I traveled to Kenya last summer, which was memorable for three things. First, the people there were so uplifting. Second, I enjoyed seeing Africa’s wildlife. And finally, my girlfriend dropped my iPhone in the toilet. I could not thank her enough.
After the phone incident I went through all of the usual phases: shock and anger, then a period of grieving, then acceptance, and lastly a period of growth where I learned new skills, such as verbalizing my text messages face-to-face instead of the usual screen-based method. If you’re going to lose your iPhone, which for some people is their best friend, Kenya is a great place to do it. Especially in rural areas, the people of Kenya are friendly and unpretentious. They will not think badly of you for not having an iPhone. I could not buy another phone there, so I had no choice but to talk to people.
That turned out to be a blessing as I snatched a glimpse of the lives of a few people in Kenya. The main purpose of this trip was to build a school in a rural village. The idea is to provide sustainable infrastructure to improve the lives of impoverished people, and education is one of the pillars of any such program. This is practical charity – helping others to help themselves. Pamela Sendee organized the entire trip and she did an excellent job. Pamela is passionate about education in impoverished areas, and she has a fondness for Africa. Now I can see why.
Before going to Kenya, I understood the importance of early education from an intellectual perspective. However after experiencing the infectious enthusiasm of the children there, the goal of building schools became more than an academic exercise. Once in the school yard and among the children, anyone with a heartbeat cannot help but be touched by the appreciation they express for our contributions and their motivation to learn. When we entered their yard, the children swarmed us. The little ones wanted to be picked up and held. The older ones asked our names, our ages, where we were from. They all touched us out of curiosity. They wanted to practice their English, tell us their names, have photos taken. It was the closest I will ever come to being a rock star.
The undiluted enthusiasm of the children gained context as the week progressed and we saw more of the Mara region and met more people. Kenyans, at least in this part of the country, are friendly. Big smiles and a hearty ‘jambo’ were readily offered, even from many adults. The school project lasted just one week, of which only two days included actual building. On the other days we visited various projects of interest to the community. That’s a long way to fly for such a short time, so after the build we took the opportunity to go on safaris and visit other places in Kenya and Tanzania. This extended our trip by two weeks. For most of that time, excluding guides we were eleven people, ranging from 14 to 72 years of age. I feel fortunate to have been among this diverse, fun and caffeinated group.
Free The Children
While Pamela organized our itinerary, the project itself was sponsored by a non-profit called Free The Children. Logistics were handled by their for-profit affiliate, Me-To-We. It turns out that freeing the children is not actually free. For one week of the build project, we paid $1,600 per person, which covered all food, lodging and ground transportation; pretty much everything except airfare. The next two weeks on safari and tour cost another few thousand each.
I know I’m taking the lazy way out here, but rather than drone on about every detail of this trip, I’ve listed the experiences as bullet points, interspersed with Pamela’s photos. If you’re interested you can peruse these and maybe get a sense of the adventure. But the bottom line for this trip was that participating in building a school and meeting the children who will attend that school was an awesome experience that I heartily recommend.
Notes from Africa, August 2014
• Glamping: half of time in Kenya and Tanzania we either camped or glamped. The best glamp was the one set up by Me-To-We. Food was fantastic, all organic, freshly prepared. Local staff was inexplicably cheerful and friendly. Real cots, no sleeping bags. Large lighted tents. Luke-warm but serviceable showers, toilets … let’s not go there.
• Serengeti camping was rustic. Food was good, though tent was just a small pup tent, no fencing around the camp, so critters with sharp teeth patrolled the area at night, hoping for an unsuspecting camper to stumble in the darkness. Either hold it until morning or wear hyena costume.
• Leaders – Upon landing in Nairobi, met by Kira and Wilbur, our Me-To-We guides for the week. Kira from Canada, exuded great enthusiasm for task of building schools. Wilbur, native Kenyan 22 years old, half way through law school, believed deeply in the school projects. Iolando, another Canadian, employed by Free The Children, well-informed about infrastructure projects of this sort. Between our three young leaders, a wealth of knowledge in the issues of rural Kenya and challenges of lifting people out of poverty.
