My wife and I are just back from a trip to Kenya. The trip was amazing. We arranged the whole thing through a company called Let’s Go Travel, a Nairobi based travel agency (which is different than a lot of the European or American based agencies as presumably the money stays in Kenya – important consideration I think.) George Ogola set everything up through email, and we transferred (gulp) payment to him with a bit of an “oh well” feeling, wondering if somehow it all might end up in the ether. But on the appointed day, a safari matatu (sort of a combi-van with a full-length pop-top roof) showed up at the gate of our friends’ house, honked, and we were away.
Landa was our guide, and he had pretty amazing driving skills. Most of the roads we took, except for one stretch around the base of Mt. Kenya, were rough and that’s an understatement. After the brutal drive from Amboseli to Lake Nakuru, Landa had to take the matatu in to the shop overnight to have every nut and bolt on the suspension checked and tighten. Good thing too, as many of them were loose, which explains why on the last leg of that stretch he could drive at about 50 kph.
Our itinerary was Amboseli, Lake Nakuru, Aberdares, Samburu, and then after a short flight, Masai Mara – basically the same places just about everyone goes when they do the whole safari tamale.
Amboseli is this incredible wetlands formed by the snow melt from Mt. Kilimanjaro. When the snows melt at the top of the mountain, the water flows underground until it hits a bed of less absorptive rock and pools in the middle of an otherwise arid plain just across the Tanzanian border in Kenya. On a clear day, you can see Kilimanjaro very well, and like most huge mountains that I have seen, the size is several orders of magnitude larger than I expected. What seems merely to be a cloud hanging over a mountain is actually the mountain surrounded by clouds, and the peak is just slightly lower than the highest cloud. Amboseli’s waters attract elephants and hippos, and each morning we saw quite a few elephants sunk up to their chins in the vegetables that nearly choke the water in each of the pools. Because the aquatic vegetation is so dense, the birds depend on the large animals to push aside the plants and reveal the fish and other goodies otherwise hidden beneath. As a result, each elephant or hippo has its own attendant flock of ibis’, egrets, jacanas, and other birds. Very lush. However, just beyond the banks of each verdant pool is arid grasslands, making for an immediate contrast between the lush watery elephant playground and the drier dominion of the giraffes, bustards, lions and cheetahs. We saw one large groups of lions, but unfortunately no cheetahs. Easy to imagine one zipping after a gazelle though. Plenty of runway.
Lake Nakuru is an alkali lake, famous for its large flocks of flamingos. We stayed in an excellent but small tent lodge – tent being an insufficient word for what is essentially a canvas house with full bathroom and four-poster bed. Not roughing it. In the morning, the black rhino showed up at our doorstep, making the thin wire fence seem entirely insufficient, especially when one of the other people at the lodge took a photo of the rhino at close range with a flash and the rhino charged the fence. These are the people you read about in the paper – “Man Trampled By Charging Rhino: Experts Puzzled Over Cause”. The flamingos are pretty amazing. The noise is what I thought was most impressive. All the squawking and carrying on blends into a single tenor-pitched sound that only elevates in volume when a hyena splashes into the flock to see if anyone is napping or a tawny eagle cruises through for a quick snack. The most impressive birds we saw were a pair of Verreaux’s eagles perched just above the matatu as we drove through the outer edges of the park. They looked like a pair of burghers in their black feathers and white “necklace” that extends down over their shoulders and across their backs.
To get to the Aberdares Mountains, you have to climb up out of the Rift Valley where Lake Nakuru sits. The vegetation moves from arid acacia scrub to more deciduous tangle. We stopped first at the Aberdares Country Club, the launching point for a bus ride to the strangely built Ark Hotel – strange because the roof of the hotel looks like that of an ark from the “classic comic” version of the Bible. The Country Club sits above a wide valley that holds a free ranging flock of Rothschild’s giraffes. After lunch and a few hours counting the many different kinds of sunbirds that flock to the flowers in the excellent gardens, my wife and I took a game ride down to the valley to see the giraffes. When we got there, the guide said we could get out if we liked. As most of the national parks prohibit anyone from exiting their cars for any length of time, an opportunity to walk among the animals is not to be missed. The giraffes were terrific – totally silent and perhaps a bit curious, moving across the ground so steadily and smoothly it was almost as if they were not moving at all. Once we got out, they started poking their heads above the bus-sized hedges that were spaced randomly around the edges of the clearing where the guide parked the truck (a big safari Land Cruiser from 1970 something – like riding in a washing machine.) I was not sure my wife would ever want to leave.
