Kenya

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Every night I slid between the course fabric sheets of the small upper bunk, I could feel the crossbars of the crudely constructed frame through the thin foam mattress; yet it was a welcome respite from the weariness accrued from the long day’s events.  I caught the smoky fragrance, like a campfire, emanate from a strand of my hair. The African nights proved far too cold to shower away the remnants of the day; it would have to wait till morning.  I would journal each night by flashlight or by candle (depending on available battery power), and read a little; some of the pages still bear the oily stain from the spilt candle wax.  Honestly, I’m surprised I didn’t catch my bedding or my long tresses afire.

Every morning I would rise early to “shower”.  I could hear our helper chopping wood in the distance. She’d made the long walk to the river to gather water in a huge, five-gallon bucket.  She transported the heavy cargo on her head all the way back to the camp.  She lovingly heated the water for those of the mission team that wanted to wash up in the morning.  The warm, dirt tinged water felt heavenly as I poured it over my head.  I always took the same toiletries on these journeys: liquid dial soap, mint shampoo and conditioner.  Heavily perfumed, they effectively purged the strong aromas from my sticky skin: sweat, oil, smoke, insect repellent, all washed away, at least momentarily, until I slathered them all on again.

Then, we would have breakfast; one day we even shared warm pancakes, a collective effort pulling together  ingredients from home: instant pancakes, thick, sweet syrup, canned meat, packaged fruit, scrambled eggs (from the local market), and strong, Kenyan coffee.  Then, I would don my heavy, black, rubber rain boots, which stunningly set off my long, colorful, cotton skirt, to traverse thick muck, and stroll through “town”, where I marveled at the beautiful people selling fresh vegetables, vendors offering their wares, and rumbling, rustic old tractors puttering by, braying donkeys straining under heavy burdens.  Finally, I ambled over to the clinic, the manifestation of an urgent dream, a joint effort, but my hope and dream.  Before the end of the week, we would see hundreds of patients in Olmekenyu: Kipsigis, Kikuyu, Kisii, and Massai.  They set aside tribal rivalries and came together for a common goal: to pursue medical care to ease their suffering. Some walked seven days to arrive at our doorstep, along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others.  I sat at a small wooden table next to a nurse, who served much like a doctor, diagnosing and treating a myriad of conditions from malaria to pneumonia, fungal infections, ear infections, actually, all kinds of infections, hypertension, multiple injuries.   I caught a glimpse of the name of her patient and mine, two young women, who looked nothing at all alike, but shared the same last name.  I looked quizzically at the nurse, “Sisters?”.  She responded frankly, “Co-wives”.  Interesting.  I pressed on.  Others of our happy entourage served as “crowd control”, others worked in the pharmacy, and still others, performed dental procedures.  This particular day, we worked through lunch time, and, quite starved nine or ten hours later, eagerly received a small meal prepared by one of the locals who brought us warm, fried bread and a small piece of roasted meat.  Tasted heavenly.  After we finished clinic, I went to Mercy’s home.  She is the little girl the clinic was named for.  Our first trip, her mother presented her to me, knowing I was a doctor, to see if we could help.  This was our “scout” journey, and one that was intended as a spiritual outreach.  We had no medications.  She was seven or eight, slight framed, and febrile from a large, infected burn covering half of her back.  Hot porridge had poured over her, causing a third degree burn which was now “soupy” with infected tissue.  My heart was heavy.  We gave the mother funds to take her to a clinic two days journey away.  This return trip, I was astounded to see little Mercy, healed, and so grown up.  She had filled out, and had a healthy plump, not only to her cheeks, but all over.  What a welcome site!  Her mother was so happy I’d agreed to come to her home.  The adobe walls were set off with a thickly thatched roof.  The obelisk structure ordinarily mounted in the center of the roof was distinctly absent from this home, signifying that the father and husband of the home was there no longer.  When I arrived inside, I stifled the urge to cough every moment; the blazing fire inside the home served multiple purposes: to cook, to provide warmth, and the smoke rising from the fire served to drive away insects from the thatching overhead. Every molecule competed with the space’s life giving oxygen. I perched myself on a low rising mound of the hardened mud, a sort of seat, covered with an animal hide, as she smiled and pointed out the important details of the home.  I could not speak Kipsigis or Swahili, but told her in my most earnest, sweetest voice how beautiful her home was. She understood.  She was grateful that I crossed the threshold of her home, and I was just as grateful that she opened her heart and her home to me, the stranger that reached out to help save her little one.  As I left, she cradled my hand in hers and escorted me back up the treacherous hillside, dodging brambles and piles of warm cow dung, back to camp.