• Campfire every night after dinner at Me-To-We camp. One of my favorite activities. Tradition of sharing around a campfire a primal sort of experience. Kira led our group. Always positive and never judgmental, she coaxed experiences from each of us, each night we shared observations and favorite events from the day, and just enjoy chatting under the star-filled sky.
• Start each morning greeting local staff person in charge of hot water (maji moto). Water heated all day in a large metal barrel over a wood fire. Hot water guy fills about 3-4 gallons of water into a gravity fed bucket perched above one of the shower enclosures. Stand for a moment as I stared down that small canvas enclosure, perhaps 30 inches square, trying to summon the courage to take a luke-warm shower in the cool morning air.
• Fetching water – first morning in camp walk with the ‘mamas’ to fetch water. In Masai culture females have task of fetching water, plus washing, cooking and most domestic tasks. Men tend to the cattle, defend village. In old days men also responsible for stealing the cows of neighboring tribes (counterproductive zero-sum game when measured on a continental scale). Kira says the simple task of fetching water takes so much effort that it prevents girls from going to school. So must build schools near water holes or to bring water to the schools. We walked with the ‘mamas’ as everyone calls them, about a kilometer to the watering hole. Mamas were women in their twenties or thirties. Watering hole was muddy looking natural spring water. They would fill several 20 – 25 liter jugs and carry them about a half kilometer from the water hole to the village. Today they filled the jugs, and our group did the heavy work of carrying them. Entire process took nearly an hour.
• No begging in Kenya – unlike so many other poor countries. no children ask for anything other than to have their pictures taken. They are naturally curious and seem very happy to meet us. They realize that volunteer groups such as ours play a key role in building and supporting their schools, and that the education they are receiving is of great value to them. Well-trained by parents and teachers to not beg.
• build project only two sessions, a few hours each. roll up our sleeves to mix and pour cement to build the floor of a school building. All manual labor with simple tools. Two locals ensure we use correct techniques. Later, seven workers from the nearby electric project see us working in the school yard and take the initiative to help. Many hands make light work, and the spontaneous efforts of these young men noticeably advanced our progress. This was an unscripted act – an example of the good nature of people in this Maasai village.
• Wilbur tells us that the local staple is ugali, which is a mushy, flavorless mix of maize and water that all the locals love.
• Girls School – second day drive to all-girls secondary school, watch presentation by leaders of charitable organizations. We are taught how to bead, told that this and other crafts are important sources of alternative income for rural villagers. Attend a ground-breaking ceremony for an all-boys secondary school. A few dozen Me-to-We groups plus a few hundred locals gather in a small circle on a grassy area for ceremony. As people stream to the ground-breaking site, a man in a simple tan suit sings local folk songs as he sways to the music. Mellow crowd enjoys the music and builds their anticipation for uplifting words regarding planned school. Instead a downpour of much-needed rain. Crowd of 300 scurries to the nearby open tent, Kenyans and North Americans squeezing shoulder-to-shoulder to stay dry and wait for rain to subside. So no ceremony, but good vibes from mellow and friendly Kenyans, despite everyone being drenched.
• Visited local medical clinic, another FTC project. A clean modest facility that sees patients for about $3 to $5 per visit. No insurance required. They have seen about 11,000 patients since opening about a year ago. Services include dentistry, eye exams, general and emergency medicine and some minor surgeries. Patients with more serious issues sent to larger hospitals. One full-time doctor, several part-time doctors, a lab technician and several other staff, open six days / week. They view education as part of their mission and work to teach villagers basic premises of hygiene such as brushing teeth, fully cooking meat, washing hands. We questioned staff on many details and they seemed well- versed in their business and genuinely enthused in their roles. They noted that one of the major problems in this area is Brucellosis, which is a disease caused by eating unboiled cows milk. They try to combat this with education. Many patients pay their fees via cell phone. Medicines are also available, and also for the same $3-$5 fee.