When we got up to the Ark, we were shown the system of bells that alert the guests to the arrival of certain animals who frequent the water hole the Ark was built to showcase. Each animal – leopard, rhino, elephant, hyena pack, and a few others – got a separate number of rings on the bell. As bells were placed at the head of each bed in the guest rooms, a ring was certain to alert most sleepers to an opportunity to stumble outside and look down on the floodlit water hole while wrapped in a large, thick blanket against the cold of the higher altitudes. And it was cold – we wore nearly every scrap of clothing we had and were still glad to find a hot water bottle placed between the sheets when we went to bed. Alas, no exotic creatures, though we did have a bit of excitement involving elephants and hyenas.
Just before dinner, four female elephants showed up with a very small baby elephant. They were not particularly interested in the water – the area was actually quite wet which is probably why we did not see many other animals. Instead, they wanted the deposits of salt in the dirt around the shore of the water hole and quietly went about digging up the dirt by bending down onto their front knees and gouging the dirt with their tusks. While they were so occupied, however, first one, then another, and another hyena showed up. Soon there were 15 hyenas, and the first hyena became to make experimental sorties into the outer limits of the elephants’ comfort zone. Finally, one got a bit too close, and the largest of the female elephants gave the smallest a not-so-gentle poke in the butt, sending her out to walk the perimeter as it were, against the encroaching hyenas. The small elephant was about 3-4 years old, and she did a pretty good job chasing the hyenas. They were none too keen on getting stepped on or tusked, but they still did not leave and more arrived each minute or so, increasing the odds in their favor of getting at the baby elephant sometime later in the evening. Then the largest female stopped, stood a few feet apart from the rest, and made a rumbling sound that seemed to be something you heard in your head rather than with your ears. A few minutes later, a very large male elephant walked out of the forest into the clearing. There was a pause, some throaty notes from each animal, then the male elephant stepped into the ring of female elephants for a session of trunk “handshakes”, body rubbing and bumping – quite a scene. Afterwards, the male elephant turned to face the hyenas with a sort of huff! and that was that. The hyenas gave up, leaving the elephants to finish their meal of salty dirt in peace.
The road to Samburu from Aberdares goes through some of the richest farm land in Kenya, much of it owned either by corporations or rich white Kenyans. The transition is most obvious when one looks at the telephone & electricity lines. Before one gets to the wealthy farming area, most of the lines are merely forlorn poles with balding strands of wire waving awkwardly in the wind. By the time Mt. Kenya becomes a roadside vista, the poles are straight and sturdy, and the wires connecting them are 1.) connected and 2.) continuous. In no other place we went in Kenya, including Nairobi, was the infrastructure for electricity and communications so shiny and new.
Once we reach Isiola, however, the road took on a decidedly more tense feeling. Perhaps part of this was the elections, which had taken place while we were in Nakuru a few days earlier and were still without conclusion. But I also think that Isiola is a pretty desperate place. In other parts of Kenya, even poor people would look you in your eye and see you – at least it felt that way. In Isiola, I kept wondering if most the town were glue sniffers. There was something hazy about the way they looked about two inches in front of you, rather than at the surface of your face. Then Landa said, “They are all chewing khat,” a leaf that when chewed produces a buzz stronger than tobacco but perhaps a bit weaker than marijuana. They were stoned. The kids came up to the windows of the matatu and asked for ink pens & paper, making me immediately regret not having followed our friends’ advice to bring a box of pens for the kids we would meet along the way. My wife and I had dedicated ourselves to traveling light, but now this compulsion for lightness felt a bit rude. Before we left Isiola, Landa registered with the police – the road from Isiola to Samburu had in the past been the realm of bandits who waylaid cars and then robbed the occupants. While the police had clamped down on this stretch a while ago, killing or chasing off most of the bandits, I think Landa felt that the unsteady elections might embolden some to go back into business. Even though the road was horrible, we didn’t stop or slow down until we reached Samburu.
