Africa! The last inhabitable continent for me to set foot on. Ironic, as according to 23andMe, it’s where 94% of my DNA comes from–the bulk of that being West African which is no surprise–being the descendent of slaves.
This journey would take me to the East Coast of Africa in Kenya. It is a long journey from L.A., a 10-hour flight to London with a 24 hour layover followed by another 10-hour flight to Nairobi. We landed at night which doesn’t make for great views of the landscape. We were shuttled to a hotel while we awaited yet another flight in the morning. It was a beautiful hotel with a guarded, gated entrance similar to what you see in Mexico or the mega-resorts in Hawaii. The biggest difference was how entering the lobby forced us to go through security similar to that of the airport. X-ray machines and metal detectors.
After a great night’s sleep, the real adventure was about to start. We took a taxi to a much smaller local airport. Thankfully, our driver was a very friendly and helpful guy. He took us to our terminal where we quickly found out it was the wrong one. He didn’t just leave, but hung with us and talked to the agents in the terminal, called over to the correct terminal and made sure we got to the right place.
Once we got there, he waited until our airline rep greeted us. It was the best service I’ve had from a taxi. Our airline rep handed us our boarding passes–the blue group as opposed to the orange group. Our boarding passes were reusable cards with no identification of who was the actual passenger. Getting to the Maasai Mara is not for the faint of heart.
When it was time to board the small 10-person plane, they rolled out our luggage and a set of tires. I asked the rep what the tires were for and he quickly explained they were in case one of the wheels on the plane blew out. Spare tires for a plane! What kind of operation was this?
It’s apparently normal for these parts, as other airlines in the terminal were doing the same thing. They also told us where to sit based on our weight to keep the plane balanced. I wasn’t sure this tiny plane was going to work for me. I took a deep breath and boarded.
As the plane started to descend, I could see a few scattered giraffes and zebras running in the distance. My heart began to race with excitement and then terror when I realized we were about land on a dirt road. The pilots were experts. It was a pretty smooth landing despite the dirt road and the very small plane.
It was time for another surprise. This was not our camp. We were the next stop, which meant taking off from this dirt road and landing on yet another!
The second stop was ours. We had arrived at the Governor’s Camp in the Maasai Mara–well, at least at their landing strip. The staff gathered our luggage into the Range Rovers and we were off.
After a short drive, we arrived at the camp. A parking lot was filled with other Range Rovers that were converted for safari. We were assigned to tent number 37, the last one. By last, I mean the tent at the edge of the camp, closest to the wild. Our front porch was just steps away from the grass plains. It should also be noted that Governor’s Camp has no fences. Over the course of our trip it was not uncommon to see a couple giraffes stroll by our front deck, or a troupe of baboons scurrying past in the grass.
They say tent, but the only thing that resembles a tent is the walls. Imagine the thickest canvas tent walls you can find. It had hardwood floors (with a crawl space underneath), a tiled bathroom with full working shower and sink, and electricity for the lamps in the room and to charge your cell phones and camera batteries. It is a tent only in the “glamping” sense.
We met with friends for a drink in their nice bar/lounge area before having a great buffet lunch over looking the Mara River that sits just below the camp. It was teeming with hippos. As we ate, a warthog wondered into camp and paid little to no attention to all of the people looking on in amazement. It was a quick lunch as we were all hungry to go on our first game drive. I should also mention that for a place that is a camp in the middle of the Maasai Mara, the food was delicious–every meal was good with the exception of a rogue cake dessert at one dinner.
Our safari guide was amazing. On our very first game drive we saw elephants, lions, hyenas, lots of water buffaloes, a cheetah, and the elusive leopard. He was just as excited as we were but he also realized he’d made his job much harder as we’d seen so many amazing animals on just our first drive.
As we returned to the camp for dinner, they reminded us that once the sunsets we should not walk anywhere without one of the armed guards. They also told us never to run if faced by a predator. They warned, “the only thing that runs in Africa is prey.”
That was very apparent the first night at dinner, as a hippo came onto the bank. The guards chased her back into the water pretty quickly, but the sight ensured I would not be leaving the tent after dark with or without a guard. Hearing the hippos grunting and sloshing around all night just outside the tent was also good reinforcement.
One morning at breakfast we heard other guests talking about screams they heard from their neighbor’s tents. The staff came to tell the story of a lion that got under one of the tents (remember the crawl space under the hardwood floor). They heard it growling, and naturally started yelling and the guards came and chased it away. Did they shoot it? Nope. They scared it away with just their flash lights. It’s illegal to shoot the lions in the park, but these guys know what they were doing. Despite the crazy story, it made us feel safer knowing that they could handle a lion if one wondered into camp.
We did have to leave the tent in the dark one morning and it was worth it. We booked a sunrise hot air balloon ride, which meant we had to leave before sunrise at approximately 4:00 a.m. Per the instructions, we unzipped the door to the tent and shined the flash light out until the armed guard arrived on our front porch.
