ALONG THE MARA RIVER, KENYA – Going . . . going . . . however, not quite gone are Rakita and his kind.
Downsized, to use a word he would not recognize, but, thankfully, not yet down and out is this good-humored, fearless little guy’s self-reliant way of making a living: hunting and gathering. As an H & G specialist of the dwindling Ndorobo tribe, he may not know he’s on the endangered list (though, aren’t we all?), or talk about lifestyle and getting ahead. As to quality of life, he frowns as the question is translated into Swahili for him. Then he laughs, crinkling his weathered ebony face, and says it’s just fine. He’s alive after 40 years.
His and his family’s bellies are satisfied today because he knows the tricks of the trade, handed down through the ages, most recently by his old man. The big, wide outdoors of the bush is his backyard, and presently he’s making a few bucks as a tracker for the estimable safari guide, Ron Beaton.
“Rakita shares in the tips, and he’s never been so flush,” says Beaton. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he took on another wife. His first died after having three children. The current has had seven.” So the independent hunter-gatherer does maintain connection with hearth and home, a hut of mud and boughs. It must be home-sweet-home: He walks 40 miles or more when he decides to go.
We are walking on a bluff beside the pea-soupy Mara River, above Hippopotamus Beach. Scores of the slob mob, fat and happy behemoths of 3 1/2 tons (give or take 100 pounds or so) lounge in the stream and on the bank. They stay under water as long as breath allows, fearful of sunburn. Some of the pod (a gang) are piled on others in black mounds of flab, those on top thoughtfully providing shade. Shadows indicate submerged crocodiles and huge catfish, keeping their distance. Hippos are dangerous.
Fording in a shallow place, an orderly herd of about 700 Maasai cattle are directed by the whistling of herdboys. One of them, tootling on a wooden flute, plays a happy little washday song for women doing laundry at river edge.
Hippo doesn’t taste half bad, says Rakita, who has felled and fried them in his day. Hard to picture, since he was giving away a few pounds in the fray. At 5-4, 120, Rakita Gguyo looks as though he could wedge inside Tiger Woods’s golf bag. But he may be a better shot with a homemade bow, launching poisoned arrows, than Tiger with driver. Of course, Tiger’s life doesn’t depend on his shotmaking. Rakita’s has innumerable times.
“Over the years he’s had close calls with all the lethal ones – hippos, buffaloes, lions, elephants, anything you can name,” says Beaton, “and has killed them all with that little bow.
“Inadvertantly he stepped on a lion’s tail once, and lived to tell the, uh, tale. He’s brazen; he’s stolen food from lions. See that knob on his left wrist. He was shunted – thrown over the horns – of a charging buffalo. Like going over the handlebars of a bicycle, he says. Broke the wrist, which never got set. He was lucky.”
Although hunting has been outlawed in Kenya for almost a quarter-century, the government looks the other way when it comes to the diminishing H & G citizenry. The Rakita crowd “recycle” – today’s euphemism for kill – only those beasts they need for food and upkeep, utilizing every morsel and scrap. His bowstring is zebra sinew, and he makes ropes from wildebeest hide.
In his rubber sandals, fashioned from old tires, shorts, cotton robe, and bright plaid Maasai blanket, the nimble mite is quite a dashing figure, one who would enchant photographers from GQ. They’d love his decoratively pierced-and-stretched right ear, ready smile, and immaculate teeth that he cleans with a stick of olive wood. Rakita seems amused to be the subject of conversation, which he doesn’t comprehend.
Beaton says, “When he showed up at our tented Rekero Camp a while back looking for work, all Rakita was wearing was an antelope skin, an oryx.” Maasai Mara chic. “He didn’t even speak Swahili, just his tribal dialect. But he picked up Swahili quite well, and even some English words. His are ancient people. Their culture hardly exists now, and will be gone in a generation or so. You know, it’s called civilization catching up. Pity.
“As my eyes and ears, he’s saved me a few times out here. His eyesight and hearing are fine-tuned. I’ve gotten a little deaf from so much shooting in my days of guiding hunting safaris.”
Rakita could set up shop for Julia Child anywhere, as he demonstrates in producing a blaze almost instantly by twirling his long fire stick against a piece of wood, inducing friction and sparks to ignite a pile of dry leaves and elephant dung.
“He cooks up a sort of mush called posho out of nuts, berries, and honey,” Beaton says. “How does he get the honey? As a partner with a bird called the greater honey guide that he follows to the hive, usually up in a tree. He builds a fire to smoke out the bees. When they leave he climbs up to take the honey. Rakita says he’s careful to leave some comb for the bird – a fee – or next time, he believes, it will lead him to a bull buffalo as revenge.
“To poison his arrows he boils the stems of a plant called marijo to make a sort of tar. A cito toxin that will take out an elephant or anything else. Over time some of that poison in the meat may get to the hunters and their family, but filling the belly today is what it’s about for them. He says they make a soup out of the bark of the croton tree that fires them up, a stimulant. Liquid courage.”
Rakita smiles as it’s discussed, saying to Beaton that after dining on croton soup you’ll take on any animal. Lions are easy. It may be more salubrious than chicken soup in this territory. Giraffe is OK chow, he says, but his favorite dish is the huge antelope, the eland.
“As long as Rakita has his bow and arrows, his simi [machete], and a firestick, he won’t starve. But he eats pretty well with us. Our cook, Philip Kirui, sees to that.” Indeed, for all of us. Philip’s fish cakes of Nile perch are sensational.
Rakita tells Beaton there are some elephants near camp that we ought to see, and we buzz off in the land cruiser. There they are, four biggies down-and-dirty delight in small, mucky waterhole. Mom and pop and a couple of youngsters. A trumpet quartet, wallowing and spraying noisily and happily in an Elizabeth Arden-style mud bath, they embody that familiar homily: The family that slops together is tops together.
Rakita seems to be appraising them with a hungry eye. Perhaps dreams of pachyderm pot pie dance in his wise head.