The date was 17th July, 1882 at 7:00pm. I had just arrived at Jommo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. I was surprised at the number of people in the airport to welcome the visitors who had just arrived in the country. Dressed in traditional African regalia, a group of about ten traditional dancers sang a song by the name “Hakuna matata” which I later learnt, meant “welcome to the county of no worries”. My first reaction was that the people were very welcoming because they treated us with much respect and courtesy. Indeed, my first few minutes in the country were characterized by gratuity as one short but stout man came to help me wit the luggage all the way to the parking lot where there was a waiting cab.
After helping me to the cab, the man went back, leaving me with the cab driver. There was a huge language barrier between the driver and I because he was communicating in Swahili and I in English. He understood that I had to get to Intercontinental hotel where I was booked for the night though we couldn’t agree on the fare. I noticed he was negotiating in terms of shillings but the only currency I had was the dollar. I was also confused on how I would negotiate with him because I had no idea how much the Kenya shilling was exchanging with the dollar. Nevertheless, with the use of sign language, we understood each other. He packed my luggage in the trunk and ushered me into the car. I noticed the man was very respectful and hospitable, almost similar to the welcoming dancers at the airport.
The drive to the hotel was short. I didn’t see much under the cover of the creeping darkness though I noticed Nairobi was dotted with a number of hand pulled carts and bicycles. A small group of about five people littered the streets around a pile of burning firewood. “Welcome to Kenya” the cab driver said after a long silence.
“Thank you” I replied, surprised by his language. After a few attempts to converse with him in English, I noticed “Welcome to Kenya” was the only sentence he could utter on English. After a few moments of awkward silence, he switched on the Radio to a poor reception. I could barely understand what was being said on radio because in addition to the poor reception, I barely understood Swahili. We drove a few more minutes through well lit streets, dotted with a few cars until we arrived at the hotel.
I was taken aback by the warm reception of the hotel attendants because they received me quite exceptionally. “Welcome to Kenya”, a young man said as he took my luggage from the car. I handed the cab driver a dollar and followed the hotel receptionist into the lobby. Inside the hotel, there were only a few locals. Most of the people who were present at the hotel were exclusively Italian and British tourists. I could tell from the Italian and British accents. From that point, I remembered Kenya was previously a British colony and was just embracing their independence.
Nonetheless, I could notice the foreign patrons at the hotel felt at home and the attendants were treating them exceptionally too. While I waited for the receptionist at the lobby, I noticed another striking feature among the employees; there wasn’t a single female staff in the hotel. This was quite different from America because it seemed like Kenya was still under gender discrimination. The entire time, before I was allocated my room, I never encountered a single Kenyan woman, even at the airport. That just hit me when we took the elevator to my third floor room. From there on, I knew my experience in the country would be full, of new experiences because I noticed a lot was different; especially with the culture of the people. The hospitality I got from the hotel staff was very surprising. I must admit, this came to me as a surprise because, I expected a hostile reception because of the racist and prejudice attitudes I expected from the staff. Nevertheless I was glad to be in the country for the first few hours of my arrival. I retired to bed around 10:00 pm.
The following day, I met my tour guide, a young, tall man by the name George. He understood English quite well and I must admit; his was impeccable. This was probably from the British influence in the colonial era. After striking a conversation with him, he brought to my attention that many of the people who worked in the hospitality industry were workers from white farms. “Not many people are educated here” he added. “The country is just establishing social institutions like schools and hospitals, after the demise of the white settlers” he clarified. Anxious to see the sites in the city, I nodded quickly as we walked to the car. We boarded a blue SUV after he packed a few snacks as we prepared to leave the hotel for a trip to the National Park.
We set off at 10:00am for Nairobi National Park. I was excited for the trip because I’d never heard of a national park in the city. Nairobi national park was an hour drive from the hotel but we made two stops before arriving at our destination. The first stop was at a Giraffe centre, an animal conservation that exclusively kept Giraffes and Warthogs. Needless to say, the attendants at the centre were even more accommodative and informative than the locals I met the previous day. This was my first encounter with wild animals. I fed the Giraffes with a few pellets (I had no idea what they were) though it was a good experience because the giraffes fed from my palm. Tall but harmless little creatures, I wondered silently.
The experience was the same at the Animal orphanage which was our second stop. Here, they took special care of most of the weakling animals in the wild, such as the Elephants, Dears, Cheetahs, Cubs, Hippos and the likes. I took a number of pictures with the animals because they were already accustomed to human beings. I must admit a photo I took with a cheetah and a cub were the most unique because never did I think in my life I would pose with a cheetah; leave alone a cub. The drive from the Animal orphanage to the national park was bumpy and dusty. Except for a few streets in the city, most of them were narrow and very congested both by pedestrians and cars.