The time was too short, we would soon pack our things and set off, back to Narok, then to safari.  I was being rushed; the rains were coming.  We needed to hurry or we would be stuck; there exists no mud like that which resulted from the relentless downpour during the “rainy season”.  But I had to finish up.  Another patient, a late arriver had come for me to look at an animal bite, make recommendations, dispense one last medication.  We had delayed just long enough for a young mother to desperately trudge the final steps of a long journey; she was burdened down with two, very heavy, very sweet bundles: a toddler with a bronchial infection, and baby, hugely swollen from protein malnutrition, kwashiorkor.  The mother was very sick as well, with a serious pulmonary infection.  If we hadn’t delayed to provide care to the one with the dog bite, we would surely have missed these precious ones, and the babes would no doubt have perished.  We packed them in the vehicle with us, and, snug as sardines, we set off.  The delay cost us greatly, we wouldn’t beat the rain. We became inextricably bogged down in thick mud. The middle section of the vehicle’s frame became caught on a mound of earth, the tires spun mindlessly and uselessly through rivers of muck.  The stuff spun off onto our faces and clothes as we tried fruitlessly to push the heavy utility vehicle off the mound.  We were hopelessly stranded.  We all prayed and, after an hour or so, we heard a low rumble in the distance.  Then we beheld our saviors, lithe framed, ebony skinned angels, clad in brilliant red plaid wool cloths, mounted on the most enormous, and most beautiful ancient tractor I had ever laid eyes on.  That they were out and about on this overcast day was a mystery, that these Massai cattlemen/farmers came to our rescue, even more so.  They coupled our vehicles together with heavy rope and hoisted us off of the mound.  Effortlessly.  I will remember their kindness the rest of my life.

We arrived in Narok, still wet, straight through, my flip flop broken, skin badly chaffed, from holding the broken thong on, squeezed between two toes; the body of the foam shoe flopped wildly with each step.  Not only were my cheap shoes wrecked, I was as well; gritty mud, drying, clung to my flesh, peppered my face, soiled my clothes and clumped in my hair.  We made our way up the hotel stairs to tidy little rooms.  The piping hot water rejuvenated my senses, soothed my aching pours, driving life into my weary body and soul.   It’s so strange how one can shower each night, dress in soft clothing and slip so unappreciatively into warm, pillowy bedding, without a thought as to the worth of the privilege.  But, batter yourself senseless, scrape and scratch every square inch of your skin, soak yourself with frigid rain, drench yourself with mud, pulverize every muscle, and the ritual takes on special new meaning.  I think I slept like the dead that night.

We deposited the sick little things at the hospital and paid their expenses.  We later learned, they survived and healed nicely.

Then, we set off for safari in the Massai Mara. What a beautiful journey.  I marveled at the rugged beauty of the Mara.  We sped through the tall grasses.  I poked my upper torso and head through a hole in the roof and gripped the sides of the opening as we sped through the golden valley.  The wind played with the tips of my hair, flowing from under my floppy hat, tethered with a cord under my chin.  I was the sole passenger that day. I must have shot a hundred rolls of film on our trip, thirteen that day alone.  Another day, we all traveled to the hippo pool.  The driver “negotiated” with the militant guarding the area along the border.  He let us pass.  I was stunned that the hippos congregated with the crocs, nonplussed by their presence.  Surely their tender flesh would serve as a tasty morsel, and yield easily to the rending of the razor sharp teeth of the reptiles.  But I discovered that hippos are a ferocious and formidable foe to animals and humans alike, not sweet bedtime creatures to be snuggled, they were not to be toyed with.  We spotted a rare white rhino, herds of wildebeest, cackling hyena, a happy family warthogs, and my favorite: a pride of lions, with little cubs feasting on the morning kill, then tousling around with the adults of the pride.  I will treasure the memories of the animals, but even more, I will treasure the lovely people, with their shimmering dark skin, their bright smiles and brilliantly colored garments.  I discovered that though their homes are different, as are their food and drink, their clothing and language, yet their hopes and dreams are much the same as ours: to lead meaningful lives, to have enough to eat, clean water to drink, medication to ease suffering, and loved ones to surround them.  I miss Africa.  I left a part of my heart in Kenya.

