– visited November 2014 –
Mombasa and the Coast
On arrival at Mombasa Airport, we have to fill out health cards and our temperature is taken. Deadly ebola is raging in parts of West Afrika and Kenya wants to be safe. Another poster asks if you have recently been to the Middle East or China and have respiratory symptoms. Being on the watch for MERS.
Mombasa is Kenya’s oldest city and a historical trading centre on the Indian Ocean. A few months a year, the winds were favourable for Arab sailors to sail south to the African coast, they traded and stayed until the winds changed and blew them back north. This brought foreign ideas and this brought Islam to the area. The region became known as the Swahili coast, Swahili meaning “coasts” in Arabic. Around 1500 the Portuguese appeared for the first time. They had mastered to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. A hundred years later, they were back in force. From 1593 to 1698 the Portuguese Empire ruled Mombasa. For the next two hundred years, with two short interruptions by once the Portuguese and another time the British, it fell under the power of Oman. From 1887, it was controlled by Britain before becoming part of the independent Kenya in 1963. There is a Portuguese fort, some mosques, some churches and an old town. In the old town something rare happens to me, I encounter racism, twice being told, that white people are not welcome here.
In the hostel I meet Artur. He is from Poland and calls himself a photojournalist. He came to Mombasa foremost because he found cheap flights. He wants to do a story about Christians. I tell him that Mombasa has a Muslim majority. He is surprised, he did not know that but in exactly that moment he gets his story. If there are more Muslims here than Christians, there must be conflict and the Christians must be “persecuted”. I walk around town with him all day, we stop at some churches and he speaks with some people always asking them about conflicts with their Muslim neighbours. “No, we get along fine”, he is being told. But the more he asks, of course someone at some point tells him that some Muslim called a Christian an idiot and some fight broke out one day. Not really related to religion but still there were Muslims and Christians involved. Artur gets the points for his storyline. The next day, he sits on his laptop, he knows next to nothing about Mombasa but he is already happily writing away. I am glad, that I never have to read his article and I hope it never got published. It would have made me cry.
Artur had also found a girlfriend on his first day in Mombasa. He was on the beach and she came over and made him an offer that was just impossible to refuse. He was worried as his penis size is “just normal”. Now, he searches all day for a restaurant that offers Octopus because he believes that will give him more strength.
I travel north along the coast to Watamu. I want to see more of the coast, there are the ruins of Gedi, a medieval Swahili-Arab settlement and the area is known for sex tourism. Although usually as the mirror image of Thailand; here, it is older white women who come for the services of younger black men. The film Paradise: Love by the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl describes the story. Watamu has nice beaches, the ruins are enchanting and I only find a few older ladies around, maybe I am in the wrong season. A short visit to Malindi before I take the overnight bus to Nairobi.
The shock came already on the train to the airport. Going on a safari (by the way the Arab word for “to travel”) is one of my aims, but I realized that I have forgotten my zoom lens. First thing in Nairobi I search for camera shops. None has a proper lens for my camera but one shop has a lens, that is designed for cameras with smaller sensors. From experience (I once used that lens) I know that the lens works with my camera. Just at some focal lengths, there is a black fringe around the frame. The price is not too high, allowing me to resell the lens back home at an acceptable loss. I am ready to go.
I had not planned to go to the Massai Mara. I would have preferred one the lesser known National Parks but trips to the Massai Mara are easiest and cheapest to arrange. Three days/two nights cost about 270$ which is remarkable as the entrance fee for one day is already 80$. Multiplied by three that would already be 240$. It turns out, that we will in fact only spend one day in the National Park. Half of the first day is the drive from Nairobi and the afternoon will be spend in the area adjacent to the National Park but not belonging to it. Don’t despair, there are already plenty of animals in that area including wildebeest, zebras, buffalos, hartebeest, elephants, jackals, of course impalas, a black rhino (my first) and finally even some lions. In most African countries, more organized ones like South Africa or Namibia being the exception, National Parks are not fenced in. Instead, there is often a transition zone where human activity becomes less, and animal activity more.
For the price our accommodation is surprisingly good. Permanent tents with a bathroom attached and the dinner buffet is tasty. Our safari vehicle is a minivan where you can lift the roof, which allows people to stand up and get a view without glass in between them and the animals. No comparison to the totally open vehicles I know from Zambia or Malawi but I have found my spot to take decent pictures. Our driver/guide is a disappointment. He knows the common animals but is shaky with birds and knows next to nothing about animal behaviour. No comparison to the expert guides I encountered in Zambia or South Africa who would even know a bird just from its sound and could predict animal behaviour as they knew their habits.
The second day is just amazing. We see animals all day. Except the black rhino we re-encounter all the animals from the day before but add giraffes, warthogs, topi, ostriches, a well-hidden leopard, eland antelopes, and a cheetah who has just killed an impala to the mix. We see so many lions that I want to trade in three lions for one good leopard sighting. And the lions are used to the cars, they just don’t care, you can come very close, they are just right next to you. In the afternoon, we reach the Mara river, which separates Kenya’s Massai Mara from the even better-known Serengeti in Tanzania. Every June, millions of wildebeest cross this river on their way north, looking for greener pastures. The embankment is steep in parts and during the great migration the packed animals push each other down where the crocodiles and other predators are already waiting. In October, they return to the Serengeti. Maybe the greatest wildlife spectacle earth has to offer. In November, only the hippos relax in the river. More animals are to come: baboons, hyenas, crocodiles and finally a beautiful, beautiful leopard. It is the first time in my life that I have actually seen a cheetah, and I have never seen all the big five in such a short amount of time.
