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Karen's Perspective on Traveling Alone

Kenya : Winter 2007

I know Nancy sent out a short email from Kenya and thought I'd do my usual of trying to synthesize the last month. Writing to you is of course mostly writing to myself to make sense of all that I experienced over the last month.

"Hard to live without. Africa is part of everyone's life, whether they know it or not. Along with ivory, slaves, diamonds, gold and oil, it has given us the soundtrack of modernity. And-here is one generalization it is safe to make- Africa is where we come from. Our ancestral home is in the Rift Valley, somewhere between Nairobi and the Red Sea. This is worth remembering: if it were not for Africa we would not be here at all." Granta, Winter 07

I began my journey to Kenya and Tanzania in Nairobi. Kenya is about the size of CA with a little less population of 32 million. I don't know the exact ethnic breakdown but it seems that at least 90% are black from 70 tribes, with the most numerous (20%) being Kikuyu. I was glad I had done the reading and research I had done before I arrived as most Kenyans I met enjoy talking politics, assessing the upcoming election of Kibaki as President and critiquing the widespread corruption in all levels of government. Kenyans typically vote along tribal lines here and with most being Kikuyu and Kibaki as well, I predict he will be reelected, albeit with serious charges of corruption hanging over the current administration.

I spent the first couple of days in the expat leafy suburb of Langata/Karen where Karen Blixen had her coffee farm (think Out of Africa), then headed out of town on a matatu (the devil-may-care minibuses that are the local transport) As expected I was the only mzungu (white person) taking a one to the celebrated Rift Valley with its famous lakes, dairy and flower farms, as well as maize and vegetable fields. I spent 3 days near Lake Nakuru, taking my first safari on my birthday. I announced to my fellow tourists that it was my lucky day and asked them what they would like to see. A Dutch friend said she would like to see a lion and sure enough a couple of hours later we were seeing 2 female lions with an kill. As I watched the lions, tears came to my eyes. I felt so lucky to be alive and grateful for my life that at 48 I could be seeing lions who lived just 2 miles from a nearby town. It was one of those cosmic moments when one feels connected with the whole dance of life. We also saw white rhino, thousands of lesser flamingo on the soda lakes and some amazing birds including my first sighting of the grey crowned crane.

I've been becoming more and more of a "twitcher" as my Aussie friends call birdwatchers but I think I may have peaked on this trip as I spent a few hours daily birdwatching for the first 2 weeks. I still find the raptors almost impossible to identify without help but I got pretty good at everything else including the weavers.

Kenya and Tanzania experienced unusual flooding the first 10 days (think global warming) I was here and I was growing tired of the rain by New Year's Eve when a downpour drenched the bonfire at the dairy farm where I was enjoying my stay. It was a pretty remarkable New Year's with a game of "Texas Hold Em" with 3 Indian/Kenyan flower farmers who took my 100 shillings with acumen, followed by a 2 hour conversation/drinking session about Kenyan politics, sexual politics and faith with 3 black Kenyan male dairy farmers. An example of why I love traveling alone and why I count my blessings that I am such an unrepentant extrovert.

Lake Baringo was next and I spent 3 heavenly days, birdwatching and lounging by the pool, watching hippos come up on the lawn at night to graze and hearing their heavy breathing throughout the night as they surfaced for air. I was adopted by a group of 6 adult Kenyan cousins so I rarely lacked for company. I snagged a ride back to Lake Nakuru by way of Lake Bogorio to see the thermal geysers along with more flamingos in their shocking pink from eating the brine shrimp.

Back in Nairobi I spent a night and day with old family friends whom my parents were a host family for in Lubbock in the 80's. They are quite rich by Kenyan and American standards and I enjoyed them very much, along with their 2 sons who helped me purchase and learn to use a cell phone. Yes, it's shocking but I found that I had to join the cell phone generation to be able to navigate my way here, especially with the La Pena delegation arriving and needing to make arrangements. I even learned to "text message." The highlight was attending an extravagant wedding at the Karen Blixen Museum grounds complete with a sit down dinner for at least 400 guests and a live African band.

Safari Land
Next I started the 9 day camping safari to Kenya and Tanzania that was, no surprise, was the highlight of my trip in many ways. We journeyed in a LandCruiser with our able guide and driver Joseph, a Tanzanian cook named Goeffrey and an Aussie couple that kept me laughing the whole way. I had initially wanted to stay in Kenya but settled for this safari as it fit my schedule and pocketbook. We began in Amboseli, famous for its spectacular backdrop of Mt Kilimanjaro on its southern border. Even though I had been tired of the rains, they provided a much needed shot of water to this small park that is dying from overgrazing by elephants and salinity. Throughout the safari, it meant that we sometimes had to take detours because of impassable stretches but grasses were green and thigh high in most places and we weren't strangling in dust. We never got stuck ourselves but did have to pull out another vehicle here. Amboseli turned out to be my favorite park, partly because Kibo was visible for almost the entire 2 days and because we got lucky spotting both birds and mega fauna. The highlights were seeing a very huge group of elephants, with at least 4 herds making up over 100 altogether. Just as we were admiring them, we noticed a female running away from a male with his huge male member looking like a fifth leg. He soon mounted her with all his enormous elephant weight and the side view we had was unbelievable. In his ten years of guiding, Joseph had never seen elephants mating so it was a special occasion. I have it all on video and may have to post it on You Tube. In the same park we also saw saddle billed herons mating and began calling it the "Amboseli Run. " My funniest and most irritating experience in the wild also occurred here. Vervet monkeys unzipped the mosquito fly of my tent and ran away with my throat lozenges but also $200 worth of malarial pills! Luckily, I was going through the town of Arusha in Tanzania the next day so I could buy more and I hope my travel insurance will cover the loss. More disconcerting were the spotted hyena prints very near my tent in the morning. Even I was getting the eebie jeebies after hearing some of Joseph's true to life adventure stories. Apparently hyenas have occasionally been known to attack unsuspecting tourists who sleep with their head at the tent opening with just a mosquito net, the way I had slept that previous night.

