Random African Thoughts
As we wend our way home through multiple airports, two 8 hour plus flights and a seven hour layover in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport, I’ve got lots of time to sit and blog. Forthwith, here is a compendium of random thoughts and observation on Africa and the trip — in no particular order, comprised of pure opinion with very little corroborating fact, and probably influenced by Traveler’s Affective Disorder. Warning: opinions herein are solely those of the blogger and do not represent anyone else, organization, man or terrier. As you know, this is my second Africa trip. So with the sum total of 5 weeks in Africa under my belt, let me muse, opine and meander through various miscellaneous thoughts.
1. Pick a place and stay put. If you’re coming for the animals — and you have limited time — it’s not necessary to flit hither and yon all over the Serengeti or African country to African country. It may not even be necessary to come during the Great Migration. Both times I’ve come, it’s been in the shoulder season. This time, we found a great private game reserve and parked ourselves there. We saw The Big Five, every other animal you could hope to see, and plenty of them. Staying in one place let us go on early morning and late afternoon game drives every day instead of wasting travel time. A private reserve has resident game wardens and guides. They know the range of nearly every animal, pride and pack around and can get you up close and personal with them. We went to the excellent Singita Grumeti which is on the Tanzania/Kenya border adjacent to Serengeti National Park. We stayed at the Sabora Camp which is a wonderful permanent tented camp. The same reserve has a nearby lodge on a bluff overlooking the plains that is so over-the-top English safari, it could be Lord Delamere’s hunting lodge or a set from Out of Africa. You can split your stay between the two. I’m glad we didn’t. If it’s animals you want, you can’t beat having nothing but a piece of canvas between you and hyenas and lions.
2. Go Tanzania. It’s not as if my experience is vast here. Both my safaris were in Tanzania. My trips to Kenya were to the shore and the Uganda leg was for field visits to Social Entrepreneurs. But I just love Tanzania and the Tanzanians. They are friendly, open and it seems as if there are fewer potential problems for travelers here. For instance, there are nearly three times as many ethnic and tribal groups here as in Kenya, but virtually no inter-tribal conflict. While there is a lot of criticism of the first Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, most Tanzanians with whom I had political discussions said his policies on cross-ethnic cooperation are to be thanked for it.
3. Be very aware of connections. If you do find yourself jumping between countries, or even just getting from a major airport like Nairobi or Kilimanjaro to your camp, be aware of how many connections you’ll have to make. And that those connections will be little bush planes, hopping from one remote airstrip to another like an airborne rural milk truck. It can take you a full day to travel 200 miles as little prop planes stop several times, sometimes, inexplicably, requiring you to get off one crop duster and reboard another. This gets even more complicated if you are crossing a border. You can’t fly directly from Kenya’s Nairobi Airport to a safari camp in Tanzania. You have to go international airport to international airport — which has you going from Nairobi to Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Airport and then getting your bush planes from there. If you can fly in from the U.S. or Europe to the country you will be visiting, that will cut down on a lot of crazy transfers.
4. PACK LIGHT! I know I harp on this point, but it’s an absolute necessity in Africa. If possible, figure out a way to do only carry on. And be sure your carry on and your one other bag, be it purse or camera bag, are light enough and small enough that you can carry them easily. Don’t expect escalators everywhere. Even in major airports, you may find yourself disembarking down stairs to the tarmac, walking a quarter of a mile across the runway, and climbing up stairs to the terminal. Do NOT, as my mother did when we went on safari, assume that Alan Quartermaine will meet you at every point with a dozen native porters to carry your bags. Besides, most safari camps, hotels and other places have very reasonable and quick laundry services. Just pack much more underwear than you think you’ll need and you’ll be fine.
5. Think Diani Beach. Many people like to end their safari with a beach experience. We went to Diani Beach because we have relatives there. Somehow when I Googled it, I got the impression it was like the Fort Lauderdale of Kenya. Nothing could be further from the truth. More like the Maldives or some semi-deserted Polynesian place. The best powdered sugar sand beach anywhere I’ve been and it’s practically empty. Oh, and stay at Almanara Luxury Villas. Say we sent you.
1. Africa is safer than you think. Not that I’m not always aware and careful when I travel, but at no time did I feel uncomfortable, targeted for begging or under scary scrutiny as we walked around. Especially in the rural villages. We were stared at, but a smile and a wave returned a smile and a wave. Just be prepared to have a posse of kids materialize around you yelling Mzungu, Mzungu! (White Person, White Person!) We have been warned — by foreigners who live here — that Nairobi can be extremely dangerous. The tall young director of one of the Social Entrepreneur enterprises we visited has been mugged four times and, if he has to go more than a block, takes a car or a cab. That said, we did spend an enjoyable few hours walking through the Nairobi slums with a bunch of kids from a street kid rehabilitation project. Which probably just goes to prove the old adage: God protects fools and children.
