…as we were in the heart of Maasai territory and she did not look nor dress Maasai. She said she was not…that she had married a Maasai. The driver said this was extremely unusual…women from outside the Maasai community do not normally voluntarily sign up for the role a woman plays in Maasai life…because it can be a difficult role. But she had done so happily and lived nearby.

The driver knew nothing else about her. I told him what she said to me and he guessed that what she meant was “My son has always wanted to meet an old white guy.” He is probably right…but that is not what she said and it makes a better dream story in my head and in this writing if she said exactly what she meant. I asked him about the shaka. He said it was not a hand gesture used in that part of the world and he had never seen it used by a Maasai or anyone other than a few Hawaiian visitors such as ourselves. He too thought the whole encounter was dream like and highly unusual.

One last thing…as I put the young man back down on the ground after kissing him, I noticed a medical port in the back of his hand…the kind used to deliver intraveneous drugs. That gave me pause for thought. My first thought was concern for the young man…wonder what serious illness he is fighting (I have to say that he looks like he is winning that battle…what ever it is…because he looked great and perfectly healthy). My second thought was “What have I just exposed myself to?” Happy to say…it has been three weeks since that encounter and I am still healthy and still a bit confused by the whole episode with the lady and her son.

I wish…I wish I had not been so startled and had taken a few photos of her and her son and asked for their names. They asked me for nothing other than the interaction. They could not have been nicer. I would love to know their whole story and never will. And so, for the entire safari…in between photo ops…I ran the story over and over in my head until it has now developed into a book length story that I may or may not write. If I do, 99% of it will be fictional. The one percent that will be factual will be the words written in this blog…all real and all a mystery. My welcome to Tanzania…half a world away from my home in Hawaii…and one I will never forget.