Kenya; ENCOUNTERING A GENTLE PEOPLE

It was six a.m. I was jogging along the narrow red dirt road that stretches into the vast semi-arid wildness of northern Kenya. What seemed to be a path off to the right flashed by, a barely perceptible track into the gray-green scrub of thorn bushes. I stopped my daily run . . . and stepped into an idyll, into ageless Africa.

Not far from the road was a Samburu manyatta, a small cluster of houses of the tribe inhabiting this territory of harsh plains around Maralal. In the dim early light, the brush fence circling the manyatta was one with the land around it. Only gradually did I see the cattle inside and young herd boys, so graceful in their long-limbed angularity. Within the compound the first activity of the day was beginning, slowly and in silence: women milking and moving about in the universal rhythms of herding life. As I watched, the sun rose behind the muted shapes and streaked through the cattle dust, backlighting and outlining each figure and turning the whole scene an overexposed pale ochre.

A few of the young boys watched me from the fence. They were still and quiet, a part of the whole, with a softness in their faces that was almost velvet. A woman came toward me and invited me inside her house with an embracing gesture, telling the boys to dismantle the gate of loose thorn-tree branches. She was probably in her 30s; but she looked old, her face leather amid the intricacy of her jewelry: lavish strand upon strand of red-beaded necklaces and a beaded headband that almost lived and breathed in harmony with the exquisite shape of her head.

Her home was a small flattened dome plastered with mud and cattle dung. I crouched through the low doorway into a narrow vestibule and then through a smaller opening into the single room. She indicated a seat on the only piece of furniture, a short wooden bench inches above the dirt floor. Across the fire, a much older woman gently cradled a baby, and about 10 children sat around her, none wearing more than a thin cotton shift or drape in the chill 6,000-foot air. The room was bare except for a few faded-rose cloths on the ground for sleeping and, on the walls, several calabashes, gourds for storing and carrying the milk and blood of the Samburu diet.

I sat, accepted, for an hour beside the fire in the cold morning. Fresh milk was brought, and when I drank only a little, it was pressed upon me with concern. In the room, in the faces around me, was an unadorned hospitality. There was a beauty in the room, in the manyatta, that was almost tangible. In the face of meagre resources, there was an abundance beyond measure. It is this connectedness to essence, a graciousness that is both innocent and wise, that is the preeminent quality when I remember Kenya.

But Kenya is not a simple country.

Ke'Nyaa, the very name symbolic of diversity, the Wakamba word for a male ostrich, all black and white, the name given first by European explorers to the rock and snow striations of Mt. Kenya.

There are over 42 tribes, and sometimes centuries separate them. The history of colonialism, of missions, and of a transportation network cut by the British through rugged terrain previously accessible only to isolated traders has layered Kenya in time. The Africa of myth and legend, Africa of the manyatta, still exists over great stretches of the land. But contemporaneous with it is the elegant and highly sophisticated Jomo Kenyatta Conference Center in Nairobi, symbol of an independent nation, one of the most stable on the continent -- and symbol too of the communications and technological nerve center that is Nairobi.

Most of the close human contacts of a visitor to Kenya are with ostensibly ''Westernized'' Kenyans -- a waiter, a driver, or street merchant. But there is a staggering transition in the lives of some of the current generation. Old and new ways blend and shift before your eyes. You are in the midst of ''tribal Africa'' on the streets of Nairobi and in sophisticated hotels. A Lo Molo friend , met on a Mombasa street, said of our long talks and the disparities in our lives: ''Mountains cannot meet but human beings can.'' He is a waiter in a luxury beach hotel. He is also an entrepreneur, putting every shilling back into his remote home near Marsabit, into cattle, the only wealth in the Kenya of his roots.

The beauty of Africa is one that moves and is alive. I think of the young Samburu warrior in South Horr, a lush valley set improbably in the dry rocky expanses just south of Lake Rudolf. The dark blue shapes of the forested mountains and the bright foreground green is reminiscent of Bavaria and the rugged wildness of New Guinea, but the sensuous overabundance is pure Africa. The trees are huge acacias, hung with cocoons, backlighted into big patches of glistening gossamer.

The young warrior had just completed a ceremony initiating him into manhood, and his cheeks were painted with a triangle of deep red accentuated by an intricate outline of white and yellow dots. Single strands of beads offset the color and contours of his face. With his hair decorated in red ochre, leaning elegantly on his spear, he was magnificent. But in no way was he a facade, a male caryatid to the landscape. Life vibrated from him. He was exuberant in his new status, alternately archly vain and brimming with boyish glee.

I think too of the Samburu girl in South Horr who offered me her beautiful beaded headband for sale. On her close-shaved head it seemed to exist in concert with her animated face that smiled and pouted and was coquettish and radiantly alive. When she took it off, it was a dead thing, simply a piece of beaded work, well-done and empty.

But above all I think of the Masai, quintessential symbol of untamed Africa, indifferent for decades to the technology and ''educational opportunity'' encroaching upon them. They move as do the giraffe - long and angular, with a serene grace, as water flows across the plain. The tall thin silhouette draped to the knees in red cloth, hands like two finials at the shoulders holding the fine tapered spear parallel to the ground, hard lean legs crossed, the long neck and elegant oval head. They stand out on the horizon, prefiguring Brancusi, unmistakable and timeless.

There is a stark centered energy to the Masai, enormous presence that is at the core of their beauty. One hears throughout Kenya: ''The Masai fear nothing.''

