Kenya: Patchwork of Experiences
Any trip to Kenya is going to result in an intense patchwork of experiences – from the dreadfully frustrating to the sublimely beautiful. This, at least, is the conclusion I reached after a visit to Kenya with my wife, Lisa, for a wildlife safari. We encountered a crumbling infrastructure, inefficient airlines and a constant pleading for money, but also incredibly friendly people, astounding landscapes, and rich cultural encounters. In the end, we wouldn’t have traded any part of the experience. We returned home with a collage of lasting memories.
The safari began early on a Sunday morning when our guide, Ben, picked us up in Nairobi. We had a six-hour drive ahead of us on this day and we would be in the vehicle every day for the next week, crossing the equator twice and bouncing along more than one thousand miles of Kenyan roads.
“So, we will be together for six days,” I said to Ben. “That means we will become friends.”
“We are already friends,” he said, smiling, in a comment typical of the friendliness of the culture.
Before long, we were out of Nairobi and off into rural Kenya. Only occasionally during the next week would we run into a small city, at places like Nakuru or Narok. We drove north through rolling foothills of green trees and red soil – my lasting images of Kenya. Just as I will forever associate Greece with the colors of blue and white, Kenya evokes vistas of green and red.
One of the biggest things I noticed as we drove were the number of people on the streets. Everywhere, even in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere between towns, we passed people walking or biking. Even on long stretches of empty highway, where in the United States you would encounter nothing but other vehicles, in Kenya, there were dozens of people just going about their daily lives. We saw women walking with huge loads of wood tied to their backs, young boys tending herds of cows, a person steering a donkey-driven cart. Near the tribal areas, there were local tribespeople tending their cattle, or doing laundry in a stream, or just out walking with a spear in hand.
Our drive took us past banana trees and coffee plantations, past vast wheat-colored fields lined by acacia trees, past goats and cows wandering the sides of the road. We came across small towns, or sometimes small concentrations of ramshackle shops along the way. We saw an open market, with food and clothing laid outside on carpets, surrounded by hundreds of people shopping for goods. In the cities, it was more of the same, although the buildings and stores were bigger and more sturdily constructed. Wherever we stopped, people descended on the van begging us to buy something from them.
Two other things were quite noticeable as we drove. One, was the matatus, which are Kenya’s version of public transportation. Big vans, with enough room to squeeze in twelve or so people shoulder to shoulder. They are very colorful, all individually decorated and named, and ever-present along the roadways. They are a cherished part of Kenyan culture, even though the drivers are known to be somewhat wild and dangerous.
The other prominent feature was the prevalence of Christianity – spiritual messages in general. Many of the matatus were decorated with signs – “Lover of the Lord”, “God is the Answer”. Churches and Christian centers were ubiquitous throughout the country. I became accustomed to seeing “miracle” a lot, and “miracle centers”.
It was actually good to have so much to occupy our eyes on the trip because the road was rough, making it impossible to write more than brief notes. Sometimes it was even difficult to read. The roads were just a series of potholes that were sometimes surrounded by pavement. The drivers constantly had to veer from one side of the road to the other, sometimes driving on the dirt shoulder for miles at a time to avoid the worst potholes. And the dust – we were plagued by it, blowing in through the bottom of the van or through small openings in the window.
There was a string of these contrasts along the way and throughout the week. We were frustrated by the crumbling infrastructure, the potholes, the dust. But we were enthralled by the landscape, the culture, and the richness of the land. We were annoyed by the constant begging and selling of souvenirs whenever we stopped. When we weren’t besieged by people who wanted our money, we were delighted by the friendliness of the people, their smiles, their easygoing nature. We couldn’t separate one from the other, so we just took it all in. It’s part of the mosaic that is Kenya.