• Farm – visit nearby farm supported by FTC. About 100 acres, or 40 hectares. Just five staff members grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in a year-round growing season that feeds 8,000 people. The only other labor they use is at harvest time for the beans and maize, during which they hire 70 workers for the harvest. The plants are watered with drip irrigation, 100 acres require just 15,000 liters of water daily. Water is supplied by 300 meter onsite well, which feeds raised tanks. The drip tubes use gravity to carry water to each plant. Remarkably, at least to my western experience, they have no insects, birds, squirrels or other pests ravaging the farm. They do employ a number of cats to control the mice. Farm never uses artificial fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals, so the food is fully organic. All of our meals have been supplied by this farm. Some crops are in large greenhouses while others are in the open. Many crops, including pineapple, papaya, many varieties of peppers, tomatoes, many squashes, cauliflower, brocolli, peas, maize, beans, passion fruit, strawberries. Some peppers are grown as a natural insecticide. They rotate crops from onions to others to replenish the soil, compost everything including cow manuer and generally use low-tech methods to run a highly productive, low cost farm producing high quality healthy food. They also raise goats and chickens which provides eggs and milk plus chicken and goat meat. They sell the eggs and milk, though all of the fruits grains and vegetables are provided free of charge. The farm has been in operation for less than two years, so time will tell if they can become self sustaining without support from charity. Potash Corporation has been a major contributor.
• Kenya became independent nation in 1963, combining 42 independent tribes into 47 counties, each with a governor.
• Wilbur patiently explains that Kenya suffered a drought in 2010 & 2011. When the U.S. ceased shipments of maize in 2011, large numbers of Kenyans starved to death. So food independence is an important goal for much of this country, though the government is ill-equipped to address this issue. Wilbur stated that the Kenyan government actually buys processed sugar from neighboring countries while local facilites sit idle. Government is not fully aware of work of FTC.
• Kenyan President took vast amounts of land and his son is now president and still owns the land. Government distributes money to each county. There are rivalries between some tribes.
• Amazing safari, up at 4:30 am, breakfast then on the road half asleep. At first light spotted a few giraffes. By 2 pm spotted more than 15 species, including hyena, baboons, hippos, zebras, a lion, and many others. Awesome to see so many wild animals roaming the Mara, which when you think about it is a true fast food joint. Mara is the name of the region we view today, consisting of several tribes including the Maasai. Most of region is sparsely populated with tress though some area of dense brush. Animals about, the vast majority of which are herbivores, grazing in herds, resting, running. We see ostrich, a vulture, many smaller birds, buffalo, wildebeest, gazelles, impalas, elands.
• Hippo is most dangerous animal in Africa, killing more humans than any other animal. Warthog is arguably cutest animal and only African animal with ADD. Locals call it ‘pumba.’ Very dangerous in its own right, will run from prey, suddenly stop because it forgot why it is running, then resume once it realizes it’s still being chased. When it runs, its tail stands up straight, like the antenna of a 1961 Buick.
• Some in group take balloon ride safari in early a.m., seeing big cats on the hunt, etc.
• Stop near a river for lunch and see herd of 25 hippos resting near water. Their girth is deceptive. When motivated, they can move with alarming speed, and with their immense powerful jaws, cut a person in half. Take pictures for a while, then sat near the edge of shallow cliff, maybe 50 meters away from the hippos. Eat our lunch and watch them move slowly into the water as they kept a wary eye on us, perhaps wondering if we would taste good.
• Goat gift – nice dinner included a cooked goat that we purchased as a gift for the staff, which is traditional way to honor and thank someone. Last night so entire camp staff joins us for dinner. after dinner they present a cake in a joyous and upbeat dance ceremony. the cake cutting was especially musical and festive.
