Peril In The Long Grass

24 04 2008


A room with a view

I am fluently bilingual in Canadian and English. I know that a lorry is a truck, that a lift is an elevator, football is soccer and that lemonade is lemon juice and not fizzy soda. It only becomes confusing when crisps are chips, chips are French fries, French fries can be crispy but crisps can’t be French Fries.


My grasp of Swahili is considerably less robust, however. I know the usual pleasantries and I’m proud to proclaim that I understood what hakuna matata meant even before “The Lion King”. Over time, I’ve learned numbers and the Swahili names for some of the wildlife encountered on safari.  But I’m certainly not bilingual and that never particularly concerned me until one June evening.


We were camping in the middle of Kenya’s Masai Mara. The savannah rolled as far as the eye could see, interrupted only by rocky hills and clusters of acacia trees. From our campsite we could see elephants, giraffe and antelope all with the naked eye and separated from us by….absolutely nothing. There were no fences, walls, moats or fields of land mines. If a pride of lions wanted to visit us to borrow a cup of sugar or exchange e-mail addresses, they could. The only thing protecting us from a jolly good mauling were a couple of Maasai asgaris, or guards, armed with spears, knives and a few thousand years’ worth of genetic nous.


Each evening, we sat by the campfire chatting about the day’s sightings or listening to the wonderful sounds of the African bush. All was good until it came time to go to bed.


Being in an area of the reserve filled with predators, chargers, stompers, biters and gorers, we had been advised that we couldn’t walk around unescorted after dark. Instead, when time came to head to our tents we would be accompanied by a Maasai warrior. If we had to go somewhere during the night we had to blow a whistle and someone would assist us. All rather reassuring when you’re protected only by thin canvas.


Our asgari led the way. Spear in one hand, flashlight in the other, we traipsed through the darkness towards our tent. Just as we arrived he hissed for us to stop, and hurriedly whispered something to us in Maa, and then again in Swahili, all the while crouching and gesticulating at the bushes and grass directly in front of the tent.  We cowered behind him trying to see what he was indicating and racking my brain to try and translate the word ‘komba’. I knew it wasn’t lion, buffalo, leopard or elephant, but beyond that I just couldn’t determine what was about to leap from the bushes and tear us limb from limb.


Finally, the viscious komba threat apparently over and our asgari frustrated at being unable to tell us what horrific death he’d just bravely prevented, he led us back to the campfire and a stack of reference books. He thumbed through one, stopped at a colour plate and handed it over.


The picture was of a small squirrel-sized teddy bear with enormous dark eyes, fluffy ears and a long curly tail that was wrapped around a small tree.


“Komba” he said. “Bush baby”.


Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008