A Christmas Story
There was yet another kind of Christmas season waiting for me. I had an extraordinary new wife who was just as comfortable dining in a chateau as she was when just the two of us were walking across the plains or in thick forest bush in Africa. We had discovered the East African bush country in 1969, before mass tourism came to destroy it. We decided to really go back and live there for a while. Diana could paint and I could write wherever we were.
But there were still white hunters and their phony clients who went back to their homes beating their chests about having killed a lion or some kind of beautifully horned antelope. Often, it was the professional hunter who really shot the big game that the hunter had missed or only wounded. I knew several pro hunters who took those men on safari and once joined them with some Texans who were in over their bird-hunting depth. It was pitiable to watch.
We had developed a whole network of friends whose work was in a forest or on a plain like the Serengeti. Most of them were studying animal behavior (ethology) at some place where they were fixed, but they had all traveled the interesting parts of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. When they went “home” it was usually to Oxford or Cambridge, most of the few Americans came later.
I had found a marvelous lost house way up by Ethiopia, but had outfitted a Land Cruiser for 2/3 week safaris and was always looking for places where no one had been. Since both my Kenyan and foreign friends had scoured the countries it was hard to completely explore the unexplored, but one day in November we found a great place on a little stream in Masai country where we spent 3 weeks. We lived under a great spreading tree with a 10 foot long green mamba who lived in the tree .We shared the site, but that's another story. Unknowingly, we left that gorgeous place with a gift from the stream.
After that, instead of going back to the house we went to a palm-roofed house that hung over the untrammeled, brilliant, white beach of the Indian Ocean by the Tanzanian border. We went there to dive every time we were in East Africa. The ocean was like an aquarium. A few days after we settled in I started to feel sick and a week later Diana did, also. In fact we had contracted a rare case of acute bilharzia and mine was much worse than hers. It is cured with a single shot, but by the time it was diagnosed it was the day before Christmas and we had flown to Nairobi where we'd gone to see the doctor.
The house belonged to David Western and his partner Shirley Strum, both prominent animal researchers, he on the life and interaction of every animal living in the Amboseli Park and Shirley on baboons. He became the Kenya Minister of National Parks and I think Shirley still writes and teaches at the U of California San Diego as well as being the Director of the Uaso Ngiro Baboon project. They had gone to their house in the middle of the Nairobi Animal Reserve for the holidays.
David had learned that I was sick and said use his house. Once we had seen the doctor on Christmas Eve he gave me the only dose of antidote available, because my case was much worse than Diana's. He said that in his decades of practice in Nairobi he'd only seen two other cases of Bilharzia as acute as mine.
David called on Christmas morning and said to come join them, because they were doing a great Christmas dinner and many mutual researcher friends had come in from East Africa to be there. I knew some of his guests as friends, others as famous names in the African animal research world who I'd not met. I had been so weakened that I said no three or four times, but he insisted that we shouldn't spend Christmas sick and alone and he finally won. Someone picked us up and drove us to the house.
So there we were, in this house lost in the miles of a reserve famous for its lion and elephant populations back then. People paid to visit the patch of Reserve nearest to Nairobi or to visit Karen Blixen’s Out Of Africa plantation.
It was a vast rolling plain and home to almost all of the species in Kenya- except for the naked mole rat whose young researcher from Minnesota was in from the coastal swamp. All I remember is that the women were preparing food in the kitchen. Something was roasting in a pit outside the house. And there were 10 or 12 men and 4 or 5 women - most researchers worked alone whether men or women and such gatherings were rare. But it was Christmas and there were elephant people, chimp people, wild dog and bird folk, all in from the back of beyond.
I, however, was wan and weak and at one point we were sitting in a semi-circle in front of the fireplace when the conversation turned to what each of us was currently doing. David started us going around the half-moon in front of the fireplace and each person would describe what their current project was and some details about where they were in their findings. Their results would go into classrooms, books, films, and TV programs. And then they came to me.
“Well," I said, “I'm studying your studies, which is to say, I put an overview on what all of you do plus my own research on the two-legged species. I'm working on a field theory of animal behavior."
No one had ever attempted that. No one has yet, 50 years later. I explained it, but realized my brain was running down. Before the preceding day's shot, I was on death's doorstep! The antidote had an immediate effect overnight, but within limits. I got very close to the end and my thinking simply stopped; at which point I realized that Diana had instantly picked up at the sentence where I left off and explained it to the end.
Obviously, everyone had been told what my condition was and when Diana finished, everyone clapped. It was as though our brains were one. I had been saved for last so we got up and went to the well-laden table. The dinner was delicious, out of doors in the Highlands’ warm, equatorial sunshine and ever and everyone wanted to talk to me about the intricacy of my work and to Diana, because she was young, beautiful, and bright.
It was a splendiferous Christmas, after all.