When you book a trip to Africa, your impetus is to go on safari and see animals in their natural habitat untouched by technology or western “zoo” culture. At least for me that’s the only thing I had in mind when I booked the trip. I had no idea at the outset, how short sided that was.
Our trip started out with a 13hr flight to Dubai with a connection to Nairobi. After we boarded, we sat stagnant on the tarmac in 107 degree temps for over an hour because of mechanical issues with our plane. What we didn’t realize at the time, while whining about the sweltering heat on the plane, was that the delay prevented us from going to the Westgate Mall just steps from our hotel when we arrived. That simple alteration very truly kept us alive and safe and allowed us to miss the terrorist attack taking place at that exact moment. When we heard what was happening, that hour long bake in the Dubai desert heat became a blessing. Everything truly does happen for a reason.
I will say, being an adult in America for the last 12yrs while working at NBC, sadly, you‘ve become accustomed to the American television anchor during a tragedy. You get used to their lack of emotion, their “impartiality”, and their hustle to be the first to report rather than their attachment to the story. Being in another country during a terrorist attack on their homeland was a very unique experience for me. It was very evident, for right or wrong, that the anchors covering the Westgate story in Kenya that day had no desire to stand on journalistic principle. They are a country of faith and a kind and gentle people of faith, and I saw numerous anchors shed tears on air during live, heart wrenching interviews. Every single one implored their viewers to pray for their fellow countrymen still trapped inside the mall as hostages and for those souls lost. It was a stark contrast to the American/western journalist. Not better, not worse. Just different. I liked it. It was human.
The next morning, our fabulous group of 5 (me, Alicia, Tiffany, Veronica, and the King himself Adonis), with guide James, set off in our safari Volkswagen van with pop up roof, on the hunt for big game. The poverty on the outskirts of Nairobi was striking. The shanty towns were something I’d never seen or experienced anywhere. What we didn’t know is that they would pale in comparison to what we’d see later on. We drove through the Great Rift Valley to the Malewa Lodge in the Kigio National Reserve. I loved every minute of this stay. It has a max capacity of 20, and we each got our own hut complete with outdoor shower. The food was amazing, the giraffes were EVERYWHERE (which I loved immensely), and the company couldn’t have been better. We did a night game drive here, obviously in total darkness, save for a little fella riding in a little seat on the hood of the truck with a spotlight, lovingly nicknamed “Bait”. That night was a hair difficult in my hut due to the monkeys horse playing on my roof and the warthogs and zebras hoofing around outside my window.
The next morning, after an amazing sunrise, we began our 6hr trek to the Massai Mara, complete with THE most teeth rattling, nerve wracking 40min dirt/stone road that the world has ever seen. Seriously, I’ve never experienced anything like this road in my life. And I grew up in Louisiana. So off-roading, I’m quite familiar with. Apart from that, the drive up was stunning and sad all at the same time. Shanty town after shanty town dotted the horizon, juxtaposed with the most pristine and beautiful yellow wheat fields lined with hunter green acacia trees. We were starting to learn that cameras, no matter the price or size of the lens, were not capable of capturing the scenes we were experiencing. The entire drive up, as far as the eye could see, were herds and herds of cattle, sheep, and goats being tended by tribal shepherds. They were literally everywhere. In amounts that put Texas to shame. A particularly high point of the drive up, was the 2 baby BRIGHT pink goats that we saw in one herd. There were varying stories as to what caused it, but our group chose to believe the “albino gene” story. There were donkeys pulling trailers of goods and water, and women carrying their canisters for drinking water to the local towns. Scenes from our old west that have long since passed.
As we started to get closer to the Mara, we began to see parts of the “Great Migration” of Zebras, Wildebeest, and Caped Buffalo. By the end of the trip, certainly after our sunrise hot air balloon ride, we’d seen so many zebras, that we no longer bothered to take pictures. Their migration includes something like 250-500k and the wildebeest is around 1 million. It was amazing to watch the wildebeest migrate in straight lines one right behind the other for miles. Truly spectacular.
Our next few days would be spent at the Keekorok Lodge. We went on game drives every morning and afternoon searching for the Big Five…Elephant, Rhino, Leopard, Buffalo, Lion. Ironically enough, the rarest to see, the leopard, we saw quite easily. He’d dragged a zebra carcass into the crook of the tree for safe keeping and was taking a nap. We saw an entire pride of lions cross the road in front of our van to get to their rock for the night. Very Lion King-esque. Minus Mufasa. Damn Wildebeests. We also saw a herd of 10 elephants of all ages and sizes, cross the road in front of our van. The only one of the Big Five that we never saw was the Rhino. Whilst in the bush, we became QUITE fond of the beer of the Motherland, Tusker. I mean, when water isn’t safe to drink, you Tusker. Try it. It’s life changing.
