For a spontaneously planned vacation this summer our pick was Kenya. The country, as it turned out, only requires an e-visa for Pakistanis, and having always had a love for the African wildlife we felt it was an item to be crossed off our bucket list. We started off with a complete itinerary, my mother and I, having only a few days to spare. Nairobi and Maasai Mara were to be our main attractions.
On our first day in Nairobi, we didn’t get to see much of the city as we crashed in a tiny hotel for the night straight out of Nairobi’s international airport Jomo Kenyata, but the drive to the domestic airport the next morning made up for lost time. Nairobi is a city with character: lively and green with a heavy western influence, particularly in the way its residents dress and the British colonial-era manor houses that line its streets. The city is very clean and there is a lot of greenery, however, there is also a lot of poverty, a bit baffling for one who prior to this experience had always associated cleanliness with development.
Wilson Airport, Nairobi’s domestic airport, is a quaint little facility almost frozen in time: a few counters, a small lounge and one security check. Since the airport is used for flights within Kenya, only small planes take off from the runway. Fifty-seaters, two-seaters and even some helicopters crowd the strip. At other airports when we check in our bags, they disappear on the conveyor belt towards the baggage handlers. The check-in process at Wilson is amusingly different. Upon checking my ticket, the flight attendant asked me to help her carry the bags, and then proceeded to walk us towards the50-seater plane
herself. One person for everything, cost-effective and efficient for an airport of this nature, I guess.
As it turned out my mother and I were the only passengers on the 45-minute flight to the Maara; quite an exclusive experience. The plane landed on the Keekorok airstrip, one of the many airstrips in Maasai Mara. If Wilson airport had seemed simple, it now appeared state-of-the-art compared to the Keekorok landing strip, which was just a clearing on the ground. A lady from the Rhinoceros Protection Force told me that at times wild animals appear on the landing strip, making the pilot’s job particularly tough and skilful.
I got to observe this myself just a few minutes later as a plane tried to land but bounced off just as quickly because there were zebras obstructing its path. This was met with a crowd forming around the runway, as the locals observed and cheered on the Rhino Protection Force jeeps that drove the zebras away and the plane finally managed to land safely. The ‘airport’ had a simple bathroom which should best be called a well-developed outhouse, an ‘airport lounge’ that was essentially a large cement block with a few benches and a tin roof, and a ‘duty free’ that carried a few handmade goods laid out by local Maasai women.
I had imagined the safari would be something similar to the visuals in The Lion King or Animal Planet, however, I learnt that a television screen cannot do justice to the African savannah. It is much more vast and breathtaking. Also, it’s one thing to see an animal in the zoo behind bars, and completely another to see it in the wild. Animals kept in captivity become dead souls, not quite animals any longer, but in their natural habitat they flourish and grow. It’s a liberating experience to see a world where animals of the African Kingdom roam freely and live their lives the way they are meant to.
Standing in our open jeep, seeing nothing but the endless Mara all around me I think I finally understood — visually rather than theoretically — that the horizon is round. The African air smells clean and refreshing, and the land radiates the kind of purity that comes with places that are untouched, not yet destroyed by human ambition, places that give the sense that there is something greater out there than yourself.
An occasional giraffe stands in the distance, the breeze blows and there is complete silence.Both predator and prey surviving on the same land, day after day. That’s the beauty of the African savannah.
On our three-day safari, we were lucky enough to see most of what we were hoping to: A pride of lions, hippos in a watering hole, giraffes, including a 3-day-old baby giraffe whichwas actually as big as our jeep, African buffalos,cheetahs,and a leopard, among others. Our guide, a local Maasai man who had a degree in the flora and fauna of the land drove us around in his turbo engine jeep and alerted us beforehand to the “African massage”, a humorous way of warning us to hold on tight so we wouldn’t be thrown out of the open jeep as he drove it across uneven lands and rivers. He would drive his jeep at full speed to show us an animal whenever there was a spotting. However, we narrowly missed the rhino. I did however get a glimpse of its tail just before it disappeared. Spotting a rhino is hard. It mostly stays in the tall grass as it’s not hunted by any animal.