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‘It’s going to be two to three hours of walking a day, not much steeper than Rutland waters, isn’t it?’ Commented my twelve year old daughter with trusting conviction in her tone. ‘Actually, the itinerary mentions six to seven hours a day and it is much steeper than Rutland waters’, I answered haltingly, not wanting to shatter her confidence. As she stared at me with undisguised horror, she also realized that it was too late. Our plane was touching down at Nairobi.

Six months ago, I had decided to take my daughter on a once in a lifetime mother-daughter trip, a hike to Point Lenana on Mount Kenya. Tickets booked, trip organized and we were counting down the weeks when trouble erupted in Kenya. Mombasa was in red alert when we boarded the plane to Nairobi. Whether it was bravery, foolhardiness or simply the fact that the tickets were non-refundable; we decided that Mount Kenya National Park was too large to be cost effective for bombing or shooting.

Day four of the hike dawned early for us as our guide John woke us up at 2 am. We scrambled out of our tent in Shipton’s camp, the base of the final climb, adjusting to the cutting chill in the early morning air. The path ahead was lit up by starlight and our head torches. I tried to forget how it had looked the last evening and convinced myself that it was possibly not as steep as it came across from our camp site.  We had been surrounded by tall stony cliffs, the roads near vertical at some places, zigzagging through cliffs and sharp edges. John smiled and commented that it was better not to be able to see too well while we climbed.

Delicate volcanic scree finely layered the path to the top. It was not long until I had experienced my first slippery fall, flat on my face and utterly undignified.  For a hiker who had managed Mount Kilimanjaro the previous year with little training, this was Mount Kenya’s demand for her true share of respect. As I dusted my jacket, unsteadily balanced on a ridge, John told me, ‘Place your steps bravely, firmly. If you get scared, your steps falter and the mountain gets the better of you’. My daughter was plodding ahead with little expression of fatigue and a confidence that made my heart burst with pride. ‘Come on mom,’ she called nonchalantly.

I grasped my hiking poles and tested my steps. Point Lenana- here I come. The scrambles ended in a rocky ledge which ultimately led to a series of iron rungs. A brown board with yellow writing proudly proclaimed ‘The world’s highest via ferrata’. A climb on the rungs and we had reached Point Lenana.

Daylight broke through the clouds, bringing into undisguised view the path we had climbed. Shipton’s camp was a dot in the distance and the road to the next camp spread like a map stretching out to eternity. We rubbed our gloved hands, shook  the stiffness out of our legs and smiled at each other. Another six hours of walking ahead before we stopped for camp. No problems, we can do that.

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Kenya

A man passes by with three camels on the beach. He does this journey twice every day. The camels are walking behind him on the snow-white sand proudly.

Behind them the endless Indian Ocean shows off thousands shades of blue.

The sun is high up, spreading its burning rays everywhere. It is a hot day, I can feel that my skin is getting tense and I am getting sleepy by the heat as I lie under the palm trees watching the man with the camels. I brought a book to read, but the surrounding nature, the slow sound of the warm and sandy wind is taking the book away from me and turning my head towards the ocean.

A local man is snorkeling front of me. I know this man, I see him every day. He is the one catching the small octopuses that he sells to the kitchen, which makes delicious octopus-stew.

I have never tried to eat octopus before. I found the animal itself already bizarre creature! I did try octopus here and I absolutely loved it.

Over here, the seafood is delicious and always so fresh. The first place I saw sea-cucumber in the ocean and then ate it for dinner. When you are out here, and feel the heat, you relax immediately. The nature, the culture and the weather just switch of your senses and you feel like you have been dropped into the softest bed ever, where you can sleep endless.

They keep you entertained and they keep you on food and drinks so smartly that you never feel the immediate need of anything.

The ocean washes the beach softly, as I walk down there and put my feet into cooling water, I see the man with the camels again. Front of me a boat is floating on the ocean, it belongs to the snorkeling man.

When he appears at his boat I see his necklace again that he made from small bones. Bones of the fishes he caught and was proud of. Some of the bones belonged to his father, who died a few years ago and who was also a fisherman. They keep these bones as trophies.

