Themeda trianda. Red oat grass. This was the first official Latin name I learned during my African summer abroad. I watched the zebras graze on it as our plane taxied on the Nairobi runway. Where wheat wasn't growing, oat grass lined the road all the way to Jua Kali. Bright Sun. Bright sun, gentle rain and hungry fire all fed this grass, the lifeblood of East Africa. Every herbivore from the tiny bushbuck to the might elephant eat it. It is the ice cream of the grass realm, although I never tasted it.
I was to stay for four and a half weeks at Jua Kali, although the Jua Kali didn't shine every day it was out that first day. Jet-lagged and blinking in the sunlight I gazed in awe at a giraffe that munched at the gates of the ranch owned by a particularly eccentric man named David Hopcraft. On this ranch lay Jua Kali, the research station where, although I didn't know it at the time, I would eventually not want to leave.
The ranch raised game for sale, once shot in the cover of darkness and butchered, to local restaurants in Nairobi. Along the short road from the gates to the research station we passed hartebeest, ostriches, zebras, wildebeest, gazelles and a whole array of creatures all destined to one day be on someones plate. They looked so content in their naivete as they happily grazed on red oat grass, which would only fatten them up more.
Most of the 31 other students assumed we would be allowed to sleep as soon as we were assigned a banda. This thatched hut would be our home for most of the four weeks in Africa. Every banda was named after an Swahili animal. There was twiga (giraffe), tembo (elephant), simba (lion) etc. I was to sleep in nyumbu, which I later learned meant mule. My luck. I'm the one on the left below.
We weren't allowed to sleep of course, but were were fed. One thing that Jua Kali is blessed with is David. David is a five star chef from Nairobi who tired of the city life. With only a manually lit gas stove and a not-so-reliable pantry he was able to create some of the best cuisine I have ever had anywhere in the world.
Better than any restaurant I have been to in Paris, New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco. Yes, right in the heart of the African bush that first morning David fed us banana stuffed pancakes! It was like ambrosia to stomachs that have only had airline food for two days. David was a god-send to students a little worried about not having a McDonald's right down the street. Unfortunately he only did breakfast and lunch. Who was to cool dinner for forty people every night? Us. No further comments will be made about that.
Once we were fed and settled in our lion, giraffe, elephant and mule huts we were told to scope out the place. The choo, for instance, was a little tricky. This African version of the outhouse was guarded by Uni. No, Uni wasn't an ascari, a watchman, he was an oryx. A one-antlered oryx at that.
An oryx is a rather large antelope-like creature that stands taller than my head. And I know this because I came across Uni many times. He liked the grass around the choo (pronounced choh) because it grew particularly lush there, LOTS of fertilizer. As long as Uni was warned that you really need to use the choo RIGHT NOW he would lazily step aside. We were told to clap as we approached the choo, especially at night, so as not to startle him. Having been told this information I immediately looked up oryx in my field guide. Its antlers looked like unicorn horns and pretty sharp at that. I decided clapping was definitely a must even though I felt like I was applauding Uni for so nicely trimming the red oat grass.