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My African diplomatic Safari

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Might I tell you that, in the foreign service, those who are assigned to North America or Europe would rarely want a transfer elsewhere; some of them have even obtained green cards for residence in the United States or Canada. I had also a tour of duty in each of the two regions; but my wish was to retire in East Africa.

I was lucky to be posted in Nairobi, Kenya, a most exciting place of a lifetime, concurrently accredited to 10 other East African states. I was amazed at the spectacular natural attractions of the region, such as Kenya (Masai Mara), Tanzania (Mt. Kilimanjaro), Uganda (Lake Victoria), Ethiopia (Rift Valley), Madagascar (rare flora and fauna), Seychelles (most beautiful beaches on this planet), Somalia (where “fish die of old age”).

When it was first reported that there was snow in East Africa, London laughed, noting that the region straddled the equator. But indeed, there is snow in Mt. Kenya. Mt. Kilimanjaro (I almost reached its summit) and the mountain peaks of Ethiopia and Uganda are snowcapped. Ethiopia is traditionally dubbed “Switzerland of Africa.” Winston Churchill called Uganda (whose impenetrable Rwenzori forests house dwindling gorillas) the “Pearl of Africa.” The waters of Uganda-Ethiopia sustain the river Nile, the longest on Earth.

Between Kenya and Tanzania is an Eden. Masai Mara-Serengeti wildlife parks, together with volcanic Ngorongoro (where the Neanderthal man used to walk) and Lake Victoria (world’s second largest), are among the best safari destinations in the globe. It is an ecosystem, a symbiosis, a biodiversity. It is an immense theater of movements, sounds and scents. Limitless plains are crowded by countless members of the animal kingdom unceasingly regulated by predators. It is primal Africa at its ancient roots.

When our daughter from England visited us, we brought her to the area; she was simply overwhelmed by the sights—herds of wildebeests, elephants, buffalos; gazelles seemingly dancing in flight; lions relaxing on branches of a tree; endangered rhinos and leopards; endless savannas; glorious sunset; and sounds—shrieking monkeys; concerts of cicadas; debates of frogs at night; roaring lions; snorting hippopotamuses; laughing hyenas. She could not believe that food in safaris tasted better than those in cities.

They woke us up in the tent one early morning, to join a game tour to shoot animals (with our cameras) and to witness a “kill” or two. Three vehicles left the Masai Mara game reserve camp to a place where beasts foraged under the trees, in the bush, on the grasslands. What an awesome, boundless zoo in God’s creation! Suddenly, there was commotion among the antelopes. A cheetah (the fastest animal around) running after a gazelle unfolded before our eyes. After some twists and turns, speed and muscle prevailed. Whatever was left of the carcass was cleaned off by hyenas and vultures.

East of that Eden is Nairobi, itself host to wildlife. At the outskirts of the city, there is an open zoo where impalas, giraffes, zebras roam around freely. The embassy residence is regularly raided by baboons helping themselves with liquor from the bar. And Kenya is an ornithological paradise. Many trees are laden with more nests than fruits. White, yes white crows, laze under the sun along the road. Shallow lakes (Naivasha) are covered with flamingoes, blocking, in flight, sun rays for miles.

Birds come in and out of the residence from dawn till dusk. Hawks or eagles wait in the wings while barbecue is prepared in the garden. It is pure delight watching birds of various sizes and colors bathe, drink and bask under the sun in a special birdbath near the swimming pool all day long.

While UN night meetings are normally serenaded by these feathered guests to the amusement of delegates, birds could stall diplomatic functions. I vividly recall the national day reception of the Swedish ambassador. Bird sounds were audible at the start of the program. When the ambassador began his remarks, nocturnal birds competed with him and the cacophony of bird noise became intolerable. The speech was stopped. Laughter, then champagne followed.

The birds of Nairobi make me remember columnist Juan Mercado stressing UP dean Discorro Umali’s words of sadness: “Your children would no longer thrill, as we did, to the heart-stopping dive of a hawk.” As a boy in a small coastal town at the foot of the Sierra Madre, I would lie down under a shady tree and, mesmerized, would watch an “air show” of birds, mostly hawks, in the blue sky of our barrio by the sea.

I smile reminiscing that being received by heads of state in Africa is always a memorable experience—an honor, a joy and a challenge: The ambassador presents his credentials on top of a chilly mountain city (Addis Ababa), or in a balmy seaside town (Dar es Salaam), or inside a cool forest (Kampala). He does not get his agrément before his recall (Malawi), or because of a civil strife (Rwanda). He has to do “goose step” with the presidential troop (Eritrea), or wait for a full week in pristine beaches (Seychelles) for his return flight to Nairobi.

It has been some years now since I slipped out of Africa. My heart still yearns for Seychelles; I could have retired in that Shangri-la in the Indian Ocean but for the meager GSIS benefits.

I could then realize a simple wish that before I make my final journey in life, I could pay homage to Masai Mara-Serengeti, and witness, once more, “the greatest show on Earth”—that migration of millions of wildebeests, gazelles, zebras, joined by buffalos, giraffes, lions, cheetahs, hyenas along the way, from Kenya to Tanzania, and back—following the rains.

Nelson D. Laviña, retired, was ambassador to East African states, and permanent representative in Nairobi to the UN Environment Program and UN Habitat from 1994 to 1997.

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