I’ve been fortunate to make some short but inspiring friendships with people whom I often never see again. Some of those friendships grew out of adverse situations, as the letter below indicates. But regardless of the time frame, anyone who travels out of our ordinary geographic and cultural boundaries knows that unique perspectives and attitudes can subtly alter your personality and life course.
We hired a Park Ranger to be our safari guide in our rented Jeep through Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya. His name was Moses, a calm, quiet, knowledgeable native who was incredibly patient with our desires for as much time as possible whenever the light and wildlife were cooperating. On the last night of our multi-day tour full of terrific wildlife experiences, he generously let us stay in his Ranger quarters in the gated compound.
The next morning, he woke me up and asked if I had left the door open on the Range Rover. I said no, and instantly remembered that I had left my photo hip-bag in the car. The bag, consisting of a Nikon camera, a zoom lens and 2 bricks of film — 40 rolls total — was nowhere to be seen. Gone. Stolen.
At his request, I filed a report to the police. They began an investigation that lasted several days. According to police policy, the nearest witness had to be questioned and imprisoned until they could gather all the evidence and find the guilty person(s). That happened to be Moses, my guide. I objected strenuously, but Moses told me he didn’t mind. He was jailed for 3 days, away from his wife and family, treated like a criminal. Despite my continued objections and threats to report this to higher authorities, the local police insisted they keep him in jail. We just had to wait in camp till they finished their investigation.
Playing “bottlecap checkers” with the rangers while waiting for the police.
Two days later, my bag was found, buried in mud under a nearby bridge. The investigation continued another day until they found the thief, which happened to be another ranger. Moses told me, in a subdued, non-aggressive tone, that this ranger was known to be the jealous type. He felt the ranger was trying to get him in trouble, rather than trying to make money from the camera equipment (though I can’t help but think if there was cash in the bag, it would have been taken).
Fortunately, the camera and lens still worked, and the film — both exposed and unexposed rolls — was fine. Moses was released, holding no hard feelings toward anyone. He is a humble man with a compassionate demeanor, even when caught within a system that has primitive rules of which I do not understand nor agree.
We continued our photo tour, had beautiful experiences and took iconic photographs. Whether he meant to or not, his kind demeanor, humility under stress, and respect towards myself and anyone he met, including the police who imprisoned him, made a lifelong impression on me. I have tapped his memory numerous times when confronted with adversity under pressure, and the strength of his passive communication has never failed to develop respect and compliance in personal and professional situations.
His letter below arrived a few weeks after I returned home. Though almost 30 years old now and faded a bit, the strength of his gentle honesty still touches me, especially in stark contrast to the culture in which he lives and the occupation he has chosen.
Moses Sairowua Maasai Mara Game Reserve P.O.Box 60 Narok, Kenya
20th December 1991
It is of great pleasure to have these time and say “Jambo” to you. It is really touching to have you here in Maasai Mara for the few days you have stayed with me. I am really missing you very much. Not because of problems or anything, but it is because of that friendly attachments.
We have with my family, we are very okay inspite of a prolonged drought which is punctuated with a whirlwind, which sometimes calls for rain. Concerning the case of the camera, already we have gone to the court, and the case was handed over to the Body which has employed us, that is the Narok County Council, and since yet, the action that was taken was that the man whom was a prime suspect was demoted to a mere ranger, whom before was a “Coblo”, a rank that was almost to a warden.
To my side, there was no action that was taken. But still we are looking forward to receive more information. But from the reliable sources, which sometimes may be rumours, the case may be later taken to Court, but if that will happen, I will inform you later.
For that much I wish you a nice time, hoping to receive much from you in the near future. Have a nice (?) and a happy Christmas.
Moses reaffirmed for me a fundamental belief – we are all the same. We’re all searching for fundamental questions about life. Our cultural and personal baggage restricts our views, like driving with one headlight on a foggy night. The relationships and perspectives we can experience across language and cultural “barriers” can be as valuable and liberating as those in our own neighborhoods.
I’ve come to look at these “barriers” not as walls but as winding trails, negotiated together to a point where there are unrestricted views of “both sides”. Those other sides have landscapes and challenges just like our own. Our assumptions and prejudices often keep us from believing that the walk is worth the effort, or that the “other side” has anything worth seeing.
Cultural divisions in the world are two sides of the same humanity in all of us. We don’t have to agree with all the laws, religions or cultural “norms” of different countries. But the world can become much less confrontational if we realize our fears and interact with a baseline of openness toward others.
I learned to have a little patience when things make a wrong turn for the moment. There may be an unexpected bonus as a reward. I wouldn’t have experienced the deeper level of this African native’s personality had it not been for a stolen camera bag.
There may be someone on the other side of the world happy to share with you their ways of responding to the world’s ups and downs. Being open and accepting of cultural differences (providing they are not hurting others) has also been linked to becoming a more creative person. Harvard professor Adam Galinsky has done research on the relationship between diversity and creativity. In an NPR interview on Hidden Brain, has said that “There’s something about deeply understanding and learning about another culture that’s transformative”.
The article went on to say that “In one study, Adam and his colleagues tracked business school students during a 10-month MBA program. They tested the students using standard creativity measures at the beginning and end of the school term. They found that students who’d dated someone from another country during the term became more creative. In another study, Adam found that even the simple act of reflecting on one’s deep relationship with a person from another country caused a temporary boost in creativity.”
It seems that the more open we are to other cultures, especially in times of stress or unpredictable outcomes, the more our minds seem to “pick up the ball” and find ways to be positive and creative about solutions. Granted, this is a lot to infer from my experience (temporarily) losing a camera bag. But insights can happen even in the most mundane or minute moments if we are open to them.
When bad things happen, there are a lot of ways to react. Each option or nuance can lead to a different cascade of events and reactions from others. Being accusatory or pissed off usually doesn’t accomplish much, other than the pleasure of venting. Often, I’ve seen people too intent on “flaunting their assertiveness”, thinking that a little aggressive confidence might speed things along in their direction. There may be times when this might work, depending the degree of emotional force. But, especially in a foreign country, I’ve found that most of the time, this tactic usually just breeds contempt.
Acting with a little reserve and patience often yields surprising results. A little social grace usually greases the wheels more than angry demands.
Ron Levy’s images have been published internationally for over 3 decades, including exhibitions in museums and galleries in the US, Europe and Asia. He has been a photography instructor at the University of Alaska, and provides assistance to agencies and NGOs specializing in health and conservation issues worldwide. He has also guided hundreds of travelers on nature, photo and historical excursions in Alaska, California, Arizona and Ecuador over the last 35 years.