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By Nick Welman

First Impressions

At the end of a trip through Kenya, I entered a pub in the town of Nyahururu, located on the cool African plateau. Within minutes I was sitting at my table when three Kenyans invited me to join them. “We want you to join the discussion,” was the request. “We are engaged in a fiery debate about Hitler and we cannot resolve it. Our discussion is stuck on whether Hitler was just an anti-Semite or a racist in general. We would appreciate your input. ” What followed was a long evening with a lot of warm beer and an animated conversation about everything that is right and wrong in our world. In the meantime I gave away a lot of rounds. That’s allowed: whoever has the most money in his wallet also pays the most beer. Two of my discussion mates were drinking Tusker beer when I joined them. The third man had a bottle of Citizen. I therefore ordered two Tuskers and one Citizen for each round. It wasn’t until the end of the evening that the Citizen drinker made a revealing statement. “I used to be able to afford Tusker,” he stated. “But my business has been going badly for years. That is why I now drink this piss beer every night. ” Just as it would have been in the Netherlands, where I come from, I would have tacitly assumed that everyone drank their preferred beer. I was wrong. Well-intentioned, I had invariably treated two conversation partners to an expensive premium brand, and the third to the cheap Kenyan version of Euro-Shopper.

Although the country is mainly known by tourists for safaris, there are few other countries where an interesting conversation between “host” and “guest” can arise so regularly. Many Kenyans are people of the world: articulate and educated. You have to be well versed to answer them. Kenyans are friendly and forthright without ever resorting to greedy hospitality or obedience. The tourist may be a pleasant conversation partner in the restaurant or at the bar, after the discussion it is expected that everyone goes their own way: everyone has their own life.

Cultures

As a Dutch person, like me, you can hardly imagine what the cultural map of many African countries looks like. If you draw a cultural map of present-day Europe, you generally get a fairly neat division into areas: here the French, here the Germans, here the Italians. The reverse is true for African countries, such as Kenya, where many different tribes live together. Kenya has 42 ethnic groups. This enormous variety has its origins in the African geographic structure: much more than Europe, Africa is just one big lump of granite where peoples could migrate and mingle with each other fairly freely. In Europe we have the Alps as a dividing line with the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees as a sharp demarcation of the Iberian peninsula. Africa simply has far fewer natural obstacles as these.

The Kikiyu are the largest ethnic group with five million people and regularly hold successful key positions in trade and politics. In Kenya, the Kikiyu are known for their pragmatic adaptability, their strong work ethic and their views on social equality. The traditional Kikiyu have an aversion to ranks and classes. Those who are highly regarded are the “mzee”. Mzee literally means “old man” and can simply serve as a title. It is a very respectful term. Mzee was also the title of former President Jomo Kenyatta, who was part Kikiyu, part Maasai.

Tourism

Tourism to Kenya is as old as the road to Rome. The first beach hotels were built on the coast around 1930, at that time mainly for the domestic tourism of the whites. From the 1960s, Kenya began to attract a lot of foreign tourism. National parks such as Amboseli and Masai Mara now each have well over 200,000 visitors per year. Although few countries in Africa have entered into such a long-term marriage with tourism, the paths of tourists and population remain separate paths. The tourists on all-inclusive tours see the national parks and beach hotels, but usually hardly get acquainted with Kenyan daily life. Except perhaps for that “mandatory” visit to a Maasai village, which is often included as standard in the travel program. Incidentally, such a hasty excursion to a Maasai community is something to be questioned. The Dutch Maasai connoisseur Jan Voshaar, who lived among the Maasai for years, advises tourists to leave the Maasai alone. The revenues for the Maasai from these short tourist trips are disproportionate to the nuisance caused by tourism. 

The best example of the dividing line between tourist and population is probably the popular train journey from Mombasa to Nairobi. The comfortable first and second class sleeping cars are usually completely taken up by Western tour groups, so you could easily rename this train as “Wazungu Express” (Whites-Express). The Kenyan population is gathered in the third class, where hardly any tourist comes. While the “Only for whites” signs have been abolished in South Africa, on the Wazungu Express such a separation just seems to be the order of the day. On a final trip on this overnight train, I met one black Kenyan in second class, a doctor from Mombasa who tried the train instead of the bus for a change. The man sat lonely like an odd man out among the cackling Italian, Dutch and French tour groups. In our conversation he indicated: this once, but never again.

On safari

Tourism tends to reduce everything to nice and uncluttered finish lists: must see’s, highlights, “which you should definitely not miss”. India is the Taj Mahal, Peru is Machu Picchu, the Netherlands is Amsterdam and Zimbabwe is the Victoria Falls. The same tendency to simplification is seen on safaris.

First, you have that eternal search for the Big Five: lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros. If you have seen it, you can safely say that your safari was a success. Easy and clear. It also makes sense, because how do you explain to a safari expert the difference between a waterbuck, a hartebeest and a skewer? No one really cares about that. 

If you let go of that idea of the Big Five, new possibilities will arise naturally. Other wildlife parks than the standard are suddenly interesting. You can draw your own plan, regardless of the prescribed highlights. You have an eye for more different animals.