• Richard, our local Maasai warrior joined our campfire and talks at length about the history and culture of Maasai people. long history, migrated long ago from Sudan area. well established customs for marriage and leadership. each age group chooses a leader who is humble, wise and polite. once chosen he is leader for life. culture seems highly geared toward marriage and reproduction. if someone never marries, then when they die their name will never be mentioned again, as if they never lived.
• they draw blood from cattle and mix it with milk to drink, all without killing the animal. diet used to consist mostly of milk, meat and blood. today the have added corn, beans and vegetables. used to train warriors to steal cattle from other tribes. when christian missionaries came the children were educated but tribe was threatened with losing their culture. today with western education they can adapt to new world yet keep much of their culture. bigger threat is probably the children who will move away for jobs.
• Nairobi sites –
⁃ elephant orphanage, facility takes in orphaned wild elephants, raises them to 3 years old then returns them to wild.
⁃ giraffe facility. really a tourist gimmick where you can hold a bit of giraffe food in your mouth and the giraffe takes it from you with his long purple tongue, makes a cute photo op.
⁃ fair trade bead factory with a hundred women and a few men hand making beads and some pottery.
• Nakuru Park – Stay in ’town’ of Nakuru with population of 1 million, though looks more like a much smaller town with ramshackle buildings, no traffic lights, some paved and some dirt roads. take 1 hour boat ride on lake Nakuru and see hippos and many birds. in middle of lake is private island of maybe 27 acres that was used for filming of ‘Out of Africa’. for movie they brought in full range of african animals. after filming they removed the predators, so now zebra and many other grazing animals live in a sort of food chain heaven where they can eat all day without being eaten.
• get to hotel and check in. a simple third world place, such as shower faucet next to toilet yet no shower enclosure or even curtain. after a short shower the entire bathroom floor is wet and stays wet for at least 24 hours. Next day go on 3 hour game drive in Nakuru national park. see male lion, buffalo, impala, gazelles, rhinos, giraffe, zebra, water buck, hyena, and many birds including stork and eagle. all animals roam freely here in large park that surrounds the lake. there are houses in the distance and some border the park. we are told there are cheetah here but don’t see them since they rarely are active in daylight. no elephants in this park since not big enough for the amount they would eat.
• next night stay in wildebeest camp. slightly upscale camp, tents have concrete floors and one bare light bulb that runs on generator from 6:30 pm to 10 pm. attached bathroom with toilet, sink and shower, though water runs very slowly and only intermittent hot water. some bathrooms have lots of spiders. food okay but very limited. camp is right in middle of a poor area. next day game drive in early morning to see big cats. Later that day another game drive to see wildebeest. These creatures resemble a cross between a horse and buffalo, though smaller in size than both. Some 1.6 million wildebeest migrate from Tanzania to Kenya every June, then return to Tanzania in October, they are everywhere in the mara region, mixing with zebras, gazelles, impalas and many more species.
• At one point we see several hundred dead wildebeest in the shallow edge of a wide river. A guide explains that this happens every year as the herd crosses the river. Some animals get trampled to death, becoming food for the huge crocodiles and various local scavengers. We see some crocs parked along the opposite river bank, presumably sizing us up.
• saturday afternoon we drive to town near Tanzania border, find hotel for night including dinner. group sits down to dinner at 7:30 to order. Dinner not served until 9:30. things move slowly in rural Africa.
• sunday morning a very short ride to border, go through customs which means paying $100 for visa (Americans). Lots of shady characters roaming around and we are warned to be very careful. say goodbye to Kenya guides and are introduced to Tanzania guides. drive almost 8 hours to Serengeti park. pass through many small towns. observe the inverse relationship of smiles to town size. the bigger the town, the fewer smiles we see. try to get cash but ATM eats the card, keeps some of the cash. it takes 1 hour and a $25 tip to retrieve the card. still out the cash.