One of the main reasons we went to Kenya was to witness the great migration. This is a phenomenon where thousands of animals, mainly the wildebeest, antelope and zebras cross the river that divides Maasai Mara from Serengeti in Tanzania. Thousands of animals run across the river to migrate between the countries. This spectacle is known as “the greatest drama on earth” and is truly worth travelling to Kenya to. It is utter chaos. Animals gather together over a period of time from all over the grasslands to form a herd and then run at full speed, crossing the great river to reach the other side in search for greener pastures.
In Maasai Mara we got to visit a model village where the Maasai tribe resides. They called it a village, but being familiar with what our villages in Punjab look like, I’d prefer calling this one a compound, as it had a small courtyard and a few huts. Two brothers were the chiefs of the compound, and all the women were their wives. The Maasai as it turns out are polygamists. Whereas Muslims who practice polygamy limit themselves to 4 wives, Maasai men don’t have a limit. They believe the more children they have the better; not a particularly bright idea considering the poverty rate. This mindset, I noted, seemed to resemble that of our countrymen.
The village has about a dozen huts in the compound area. Each hut has an entrance which leads to the biggest room in the hut: a place where cattle is kept at night. The next room is where the adults sleep and a small room for children after that. In the middle of each room is a fire pit where all the cooking is done. The hut is quite tiny, with barely enough space to stand up and only one window 2”x2” in size. Each hut belongs to a wife and her children, with their husbands spending time with whichever wife they choose for that night.
The Maasai people dress in their traditional attire, covered in handmade jewellery and with a blanket or cape around their neck. Maasai women are expected to take care of the village, make meals, and take care of the children (sound familiar?), while the men take their cattle for grazing every day. There are many schools in Maasai Mara. The resort we stayed at had three in the area. However, there are still many children who don’t go to school.
They claim to currently have no religion, although their ancestors were witch doctors who practiced voodoo. A lot has changed about the way the newer generation of the tribe lead their lives. Previously, whenever time came for a boy to declare his manhood, he would have to go out into the jungle and kill a lion, we were told by our guide, but now they choose to go to university in Nairobi where many end up converting to Christianity.
All the safari guides are Maasai who have graduated with degrees in the wildlife and topography of Maasai Mara. I imagine it’s practically impossible for an outsider to become a guide in the Maara as all of them communicate with each other through walkie-talkies in their native language Maa. I also saw a Caucasianman on the safari driving the jeep himself, and asked my guide how he was able to find his way around and respond to animal spottings if he did not know the language. The guide responded by pointing out the local Maasai man who had been made to sit on the outer back of the vehicle. It is obvious that the white man still expects Africa to do its bidding.
When it was time for us to leave Maasai Mara, we missed our plane as it had taken off without us, even though we arrived well before time (apparently, that happens quite often) so we waited half a day on the Keekorok landing strip waiting for the next plane to land. The plane that landed for us had six people on it, and no barrier between the seats and the cockpit. The pilot herself got out, pulled down the ladder for the passengers, took out the luggage single-handedly, and after she had completed this routine, came up to us. Instead of checking our ticket, she asked us for our names and then crossed them off of a list.
Back in Nairobi, inspired by the beautiful hairstyles that the women there sported I also walked into a salon to get my hair braided.
Kenya, being a part of Africa, is deeply involved in its own and the rest of Africa’s problems. So, whenever I introduced myself as a Pakistani, it didn’t seem to register with many people, who automatically assumed me to be Indian. This I found was actually a relief, as usually when I introduce my nationality in other countries I am met with an uneasy change of attitude.
I really fell in love with Kenya. The people there are some of the nicest I have ever met, but I suppose that attribute usually comes with simplicity. Everything about the land is distinct. It is a place truly worth visiting for an experience like no other.