Category Archives: Travel

Fort Jesus by night

Centuries upon centuries. The Fort still has me in awe. It was delightful to see it at night.

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An art exhibition under the moonlight. Only in Mombasa.

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Looking across into the Indian Ocean. Now there are lights, imagine how it must have been when the Portuguese lived there centuries back.

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Kahawa tungu. Enjoyed as I watched an acting troupe rehearse at the courtyard of the Fort.

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GOD BLESS KENYA!


Skywalking in Ngare Ndare

Do you have a fear of heights is an interesting question which I rarely know how to answer. See I have done a picnic atop KICC and had a ball but I also think of what if a flyover gives way when I am crossing the road.

So when I was confronted with a canopy walk made of wire mesh and rope that is 25 metres above the ground and half a kilometre long I was torn between hell yes I want to go up and hell no, what if the canopy walk snapped.

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Seeing an old man walk up the steps and begin walking made up my mind to walk the canopy. The oldie was John Fox.  John is a travel writer who has been writing about Africa for close to three decades. His articles feature on the Sunday Nation under the banner Going Places.

I am not a small man. So stepping on the wire mesh was a leap of faith and I held on to the sides with a vice like grip while looking straight ahead at John.

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Step after step and I finally believed the canopy would not break and I was able to enjoy the unique birds-eye view.

It was exhilarating seeing nature up close with huge 200 year old trees, fresh air and sounds of the Ngare Ndare forest for company.

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Aside from John, his two sons and I, our pack of six also included two crew members of a production house, a director of the Northern Rangeland Trust as well as Ranger Ibrahim Maina.

Ibrahim is a walking encyclopaedia on Ngare Ndare Forest. He regaled us with descriptions of the many indigenous trees, told us of the herd of elephants that had visited in the morning and what kind of wildlife visited the mud bath at Ngare Ndare.

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The Ngare Ndare Forest is an important corridor for elephants and other wild animals that links the Lewa Conservancy and the Mount Kenya region.

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In 2015 I had visited it as one of the legs of the Safari Rally was held there in a very old road which appeared to have been built at least 70 years ago.

This time round I was visiting it as part of my visit to the Lewa Conservancy and the management of the Northern Rangeland Trust wanted publicity for it as part of the Safaricom Lewa Marathon.

As part of the 2016 Safaricom Lewa Marathon participants and visitors are encouraged to day a trip to Ngare Ndare Forest.  The delights are the exhilarating and terrifying canopy walk as well as a mud bath (for the wildlife), stunning waterfalls and camping opportunities.

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Ngare Ndare is Maa for water for goats.  There is a stream that crosses the forest and a bridge to cross over was built in 1947 by the Italian Prisoners of War. It is still in use and quite a delight to behold for a history buff.

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Driving out of Ngare Ndare we gave Ranger Ibrahim and his two colleagues a lift to the nearest town where they live. At one point we have to share the road with a huge herd of domestic animals and Ranger Ibrahim explained that the community is allowed to graze in the forest in a rotational format to ensure a win-win situation for the forest conservancy and the community.

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Aside from the two Kenya Wildlife Service/NRT rangers was Joy, an intern from Egerton University who was on attachment at Ngare Ndare. She incidentally played a starring role in convincing someone from our party to walk across the canopy.

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40-something year old J suffers from phobia of heights. But in an amazing display of mind over mind Joy pep-talked J across the canopy walk and J was eternally grateful for the memory.

Many of my friends upon seeing the pictures of the canopy walk and finding out that I had walked across asked the same questions:  1) Were you not scared? 2) What if it snapped? 3) Are you crazy?

I am glad I walked across the Ngare Ndare Forest Canopy and I will definitely walk across it again upon my return to take in the waterfalls, mud bath and campsites because there is something quite liberating about staring at fear or doubts and overcoming.

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Ngare Ndare Forest is a lovely unique getaway.

Go on!

Visit it :-).

GOD BLESS KENYA!


Heritage Series – A Wife’s Tale

The sun that had earlier kissed the slopes had progressively disappeared under the heavy clouds. Gradually chilly it had turned. It seemed like the afternoon rains which are very common in the Kenyan highlands would pour anytime.

At a corner, where two houses join, a lady sits on a stool, taking in scenery and enjoying the breeze.  Donning several sweaters, a maroon dress, a blue woolen cap which covers her white hair and she has a walking stick at her side.

Upon sighting her visitor, she bursts out laughing. “My husband, is that you or are my eyes deceiving me?” she exclaims. A hearty handshake ensues accompanied with the rhythmic vocal intonations.

