In the first half of September, we traveled to Kenya on Safari. This site would make a poor travel log, so suffice it to say that our adventure offered everything we had hoped for — the opportunity to see innumerable African species, including all of those in the American imagination, in their domain (i.e., the “bush”), while (happily) not having to spend our nights in accommodations that one associates with big game hunters of a century past. If you have the inclination and means to visit Africa, don’t put it off; it will be one of your most memorable experiences.
Kenya became an independent nation in 1963, emerging from what had been (mostly British) colonial rule existing since the late 19th century. It has been said that since achieving independence, the country’s leadership — a few families have effectively controlled the government — has been too slow to break down the vestiges of colonialism. We arguably saw indications of that throughout our excursion; virtually all of the guests everywhere we stayed were Caucasian or Asian. It is a land where tribal traditions and constitutional government are in search of peaceful accommodation, one of stark contrast between enduring customs and onrushing modernity.
One visiting Kenya cannot help but recognize the material benefits we in America have, and the precious democratic practices we seemingly remain at risk of frittering away.
Kenya had elected a new president, William Ruto, shortly before we arrived. The outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Kenya’s first president), was stepping down after two terms in accord with the Kenyan Constitution. Mr. Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga — who had lost notwithstanding an endorsement from Mr. Kenyatta (Mr. Odinga, having lost five presidential elections, is somewhat the Harold Stassen of Kenya) — had appealed Mr. Ruto’s victory to the nation’s highest tribunal; we arrived in the country two days before the tribunal was to decide on his appeal. Kenya has a history of unrest arising from disputed elections; rioting attendant to a 2007 election dispute claimed over 1,000 lives, and lesser disturbances accompanied a challenge to Mr. Kenyatta’s 2017 election. We were aware at the time we arrived that there was some concern throughout the country, despite both candidates’ and Mr. Kenyatta’s pleas for calm, that disturbances might follow any final declaration upholding Mr. Ruto’s victory; however, when his victory was sanctioned, all remained quiet.
Our safari guide was Manson [since I haven’t sought this incredible gentleman’s consent to refer to him, not his real name], about 40. Descended from a father of the Maasai tribe and a mother from the Kikuyu tribe, tribal mores caused Manson to leave his Maasai village in his middle-school years. He was taken in by a Catholic mission, and completed advanced studies under the mission’s auspices. Manson is a naturalist with a specialization in ornithology, and possesses a seemingly-encyclopedic knowledge of the habits of East African birds (which he used as indicators to locate Africa’s celebrated wildlife for us in unexpected parts of the parks). Because of the just-concluded Kenyan presidential election, politics naturally came up early during the trip; Manson observed with satisfaction that his country had finally achieved a transfer of presidential power without riots. He follows international affairs; after he asked me whether I thought America should negotiate with Russia over Ukraine, and I indicated that I then opposed negotiation because I didn’t think it would stop Mr. Putin from continuing to stir unrest among democracies, he immediately responded, “I completely agree.” He was then in the process of building a house – almost unheard of except for affluent Kenyans. He has two daughters, 20 and 14. His elder daughter had recently been awarded a green card to the U.S. through the U.S. Diversity Visa Program (known as the “Green Card Lottery”) and he was thrilled. He said to me, “In America, if you work hard, you can get ahead.” While some born and reared in the U.S. might question the statement, from the perspective of a Kenyan, it is undeniable.
Our excursion took us both north and west of Nairobi to visit the wildlife preserves; it is hard for any American who has never been in a Third World country to imagine life in rural Kenya. While the flora is gorgeous and the soil the rich burnt orange of Utah, Kenyans residing in remote villages have desperately limited means. Manson mentioned how much improved the roads surrounding Nairobi had become during Mr. Kenyatta’s term as president, but outside the city the roads were, to an American, barely passable. (“Were most roads in Kenya like this ten years ago?” TLOML asked as we pounded along a particularly sacroiliac-abusive stretch. “Oh, this is much better,” Manson replied, without any trace of irony.) Shanty hamlets and markets exist on the wayside amid plastic bottles and refuse for which there is no means of disposal. People (including small children), cattle, goats, even camels walk perilously close to vehicles whizzing along the road. Tiny thatched huts (it sounds like a cliché, but it’s not), smaller than almost any room in any American home built in the last century, dot the surrounding fields, housing whole families. There is very little health insurance. Where the roads are reasonably traversable, speed is maintained not by stoplights but by mountainous speed bumps – and at every speed bump, people approach the slowing cars from the side of the road to try to sell produce, water, or souvenirs. (Manson was amused when I suggested that they were “businessmen,” and referred to them as such for the rest of the trip.)
Early in our trip, Manson described how difficult life can be for elementary-school-aged Kenyans, particularly outside Nairobi. There are frequently over 100 in a class, with limited facilities and poorly-paid teachers; many times the schools receiving the tuition fail to pay the teachers, who in turn therefore sometimes demand payment directly from the students and send them away if they cannot comply. (Unexpectedly, grade school children are better dressed than some adults because many schools require uniforms.) Manson indicated that in his early years, he himself had at times been sent home from school because his family lacked the money to pay his teachers. At about the mid-point of our trip, our van broke down between preserves. While Manson called back to Nairobi for assistance, the delay provided the opportunity to walk around (for safety purposes, most time in wildlife preserves is spent in the vehicle) and appreciate the vista. A middle schooler, Sam, walked by and then stopped while we waited by the side of the road. He was stoic, and didn’t speak much English, but it became clear that he understood it perfectly. Random motorists would stop, come over and speak with Manson in Swahili, and look under the hood of our vehicle; sometimes tinkering would go on; more talk would ensue; the engine wouldn’t start; and they would leave, soon followed by other well-meaning, but equally ineffective, Good Samaritans. Sam and I watched this cycle several times. Finally I quietly asked him, “Do you think any of these guys know anything about cars?” For a moment his deadpan disappeared; I got a brilliant smile, and he shook his head. At some break in the (in)action, Manson came over and asked Sam why he wasn’t in school. It turned out that he had been sent home because he couldn’t pay his teacher. Manson was clearly taken back to his own past, and asked how much money Sam needed to be allowed back in school: it was 500KSh – 500 Kenyan shillings. Manson and I split the needed tuition. Before being too struck by our generosity, be aware: at the time, 500KSh amounted to $4.35 – another stark indication as to how far many Kenyans’ material means differ from our own.
To avoid unduly taxing your eyes or your stamina, the remainder of this note will appear in Part II.