GUARD DUTY: Land of the Free


I went on safari in Kenya and Tanzania recently. Not a real safari, mind you. The only things we shot were pictures. I went to see the animals. And they’re there. By the thousands, in all their natural glory that is, unrestrained.

They live on massive game reserves, from Samburu in the north of Kenya, down south through Masai Mara and into Tanzania, home of Mt. Kilimanjaro and the vast Serengeti Plain.

This is where the great migration takes place. It involves some two million wildebeests and zebras that make the great circular trek across a territory the size of Montana. They travel together because the wildebeests can smell the water and the zebras can smell the lions.

We visited five parks and everywhere we went the animals were in beautiful condition. When asked about this our guide explained that predators kill off the weak and sick, the careless and unlucky. In fact, the lions, leopards and cheetahs pick off some 300,000 wildebeests and zebras every year – the zebras and wildebeests respond by giving birth to more than 300,000 offspring the next year.

The Kenyans and Tanzanians let all this unfold. Contrary to our best instincts, perhaps, they make no attempt to manage the herds or inhibit the predators; to tag, or track, or protect any animal. They build no fences and file no reports. They know any attempt to tamper with the natural order of things will quickly put it out of balance. The citizens of these two nations are well aware they possess one of the most valuable natural resources left on the planet. They’re smart enough to leave it alone.

So what you see on safari is Mother Nature in all her raging glory. What you see is survival of the fittest, the constant battle to eat and keep from being eaten, and the sacrifice by some so that others might go on.

It is a lesson about freedom. About what it takes to keep it.

The Masai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya is the ancestral land of the Maasai people. They have been here for thousands of years. They are free to build their 79-odd villages anywhere they want. The government makes no laws concerning them. They pay no taxes and expect nothing from outsiders. They live in stick huts smeared with dung. They corral their animals behind thorny bush walls, and craft whatever they need from the environment. They have six basic medicines and never consult anyone but their tribal “doctor.”

They own no digital appliances, no modern conveniences of any kind, not so much as a scrub brush. The machetes they carry are very sharp. They make beaded jewelry for sale to tourists and share the income communally.

I asked the chief’s son on our visit how they maintained tribal unity since communication between the far flung villages was necessarily scant. He said through celebrations mostly. He also explained that bonding begins early in one special way. When young men come of age – as many as a hundred at once representing almost every village – they set out together to slay a lion. They bond by living in the wilderness for a year or more. They hunt with spears.

Typically as many as fifteen of every hundred boys don’t return. The lion doesn’t die without a fight. More challenging than tying knots for a Boy Scout Merit Badge, as a comparison.

While none of us would likely sacrifice our comfortable lives for the tough existence of being a Maasai, I can assure you these are happy, content people. And it’s not a just matter of not missing what you never had. The Maasai are not unlike the animals, they need to be free in order to survive. They don’t want TVs and iPads and Internet friends. They don’t want the control that comes with them. They have their own government, thank you. And the women have the right to vote.

I went to Africa to see the magnificent wildlife but what I saw most clearly was freedom in action. As we put some miles on our new hats and cargo shorts, constraints on us gradually fell away, too. We were beyond all networked communications; I didn’t see a single digital screen. No one inspected or tagged our luggage. No one asked us for our passports. There was no TSA, no intrusive body scan. At several stops, there were no airports, nor co-pilots up front. It was just hop on the plane and hope for a smooth flight.

In Africa, I was reminded of the skills and sacrifices required to live a truly free life. It’s a lesson worth the trip. As playwright Henrik Ibsen put it, “Never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom.”

Rick Roberts ( is a veteran of Boston’s advertising community and the U.S. Army. He lives in Windham. He is author of two books: I Was Much Happier When Everything I Owned Was In The Back Seat Of My Volkswagen, and the recent novel, Digital Darling. Both are available at bookstores,, or visit: