Kenya is not a theme park * (part one)
By Renée S. Gordon
"The views were immensely wide. Everything that you saw made for greatness and freedom, and unequalled nobility."
-- Karen Blixen, "Out of Africa"
A scholarly Kenyan guide completed our museum house orientation and asked if anyone in our American group had questions. An elderly gentleman in the rear piped up," Why do you people pronounce it 'Ken-ya' when 'Keen-ya' is the way the British pronounce it"? The guide responded," The British did not hear the name correctly and so they pronounce it in their own manner."
This exchange typified for me the overwhelming view of Africa in general and Kenya in particular. Kenya is not so much a country with a culture and history as it is an extension of a theme park with natives in colorful garb and wild animals that cavort practically on request. Visitors can skim the surface of adventure, not bothering to pronounce names or places correctly, visiting villages on a schedule that does not interfere with activities and game viewing via safari vehicles that are driven by indigenous guides who make certain you make your "viewing" quota lest your photo-safari be too short to be impressive when you arrive back home from your adventure.
An authentic Kenyan adventure should encompass all aspects of the country. Kenya has much to offer that is unique and adds significantly to our understanding of the history of mankind and the safari experience is only one aspect, albeit an important one, of a visit to Kenya. My advice, do not limit yourself to jeeps and binoculars. Lift your head and take in the beauty that surrounds you, learn the history, soak up the culture and I promise you will truly begin to understand this ancient civilization and feel the magic and mysticism of the land.
Kenya, 226,196-sq. miles, is approximately the size of France. Located at the heart of East Africa, straddles the equator and is bounded by Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and 300-miles of Indian Ocean shoreline on the east. The nation's most outstanding physical feature is a portion of the 5,400-mile Great Rift Valley, formed more than 20-million years ago when the earth's crust split and a valley was formed in the fissure. The rift, extending roughly from Syria to Mozambique, has an eastern course that bisects Kenya and varies in width from 20 to 100-miles and in places the escarpment is as much as 3000-ft. high. www.geology.com/articles/east-africa-rift.shtml
Fossilized remains have been uncovered in Kenya and these finds are ground zero for the "Out of Africa" theory. Fossils found in Kenya pre-date "Lucy," previously believed to be the oldest discovery, by thousands of years. A 200,000-year old homo-sapien's remains were discovered in the Samburu District and currently serve as evidence that the population of Africa has been stable longer than anywhere else worldwide. www.ngm.nationalgeographic.com/human-evolution/human-ancestor
Kenyan tribal legend tells us that in the beginning Mogai, the Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature, created Gikuyu, the forefather of the tribe and gifted him with the land and all its physical features and the game that inhabited it. Simultaneously Mogai created Kere-Nyaga, a large mountain, that would be where Mogai rested and a place from which mankind could see the wonders Mogai had brought forth. The first British who came to the country asked the indigenous Kikuyu what the mountain was called and they respond, "Kirinyaga." The British, unable or unwilling to correctly pronounce the name began to document it as "Kenia." Eventually they would refer to the entire British colony as Kenya. No matter how you choose to pronounce it, it means "holy place" or "Mountain of God."
Mount Kenya is the second tallest mountain in the country. It was formed more than 3-million years ago, has a base of more than 75-miles and Nelion, its highest peak, is 17,060-ft high. The mountain is situated in an area that is both a National Park (1949), a Biosphere Reserve (2000) and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1997). There are numerous routes to ascend the mountain but the three most popular approaches are Naro Moru, Chogoria and Sirimon. The climb on each of the three routes averages five days. www.whc.unesco.org/en/list/800
Kenya was, for thousands of years, inhabited by hunter-gathers who migrated from other points on the continent including Ethiopians and the Nilotic people. Early documentation proves that the Kenyan coast was a thriving trade area as early as 110 AD and forty years later it is included in Ptolemy's Map of the World. The Arabs and Persians established settlements in the 700s. The Portuguese, recognizing the wealth in the coastal city of Mombasa, sacked it in 1500 and ruled the region from there for the next century.