George reiterated that many people walked because cars were very expensive for a large majority of the people. Most of the people who owned cars in the country were either politicians or government officials. Nonetheless, I was perturbed by the level of poverty eminent in the population. Handcarts littered every corner of the street, especially as we drove in the outskirts of the city. Small children ran dangerously across the streets with small water containers and bottles; adults pulled water containers in hand carts, slowing down the traffic because they shared the same roads with the cars. Maneuvering between them was a daunting task for George though he managed to do it after almost knocking down two children.
We arrived at Nairobi National Park around midday. The sun scotched high at the time and the temperatures were awkwardly high. “Too hot?”, George asked after noticing my discomfort. “Yes” I replied trying not to make a big deal out of it. “This is the true safari experience, it doesn’t get any better than this” he added. I laughed. We later drove into the park but after a few security checks at the gate. The number of cars in the park was exceptionally high; many were diplomatic cars with red registration plates. “They are diplomats” George affirmed. “So, not many locals come to the park?” I asked.
“Not many, though today is a national holiday and the entrance to any national park in the country is free. That’s a decree from the government”
“That’s how it is in the country; every national holiday equals free entrance to any national park or game reserve?” I asked.
“Yes” George answered swiftly.
“Then we better make hay while the sun still shines” I joked. After talking with George for a while, he made me understand that most of the locals did not patron national parks or game reserves because that was traditionally regarded a reserve of foreigners. The trip to the National park was a good adventure because I took many photos of animals I barely knew existed. The park had the true savanna experience; tall thick bushes, baboons perched on top of trees, lions roaming the wild cheetahs napping under trees and dears grazing in the fields. The heat made us check into our hotel early. I was very dusty from the long drive back to the hotel and due to the fatigue I felt, I retired to sleep early in readiness for a long trip the following day.
On the third day of my trip in Kenya, George and I boarded a chartered flight from Wilson airport to Turkana, our destination. Turkana is one of the most remote places on earth. Not much civilization was evident in the area. I noticed this after we arrived at 12:00pm, in the company a few other German tourists. We alighted in a town called Lodwar. This was a very small town, nothing but a few buildings scattered the streets. The culture shock I experienced was too big to ignore. Everyone was dressed in draping sheets. “They call them Kangas”, George clarified. One couldn’t even tell the difference between men and women because they all dressed the same. Noticeably, everyone wore the same color of sheets for clothes. Some women even walked bare-chested with children clutched at their backs.
When we arrived I felt the heat blowing across my face like a wave. The heat at the capital (Nairobi) was milder because George notified me that the temperatures in Turkana usually ranged from 30 to 40 degrees. “That’s very hot” I retorted. I inquired how the locals were able to live in such kind of climate. He made me understand that it was the only climate they were accustomed to. We checked into a mission run hotel for lunch as we freshened up. To our surprise, the hotel had a wide variety of food for all their visitors. I could get any type of food I wanted and true to my suspicion, there were no female attendants. That was very peculiar because at no point since my arrival in the country did I see a female worker anywhere.
I took a bowl of fruit salad and drank a lot of water before we set off in a white bus to Eliye springs, a local tourist resort at the shores of Lake Turkana. We ultimately decided to partner with the German tourist group we travelled with; because we figured it would be much cheaper and adventurous travelling together. In addition, we were all travelling to the same location and they lacked a guide as well.
I came to learn that Lake Turkana was the only existent lake in a desert region, in Sub Saharan Africa. We arrived at the location a few minutes past 2:00pm and were welcomed by a group of naked children taking a swim at one end of the lake’s shore. The German entourage we came with was more than pleased to be in Eliye. It was a very beautiful place; I couldn’t believe such beauty existed in a desert. We all couldn’t wait to take a swim in the clear water. Lake Turkana was the most peculiar lake I’d ever seen. It was a strip shaped lake, 500 kilometers long, stretching into a neighboring country, Ethiopia and about 2 kilometers in width. Funny enough, one could walk approximately 500meters into the water without totally submerging in the water. It was very refreshing to swim in it. A few boats dotted the lake because fishing was the main economic activity in the area. It was quite peculiar too that in a desert condition with over 40 degrees heat, fishing would be the main economic activity.
We interacted with the children as we swam, though we could not understand each other at all because they spoke in Turkana language, which even George could not understand. At about 4:00pm we went to sample local artifacts, sold at one end of the shore. Some artifacts were really interesting, with curvatures of traditional African men, wild animals and landmarks. Other artifacts present were beaded ornaments, woven baskets and walking sticks. I must admit, I was impressed by their work.
For the first time, this was the point at which I met the first female group doing something economically viable. I was particularly impressed by this single bangle ornament made in white and black small beads which I bought at an exorbitant price of a dollar. The women selling these artifacts were dressed in the same red, draping sheets but what were uniquely different about them from their male folks were the numerous neck ornaments they wore. George let us know that this had a cultural significance, especially in the number of beads a woman wore. Usually, married women wore 14 necklaces while unmarried women wore 7.