My guardian angels (who also look after my dad) were watching closely after me on this trip. I spoke with tourists who experienced bandits breaking into their campsite in Samburu in Northern Kenya (got away with nothing) and later were in a bus accident where they had to wait in the blazing sun for 5 hours (again, no one was hurt), a man who got a horrible case of malaria even though he was taking malarial pills and most tragically, the death of a fellow delegate to the World Social Forum from San Mateo who was with the Global Exchange delegation and was hit and killed by a bus. Even though Nairobi is known to tourists as Nairobbery, I felt much safer walking its downtown streets at night than I ever would in Oakland. Granted, there was extra security on the street because of the World Social Forum but there is not the level of random violence because of drugs and mental illness we see here in our urban centers. Destitute folks, especially children, begging and trying to sell things sometimes became a nuisance but mostly they broke your heart because of the gulf that separates us from the poor in every place, especially at home.

We visited a Massai manyatta (village) that abuts the park here and for $10 were given a performance of singing, (men and women) jumping competition by the young men and a demo of how they make fire by the friction of rapidly spinning a small piece of wood between their hands. The Massai are the most celebrated tribe in Kenya as they still maintain a lifestyle of raising cattle and goats outside of the mainstream of modern life. But, as with most tribal cultures I know about, women are clearly oppressed in some regards, with little education, freedom and the still present culture of female circumcision. Their faces were not joyful and I'm sure they resented having to perform their "exotic" culture in order to make a living.

After Amboseli, we crossed the Tanzania border and headed for Lake Manyara and then to the Serengetti, which means "endless plain" in the Massai langauge. Along the way, we stopped at the world famous Olduvai Gorge where Mary and Louis Leakey made their discoveries of hominid skulls, one of which is estimated to be 2 1/2 million years old (and which Mary found after her husband's death). Now we have evidence of a 6 million old hominid in Central Africa but from the 30's-60's the Leakeys were total pioneers and contributed widely to the evidence of the Rift Valley being the "cradle of humankind." It's a bit humbling but instructive to think we've been around that long and have created and destroyed so much along the way.

Between the Ngorogoro Crater Park and the Serengetti we saw perhaps thousands of wildebeest and zebra and even got a great view of the back of the head of a cheetah lying near the road, its head seemingly too small for its long powerful body. But at first when we entered the park, we saw almost nothing for miles upon miles of the plain. It seems that most of the population has stayed outside the Serengetti because of the plentiful grass outside. What we didn't see at first we heard at night. The first night Joseph called out to be sure I had heard the sound of a lion just as I was trying to drop off to sleep. Throughout the night I was awakened by strange and somewhat scary animal sounds, especially the early morning chorus of hyenas laughing, a piercing animal scream and the simultaneous crush of a skull. I put in my ear plugs and went back to sleep. The next day we lucked out and saw a large pride of both male and female lions and their cubs, plus an amazing view of a leopard before it slowly stood up and disappeared among the grass toward the unsuspecting wildebeest.

The Ngorogoro Crater is the world's largest caldera and is known for its amazing game in a spectacular setting. I don't quite understand how such an abundance of animals made it down the steep slopes in the first place. We had the good fortune to see several black rhino, one of whom charged the vehicle in front of us. The driver had the ignition on and was able to move quickly and I got that on video as well. We also saw an amazing sori bustard in its mating plumage (see photo) and a large pride of lions pass the road where we had parked, setting up for a kill with the females taking positions and the adolescent males taking a back seat.

We made our way back through Arusha to Nairobi and I headed out to Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley for a day of biking in Hell's Gate, a special place because one can bike around and see the zebra, giraffes, and warthogs up close. I dropped my bike at one point since I was told I could walk from there to the formation called Hell's Gate. I managed to get lost on the way back and had to find the road and wait for a ride back to find my bike. Lucky for me, I only encountered a warthog that scrammed when it saw me and not any Cape buffalo. I stayed at quiet retreat of Elsamere which was the former home of Joy Adamson, famous for her book and the movie Born Free about the lioness Elsa.