Samburu is my kind of place. Hot, dry and plenty of arid vegetation. Even though it was far more lush, it reminded me of my favorite place in the states, the foothills of the Chiricahua mountains in Arizona. Samburu is better though. The birds are tremendous – we even found a pearl-spotted owlet perched on the edge of a bush late one morning. And the animals seem very much in their element, moseying through the brush as they looked for things to graze. The gerenuk is here, a long necked antelope whose name means “giraffe-necked” in the local Samburu dialect. And there are actual giraffes, this time the reticulated giraffes instead of the Masai giraffes in Amboseli and Masai Mara, or the Rothschild’s in Aberdares. Hornbills are ubiquitous here, and we found several different kinds, each separated out by the different patterns on the wings, the face and the color of the bill even though their over-all scheme is black & white with a bit of lipstick red on the bill. And that is most of bird watching in Kenya – 4 or 5 species of whatever, each looking nearly the same as the next, except for slight, perhaps even nearly imperceptible, differences in markings, or range, or song. The family of Cisticolas, small fussy birds that seem to be a cross between a warbler and a wren, proved the limit of my birding skills. With few exceptions, they are all a very limited variation on brown, rust and white.
During the day, we fended off the monkeys who came to raid each tent in our lodge. Bad monkeys. For that reason, we cheered when a Bateleur eagle showed up and tried to bash a monkey out of the trees over our heads. Bateleurs are big strong birds with very powerful wings, but the monkey held on, ducking and weaving out along the end of his branch, until finally he was able to leap to another tree and skitter down to safety.
Finally, we finished up in Samburu, and Landa took us to the small tarmac where we were to catch an airplane to Masai Mara. I think in the worst situation, traveling with a guide becomes a laborious process of tug-of-war. You want to go here or see this, and your guide has a seemingly invisible agenda that keeps him from ever giving in. However, in the best situation, you and your guide become collaborators on the adventure, and he is as receptive to your suggestions as you are deferential to his direction. That was the situation with Landa. He was instrumental in educating us in flora and fauna, as well as keeping us up-to-date with the shenanigans associated with the elections. That last day in Samburu was the first day of election violence in Kenya. After we got on the plane, Landa had to drive all the way home to Nairobi alone in that matatu. We hope he arrived safely, and that he continues to do well in the futre. He is a terrific gentleman, and someone I would recommend asking for if you travel with Let’s Go in Kenya sometime in the near future.
For us, I think, Masai Mara was a bit anti-climatic – though that might be the wrong word actually. The lodge was spectacular, run by Nick the half-crazy, half-sane, totally eccentric Tanzanian-Englishman-American owner. He made it his goal to employ the smartest of the local guys to work for him, and they repaid him with loyalty that meant that several had worked with him at the lodge since the early 1980’s. He is also making the lodge greener and greener by the day, sending the sink and bath water to a small wetlands set up to clean out the suds and installing solar/instantaneous water heater combos to take advantage of the sun without running out in the evening or on shady cool days. The food was uncomplicated but perfectly delicious and fresh. When the chef found out we were vegetarians, he made us a special dish each dinner. And the landscape & the animals are truly amazing. To look out across a plain and see gazelles, antelopes, buffalo, zebras, a few lions, a couple elephants, several giraffes, as far as the eye or binoculars can see, is mind-boggling, especially when one considers that we were there in the quiet season. When the wildebeest show up, things are really crazy. We even got to get out of the car again and go for a hike up the ridge above the lodge with a couple Masai (one of which received a prestigious offer of a spot in seconday school, which it seems the lodge owner is preparing to sponsor) to watch out for leopards (there are several in the lodge’s valley) and a guide to help with the birds. One of the highlights of the whole trip.
I think by the time we got to Masai Mara, we were fully into the whole safari routine, so instead of a mild sense of panic about what comes next and whether we were going to get to see this or that, we could just relax and let it all go by. And we had the perfect vehicle for it too – a huge, fully padded, Toyota Landcruiser that plowed along through the grasslands at about 20kph while we stood up through the roof and watched for cheetahs. No luck on the cheetahs though. The relatively wet conditions – not muddy but bright green grass everywhere as far as the eye could see – meant that there was no natural feature focusing the activities of the succulent gazelles that are cheetahs’ favorite snacks. Everyone was spread out all over the place, and thus, so were the cheetahs, which made finding them in the huge expanse of the Mara fairly imprecise. Each group of cheetahs have fairly distinct territories, but the guide said that some of these territories are as large as ten square miles. That’s a lot of space to cover at 20kph. But we did see plenty of lions, various eagles, hippos, elephants, hundreds of antelopes of all sorts, giraffes, and a nice Serval cat on the way to the airport to return to Nairobi. I can imagine that the spectacle of the Wildebeest migration would change my impression markedly, but ignorant of that experience, I prefer Samburu to Masai Mara.
