Jewish Journal


October 2, 2013

We Had a Guide Named Moses



Photo by Susan Esther Barnes

For Sukkot for the last several years, I have helped to build the two sukkot (temporary huts) at the synagogue, and on occasion I shook the lulav, and I usually ate at least once each year in a sukkah. But that was about it. I never slept in one.

Sukkot is supposed to remind us of what it was like bimidbar (in the wilderness) as Moses led us away from Egypt and toward the Promised Land. It is supposed to remind us of the fragility of life and how everything we have is temporary. I never really got much of that feeling during Sukkot.

This year, I spent most of Sukkot in Kenya.

Kenya is where, while we were at the small Nairobi Wilson airport transferring between game camps, I noticed a breaking news story on a TV in a room off the main waiting area. Ultimately, more than 65 people were killed and over 100 more injured in this terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall.

As the incident was unfolding, I asked the airport employee watching nearby how far away the mall was. “Quite far away,” he reassured me, “Quite far.” Then he thought for a moment, and added, “About 30 kilometers” (less than 19 miles). That didn’t sound quite far enough away to me. That day I received the first of several emails from the U.S. State Department warning us of dangerous conditions and the need for heightened security in Kenya.

Kenya is a place where, painted on the side of our airplane, it said, “Cut here in emergency” (see photo above). I can’t imagine a scenario in which the best option in an emergency would be to wait while someone outside finds the proper tools to cut open the side of the aircraft.

For three days, we had a local guide/driver named Moses. He was great at finding all sorts of wildlife like elephants, lions, cheetahs, warthogs, and even a leopard and a rhino, and lining us up to get the perfect camera angle.

Kenya is a place where the people who run the game camps insist you don’t walk around during the early morning or in the evening hours without a guard. You aren’t allowed out of your tent at all during the night. They are so serious about this that after dinner there is a spotter outside the dining tent. Every time a couple finishes dinner and tries to walk back toward their tent alone, the spotter lights them up with a flashlight and one of the guards hustles over to lead them.

It is a place where the guards don’t always let you take the shortest route to and from your tent because there is a wild elephant of water buffalo on the path blocking the way.

It is a place where, on a nature hike on foot, we came across a wild bull elephant standing about 60 yards away. We knew it was a serious situation, because our local guide and the other local guard both turned toward it and froze, silent. We froze as well, but the non-local soldier with us kept talking until the guide told him to shut the heck up, so we could slowly and quietly sneak away. Afterward, the guide showed us the scar on his leg from when an elephant had stepped on it, breaking it before picking him up in its trunk and tossing him aside.

Kenya is a place where, one night, we heard an elephant rubbing up against the front of our tent, before it moved to the side and breathed just on the other side of the canvas from where my head lay on my pillow. Before it left, it broke the number sign off our tent, as well as the fence out front.

So this year during Sukkot I finally got that sense of impermanence I had been missing, the sense that anything could be around the next corner, and a feeling of gratitude for the safety and security I so often take for granted.

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