This past summer, my family and I traveled to Kenya for vacation. I’m still pretty conflicted about how I feel about the trip. I was dead against going as a vacation and despite my reservations about volunteer organizations, I would’ve much rather done that. When I visit another country, especially one with such a stark contrast in lifestyle, I want to live as the locals do. I didn’t want to stay in five star hotels catering to American tourists, but my parents are bourgeois and we spent the entire trip being waited on hand and foot in luxurious resorts. Regardless, it was one of the most amazing experiences I ever had and this is my Guevara-esque account of my travels through Kenya.
The trip actually began in Amsterdam, which just ended up being really awkward with my parents. My mom kept asking, “What’s that smell?” while I spent the entire time trying to pretend like I didn’t know what drugs or sex were. But we finally got out after 4 days and boarded a plane to Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Kenya’s capital.
We were greeted in Nairobi by a charred international arrivals terminal. It had burned down the day before and although terrorism was ruled out, the United States generously sent the FBI to investigate.
Our driver, Lugano, found us in the throngs of bewildered tourists and hastily threw our luggage in the van in which we’d spend the coming week. As we drove out of the airport, he repeatedly cried, “Chaos, chaos everywhere.” It wasn’t really the reception we had hoped for in Africa, but an appropriate one nonetheless.
Our plan was to visit Kenya’s national parks in hopes of seeing lions, rhinos, and giraffes. What we got were mosquitoes, dysentery, and carsickness. But traveling the countryside for hours on end with Lugano’s commentary on the state of Kenya was a remarkable firsthand view of oppression in the developing world.
Our first night was booked in the regal Hotel Stanley in downtown Nairobi. Against the warnings of our travel agent and tour agency, we left the hotel and explored the city and ended up in the Massai Market. The entire park was covered in colorful blankets displaying various handmade trinkets and bustling with tourists being chased by vendors. My mom’s Indian upbringing came into play as she mercilessly harangued several artisans for lower prices.
The next morning, we began the six-hour journey out of Nairobi to Kenya’s Massai Mara Park. Large-scale farms of wheat, barley, and coffee dominated the landscape from Nairobi to the park. This was the first and perhaps most extreme and explicit example of the disparity between the rich and poor in Kenya. The British corporations are allocated swatches of land thousands of acres in breadth, while the locals are relegated to growing potatoes in roadside strips of poorly kept soil.
I’m not saying Kenya should nationalize the land and distribute it to the people. It didn’t work for Mugabe and it won’t work for Kenyatta. But they should make it easier for people to buy land and create a more self-sufficient economy. It’s the same idea Malcolm X advocated in the 1960s: Blacks should start and support black businesses. The only way to freedom is being independent.
When Uhuru Kenyatta took the office of President in 2013 (amid charges of crimes against humanity by the ICC), he echoed the goals of his predecessors in his platform to “modernize” Kenya with Internet access and a better-developed infrastructure. The Chinese built highways of Kenya were a testament to that development. The roads, smoother than anything I’ve ever seen in America, are built as compensation for China’s use of Kenya’s mineral rich land, whose profits Kenya never sees. And as far the technology goal goes, about 10% of the population is currently connected to the Internet as opposed to .3% in 2000. But again, this infrastructure is not being built or maintained by Kenyan companies, but rather American and Chinese corporations that intend on reaping the benefits not only in installation fees but also the increased commerce that accompanies the increased connectivity.
As we drove through Kenya’s interior, we passed through a small, newly constructed village near a large military base occupied by both the British and Kenyan military. The village was destroyed in the 1950s during British military training exercises and was only recently (in the past few months) awarded compensation to rebuild their village after a long court battle involving reparations for tortured Kenyan soldiers in the 1950s struggle for independence. The British military still use that area for training. There is still a very strong UK and US military presence in Kenya near the Somali border, which has been a point of contention for decades, most recently boiling over in the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi by the Somali terrorist group, Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab’s attack was spurred by Kenya’s giving troops to Somalia’s anti-terrorist military coalition, AMISOM, but the sheer audacity and inequity (Uganda is a more active member of AMISOM than Kenya) of the attack is a sign of the group’s weakness and desperation.
