If not now – When?

Travels around the world (with Beth and Chris)

Archive for the tag “hotterite”

Beautiful Souls of Kenya

There is a magnetism about Kenya. The achingly beautiful landscapes, the tremendous blue skies and dramatic weather, the astounding animals that allow us to observe, the ever distinctive acacia tree (it is possible to find a leopard literally hanging out in an acacia tree), the symbiosis of the natural Mara, the beautiful souls of the Kenya we have come to know; all of these urgently beckon us…

So we returned to Kenya, to the Mara. Our mission was, with the young, good-natured, easy going, civil engineer Bobby Reese, to build two more Bridging the Gap Africa bridges. Harmon has requested us because he knows that Chris is a stickler for details; he will build a bridge for Mara Plains Camp that is as perfect as humanly possible – in other words, “dead nuts”. Chris does not disappoint.

We came to Mara Plains for “round two” on a strict deadline; the camp has been closed since March because of damage due to massive flash flooding. There are many repairs, shoring up river edges via enormous rock gabions, polishing, and of course replacing two of the three bridges that have been destroyed in the flood (the third bridge that we completed just 4 months ago withstood the raging waters and was only slightly damaged when a large tree landed on it). The bridges are crucial for the camp. We witness Harmon reminding David Stogdale, the director of Great Plains, time and time again of this fact – as if we, and everyone else on the project, aren’t already fully aware; but such is the friendly bantering of the long time friendship between these two men.

During the six plus weeks we are here, we again experience the sights, sounds, smells of being in the Mara. The animals patterns are different because of the season, as well as the abundant rains which have caused the plains to be wet and green in the beginning of the project. There are large herds of elephants, females with their calves or sometimes the lone bull, looking for love – we see, and sometimes hear them close to the camp as well as each time we drive for supplies, on airstrip pickups, or on rescue missions (lorries that need to be pushed/pulled out of the mud). There are always many twitchy wide-eyed gazelles, Wildebeest are non-existent (they are still in Tanzania) until the end of the six weeks when we spot a small few, and zebras are not as close-by or plentiful. We are constantly aware of the lumbering, guffawing hippos in the river below us, and become keenly respectful of how quick (and “un-lumbering”) they really are after Chris gets charged by one who is cornered on the deck of one of the tents (Chris came sprinting up the path to our tent, dove in, and when he eventually caught his breath told me “I saw death!” – this all after I was warned not to come out of the tent…); that’s one scary-assed animal. We also encounter the beautiful and regal lions many times as they look and blink, sit with their front paws curled under, yawn, and scan the landscape around them as the cubs romp; there are also the lion noises we hear from our tent most nights that give away their proximity. There are short-legged hyenas, gawky giraffes, awkward ostriches, sly silvery monogamous jackals, cheeky vervet monkeys, an enormous troop of raucous baboons, the sleepy scaly crocodile. Rounding all of this out, we cannot forget to mention the blood-sucking mosquitoes, stinging tsetse flies, scampering bugs, and snakes (I may have seen a black mamba and a spitting cobra). To be honest, none of this will ever get stale for me (well, maybe I don’t need the bug and snake encounters…). The Kenyan bush is magnificent!


But back to the bridge, or as Harmon would say “get back to work, you’ve got bridges to build!”. And so we dig, pour, shovel, haul, nail, screw, weld, paint, inspect, and coordinate for just over six weeks. It is our Bridging the Gap Africa team (in no particular order) that we come to know and care for that makes this project happen, these Americans and Kenyans coming together to be a bridge to a better world.

Here is Bobby Reese. He is the civil engineer and designer of our 30 meter suspension bridges. Everyone loves Bobby. Nothing rattles this guy. He speaks Swahili, laughs easily, and has a big appetite for such a lean guy! It is a true pleasure to collaborate and create these bridges with Bobby!

This is Chris Leibfried or Baba Derek. He is all about the details – and being on time!! Chris has not yet mastered Swahili (with the exception of about 4 words), and is an excellent engineer through and through. He dives right in with hammer, level, tape measure in hand; he tries to teach the guys new, better, and more precise techniques. He has studied the prints so thoroughly that he has them memorized; he awakens before the sun rises, thinking about every bridge detail that will be part of that day’s process. Chris will not settle for anything half-assed; the guys come to appreciate his need for perfection in building this magnificent bridge we will be proud of because of it.


