The transition from waking to sleeping was so gradual that it was imperceptible, leaving the impression of being fully conscious. Only the dark greys of an English night gave way to the golden tones of an African day. A sandy haze washed the sky, darkening the sun to orange, and the scent on the air shifted from wool blankets, coal smoke and disinfectant to dried dung, dust, and sweat. It was Kenya but not anywhere Kit could identify. The people in the village they passed dressed more like Turkana than Kikuyu, but they spoke Swahili.
Kit was on safari with his father, and he was a boy again, no more than thirteen or fourteen. They had half a dozen guides and porters with them, and donkeys for their tent, cooking utensils and the first aid kit. They were trying to find a place to camp, and the villagers kept sending them farther into the bush with large sweeping gestures. Kit was getting tired and thirsty, but they kept hiking, higher and higher.
A snow-capped mountain loomed up ahead of them. “Lion tracks, Bwana!” One of the porters noted pointing in excitement. But Kit’s father only nodded indifferently and kept walking in the direction they had been going before. The porter looked back over his shoulder, a frown on his face.
Without transition they were gathered around a campfire where a gazelle roasted over the flames. The fat dripping off it triggered small bursts of light accompanied by sharp spats of hissing. The porters sang beyond the fire accompanied by an oil drum turned into an instrument. The fire and singing kept the predators away, but Kit felt them in the restless darkness surrounding the camp and he was afraid. He tried to inch closer to the fire, pretending he was cold, but his father smiled knowingly.
His father stood and walked toward the darkness and then abruptly flung out his arms and made a loud hissing sound. Something large, silent, light footed and very fast sprang away in the darkness. His father returned to the fire with a smile. “Just a cheetah.”
Kit tried to relax. To his father he admitted, “I didn’t get much practice with my rifle while at school. I’m not a very good marksman.”
“A safari isn’t all about killing,” Kit’s father replied unperturbed.
“What is it about then?”
“For me, it is mostly about observing and enjoying the vast natural world around us.”
“The porters say you killed a charging lion,” Kit countered in awe.
His father laughed. “It was an old, sick lion — that was why he was preying on people. Humans don’t taste very nice and fit lions prefer other meals. This lion was blind in one eye, I think, and certainly limped from an old injury. I shot him because he threatened the villagers — a young boy had been dragged away while herding the goats.”
“Why didn’t you bring the skin home?”
“It was in terrible shape — matted and scarred. He was a very old lion, Kit, but he must have been fierce once.”
“The porters say you were very brave.”
“Not really. I had a powerful rifle. If I had faced him with a spear, that would have been brave.”
“But lions have been known to kill Europeans.”
“Usually when they were behaving foolishly. If you learn nothing else this trip, remember that doing something just to show you’re brave is usually foolish.”
“But courage is the essence of manhood,” Kit protested. “In every African tribe, youths have to pass a test of courage before they are recognized as men.”
“Yes,” his father agreed cautiously. “That’s because in those cultures an adult male is automatically a warrior and so physical courage is the essential prerequisite to fulfil his role in society. In our society, on the other hand, not all men are warriors, and there are many other kinds of courage than the raw physical kind needed to hunt big game.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for example, standing up for someone who is being unfairly criticized or ridiculed can be just as courageous as shooting some wild animal that is only trying to survive.”
Kit caught his breath. “You mean standing up for Mum?”
“Yes, among other things.”
Kit looked down remembering all the times at school when he had just let the others insult the natives. Only the Zulus earned a modicum of respect because they were such fierce warriors. The others were dismissed as lazy and stupid. Kit had said nothing, despite knowing that his mother and grandmother were neither.
“It’s hard,” his father admitted. “It’s hard to fight injustice and prejudice and racism — much harder than shooting a wild animal.” After a long pause he admitted, “I ran away more often than I stood up to people. It was easier to come here to the bush, to live among people that did not look down on us. However, if you want to have the freedom to live wherever you want and follow whatever profession you choose, you are going to have to learn how to be braver than I was.”
“How do you learn to be brave?” Kit asked earnestly, thinking mentally of all the terrible tests the African tribes imposed on their youth.
“By facing things that frighten you. I started going on safari to prove to my peers that I was as brave as they were.”
“So, you were afraid of the lion?”
“Not that old lion. On the other hand, one or two hippos have scared me half to death, and I wouldn’t want to get too close to an angry elephant either. The point is that by doing things that required physical courage, I increased my reputation among my peers and superiors. That made it harder for them to demean me for my choice of wife, and easier for me to stand up to them.”
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