She may not do it herself due to vagaries of age but just like a wife would, she asks Wairimu, her helper to get her husband a stool, take his bag and warm up a mug of uji for him. Wairimu, does all this in short order. She also introduces herself to the husband as a distant relative.

Wife and husband then proceed to catch up on ‘home’ matters. With each finding out what the other had been up to since they were last together.

Conversation drifts leisurely as the husband sips his uji. “Is it too hot? Should Wairimu bring another cup to aid you cool it?” wife soothingly asks husband.

During a lull in conversation, a cow moos at a distance. A cockerel chases two hens around the homestead. The dog, Tiger, sniffs out the visitor and attempts to play. For its efforts it earns itself a poke with the walking stick. Wairimu washes the dishes, begins preparing the evening meal and lights up the jiko.

Husband picks up the thread of conversation. He guides it to an area that had previously just been glossed over. Wife lights up like a Christmas tree. Making light work of the many decades that have passed by. Her memory razor-sharp.

She begins to coherently answer the prodding questions

When I first went to Nairobi, we lived in Majengo. This was in the late 1950s. I moved to be close to my husband. By then I had three children with the then last-born just a couple of months old. My friends in Majengo were Khadija and Fatuma. Swahili women who loved talking and cooking. They greatly improved my Kiswahili. Unfortunately once I left Nairobi, I forgot most of it.

One day a white man did allocations for houses in Bahati – a newly-constructed estate for Africans. Three families were to share one house. It was a big leap from living in Majengo. With the many constructions in Nairobi I cannot point out where the house stands now.

To eke out a living I sold vegetables in Marikiti Market. A group of us women would harvest vegetables from the banks of Nairobi River after paying for strips. The farmers were from Embu and Ndia. I do not know if they owned the land or just farmed it.

We picked the vegetables during the day, washed them until they looked very fresh, and then took them to the market at 3am. There were matatus to town. I would sell my stock and still come back and prepare breakfast for my school-going children.

My clientele at the market were mostly Asians although there was a sprinkling of white ladies. I struck up a friendship with two Asian ladies. One did not have kids. One did. She invited me to an Indian wedding. It was a great chance to sell my wares and experience the eight day ceremony.

By now I had gotten more children. I was also taking care of my nieces and nephews as well as other family’s children. To further supplement the family income I brewed flour-based African beer. I bought the flour from my Majengo friends.

Sympathetic to my large brood, the alcohol consumers made a beeline to my house every evening to partake of my brew. I sold a quart at one shilling and a pint at fifty cents.

The shadow of the white man was never far off. Several encounters spring to mind. Once I had to stand in an identification line as a betrayer picked out Mau Mau sympathizers. Off course I had taken the oath. The betrayer was fully covered. Only his eyes were visible. He did not speak. Just nodded or shook head to show who was Mau Mau. He did not pick me out.

Another time was more risky. My husband ran a charcoal business. He kept guns for Mau Mau in the sacks. The authorities suspected but never found evidence. One day there was a swoop, he was taken to a police station and almost taken to jail but luckily he was not. The sight of me with a child several days old must have softened the cops’ hearts.

Kenyatta, I cannot say I saw a lot of. Father of Odinga walked around Bahati a lot. He dressed in shorts and a Swahili cap. He seemed a brave man at ease with people.

The Independence Day was quite something! It was at that big open piece of land. What do you call it? It rained a lot. Lights were switched off. Then upon their return the white man’s flag had been brought down and Kenyatta hoisted our flag. It was the end of the white man. We were very happy.

The questions cease. Husband takes in the impromptu history lesson. Wife smiles and has a far-away look. She appears to be reminiscing. Husband is awed by how her memories tell a story of Kenya’s last 50-years.

Husband is grandson. Wife is grandmother.

Wife’s memories are her husband’s heritage. Wife’s memories are Kenya’s history.

GOD BLESS KENYA!


Lost in America – 2

One was sent to America with fees for a semester. With the disclaimer that others have made it so why not them. Go forth and pull this family out of the resident poverty was the unspoken message.

Picture a nineteen year old landing in a new country with the hopes of an entire family, clan, weighing them down.

Back then internet and mobile phones were less prevalent; Kenyan media was not so open, social media was unheard of, so exposure to the world outside Kenya was very limited. Imagine the culture shock.

What no one told people was that undergraduate fees for non-Americans are very high. Living costs are also exorbitant. Another thing not shared was the issue of law in America. Unlike in Kenya where one can err and get away with it, in America the arm of the law is long. I shall return to why this matters.