One of the accompanying German tourists got curious and wanted the entire details about their social culture. George was not well versant with their culture because it turned out that the country had 42 tribes and understanding each culture was an impossible task. Anyway, he let us know that the women are usually married of at about the age of 13. Parents usually married their daughters off in exchange of a herd of cattle which was actually a symbol of wealth and status in their society. George however made us understand that this was unique to the Turkana culture and not any other tribe in Kenya. In addition, they circumcised their girls and boys alike. Almost every woman was circumcised in the community as a rite of passage into womanhood. We later came to understand that it was such cultural practices that inhibited women in that community to progress either socially or economically because they were regarded as the property of their husbands once they were married off and certain duties were expected of them, none of them economic. This also contributed to the low literacy levels in the community. Nevertheless, we were made to understand that the neighboring country, Ethiopia had a worse situation because despite their agricultural endowment, most of Ethiopia’s inhabitants were very illiterate though richer as compared to their Kenyan counterparts. This was among the most remote places on earth and the most economically viable activity was the sale of agricultural goods. There was also no form of government in the area though there were traces of the local administration in Lodwar where we landed.
The day got darker and darker then George suggested we drive back to the hotel in Lodwar. The bus ride back to the hotel was bumpy, with the group of small children running beside the bus, waving. I couldn’t help but notice that the children were exceptionally happy despite the eminent state of poverty they lived in. With the creeping darkness, the children kept chasing the bus for almost a kilometer as we drove slowly through a dusty, rocky terrain. As we traced our way back to the hotel, I stopped to think of how happy the children were in spite of their poverty. I came to appreciate the true meaning of life because it all boiled down to happiness despite the situation they lived in. In fact, they could have easily passed as the happiest group I’d seen since my departure from America.
Reaching the hotel, we had a group dinner. I made some friends with the visiting group of German tourists and noticed they were equally amazed at how the inhabitants were happy with their lives despite the harsh conditions they lived in. “I would be depressed to death” one member of the group blurted out. “No, I would be happy too. I mean…. If this is the life you are used to. You sought of get accustomed to it and eventually enjoy it” another added. “That’s true, why should you be worried about other things if life makes perfect sense in your primary environment?” Another wondered. We interacted for a while but decided to retire to bed at around 10:00pm ready for a brief trip to Todonyang’, a mission group about 300 kilometers from Lodwar, where we were staying.
We alighted from the hotel at 9:00am in the morning in two white SUVs. The journey to Todonyang’ was the most tedious journey I’d ever been in. The road was almost non existent because we canvassed through rivers and small paths; never meant to be driven through. Thorny acacia trees also kept scratching the vehicles as we drove past in the scotching sun. Nonetheless, it was an experience I couldn’t dare miss because I never saw anything like it in my life. There was virtually no trace of life except for a few dotted herds of goats that dotted the landscape. Most of them were guarded by a herdsman, standing on one foot with a small radio clutched in one arm. “How do they do that?” I wondered out aloud.
“Do what?” George asked.
“Stand on one foot for a long time?”
“It’s a cultural thing; you are born with that ability?” George joked.
The drive was even more tedious and tiring as we approached Todonyang’. We suffered a few flat tires and crossed massive rivers. I noticed two washed away cars at the banks of two rivers making the journey even scarier. Two hours into the journey, we arrived at Todonyang’, a small town with nothing but a dispensary, police post, school, mission centre and a few settlements. Todonyang’ was less than a kilometer away from Ethiopia and stood at the shores of Lake Turkana. The lake was actually long enough such that it even stretched into Ethiopia. The breeze from the lake actually reduced the effect of the blazing heat. We joined a group of Spanish missionaries at the mission centre. There were traces of civilization here with a few cars, trucks, a petrol station, and a dam as the hallmarks of the mission centre.
It was actually amazing to see what the missionaries had done for the local population there because they built a wind mill which pumped water from the lake into the dam and into the compound of the inhabitant’s houses. There was also a small school where the missionaries hired two teachers and two nurses at the dispensary. In addition, the missionaries also lived there with the inhabitants and had even learnt the local Turkana language. I asked one of them how long they had stayed in the area and he replied that they had been in the area for fifteen years.
George made us understand that there was a massacre at the spot where the mission was established. It turned out that there were tribal clashes at the area between the Turkana inhabitants and an Ethiopian tribe called the Merille. I was shocked to see that most of the locals there had guns, apparently because the place was characterized by raids and retaliatory attacks from the neighboring Merille tribe, in Ethiopia. We interacted with the inhabitants and even dinned together. It was a great experience seeing how happy they were because of our visit.
Early the following morning, we took the long treacherous drive back to Lodwar. It was amazing to note that people lived there, in one of the most isolated places on earth. On our way back, we encountered the same, one-foot standing herdsmen. We arrived at Lodwar around midday after which George and I packed our bags ready to leave for Nairobi. We departed at 2:00pm and arrived at Wilson airport 45 minutes later. I took a connecting flight out of the country, sad that I had to leave without really exploring the country well enough. Nevertheless, I was more than happy for the adventure I experienced. It was really eye opening.