Why I Love Kenya – For 43 years I dreamed of returning

by Aug 30, 2021Kenya

Why I Love Kenya Sunrise Acacia Maasai Mara Cover

I fell in love with Kenya in 1978. It took me until 2021 to return. Despite the years between visits, it didn’t take long for me to remember why I love Kenya so much. Kenya still had much to teach me and so much love to give after all these years.

I fell in love with Kenya 43 years ago. It began in 1978, when as a wide-eyed 20-year-old, I jumped at an opportunity to spend a semester of college abroad. On paper, I went to Kenya to study African literature, photojournalism, and wildlife biology. In truth, my college abroad became an education in culture, diversity, natural history, humanity and … in myself.

In living with a Samburu tribe, laughing with Maasai warriors, playing with Kikuyu children, walking along the Rift Valley, watching sunrises in the Maasai Mara, and bartering with vendors in Mombasa markets, undiscovered parts of me began to awaken, come alive. It was as if the fertile soils I was walking on were encouraging the roots of my soul to take hold and grow. Ernest Hemingway wrote in ‘Green Hills of Africa,’ “Where a man feels at home, outside of where he’s born, is where he’s meant to go.” For me, Kenya felt as if it were where I was meant to be.

Samburu Woman Sewing 1978 Kenya Trip

A Samburu woman sewing next to her manyatta during my visit and stay with this Samburu tribe in 1978.

Like pining for a long-lost love, I have dreamt of Kenya nearly every day since my plane lifted off from the Nairobi airport winging me home. I have only to look up from my desk to a pen and ink drawing of bull elephants by renown wildlife artist and photographer Jonathan Scott to be reminded of the Mara. And yet I cannot explain why it took me 43 years to return. Life perhaps. This excuse or that. Whatever the reason, I finally found myself on a plane in August 2021, heading to Nairobi, to remind myself once again why I loved Kenya so deeply. And this time I was going to be able to share that love with my wife, Therese, on a photo safari and her first visit.

My 43-year love affair tested

Like me, Kenya had changed. As we drove away from the airport, I could see the lines on its face. The country’s appearance now showed the rough edges, cracks, creases and sagging that decades of struggle, political change, corruption and yes, even terrorism brings. It was impossible not to notice the most obvious change from my first visit as we checked into our hotel near the airport. The entrance was protected with armed guards, a bomb-sniffing dog, and a high security fence surrounding the building. Everyone was smiling, welcoming, but on guard.

As we headed off toward Amboseli National Park, dust enveloped our Land Cruiser, forcing us to close the windows as we drove along what should have been a highway. Construction had instead reduced miles of this main Nairobi thoroughfare to a mind-numbing crawl. Our driver wove his way skillfully, hour after hour, along a nearly gridlocked road full of colorfully dressed pedestrians dodging through traffic, large trucks belching clouds of diesel exhaust, overloaded passenger buses, motorcycles, taxis, and a few donkey carts scattered here and there. Traffic lanes a mere suggestion, mostly ignored. Tire shops, repair shops, and markets dotted the edge of the highway, each looking dark, dirty, often ramshackle in appearance. Trucks and cars in various states of disrepair, some perched on tires, often with men in greasy coveralls peering at them, gave a feeling that here, a vehicle breakdown would be the start of a long negotiation before baling wire and chewing gum eventually fixed the problem.

We made our way farther south and away from Nairobi, and the dust and gridlock abated. Driving speed remained slow for much of the drive, though, as our vehicle made its way over a seemingly interminable number of speed bumps and police checkpoints at every village. Most police officers waved us through. Some did not. It almost became comical to observe the wave, the stop, the cursory look at windshield stickers for correct dates on various permits, the glance at driver documentation, and then a seemingly perturbed wave to move it along having found nothing to warrant a ticket. I found myself wondering if any discovered infraction would have resulted in the exchange of money, perhaps not on an official level.

At the main gate to Amboseli, our small column of Land Cruisers stopped to pay the entry fee. Maasai women immediately thronged our vehicles, pressing colorful beaded necklaces, wooden masks, earrings, blankets and more to the windows.

