Tourism in Kenya
Kenya: Is It Safe to Travel There?
“Why are you and a group of journalists going to Kenya when there’s so much violence?” a friend said to me.
I stole my reply from Sir Edmund Hilary when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Hilary replied, “Because it’s there.” But I also questioned whether T.V. pictures were telling the complete story of what was happening in Kenya, and was it a safe destination.
It’s a long flight to Nairobi and my brain was fuzzy on arrival. But not so dull that I couldn’t see these newspaper headlines at the airport, “Fires raging in Kenya” or “What a sad day for Kenya.” I started to worry my friend might be right.
Such headlines around the world have recently decimated tourism in Kenya. Shortly after arrival I was sitting at the Exchange Bar in the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi, a popular watering hole and the one frequented by the novelist and big game hunter, Ernest Hemingway. Bars are a good source of information and this one didn’t let me down. One dejected man, who owned a tourist lodge in northern Kenya, said he had lost 95 percent of his business!
He blasted both international and local media for inflicting hysteria. He said, “Why do they create misleading headlines when not one tourist has been injured from local tribal disturbances.” Now he was forced to fire native help and wondered what would happen to their families when food shortages were occurring in rural areas. So how much unrest did we find after traveling the bush for over 800 kilometers [500 miles]? The only hostile natives were herds of giraffes or elephants that often blocked the road.
But we did lose some property. One day while watching hippos I looked back at our safari van and found an entrepreneuring baboon having a field day stealing whatever he fancied. He escaped with a bag of cough drops, devoured them as if he suffered from the mother of all coughs, and refused to share his loot with other baboons. It was a great ad for Ricola cough drops! But I felt safer in rural Kenya than in some parts of Toronto.
How did the people of Kenya react to our presence? To get to the game reserves we passed by van through small villages along the way. If I were living under their primitive conditions and saw well-heeled North Americans, I doubt I’d be tossing kisses to them. But everywhere we traveled both in these villages and in safari country all we saw were smiling, waving natives. In colorful robes and headscarves, they are quite handsome people.
The safari experience, a combination of magnificent scenery and natural animal life, is the high point of any trip to Kenya and the closest you’ll ever get to heaven. I’ve heard people say, “You can see elephants at a zoo.” But until you’ve seen herds of elephants slowly walking across the savannah you cannot capture the magnificence of these animals. Nor do you understand the drama of Africa until you see zebras, giraffes, and other animals at night standing motionless at water holes listening intensely for the approach of lions seeking their meals.
While traveling on safari (which means “journey” in the Swahili language) I didn’t suffer one iota of discomfort. East Africa straddles the equator and is a land of enormous variety, stunning beauty, and first-class lodges. The first night we stayed at Amboselli Sopa Lodge located at the foot of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro in Amboseli National Park. It was this strategic location that inspired Ernest Hemingway’s unforgettable story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Then as we drove further east to Tsavo National Park, we enjoyed the comfort and ambience of the Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge.
Later, for contrast we visited a Masai village. We were welcomed to their mud homes, witnessed first-hand how they still live mainly on meat, milk, and the blood of their animals. These proud tall people (also thin!) with their vivid red cloaks are mainly cattle breeders who firmly believe any other pursuit would be demeaning to them and insulting to their god. They have such a strong belief in the superiority of their culture that it has survived the pressure of modern society.
In fact, when the Uganda railway was built in the 1890s the British had to import East Indians to do the work. The Masai could not be persuaded to work for money, as they had no use for it. History shows they made the right decision. So many East Indians lives were lost, and so much money expended on this endeavor that politicians in the House of Commons labeled it the “lunatic railway.”
As a medical journalist I had one eye on animals, the other on humans. One thing that caught my eye was the thinness of children and adults. One morning I witnessed large numbers of school children on their way to school. I could not find a single child that was obese. Each day they walked miles to their school in neat uniforms. What a contrast to the children I see in Canada!
North Americans could learn from Kenya about public smoking. One day I was walking around Nairobi with a U.S. journalist who was told to put out his cigarette. If he wanted to smoke he would have to find one of the outside legal smoking areas that are well marked in Nairobi.
It’s unfortunate I did not visit Kenya years ago to learn about a unique treatment for infertility. Today specialists, even with a bagfull of hormones and techniques, often fail to cure infertility.
During a tour of Mombasa my guide told me about the Baobab tree. This, he said, was the ultimate answer to infertility. Women must run around the tree naked at night 100 times, then rush home to do what comes naturally. Unfortunately my guide could not provide statistics. But the results might even be better in frigid Canada!
So how did this Kenya experience shape up in the end? Prior to leaving Kenya we visited Karen Blixen’s home outside of Nairobi. Her life was depicted by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in the movie “Out of Africa.” Her home contains pictures of her struggle to prosper as a tobacco farmer in a foreign land.
I believe “Out of Africa” was one of the most moving movies I’ve ever seen, and this was a fitting way to end our trip. It provided a glimpse of the awe-inspiring scenery and life at that time. But this feeling is multiplied 10 times by experiencing the real thing.
As I departed for home I hoped that the hysteria that has decimated the economic health of Kenya would subside. Tourism is the lifeblood of this beautiful country, and its loss is akin to cutting off oxygen to an ailing patient. Besides, if you have a little Scottish blood, it’s bargain basement time to visit this country.
In fact, I can hardly wait until next year when I will travel to Kenya again with my son.
W. Gifford-Jones M.D is the pen name of Dr. Ken Walker graduate of Harvard. Dr. Walker’s website is: docgiff.com.
Dr. Walker can be reached at [firstname.lastname@example.org?bcc=letters@canadafree.