The most important document to get a visa was the I-20 which is what the universities would send to show that they have accepted your application to join the university. Majority of the visas issued were student visas.  Which meant one was not meant to work or one was only allowed to be on work study for a few hours at the university to earn credit hours  (school pays your fees for unit x and you work at place y at the school for a semester).

Remember one left Kenya with only fees for a semester, so actual dollar paying work was not optional but rather a necessity so as to be able to live in America.

Upon landing in America one discovered that the most important document was now a Social Security number. A social security number is the universal identifier for those living in America. One cannot work without it. This made getting it the Social Security number a matter of life and death.

Originally it was not very difficult to get. T who lived in the States for 15years before coming back to Kenya for good last year told me when he arrived in the mid-90s he had several socials to enable him send dollars back home without authorities figuring out he was a student who worked many jobs.

However in the aftermath of September 2011, America changed.

The officialdom tightened its screws and what was easy to get like in T’s case became almost impossible to get. The hours guys could work were also reduced. Schools were also tasked to be more vigilant so the taking leave of absence (skipping a semester or two to earn money) from uni trick so popular of Kenyans in America could no longer work.

Many of the guys who went to the States in the mid-to-late 90s managed to scrape through school and help out their folks back home as America was relatively easy-going. However many of the guys who went to America in the turn of the new millennium did not manage the same feat.

Remember that the American dream was get dollars and get an education. With a Social being hard to get, school being expensive and the hours one could work being reduced guys had no option but to quit school and work at making at least one part of the dream – getting dollars – come true.

If you went to USA on a student visa and you do not go to school you void your status and became an illegal. Underground living becomes your forte with menial minimum wage jobs your only source of income. Keeping one step away from the long arm of the law becomes a daily chore.

At this point the truth dies. The family back home is kept in the dark of the happenings. Guys become experts at putting up a front. Relatives and friends who are also abroad and know the true state of affairs are signed into a code of silence tougher than the Mafia one. Pictures of them appearing to be doing well and living it up are posted online. An occasional hundred or even thousand buck is wired home even though that means working 20hours-a-day.

America is a very individualistic country. Thus old people are left to fend for themselves by their families. This inadvertently resulted in an industry for many a Kenyan abroad, nursing.

I am talking of the years between 2003-2008.Guys flocked into the industry in droves. It paid better than the waiting tables or packing stuff in supermarkets. Guys could make enough to live well, send dollars home and even go to college to study nursing. Never mind that one went to America to study Computer Science.

Another trick that the innovative Kenyans perfected was the marriage for papers. Here one got into a business transaction with an American citizen. Pay x amount per month for a given period. Live together and act like a married couple. Then apply for a citizenship and upon being granted the residency papers go your separate ways. With residency ones status changed from illegal to legal and one could come to Kenya at will.

This period was a good period but like all good things it had to come to an end.

The years of 2008-2012 were to prove to be terrible for Kenyans in America. In my next post I shall seek to show how this happened, the current state of affairs and why it matters to you.

PRAY FOR KENYA!

GOD BLESS KENYA!

 


Lost in America – 1

The plight of Kenyans abroad and in the USA specifically is rarely documented or spoken about. This is a story that needs to be told. It’s a diverse topic that I shall attempt to tackle it in posts titled Lost in America.

Even though I have numerous relatives there, before last Sunday I was largely ignorant of life in America, the real version.

After chatting with or rather listening to my thirty-year old relative for 4 hours, I was thoroughly enlightened and stumped.

Let’s call my relative L. He went to America a 20 year old with a couple of suitcases and mega dreams. He was deported a broken 30 year old with only a small bag last Thursday.

For this story to be complete we must begin at the beginning. So let’s take a walk down memory lane.

Ten years ago, USA was the place to be. It was at the tail-end of ex-President Moi’s regime and Kenya was an economic and political mess.

Some families migrated to the US entirely while most sent several of their fresh out of high school kids to America for ‘further studies’.

This is their story.

Fundraisers for ‘further studies’ were as common then as ‘wedding committees’ are now. Families sacrificed a lot. I know of cases where parents used up entire retirement benefits for this venture. In extreme cases, like for my neighbor W, his parents sold their family house.

All these sacrifices were buttressed by the dream of a better life. America was the land of milk, honey and endless dollars. Kenya was a dead-beat third world country with no prospects. It was a settled argument which country was better to live in.

The bright-eyed teens, fresh out of high school, were seen as the saviors from the mess. They were expected to go and harvest as much of the dollars as possible. Land, houses, cars and mega-investments would then be a reality for their families left behind.