Theirs is an almost primal oneness with nature. And thr hat connection runs a bit of what is part of the marrow of Africa -- a flamboyance of color and an almost overripe voluptuousness of line. Masai women with flat round necklaces, circles of red and orange and blue, stacked in pairs or threes around their necks, with thin elongated earrings hanging in a single beaded loop from the top of the ear to the shoulder. Austere, angular, brilliant, sinuous, an elegant kaleidoscope before your eyes.

The very sense of the primal is for me another indelible memory of Kenya. It was thrust most vividly upon me at Treetops. And it was unexpected. I knew Treetops, constructed in and around the branches of two immense cape chestnuts, as the legendary hotel where in 1952 Elizabeth II entered a princess and emerged a queen. I anticipated the aura of colonial Kenya. I could have predicted the crusty, straight-talking Englishman and former lan/O who walked the overnight guests in across the field to the lodge with a .458 Winchester magnum. I expected the correctness of afternoon tea, the white cloth and cake, and such touches as place cards at dinner.

What I did not expect was the raw power. I had the sense of millenia sweeping away, of civilization blinking out so that the earth belonged again to the animals. The feeling began as a tiny thrill of incredulity during the long walk in by the waterhole, very close to staring buffalo. On the roof deck, baboons moved brusquely around the limbs and railings, lithe and heavy and sure, at home as we were not.Brilliant little yellow birds, Speke's weavers, pecked at cake crumbs. Vividly iridescent starlings flew everywhere. What startled was not the display, but that the birds and animals appeared unafraid.

Swifts and swallows nested in the eaves and swept in constant arcs in the early-evening air. The weavers retreated at dusk to chirp softly in a clump of papyrus in the waterhole. Just at dark, there was a haunting call, and a flock of Egyptian geese flew onto the water. At seven the weavers were quiet, and the night sounds began.

The leitmotif of the night was the hyenas' eyes at the edge of the wood beyond the waterhole, eerie lights demarcating the limit of the visible, with only black beyond, behind the dim verticals of the trees a total unknown. Suddenly there was a trumpeting in the forest and elephants running at the edge. Just as abruptly the tension dissolved, and the elephants were moving slowly again, soft graceful contours gliding like clouds of dust into the darkness.

The elephants were a rhythmic constant. They had filed out of the forest to the waterhole as we arrived and had moved around it ever since in a slow-motion ballet, always moving, digging into the earth for salt. Rhinoceroses came out of the forest. Bushbuck and bongo appeared evanescent at the waters' edge.

The Kenyan landscape too is a force in itself. In the Kaisut desert south of Marsabit, the country crackles at your feet with the dry hollow sound of thousands of grasshoppers. The sun is a scorching, suffocating presence on your skin and in the endless tan flatness. In the empty isolation of this place, I came upon a lone Rendelle herdsman, tall and sinewy among his goats. His small flock passed in a long sibilant sigh, a whisper in the heat; and then there was emptiness.

At Lake Victoria there is a very different sense of wilderness, steaming and overgrown. There is no beach or dirt shore in the place where I stood near Kisumu, just high grasses and papyrus swarming with dragonflies. Snails crunch underfoot, and I stepped over fresh hippopotamus tracks. Water surges in constantly in full rolling breakers into the teeming tropical green out of the vast expanse that stretches on and on past the horizon.

But nowhere is Kenya more compelling than at Malindi on the East African coast. The Indian Ocean is voluptuous, rich blue-green with great waves cresting high and sweeping far up the wide empty beach. The water is flecked with gold, and leaves behind scallops of metallic glitter on the sand.

Malindi, thread-bare and lovely, has a past to match the spectacle of sea and land. The old city is Milton's Melind. A cross of white Lisbon limestone stands unobtrusively on a promontory above the town, placed there in 1499 by Vasco da Gama -- a remnant from a history of trade that dates from the eleventh century. It is a history that has made of the coast a magic mix of cultures. A history alive in Malindi's main street: in the women of black Africa, wrapped in bright cloth, balancing fiber baskets on their heads with quiet poise; in children with faces of gentle velvet innocence like those at the manyatta; in Arabic men sitting ritually outside cafes in long white kanzus; in Moslem women veiled in black.

Ke'Nyaa -- black and white striations - varied in history, in culture, in geography, and in time. Throughout beautiful, throughout powerful. I lost my heart utterly to this lovely, complex, innocent land. Practical details: Kenya was settled by disaffected British aristocrats, and British Airways is an excellent introduction to the residual colonial flavor of Kenya. The airline has daily flights connecting through London to Nairobi; roundtrip economy fare from New York is $1,856 ($1,212 APEX).

The Block Hotels always offer polished service -- sometimes in the midst of very real wildness -- and each hotel seems indigenous to its locale. For instance at the Lake Baringo Club, I went to sleep to the sound of hippos on the lawn and watched the sun rise over the reeds on the lake, sitting just yards from a partially submerged crocodile.

Rates for a double room run from $52 to $108, depending on the season (low is during the long rains, from April to June) and whether full board is required (at Treetops Samburu Lodge and the Lake Baringo Club, the hotels are literally in the wilderness with no other facilities available).The central reservations office for the Block Hotels is P.O. Box 47557, Nairobi. For further information write the Kenya Tourist Office, 60 E. 56th St., New York, N.Y. 10022; (212) 486- 1300.

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