We launched a new project last month — one that’s been in the works since 1999. Wow. I’m serious. It’s been incubating for years… and then just this year, it’s made it’s soft launch on the Internet and is already growing a few branches.
I call it The Lala Salama Project. It’s a project with a simple mission: bring gear and supplies to the wildlife rangers who patrol Mount Kenya National Park.
A little background: In 1999, I took a semester off college and signed up for a NOLS course in Kenya. NOLS is a really wonderful organization, they teach people of all ages how to function and survive in wildernesses all over the world. The course I signed up for lasted 80+ days and we spent a month backpacking around Mount Kenya, a couple weeks backpacking through Masaailand, a week or two on safari, and a few weeks learning to sail dhows in the Indian Ocean. I met great people. I saw beautiful country. I was 20 years old and I had the time of my life.
When I returned to college, I found that Kenya had had a strong impact on me. I majored in African history. I wrote a thesis about the first white man to climb up Mount Kenya’s highest peak. I returned to Africa a few more times. I learned more about a place that has a complex and often emotional history. And then I moved to Alaska.
A few years ago, Simon (a Kenyan friend from the NOLS course) found me on Facebook (yea social media!). We talked on the phone, we laughed about old times. And then Simon invited me to come back to Kenya. I’d always thought about returning, but life — and other plans — had just gotten in the way. “There are so many places to see out there, so many things to do,” I’d often think to myself. But when I decided last year to leave an awesome job in pursuit of creative projects, one of my goals was to also maintain the threads with my past. I’ve been lucky enough to have spent several years pursuing some fantastic adventures – firefighting in California, monkey handling in South Africa, you name it. Why not build on the foundation that I’d already created? Why go out and pursue yet another experience? Just for the sake of another story? I knew what I would find in Kenya as a 35-year-old would be different than what I would find in Kenya at age 20. What’s more, I’m not really searching anymore. The things that matter to me are the people in my life, the places I’ve been, the issues I already know and feel passionate about. For a lot of people, this change is probably called something like “putting down roots” or “settling down.” It’s a sense desire for a deeper connection, a deeper meaning of some kind. But as an inherent nomad, how does one put down roots?
I took Simon up on his invitation and in April 2014, I flew to Nairobi. Simon picked me up at the airport and I spent the next month in Kenya. I didn’t have an agenda. I wanted to see Mount Kenya again. I wanted to go to the coast. I wanted to meet Simon’s wife and two small daughters. I wanted to see other old friends. Simon is now the Senior Warden of Mount Kenya National Park and I spent a lot of time following him around while he did his job. I think everyone should do this — as an adult, shadow another adult doing their job. Unless we work with our friends, we rarely get to see our friends actually do their work. I learned a lot about Simon. He’s an innovative, kind leader. He is a big thinker with big ambitions and big expectations. He also makes everyone around him feel capable of pretty much doing anything you want. It’s a rare gift.
Simon and I spent hours and hours driving around Kenya and around Mount Kenya. We talked a lot. He introduced me to several rangers and I learned things about their work that I’d never known. The conservation crisis in Kenya is rising. Illegal hunting and timber harvesting is escalating. Poachers are constantly developing new tools to hunt elephants, rhinos… anything that they can sell. And yet, the country of Kenya is also in crisis. The political situation there remains unstable. Somalia is a growing threat. Poverty is a mounting obstacle. In a lot of ways, it sounds like the same old tune I’ve been hearing since childhood: Africa is a continent in crisis. But then there are people like Simon. Sure, he understands the big issues, but he somehow has a knack for breaking down a problem and taking small steps forward to rectify it.
Meanwhile, as Simon hatched plans, I also was brainstorming. I’d brought my camera equipment and recording equipment with me and I started filming. I talked to rangers about colleagues who had been killed in action. I asked them questions about the kind of food they ate, the gear they used, the ways they coped with being away from family for weeks and months at a time.
Together, Simon and I decided that we could do what we could to make things a little easier for the rangers on the mountain. We decided to launch a project that would simply gather supplies in America (where goods are better quality and more accessible), and bring them to Kenya. I call it The Lala Salama project because in Swahili, “lala salama” means “sleep well.” We want the rangers to be able to do their jobs — and to come home safe and sound every night. It’s also a sweet Kenyan lullaby that I remembered learning as a student on the NOLS course in 1999.
I mentioned the project to my friend David Rogers in Mississippi. He jumped on board. He mentioned the project to his friend Michelle Waterhouse in Tennessee. She jumped on board. Now we have a little momentum. We’ve gotten our first donation already. You can be a part of it too, if you want. Or you can just “Like” us on Facebook. Every bit counts. We want to grow our branches even more, and to do that, we will need help.
It’s just the beginning, but we are nourishing the roots of our small tree. And at the same time, I am nourishing my roots too.
A poem from J.R.R. Tolkien:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.