The Swahili word for freedom is uhuru and, as is the case with postcolonial societies, many landmarks in Nairobi are called Uhuru. The hotel I stayed in was near the arterial Uhuru Road, and even in that sweltering summer heat, I saw Kenyan men wearing suits—not necessarily ironed—as they went about their business.
I had been to the suburb of Karen the previous day: I had seen the colonial house in which Karen Blixen lived, the coffee farm behind the house, the quaint four-poster bed inside, and the machinery for roasting and harvesting, which plays such an important role in that wonderful film Out of Africa. Far in the distance, on the horizon, I could see the beautiful Ngong Hills, whose arresting image frames the dramatic opening sentence of Blixen’s classic Africa memoir (which she wrote using her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen) on which the film is based.
You can see those hills from Blixen’s house—they rise evenly, forming a ridge along the Great Rift Valley. Somewhere on its slopes is the grave of Denys Finch Hatton, for some time Blixen’s lover.
Blixen’s house at the foot of Ngong Hills was an oasis; in contrast, teeming Nairobi was intimidating. My aim was freedom from the metropolis, and that meant getting out of the city quickly, but then what is “quick” in these parts?
Pink paradise: Flamingos go about their business with ballerina-like precision and grace
The road to freedom was appropriately named Uhuru Road, but the snarling traffic in front of us suggested that nobody was in a hurry to leave. I was wrong, too, to expect a smoother, faster ride once we left the city. There were craters and rocks all around, and people living on either side of the road used it as an extension of their village; we, the foreigners in a four-wheel drive, were the intruders.
But that discomfort became insignificant once the villages became fewer, the population sparser, and the valley opened out. Even if the geographical importance of the Rift Valley is lost on those among us who aren’t scientists, it has an awesome presence and grandeur. It opens out dramatically, revealing its earthen colours, and the imagination boggles at the thought of the elemental force that would have tried to bring the cliffs together, uniting the plates, with the valley staying and holding firm at its centre, like stitches that have mingled with the skin after binding a massive wound.
We were headed towards Lake Naivasha. That blue lake, about 100km from Nairobi, forms the kind of landscape which, we were told, budding wildlife photographers dream about. I was travelling with an American environmentalist who I knew from college; another American environmentalist joined us and, for reasons I will never know, he decided to convince me that the Confederate States were right to secede, and Lincoln had got it all wrong. Not that he defended slavery—doing so in Africa, saying that while travelling on a road called Uhuru, would require some chutzpah—but one must not forget the motives of the mill-owners in the northeast, he told me. My friend from college was apologetic, but then it wasn’t her fault; there are schmucks in every country.
I nodded politely, looking out for flamingos, hoping to see them before dusk. When we reached the forest lodge by the lake, they were taking last orders for lunch. We had an Indian meal, cooked by Kenyan chefs in the kitchen, and set out with our cameras.
The sky was clear and blue, and the air seemed filtered and clean. There were only a few scattered clouds and, with the breeze blowing from the lake, the heat became bearable. We followed our guide up a meandering trail scented by dry grass that got denser as we rose higher. The trail was hard work, and the tropical heat was now bearing us down. I wasn’t sure where we were headed, and the only thing to mitigate that frustration was that the bearded American, still yearning for Lincoln’s defeat, had decided to sit by the lake to down a couple of beers.
As we reached the top of the hill, the ground became flat, and there were few trees. Sounds of all sorts assaulted our senses. Our guide led us towards the edge of the cliff, pointing his hand down, smiling. Curiously, we walked towards the edge.
Below us lay the lake in its full glory, golden ripples reflecting the sun as the breeze caressed its surface. You could hear the gentle, whooshing sound of the wind. And there, on the other side, was a pink flotilla—thousands upon thousands of flamingos.
The birds stood gracefully by the lake, minding their business, oblivious of everything around them. I trained my telephoto lens, and saw flamingos moving deftly, like ballerinas, picking bugs and fish from the lake. The wind picked up speed and pushed the waters. As if on cue, they soared together, forming a divine arc, floating above the water, before settling on another part of the shore. No Martha Graham, no Merce Cunningham, could have choreographed such beauty.
I stood there still, in awe, turning to my friend. She said nothing, her mouth slightly open, her eyes full of wonder. She had written thousands of words on preserving our planet. What she saw—that one picture—was worth more than those thousands of words, she knew. This is what it was all about. This was uhuru.
As was always the case with Kenya, Dinesen had got it right when she wrote: “Who tells a finer tale than any of us. Silence does.”
Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org