Uneasy expeditions: The pitfalls of travelling while woke

The tourist life in Kenya: Luxury game viewing at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, Shela village on Lamu island — the options are endless. (Tony Karumba, AFP)

The tourist life in Kenya: Luxury game viewing at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, Shela village on Lamu island — the options are endless. (Tony Karumba, AFP)

It was nightfall on our second day on the #AsambeKenya trip when we arrived at Ol Pejeta — the wildlife conservancy that had been established in 2004 on land once owned by a British colonial settler — a man with an unpronounceable surname, Hugh Cholmondely, third Baron Delamere, who settled in Kenya in 1901.

It was a cattle ranch until 1968 and since then had a number of owners including billionaire arms dealer, Adnan Khashoggi who built the modestly opulent (is that even a thing?) Ol Pejeta House.  The oversized furniture awakened my childhood curiosity and made me think that maybe this was the home of what in Xhosa folklore is called izim — not quite an ogre, but a cannibal slightly larger than a regular human.

It is said 15 people could enjoy a night’s peace on Khashoggi’s wife’s bed. The house now forms part of the accommodations available for visitors to the conservancy.

We scrambled for our passports in the dark while the sound of the Swahili passing between our gracious host (with the most), Helen Omukoko of the Kenyan Tourism Board, and the heavily armed guard from the conservancy was almost soothing after what felt like an eternity of a day. There were still six days of activities remaining. I wondered if I would make it to the end. I soldiered on. Passports returned to us, we passed swiftly into the conservancy and onward to the Serena Sweetwaters campsite.  Sweetwaters Game Reserve was opened in 1988 by another of Ol Pejeta’s owners, Lonrho Africa.

After dinner, I sat outside my superbly appointed glamping tent — where the wi-fi was strongest — listening to the sounds of the African bush (to borrow the “common” parlance). I reflected on the events of the previous 48 hours. The drama at OR Tambo as one of our party was denied passage through check-in for not having a yellow fever immunisation card — despite Kenya not being in the Yellow Fever Zone. The long hours in Nairobi traffic from the airport to the hotel and out of the hotel again. The (hungover) white water rafting after a night on the town exploring Nairobi nightlife.

A lot had already happened and it was only day two. Despite all of that, only one thing could account for the feeling of unease that gripped me: I was travelling while woke.

Earlier that same day we had been white water rafting, under the experienced guidance of the men from Savage Wilderness Safaris — an adventure tourism outfit with some 27 years of existence operating out of Sagana, 102km northeast of Nairobi. From our German guide (who had a strange cockney accent) we learned that the British army was a regular customer at Savage Wilderness, thanks to the location of the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) in nearby Nanyuki. I was both reassured and concerned by this information: reassured that I was in hands entrusted with the United Kingdom’s best defenders; and concerned that, well, quite honestly, what was the British army still doing here? No sooner had that thought found a place to settle and be, than I began to notice a subtly disdainful tone in our guide’s speech whenever talk turned to the villagers who lived alongside the Thana River upon which we were rafting.

“These people will eat anything they pull out the river,” he scoffed. “It doesn’t matter even if it’s this size,” he gestured with his thumb and index finger. “They won’t throw it back in the river – they’ll just eat it.” And then he shook his head. I wondered what conversations he might have had with his army buddies.

It is undeniable that Kenya is almost synonymous with wildlife conservation and tourism, at least to the outside world. Almost every travel book, blog, article on the country almost always features an image of one or more of the Big 5, while encouraging the onlooker to “go on safari”.

Nairobi National Park is a short drive from the capital’s central business district, and is the reason behind the iconic images of giraffe (or some member of big five) in their natural habitat with the Nairobi cityscape in the background.  This further confuses Americans who continue to believe that we live with wild animals in our backyards (something that is probably only true for the Samburu).

