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Hildebrand brothers Marvin and Stan go to Kenya
Kenya Feb 5 – Mar 4 2020
The seeds for this trip were planted a long time ago. Once upon a time, I was in a college junior year abroad program at the University of Nigeria 1966-67. I come to love Afrika: the people, culture, dancing. I am enthralled with the rhythm and pulse of Africa. During the European colonial times, various officials, missionaries, etc would sometimes “go native” – that was my experience – I went native. After Nigeria, I travel a few months in Africa and vow that I will return soon. I go home and get busy with my life. I have a Nigerian friend, a soul brother, and I want to visit him; however, I lose touch and I still have no contact. In 2019, I am 73 and realize if I am going back to Afrika, I need to go NOW.
I fantasize about where to go. Kenya calls to me – I spent a week there in 1967 and liked it. What do I want to do in Africa? I want to visit small farms and farmers – but how can I arrange it? For about the previous 15 years, I have made micro loans through Kiva.org to various people and businesses in Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc. The filters (preferences) I choose are: Africa, agriculture, women. Most of my loans go to women in Kenya – perhaps becuz Kiva has a big presence there. I contact Kiva and it appears I will be able to visit some of the farms – they are usually 1 -15 acres in size, just what I want. I decide I want a whole month in KE – to give myself time to reabsorb Afrika. On line, I find KOAN: Kenya Organic Agricultural Network. Yeah! I contact them and they are welcoming.
I have already decided that I do not want to do this trip by myself. Gigi is not interested and most of my friends are too busy to take off a month. Then I think of my brother, Marvin. He has been a farmer all his life in southern Manitoba, where we both grew up. He is receptive but he cautions: “I can’t walk very far w/o taking breaks”. No problem I say, I plan to be renting a car anyway so we should manage – we both have lower back issues. We both think it over and he agrees to come! Whoopee! We really have not spent much time together since we went custom combining together when he was 16 – he is 61 now. Of course, we always meet for our annual family gatherings in MB and then I stay on for more time with family. But nothing like this. I am excited!
Ok, Kenya (KE) it is. Of course, we want to visit national parks – lots of wild game – KE is the place, but a whole month? Of course, there are plenty of tourist places as well. Tourism is the #1 source of income. I make a tentative schedule of when to do the trip – Feb. 2020. There are also many programs that accept volunteers – but they tend to be pricey, but their work is righteous. KE is one of the countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS and so many people died and are dying that there are a lot of orphans.
Volunteers work with and hang out with orphans and street kids. Then I come across the Soteni project/villages in KE (Soteni.org). They focus on the Aids epidemic, working to ameliorate the effects of HIV and prevent aids in rural areas – more on this later. I contact them and they are very welcoming and encouraging. I am excited to volunteer with them.
We set our dates for leaving and returning. He departs from Winnipeg MB and I from Chicago. We can’t go on the same flights – it’s more complicated and expensive, but we do coordinate: we arrive in Nairobi within an hour of each other and leave within two hours of each other. Not bad. I fly Lufthansa: two eight hour flights, and we get two hot meals complete with silverware – not plastic. I am impressed. I can’t remember when, if ever, I had silverware in flight. And the food is good! We meet at the airport (Nairobi’s population is four million). We are amazed that we manage to meet here, since neither of our phones work here, but we meet helpful people. I have an airbnb near the airport reserved for the first two nights. We don’t get there until 11:30 p.m. Loi is our hostess and welcomes us at the door. They are a young couple with a one year old. Accommodation is adequate and it’s a convenient location.
Feb. 7th – Our first day. We’ve been told that we need to open Mpesa accounts (M=mobile; pesa= Swahili for money). Almost all money transactions here are done on Mpesa – on the phone. It’s quick and easy. We spend all morning changing money and registering w/ MPESA. The folks at MPESA are very helpful in getting us set up. Marv just needs a SIM card to register but my phone won’t accept the local SIM card and so I have to buy a cheap phone ($50) to register.