As he walked us from our tent to the Range Rover, I anxiously shined my flashlight out into the vast darkness of the prairie. We drove from Governor’s Camp to Little Governor’s from where the balloons launched. The only thing is, the Mara river is between the camps. The Range Rover pulled up to our stop–the top of a somewhat long staircase. At the bottom of the stairs was a row boat big enough for 8 people. There was a rope stretched across the river which the boatman used to pull the boat back and forth to cross. This was slightly scarier than the 10-person plane with a spare tire in the cargo hold landing on a dirt road.
It was still night as the river was racing past, and as we boarded the small boat in the dark a very large hippo emerged and opened its mouth as wide as it could be for submerging again just feet behind the boat. Because I’m telling this story, you can assume we made it across safely.
We stood around and watched in amazement as they filled the 4 hot air balloons. But what was much more amazing was when we boarded them and took flight. The balloons were fantastic and the pilot got low enough not to spook the animals but to get a great view.
It was because of this ride we got to see the elusive rhino, a mom with her calf, out for a morning stroll. We saw a crocodile in the river and gazelles on the plains. It was amazing!
We landed in the tall grass where our Jeeps awaited to whisk us off to a breakfast picnic set up in the shorter grass. That breakfast might be the best breakfast I’ve had that wasn’t prepared in a formal kitchen. Fresh fruit, eggs, bacon, and the most amazing pancakes with delicious honey and, of course, champagne. This is where my perspective of things changed.
As I stood admiring the view standing near the pop up omelette station, the chef came over and asked where I was visiting from. He asked if I knew my heritage. I told him I didn’t know much but I know I had some Nigerian ancestry.
To which he replied, “no matter where you are from, you are my brother. It is nice to see one of my brothers enjoying the beauty of my country.” He talked about how rare it was to see people who looked like us on safari. He encouraged me to bring back all my friends to show them the beautiful land he calls home.
Growing up in a small border town in Southern California and just living my life in America, I have become used to being the only black person in the room—or one of few. It was this moment that I realized that all of the staff were black with the exception of the balloon pilots. The guards, the guides, the chefs—everyone. With few exceptions, the only non-black people were the guests at the camp.
We spent the final day of our safari seeking out the animals we hadn’t seen on the other side of the reserve. The great migration of wildebeests, zebras, ostriches, and jackals. We also got to see hyenas fighting over the carcass of a hippo.
Then it was time to jump back in our tiny plane and leave this amazing place to head back to the city. We were off to Mombasa.
We stayed at the Mombasa Beach Hotel. Driving through the city during rush hour to the hotel, I took note that 100% of the people we saw were black. The hotel was a large resort-style hotel with restaurants and bars. It was also right on the beach attended by a guard who ensured only hotel guests entered the property from the beach. He also seemed to be guarding a pile of shoes. Apparently, it was better to leave your unattended belongs with him (including your shoes) than on the beach. We met people from Wales and Ireland, among other countries.
As part of our trip to Mombasa, we went to a village where a friend’s family had donated the construction of a water well. We were going there for its unveiling and a small commemoration ceremony. As part of it, we also handed out clothing donations sent from families in the US. It was a humbling experience.
The people of the village all lived in mud huts with no working plumbing nor water. Every day, the women of the village walked 3 miles to get water for the entire day from the river. This was a juxtaposition to having been in a tent in the middle of nowhere with a tiled floor and fully working plumbing—to a village just a few kilometers’ drive from the heart of the city.
Everyone was so appreciative to receive t-shirt’s and jeans and dresses. They asked us to take pictures on our phones even though they had no way to receive them. Some of the girls had poses that could rival the women of America’s next top model.
The main event was the cutting of the ribbon on the water well. As they cut the ribbon and began to prime the pump everyone watched in anticipation. Then it happened—water began to pour out. The first cup was poured and the leader of the village declared it was sweet water.
Occasionally when a well is dug, the water is saltwater or bitter and the well must be replaced. As the water poured from the well, villagers ran to their homes to get vessels to fill with water. They were so happy.
The mama (head woman) of the village demanded we allow her to give us a tour of the village. She was so proud to show us around their home. The village leader was not only happy for his village, but for all of the neighboring villages. He declared that all of the villages that were close would use the well rather than taking the long walk to the river.
As we drove back to the hotel from the village and I looked at all of the faces of the people who looked like me, a wave of sadness came over me. It was the realization that despite the hardships of being black in America, I had running water and live in a house with plumbing.
I have all of these things because my ancestors were kidnapped and enslaved. They survived the middle passage, where an estimated 15%—approximately two million or more—died crossing the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships being transported to the Americas, while the rest endured years of torture, racism, and hardship. My grandparents were part of the Great Migration in America that led to blacks leaving the rural South (in their case, Louisiana) to the other parts of our country and, because of the combination of those things, I have the luxury of not living in a mud hut.
It’s an interesting paradox to try to wrap your head around. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for the experience. If anything it reminded me to appreciate what I have and to remember what those before me went through to ensure I could have what I do.
I do plan to return to Governor’s Camp with friends. It’s an experience that stories and pictures don’t do justice. I want to honor the chef’s wishes to see more of his brothers and people like him on safari. I also think it is important that we all continue to contribute to foundations that are working to bring water to places in the world where it doesn’t easily come by. More information on the well donation program in Kenya can be found here.