Despite the fervent lamentations about the state of the roads from our friend, the cockney German, we continued cross-country on seemingly brand new roads (“the Chinese” someone groaned when I noted this). We crossed the equator at Nanyuki and did the Coriolis force experiment — the one where the water drains out clockwise or anticlockwise depending on which side of the equator you’re on. Minds were understandably blown and we continued towards Samburu County.

Mount Kenya played peek-a-boo in the clouds as the landscape before us gave way to the unending vastness that is the East African Rift Valley (not to be confused with the Great Rift Valley, which I did throughout my stay). A little while later, rich farmland and timber forests gave way to a dry desolate place. A forgotten place of white rocky sand, pitch-black igneous rock and humans marooned there by history and intransigence. We were now in Samburu.

The Samburu people are distant cousins of the Masai and, therefore, are the rightful owners of all the land and all the cattle, the legend goes. According to some accounts, passed on orally from one generation to another, the Samburu separated from the Masai around 400 years ago. As we were being told of Samburu customs and taken on a tour of one of the villages, it started to feel as though no substantive change had occurred to Samburu culture in those four centuries. A deeply unenviable circumstance — a semi-nomadic life occasionally punctuated by female genital mutilation, deadly raids by Kalenjin warriors and waiting for the rain.

In recent years, tourists have come to realise that Kenya actually has a coastline — and a beautiful one at that. In fact, Kenya’s ancient coastal settlements constitute part of the legendary Swahili coast. The word “Swahili” is derived from the plural of the Arabic word for coast, “saw’hil” — referring to the many coasts of Zanzibar, Mombasa and Lamu, which made up the major settlements and trading posts along East Africa.

kiSwahili arose as a pidgin akin to our own Fanagalo — incorporating words from Arabic, “Bantu languages” and, later, some Portuguese. However, the “Bantu languages” are seldom specified, and these vital inputs to a language spoken by up to 100 million people across East and Central Africa, are often erased — and with them, the histories of the Boni, the Orma, the Bajuni and many others are also erased.

Tour guides say the history of the Swahili Coast — and the language itself — often begins when the first Arabic and Persian traders used the Indian Ocean monsoon winds between November and March to sail south for trade with merchants from further inland on the African continent, and north between July and September to return home.

Lamu, an archipelago of several islands, remains the least visited of these latter-day trendy tourist destinations. For the most part, this is because of it proximity to the Somali border to the north. A proximity to Al-Shabab that has lived up to some of the worst fears as recently as February of this year. Even so, this hasn’t hampered the development of the tourism industry in the archipelago — and certainly did not deter us from enjoying ourselves and shopping up a storm.

Formerly the playground of European royalty including the Grimaldis of Monaco (who still own at least four properties on Shella Island) and the House of Hanover (the house that gave us Leopold I of Belgium and Britain’s Victoria), these once private homes have recently been turned into for-hire villas with negotiable terms – if you know the right people.

Other well-to-do foreigners have also bought up or built many other villas across the archipelago, and are using apps like AirBnB to realise the return on an otherwise remote investment.

Real estate isn’t the only industry that is experiencing a revival in Lamu, as tourism slowly recovers. The “island boy” industry is also experiencing somewhat of a boom, at least from what I could tell from the goings on at the floating bar in the middle of Ras Kitau Bay.

On my last night in Kenya, I was treated to the sight of gangs of giggling young Europeans of all genders doing the most to take advantage of the sex(y) tourism offered by young Lamu men (and at least one old one). I wanted to giggle along, to be part of the sexually charged frenzy of their band. God knows I needed it after the disappointment that was Nairobi Grindr. But even when you’re a tourist, there are just some things that as a brown-skinned person, you cannot bring yourself to do when visiting other brown-skinned people.

Swahili has so many beautiful words for everything – harambee (all pull together) ujamaa (familyhood), kujichagulia (self determination) – I wonder what the equivalent word is for the Xhosa concept of “iintloni” (both shyness and shame).

Fumbatha May

Fumbatha May

Fumbatha May is a data scientist and socioeconomic development consultant working in the renewable energy sector. Read more from Fumbatha May

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