Secondly, safaris are simplified because everyone wants to go to the same parks. In Kenya, it’s Amboseli and Masai Mara. There are indeed situations here with ten tourist buses for one lion. Amboseli has become a desolate park because of mass tourism. Dust storms, caused by all safari traffic, obstruct the view and cause nuisance to the wildlife. There are traces of jeeps everywhere through the grassland. Amboseli is particularly interesting for those who want to see how mass tourism affects the fragile nature. But there is hope for Amboseli national park. The management of the park is now in the hands of the original inhabitants of the park, the Maasai. Hopefully they run the park better than the government and the entrance fees will be used for the conservation and protection of nature and wildlife.

Kenya is not just Amboseli and Masai Mara. The country has 50 natural parks. At least about twenty are suitable for a safari. Once you’ve got the mandatory Big Five out of your head, Meru, Nyandura (Aberdare), Buffalo Springs and Mount Elgon are fantastic parks. Elephants are as good in Marsabit as they are in Amboseli. Hell’s Gate is also very special: it is the only national park in Kenya where you can cycle and walk among the wildlife. A more widespread safari tourism would be beneficial for nature in Kenya. The conservation expert in Kenya, Richard Leakey, agrees.

Kenya as a destination for whom is Kenya actually a suitable destination? Actually for two totally different groups of tourists. For those who go for the national parks with a completely organized tour with all the trim and counting. Especially look for a trip to the quieter parks and remember that cheap expensive purchase is: a good safari with a skilled driver (and also animal spotter) costs a lot of money.

For whom is Kenya actually a suitable destination? Actually for two totally different groups of tourists. For those who go for the national parks with a completely organized tour with all the trim and counting. Especially look for a trip to the quieter parks and remember that cheap expensive purchase is: a good safari with a skilled driver (and also animal spotter) costs a lot of money.

Kenya looks like an ‘old’ country: too few new investments have been made in recent decades and many accommodations, buses and trains show clear signs of wear and tear. It is sometimes some ‘faded glory’, such as the first-class station restaurant in Nairobi. There were ten years between my two visits to Kenya. “But Kenya has not changed,” suggested my table mates in the previously cited pub in Nyahururu, “only getting older.”

If you travel that way – with perhaps a safari you book in Nairobi – Then Kenya is suitable for those who pay attention to the grandiose landscape without necessarily wanting to race from one spectacular attraction to another. In fact, Kenyan food is a reflection of the whole country: you eat mandazis (‘oil globes’), chapatis, ugalli (made of cornmeal) and brown beans. Basic, but very filling.

An ascent of Mount Kenya, 5199 metres high, is perhaps the best illustration of the difference between ‘quiet’ travel and ‘stressed’ travel. One half of the tourists to Mount Kenya hire a local guide, for example in Naro Moru at the foot of the mountain. In a few days, you’ll hike with your Kenyan companion down the mountain sides to MacKinder’s Camp at 4,300 meters, perhaps further up to Point Lenana, or descend via the Chigoria route. The other half of the tourists hire a tour operator. It takes them from Nairobi to Mount Kenya in about five hours and rips a land rover uphill 3300 metres, where anyone can marvel at the view of the summit for an hour. After that, it’s back to Nairobi. Such a one-day excursion costs at a hundred dollars. Everyone can decide for themselves what the preference is.

What should I wear?

Safety concerns are fairly common among tourists to Kenya, particularly in Nairobi. Clothing wise, you can easily pick out the tourists. With their T-shirts, shorts and Nikes they look more shabby than the average Kenyans. Africans love dressing up nicely. They wear nice long pants, a shirt, and sometimes a jacket. If you would like to be less noticeable, you can do the same. Additionally, appropriate clothing is a sign of respect for the population.

Final impressions

The “Wazungu Express” from Mombasa to Nairobi was significantly delayed due to the derailment of a freight train on the route. I was really upset. In Nairobi I would have to change to the connecting train to Malaba, on the border with Uganda. As it looked, I was going to miss that switch. Not pleasant, because the train to Malaba only ran three times a week. If I wanted to continue by train, I would have had to wait at least two days. I spoke to the conductor about this. “Don’t worry,” he said. “If necessary, the Kenyan Railways will hire a taxi for you. It will race after the train until you have overtaken it and you can board somewhere. I’ll just call Nairobi. ” The answer filled me with disbelief. Finally we arrived in Nairobi, 45 minutes later than my connection was supposed to leave. As soon as I got out, another conductor was ready on the platform. “Are you the man for the train to Malaba?” he asked. “Good, then we can go now.” A minute later I was on my new train, chugging through the incomparable landscape of the Rift Valley towards Uganda. I was the only transfer person and they had been waiting for me for 45 minutes. I will still have to wait and see the Dutch railways NS provide such a service.

Interesting links

MagicalKenya.com
National tourism organisation of Kenya.

Kenyaweb.com
General (toeristical) information on Kenya.

Kenya Wildlife Service
National parks in Kenya

Ecotourism Kenya
Ecotourism organisation in Kenya

Eco-resorts
Eco-resorts in Kenya

The Gallman Africa Conservancy
Kuki Gallman Foundation which focuses on education and the conservation of the environment.

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