“Good price … jambo madam … hakuna matata … please to feed my family …” the women said as they moved in teams from window to window, oblivious to the shakes of heads or wave of a hand to indicate “no.” If a window was cracked open, they felt it perfectly ok to push the window further open to toss a blanket on the seat next to one of us or try to drop some necklaces in a lap. It took a very firm “no” from me and a rebuke to have one of them reach in to remove a blanket – One doesn’t dare touch a proffered item to hand it back as that would have likely resulted in an implied purchase. We quickly secured the windows and thankfully, before too long, we moved through the gates and into the park.

So far, I was not seeing or experiencing the Kenya I had fallen in love with. I will admit to feeling quite troubled as we drove toward the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. Had I remembered my love incorrectly? Were the words written in my journal 43 years ago nothing more than empty prose and ramblings of a love-struck youth, who on his first trip to Africa could not see the country’s warts and things as they truly were?

We left the park entrance behind in a cloud of dust. Before long acacia trees with their flat tops dotted the horizon ahead. A herd of impala scattered and ran away from the road. A Maasai man, herding his cattle looked toward me, and I smiled. He smiled back and returned my wave. Several children standing near the entrance to a boma (a Maasai village enclosure) waved eagerly and were laughing as we passed by. This was the Kenya I remembered. My spirits began to lift.

Giraffe Baby Momma Giraffe Maasai Mara

Learning to love a different Kenya

Other than the stunning variety of wildlife and endless, colorful horizons, Kenya was not the same as when I first visited in 1978. Of course, I’ve aged too, and perhaps not for the better in some respects. I am certainly more cynical than I was, evidenced by my irritation at the various curio shops our drivers would stop in for scheduled bathroom breaks throughout our two-week photo safari. Each was a facsimile of the next…a clean bathroom at the back which can only be accessed by wandering through aisles and past tables full of carvings, tapestries, mobiles and more. Smiling attendants promised a “fair price” or “the best price” as members of our group looked to pick up this souvenir or that. All the carvings were essentially the same. The dubious promises of authenticity the same, and assurances the carvings were done by them in a shop in the back suspect. The bargaining dance was the same too, with the same lines used no matter the shop or region of Kenya we were in. And then there were the assertions of money I might spend going to support the local school or community organization. Perhaps some of that is true, although I remained highly skeptical.

These curio shops of Kenya today are a far cry from the seemingly more simple and authentic markets I remember wandering into at villages along our journey in 1978. Then again, maybe its only my perception that has changed with age. Perhaps Kenyans have simply gotten better and more organized at marketing and selling to tourists like me. Indeed, Kenya’s tourism industry reportedly contributes nearly 10 percent of the country’s economy and employs over 2 million people. Tourism is big industry for Kenya and curio shops are just a part of that. It hit me, after I told one of our group that the mask he had just purchased was likely mass produced and not authentic, that I had it all wrong. The carvings, masks, and tapestries that the curio shops sell provide tourists with tangible memories and souvenirs of what, for many, will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The souvenirs will sit on a shelf in a Nebraska living room where authenticity is not the point. It is the smile inspired by a memory that matters most. Kenya was clearly still relishing its role as my teacher.

The other lesson I needed to learn, apparently, came in the form of a visit to a Maasai village, arranged by our tour operator. In 1978, under the watchful eye of anthropologist Mike Rainy, I had the rare opportunity to stay with a Samburu tribe for two days and nights, living in the boma, sleeping in a dung hut (a manyatta) on the same cowhide-covered platform as the chief’s wife and his young son, and participating in daily life – even experiencing lions attempting to attack the tribe’s cattle protected by an enclosure of thorny acacia branches and warrior’s spears. That was authentic and life-changing for me.

Samburu Manyatta Bed 1978 Kenya Trip

This is the cowhide bed I slept on during my stay with a Samburu tribe in 1978.

