One World: The Kenya-Kansas Connection
Growing up in Kansas, I learned something that few people know. Kansas is the center of the universe. Those who have not had the experience of living in Kansas may scoff at this contention, but they just don’t know. The center is the point that is equidistant from all points, and that was definitely Kansas. It was equidistant from everything: very far.
We were out in the middle of the continental United States, smack dab in the center. Everything was far: New York was hopelessly remote on the east coast. California was just as far to the west. The Gulf of Mexico, the nearest ocean, was impossibly far to the south.
Other places that populated my imagination: London, Paris, Rome, China, Africa, were even more remote. Nothing was anywhere near.
To be fair, Kansas was not actually remote from everything. It was near Nebraska. It was near Missouri. From my home town of Topeka, you could reach Colorado after a long day’s drive across the featureless, desolate Great Plains of Western Kansas. Denver was only 500 miles or so from Topeka. Those are the great distances out there in the American Outback.
Nothing was close. Nothing I cared about seeing could be reached. Travel would have to remain an activity of the imagination for many many years.
Finally as an adult I started getting around a little. I saw a few places. I did make it to New York, California. I even crossed the border to Mexico. When I made it across the border to Canada I was exhilarated. The dimensions of my world were vastly expanded.
Years later I even made it to Europe. Imagine my sense of triumph! The world was becoming my basketball. It was becoming so small I had to be careful not to roll off. Then finally I made it to Africa. Wow! Now I could really call myself a world traveler. It made my head swell until it was practically as big as the basketball.
I remember my first sense of getting settled in Kenya. After a long plane trip that took us through Europe, but kept us enclosed in an aluminum tube so we couldn’t see it, we arrived in Nairobi. From there we traveled by van to Amboseli National Park. We pulled up to a game lodge, I was assigned a cabin and I went into it and stashed my bags. Then unburdened, I took my first stroll in Africa.
It was nothing like what I expected. Practically all I knew of Africa was from movies: steaming hot jungles, Tarzan swinging on vines through towering trees.
It wasn’t like that at all.
First off, it wasn’t hot. Kenya is on the equator. It’s in Africa. I had every reason to expect it to be steaming hot. But it was not. At the game parks we were at high altitude, and the altitude moderates the temperature.
This was no jungle! It was the High Plains.
That’s funny, I thought. That’s what they called the part of Kansas back where I grew up.
While I was digesting that little fact I noticed that there was something familiar about the grass outside my cabin. It wasn’t the kind of soft green grass that caresses your bare feet as you walk through the park. It was gnarly, part green part yellowish brown, knotted and tangled and prickly on bare feet. If you tried to lie down on it, you would not be comfortable.
It was, in fact, identical to the grass on my lawn growing up in Kansas. Back there we called it Bermuda Grass. But it was the same. I grew up with it. You don’t forget something like that. I hadn’t seen it since I left Kansas.
Hi, old friend, what a surprise to find you here! Only I never had felt that friendly towards Bermuda Grass. It wasn’t friendly grass. It was tough and hard. Still, when you run into an old acquaintance so far from home, you at least want to say hello.
Meanwhile, there I was in Kenya, the most remote from Kansas I had ever been. Wow! Wasn’t I really the world traveler now, I thought, quite pleased with myself.
But what was that smell? There was something familiar in the air, something that was sparking off electrodes deep in my memory bank. There is nothing like smells to evoke the deepest nostalgic memories. What was it?
The atmosphere was a rich blend of aromas. I could smell grasses and weeds, dusty earth and animal smells. But the combination of smells was not new to me. It was a very old smell to me, kicking up early memories.
The scent reminded me of my grandfather’s farm in Kansas where I spent countless hours as a youth. In the distance I could see the animals I was smelling: zebras and buffalo. Back at my grandfather’s farm it had been horses and cows. The zebras smelled like horses. And the buffalo were relatives of the cows back home and the smell was almost the same.
What a joke on me! I had been so pleased with myself. Here I was, I finally made it to Africa, the most remote place I had ever reached, and now the universe seemed to be having a laugh at my expense.
It was actually more like Kansas than anywhere I had ever been since I left Kansas. So much for my conceit as a world traveler. The world was cutting me down to size. I thought I was going farther away from home than I had ever been, and instead I found myself in a place that felt like being back home.
It helped me to see the difference between the human perspective and the natural perspective. We humans are funny creatures. Our maps show the world divided into parcels. We build up our concept of the world piece by piece by combining those parcels. There is England, there is France. If you combine them with Germany and Spain and Italy and a few more parcels you get Europe. That’s how we see the world. That’s the way our maps picture it.
We erect fences and walls and draw boundaries. But from the perspective of nature those boundaries are imaginary. From a view from outer space they disappear and we see one earth.
So that was the unexpected lesson I received on my first trip to Africa. We humans may draw boundaries and divide everything into pieces. But it’s all God’s earth.
More by David Cogswell
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