So after turning thirty, and realizing that there wasn’t much time left before life’s real responsibilities got in the way, I knew that it was time to go. So I gathered up my resources, suffered through eight vaccination shots against various deadly diseases, pinched my savings together, and took off on a three-month overland safari through Africa. Safari is a Swahili word that means “journey”. Someone “on safari” was away and out of town, which summed up my trip perfectly.
Many people had asked me why I was going to Africa of all places, a continent that had seen horrible poverty and atrocities committed over the years. I wanted to see the Africa beyond what the newspapers and media said, the simple Africa that had nothing to do with war and poverty, child soldiers and corrupt politicians. I wanted to take a closer look at this continent and interpret it for myself.
I often wondered why people who wanted to travel didn’t travel extensively more. Studies conducted with elderly people who are nearing death have shown that many of them wished they had travelled more. And not all the people who travel extensively do so because they are considered "lost".
In my own life, I have travelled and learned a lot and chose the life of unknown possibilities. And like the famous poem from Robert Frost about the fork in the road, it has made all the difference. Sometimes I think that we try to plan our lives out perfectly but we forget about luck. Luck happens to us all the time and whether or not we act upon those opportunities is up to us.
My first destination was Kenya. Upon arrival into Nairobi, the weather was perfect. It was sunny with dry heat and no humidity. It was heaven after being in England for so long (I’m American but currently living in England), with rainy and overcast days ruling my life for the past few months. From the window of my taxi from the airport, I watched scenes of Nairobi life; lean, ebony-skinned women with shaved heads dressed in long skirts with colorful African prints on them, some of them carrying bags of food on top of their heads; groups of smiling kids in school uniform walking to school, their hair braided in cool patterns, men dressed in long sleeve shirts and pants sitting along the side of the road in groups, chatting the day away. Lots of road workers stood about next to large holes in the earth just chatting. Strangely enough, it didn't really seem like anyone was working or at least, they weren’t working hard.
Vendors with paintings, towels, potato chips, and ice cream wandered amongst the traffic when it stopped, gazing at drivers and passengers with hopeful eyes. Matatus lined the road, picking up people at random. Matatus were like mini-vans that carried a lot of people, most of whom sat on each other’s laps. Being too close to someone else was just something you had to get over if you lived in Africa. The matatu drivers loved to get as many people as possible into their vans because, naturally, more people meant more money. Lots of big dump trucks carried dirt past us and the air was filled with choking dust. I pulled my blond hair into a tight knot and slipped on a pair of sunglasses as the wind blew through the cab and the sun shone down with intensity. I was excited to begin my journey. It was the start of a new adventure and I was feeling the newness of these foreign surroundings for the first time.
Some of the workers sitting along the side of the road stared at me with vague interest. I, of course, could not possibly go unnoticed here with my blond hair, green eyes, and pale skin, not to mention the huge backpack I was carrying on my petite frame. I was the foreigner here, the mzungu, which in Swahili meant “white person”. The backpack was nearly the same size as I was and screamed out “tourist”.
“Look sister,” the taxi driver said, pointing to two giraffes grazing in an adjacent field separated by fence.
“What? I see them. Yes, two giraffes grazing!”
It was my first wild animal sighting in Africa and it had happened within thirty minutes of being in the country. And this was all after just coming from the airport. There was also a Maasai with his herd of goats in the large field.
“This land is government protected,” the taxi driver explained.
The Maasai are a Nilotic ethnic group and are one of the many tribes in Kenya. They are semi-nomadic, and are perhaps the most famous of all the tribal groups in Africa due to their unique style of dress and their custom of drinking cow blood in their diet. The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle, but the people have continued their age-old customs. I hope they weren’t planning to abandon their customs anytime soon. Seeing them was like stepping back in time, a time that I could only imagine from looking at them. Because there are so many tribes in Kenya, many Kenyans consider their nationality to be of their tribal affiliation rather than of being ‘Kenyan’, which I found very interesting. Therefore, the Maasai would identify with being Maasai before Kenyan.
Kenya was a place where archaeological excavations around Lake Turkana in the 1970s had revealed skulls thought to be around two million years old and those of the earliest human beings ever discovered. What an exciting thing to think, that the first humans had potentially come from the very land that I was standing upon! Not to mention a land that played host to the annual wildebeest migration, which is the largest single movement of herd animals on the entire planet.
Nairobi, my jumping off point, had a population of 3 million people. The fact that its nickname was “Nai-robbery” did not comfort me. Violent crime and extreme poverty was a big problem of the city.
I was staying in the suburb of Karen, which was the wealthier suburb of Nairobi, in a place called Karen Camp. It was from here where I would depart on my overland adventure. Upon arrival, I checked into my dorm room and then decided to get something to eat. While I was perusing the menu at the bar for lunch, I chatted with an older white Kenyan guy.
“I like to come here for cheap beers,” he exclaimed, making his point by slamming his bottle on the bar top and laughing.
He seemed a bit lonely and anxious to share his stories with someone.
“I had a real wild time growing up in Kenya,” he reminisced. “I used to ride my motorbike really fast along the savannahs. But then I grew up and started to see all the problems that Kenya has, with the corrupt politicians. I think kids have it good, don’t you think? They can live in their own peaceful and innocent worlds without knowing the real truth about the world.”
I nodded, taking a sip of Tusker beer, the most popular Kenyan beer. I was disappointed that the bar didn’t serve a local specialty of nyama choma (barbequed or roast meat). I had heard that you could buy the meat (usually goat) by the kilogram; it’s then cooked over a charcoal pit and served in bite-sized pieces with a vegetable side dish.
Soon, a local Kenyan guy joined us by the name of Mr. Happy. Mr. Happy was very happy indeed, and I could see exactly how he had gotten his nickname.
“There are some strange rules that the Kenyan government enforce; no public smoking, no talking on cell phones in public, and a seriously crazy $4000 fine for loud noise,” he explained. “These rules all have a reason though, as people have been hit by cars while chatting on cell phones, and clubs with loud music have opened next to schools.”
Kenyans were conservative. I had noticed that women wore long skirts and covered their knees and shoulders when out. I could sense that even from looking at people on the street. The women were appropriately covered and there were signs for Christian churches everywhere. Religion, in the form of both Christianity and Islam, had a big presence in Kenya and this may have also contributed to the conservative way of thinking.
The bar began to fill with both expats and locals and it seemed to be a watering hole for the wealthier residents of Karen, most of whom appeared to be white. I suspected that many of these people had come from one of their fancy homes in the neighborhood, a home that was surrounded by high electric wire fence. Seeing these kinds of large houses with all their high security made me feel as though the gap between the rich and the poor might be considerably high in Nairobi. But it was just a guess. Mr. Happy told me that even in Karen, it wasn’t safe to walk around alone. I hated labels and stereotyping of an entire city or nation and I am a firm believer that there are many more good people in the world than bad.
However, “Nai-robbery” didn’t get its nickname for no reason. I planned to head Mr. Happy’s advice. He was a local after all, and he certainly knew more than I did.
Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Savannahs & Sunsets: An African Overland Adventure, available on amazon.com