There is a dark side to these animal sightings though. I know from other African parks (South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi) that the safari guides speak with each other when they meet, swap advice which animals they have seen and where you can maybe find them. In the Massai Mara, they are all connected by radio. Time and again, our driver would listen to someone, forget about a safari being a relaxed, slow affair and speed off in some direction. The case with the cheetah was emblematic. He got the call, speed away and soon we joined two other cars next to an exhausted cheetah which had just successfully hunted a baby impala. You could see the heart of the cheetah beating; cheetahs are fast, but this speed takes a lot of energy. Within the next ten minutes, about ten more cars arrive. I do not want to imagine how this looks like in high season.
Before returning to Nairobi we visit a Massai village. They see regular visits by tourists (bringing much needed income) but still the village feels quite genuine. First, we are treated to the traditional dancing. The men steal the show, they dance in a circle and end up standing in a line. All the time they sing and clap their hands. From time to time one or two of them step forward and jump as high as they can. Jumping high is considered very attractive. In a smaller circle we are shown how to make fire, a wooden stick is rotated in a hole in another piece of wood pressed on the blade of a knife. Smoke starts to rise and, in the end, some smouldering ash remains on the blade, combined with dry grass and some gentle blowing the flames soon appear. After the official touristy part, we are assigned a guide and are free to roam the village as we want. Even being able to enter one of the homes and to try some homemade beer. Inside it is smoky, no wonder in a small hut with tiny windows, a wood fire and no proper chimney. A health hazard. Our first guide, John, excuses himself quickly. He has a fever and thinks it might be a bout of malaria. We should not worry though, there is a hospital in the next village and he can get some medication there. He “hands us over” to one of his brothers.
The whole village is fenced with sticks and branches, to protect against wild animals and there is one enclosure with especially tight fencing to keep the small goats from venturing out. Massai men are marked (you could also call it mutilated) according to tradition. The first son has the inner part of his earlobe cut out and second sons have two of their front teeth broken out. John preferred having his teeth broken out, the earlobe thing would hurt a lot.
On the way back to Nairobi we stop at a viewpoint overlooking the great rift valley. This line of geographic trenches runs a total length of approximately 6,000 kilometres from Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley all the way to Mozambique. The Dead Sea, Red Sea and most of the great African Lakes are essentially part of that system.
Kibera is Nairobi’s most famous slum. Usually not a place for tourists to venture into, at least not unaccompanied. Pedro, who was on the trip to the Massai Mara, is currently working there as a teacher and offers to show a few of us around. Muddy, narrow lanes, simple huts made from bricks or mostly corrugated metal sheets. A few pipes with water. It does not even look that desperate, more like a poor but still organized part of town. As usual, there are smiling and happy children running around, their clothes simple and a bit dirty but totally adequate. The problems lie when you look deeper. Pedro is working in a school, but he wouldn’t call it teaching. One day the kids are there, the other they need to help their parents or are just missing. Some day they bring the little brother or sister that needs to be taken care of, other days they do not. It is way to chaotic and instead of teaching the aim is more to keep the children occupied with something. Twice a day, a train passes right next to the school and all the kids run out to watch. The children will leave the school with very little education, giving them few chances to succeed in the more modern parts of Kenya’s economy. They will in turn have a low income, most of them will live in a slum themselves, and their kids receive a substandard education. The circle has gone another round. People are welcoming and a pastor invites us into his tiny church for an impromptu music session.
I stumble upon a demonstration against violence against women, #MyDressMyChoice, is the motto. At the train museum, my absolute favourite is the bench that could be attached to the front of certain engines to allow distinguish guest to enjoy the African scenery. I enjoy the views from the Kenyatta International Convention Centre before seeing lots of human skulls at the National Museum. The story of humans probably started in this area of the world.
Nairobi also has its bad sides. Traffic is bad and more aggressive than I am used to from other African cities. You better get out of the way than to rely on the car hitting its breaks. Contrary to common knowledge, many places in Africa, including its cities, are safe. Nairobi is not, it has a reputation as a crime hotspot. Our visit to Kibera certainly had to end before the night would fall. I venture out after dark with two Germans I had met at the hotel. We have something to eat and go for a short walk. We are stopped by a policeman. He welcomes us to Kenya but I guess correctly, where all this is heading to. To get to know each other better he wants to see our documents. I have my passport with me but the other two only have photocopies. Well, nowadays, with computers everybody can make a photocopy of everything so a photocopy is no proof of nothing. We will have to come to the police station with him. We are only a few hundred metres from the hotel, so the easiest option would be to go there, and to present the real documents to him. He is not really interested in that; he is rather looking for a bribe. The other two guys will stay in Kenya for a project and one of them knows the name of the German ambassador. He drops the name, and threatens to contact the embassy. We are left alone after that.
My original plan had been to head north in Kenya to get to Ethiopia overland through the beautiful region around lake Turkana. I had not properly informed myself about Ethiopian visa rules and while it is very easy to get a visa on arrival when flying into Ethiopia, it is impossible to get them on the border and near impossible to get a visa for Ethiopia in any other African country. I tried in Nairobi but failed. I am forced to fly.