The last day we were at the lodge in Masai Mara, we heard the story of the Eldoret church fire. A mob made up of opposition supporters (though who instigated their actions may never be known – in these situations, the instigation for events can as easily come from one side as the other, even when the results seem to indicate the culpability of particular group) chased a group of Kikujus from their homes. The Kikujus took refuge in a church, which was then surrounded by the mob and burned, killing 30 people, some of them women and children. When our plane from Masai Mara to Nairobi reached Nairobi airspace, we were told that we would not be going to Wilson Airport, the regional airport serving destinations in Kenya, but instead would be landing at Kenyatta Airport, the international airport in Nairobi. The reason given was that Wilson Airport did not have fuel available for refueling the plane; however, Wilson Airport is very close to one of the largest slums in Nairobi, called Kibera. One wonders if the fuel or lack thereof was not truly the problem, but that security and the threat of potential riots made landing at Wilson a bit more sketchy than would be smart or safe. Whatever the matter, our driver met us at Kenyatta, the streets of Nairobi were empty, and we fairly well flew back along the streets to the Karen district and our friends’ house with its lovely garden.
We had meant to go to Mt. Kenya, the second tallest peak (17,058’) in Africa to Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340’,) but the potential for random violence strongly suggested that staying put in Nairobi was a better plan. In the west, even when things are tense politically, you have some assurance of the continued support of police or security. In the third world, this assurance barely exists when things are calm. A police officer at a checkpoint in the middle of the night might just as easily throw you in the dark hole of a jail someplace as wave you along to continue your journey home or to the market or wherever you might be going. In other words, if you find yourself in questionable conditions in a third world country some time, unless you are a journalist, a military advisor, a government official, a priest, an aid worker, or someone else who has a completely solid reason for being where you think you need to go, don’t go. First, you might get killed, but second, if you just get in trouble, then you are going to create all sorts of problems for the people who are going to have to figure out a way to get your ass out of trouble – people who probably have much better and more important things to do at that moment than deal with some idiot who drove into an unknown situation in search of excitement and a few photographs. Plus, you might just find that the embassy really couldn’t be bothered, which means you might sit wherever you are sitting for quite a while. Stay home. Watch the news on television and send email to your friends.
Which is what we did. Conveniently, our friend is a correspondent for a big news magazine, so we got hourly reports on the political situation from him while he was in the field or from his contacts. The basic issue seemed to be this: Kenya’s leaders (and perhaps Kenyans themselves) have deluded themselves that democracy was the universalizing influence that would bind all Kenyans together irrespective of tribal allegiances. And I think that perhaps this delusion was not a delusion really, if our conversations with the young men and women at Nakuru was any indication. They were all very excited about the potential for change that voting represented. Here was, they said, a perfect opportunity for political progress, to help improve the future of the country, through the democratic selection of a progressive alternative to the status quo – a vote for Odinga, instead of merely reelecting Kibaki. The night watchman at Nakuru spoke with us at length, and then he took his flashlight and shined it on his pinkie finger to show us the purple dye used to confirm that he had indeed voted earlier in the day. They were optimistic, bright-eyed, idealistic and in the end, naïve.
But they were naïve, not because of their own frailties, but because of the frailties of their own leaders. They believed that their leaders had as strong a faith in the process of democracy as they did. However, in the last hour of the vote count, with Odinga leading Kibaki by a slim but solid number, a sudden burst of votes for Kibaki put him over the edge, and he was declared the winner by an embattled elections commissioner (we heard the commissioner get shouted down several times on the radio while we were in Samburu, until finally he cleared the audience and made the announcement to an empty room.) Within a few minutes, Kibaki was sworn in and all the optimism we heard in the voices of the people we met in Nakuru drained out of the country. And when that happened, the reality that democracy could bind Kenyans of diverse ethnicity together, one to the other, neighbor to neighbor, tribe to tribe, became merely the delusion of political leaders disconnected from the will of their people.