It is not as bizarre for me as the witch doctors in the Massai villages we visited a few days ago. Being a witch doctor carries out from father to son or mother to daughter. They make contact with the gods and represent present to them for their mercy and help. They are the one that also carry out major surgeries. They keep bones, skulls and teeth from their ancestors to keep the knowledge close and within the village.

The villages are near by the safari area, where we saw the great red elephants. You drive miles and miles into the wild, towards the mountain of Kilimanjaro that looks like a delicious sponge-cake covered by icing sugar on the top. The colorful birds are slowly flying front of it as you drive, hold onto your binocular searching for some more interesting animals.

I see a starfish as I sit down in the water. The animal slowly moves away from me. I look at it and think about the animals I saw since I arrived. What a wonderful wild-life this country has!

On the safari we saw lions chasing gazelles, giraffes, zebras, hippos, red elephant, ostriches, storks, swallows, rhinos and buffalos. We definitely got what we paid for, and more. The lunch was delicious; I have never had to break the shell of the crab I eat. I have never tried making wraps from roasted octopus and vegetables, and I have never seen so many red elephant around a pond like they had below the restaurant’s terrace.

I lie down in the water, same as how the elephants lied down on the pond at the restaurant. I close my eyes, and let the sun stroke my face with its rays, and let waives washes my body and let the wind tickle my nose. I see the huge trunks spraying water on the giant bodies. I see how the small elephants playing with the water. I see how the buffalos watching them from a safe distance and I see as the sun quietly disappears behind the Kilimanjaro.

I open my eyes, I hear they announcing dinner at the restaurant. The live lounge music sneaks into the cricket chirr of the evening. Before I go I look back, the boat has gone and I don’t see the camels anymore. One day is just about to finish at Mombasa-beach, another beautiful and peaceful day is about to come tomorrow

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Kenya: A place for second chances

Our family’s trip to Kenya was a surprise trip planned by my dad.We had never really had an impulsive yet planned trip like this before,just to see a new country.
We stayed in a small quaint cottage in the wilderness,with no internet,no phones or even a TV.The quietness creeped me out a bit in the beginning and my ears were unaccustomed to the thick blanket of silence which was only broken intermittently by the insistent chirruping of the insects and frogs that called to each other in the dark of the night.
The early mornings were covered with a flimsy curtain of mist which joined the swirls steam from the hot teas that we drank to warm ourselves before going out in the white open topped jeeps to see the animals .
Seeing miles after miles of open sky and wild grassland as far as the eye can see,sort of reinforces the fact of how insignificant your life is in the whole scheme of things.And the gargantuan mistakes, that you have made in your life seem to be like minor blips in the universe and seem to pale in comparison.And then, you feel that you can start over again. That though your mistakes are still there,they  are some how blotted out and you are no longer defined only by them.
Looking at the imposing predators and their equally magnificent prey in their natural habitat and looking at how lazily they gambolled about, compared to their counterparts in the zoos who often paced and raged in anger, made me think that we humans were also the same.
Taken out of our comfort zones, we sometimes cannot adjust and often lash outwards without understanding, that peace sometimes have to come from within if we are to understand and adjust to the world around us better.
I was amazed at the warmth and resilience of people there,some of them who had so little,that they made footwear out of old tyres.And yet they lived their lives so graciously and contently.Our guide who shared with us, his passion for his beloved country and who answered our every query with a patient smile. Sometimes, just living day to day also requires courage,a certain sort of quiet courage that compels you to not give up and try again, the next day for another shot at being happy.
Before this trip, I was caught up in a turmoil of emotions.I was back home after college and staying with my parents again.I had no job and the plans for further studies which I dreamed about and wanted to do badly were not working out.I was disappointed with myself and my life.Being dependant again and the minor curtailing of my independance had started to gnaw at my insides slowly but steadily.
A new city where I knew no one and one that I had never been to, in another country beckoned to me full of promises but I was still too timid and fearful to take that first step to move from the cozy comfort of familiarity to something that was in the realm of the unknown.
Being in Kenya,was just like being in one of those documentaries on the Discovery channel.And on the last night there, as I looked at the stars dotting the night from the window of my cottage,I was struck with awe at such a beautiful sight.In the dark,I finally found the light that I was looking for.It gave me the courage to start over and made me realise that though the past is still there, it wouldn’t have to determine my future.
I felt a calmness settle over my heart and I was able to make that decision of moving.I realised that,I would only regret things that I wouldn’t have done and the chances that I failed to take.
The trip to Kenya was a life changer for me because it made a cynic like me, believe.Believe in the possibility of second chances.
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I had made up my mind not to visit eateries along the coastal region because of the lousy service provided in some of them. I assumed they were all the same until I visited The Moorings Restaurant at a friend’s request, and was bowled over by the level of service and quality of food. We arrived at 11.oo am, an hour after the restaurant had opened for business since it only serves lunch and dinner. There was a charming young lady at the entrance who welcomed us into the restaurant and asked us to feel at home.