So it was with extreme skepticism that I agreed to pay $50 to visit an “authentic” Maasai village for a couple of hours to see how they live, with the promise I would be able to take all the photos I wanted of them going about their daily lives. It was the promise of being able to take unlimited photos that sold me. Maasai (like most tribal members in Kenya) will not allow their photo to be taken, at least without the photographer asking and likely handing over a bundle of Kenyan shillings. Any attempt to take a photo without permission will result in an angry response at best, and a physical attack at worst.

Why I Love Kenya Maasai Mara Village

Our group stands in the Maasai boma, being welcomed by Maasai warriors who are telling us a bit about life inside the village.

Like so many of these supposed “authentic” villages I had read about, this one was likely constructed or maintained just for tourists. We were greeted outside the boma by Robin, who said he was the chief’s son and welcomed us grandly. Warriors danced out followed by women, singing, laughing, many looking at the other as if trying to be sure they stayed on cue, some looking engaged, some bored. It was photo-worthy, but still came off choreographed. We were led inside the boma where we entered a large grassy area (relatively free of livestock dung or even trash from daily living) and were entertained by women performing a song and dance, and then the men singing and performing the traditional Maasai jump-off. A fire-making demonstration was next, and then our group was divided into small clusters and shown into various huts. For most everyone in our group, it was their first look inside a traditional hut made of mud, sticks, grass and dung. Warriors explained a bit about their life, posed for photos, turning this way and that as we sought to catch the best light on a face. And then, just like that, our tour was over. Next, we were ushered through a gate and out to an enclosure with literally dozens of large tables and display areas, permanently arranged, full of an immense quantity of souvenirs, with all the trinkets blending one into the other. Women and children sat under trees, purportedly working to create many of the beaded items for sale. I am quite sure that was also part of the show.

I admit I bought and most assuredly overpaid for a beaded Maasai belt, simply because I have always wanted one. It was not lost on me that we had paid to enter a Disneyesque production that offered a glimpse into Maasai life and were now leaving the attraction through the souvenir shop where purchases were not only welcome, but strongly encouraged.

Masai Warrior Shadows And Light

A Maasai warrior listens to his friend speak while sitting inside his hut during our visit. His name, he told us, is Dixon. The only light comes from a small hole in the wall.

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But here again, as I wrestled with feeling irritated and somewhat put out, I realized that I should be applauding. In 1978, this sort of thing did not exist. And yet tourists clearly kept wanting to see and experience a slice of how the Maasai lived and be able to take home “I was there” photos. So, the Maasai, many of whom have gone to college to earn degrees in tourism, realized they could deliver what tourists wanted, with a level of packaged authenticity, and make money at the same time. Who am I to judge that sort of entrepreneurism? It’s their culture after all and they should be able to market it as they see appropriate. In the end, most in our group got an experience and education into the Maasai culture they would not have otherwise had. And that, frankly, is all that mattered.

Memories stirred reminding me why I love Kenya

As we visited various natural reserves and parks on our two-week photo safari, I was constantly reminded of the Kenya I fell in love with so many years ago. Its natural wonder has not changed, and it is as intoxicating as ever.

Reedbuck Feeding In Amboseli

A female reedbuck feeding on grasses in a marsh in Amboseli National Park.

Immortalized by the writings of Ernest Hemingway and Karen Blixen, Kenya still defines what one imagines when the word “safari” is spoken. In large part because of the popularity of safaris and the development of Kenya’s tourism infrastructure, there is now a stunning array of camps, lodges and other accommodations throughout the country, making it possible to experience the best of Kenya in any number of parks and private reserves. Each morning at dawn, we were out driving on safari, watching the first rays of light sculpt silhouettes of acacia trees, distant mountains, and not so distant elephants. Breakfasts were taken picnic style, under an acacia tree, sipping coffee, and staring off at nearby giraffe or distant dots from massive, undulating herds of wildebeest.

Therese Iknoian Breakfast Masa Mara

Breakfast in the Maasai Mara. Pictured left to right is my wife, Therese Iknoian, and two of our leaders from The California Center for Digital Arts, Dora Lee and David LaNeve.