• finally get to Serengeti shortly before closing. told that one of the most difficult animals to find is the leopard, yet just 15 minutes after entering the Serengeti we see one sleeping on a tree branch. get many good photos, then proceed to camp, passing elephant and many other animals along the way. that night in a mobile tent campsite with many other tourists. our hired guides set up tents and prepare dinner. to bed early with full warnings of the dangers of a late night bathroom break, with hyenas, lions and other dangers lurking in our unfenced camp in the middle of the Serengeti. if ever there was a time to hold it, this is it.
• next morning up early to try to see the big cats again. get lucky right away and spot four young male lions chowing down on a zebra. a few other lions patrol the nearby area as we get close to watch them dine on their spoils. a hundred meters away a pack of hyenas pace back and forth waiting impatiently for the lions to leave, so they can finish the scraps that the lions find unworthy of their pedigree. Vultures will finish what the hyenas leave, giving the zebra wide participation in this food chain.
• After the lion feast we drive another 45 minutes to exit the park, heading to the Ngorongoro crater. just outside the park exit are a group of 6 Masai adolescent boys, in full costume with painted faces. they offer to pose for a picture, asking $5. we say this is too much, return to our car to leave. just as we are about to pull away, they have a change of heart and offer the photo op for just $3. we agree and silly photos are taken. we are advised by our group leader that in general it is better to give money to women, especially mothers, because the men tend to just blow it on frivolities. I ask what’s wrong with a few frivolities?
• We drive to the crater, stop for a quick look then continue to our hotel. Will return to the crater later, but for now crave creature comforts not available in tent camping. We are also weary of long, dusty, bumpy roads, or ‘african massages’ as they are called. As we descend past the crater I notice that this side of the park seems more prosperous. buildings are nicer, less trash. I also notice the red volcanic soil which is very fertile, so presumably that is an important factor in the improved prosperity compared to drier regions we’ve seen so far in Kenya and northern Tanzania. Finally arrive at our resort lodge. this is the Octagon Lodge. no pool or spa, though very nice grounds, nice rooms, pleasant staff, reasonable rates.
• Tues. aug 19 visit nearby village where bananas are grown. these are primarily people that migrated from Mozambique about 40 years ago to escape civil war and political upheaval. they settled in this part of Tanzania after walking a long dangerous journey through african bush. they represent about 120 different tribes and now live in peace since there is ample water.
• last safari day driving through Ngorongoro crater. very wide ancient crater from volcano. sparsely populated with animals. see a few pink flamingos, though most of these birds are currently at nearby lake. See hippos, lions, wildebeest, hyenas, a few elephants, jackals, many birds, gazelles, warthogs. watch two hyenas devouring a wildebeest, most likely a kill from previous evening by lions. as hyenas tear away at animal, a dozen vultures sit on ground 20 feet away waiting their turn. Also three jackals await their turn on other side about 50 feet away. One jackal slowly approaches to take a taste, and the hyenas allow this. at one point the two hyenas interrupt their meal to fight with each other, then resume eating. we leave, knowing that after the hyenas leave the jackals will take a few bites, followed by the vultures who will finish off all but the bones. now have a clearer picture of the meaning of the expression ‘lion’s share’.
• tour banana village town named Mto wa Mbu – banana beer, banana wine, good lunch cooked on outdoor stone stove, organic veggies. main income from tourism. some barter with locals.
• aug 21 leave Octagon Lodge in town of Karatu, Tanzania. Observed how calm staff is, easy going, good service though still third world. now finished with safari. drive 3 hours to town of Arusha. Lunch in hotel named African Tulip, restaurant named after African tree Baobab. very fancy, especially after so much camping. Relax for several hours then to kilimanjaro airport to Zanzibar.