Once the election was seemingly busted into pieces, democracy no longer had the ability to offer people something higher than tribal allegiances. For democracy to work, even the lowest of the low must believe that their vote will offer them a chance to select someone who will be their representative, who will speak for them fairly and seek changes that will improve their lives in some small degree. There must at least be some hope for the future affirmed by the process of registering the votes cast. Remove that hope and democracy no longer sits as the voice of the people, and the tribal allegiances – family, village, ethnic group – become the strongest voices speaking to people seeking protective assurance. Add a few politicians who see these multiplex arrangements as a path to power, and suddenly two life-long neighbors look at each other not as fellow Kenyans struggling to get by but as one Kikuju and one Kalenjin or one Luo struggling against all 40 other tribal groups that otherwise live side by next in Kenya every day. And then every one of each person’s troubles become the final result of who they are and who they are not, rather than part of a country’s worth of troubles that require a country’s worth of people working together to solve.
Since the Kikuju tribe has largely controlled the political landscape since the end of British control, Kikujus sit in all the important ministerial and regulatory positions in government, they own the best businesses, the most arable land, the freshest water supplies, and benefit most directly from infrastructure development in the parts of the country where they are the majority tribe. The other tribes have not had the same access to the government, and so they have been progressively excluded from more and more of the day to day necessities required to not just make a living, but to advance and improve one’s station in life. What I read in the man-on-the-street interviews in the papers and heard on the news is that Kikujus seem to feel the other tribes are merely whiners. After all, what any Kikuju has is the result of hard work and the building of interpersonal networks to ensure that their businesses and farms are successful and well supported by infrastructure and resources. Anyone could do this. Of course, what they don’t see (or choose not to factor into the equation) is that their access to infrastructure and resources, their network of business associates and customers, are largely a result of their position as a member of the Kikuju tribe. There is no pejorative definition of nepotism in tribal politics. Nepotism is just another word for family, and in a resource-poor environment, you look out for your family first and others second (if at all.) The idea that hard work gets you anywhere when the reality is that in order to get the chance to do the hard work depends on which tribe you are from is a fantasy built to support the institutionalization of unfairness. Not an uncommon form of denial. And now, with the hope of democracy as a correcting influence on this institutionalized unfairness stripped from the electorate by the base need for power by the political elite, all the other tribes in Kenya are counting out loud each time a Kikuju got an opportunity and others did not. Legitimate or not, the perception of years of unfairness without recourse to a fair electoral process has created the perfect opportunity for violence to spring up like a fast growing weed of frustration.
The situation of sitting in Nairobi, in a lovely garden with brightly colored birds flitting across brightly colored flowers, while a short car ride away police were shooting tear gas canisters at protestors was unavoidably surreal. And as the images of strife in the towns of Eldoret, Kisumu, Mombasa, and other towns across the country flowed across the television screen, I felt as if I was still separated from Kenya by an Atlantic Ocean of space. Somewhere people were staying up all night to make sure that marauding gangs did not light their houses on fire. Somewhere people were wrapping all their belongings in blankets and heading for areas were their tribe was not the minority and they would hopefully be safe. And somewhere people were lighting stores on fire and picking out one tribe’s members from another tribe’s members, beating one while allowing the other to pass. Meanwhile, we were sipping coffee (excellent coffee) in the shade of a garden, watching the kids jump in and out of the freezing blue water pool, and eating mango each morning for breakfast. The reality remains if you have money and the mobility that comes from having money, your experience with violence will be very different from someone locked down in the slums by their lack of money, their lack of mobility, and their complete lack of anywhere else to go.
When we were in Masai Mara, there were big dark clouds scooting across the plains. Some were producing rain. However, we didn’t get rained on at all, partly because the rain never reached us, but if it had, we could have merely driven around the rain in our truck. We had enough open space, we had a truck and we had fuel enough to move wherever we wanted to go. The Masai across the short valley who were leading an errant cow home from its stray adventure in the national park would have been stuck. They were on foot, they were far from home, and they were not supposed to be where they were. If caught by park rangers, they would have been fined and their cow taken from them until they paid up in full. And usually the fine would be equal to the value of the cow they were trying to save.