The Column | Confronting fears in Tanzania amid roaming beasts

Playing into old stereotypes, one of my friends delights in teasing more adventurous Jews with the following litany “Jews don’t ski. Jews don’t hike. Jews don’t camp.”

“If that were the case,” I quipped, “we’d still be in Egypt.”

Of course, Jews do all those things, even though some of us came from families that went berserk over skinned knees.

Chances are, that friend would have ribbed me before my recent safari in Tanzania, and my late parents would have issued multiple warnings, like don’t drink the tap water — as if! We were in areas where there were no taps.

But ever since I read the 1995 Jewish Bulletin story about a Marin woman who was mauled by a hyena in her tent in Kenya, I harbored a few qualms myself.

Although I had received pills for malaria and shots for typhoid, polio, yellow fever and hepatitis A and B, there is no immunization for angst. Not only was I terrified of hyenas, but of open-mouthed crocodiles waiting for wandering wildebeests, elephants trampling Land Rovers and lions lurking outside my tent.

Fears ran deep in my psyche. When I was a little kid, I was deathly afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, thinking he could crawl up the fire escape into my bedroom window, and if a friend played the “Peter and the Wolf” record, I would run out of the room before the wolf devoured the duck.

But I have spent my journalistic career confronting my fears, traveling to Israel during the height of the second intifada, scaling a rocky cliff for an assignment and even witnessing a cremation.

In that spirit, when my husband and three of his Peace Corps buddies from the 1960s decided to return to Tanzania in May, I agreed to join them. After all, the Ba’al Shem Tov commanded us to get out into nature and be joyful, and this was a golden opportunity. Besides, to kvetch may be human, but it is hardly divine.

Our group of seven debarked at Kilimanjaro International Airport, shelled out two crisp $50 bills each for visas and checked into a tropical lodge, where I dined on tasty chicken in coconut sauce.

Was this a reassuring prelude to ominous encounters of the mammalian kind? Would a crazed bull elephant in musth (testosterone overload) later cross our path? Would lions and hyenas prowl outside my tent at night, eager to get their paws on my stash of chocolate, or worse?

The next morning, Douglas Simbeye, our guide with Dorobo Safaris, said we would focus not just on wildlife and scenery, but on Tanzania’s diverse cultures and its concerns. Our first stop was Light in Africa, where we hugged small children whose parents had succumbed to AIDS.

As our journey continued, we visited a Masai family enclave of 11 children and sat in a dark mud hut with the woman of the house, one of three wives. We went on a bush walk with Watuni and Kiaro, Masai warriors who carried spears and cellphones, and their buddy Toroye, a former hunter-gatherer. We walked silently, and were told to freeze if Douglas held his hand up, indicating danger.

The dangers lay elsewhere: raging Homo sapiens. Not far from our camp, a United Arab Emirates–based corporation has built a lodge and a private airstrip so sheikhs and their invited guests can fly in to shoot lions with rifles because they have purchased that right from the Tanzanian government. On the same land, Toroye is forbidden to shoot game with a bow and arrow, and the Masai have battled to graze cattle on land they consider theirs.

Over the course of 15 days, my irrational fears slowly dissipated. On my last night in Tanzania, I heard a lioness outside our tent and, later, a howling hyena. Smiling, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

But serious concerns now threaten to keep me awake: trophy seekers, not to mention trappers who sell these animals to zoos and circuses. That reeks of slavery, and we’ve had that experience in Africa.

As I left Tanzania, I was proud of another thing that Jews, by tradition, don’t do: Jews don’t hunt for sport.


Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].