 

The waiters on duty are usually smartly dressed in their black trousers and white shirts with black bow ties and will politely greet the visitors, show them to their tables and present the menu of the day. I asked the waiter who came around our table about a proper combination of dishes on the elaborate a la carte menu and he was very helpful in providing the information that enabled us to balance our lunch. There are several courses on the menu and various options to choose from in each course and one will definitely need some assistance in making the right choice.

 

The first course offers several juices, fresh fruits and fruit cocktails. The second course has a number of soups which are either cream or clear in nature. On the third course you will find entrees or stews and the options here are varied. There is braised beef, chicken casserole, sauted kidneys and many other dishes. The fourth course consists of various types of fish cooked in different styles. There is grilled fish of the red snapper or nile perch and sea fish such as crab, lobster and prawns prepared to the visitors liking. On the fifth course there are grills and roasts such as fillet steak, rump steak and roast pork. The sixth course offers vegetables and potatoes which are fried, steamed, sauted or simply boiled in such a way that even vegetarians will be attracted to select a number of items from it. Then there is the seventh and final course which has lots of sweets such as ice-cream, milk pudding, fruit salad, custard sauce and cream caramel. A dessert of all kinds of fresh fruits and coffee prepared to the customer’s choice is the last item on the course.

 

I found it a bit tedious making the right choice from the menu but the waiter told me that one does not necessarily have to choose from every course. “You simply select what you feel will satisfy you from at least three of the courses”, said the kind waiter. I made my choice from five courses and after the order was taken, waited for half an hour before the freshly cooked cream of vegetable soup was served with well-garnished bread rolls as an accompaniment. While I waited for it, I was given a pamphlet about other services provided by the restaurant such as the dhow that takes visitors for excursions in the vicinity of the restaurant. They also provide information on services from other establishments along the coastal region.

 

The Moorings restaurant has an open arrangement and as you sit at table enjoying your meal, you feel the cool breeze from the ocean and the sweet aroma from the delectable dishes being prepared in the nearby kitchen. The waiters stand next to their stations and keep an eye on the customer, ready to provide any information that may be required. There is a small bar by the entrance where alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks are served and one is always allowed to order a drink and take it with his meal.

 

The service of the main dish takes quite a bit of time but the waiter clearly explained that the stuff ordered has to thaw out before it is cooked and so patience is needed if one has to get satisfactory service from the restaurant. The dish comes in sizzling hot and so attractive that you cannot help salivating. After the dish you are allowed to saunter around and admire the young fish in the ocean since this is a floating restaurant, before coming back for a dessert of either a cup of cappuccino or a variety of fresh fruits to end your perfectly fulfilling lunch. You leave The Moorings restaurant smiling and with the knowledge that it is indeed value for your money.

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When our patients and their parents heard that we were going to Kenya and would visit a school in Kibera—one of the largest slums in the world—many of them asked if we could take some supplies for the children there. One mother had her children use their allowance to buy books, others brought colored pencils, and another patient brought in child-sized Home Depot aprons. My wife and I were bringing toothpaste, toothbrushes and floss for 250—every student in the Red Rose School.

Our plane landed in Nairobi around midnight but the tour group didn’t need to meet until 1PM. That gave us time to interpose our trip to Kibera with a local contact, Ken Okuth, who was coming to pick us up at 9AM. A former patient, employee, and friend of ours named Kate had met Ken when he was an undergraduate student at St. Lawrence University. Kate also spoke fondly of spending a semester in Kenya, so when we asked what we could do to help people in Kenya, she referred us to Ken. Ken was raised in Kibera, but earned a scholarship for his undergraduate studies. He went on to earn a graduate degree at Georgetown University and started an educational non-profit, the Children of Kibera Foundation.

