Saturday, April 1, 2006
Michael Henderson

The attempted rescue of a beached whale in the Thames was a testament to the immediacy with which events are transmitted around the world and the hold that animals have over us humans.

OUR DAUGHTER, Juliet, phoned from 6,000 miles away in California, to say, 'I'm watching the rescue of a beached whale in the Thames. Are you?' Indeed, we were. Having lived in Oregon and followed the saga of the rescue and release of Keiko, the orca featured in the film, Free Willy, we have a particular affinity for these huge creatures. Millions the world over were watching as volunteers struggled to rescue the whale in the Thames, and must have been saddened when she died only a few miles from safety. It was extraordinary to hear the scientists talking about blood tests, antibiotics and the like, as if the whale were human. The short but dramatic episode was a testament to the immediacy with which events are transmitted around the world and the hold that animals have over us humans.

Only a few days earlier my wife and I had been in Kenya where we visited Haller Park near Mombasa, a mined-out limestone quarry that has been transformed into a showcase of ecological rehabilitation, home to spectacular birds, animals and plants. The park is run by Lafarge Ecosystems.

When the tsunami struck Asia, Africa was largely spared but some waves reached these Kenya shores and a herd of hippopotami was swept down the Sabaki river near Malindi. Most struggled ashore but a baby hippo got left behind on a coral reef. After strenuous efforts he was finally brought to the ground by a rugby tackle, rescued and taken to Haller Park.

Then something happened which has thrilled visitors, baffled scientists and brought world attention to this small park: the 600-pound hippo, now named Owen after his tackler, bonded with a 130-year-old 6,000-pound giant tortoise called Mzee, the affectionate name meaning 'old man' that had also been bestowed on Kenya's first President, Jomo Kenyatta. They go everywhere together, whether swimming or playing, and have apparently recently developed their own language. A photo on the Internet even shows Mzee with his head in Owen's mouth. A year after the rescue, the hippo is now of course bigger than the tortoise.

When we visited the park the wardens were carefully preparing the way to transfer Mzee and Owen to another pond where an older hippo, Cleo, has lived alone for ten years. A book about the friendship of the two is being published shortly and will be launched at the Tribeca Film Festival which was founded after the World Trade Center was attacked. The publisher writes that the story of Owen and Mzee 'embodies the global unity that emerged in a time of tragedy'. The book is dedicated to nearly 250 employees of the worldwide Lafarge materials group who died or are still missing after the tsunami.

We discovered that another great animal, albeit fictional, has a hold on Kenya. In the film, The Lion King, a Swahili-speaking meerkat, Timom, and a warthog, Pumbaa, teach Simba, a lion cub, that he should forget his troubled past and concentrate on the present. 'Hakuna Matata,' they tell him. This phrase has so caught on in the country that it is now as common a salutation as the traditional 'Jambo'. It is a catch-all phrase meaning 'no problem' and, judging by the signs on walls and t-shirts, is not used only for the tourists. Let me leave you with a song from The Lion King, courtesy of Elton John and Tim Rice:

Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase
Hakuna Matata! Ain't no passing craze
It means no worries for the rest of your days
It's our problem-free philosophy
Hakuna Matata!
Hakuna Matata?
Yeah. It's our motto!

If you have kept with me so far and wondered what this column is about, then 'Hakuna Matata'

Michael Henderson is the author of 'Forgiveness: breaking the chain of hate', Grosvenor Books, 2002, ISBN 1-85239-031-X