World Social Forum-Another World Is Possible
The La Peña delegation of 7 arrived and we spent the next week exploring Nairobi and attending the World Social Forum with over 50,000 grassroots activists from around the world. My buddies Anuja and Paul Chin were part of the delegation and we began by visiting Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums and the site of scenes from The Constant Gardener. I have visited slums in South Africa and Latin America so I knew what to expect but the experience always shakes one to the core and makes you question why some folks have so much and others so little. Besides the visual impact, walking around open sewage and piles of garbage makes poverty the visceral experience we tend to so often forget. I also visited a slum near the site of the World Social Forum through the eyes of a youth group, funded by an NGO and who have some programs, including soccer for boys and girls. We then attended a 2 hour presentation of drumming, dancing and acrobats that highlighted the different tribes and regions of Kenya called Bomas of Kenya.

The opening and closing ceremonies of the Forum were held at the large downtown park, called Uhuru Park that Nobel Peace prize winner Wangari Matthai saved from development. The hills of the park complete with an assortment of activists and their signs reminded me of Dolores Park but I've never been at a rally where young poor Africans danced like they did here. The Forum was everything I had been told it would be - chaotic, disorganized, transforming, and heart and mind opening. Highlights for me were meeting folks from South Africa, Palestine, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan, besides Kenyans, of course. There was a large tent called Q Space for queers and it was amazing to see an assortment of East African queers with a few Western queers for good measure. It was only the 2nd time that a country-wide meeting of queers was being held and there were at least 3 stories in the major daily paper highlighting the space and the organizers' calls for gay legal and social rights. I spent at least an hour each day dancing to the live music of African, Indian and Venezuelan groups. The more or less spontaneous marches around issues of women's, land rights and illegitimate debt cancellation were feisty and moving. I tied a red ribbon on a tree in honor of my cousin Tom Hester who died of AIDS as I was circled by Africans doing the same.

The highlight of the Forum for me was a conversation with three women Nobel Peace winners including Wangari Maathai, Jody Williams of the US for her work around landmines and Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the human rights lawyer from Iran. For excerpts from the conversation, visit www.nobelwomensinitiative.org. This new organization of women Nobel Peace prize winners is exciting and I think could be a great catalyst for working together on many fronts.

I would encourage you to also check out the interview Amy Goodman did with Wangari on Jan 27th.

Other notable attendees at the conference included Nobel Peace Laureates, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Wangari Maathai who said 40 million Africans have died in recent years in part because African governments have failed to fulfill promises to spend at least 15 percent of national budgets on healthcare. Desmond Tutu also called for debt relief for African nations.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Maybe there are no tangible achievements, but surely the most important is to be able to have placed certain items on the agenda and say to the world, you are not going to get away and pretend that there is no poverty, pretend that the economic order is a just one, pretend the debts that so many countries are carrying are equitable debts."

Party and Performance at the Go-Down Center
The other highlight for our delegation was a party we hosted with theater groups from NYC at the local cultural center in Nairobi. They threw a party for us with food, drink, a DJ, live drumming and dance and an amazing theater performance called Return to Sender-Letters from Tentland, about Iranian women living in exile in Germany. The cast invited women audience members backstage afterwards for a lively small group discussion.

The Beach at Lamu
I spent the last 3 days of my trip on the beach in the quaint and totally other wordly town of Lamu along the Indian ocean. As Lonely Palnet says, "Lamu is a living throwback to the Swahili culture that once dominated the Indian Ocean coast." I loved the narrow winding car free streets (only donkeys are allowed in them), the exquisite wood carved doors and the lovely beaches. I took an excursion with 3 Danish women on the traditional sailboat called the dhow which has no motor and takes 4 guys to sail. After visiting the fort one day, I was told by the guide that there would be a Muslim wedding there that night and that I could probably just show up and get in. I invited the young Swedish woman staying at my guest house and we headed for the fort and were heartily welcomed, even though almost no one seemed to speak any English. The inside of the fort had been transformed into a wedding party and the 300 women and girls were dressed to the nines, looking like so many painted birds in long glittery dress and makeup. A small number were dancing in the middle of the room, moving in a circle to the beat of the recorded music. After a while, a woman next to me gestured that I should get up and dance and I followed her advice, being welcomed into the circle. We danced this way for 30 minutes or so until the music became more rhythmic and faster with women breaking apart to dance with and for each other and many younger ones belly dancing. A young woman was insistent I watch her belly dance and try and imitate her girations. I tried but I'm miserable at belly dancing but I certainly didn't leave the dance floor! After a couple of hours of this high energy exchange, a carpet was rolled out and the young bride looking all of about 16 took the long walk "down the aisle. " She looked petrified and didn't smile and the whole atmosphere quickly changed. I imagined that most of the women were remembering their own wedding day with sadness and regret but maybe I was projecting. As soon as she reached a bench in the front of the room, most of the women grabbed their ankle length black robes, covered themselves and chattered as they left the fort. The magical night of abandon and dancing was over. Unfortunately, the custom is to never take photos of these women, even in the street as many of the young girls are in purdah and you can only see their eyes. I'll only have this memory of the night I went to a Muslim wedding in my mind forever.
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