After picking us up at the hotel, Ken took us for a tour of the city of Nairobi. He showed us the former US embassy building that was bombed in 1998 and brought Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to America’s attention. We passed the ultramodern Kenyatta International Conference Center and a small airport on our two-mile journey to the Red Rose School within the Kibera slum.

When we arrived at the Red Rose School, all 250 students treated us to dancing and singing. Since the government does not provide hardly any services to the inhabitants of Kibera, some of these kids walk 4 miles one way to get to the Red Rose School. Because schooling is provided by various religious and nonsectarian schools that rely on donations, I asked a few students why they chose this particular school. The unanimous response was, “Because of the results.” Ken and the school administrator strongly believe that education is a bridge to better life, and they do everything in their power to make it possible for these kids to go as far as their work, intellect, and luck will take them. Since the government doesn’t provide adequate services for the people of Kibera, “luck” often takes the form of donations funneled through various charitable organizations, like The School Fund, which is a crowd-sourced non-profit that was developed after an American teenager met one of Ken’s protégés.

Ken Okuth has since gone on to be elected a Member of Parliament (MP) at the Kenya National Assembly, where he represents the Kibera constituency. He continues to use his influence to improve the lives of those in Kibera by representing them and giving them a voice. Hopefully, when others learn of the need, they will share some of their power to help make the world a better place.

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SATWF Society of American Travel Writers Award 2014Congratulations to Ken Budd for his 2014 Gold SATW award for his article,  “Kenya: Holding Elijah.”

Ken Budd’s 2013 story on his volunteer experiences in Kenya and recent media criticism of voluntourism won gold on October 16 in the Society of American Travel Writers’ Lowell Thomas awards, which honors the best work in travel writing and media.

Gary Arndt of Everything Everywhere said the “Lowell Thomas Awards are the most prestigious awards in travel journalism and are given out annually by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. They are like the Pulitzer Prizes for travel journalism.”

The piece, called “Holding Elijah,” appeared on the travel site WeSaidGoTravel.com and won in the “Special Purpose Travel” category. It tells of Ken’s work at the Calvary Zion children’s home and examines the pros and cons of volunteering abroad.

kenThe judges wrote: “In this finely written piece about a piece about a volunteer vacation at an African orphanage, the author tells the poignant story of one child while outlining in a personal way the controversy surrounding volunteer tourism. This entry raises important questions for all of us who would consider making such a trip.”

The 2014 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition drew 1,177 entries. Earlier this year, an essay by Ken on his work in China won gold from the North American Travel Journalists Association. Ken’s memoir The Voluntourist won silver in the book category in the 2012 NATJA awards and the 2013 Nautilus Book Awards. All of Ken’s earnings from the book go back to the places and organizations where he volunteered.

You can follow Ken Budd on Facebook and Twitter: @VoluntouristKen.

Enjoy more of Ken’s photos from Kenya: Click here. Buy his fantastic book, The Voluntourist.

 

The engine shudders and is silent. Outside the vehicle, jewelry adorned limbs jostle for position. A nimble hand slides my window open and forearm displaying almost a dozen colorful, beaded Maasai bracelets is thrust across my lap.
‘Miss! Miss! What is your name?’
‘Jina langu ni Malee,’ I say. I ask the woman’s name in Swahili, ‘Jina lako ni nani?’

She tells me her name is Ann. I untangle myself from my seatbelt to shake the hand attached to her bracelet decked wrist as the engine rumbles back to life.
After spending part of my childhood in Nairobi, I am back in Kenya for the first time in twenty years. It is surreal to be on safari again with my family— the Land Rover is also toting my parents, younger twin sisters and their husbands. As we rumble through the Seikani Gate into the Maasai Mara, I realize I have become the kind of visitor I derided as a child—a pampered tourist, outfitted in two-tone, quick-dry khaki, sliding helplessly in my seat in my frictionless clothing each time the Land Rover navigates an obstacle in the road.