I have an appointment w/ Martin @ KOAN (Kenya Organic Agricultural Network) for 11 a.m. We don’t get there until 1 pm. He arranges an Uber ride for us to get there – it’s a first Uber experience for both Marv and me. With Martin, we enjoy a very lively discussion about the current status and trends in agriculture in KE. Then it’s back to Loi’s for the night.
2/8 – We do the early Safari trip with Robinson (a local Safari guide); he picks us up at 5:45 a.m. and we are done about noon. The park is in city limits and we see elephants, monkeys, baboons, a lion, warthog, crocodiles, and lots of grazing animals: gazelles, impala, zebra, and others. Robinson lives in Nairobi and knows the park well – he knows which animals are to be found when and where. Further, all the safari guides are hooked up together and share specific sightings – when a lion or elephants are found somewhere, they notify each other and a crowd quickly forms. Most everyone is in vans (pop up tops) or small buses – it is illegal to get out of vehicles. Both Marv and I like Robinson. After the game park, Robinson takes us to a reputable local car rental place. Robinson is also the driver that Soteni uses to drive their visitors around the country and comes highly recommended.
Marvin takes over the car rental negotiations and I’m happy for that. I’ve done most of the planning/scheduling here in KE to this point. While Marv negotiates, Robinson and I discuss scheduling and highway conditions. At some point I hear Marv saying “yes, I am the only driver.”
I look over at Marv “Really? You want to do all the driving?”
He sez: I don’t have a choice – this company does not accept drivers over 70.
Me: are you ok with that?
Yes, he replies. I can do it. Frankly, I’m happy to have him do all the driving. I was not looking forward to driving on the left side of the road.
He is negotiating with a woman employee here and is getting along well with folks: joking, teasing, getting them to laugh, etc. He can be taciturn, but I get to really appreciate this social side of him during this trip.
When we get the car, Robinson and others give us directions as to how to get out of the city to the main North-South highway. Marv is doing really well with driving in the left lane; Nairobi traffic drivers are notoriously aggressive. I have an airbnb reservation in the town of Naivasha – we should be able to easily make it today. However, we almost immediately get lost and spend about an hour circling around downtown; highway signs are few and there is a lot of construction.
Finally, Marv spots a woman police officer on the sidewalk (virtually all police are on foot), pulls over and asks for directions. She says can I just get in your car and I will show you? Sure. She does and takes us about a mile and then: “now just keep going straight ahead.” OK, thanx. We do, but get lost anyway and finally get on the right highway.
We are humming along – beautiful countryside, everything is so green. We are on the equator and they have had abundant rains. Somewhere along the way, I say: hey Marv, we are going to need some alcohol for tonight. He agrees. We have not seen any liquor store sign. We pull over at a bunch of ramshackle buildings/shops along the highway and look around – can’t see any alcohol. I finally ask someone: he beckons us to follow him. He takes us thru several rooms of various stores, including a gaming room – where older men are playing checkers and whatever. Everybody looks up at us foreigners.
Then we get way to the back where a heavy set woman rules the roost. We indicate alcohol; she brings out various brands and sizes of mostly rum, gin, and local hooch. We buy several bottles. By now we have a small crowd around us – they are ready to open bottles and commence partying. The matron/owner is savy: she hollers the men down. They listen. Most of them have already been drinking.
We say: no, no. We are driving – no drinking now. The energetic letdown is immediate. Our guide here says no, we can’t go back the way we came in – too much partying back there. He takes us out the back – to get us out of there w/o starting a party. Whew! We are glad this local man guides us thru the maze. It could have got raucous.
We are back on the road, enjoying the countryside: a pleasant mix of trees, crop fields, pastures, livestock, villages, small towns – very scenic. We notice that people pasture their livestock on the roadsides – there is always a herdsman or woman tending to the cattle, sheep, goats, etc. Apparently, there is no system for who pastures when or where – whoever gets there when there is vegetation to graze.
