In 2004 I began planning a trip to Tanzania. I had just retired and the dream of going to Africa and doing wildlife photography was something that finally I had the time and means to do. As I got into the detailed planning, my son John came by the house and told me that he was going with me. What a wonderful idea!
So, in March 2004, my son and I began our journey to Tanzania. We flew out of Tampa across the Atlantic to Amsterdam and from there to Arusha. We did the trip without spending the night in Europe, so it was 23 hours flight time and a total non-stop time of about 30 hours. When we arrived in Arusha, it was late at night, and as we passed through customs, there stood a gentleman with a sign with our names on it! We were elated that the planning had worked and someone actually met us at the appointed hour in Tanzania.
“Hello,” I said, “Hello,” he said, “my name is Elvis, welcome to Tanzania.”
For a second I thought perhaps that I was dreaming or something like that, after all I had not slept well on the flights, I was exhausted from the journey, and to meet “Elvis” was a bit of a surprise.
So began my acquaintance with Elvis Barnabas. As the days went by, my son and I developed a wonderful friendship with him. He is a very special person, whose life has been spent with caring for, and exposing people to, animals.
Here he is with my son John in our Landcruiser.
As we began our journey the next day from Arusha to Tarangire National Park, we soon leaned a great deal about Elvis. For 15 years he had been a game warden, working with the Tanzania government to preserve animals and manage its famous parks. At some point, he became responsible for one of the national parks. Then, he decided to start acting as a guide and driver for folks like me who come to Tanzania to see the land and the animals.
I soon learned that he had been a guide to some famous people: Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, Prince Charles, and Bill Tyson. And I learned that National Geographic Magazine had hired him to escort its photographers while in Tanzania. Wow, I thought, how did I wind up with the best guide in Africa?
We soon learned a great deal about Tanzania and its people, the economic and health issues facing the country. “We have 26 different ethnic groups in Tanzania,” Elvis said, “yet we get along, and we do not have the issues that so many other countries in Africa have.”
“One reason,” he said, “is that we all speak Swahili, it has united us through language.”
Course, me being the impatient person I am, my focus was primarily on getting good wildlife photographs and soon I found that my impatience needed some correction. During one moment when I was very directive about where I wanted to be for a shot, Elivis said: “Bill! Remember, you are in Africa, NO HURRY!”
After his admonishment, I soon began to relax and then to find joy in just looking and seeing what I had always wanted to see. And, too, I started listening to Elvis describe the issues affecting animals in Tanzania, and hearing his stories about people he had helped along the way.
One day, we stopped for lunch. As my son and I got out of our Landcruiser, another vehicle pulled up at the same area. Ten people got out of a crowded van, and the driver was soon handing out boxed lunches to them in a cursory way. The people had no where to sit, and soon just moved about here and there trying to find a spot for their lunch.
In the meantime, Elvis was unpacking our lunch. First he sat up a table, and folding stools, and asked me what I wanted to drink, “Beer, Wine, Coke, Tea, Coffee?” he said. Hum. Then as he unpacked the lunch I realized that we had a fresh salad, two choices of an entree, and numerous other items too large to list. It was a gourmet meal, set up in the middle of a pristine wilderness. WOW, I thought. Soon, the folks in the other vehicle were staring at us. No doubt wondering how it was that we had such a feast and they were eating a box lunch.
By the way, my son and I insisted that Elvis join us for lunch. Yes, some folks go on Safari and expect their guides to set up lunch for them, then to move away. This surprised Elvis, it is not the way things are done on Safari. We soon were laughing together, enjoying a fantastic meal, and finding out more about Elvis and his country.
One day was we were driving towards Gibbs Farm for a stop prior to driving on to the Ngorongoro Crater, Elvis told us a story about a lady and her son. He found them walking in a remote region of the country with no water and no food. He drove them to their old run down house and noted that they had no cow. So, he bought them one. “A cow provides milk and perhaps a calf to be sold,” he said, “families need a cow.”
And I soon learned about some other things I did not know. Farmers in Tanzania do not get paid until their crops are sold, usually about once a year. So, most families do not have income on a regular basis. So, Elvis started a program at his church where money is loaned to families as they need it, then the money is repaid when crops are sold. “The program sustains families,” he said.
Elvis also told me that most children in Tanzania do not get basic vaccinations, simply because shots cost nine dollars. So, his church set up a fund for families that cannot afford to get shots for their kids. Yes, I gave Elvis some money for the program. It is hard for me to understand that the most basic of health needs is unavailable to most families in the country where the annual income was less than $235 in the year 2004!
Elvis spoke very highly of Hillary Clinton. “She was very interested in visiting hospitals where AIDS patients are treated,” he said. “She was quite concerned about the lack of good care and talked about what she might be able to do to help.”
So, as the days went by, Elvis soon became a good friend, we shared stories about how we lived, and my son John especially enjoyed learning more about Tanzania.
Elvis said that his children go to a private school. “It is very expensive,” he said, “but, I have done all I can to give them a good education, our public schools don’t teach children anything.”
Elvis told me that he only uses electricity at his house about “two or three hours” each day. “it is too expensive,” he said. Sometimes I write Elvis an email, and it may be months before I get a reply. Either he is on Safari, or he simply hasn’t turned on his computer.
When we were in the Ngorongoro Crater, Elvis explained why the Black Rhino is disappearing from Africa. “Pouchers cross the border from Kenya,” he said, “and they bribe officials to look the other way, then they give money to a local Maasai tribe and pose as if they were Maasai. With no one looking, they kill the Rhinos at night. Just five years ago there were 85 Rhinos in the crater, now there are only 18.”
For two days we worked the crater trying to get close enough to a Rhino for a good photograph. Elvis’s skill paid off on the second day.
At the end of our journey to Tanzania, on the last full day, my son John decided to stay at the base camp while Elvis and I explored the area.
And as we started working our way back to Kusini Camp, we found a young male lion, alone and asleep near a river bed. We stopped, and I gently got out of the vehicle, much to Elvis’s surprise, got to the ground and braced my camera on a monopod for this shot.
Elvis explained to me that he could lose his license as a guide if he allowed anyone to get out of a vehicle. I had no idea that I had risked his livelihood.
The evening of our last day, it began to rain, heavy rain. Soon, everything was wet, and our departure from a local landing strip could not be made. Instead, Elvis had to drive us nearly 100KM to a landing strip that was paved. It was an awesome four wheel drive experience. And without his skills, we would not have made it to our flight.
As we departed, I gave Elvis a hug and told him that I should never forget my visit to his country and how much I appreciated knowing him.
Sometimes we make trips of a lifetime expecting to one thing, and then encounter something else. What happened on this trip was that I made a new friend for whom I have the highest respect and admiration. One never knows what meeting a stranger can lead to. What one learns is that people everywhere share the same hopes and desires. And, moreover, that some people through their determination, can affect the quality of life for their neighbors and their children.
I hope someday to see Elvis again. And, when I do, to remember his admonition about being in a hurry. And, while with him, to meet others from his country and learn more about their lives. While photography is a great passion in my life, the more I travel the more I realize that meeting people and getting to know them as individuals is far more important.
And when I look at some of my photographs from the journey, I always think of Elvis and his love of animals, how he cares for his family and his neighbors, and how much he enriched my life.