The tawny grassland of the Maasai Mara seem s to go on forever, stretching to the horizon and melting seamlessly into the Serengeti plains in neighboring Tanzania. The tall grass dances in the breeze, rippling like the muscles of a lion’s back. We raise the Land Rover’s pop-up roof, and for the first time in two decades, my sisters and I jostle for position out the open top of the safari vehicle, a tangle of binoculars and telephoto lenses.
At first, the landscape appears almost devoid of life, the sweeping savannah vistas dotted with only occasional patches of scrubby acacia trees. It hardly seems possible these plains accommodate one of the greatest mass movements of the life on earth— the annual migration of over a million wildebeest, eland, Burchell’s zebra, and Thomson’s Gazelle.

The Mara also supports those preying on the great herds. A wide array of carnivores tracks the migrating ungulates, waiting patiently in the towering oat grass, or in the shadows of the flat top acacia. Lions are undoubtedly the dominant predators, the grassland seems almost made for the big cats, and the Maasai Mara Reserve hosts one of the highest densities of lions on earth.
As a kid, lions regularly occupied my daydreams, and occasionally my nightmares. On one camping trip with my family in Tsavo East National Park, we spent the night listening to cacophonous chaos unfold as a group of lions killed a young baboon. Another time, in the Nairobi Game Park, my father got almost halfway out of our car to retrieve something from the trunk before I noticed the tell- tale twitch of a black-tipped tail in the grass—a group of lionesses was sprawled lazily just a few meters away.

We arrive at a deep cleft in the road. The engine hums patiently. Peter, our driver, opens his door and leans out to assess the obstacle. The golden grass ripples around us, and for a moment, I think I see something moving tenderly through the soaring blades. My heart flutters and cool sweat beads at the surface of my skin. I feel a combined rush of awe and adrenaline I haven’t experience since childhood. Outside my window, a lilac-breasted roller perches on the decaying remnants of a termite mound, feathers a patchwork of lively pastels. Suddenly, the gears grind, the Land Rover lurches forward, and we are moving again.
We rattle across a bridge over the Mara River. Hippos bob in water below, like smooth boulders, relishing their predator-free existence. Weaver bird nests hang like ornaments in the branches of the yellow fever trees above.

I notice dark shapes dominating the landscape ahead. A group of elephants is feeding along the fringes of the riverine forest, their sandpaper skin immune to the scrubby thorns. They move purposefully, gently ushering adolescents away from the vehicle. We idle and watch. A female begins to lumber past us, and stops. She turns her head to face me, eyes wide, her long, soft lashes a seeming contraction to her rough, wrinkled skin. Slowly, the female rejoins the group and we continue toward Paradise Plain.

In the hills ahead, I can just make out the shape of our lodge. A lone Maasai giraffe stands blocking the road, a diligent sentry. He chews his cud, and observes us casually. In the distance, I can still see the elephants, meandering away from the river toward the open plain, casting a long shadow in the late afternoon sun. The giraffe licks his lips with a nimble, purple tongue. The engine idles and we wait, existing as just another singular piece of this vast ecosystem.

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DSC_0398Stepping off the plane in Jomo Kenyatta airport, the moment of truth had arrived. 16,000kms from home, I hoped that the volunteer organization I had chosen, World Corps Kenya, was a credible group. After receiving my visa, I prayed that there would be someone on the other side waiting for me. I really was not prepared, after 17 hours flying, to find a hotel in Nairobi at 11pm. I have never been to Africa before, and traveling as a single female, was understandably apprehensive. Luckily, as I walked out onto the concourse, a small sign, written in pencil on a lined piece of paper, was amongst the crowd.

I met Graham and Anne, who took me to Anne’s house, where I met Anne’s children. The next day, I went with Anne as she delivered cakes to people around the city. I learned that I was worth a lot of cows and sheep, as men asked Anne about me. I also learned that it is VERY important to look both ways before crossing the street, narrowly being squashed by a bus. Anne and her family were so welcoming, and helped me to navigate taxis, mutatus (15 passenger minibuses) and introduced me to some local staples, such as sukuma wiki and ugali.

After leaving them, I took a bus to Voi, where I met Patrick, my volunteer coordinator. The next morning, James and a few other rangers came to get me, along with a bed, mattress and other supplies for the small towns near Lumo Sanctuary. Along the way, we picked up women and children, letters, water and food, and shuttled them to their respective destinations. I was overwhelmed immediately with a sense of community. Everyone knows everyone.