Getting a visa to America was like a camel going through the eye of a needle. One needed to show a reason why they were not a flight risk and also have a healthy bank balance. Remember these kids were not planning to return and the reason for going was so as to nourish their parents’ bank balances? There was also the non-refundable visa fees charged in dollars and the requisite TOEFL exams to be paid for.

Guys bought bank statements or asked rich relatives to transfer funds to the accounts to be used to show ability to cater for upkeep when in America. The flight risk element was harder to navigate but folk went round that by having letters showing they worked at blue-chip companies and thus would have no reason to stay in the USA indefinitely.

I chose to believe that even the consular officials knew the drill and thus the entire charade of visa issuance was just a case of satisfying pre-decided visa quotas. Maybe each consular official had 2 visas to give a day and they used individual discretion to decide who got and who did not.

The online appointment booking system that is used now was still a distant concept. Back then visa appointments were on first come, first served basis. The embassy was located on Mombasa Road where it had moved after the 1998 Nairobi US embassy bombing. Queues started at 5am but you could not stand near the embassy before then. So guys would sleep at the petrol station opposite, and then run across Mombasa Road and form a queue. 2 hours later the guards would let those seeking visas in.

The consular officials were invariably rude and curt. The terrible treatment was to be endured with a smile and humility. The goal was the visa and no humiliation would be too much to stomach.

Some dreams came to pass. Many others turned into nightmares. The embassy gates were the location of many a shout of joy and ecstatic hug and also tears and abject dejection.

The American visa was the difference. The ticket to heaven on earth or so it was thought. With the much sought after visa acquired guys would leave the country in a huff. Eager to start life anew in the ‘promised land’.

What happened to the young Kenyans when they got to America is what I will tackle in the next post.

PRAY FOR KENYA!

GOD BLESS KENYA!


Coastal Reflections

Through the four previous posts, I do hope that you vividly experienced my coastal visit.

The title ‘Tembea Coast’ was a play at the Tembea Kenya promotion by Magical Kenya. I sought to see The Coast through the eyes of a mwananchi and thus eschewed all of the fancy tourist-y activities.

Apart from the sight-seeing, frolicking on the beach and club hopping, I also got to see, smell, taste, hear and touch The Coast so to speak. Through these sensory experiences I got fodder for my reflections which I can now confidently share from a position of knowledge.

As a disclaimer, I was only at The Coast for three days, I do not proclaim to ‘know’ or be an expert on the the region and none of my reflections are from a position of malice or superiority.

If cleanliness is next to Godliness then Mombasa is very far away from God or Allah. Mountains of garbage are a permanent eyesore. Blame does not entirely lay with the Council of Mombasa as I did see their workers sweeping the streets but I reckon it is a case of a wrong mindset by the residents and also lack of a structured garbage disposal and collection process by the council. Mombasa is Kenya’s premier tourist city, tourism is a bigger cog in Kenya’s economy, and therefore one would expect a basic thing like cleanliness to be sorted. That it is not is mind-boggling.

The number of mini-vans (Nissans) and Tuk-tuks has increased at a very high rate in Mombasa. The result is a lot of noise on the streets, mega pollution and the bane of all Kenya’s urban areas: traffic. I am not convinced that all those Public Service Vehicles are necessary for the population in Mombasa. It would be prudent to carry out a survey and match vehicles with need before matters get out of hand and Mombasa grinds to a halt due to traffic.

Eating out in Mombasa is quite expensive. A meal sets you back on average two hundred and fifty shillings. If you think solution is fast food then you are wrong as the prices are at least fifty shillings more than in Nairobi. As I was on holiday I had no option but to buy at the exorbitant prices but I wonder how the average salary or wage earner survives. While still on the matter of food, why is there no Nyama Choma place on the island? With the many Kikuyus, you would expect there to be several.

Another curious thing that struck me was the lack of bars on the island. I was informally told that this is as a result of the Mosques that dot the Island which frown at bars been opened near them.

When the conversation of food come up, someone quipped that there is no need to eat out as the Coastal woman is a career wife. Her joy and purpose in life is to cook, clean, look good, bear children and satisfy the man. Women empowerment is yet to take root at the Coast and inasmuch I agree that a woman can chose to be a career wife I also think she should be informed of all the possible options and then make an informed decision. As it is now, it feels like an issue of patriarchal dominance.

The stereotype of the Coastal is the stuff of folklore. Everyone seems to know and believe it. I dare to ask, are we reading them wrong?  I mean these are people who have been there for centuries, they built the Fort Jesus and they traded with the Chinese before it became cool to look East. So just maybe, just maybe, there is more to them than the stereotype proclaims.