We arrived in Buffalo Springs Park in the Isiolo District after a five-hour drive through farms and semi-arid landscapes. The park is famous for its springs and its history during WWII. When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, some pilots flew over central Kenya and dropped several large bombs. These bombs were so heavy that they wiped out a huge portion of the buffalo population in the park and impacted the ground so hard that they carved craters so deep that they opened up springs that still flow today.
Before we left the park, we stopped in a Samburu village. The Samburu are tribal Kenyans and part of the Masai tribe, whose shield adorns the Kenyan flag. We were met by an English-speaking warrior named Samuel. The story I could put together between his broken English and various hand motions is this: The people are nomadic and the men take the cattle out while the women maintain the village. All children are educated until they are seven years old and then a few of the children are selected to go to boarding schools for further education. There, they are indoctrinated with Christianity and come back to the village to give tours.
When asked about the religious beliefs of the non-Christian Samburu, Samuel scoffed and derisively explained that the “uneducated” people believe in a god that lives in a nearby mountain. The social hierarchy of the Samburu became apparent as I asked more questions. The British were very cunning in establishing this system because it effectively gave them control of these tribes by choosing a select few to take the place at the top of the ladder to subjugate their own people. It was essentially the same system used by the Dutch in Rwanda and the Spanish in the Caribbean.
The next stop on the trip was a resort on Mount Kenya, the second tallest mountain in Africa, where we spent one night. That evening, we went out on a hike around the mountain led by the hotel’s resident naturalist and followed by an armed guard. Every now and then, the naturalist would point out a monkey or deer in the distance just to find us desperately straining in vain to catch a glimpse. But at one point, the naturalist stopped the tour at a site surrounded by large dugouts and began to recount the history of the mountain.
The mountain, a sacred site for many peoples, was home to a tribe called the Kikuyu, who were instrumental in Kenya’s fight for independence. The holes were dug by Kikuyu warriors during the Mau-Mau Uprising, which took place between 1952 and 1960. The uprising was a military conflict between the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (also referred to as the Mau Mau) and the British Army, which sought to maintain Kenya’s colonial status. The Kikuyu were eventually unsuccessful, but the uprising paved the way for future movements, which finally succeeded in Kenya’s independence in 1963.
Although Kenya was not a colony until 1920, she was declared a British protectorate in 1895. Francis Hall, an officer of the Imperial British East Africa Company, spoke of the relationship the British had with the Kikuyu, saying, “There is only one way to improve the Wakikuyu [and] that is wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies.”
Kenya’s land, some of the most fertile in the world, was expropriated under British colonization to the tune of 11,000 sq. miles, alienated from native tribes and peoples. The Kikuyu were forced to labor on these British farms. Despite 100,000 Kikuyu laborers, the British were not satisfied with their level of production and forced more Kenyans to become low-wage workers on their farms. But land expropriation was still the primary concern of anti-colonials. By 1948, 1,250,000 Kikuyu had possession of 2,000 square miles, while 30,000 British settlers owned 12,000 square miles. This split the Kikuyu into two opposing factions: one that migrated to Nairobi for work, and the few that gave up their land to forge relationships with the settlers. This divide eventually created infighting within the Kikuyu and culminated in a full-fledged insurrection against the British. The atrocities committed by the British leading up to the revolt are too numerous and complicated for me to give here, but I strongly recommend looking into the history of the Uprising for a better understanding of the methods used by superpowers to impose control over their subjects.
Before boarding our flight back home, we got the chance to drive around Nairobi for a bit. A complete disregard for road rules, pedestrians weaving through traffic, dilapidated buildings lining the streets, every wall plastered with American logos, the air thick with diesel exhaust and sweat, the ground covered in a fine dust and litter. Dismantled and dirty, the conflict of culture looms heavily in the air. Suppressed by the economic influence of the developed world, modern Kenya has no choice but to conform to these standards, at the cost of environmental safety and social stability.