In the mountains, we hit traffic – out in the country! The traffic is big trucks: semis, straight trucks of all makes and sizes. The trucks are bumper to bumper and the average speed is about 5 mph, going up and down mountains. The highway is full of these trucks going both directions. Every once in a while, Marv darts in between a couple of them and passes a few – but the line is fairly solid – we don’t make much headway. Word has it that the government let the rails deteriorate and now most transport is by truck. The roads can’t keep up.
This was supposed to be an easy trek for us today, but we see that we are not going to make it to Naivasha before dark. Every so often we pass signs for hotels – but they look ramshackle and not inviting. Just at dark, we see a larger building that advertises “self-contained rooms”. What? We stop and enquire. The owner tells us that means the rooms include a bathroom and shower. Ok, we’ll take one. We get two beds in one room for $16. And there is an eatery within walking distance – except not our walking distance. We are both tired and hobbling by now. Our hotel manager takes us there in our car and then we drive back on our own. The food is good. We are happy to no longer be in a long line of trucks at 5 mph after dark. I call the ainbnb woman to cancel and then we relax with gin.
In the morning, our host is eager to show us the town – we can see most of it from the hotel balcony – we are up on a hill. It is a nice view and he shares the town history with us. There is also a good size lake. We go check out the lake and bump into a young man who has a small motor boat and agrees to take us for a tour (it’s actually his business). I have already read about it in one of my travel books.
Before we leave on our ride, our guide takes Marv around to the fish sellers – all the fish here are fresh tilapia – from this lake. Marv buys 6 fish, 4 for us and 2 for our guide. There are a host of fish eateries all over the place. Our guide hires one of the eateries to prepare our fish for when we come back (probably a relative of his).
Marv negotiates a price for our tour – I’ve noticed that it’s best if only one of us negotiates on the price so we don’t give mixed signals. Wahoo! We are off on our lake tour. Our guide is very knowledgeable about the local wildlife, fish, and culture of the folks in the area. He also points out intricate details on the birds and animals we see along the way. He shows us the African or black eagle, other local birds, hippos, etc. I am impressed by his knowledge and observation skills. Marv strikes up a lively banter with him and gets him to smile and laugh.
After the boat trip, we find a table and order our fish. All the food stands are under a common metal roof – no walls. It feels communal – you can see what everyone else is eating. It’s too bad we don’t understand the language and so don’t know what they are talking about. Swahili is the language everyone understands, but on this local level, they are speaking their own tribal language. Tilapia is the main entrée and it is great!
Then we are off – keep on going north to Nakuru, where I have an airbnb reserved at Erasmus’ place – an easy one hour drive – ha! The trucks are still on the road although not quite as many of them. The directions to the airbnb are vague – it is close to a historic building near a certain street. We find the street and the building – but no air bnb. I ask a local guy on the street: he immediately shifts gear to help us find the place. He gets several buddies to search as well. Together we comb the area for an hour – nothing. He finds someone who says he knows Erasmus, but that he is no longer around. That’s a fine how do you do. We check in at a local hotel.
2/9 – Next morning, we tour the Nakuru National Park on our own. There is some wildlife, but this park is known for its flamingoes – thousands of them, in the shallow end of the lake. It’s hard to see the main flock off to the mid-center in the photo.
We can’t get very close by car – there are no roads to the lake. They don’t want people close to the flamingoes. The birds sometimes break into smaller flocks and some go to nearby lakes for a while – but this is their primary home. We do a nice tour at our own pace.
This is the time I have scheduled to visit some of the farms – it is a very rich agricultural area. I have a detailed schedule drawn up at home, before we left; however, I am finding it hard to schedule these visits. I keep asking my contacts to forward contact info for the farms so that I can schedule them. They want to schedule the farm visits for me – but our schedule seems to change daily so that makes it challenging. I go round and round with them on this – it is frustrating (probably for them as well). The farm visits keep not happening.