“You need to ask Mommy and Daddy, and they will probably make it happen.” My Uncle said.
The thought of visiting a national park became the sun that rose me up in the morning. And the moon that lit my nights. It captured my mind completely. I daydreamed walking in the savanna and being among the wildebeest.
The documentary in my head featured me with a rich, resonant voice.
“I will find a way to visit the national park,” I told myself.
Two days later I made my move.
“Mom, can I ask for a favor?” I started.
My mom raised her eyebrows and took a pause from her knitting.
She gave me a familiar look. The one mothers give their children to let them know they know what the child is about to say.
I cleared my throat about to make my case.
“Mom! I would like to visit the national park.”
“Mmmh?” She asked, her face folded in surprise.
It wasn’t a shocking surprise, like ‘what has my son just uttered’. No! My mother had become a specialist, knowing how to deal with my oddities, as they came.
“The national park is quite near. It's around Mount Kenya, and I would like to visit it.” I said, pointing in the direction of the mountain right through a wall behind me, thinking that would help my case.
“Uncle said, I ask you. I think it will be good for me to learn about animals by seeing them instead of these books I borrow from the library. Don’t you think so?”
I could hear the noises outside, of crickets competing and frogs out-croaking each other for a mate. It was the rainy season.
“Can you take me there?” I pushed on.
My mother’s attention was tied to her crochet needles. Her mouth set as she navigated an especially tricky design. Her eyes darting between the book and the yarn.
“One day. If there is some money.” She finally said able to spare a word through her focus.
My eyes went cross-eyed.
That’s what my mother would say to kill a story before it took shape. I changed topics. I would need to come up with a better strategy.
Fortunately, an answer came two months later.
“I do believe we need to study nature by visiting a wildlife sanctuary,” I said in class.
The school was thinking of starting visits to a local wildlife sanctuary. I read a flier to this end and rallied my classmates, with rousing one-on-one calls in the play-fields.
“Martin, you will love seeing the lions. Mercy, there is nothing as breathtaking as being able to see the antelope galloping, and the cheetah hot in its pursuit. Joseph, you said you like monkeys, you will see them to your heart’s delight.” On and on, I went like a ward representative seeking votes.
“Madam, I think we should enroll our class, and others, for a few days at the sanctuary.”
I held my breath as she looked up and considered the idea.
“How many of you like to go to a wildlife sanctuary?”
All hands rose up. We all had a desire. My campaign had borne fruit. The following week we were given letters seeking permission from our parents. My mother was too happy to indulge and signed away.
“Guys you need to enter the bus orderly, don’t trip over each other,” said the good-natured lady.
The kid with the broadest smile was sitting right at the back. I could tell because it was me. It was a cold Friday morning, and everyone else was grumpy and cold. Not me, I was radiant.
None of us had ever been to a wildlife sanctuary, some of the teachers were none the wiser. The drive went from our school compound, through the two streets that made my town, and into the wealthy suburbs that occupied the foot of Mount Kenya.
We drove past massive trees with little foliage underfoot, along a winding road towards the mountain that never got any closer. After a long lull of watching trees on either side and an unmoving imposing mountain, we finally drove into the sanctuary.
William Holden Wildlife Education Center was written on two boards above the gate. There was a mystique to the place, that grabbed me immediately, and I had no vocabulary for what I felt. The structures were made of wood in a manner that would put to shame how our brick houses were made. The attention to detail was profound to my young mind.
“Welcome to William Holden Wildlife Education Center or W.H.W.E.C,” said a man with a local accent.
“Secondly, I would like you to take your things to the dorm, then assemble at the library after fifteen minutes.” He said rehearsing a well-oiled script.
We went to the dorms. They were open to the elements—a wooden frame covered by a tent. There were male and female hot showers too. The paths were paved blocks in well-manicured grass.
We walked into the library after fifteen minutes, chatting and laughing away. My mouth formed a shocked O. This place was a book heaven. There were books, charts and reading material everywhere, downstairs and upstairs. Upstairs was open, with shelves pregnant with books. A large screen playing silent movies stood at the front of the room. I ran upstairs, picked books, and games, and settled down on a cushion. There was so much to do in this library.
“Please come down, and sit on these seats,” directed the man with the accent a little later. He repeated himself before we understood, and we congregated on the seats provided.
“We are going to show you a movie called Jungle Book, about a young boy called Mowgli who lived and thrived in the jungle.”
With that, the curtains were closed, and lights dimmed as we watched the animated movie. Right there, I was transported to another world. I imagined being in a jungle and being a black Mowgli. Chasing after guinea pigs, not a care in the world.
I was rearing to go and do the next thing when the lights came back on, and the curtains were drawn.
“You are welcome to walk around.” Confirmed our guide. As we walked out towards the bridge.
“Ohh my,” someone in front exclaimed as they looked into the stream. The water was clear. Crystal clear. And there were several colorful fish swimming leisurely.
“Are they floating on air or in water,” asked someone else in the group.
I got to the stream and looked in. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my short life. I stood there for a while, taking in the beauty.
“Edwin lets go,” said a teacher ushering me on.
I broke out of my reverie.
I walked into a clearing with animals in enclosures, and some roaming about in the open. A giant tortoise was moving slowly on the grass they called the tortoise ‘Speedy Gonzalez’. I ran to Speedy and got on his back.
A colossal antelope with white stripes was walking by, I touched its coat. It was rougher than the goats we kept. The antelope had long horns, curved and rigid. I imagined getting on its back, then changed my mind wisely. The creature was as tall as a cow.
“This is an endangered species. Meaning there are very few left in the world, and its called a Bongo.” Said our guide.
“We keep them here to protect them from being extinct.”
“What is extinct?” someone asked.
“It’s when a species dies out, and there is no other like it.“
“There are less than 100 of these Bongos in the world, they, therefore, have to be protected.”
My mind worked fast.
“What is a species?” I asked.
Everyone turned round to look at me.
“A species is a group of animals, plants and living things that can interbreed to produce a child or offspring.”
“Ohh!” I said, assuming I had learnt something. I could tell many of the people around me also felt wiser.
There were monkeys everywhere. Blue monkeys, Colobus monkeys and Sykes’ monkeys, I could tell their names because they had a picture right next to them. The monkeys were in perpetual motion, eating, watching and interacting with visitors.
The white llamas looked bored. They were walking around the clearing, enjoying the attention they got, chewing curd whenever they felt the urge. I had never seen this before, I went after some of the llamas and hugged them.
By the end of the day, I had received a sensory overload: cheetahs, cranes, pygmy hippos, and warthogs. I wanted to stay there for the rest of my life. At night we were regaled with stories by the fireside by one of the guides. As I fell asleep, in the near open, I thanked God for his creation.
The next day, we went on a tour in a small truck and saw zebras, giraffes, cheetahs and rhinos, in the open savanna. It was the closest I could get to being in my fantasy wildlife documentary. Yet the drive felt bland compared to what I had experienced a day earlier with ‘Noah’s Ark’. Sitting on the giant tortoise and resting with other strange animals from all around the world. There and then I promised myself I would cherish and keep the memory for years to come.