My first observation: people in Nairobi walk everywhere. All the time. And the women even walk miles in high heels! But because locals in Nairobi walk so slowly they don’t need to use “caution wet floor” signs. Only fast-walking Europeans and Americans trying to run a conference slide around. And since it’s dusty in Nairobi, the staff at the conference center mop the floors every day. After a couple close calls I quickly learned to watch for the slight color shift that marked the wet floor and briefly slow my pace.
I must not have been the only one to notice, because near the end of our conference someone took the time to handwrite a “slippery floor” sign for us.
Around the conference center
The conference ended on Saturday, and on Sunday we were invited to tour a local church, but not just any church. We got to visit a church which my friend’s are building in the largest slums in Africa.
Tumaini (Hope) church
Although the church is still under construction, people already attend the services. We sang worship songs in Swahili and English awhile a lone light-bulb shined from the far corner. It was so hot in the church, and there was the distinct scent of sweat in the air. But visiting Tumaini was the most impactful part of my entire trip.
In my home church, the men usual stand and the women usually sing, but here, every person sang. Many danced and clapped their hands. There was so much joy. The presence of God was here, admits recycled tin and plywood walls, God was moving.
It was so peace-filled. I wanted to cry.
After worship our group moved outside. Someone asked if it was weird that we came but the Pastor assured us, “No, no, it is an honor to have an outsider come, to visit our church. Wow.”
I joined some kids playing with rocks and Crocks in the dirt, and met Rhianna and Abigail. My hair is nothing special, but they were fascinated by how straight and smooth it was. Abigail brushed my hair with a black, plastic comb—I bit back the nerve to ask where it came from. One little girl wore a sweater and had yogurt all over face. Most of the kids were not shy, but very few would speak to us.
As we drove away, a kid with a tire waved while the young boy who played with an crushed, plastic bottle on a string hid behind him.
Early the next morning we left on the Safari.
All seven of us, the seven safari sisters if you will, climbed into the vehicle that would be our home for the next day and a half.
It was the bumpiest road I have ever been on. And as a farm girl, I’ve been on a lot of bumpy roads. “I feel like we’re going somewhere really exotic because it’s this hard to get to,” my friend said between jolts.
But it was worth it. The camp we stayed at was nicer than the conference center. It had waterfalls, marked trails, and a pastry chef.
We toured a local Maasai village and spent a day and a half in the park.
The first day, a half day, we drove around, taking our time to stop and look at every zebra. Suddenly around 5:50pm, Henry stopped stopping said “We have to go.” We raced down the bumpy road, passing other tourists, and reached the gate just as the clock turned to 6. The guards laughed. “Ooooh, you’re lucky.” Turns out, it’s a $150 fine if you’re not out of the park by 6pm.
I don’t have a complete list but even before we reached the park we saw zebras, baboons, head a hyena, warthogs, gazelles, antelope (multiple kinds), giraffes, water buffalo, wildebeest, jackals. Then, once we actually entered the park In the park we saw all those animals plus an ostrich, lions, elephants, alligators, hippos, a secretary bird, leopard, black rhino, and many others. We saw so many creatures it was amazing!
But the safari wasn’t what I expected.
I thought we would need to be quiet, and drive slowly. We’d be lucky to see an animal in the distance. Instead we could speed around the park—the drivers use the radio to share animal sightings—and the animals were often just off the road. The lions in particular didn’t care that we were there. They stayed in the grass and occasionally glanced at us.
The only animals that acted shy were the wildebeest and the black rhino. The wildebeest would run away from the vehicle if we came up too quick. The poor black rhino, however, couldn’t just run away. As one of Africa’s “big five” (elephant, rhino, water buffalo, lion, and leopard), everyone in the park wanted to see him.
He was so adorable!
This big black ball trying to hid behind some thin bushes. We could still see him but he effectively ruined any chance of getting a decent picture of him. We had about 30 vehicles on the road trying to see him. Finally, he pooped and ran away. Our driver was ready! Henry swirled the vehicle around and we safely pursued him. (Rangers were waiting nearby to make sure everyone followed the rules and stayed on the marked trails.)
This was the best photo I could manage.
There certainly was a blessing on our trip. I would think to myself, if only we could see a cheetah…and then we would. Then I heard that the leopard and black rhino are the rarest animals to see. I thought again, if only…and we found the rhino.
A couple hours later, a man’s shout came through the radio. Henry got a big smile and, despite our protests, pulled away from the animal we were still admiring—probably another zebra.
“Where are we going?”
“What is it?”
We asked, but Henry smiled and sped on.
We took a random turn down another road that didn’t really look like a road, and stopped several yards from a tree. It was the leopard.
“You are very lucky to see all five,” Henry said. “Some people stay weeks and only see three.” But in one day we saw them all.
From a vehicle near us I overheard a guy say, “I’ve been in Africa five months. This is the first wild leopard I’ve seen.” I could have spent rest of the day watching the leopard clean his paws in the tree, but we had more of Africa to see.
Around lunch time we got out at the top of a hill, one of the few spots you’re allowed to get out of the vehicle. Then we drove to a tree nearby and had lunch with the zebras, wildebeests, gazelles, and a few not-so-shy birds.
But my favorite story from the whole trip happened in our camp.
We just finished a full day on the safari, so everyone was ready to rest and recover from the jarring road. I went to my tent and had just unzipped the door when my friend—who was staying in the next tent—stomped up the steps. “Let me in let me in let me in!” She shouted. An adorable monkey followed close behind her. She dove through the mesh door of my tent and zipped it behind her in one smooth motion.
