This is Part 9 of a multi-part essay that chronicles Tembea Na Mimi, a walk across Kenya.
At 15, Yogesh’s path to self-determination is just beginning, and already he’s proven himself fearless among warriors and wise among elders. On the last day of walking he was barefoot, an indication of his devotion to every contour and edge the ground contained. It was now sacred ground, his journey across it was complete, and his wisdom was won. Why not risk a little injury and pain in the final steps? The impact seemed only to make him stronger, as all good adventures do, allowing him to harness the power of danger and exertion and transform it into strength and character. This was a rite of passage, a hero’s journey, a deliberate plunge into the unknown, and he had arrived on the other side unscathed, a man among men.
Joseph Campbell describes the “Hero’s Journey” as being a cyclical path to higher consciousness. It’s a cycle that begins with a call to adventure and culminates in the metaphorical death and rebirth of the self. And with that rebirth comes a responsibility to lead and share the wisdom learned from your ordeal. In the Maasai culture for a boy to become a man he must live apart from his community for 4 months and then kill a lion with only a knife and spear. The risk of failure is great, but risk is a fundamental element of the equation. Without it, there is no ordeal, there is no transformation of self, no passage to manhood, and no wisdom to impart.
On adventures like these, much of the take-away wisdom rises from winning an internal battle. You fight against fatigue and the weedy-brain thinking that nags you to stop walking, tells you that you’re hot, that your feet hurt, you’re hungry, your legs are chafing, and your pack is uncomfortable. Winning those battles is a mental game, as you project thoughts into the near future and imagine the balm of completion. Or it’s a game of the heart, the internal strength found through compassion, keenly observing the dire needs of the peasants whom you pass, reflecting on problems, solutions and feeling grateful, perhaps guilty for your status in life. The wisdom gleaned from those internal victories of heart and mind is our goal, because even the oldest among us desires new wisdom and the time to share it.
Yogesh led the group whenever he wanted, proving that his endurance matched or exceeded the best efforts of his elders. As he walked with real warriors, not just westerners with soldier hearts, but real warriors – men from cultures where they are trained to defend land, livestock and community from their very first steps, and to fight and die with honor – he pondered this world, a world where he could study robotics in Virginia while his age-mates fought lions in Kenya to become men.
And so, from day one he studied them, our guides, Turkana and Samburu tribesman. He determined that the grace and efficiency of their walk allowed them to walk faster and further. He practiced and modeled his walk after theirs, conserving energy with a fluid stride. He marveled at James, our Maasai guide, who with keen vision and a textbook knowledge of wildlife, could identify elephants and lions hidden in the vast and tangled landscapes. Yogesh practiced seeing, scanning the land, striving to spot an animal before James, with occasional success. When there was no risk of rain, he escaped the confines of his tent and slept under the open sky like our guides, star-gazing while drifting off to sleep. Instead of wearing trousers, our guides wore “kikoys”, colorfully patterned cloth wrapped around the waist like a skirt, hanging down to the knees, allowing for freedom of movement and a bit of ventilation. Yogesh had a towel that was large enough to function as a proper kikoy. At camp in the evenings, he wore it proudly, testing for truth and finding it.
With a group such as ours, a cadre of westerners on safari in the African bush, the heart of the group is the guides. Yogesh was one of the first who made the leap from being mere walker to beating with this heart. Without our guides we would not have reached our destination; we could very well have died. Our guides are the ones who slept in shifts and chased lions from camp with a bullwhip while we dreamed of hamburgers. They are the ones who wrestled sick camels to the ground to inject them with antibiotics while we nursed our blistered toes. They are the ones who loaded our gear on bad-tempered camels while we stretched sore muscles and worried about dirty water. They are the ones who sang to the camels to soothe their tired and petulant souls, coaxing them forward with love, while we ambled without responsibility. They are the ones who outmaneuvered thieves who sought to pilfer our goods, moving us into a defensive position under the cover of darkness, while we grumbled at the nuisance of moving our tents. And they are the ones who prepared our meals and gathered our water while we sipped Tusker’s and Reds, canned nectar of the Wazungu tribe. Yogesh resided right in this central core, helping as much as he could, hoping their strength and wisdom would rub off on him, which it did in abundance.