We were seeing wildlife so close that at times I felt as if I might just as easily reach out and brush my fingers through a cheetah’s fur as take a photo of it. I giggled at the sight of a one-week-old hyena cub,  prancing and sometimes stumbling out of its den for the first time in its life. I marveled at a rare sighting of African wild dogs. I watched in horrified awe as a giant crocodile pulled a wildebeest from the herd during the great migration as the herd struggled to swim across the Mara River. I laughed at the antics of a baby baboon on its mother’s back and stared mouth agape at the carpet of pink flamingos on Lake Nakuru.

Crocodile Wildebeest Eye Maasai Mara

Hard to watch, yes. But death is a part of the cycle of life. The wildebeest fought but in the end, this huge crocodile was simply too powerful. Now, the wildebeest would become a meal.

At night, through open windows in our lodge or tent, I went to sleep to the sounds of grunting hippos lolling in the nearby river, the cough of a leopard, and the screech of a passing owl. Colorful birds seemingly perched on every tree branch serenaded my awakening each morning.

Lion Cubs Play Wrestle Solio Rhino Preserve

Two lion cubs at play in the Solio Game Reserve.

And then there were the people. Even while surrounded by government corruption (which was talked about openly everywhere I traveled) and despite the lingering effects from terrorist attacks between 2012 and 2015 by al Shabaab, Kenyans are fiercely proud of their country and extremely friendly. There are nearly 70 tribes or ethnic groups in Kenya, yet nearly everyone speaks English and Swahili in addition to their local dialect and will welcome visitors as if they were family. “Jambo” as a greeting and “karibu” as a welcome are common words heard everywhere. “Hakuna matata,” which essentially means “no worries,” is a way of life. That is the way it has always been in Kenya, and I suspect the way it will always be for years to come.

Laughing With Maasai Children

Therese Iknoian sharing laughs with Maasai children as they look at photos of themselves on her Sony camera.

Two weeks passed all too quickly. Though some things have changed, I found myself loving Kenya even more than before.

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa,” wrote Ernest Hemingway. “We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”

I know exactly how he felt.

Sunset Acacia Tree Land Cruisers Maasai Mara

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9 Comments

  1. Just did 4 weeks with the family in Kenya this July/August. Wonderful trip that the 9 and 13 year olds loved as much as the parents. Hit 7 parks and finished it up with a bit over a week in Diani and Mombassa The Great Migration in the Masai Mara certainly fell under the “exceeds expectations” category. Masai village was a mixed bag. We “only” paid $30 a piece and we were the only ones there. The “gift shop” visit came after the dances/ tour and my wife was highly encouraged to at least take one item from each family. A rather pricey village visit by time we left but still not much when considering the overall cost of our trip.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your comment … and your Masaai Village comment mirrors others I have read. So fantastic you were able to take your kids … what a GREAT experience for them, for you, and for you as a family. I so want to make it back to the coast … memories of Mombassa markets etched in my mind … and up to Lamu. Maybe next visit. And yes, the Great Migration was simply stunning … better this year too since less vehicles.

      Reply
  2. I love kenya. I want to visit.
    Thank you for information

    Reply
  3. Fascinating and full of intelligent insights from the outsiders perspective. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you Salim. Your comment is very much appreciated!

      Reply
  4. What an extraordinary perspective. I’ve yet to get to the African continent but will remember your experience. Hopefully, tourism will return and be more authentic for that. Gorgeous photos. Of course, you knew that 😉

    Reply
    • Thank you Elaine. You will fall in love with Kenya once you manage to get there, I am sure. And I very much appreciate your kind words regarding my images. 🙂

      Reply
    • Nice read and brings back memories. I happened to be in Kenya for 3 years from 1975-78. So we were there the same time. I have fun memories from the little I remember as I was just a child. Hopefully I will return soon also.

      Reply
      • It is a small world Kofi. Thank you for your comment and very happy my story brought back happy memories. Kenya is waiting for you, when you do decide to return.

        Reply

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