The Tribal Rites of a Benefit Gala: An Anthropological Study

Explorers Club

The scene at the Explorers Club. (Courtesy Annie Watt)

An excerpt from our correspondent’s travelogue:

It was dark and starless when our party reached the Explorers Club, a regal structure located in the Upper East Side quadrant of the concrete jungle, on Thursday night. There, we found the natives engaged in a curious ritual they called a benefit. After speaking with their chief, a lean woman named Krista Krieger, who, like the vast majority of the population, was fair-skinned and adorned with baubles that seemed designed to convey some degree of status, our guide explained that the ceremony was raising funds for an organization called Empowers Africa.

The group was characterized by a striking uniformity of appearance. The result of geographical isolation? Nearly every member of the almost entirely female tribe had lined her eyes with dark pigment and contrived to lighten the color of her hair by blanching it with chemicals. “It’s a very sexist organization,” joked Eliza Osborne, a Sotheby’s auctioneer, at one point during the evening. “Are there any men on the board?” (No.) “Are there any brunettes?” (Barely.) It became clear that these flaxen females were, within their own tribe, considered explorers.

“It’s a lot of vertical activity, not just sitting on your ass in the jeep,” said Nina Griscom, who is a trustee (a high rank within the tribe achieved through gift giving), of her upcoming African hiking trip. She will be joining Ms. Krieger and Beth Rudin DeWoody, a rare brunette member of the organization’s advisory committee, on an expedition to Tanzania to watch the Great Migration—an annual mass movement of zebra, wildebeest and antelope—and Uganda, where they will scale mountains to see gorillas. 

Ms. Griscom, who has witnessed the Great Migration before, is only going for the Uganda portion of the program. “I don’t mean to sound jaded,” she said of Tanzania, “but there are a lot of flies to swat and a lot of dust.”

Tribal costumes for these sorts of journeys vary, Ms. Griscom explained, depending on the experience of the traveler. “The newbies wear the khaki and safari clothes,” she said, while experienced trekkers set out in civilian attire. “She actually wears powder pink track suits,” Ms. Griscom added, gesturing toward Ms. Krieger.

She proceeded to give Ms. DeWoody advice for the rugged expedition: pack comfortable shoes and a fly swatter.

“Fly swatter?” asked Ms. DeWoody, her face a mask of horrified incredulity. She has been to Africa before—to Morocco and Egypt, twice to South Africa and to East Africa in 1974, when she was working on Born Free, a television drama about the adventures of a married couple running a Kenyan game reserve—but never for anything so intense.

While Ms. Griscom wore a green tunic she said was designed by Yves Saint Laurent, a craftsman much beloved by this tribe. The “safari gear” dress code appeared to have confused many females, who attired themselves as the animals hunted on safari in leopard print dresses, pants, shirts and scarves.

Around 8 p.m., attendees began filling their plates with food and finding seats at their assigned tables, named for countries in this distant continent, Africa. Observing their movements was not unlike witnessing the dynamics of our own high school cafeterias: some tables (Ethiopia) attracted not a single tribe member, while guests dragged chairs over to other popular “countries” like Rwanda.

There was a problem, though. “We have some crashers,” said Ms. Krieger gravely. Apparently, a small herd of spouses who had neglected to perform a courtesy rite known as R.S.V.P. had arrived and swarmed the buffet. Soon, the seating debacle was solved, and the spirited trade act known as a live auction began.

The ritual, punctuated by call-and-response cries, little percussive beats on a podium and applause, raised more than $130,000 (in our currency) for “human empowerment” and wildlife conservation in Africa. Trips to resorts and animal refuges attracted bids of up to $16,000.

Our understanding of the native tongue is admittedly shaky, and so we asked about the organization’s name, which struck our unaccustomed ears as somewhat condescending.

“There’s a presumption of impact above and beyond what could actually happen,” said Ron Ulrich, the chairman of the African Parks Foundation of America and one of the few males in attendance. The reverberations of the small ceremonies of this pale white tribe, though, do seem to be felt on distant shores. His organization, which is supported by Empowers Africa, recently intervened at a reserve in Chad, where poaching had reduced the number of elephants from tens of thousands to about 430. In the three years since the foundation stepped in, the park has only lost 11.