Freddy and Richard are the conjoined BtGA duo. They come as a pair. Freddy has a stern demeanor and barks orders at the Maasai guys, but I can usually get a smile out of him. Freddy translates English into Swahili for us when Bobby is away. He keeps the group together. Richard smiles easily – except when he is not working next to Freddy; he is cool in his yellow sunglasses, is good with a welder, and likes to climb.


Geoffrey and Gordon are also a BtGA twosome. Geoffrey is a master at stone work. He tells me one day, after we have tweaked the heavy rock work multiple times “it is good when you correct me!”. Geoffrey has a quiet and gentle disposition; he gets the widest grin when I tell him how much Harmon and the camp VIP’s especially appreciate his stone work. Gordon is an excellent carpenter and has also learned a lot about masonry from Geoffrey. Gordon is intelligent. We talk about his carpentry work (when he’s not on a bridge project), his family, and how he manages his “banking” with goats, as is the way in this culture.

This is Lepapa, our inventory control guy. He loves that he uses one of the walkie talkies to keep communication among the teams at both bridges; he takes his job very seriously and is, indeed, very good at it. He runs equipment back and forth and does manual labor. He is the liaison between the wzungu and the non-English speaking guys – letting me know when someone has a backache, wants to go into town for a haircut, or needs to see family. Lepapa reports to us when there is a family or individual crisis with one of the team (and there are several of these situations throughout the six weeks). Lepapa walks about 2 hours (one way) to go to his family and after one of these visits, brings Chris and me beaded bracelets his wife has made for us. He openly teaches me about Maasai customs and traditions. He loves his wife and is supporting her to finish one last exam (that she missed because of the birth of their second son) in order to become a nurse.

Alex Koshal worked with us on Tent 4 bridge a few months ago, and we have no hesitation about having him part of the main bridge team. When we need a person to fetch a piece of equipment, Koshal literally runs for it. We put him in charge of the painting projects, and his pride was apparent – you can see it his huge smile. Koshal loved to quiz me on Swahili words.

Mike Pesi is a character that the group ends up nurturing. He is quiet and speaks barely any English (I think I scare him – or at least the prospect of trying to understand me scares him – because I sometimes see him walk in the opposite direction when he spots me). Mike Pesi has a bit of bad luck –  needing a tetanus shot after stepping on a nail (after hours); later on a pre-dawn motorcycle ride back to camp after an overnight family visit, he crashes into a zebra and then gets kicked by that same zebra. When Mike Pesi returns to work, we assign him to light (albeit essential) work and everyone, especially Lepapa watches out for him.

These guys are Lenjir, Cliff, Josephat, Sananga, and Alex Kibet. They are work horses – so strong and willing to do any work we ask of them. They never complain.

We have our leader, the BtGA founder, and big cheese, Harmon Parker. He is all about the bridges, as you would expect….. Harmon brings an intense passion to the bridge site – Africa and bridges are his life. He will bark out orders in one minute, and then in the next will be laughing uncontrollably about a silly inside joke. He calls everyone a hotterite! His contrasts keep everyone hopping. We would not be here if it weren’t for Harmon.


And, here I am. I am known as Mama Derek, or sometimes just Mama. This is a sign of respect that the guys give to me. I learn each of their Christian names, and then their Maasai names. Sometimes I inspect the work, measure, and place boards. I do payroll – so they like me!! I also hand out orange tablets (ibuprofen), apply band aids and ointment when called for (Harmon keeps threatening to have me wear a nurse’s cap). I try to keep everyone organized and happy. I learn about their families. They teach me Swahili words. Chris says I’m the glue that holds us together. I get very choked up at the end of the project when I tell them (with Bobby translating) how much I appreciate their hard work, and that I will miss each and every one of them. It is not an exaggeration when I say that every single one of these guys has literally lent me his hand, at one time or another, on this project.


This has been a great team.

MPC Main Bridge - Campside



What the bush wants you to see

The wipers are going like mad on the windshield as we travel yet another clay dirt road, full of bumpy ridges, potholes, and huge puddles from the drenching rain. The South African dry spell has ended with our arrival to the Entabeni Private Game Reserve in the Waterberg Mountains (there is a misty cloud cover at the base of the mountains for our entire stay). Our drive in allows us to experience a small teaser of what is to come (we see warthogs with their alert tails, wildebeest with their blue-ish manes, and a small animal we find out later is a jackal).





