WE were greeted with “Karibu” as we stepped off of our long-haul Etihad flight from Shanghai.
While I finished the last of my baklava and looked out towards the pastures strewn amongst the sandy plains of Kenya, beyond the tarmac and concrete of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I pondered with a sense of wonder, anticipation and fear what this ten-day trip held in store for me.
I consider myself a seasoned traveler, for a girl of 16, but prior to my journey, Africa was one of the only two continents I had not yet visited.
I feared the uncertainty of understanding the language, the inhabitants and the multiple levels of social awkwardness that came with traveling in a “Chinese tour group” as the sole English-speaking member. Nevertheless, all of those fears were allayed as the trip turned out to be an eye-opening wonderful adventure.
It goes without saying the wildlife we photographed at the Masai Mara National Reserve and the stunning desolation of Amboseli at the foot of Kilimanjaro were amazing. Capturing cheetahs, leopards and wildebeests, that conveniently crossed our paths, took our breath away, but there was so much more to Kenya.
The culture, hospitality and purity of the Kenyan people were extraordinary. The prejudices that people have towards Africa and rural Africans are unfair. From my experience the people I came across from the drivers to tour guides contradicted everything I had heard. They were courteous, professional and experienced.
It’s no exaggeration to say that we were able to witness the wildlife of the parks in all of their glory, from the hunts to the Great Migration, thanks to the expertise of our well-informed drivers.
The game drives were made far more entertaining with the drivers’ humorous running commentary, made even funnier as they attempted some Chinese in our conversations.
Several of our guides were linguistically talented, one of whom could speak at least five languages. And special mention goes to Martin, one of the drivers who took time out to ensure I was checked into the hotel safely in Nairobi after I broke up with the rest of the group who were headed to Tanzania the next day.
The part of Kenya that amazed me most was the customs and arts of the pastoral Masai tribe, who are one of the smaller tribes of Kenya compared to the Kikuyus. It was the visit to the Masai Manyatta village that changed the way I saw indigenous Africans forever.
The US$35 entrance fee to the village allowed total freedom to photograph the Masais as much as I wished to, and I was able to watch a fascinating dance performance by the prominent members of the clan, including chiefs and village children.
As soon as I stepped foot off our sturdy Toyota Landcruiser, I was surrounded by cows, goats and beautifully dressed Masais, in all the colors of the rainbow. Their typical garments consisted of a shuka — a plaided cloth wrapped around the body, head adornments, such as feathers for the chiefs and beaded jewelry for men and women alike. Their sandy toes were free of footwear.
I was invited into one of the villager’s clay and straw huts after being shown how they harnessed fire for warmth using elephant waste. I sat by the side of the chief’s son while listening to the traditional milking process, as told by the vice chief, who held out one of their intricately carved wooden milk containers as he spoke.
Reason to be proud
One of the young Masai men began to chat with me about their education and life as a teenager in Kenya. It was then I learned that their schooling system is not too dissimilar to the British, the one with which I’m educated in. But unlike me, this 18-year-old has to walk five kilometers barefoot to school every day.
“I know about England and Australia from the maps in our school,” he said. “We look at them so we can see where other places in the world are, all the places outside Kenya.”
He said this to me, not with a sense of longing or disappointment, but with pride. The superb level of English spoken from tribesmen, like the Masais, is a testament to the excellent schooling the nation provides and I believe this alone gives them reason to be proud.
The renowned National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale said something very close-to-heart about Kenya, which echoes my own reflections after this experience. She said: “You could pour all the resources in the world into saving these animals, and it’s never going to work unless the local communities are involved.”
It is true that certain diseases still run rampant and there is instability in some nations in Africa, which makes safety an issue for foreign travelers.
Kenya is far from perfect. But the admirable thing I cherish most about Kenya, and its people is their ability to preserve and respect their heritage, despite the economic conditions they unfortunately have to endure as a country.
Kenyans haven’t forgotten their roots, which they take immense pride in. They are able to make the most out of an imperfect situation, and their happiness lies in their contentment and appreciation of the remarkable natural wonders that their land has gifted them.
Whatever preconceptions you may have of Kenya, put them to one side and go see it for yourself. The purity, generosity and unspoiled innocence are like a breath of fresh air in a polluted city.
The author is an Australian citizen originally from Shanghai, currently studying physics, maths and history at Cheltenham Ladies’ College in the UK. Shanghai Daily condensed her article.