A long time ago, I lived and worked in Mali. Now I’m fulfilling a childhood dream to go on safari. So many aspects of Kenya remind me of Mali even though the countries are a continent apart.
Nairobi’s hustle and bustle could be Bamako’s. Derelict vehicles vie for their bit of roadway with bicycles, carts, and pedestrians added to the mix.
But it is when our group leaves the city that the similarities truly flood my senses. The same feel to the hot dry air that pushes me into the ground as if to flatten like a pancake. The same broad vistas devoid of encroaching civilization—no highways, no towns, no electrical poles with their sagging wires. The same smells of brush fires and cooking fires with their homemade charcoal. The same encompassing silence that speaks of peace.
The same warm wide smiles of the children. And, unfortunately, the same distended bellies, sores, and hovering flies. I’d thought to find Kenya less poverty stricken, the general populace a bit better off. Not so.
Examples abound. Our group picks up box lunches from a hotel and settles at the airport to eat while we wait for our flight. Our group leader collects leftovers—a bun here, a piece of fruit there, a hard boiled egg or two—and takes them to two men working behind the Air Kenya counter.
“Can you use these?” she asks.
“Oh, yes,” one of the men replies.
A few minutes later, with another box of leftovers, she goes back. Eight employees are now waiting eagerly for her gift.
A young woman peeks out of the doorway of a souvenir kiosk and timidly asks, “Can I have some too?”
We learn later that it is against the law in Kenya to throw out food.
Like Mali, Kenya is a dichotomy of old versus new. We drive along one road paved with funding from Europe and see a long line of men and women laboring with pick-axes and shovels.
“What are they doing?” I ask our guide.
“Digging a ditch for fiber optic cable.”
We stay in a tent camp, a highlight for our group. We see nothing but the flat land around and an occasional herd of elephants passing by. We hear lions grumbling in the night. Our tent camp is powered by solar energy, with a generator used at the noon hour only to charge tourists’ camera batteries.
The morning we are to leave, we call one of the Masai warriors working at the camp to help with our luggage and tell him he can’t do it himself, he’ll need help. Wrapped in the traditional red blankets to keep warm in the early morning chill, he fumbles under his wraps, pulls out a cell phone, and calls for help.
We ooh and ah over the elegance of the Sarova Stanley where we are lucky enough to stay in Nairobi. We enjoy the luxuries of beautiful lodges in the Masai Mara. And we feel sick with the starkness of Kenya’s poor villages.
Now we have some idea of how lucky we are to live in Canada.