Mombasa's Fort Jesus was constructed in 1593, changed hands over time more than ten times and has been a museum for the past fifty years. A tour of the fort is filled with interesting locations. One must not miss the 1800 Omani House constructed on the site of the 1698 execution of the captain of the fort. The Site Museum displays artifacts uncovered during archeological excavations. Arguably the most interesting display in the fort is a panel featuring Portuguese graffiti dating from the early 1600s. www.museums.or.ke/content/blogcategory/48/76/
Ironically a ruler of Mombasa invited the British into the country in 1823 for protection from rival tribes. Sixty-four years later the headquarters of the Imperial British East Africa Company was established in the city. By the end of the century the British had solidified their hold on the country by building the $8-million East African Railroad that linked Mombasa and the Lake Victoria area, opening the region for colonization, with Nairobi as its center. East Indians and Sikhs were imported to build the railway while the Nandi people were confined to reservations. Upon completion of the railroad in 1906 Europeans moved in and settled on land taken from the indigenous African tribes.
The Maasai Mara National Park and Wildlife Reserve is one of the world's dream destinations. The 583-sq. mile area is renowned for its annual wildlife migrations, safari game drives and Maasai villages. Within the reserve, a portion of the Serengeti ecosystem, there are nearly 100 animal species, more than 2-million herbivores and 507 bird species. The Mara also has one of the highest lion densities on the continent. All of the animals within the reserve belong to the government making it a crime to kill one of them and game drives are available in the daytime only to deter poaching. www.maasaimara.com
The pastoral Maasai migrated into the region from the Sudan and have become Kenya's most recognized tribal group and their reputation as warriors is credited with preventing incursions by slavecatchers. Their customs remain largely intact and their manyattas, family compounds within the reserve, can be visited.
The huts are placed in a circle, with the patriarch having one house and each of his wives having a home. Cattle are kept in pens within the center of the circle. Guided tours include an orientation, a home visit, and exhibitions of Maasai customs and dancing. Young males, who showcase their skills by jumping as high as possible into the air, perform the dances. While it may appear insensitive to join a guided tour to a manyatta it should be noted that the proceeds of this "cultural exchange," and that of any purchases made on-site, go directly to the Maasai.
Naivasha Road is the primary route between Nairobi and the Maasai Mara. There are points along the way that allow great views of the Great Rift Valley and in several places rocks along the road are painted with colorful drawings and messages.
There are three alkaline lakes in the country and the smallest of them, the 7-sq.-mile Lake Elementeita, is accessed from Naivasha Road. The lake is an important breeding ground for the white pelican and home to about 440 other bird species. In 2005 it was designated a RAMSAR Wetland based on its importance to the world. Seven-miles from the Elementeita is Gambles Cave, an archeological site from the Post-Pleistocene Era.
The freshwater Lake Naivasha, just off the main road, is the highest lake in the country. The name comes from the Maasai word Nai'posha or "rough water." The lake is 105-sq. miles and is less than ten miles from the 26.3-sq. mile spectacular Hell's Gate National Park. www.kws.org/parks/parks_reserves/HGNP.html
One of the more recent side trips available to visitors is the "Obama Tour." President Barack Obama's father was born in a Kenyan homestead in the village of Nyang'oma Kogelo in the Nyanza province. Obama Sr. received a scholarship to the University of Hawaii where he was the first African student to attend. He married Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, when they were both students and later abandoned her and their two-year-old son and returned to Kenya where he served as a government economist under President Jomo Kenyatta. He died as a result of an Nairobi auto accident in 1982. In 1988 Obama visited his ancestral home for the first time.
Tours following in the footsteps of President Obama can be booked at local travel agencies. Information on visas, currency and all other aspects of Kenyan tourism is available at www.magicalkenya.com and www.venturesavannah.com
"The Cicada sing an endless song in the long grass, smells run along the earth and falling stars run over the sky, like tears over a cheek. "
--Karen Blixen, "Out of Africa"
I wish you smooth travels!
*Numbers, spellings and dates vary by source. I have relied heavily on the writings of Jomo Kenyatta for information.
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