Chris pulls the mud-streaked rental car into the covered entrance of Hanglip Mountain Lodge where we are met by several smiling black people and one rather serious white fellow. We shake hands and introduce ourselves all around. The young white dude, turns out, is our ranger for our stay; “Hello, I’m ‘Sinjin’” (his name, I sort out eventually, is StJohn, but pronounced “Sinjin”) I ask if we will be able to go out for our afternoon game drive and he responds: “It’s going to be wet. It’s going to be cold. And it’s going to be miserable. But we will check on the conditions later”. ALLLLLrighty then. Instead of being bothered, I get the giggles.  StJohn gives us the spiel: “there’s a TV up there in the lobby area, but I don’t know why you’d want it, you’re in the bush!” and “After dark, I will walk you to your room but there are no gates here and there are wild animals everywhere – this isn’t the city – you must stay aware when you are walking between your room and the lobby because you could get eaten”. At this point I actually give StJohn a little shove in the arm as I’m laughing. He gives me a funny look.


The skies have cleared just enough for us to go on our “wet safari” (as StJohn puts it). We climb into the canopied truck with our camera, binoculars, and some green rain ponchos that serve to cut the wind and keep us dry. StJohn dons his blue tint sunglasses, leather safari hat, and similar green poncho – and (quite possibly reluctantly) begins the game drive. We start asking our twenty questions as we get acquainted. StJohn is a 26 year old good-looking, bearded, intense young man who has been a ranger for several years (2 at Entabeni). He tells us he has been studying the Latin names of various species since he was 13; it is increasingly apparent that he has an extreme respect and passion for nature. He seems to have the bush in his blood; he comes alive as we make our way toward the mountain where we can see waterfalls heavily flowing, the brimming reservoir, and the gushing stream: “See the waterfall? We’re going to go over there. We’re going to give it a go! The water is PUMPing!!”  We slosh through the muddy roads (the rain makes them “slippery like snot”) and find the snout and the knobby back of a crocodile, water buck with his toilet seat rear end, hippos round ears, plentiful and beautiful impala, curly antlered kudos, wildebeest (also called the brindle gnu – “gah new” for the sound he expels), many birds, and another delicate and skitterish jackal. StJohn seems to use all of his senses; he listens, looks in all directions (while navigating the rough path we call a road);  I even hear him inhale deeply. He watches the ground for animal tracks and dung, listens to the birds, frogs, and telltale signals that prey animals give off when a predator is nearby. As we are ending the drive at dusk, we see a cloud of king and queen termites exploding from a termite mound.








We go on a total of four game drives with StJohn as he shows us the wonders of the bush – the big, bold, powerful animals – the minute colorful flowers, the multitudes of birds that StJohn seems to know so much about, the singing toads and frogs (“at night, you’ll hear the loud raucous of the spotted toad!”.  StJohn is passionate about nature. He reminds us that there is so much more to the experience than spotting the Big Five and says “we will see what the bush wants us to see!” – Chris and I respect that and are on the lookout for what is offered.  We are driving a few minutes away from the lodge when StJohn stops the truck abruptly, reverses and says “who can find what I’m seeing – it’s a five out of five”. We all start guessing – Elephant? Giraffe?  Lion? (maybe it’s behind the tree line). He says its right under our noses – turns out he’s spotted a flap necked chameleon – it is about three feet from the truck, but camouflaged incredibly; it is holding onto the  thick blade of tall vertical grass that it blends in with so well and it’s eyes move independent of each other . We all snap photos and watch for about twenty minutes as StJohn gives us more details of the reptile. StJohn is like a mini encyclopedia with an incredible memory.














On the last game drive, StJohn takes us up the mountain where the road has been closed due to heavy rain. It is a long, steep climb and we are rewarded with more animal sightings, incredible panoramic views of the rondavel called Mount Entabeni where we learn that we are standing on rocks that are about two billion years old. StJohn starts the beautiful descent – it is another perspective of the same road and the steepness affects us differently (my knees are pressed against the grab bar in front of me – I can even feel my toes against the front of my sneakers). We pass another ranger who speaks to StJohn in Afrikaans  – I ask him if there is something good – he answers by vigorously nodding his head (he does this with his whole upper torso). I know not to ask what it is; I wait and anticipate – like a little kid awaiting Christmas morning. I can see our lodge and this surprise hasn’t presented itself just yet. Suddenly he stops – there are two adult cheetahs lounging under a tree – they are brothers who travel closely together – and they are magnificent!






When we say our farewells StJohn and I hug – a real hug. I feel privileged to have encountered the Entabeni, StJohn’s “happy place”, with him as our guide.

We leave with a sense of satisfaction and at the same time, wanting more. We have seen what the bush wants us to see.


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