Festus, the Front Office Manager of Sekenani Camp, provides the orientation for the guests before they head to their tents. “We have no fence that surrounds the camp, so you must not walk anywhere, particularly at night, without one of our warriors who will escort you,” he tells them. I grab a drink from Daniel, the barman, and join the one other guest of the camp who watched me with a smile as I handed out keys to the tent zipper locks that secures the contents from nimble monkey fingers. Rosemary has lived in Kenya for many years and is now supervising the construction of a new tented camp for investors from her native Sweden. She comes down on Sundays and returns on Thursdays to the Karen suburbs of Nairobi. I enjoy a very pleasant conversation with Nick and Rosemary and then reluctantly leave them to freshen up for dinner.
When we drove into Sekenani we could see a huge herd of elephants on the outskirts of the camp, and now I can hear them nearby, in the thick vegetation of the river gully that surrounds the camp. The baboons in the trees above are shrieking loudly and my askari friend, Raia, who escorts me, says that it is their warning against a chui that might be in camp. A leopard!
Our final days in Maasai Mara are filled with morning and afternoon game drives as well as an inspiring presentation by the Maasai Girls Education Fund (MGEF) that focuses on the education and well-being of Maasai girls. Barbara Lee Shaw, the founder of the organization, provides us with a description of the organization’s work that includes a full commitment to school fees from primary to university, as well as a life skills education program for young women and men. Caroline, one of MGEF’s beneficiaries, provides a powerful testimony to an education curriculum that fights female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. Her story is one of struggle and perseverance and there is not a dry eye in the house when she declares, “You cannot sell me for cows, you cannot touch my body, I am entitled to an education and my life is mine to determine.”
I am moved by the male Maasai Sekenani staff present, particularly Festus, who has tears flowing down his face after Caroline’s testimony. Festus’s niece recently bled to death after being circumcised and his brother is now in jail (female circumcision is illegal in Kenya). Festus is now supporting his brother’s entire family.
There are many customs in Africa that appall westerners, and certainly FGM is one of the most shocking. But I also know that there are many customs in the western world that also appall my friends in Africa. Our treatment of the elderly, who are marginalized to homes away from their extended family, is just one example. I am inspired daily by the generosity of Kenyans who care for the poor in their own communities. I do not know a Kenyan who is not providing support to other family members and friends. If a village member is successful in business they are expected to share their good fortune with others. No matter how humble the hut, I have always been the recipient of incredible generosity, from a cup of tea to a meal. Even during the worst times of this most recent drought, there were always smiles and laughter. I will always lose my heart to the sight of an African smile.
After 20-plus years of conducting safaris in East Africa, this safari group from Dining for Women has been the most enjoyable, inspirational group I have ever had the privilege of taking on safari. Not a complainer in the group, and on our last night I treat everyone to sundowner drinks on a hillside perfectly positioned for the sunset over the Serengeti. The chairs are circled under the broad branches of an acacia tree and the warriors stand guard over a glowing fire. We still have two more nights in Nairobi, but I prefer this night to say my thanks for all that this group has given to the people we have met. They have touched everyone with their interest in the people and organizations dedicated to improving the lives of orphans and their families, marginalized and abused women, and those that do not have access to resources that most of us take for granted.
My opinions on aid in Africa are not without controversy, but I hope that the women on this safari can bear witness to the effectiveness of small grassroots organizations. Organizations doling out large amounts of aid can breed complacency and aid dependence. In a country with 40% unemployment, volunteers take jobs away from those willing to work for wages. Effective aid can sometimes be about doing more with less. Hardship, combined with increased access to opportunities and seed capital, inspires innovation, critical thinking and creative problem solving. Giving goods away is not always the solution. There are many hardworking people trying to start businesses in everything from the manufacture of malaria nets, to bicycles and books. The constant dumping of free goods, while well-intentioned, also destroys markets and businesses that otherwise could provide employment and critical incomes for families.
Everyone is relaxed as we return to the camp for our final dinner. The dining tent, filled with lamps and candles, glows from within like a nighttime hot air balloon, ready for lift-off. We celebrate one of our traveler’s 40th birthday before everyone reluctantly wanders off to their tents for their final night in the bush.
At night, the wildlife that surrounds Sekenani is noisy and gregarious. Last night I had a pair of Bush Babies using my tent roof as a trampoline. I finally had to whack the roof with my rungu; they paused only for a moment, glaring at me with their big black eyes from the branches outside my tent window. Tonight it is the cracking and shrieking of the tree hyraxes that keeps me awake. I finally give in, unzip my front door, and sit on the deck of my tent, listening to the sounds of the African night. I still have another week in Africa that will include meetings in Nairobi and a quick trip to Uganda to visit one of BOMA’s key advisors. More than anything I wish that I could just be here for a few more days, peacefully cocooned and surrounded by wildlife and my friends at Sekenani Camp. I can hear the rumbles of the elephants nearby and in the distance I hear a hyena whoop. Raia sees my flashlight and comes over to check on me. “Sawa sawa, Mama Rungu?” “Sawa sawa, Raia.” No problem.
When the first light of a new moon starts to shine through the branches, the sounds stop; I can no longer hear the hyraxes or the elephants, only the gentle blowing of the wind, bringing the needed rains that will surely come. The night is now sweet and gentle and it is as if I have to remind my body to breathe out, not hold my breath for fear that if I exhale it will ruin this moment that I want to hold forever. This is Africa. This is the part that I wish everyone could know.