• arrive Zanzibar airport evening aug 21. taxis to hotel about 30 minutes, $10. stay at Coffee House, nice old hotel in arabic / moorish style. next morning enjoy rooftop breakfast, meet friendly hotel staff. half day walking tour of Stone Town, see main sites, including slave trade historical sites, many ornate doors of Zanzibar, daily food markets, historical fort. Just walking around picking up friendly attitude of locals. Tourism is their main source of income and everyone seems to realize this, so they are friendly to tourists. Island is primarily muslim, with a few christians and hindus. There are 45 mosques in stone town, and one hindu temple, one catholic church and one anglican church. All get along and no problems. Dr. Livingstone dedicated much of his life to end the slave trade in 1873. Heart buried in Zambia and body buried in native Scotland.
• Slave trade started when Arabs from Oman and other Arab countries purchased slaves from tribal chiefs of west Africa. These chiefs had enslaved their own people, often prisoners or possibly those who sold their own children into slavery. Trade with Arabs started in 7th century A.D. Eventually Europeans and then Americans participated. Zanzibar was holding area for slaves and place for auctions.
• Very good food, good service, prices on low side. Dinner at Emerson Hyuki (sp?) very nice. Streets very narrow, most too narrow for cars, though some motor bikes and some some pedal bicycles. Population of island 1.6 million. Democratic. Most women wear scarves but only a few cover face. Good vibes in Zanzibar. See no beggars, children don’t ask for handouts, street peddlers negotiate but not pushy – actually quite pleasant. Second full day in Stone Town drive to interior in spice farm area. Good tour of one spice farm, learn about many spice plants grown commercially here, though most not native to Zanzibar but from India, China, Madagascar, Indonesia or elsewhere. Learn about many medicinal uses of various spices, including one plant that when the bark is nicked oozes a fluid rich in iodine for a natural antiseptic.
• At one point a young girl maybe 4 or 5 years old in a pretty dress catches the attention of women in our group. They photograph the girl and show her the images, which the girl enjoys. The girl does not ask for money as children in many poor countries would do. Instead, I notice that our guide quietly approaches the girl after the women have left and gives her a coin. The girl scurries away pleased with her reward. Obviously the children here, and indeed the entire population have been trained to appreciate the tourists and treat them well, rather than bombard them with begging, aggressive peddling or other harassing behavior. This leaves a very favorable impression. We noticed similar behavior in mainland Tanzania and in Kenya.
• After spice tour and lunch sitting on ground at a local family’s home we drive to north end of island to a resort called Langi Langi. Time for three days of beach R&R to close our our Africa tour. Resort filled with Europeans, Russians and others enjoying beach holiday. Leave Zanzibar after 3 days, group disperses, flies home or to next destination.
• One take-away is the response ‘TIA’ which is acronym for ‘this is Africa’. Used as response to westerners surprised at slower, less accurate standards for many things in Africa when compared with developed world. Lower material and service standards, at least in Tanzania and Kenya seem to be accompanied by a friendly attitude.
• Leave Zanzibar Aug 26.
• Swahili lesson: by Richard, a Maasai warrior, one of 10 children by mother. father has 2 wives, other wife has 7 children.
⁃ there was much trade between Africans and Arabs, so to facilitate trade the Swahili language was developed.
⁃ jambo – hello
⁃ nakupenda – i love you
⁃ nawapenda – i love you all
⁃ hakuna matata – no worries
⁃ asante – thank you
⁃ asante sana – thank you very much
⁃ kabuki = you’re welcome
⁃ habari ya asubuhi – good morning
⁃ habari ya mihana – good afternoon
⁃ habari ya jiani – good evening
⁃ sawa sawa = okay
⁃ habari yako > mzuri sana (how are you – i’m fine)
⁃ jina langu ni – my name is
⁃ nina miaja – i am __ years old
⁃ una miaka ngapi – how old are you?
⁃ kuja haps – come here
⁃ twende – let’s go
⁃ lala salama – sleep well
⁃ nisaidie maji – help with water
⁃ maji moto = hot water
⁃ natuaka kuoga – i want to shower
⁃ unaitwa nani = what is your name?