That sense of community continued at the Sanctuary, where I learned that this was a community conservation project, employing local rangers to help protect the animals in the grasslands south of Voi. I was able to go on scouting rides, help de-snare areas, and build traditional huts. It was wonderful watching so many people working together, with a common goal. Listening to the women sing as they thatched the roofs of the huts, really made me realize that, despite having very few material things, they still exuded happiness. I felt so privileged to sit in on a community World Vision meeting, and to volunteer at 2 local schools, where the students danced for me, and the adults I was tutoring started to make connections with the material they were learning.

Many people ask me if I felt homesick, or experienced culture shock, but I really don’t think I did. It was very easy to adjust to kerosene lamps and basin showers, listening to hyenas and elephants as I slept, because I knew the people around me were good people, who cared about their companions. Even going to the Pentecostal church, 5km away (walking) brought home the idea of community. Whether you know someone or not, you greet them, and they become your brothers and sisters.

Having this experience, it made me realize, that in our developed nations, are we really truly happy? We may have money to buy everything we need, but without community, a family, is our life complete? Perhaps it is just me, but I think we need to strive to reach out to our neighbours and start caring about them (especially in North America).

About the Author: Julie Soares is a Canadian teacher, who is currently in the UK, teaching Chemistry and Physics at an all girls school. She is an avid traveler, whose goal is to experience the world. With a passion for girls and women’s education, she hopes to move to a developing country to pursue this passion.

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imageThe Adventures of a MidWesterner in Rural Kenya

6 am, Thika, Kenya. The dim light spreading over the concrete floor of my dusty dorm room slowly melts into quiet wakefulness. The background noise of the river and jungle birds coaxes me awake almost as convincingly as it holds me in the last moments of sleep, just listening.

The growing light and warmth of the day push me from a tangle of sandy sheets and scratchy mosquito netting. Washing my face from a water bottle and draping the washcloth over the window bars to dry, the simultaneous weight of humidity and the coolness of morning settle around me, a second layer of clothes. With the help of the window sunlight I clumsily manage to get in my contacts. Blinking out through the window the jungle morning comes into a peaceful focus.

6:30 am. A small blue airplane blanket, a notebook, my iPod and a shady rock by the river. Even seeing it before my eyes it’s hard to take in the lush, crashing picture of birds and trees dipping in and out of the rivers cold, tumbling water. It’s even harder to connect the river with the muddy, trash filled streets it flows through in Nairobi before wending its way down to the jungle retreat center. I sit hugging my knees and forgo the noise of my iPod for the music of water and rocks having early morning conversations.

7am. Breakfast with everyone gathered around tables we pushed together on the patio of the kitchen building. I’ve learned to ignore the tiny ants in the bread, instead smothering them with grainy peanut butter and mounds of jelly. We fill our plastic cups with hot chocolate, tea and instant coffee, sipping while we chatter about whether the shadowy mountain in the distant is close enough to walk to in a day. “No, no, no” our Kenyan teacher tells us, “you must have a special guide to keep you safe. There are deadly buffalo.” We all laugh, although he is very serious.

The day moves earnestly on, class time, tea time, more class time. In the afternoon we explore along the river. Down stream there is no trail only the thick tangles of vines and underbrush filled with lizards and mosquitos. I should have worn shoes, but we’re too far now and my sandaled feet have seen enough barefoot summers to brush off the rough twigs and rocks. The river opens up now and then and stretches into shallow rocky lakes with small islands of palm trees. Several people turn back, tired and ready to trade the spirit of adventure for a cool shower and a nap in the sleepy warmth of late afternoon. I scramble on with the remaining expedition, not willing to let these extraordinary moments go unsavored.

We spend the rest of the afternoon at a shallow waterfall, diving under the bubbling rapids to collect handfuls of smooth rock. Sprawled out across the rocks I soak up every heady moment of heat and the heaviness of tropical air, feeling my skin stretch tight with sunshine and drying water.

6am, Ohio, United States. Rolling over still half asleep I look out into the darkness of a damp, cold February morning. The glass of my window is cold to the touch and I snuggle deeper into my blankets. Closing my eyes I still hear the sounds of jungle birds and a rushing river in my memories as I drift through the last moments of sleep, just remembering.

About the Author: My name is Lara, an excitable 20-something from the MidWest of the United States. Traveling and writing are two of my greatest joys.

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