Having said that, I must say that having gone to Likoni and all the areas I passed through before getting to Diani I reckon there is need for a mind shift by the Coastals. How one sits on empty fallow land and not think to farm it is beyond me.

Speaking of land, the common narrative that permeates this issue is that of land grabbed, people been squatters in their ancestral land and utter marginalization. The story is not entirely black and white. I heard of stories of men who have three wives, fifteen children and they still wish to sell off their land. Also of folk who sold beach front land cheaply decades ago to wabara and now they are angry at the wabara who are making millions out of the land.  Title was also another issue that stood up. Apparently title deeds are not issued always and what people have are gentleman’s agreements. X sold land Y to Z. What happens if X later says he did not? How much does this affect investments?

Mombasa Republican Council has made the news in the recent past. Before I went to The Coast I thought them to be rebels without a cause and folk who were misguided. I have since gotten enlightened. I do not for a minute support their session plans but I reckon they do have reason to be upset.

A man without a purpose is a dead man. The indigenes at The Coast had been reduced to men without purpose and thus when someone comes with a cause they will believe in it to the core. That is the essence of MRC. It has given the folk something to believe in forget whether that something is good or even right. I heard stories of guys who wake up, cross over from Likoni, spend the day at the Mombasa courts where MRC has two cases pending and then go back home in the evening. That is how much they believe in their cause. At this point law and government declarations mean little to these folk and thus I reckon the government has to be clever in how to deal with this ticking time bomb.

Coupled with the MRC issue I felt an undercurrent of guys been angry or tired with guys from upcountry majority of who are Kikuyu. Case in point, all the matatus I used had at least either driver or conductor been Kikuyu. My pal who went there three years ago now has fifteen MPesa shops. He is Kikuyu. I saw a Rongai Pub, a Thika pub and other Kikuyu named businesses.

Yes, one can argue that it’s a free country but put yourself in the shoes of the locals and then throw in propaganda and brainwashing and imagine the negative reaction. It is scary to imagine what the general election madness will add to this uneasy calm. Folk I spoke too already say they do not plan to be at The Coast during the elections.

Two issues which disturb me have happened since I left Mombasa: Pastors killed in unclear circumstances in Mombasa and Electoral commission offices raided in Mombasa.

Are they related?

This is a ticking time bomb that urgently needs to be addressed. Who will is the question.

GOD BLESS KENYA!

 


Tembea Coast – 4

Either I was too tired from the previous day’s excursions or I was just lucky but I managed to sleep through the Muezzin’s call on Sunday morning and get a full night of rest.

Sunday was the final day of my trip to the Coast and I had been invited to church by a friend who was also was to be my guide for a trip back in time in the picturesque Old Town.

Although I preferred walking and I had never ridden in a tuk-tuk before, to save time I opted to do as the Coastals and grab a tuk-tuk to the bus station to book my ticket back to Nairobi and also to church.

Church was at ICC Mombasa which is located just opposite Tusky’s Bandarini. The service was awesome and the message timely. Pastor Edward Munene was just concluding the April series ‘Rewind’ and the following was my take home from the sermon:

1. It is the road you take not the plans you make that matter.

2. It is your actions today not your intentions that affect your tomorrow.

3. You may not be able to go back and make a brand new start BUT it is possible make a brand new end.

4. To take the right path: do not follow your heart, be prepared to change and stay away from excuses.

After service my pal and I spent six hours in Old Town. She is a Coastal and she knows Old Town inside out. She gave me the insider’s tour but I had to promise her not to tweet or blog about the non-tourist places she took me so as to ensure they remain homely and not crowded.

Highlights of the Old Town walkabout were, drinking the sweetest sugarcane juice made on the streets, sharing a wonderful conversation with my pal at the sea front next to Fort Jesus, drinking iced coffee inside one of the houses of Old Town (my highlight!), eating Mishikaki sold on the streets, just absorbing the atmosphere as the families went about their business as families have done for centuries in the same place and finally enjoying ice-cream at one of the ice-cream parlors.

It was a wonderful and priceless experience.

After parting ways with my pal, I made my way to Mwembe Tayari and caught the 10.30pm bus to Nairobi. The journey back was a repeat of what I described in Tembea Coast 1. Another heart-in-the-mouth-no-sleep night due to the Mash Bus driver. Unless as a last resort I shall not use Mash Bus again.

Finally we got to Nairobi safely and the cold weather shocked my body back to the reality of day-to-day grind.

I am so glad I visited the Coast and enjoyed the priceless moments. Here is to more traveling!

GOD BLESS KENYA!


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