Kenya: You Are Welcome
I went to Kenya without any expectations- I wasn't looking to find myself, my roots, my people or any other romanticized notion of what Africa means for the diaspora. Rather, having just quit a soul-crushing job and packed up my life in D.C., I was only interested in one thing in Africa: where the party at?!
In that regard, the 2 weeks Marie, Laila, and I spent on The Continent did not disappoint! We soon found that we could not hang- we had grown unaccustomed to the type of parties where the DJ's kept you on your feet until the sun rose, clubs pulsating with bass and laughter, and crowds that danced, seemingly in unison. We'd go out each night in Kenya only to return to our AirBnB in the suburbs, sweaty, limping in our high heels, and exhilarated to the point of fatigue.
During the day, of course, we indulged ourselves in the wonders and curiosities of Nairobi. At times, as brightly decorated matatus whizzed by, if I covered my ears, many places in Nairobi transported me back to the busy streets of Port-au-Prince. Haiti.
We soon began to notice the unwavering politeness of the Kenyans ( and, often, our own American impatience) as the most simple task took a profoundly formal nature and required meticulous explanation in their perfect Standard English. When we told our Nairobi City Walking Tour guide, George, that we would not be going to the beaches of Mombasa on this trip, he looked at is with genuine pity and replied, "I'm so sorry for you." Upon realizing that this was our first time in Kenya, most Kenyans greeted us with the profoundly simple yet touching greeting, "You are welcome." Benjamin, our tour guide at the National Museum of Kenya gave us this detailed explanation of why the lion was referred to as the "King of the Jungle":
And now you know.
All this meticulous learning culminated in our 2 day safari in Masai Mara National Park. We negotiated an all-inclusive deal on our safari with KET Safaris (after all, everything is negotiable). When the day arrived, we left the storm clouds of the rainy season, air pollution, and seemingly endless new construction of Nairobi behind as mountains gave way to valleys until we finally entered Masai Mara. It was a world entirely different from any place we had ever been: Baboons and zebras unceremoniously crossed the road, far less interested in us than we were in them. On holiday from school, Masai children stopped to wave at us before expertly herding sheep away from the road. In the horizon, only a occasional stooped tree broke the expanse of green plains and blue sky.
Benjamin had given us a good introduction to Masai culture during our museum tour. He told us about a rights of passage ceremonies where 9-12 year olds had to go off into the bush and kill a lion, elaborate dowries, the symbolism of the stick that a Masai man would never be seen without, and the intricate detail that went into making their shields. Having seen the Masai so prominently heralded as a symbol of Kenya and African pride, we'd assumed they were a dominant ethnic group. In reality, they weren't even in the top 4 and their nomadic lifestyle was constantly under threat by modernization.
Our romanticized notions of the Masai were dashed even further as we got closer to the wildlife reserve. Similarly to the Masai Market in Kenya, we were aggressively hounded by Masai men and women selling souvenirs. It made me wonder what culture and traditions had been lost in the name of tourism, conservation, and modernity. Here were these proud and regal women standing on dusty roads to sell us the kikois, shúkà, and beaded jewelry- items that had once symbolized the stature of the person who wore it now reduced to merely souvenirs. Even more unnerving was to see the Masai in Zanzibar acting as tour guides and props for tourists, and a lure for sex tourism for elderly European women.
The safari experience, however, surpassed any pre-conceived notions that we may have had. There is something profoundly humbling about seeing wild animals in their natural habitat. Gone is the lethargy, pacing, whimpering, and glazed, indifferent expressions you see in zoo animals. Masai Mara was like the moment in the movie 'Pleasantville' when the town experiences technicolor for the first time after living solely in black and white. Suddenly, everything is more defined and more alive when you see herds of animals that you had only ever seen relegated to cages hunting or in nature documentaries , caring for their young, running wild, and completely in control. At one point, I was photographing a giraffe when it charged at our van so quickly that I didn't realize what had happened until our driver hit the gas peddle and sped out of his reach! The highlight of the experience, however, was the lions (who's mating habits we were now far too familiar with thanks to Benjamin). Even the Masai back at the camp chattered excitedly when they learned that we'd seen one of these rare creatures perched in a tree, hunting!
Tired and excited, we returned to our campsite, Ashnil Mara, that evening to be greeted with warm towels, hot showers, and beautifully prepared meals by the glow of candlelight. We fell asleep that night to the sound of hippos bellowing in the river outside. Kenya had given us more than we could have imagined. I did was not looking for it to change me, or even touch me in any way, yet it left its mark.