By Tim Caldwell
When first invited to visit the World Dental Clinic located on Maasai Mara tribal lands outside of Nairobi, Kenya, I was excited to make the trip but apprehensive about how I could contribute. The opportunity came about through the efforts of my wife Carla and her facilitation of the dental organization’s succession planning retreat in Anchorage last year. Reassured that there was plenty to do, even for non-dental persons, we tagged along.
Getting there was half the fun. Seattle to Nairobi was the usual long flight layover type travel one would expect, but from Nairobi to the dental clinic was not your usual jaunt. The drive out of the city was similar to any big city gridlock but when you need to exchange vehicles for the final leg of the journey you know you’ve reached the frontier.
The meandering road changed direction, depth, width, and ruggedness regularly making the passengers involuntarily swap seats on the really big jolts. It seemed like the road was merely painted on the terrain and hard rains led to the creation of new roads painted “outside the lines.” Regardless of the jostling, the passing view was spectacular. The expanse of open land, the great distances between villages and small farms, made it mystifying to see people, in some cases, very young people, walking along, alone, carrying only a stick.
The stick was to shoo away the animals, and not your barnyard variety but the kind one only encounters at a zoo. By the time we completed the six-hour drive from the city to the clinic, there was a feeling among the passengers of both excitement and trepidation. Our new surroundings made it clear that for newcomers, one’s individuality and independence was limited to the electric fence, the assistance of the local staff, and the length of your stick.
The confines of the compound helped to keep the volunteers focused on the reason for making the trip…to serve the Maasai. The dentists and dental techs saw patients from dawn to dusk, cleaning teeth (the locals call it “washing teeth”) or performing tooth extractions. For those of us without dental credentials our task was to clean, prep, and paint the apartments and clinic for those who follow. In my case, the job was made more enjoyable because I had the opportunity to work and learn from a professional painter who also happened to be, like me, an avid historian. Nothing makes the work day fly by faster than listening to a pod cast on the origins of World War I!
The end of the work day was always the same. Beautiful star filled evenings by an open fire with uplifting music, a cool beverage, and interesting conversations. All this took place at the wonderful lodge adjacent to the dental clinic. The Siana Springs Tented Camp compliments the clinic with its glamping sites, open dining area with its large fire pit, and hospitable grounds one gets used to sharing with baboons and monkeys. In addition to the interesting work, and idyllic evenings, there is the safari! Like most things we witnessed in Africa, it exceeded expectations.
Our safari started as soon as we departed the clinic grounds where we encountered a few elephants crunching through the Acacia. When we reached our destination we were one Range Rover among many traversing the National Park in search of the big five: elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos, and cheetahs. Along with most of the Range Rovers in the park, we watched five cheetahs who were lounging at the side of the road saunter down the slope towards a mixed herd of zebras, antelope, and gazelles. We marveled at the way the cheetahs spread out as they slowly approached their prey. As the cats closed in it seemed everyone was anticipating a great burst of speed from the cheetahs but it came from the herd first. To witness hundreds of animals take flight and run full out for over a mile simply takes your breath away. The cheetahs didn’t bother to pursue. When we asked our guide and clinic staff member, William if the hunt was over for the day he replied, “Oh no, they’ll eat before the day ends.”
We broke away from the herd of Range Rovers and went looking for lions. We found a small pride resting in thick brush and drove in close in an attempt to take an “up close and personal” photo when we discovered a couple of hundred Cape buffalo slowly closing in around us to shoo the lions from their turf. As I sat stupefied in wonder, my co-history buff was on top of the vehicle trying to get a National Geographic award winning photo, when Robert advised him he was fast changing from a photographer to lunch and to get back inside the vehicle. At that moment two male lions leapt out and scattered the buffalo. Within moments the buffalo regrouped and tentatively made their way back towards the lions. This time they flushed the lions and left us all in wonderment. When asked if he had ever witnessed this, William said, “I’ve never seen that before.” It was then I realized just how special this place was when a local was saying the same thing I had been saying since we arrived.