“You doing okay?” I asked as we watched the monkey pace on the railing.
“He wanted the food!” She said, and told me what happened. The monkey was ready to have a battle for the plastic bag of snacks we brought with us on safari. She and her roommate had made it to their tent when they saw one cute little monkey on the porch. But that monkey quickly turned into an army of monkeys and the biggest one, the one on the porch, grunted and hissed at her as he eyed the sack in her hands. Her roommate dashed for the lobby, which was great instincts, but she took their tent key with her. My friend was locked out.
Thankfully I was lazy and hadn’t bothered to zip my tent yet because, although shouting “let me in” is pretty clear orders, my brain had been boggled on the drive. I was still wondering what she wanted by the time she dove inside.
The full adventure told in photos
(Click the 3 little dots to show the full description.)
My trip to Kenya was a truly fantastic experience. But there is one part that I’m ashamed of. A story I haven’t shared with anyone yet.
On the way to the Maasai Mara for safari, we stopped at several curio shops. I had three friends I wanted to get momentos for, and found the perfect gifts at this place. But in Kenya, only a few places are fixed prices, everywhere else you have to negotiate.
As soon as we entered the shop, a worker latched on to us individually and followed us around with a straw basket. Anything we briefly glanced at or touched they would put it in the basket saying things like “Don’t worry, I’ll make you a great deal.”
The guy with my basket had gathered a chess set, heart shaped dish with a lion carved in the middle, and a camel-bone bottle opener that looked something like this:
The guy began the negotiations.
“$230,” he said and wrote it down on a piece of paper. My eyes nearly popped out of my head.
I shook my head and backed away, “Nah, I can’t afford that. Thank you.”
Sensing that I was not used to negotiating he held up his hands and encouraged me to make a counter offer. He pulled out the lion dish.
“Seven,” I said.
He made a sharp inhale but pointed at the chess set. “And this?”
“$20,” I answered. My offer was so low it was insulting. I never expected him to agree, but he asked me to make an offer so I said what I felt I could go home feeling good about.
“And this?” He held up the camel bone opener.
“Maybe four?” I said. I had no clue. I hated this game.
He shook his head and set the bottle opener to the side, then began to wrap the chess set. To my great confusion, he didn’t turn me away. We continued negotiating. We quickly passed $30 and finally settled on $32. I couldn’t believe the great deal. But as I looked through my wallet I only had $20 in cash. They added an extra $2 to take card. In total I got the chess set and lion dish for $34. The owner looked at the guy who helped me and said, multiple times, “He’s giving you a great deal. Great.”
After I paid with my card, the guy continued to wrap the chess set. That’s when he did something strange.
While reaching for newspaper to protect the lion dish, he grabbed the bottle opener and began wrapping it inside. And we started negotiating again.
“$10” he whispered, and looked over his shoulder.
I shook my head, “$6.” I had gained confidence in my negotiation skills.
With the item now fully wrapped inside the bowl He shook his head, looked over his shoulder, and held out his hand. I handed him 600 Kenyan shillings which is about $6.
He put his finger over his lips, the universal sign for a secret. I didn’t really understand what was happening then, but he carefully escorted me back to our car and I dropped the bag of chess pieces. The guy jumped higher than me and rushed to pick them up. As soon as I had them all he practically shoved me to our vehicle. He wanted me to leave, and now I know why.
That secret? He probably has to report everything he sells to his boss, and he probably gets a percentage. By not reporting the bottle opener, he could keep the full amount. A whopping $6. It might not be much, but if done multiple times it could really add up.
Without knowing it, I stole the bottle opener.
We arrived at Mara Leisure Camp and I had a knot in my stomach from more than just the bumpy road. I was a thief now. I felt dirty inside and out. As I tried to sleep that night my mind wandered to the flight. If the plane crashed, I would die a thief. A stolen good tucked into my carry-on. I prayed for a way out.
A thought came to me. If we returned to that curio shop, I would put it back. If we didn’t return, I would leave it on the edge where we viewed the great Rift Valley. Someone else would find it or a worker there could sell it with clean hands.
I got my chance. On the drive back we stopped to use the restrooms at that same curio shop. Maybe it was another mercy of God, but that same guy met me and guided me around the shop. I went to a corner in the back and whipped out the bottle opener.
He was taken back with shock, then scrunched his brows and took the item.
“You don’t want it?” He asked.
“I wasn’t happy with our deal,” I explained as simply as I could.
He looked around, the other workers were busy coaxing their own tourists. Casually he walked to the area with other bottle openers and set it with the rest. Just like that, it was done.
But he rejoined me, and smiled. Silently we walked around the shop until everyone in my group had gone to the restroom and made their final purchases. As we left I turned to wave goodbye. He held out his hand, I shook it, and he gently clasped my forearm with his other hand–a gesture of respect and trust.
He smiled and, it might have been the light, but his eyes looked a little watery. I know mine were.
We had a new secret. We were both free from that shady transaction. I wonder how many tourists had given their secret good back? I wonder if those shady deals are even secret at all? Maybe the boss was in on it the whole time. Still. I didn’t want to fly with a dirty conscience.
My friend who I wanted the silly opener for ended up getting a shot glass with a leopard and “Hakuna Matata” on it. In the end, everyone was happy.
I don’t know why God sent me to work for an international organization. I never wanted to leave America. But now that I’ve been out of the country four times–Canada, India, Hungary, and now Kenya–I think traveling really does make a person grow.
Even though I only met a handful of the 7 billion people on the other side of the globe the world seems to have expanded. With every trip my ego shrinks, and my understanding of how fearful and wonderful my God truly is grows.