Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Kenyan Field Journal: Night

During a recent cleaning session in my house I stumbled upon my photo album from an educational trip to Kenya in 1995. I spent five weeks there with 31 other students studying wildlife management with the School for Field Studies. It changed my life.

Sometime after returning I wrote five essays on my experiences and stashed them in the photo album. I had forgotten about them until this past week. They are entitled The Rain, Bright Sun, Night, Simba, and The Rift in the Heart of Africa. Reading them brought back so many wonderful and thrilling memories. I'm posting them here mainly for the benefit of two friends I met there who have become friends for life: Dave and Agnes. Photos (with the exception of the tree dassie) were taken by me during my adventure, clicking on them will enlarge them. Enjoy!


When the sun goes down on the African plains gentle no longer applies. It is night when most creatures wake up from their dreamy slumber and decide that they are hungry. It is night when little furry animals make sounds one hundred times their size. It is the first night that I hear the sound of the tree dassie.

A tree dassie is a small, fuzzy creature that resembles a prairie dog. They only weigh nine pounds but believe it or not they are actually the closest living relative of the elephant. This fuzz ball hides out in trees during the day, but when it decides to wake up and forage it emits the most blood curdling noise I have ever heard. It is not a sound you want to hear when your only protection from the African night is a reed hit with screen windows.

I awoke to this scream sometime near three AM and my first thought was something REALLY BIG is being slaughtered by something EVEN BIGGER. Whatever it was it wasn't dying very fast, the sound went on all night. The worst part was I really needed to use the choo. There was no way I was going out there, if Uni the oryx didn't get me then the screaming beast would! I retreated into my sleeping bag and mosquito netting and waited for first light.

By morning I was even groggier than the day before but I dragged myself out of bed, even if it was just to confirm that there should be a large carcass in the middle of camp. But there was nothing. At breakfast I sought out the first professor I could find and tried to describe the sound. "Tree dassie" was his curt answer. "What is it?" I said. "Little furry creature, 'bout yea big" and he pantomimed a creature about a foot high and two feet long.

I think I just stared back at him in disbelief. A house cat sized fur ball is going to keep me up for a month? And sure enough in the first field guide I could find was Dendrohyrax aboreus, cute, furry, feeds on mostly vegetable matter, and definitely not a threat to my life.

Yet, the next night once again Africa disturbingly crept into my sleep. Literally. The front door to my banda consisted of a wooden bottom with a latch and a reed shade that tied down to the wood in the middle. Secure is not a word that describes this contraption. Something in the middle of my second night in this wild place, and I mean SOMETHING, awakened me, and it was inside my banda. In fact, it was on my feet! At first I thought I imagined it and then I left it again, a slight pressure on my lower leg, then again a little closer.

It slowly crept along my body towards my head. My mind was racing. What was it? A tree dassie? If it was I was mentally willing it not to start shrieking, if it did I would probably have a heart attack right there. Then what ever it was, it began to make a noise. At first it was a low, guttural rumbling, almost like a frog with a strange ribbit. Frog? No, the closest water was a mile away. But it did feel like the size of a really big bull frog. It was getting closer. I could feel it making its way along my mosquito netting trying to get as close to me as possible. The netting was supposed to protect me from the deadly malaria parasite, but it was gossamer thin and this creature could claw right through it if it wanted to.

I found the mental strength to search for my flashlight that I kept under my pillow. It was there, right where I left it just in case something like this happened. I switched it on just as the creature brushed up against my shoulder. A life-saving beam went out beyond my net. Two yellow eyes blinked in the brightness. Their pupils contracted to narrow slits. It stopped making its rumbling noise. I thought: 'it's going to eat me'. Then it rubbed its head against my shoulder again, nestled next to my arm and began to purr. I was being stalked by Jua Kali's fierce and dangerous pet house cat who had just decided that I was a warm and soft place to spend the night. Once again this wild place became gentle in a single gesture.

With all the dangers and risks I was warned of during those first days I wish someone could have warned me about the pet cats and tree dassies. There was the one-horned oryx, the lions, spitting cobras, charging elephants and malaria. With all of these potentially deadly creatures out there I was most afraid of nocturnal screaming fur balls and trespassing house cats. I slept more deeply from then on.


  1. I can't imagine being a native of Kenya and living with all that danger. I guess it is what you get use to. Of course for you the danger was that big scary tabby cat-LOL. I'll just stick with my Midwestern USA snakes and bats. That's the biggest threat I can endure - I'm a wienie.

  2. Rae! You just gave me a great idea for a posting! BATS! I love bats! And their population is suffering from a nasty fungus. Stay tuned....

  3. Fantastic essay! As the threat worked its way up the mosquito netting this Topiary's heart was in her mouth!

    Quite inspired Topiary to find the nearest Tabby!


  4. What a great story, you reminded me of a night camping on the tundra in Alaska when my imagination was hearing a wolf, turned out to be a Arctic ground squirrel.
    Yes, do a story on the bats, I love bats.

  5. reminded me of our camping in the great outdoors of the kansas plains. no dangerous animals but lordy! was it noisy! herons, ducks & geese conversing on the lake, beavers gnawing all night, fish jumping, coyotes howling and my husband's snoring reviberating.
    i retreated to the van to try to filter out the latter & the fishermen revved up the boats at 5 a.m....
    loved it tho'...


I LOVE comments!