The event that stirred the most controversy amongst our solely western crowd was the visit to the Massai Village. These villages are completely and totally untouched by western civilization, technology, or modern culture. Upon arrival, we were treated to a 7min welcome dance by the “warriors”, the men of the tribe. The dance culminated with a display of vertical jumping by each man, which come to find out later, is the way tribal men determine the dominance and hierarchy with women. The men are allowed up to 11 wives. This is where the westerners started to have trouble. Not only was it the 11 wives, but the women build the houses, out of cow dung and sticks, cook, and take care of the children. The men, or “warriors”, tend the herds and protect the village. The village consists of about 8-10 brown huts standing about 6ft tall, a thick stick fence surrounding the entire area, and a monumental amount of cow dung. At night, the entire herd of cow, goat, and sheep are kept in the middle of the village. There was no way around it or through it, just over it. Which was almost vomitus for germ freaks like myself. We were allowed entry into one of the huts, built by a woman, 2 bedrooms, 1 bed that sleeps SIX, a kitchen, and a room for the baby calf of the family. The feats of engineering achieved by these women were astounding. They’ve literally built 2 bedroom homes 6ft high out of sticks and cow shit complete with supporting beams. There was no lighting in the huts and very tiny windows. As we sat, we heard movement in the corner. Our Massai warrior escort told us his girlfriend had just given birth the week before so she and the baby were in the bed. We were literally 2ft from her and couldn’t see her. And we couldn’t fathom how 6 people fit on that bed at night. It was the equivalent of a twin size bed but made of sticks. The little kids and babies walk around barefoot and play in the manure filled village center. They eat ONLY blood, milk, and meat. The blood comes from slashing a cow’s throat, bleeding it, and then clotting the slash with manure so the cow doesn’t die. The women tried to sing us a welcome song but were cut off by the men after only 53 seconds. The women truly have no voice, no respect, and all of the brains. There were many heated discussions amongst our larger American group about this topic. Most, angry that the women are treated this way still in 2013. I, personally, don’t believe its your place to impart your culture on anyone if you’re in their home. So I just tried to take the whole experience in. Now, I'm nowhere near a bra burning feminist, (they’re too damn expensive to burn!) but as a western woman visiting another culture you realize that you’re in a club of sorts and have a camaraderie and kinship and compassion and common interest with other women you’ve never met simply because you’re women. Because of that, you want more for them. Without knowing them, you still very easily recognize their abilities and talents and how wasted they are. You want them to know what opportunities are out there for them and what potential they all have. You also, sadly, recognize that because of where they were born and where they live, that their mark on this earth will never be felt or seen or heard or appreciated. There isn’t really education for most of these kids because time in school for boys prevents them from learning the shepherd trade and time in school for girls prevents them from learning to house build and care for the children. I walked away feeling incredibly lucky that my first gasp of oxygen on this earth was American. I had never truly experienced that appreciation for the opportunity afforded me because of where I was born. I HATED the village visit while we were there, because of the smells, manure germs, and overbearing men pushing up on us really aggressively, but after we were out and I was able to reflect, I was able to genuinely appreciate the opportunities for education and experience that I’ve been given and afforded in America. And an entirely new appreciation for the possibility of potential that not everyone is granted as a birthright.
The Kenyan tiny tots were a fave amongst our group. They were toddling around everywhere, shoeless and snotty nosed, but absolutely adorable. A few of us found ourselves just handing them shillings because, unlike with the predatory tv commercials in America, when you see a little 2yr old boy run up to you with a massive smile on his face, and have no shoes and flies on his face, you know your money will do him more good than it will you. Either way, the excitement on their little faces as they ran to their moms with bills in both hands was worth every penny.
Their schools were mostly one cinder block buildings with a tin roof and a massive school yard full of kids of different ages running around all decked out in matching uniforms. Every road we drove down they would run out of their houses or their schools to wave to us. The huge smiles on their faces when we would wave back were so sweet. We did however, have the one fella that flipped us the bird as we drove by. We blamed Veronica for that. Just cuz.
The currency exchange of shillings to dollars was 80-1. The women in the tribes get no money and, based on our experience, aren’t allowed to handle the money. They do, however, have one incredible skillset that is appreciated far outside their villages. They make the most beautiful, ornate beaded jewelry. Most of the souvenirs I bought, were made by these women. They deserved my shillings.
We did have other things to drink in Africa BESIDES Tusker. The coffee in Kenya, seriously one cup, will have you awake for 48hrs. And the tea and biscuits in our room, I can assure you, didn’t go to waste. It’s no wonder both of those are huge national exports.
The day we left Kenya was a sad day for us all. The siege on Westgate had ended the day before in destruction and collapse with 40 people missing and 72 dead, and we’d all started to fall in love with this country and their people. We culminated our trip with a Nairobi city tour, complete with August 7 Memorial Park visit, which was particularly poignant for the Americans. We’d ended a trip that began with a terrorist attack, with a visit to the site of another attack on our shared soil. The city of Nairobi, from the perch above Uhuru Park, is truly a sight to see. It’s much like New York, in that, its easy to find the stab through the heart, but once you step above it, you can sincerely appreciate its wholly inherent beauty.
For my first trip to the entire continent of Africa, I genuinely feel blessed that I chose Kenya. I left a piece of my heart there, I think we all did.