NEVER SAY BREAD SAY
by Cara Giaimo
The Lion King Problem
In the weeks before I left for Kenya, I had very little to do besides attempt to prepare myself to leave for Kenya. Whenever things around my house got quiet, I would read the preparation manuals and packing guides that my study abroad program had sent me, and the lists of travel precautions that my dad had downloaded from the websites of various State Departments (no taking pictures of the Kenyan flag, no sleeveless shirts, no hooting in the national parks, whatever that is). Surrounded by the trappings of my American bedroom (it's got a lot of rock posters, and nostalgic half-sanded summer camp craft projects), which was itself surrounded by a postcard-worthy New England winter, I'd try to shut down my senses and construct an idea of East Africa out of what I'd learned from these documents, and from other portrayals I'd come across in the past. I'd take my backyard, melt the snow, grow some spiny trees, and roll a liquid red bowling ball sun up over a horizon smeared by heat. Good start. When I got it to look like an acceptable amalgamation of descriptive scenes from the books about American kids with game-ranger dads I’d read when I was younger, I’d start to populate it with animals from the textbooks I’d recently received in the mail. The game would go along fine until, inevitably, from a corner of my brain I’d tried to shut down, a sound would swell toward my landscape like a herd of wildebeests, and with that first giant “NAAAAAAAAAA” my well-constructed scene would dissolve and then come up familiar and cartoon. ‘The Circle of Life’ whirlpooled my imagination into places that had been pre-constructed. I’d seen The Lion King about twelve too many times, and now could only imagine the African savannah in relation to it.
Of course, the young adult adventure novels and the textbooks and the National Geographic specials from which I culled the rest of my mental image were no less artificial. I couldn’t get a grasp on the continent without them, though. I thought a breath of real Kenyan air and a sight of real Kenya would obliterate the invasive visions, but the problem African-wild-dogged me across the ocean, and shifted to fit my new situation – instead of being unable to imagine Africa without using other portrayals of it, I now couldn’t look at Africa without imagining that what I was seeing was just such a portrayal. About two hours after I got to Kenya, as we drove to our campsite from the airport, we passed a herd of camels walking parallel to the road, going our way. “Those are camels!” said my brain. And then: “you are watching an IMAX movie.” I stretched as far as I could out the window just as two motorcycles sliced by, narrowly sparing my head and our side mirror. By the time my thoughts left the immediate-survival sector of my brain and returned to the camels, we had left them behind.
It took a long time to shake the disbelief. On our first trip to Amboseli National Park, we were greeted near the gate by some road-tripping elephants, real elephants, moving so slowly and momentously they could have been underwater, breathing the same air as me and not in a zoo. My first reaction was, again, “someone has photoshopped my eyeballs.” I knew what was happening, but didn’t really get it, couldn’t feel it. Things continued like this for many of the “big moments” of the first few weeks – first drive through a market, first duck into a Maasai house, first dripdown of a sunset through acacia braches; all were barred behind a sense of removal, of observation rather than participation. I didn’t know what to do about it.
It turned out the answer came from something our program director, Okello, had said when we first arrived, and that my classmates and I had scoffed at. We were fresh into camp and gathered around a table for an official program introduction, fighting jet lag and latching onto any excuse to rally, and Okello was providing us with plenty, practically emceeing the question and answer part. “You’ll see so many elephants,” he promised us, “eventually you won’t even want to stop the car.” We all laughed. We’d be different, we knew. Our eyes were clothspinned open and our necks were on permanent swivel, we weren’t even going to sleep.
But Okello was right, and what he said turned out to be key, at least for me. Once the new things around me were no longer so new, the pressure was off – not everything was a big deal. As soon as the luster wore down, the glare from remembered and imagined screens stopped getting in my eyes and everything gained depth, the specific depth you can only get to when you’re actually in something’s presence. Rather than trying to make my own experiences live up to or fit with those I’d experienced vicariously, I just let them happen. And of course those experiences ended up being surprising, in and of themselves and in comparison to what I’d expected. My optic nerve doesn’t have a zoom, so I had to make do with a long view of a leopard draped over a tree branch, and so gained new appreciation for the effectiveness of camouflage. A skim over the Serengeti grasslands isn’t always narrated by a hushed David Attenborough; sometimes your perennially unimpressed Wildlife Management professor does the honors instead. And the giraffes on the Discovery Channel may step around in front of the red sky like some ancient god’s shadow puppets, but the giraffes in Tsavo National Park rear up besides your car and send you scrambling back into the hatch, and make small earthquakes for whoever they share the ground with, and walk around with the long crumpled legs of their half-born babies emerging.
I couldn’t have learned any of these things through any other medium, or from anyone else. A few weeks into my stay, right around when things were settling enough to start making a dent, my classmates and I aired The Lion King on a projector in our classroom. The movie came out when most of us were about four years old, and was for many of us an initial domino-tipper in the lifelong series of decisions and events that eventually led us to East Africa. We sang with the songs, recited the lines, and clapped hard at the end. But when we left the classroom and walked out under the real stars, I was glad I was able to stop watching it and look around.