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  • Day 1

    I am writing in the air, an hour away from Nairobi. An hour away from home. That’s where it feels like I’m going. Just as Bwana David Gakure said it would. Looking out the window, I can see the clouds resting low over the land—somewhere above the Ugandan border—while the darkness settles in among them. Off in the distance, a lightning bold strikes and illuminates the ever-starring sky. Even African lightning looks more beautiful than the American kind. My mom and I have gone from night to morning to evening again within 18 hours. None of it has been disorienting. The flight to Amsterdam was easy, and the flight to Nairobi was only a third full, so while everyone re-distributed to the window seats, I somehow, already half-asleep, just stretched out across an entire middle row, with one seat left for my mom. I’ve managed to impress her with the number of hours I can sleep straight through. She only woke me once to eat, afraid that 10 hours was too long to go without food in my “tummy.” I told her I was okay—that I had bought (and subsequently eaten) a Dutch chocolate croissant during my exploration of the Amsterdam airport, but that only seemed to make her worry more, and she insisted (demanded) I eat the fruit and vegetables on my airplane tray.

    Once a mom, always a mom.

    While she falls back into motherly duties, as if I have never lived off on my own or been to Africa once before, I watch her with fond amusement as she figures out how to read ebooks from her iPhone and select movies on her own personal seat screen. She is completely enthralled that one can download etickets to a smartphone and use them to breeze through the airport without worrying about the printing or shuffling of paper copies. I was afraid this trip might be a particularly long or difficult one for her. It’s funny how, when you’re little, you struggle just to stay awake for as long as your mom does (I hated naptime), and then, as you grow up, you realize how hard she did and does work, and then you begin to actively worry about HER being tired or worn out or needing a rest. But she shows no signs of fatigue, and I think she is hooked on episodes of "Downton Abbey" and considering watching "Life of Pi" for the second time. I couldn’t deal with "Life of Pi," given the circumstances involving a zebra (Brad, thank goodness "Silver Linings Playbook" was playing that one night).

    Amsterdam is just as I remember. Low and flat and green, with channels full of shimmering gray-blue water. Even from up above, you can tell the cows have it nice there and none of them are in too big of a hurry. I cannot say I blame them, with all that lush green grass. My mom and I tried to remember how far VDL Stud was from the airport. Amsterdam will always feel familiar, as it is the birthplace of many of the horses I’ve been lucky enough to ride. It’s home to Safari’s sire and grandsire, Good Times and Nimmerdor. Perhaps Rivaldo’s parents, too. This land quite literally grew my horses, and to it, I will forever be grateful and in debt.

    Kenya is now closer than it has ever been for six years. I was afraid I’d be inclined to run up and down the airplane aisles, yelling, “We’re almost there! We’re almost there!” or even put my headlamp on strobe (yes, it does, in fact, have a strobe setting), stream Pandora, and host an in-flight dance party in celebration of our arrival. Honestly, the stewards are pretty chill. They even brought out the ice cream dessert I had missed while I was sleeping (I must just LOOK like I require chocolate every other hour), so I think they’d be down. But I don’t feel like running or dancing. I feel becalmed. For the first time in six years, I’m not restless. I DO feel like I’m headed home. Everything feels familiar. For heaven’s sake, I SLEPT. For a long time. And most of my friends will know that is quite a miracle.

    For weeks, I’ve been able to taste the Kenyan air and feel its breezes. Hear the sounds of the city and the bush. It’s been a rhythm inside me that has paced my heart and streamed my blood. April in Michigan was cold, and while its later days finally brought spring, green grass, and have awakened all the wildlife, I found myself staring off into the west at dark, thinking of Montana and wishing for mountains to get me through this final stretch of waiting, and then turning to the east, dreaming of Africa. Feeling of Africa, and therefore, out-of-place in snow and unable to truly appreciate pure Michigan, as beautiful as I know it to be. Perhaps, my zebra, Sura, and I aren't that different from each other.

    I think Africa must have always been in my blood. When I stopped by my parents’ house to grab my old Africa gear a couple days before our departure, I opened the door to my old room, found what I was looking for, and then stopped and looked up. I was in a giraffe tent. Yes, a giraffe tent. That’s where I guess I decided to house all my Africa stuff. I mean, of course, it is. A giraffe tent makes perfect sense to put anything, whether you are twelve or nineteen or twenty-five. And all around on my old walls, are pictures of chimpanzees (and sooo many horses, of course), Masai guarding their cattle, there is a faux-bamboo covered ceiling, which reminded me of the richly adorned South African huts I had once seen, and a warm, rich-yellow wall—a paint I hand-picked (and painted) to match the color of the land when the sun rises over the Kafue River in Zambia.

    When I was fourteen, I named my VDL-bred, fiery chestnut Belgian mare “Safari.” I had the name picked out before we left Amsterdam. Her coat was, and still is, such a vibrant orange-red, and somehow, I just pictured the red dirt roads of Kenya and Ethiopia, which I had never seen in person (unless watching “The Lion King” counts?).

    Later, I found out “safari” was Swahili for “journey” or “adventure,” and anyone who knows Safari knows riding her is always an adventure. A rather daring one, so it’s perfect. My first time in Africa was six years ago, with my good friend, Sophie. We found ourselves in the Zambian bush to work with chimpanzees for part of the summer. The local Bembans struck me as the kindest, warmest people I had ever met, and after talking to them about the world and education and their ways of life, I knew, without thinking it, that Africa was part of my destiny. I do not remember the exact day, or even the time, but I was outside on a sunny Zambian afternoon. The chimpanzees had just been fed, so it was quiet on the reserve. I cradled Dominic, the baby chimp who had been in our charges, as I thought about the conversations I had with the Bembans, and the breeze brought this sweet scent of a native yellow flower that grew all around. It was then that I knew I’d found an actual place in the world. Before Africa, the only place that felt just right (and always will) was on the back of a horse. It was a single moment of knowing nothing and everything. It was a single moment of knowing that the journey and process in making this complete change in plans/life/direction would not be easy, yet, I never felt more sure of anything in my life, and I knew that whenever I got lost or discouraged or stuck along the way, if I just followed the horizon/my heart back to here—to Africa—to re-orient, I’d be okay, and all would be well. And it has been.

    Upon our return from that summer trip, Swahili soon became a language I would learn to speak and wanting to learn it so desperately led me to meet the greatest professor I have ever known, Mwalimu Nanji, of Cornell University. He single-handedly brought me round to the direction--the homeland of Kenya and Eastern Africa--in which I would later map out the rest of my academic career to facilitate: to begin schools here, or at least try.

    Well, I have to go now…we’re thirty minutes away from landing. How do I know? The steward just said it over the intercom. In Swahili. And I understood.

    I’m not sure I’ve been prouder to understand anything in my entire life.

    Kwa heri, marafiki yangu.
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