2. Really look at African faces. In America, African Americans had a long history of consensual intermarriage (with Native Americans) and non-consensual relations (with slave owners). In Africa, until recently, African tribal groups seldom intermarried. Which makes for very distinct and different faces from those you see in the States and from one part of Africa to another. Maybe it’s indelicate to mention, but the difference really struck me. After awhile, I was starting to recognize tribal affiliation by facial characteristics. (And yes, I guess when I was a kid, I was the obnoxious one who stared at people on buses.)
3. Prepare for cultural inversion. Especially if you are a White American. Because you’ll never realize how you think it’s all about you, until you come to Africa and it isn’t. This ranges from the humorous — I went to the hotel spa and all the products and most of the treatments were specifically for Black hair and skin. To the interesting — getting stared at on the street and followed by curious children. To the slightly scary — going through the security gate at the airport, army guys with guns gave a cursory glance into most of the vehicles, but for the White People, it was out of the taxi and a full search of your person and your papers. I like to think I’m not that Entitled Paleface. But I have to admit it was a bit of a shock to be treated as different, odd or worthy of suspicion. In my daily life, that’s never a consideration. And it shouldn’t be for the African American women I know who are just as educated, respectable, professional and law-abiding. But it is. It’s probably very character-building to have that shoved in my face.
1. Look at what everyone’s wearing. The Maasai dress pretty traditionally, as do some of the older women in Uganda. But what struck me was how the vast majority of people were wearing a weird mash-up of second-hand Western clothes. You might see a guy with dress black shoes, an T-shirt advertising an Illinois highs school, the jacket from a suit and track suit pants.
This is where many East Africans — especially in rural areas — buy their clothes. And where do they come from? Well-meaning Americans who have “donated” them to needy Africans. Instead, nearly 100% of those donated clothes end up in the hands of brokers, who sell them to merchants, who then sell them to Africans. Yes, they are still cheap and, as such, I was told by the head of Solar Sister, they have completely undercut the African textile industry. So, we think we are “doing good” when we’ve actually just exported the WalMart model to Africa — with all its devastation to local, quality businesses, jobs and culture. Think about that when evaluating your next charitable donation.
2. Check yourself before you make an assumption. Many Americans find it “funny” to see a Maasai herdsman or a Ugandan villager checking a cell phone — as if it’s such an anomaly that an African will have such a “Western” appliance. Believe me, however you are using your phone, even if you are a Silicon Valley techie, that African herdsman or villager is way ahead of you in truly meaningful phone utilization. Yeah, you play Angry Birds and post to Facebook, but you still fall back on a lot of American infrastructure which is rooted in the 19th Century. Because Africa has so little infrastructure, the phone IS the infrastructure. It’s newspaper, communications, marketing tool, bank and more. In fact, East Africa is probably ten years ahead of us in banking and electronic money transfers by phone. Many Africans no longer carry cash, but buy and receive payment, through the mighty Mpesa phone-based money transfer system. It’s going to be a long time before we divest ourselves of our paper, brick and mortar and wire-based systems to use our phones the way Africans do. Likewise, I heard some comments that almost bordered on insensitive about the elaborate braids and hairstyles and the sheer volume of beauty parlors and barber shops we saw in the Nairobi slums. To you, haircare might seem like an unwarranted luxury for someone very poor. But, when you live in tin shack lined streets where the roads are ankle deep in mud, having perfect hair may be the ultimate act of defiance and self-assertion. And chatting with Africans, I learned that the beauty and barber shops are more than places to get your hair done. They are social centers and a low-capital business opportunity — especially for women.
3. Want to try African food? Go to a Southern Soul Food restaurant. I was amazed at how many key African dishes have translated completely intact to Southern cuisine. I had okra, black eyed peas, beans and rice, greens, and sweet potato and squash-based stews and fried fish that could have come out of a diner in the Mississippi Delta. I would have expected that in West Africa, which was the center of the slave trade to the Americas, but not in East Africa. That means either the slave trade was spread much more extensively across the continent or African food is much more similar across countries than I thought it would be. Must research. Oh, and if you are vegetarian, go to Northern Tanzania. We had the Swahili tasting menu at the safari camp. It was all vegetables and our waiter assured us it was exactly what they ate in his village a few miles away. Ugandans, by contrast, love their beef and goat, but their cuisine has a great overlay of Indian dishes and spices as did coastal Kenya.
I’m sure I’ll think of other things that struck me while here. I’m not sure if they’ll have any redeeming social value, but I’m still going to blog them. In the meantime, go to Africa. It’s like no place on earth. But it’s more familiar than you’d think it would be. The animals are amazing. But it’s not just about the animals. At least the Africans I’ve had the pleasure to encounter are some of the most gracious, friendly and beautiful people I’ve met in my somewhat extensive travels.