In his time with the guides, he learned to work the camels, lead them, load and unload their packs. He learned Swahili words and phrases, and what life was like as a young man in Kenya. One night, after all other walkers had gone to bed, one of our guides taught Yogesh to sew, and helped him mend his broken shoes. While immersed in needlework and while the rest of us slept, Yogesh learned how to laugh in Turkana.
The guides affectionately called him “Yogurt,” which he didn’t mind because he knew it was spoken with fondness. After all, he had entered their inner circle and had found brothers. When Helena called him “Yogurt”, however, he prickled, sensing something different, like a sister teasing a brother. Nicknames seem to either mock or express endearment, and there was nothing mock-worthy of Yogesh, but he sure was fun to tease.
David once referred to him as the “man-cub”, and I laughed and immediately thought about Mowgli, from Kipling’s The Jungle Book. With the best of intentions and the fondest associations, I turned to Yogesh and screamed, “Mowgli, you’re Mowgli!’ And then I paused and considered the soft bigotry of my remark and in a rush of guilt, I apologized. But the connection is much more profound than the fact that both Yogesh and Mowgli hail from India. The bigger revelation for me was the parallels in their characters: Mowgli, the man-cub, the boy raised by wolves, who would rather face a tiger in battle than be spoiled by the comforts of mankind. Fearless in the face of danger, seeing freedom in the wild, he wanted to fight with bears, dance with monkeys, howl like a wolf, and climb trees like a panther. He was too smart to be fooled into the coils of Kaa, the hypnotic python. I saw that same fearlessness, that same energy and preference for the wild in Yogesh. In the end, Mowgli was seduced and tamed by the promise of love . . . the best exit plan for all heroes, I suppose, and the reason we were on this adventure together.
For the Maasai, their time in the wild as young men ends with the rite of circumcision. The pain and the drama of the ordeal are not to be forgotten, and the passage to manhood is memorialized because of it. Other cultures practice different rites of passage, sometimes facial or belly scarring, or ritual teeth shaping in other tribes, but all mark the passing of childhood, and all intend for the memory of that moment to be significant, marked by pain and scarring, a lifetime reminder of the wisdom gained and the mission to spread it forward.
We joked with Yogesh, promising a creative scar to send him home. I remember as a child treasuring my scars and showing them off to my friends. There are dramatic stories of heroism associated with each scar. I try to keep that philosophy alive with my children today, celebrating little scars, and trying to find lessons from an experience. They must think I’m crazy when I throw my fist in the air and scream, “Yes! Nice scar,” followed by a high-five. In our society the outward scar has lost its value as a badge of courage, a visual reminder to help usher young people to maturity. We now hide our scars behind cosmetic surgery instead of wearing them with pride.
On his final day, when Yogesh walked barefoot, perhaps he was hoping for a wound to leave a scar, a souvenir to take home. A beaded bracelet just doesn’t quite suffice. To his mother’s delight, he didn’t succeed and returned home unblemished. Nonetheless he arrived in Virginia forever changed, I’m sure, for significant events transpired and important memories were created.
Perhaps in the absence of physical scars, the rites of passage in modern society are the significant memories we create when life veers into adventure, and away from the soft memories of everyday life. In the routine of everyday life it’s easy to forget what really matters and we tend to over-value the mundane, wisdom becoming the synopsis of a reality TV show, instead of a lesson in what it means to be human. Momentous memories are born in the battle of survival and from the triumphant feeling of success. These memories are mile markers of our moments when we left one self behind and sent a wiser one forward – a fresh soul whose life will forever follow a different trajectory.
That’s why it’s vital for us to answer when adventure calls, and embrace risk with open arms. Because there in the cusp of survival you will find truth and wisdom beyond measure.