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Category Archives: About Kenya

You Can Share a Meal With a Kenyan Family and Make a Difference

What’s the best way you can think of to get to know someone?  In my opinion, sharing a meal opens people up and enables a friendly comfortable conversation.  When we travel, it can be difficult to scrape the surface of a place and I often find myself wondering how I can dig deeper and get to know the culture better.  So we decided to give travelers to Kenya that very opportunity by offering the option to enjoy lunch or dinner with a Kenyan family.

We met Patrick, Joy* and their two children several years ago.  Having worked on the edges of tourism for about ten years, Patrick was looking for a way to continue in the industry but also be there for his young family.  Despite their modest living conditions, he was very proud of his wife’s cooking and so came up with the idea to invite travellers to see the “real Kenya” and share a meal with him and his family.  This would allow the family to earn a small income while fulfilling the goals of spending time with his family and working with tourists.  On the first visit, there was another benefit that became apparent – his children had the opportunity to play with the visitors’ children, giving all children the opportunity to learn from each other.

A Typical Family

A lower-class Kenyan family typically lives in a one- or two-room apartment or unit.  Curtains act as walls to divide a room into sitting room and bedroom.  The sitting room is at the front and visitors are rarely invited past that.  The wife spends much of her time in the kitchen and brings out pots of steaming food to her husband and guests.  The kitchen might have a gas bottle with a burner for quickly boiling water and one or two “jikos” which are small stoves that fit one pot and use charcoal.  Bathrooms are usually shared between all the residents of the building.  The toilet will be a cubicle with a hole in the concrete which descends to a large pit.  The ‘shower’ is a cubicle with a small hole in the corner acting as a drain and residents take their own bucket of water to wash themselves (no shower rose or even a tap).  There is usually no plumbing in these buildings so residents buy their water in jerry cans.  Given the lack of space inside, children tend to spend most of their time playing outside.  Many families have chickens running around the yard, which are mainly used for meat on a special occasion.

Each tribe of Kenya has its own traditional food.  Joy prepares a selection of dishes from different tribes to give visitors a good taste of Kenya including:

  • Githeri – a stew of beans and maize
  • Plantain – green bananas boiled and then fried with tomato and onion
  • Rice
  • Mukimo – mashed potato mixed with pumpkin leaves and maize
  • Tilapia – fish found in freshwater lakes around Kenya
  • Chapatti – flat bread originating from India (Kenya has a large Indian population who have influenced the cuisine)
  • Chicken stew
  • Zikuma wiki – kale
  • Ugali – maize meal mixed with water to make a polenta-style dish
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet potato
  • Fruits for dessert

In Kenyan tradition, when we visit friends or family, the etiquette is to bring gifts.  These are probably not what westerners would normally consider gifts; rather we take maize meal, tea, sugar, rice, and other basic food items.  If there are children in the house, you might also take pens, pencils and exercise books and perhaps some sweets.

Kenyans traditionally eat with their hands and so hygiene is very important.  The wife will prepare some warm water and bring it in a jug with a bowl, soap and towel to each guest.  She pours the water over your hands so you can wash, and then offers the towel or a serviette.  As I mentioned earlier, there is no running water in most houses, so it often comes as a bit of a surprise to visitors to be presented with this method of washing hands.  There are a lot of stews on the menu so you might think eating with your hands is going to be very messy, but there are two key dishes that can act as spoons: ugali and chapatti.  The chapatti is clear as it is flat bread which can be curled into a scoop.  The ugali is of such a consistency that it can be formed into a scoop as well.

Kenyan food can take a bit of getting used to.  The meat tends to be a bit tough and the maize tends to be a bit tasteless.  Ugali is not my personal favourite, but it is not designed to be eaten on its own – it is meant to be eaten with a sauce or stew and that is where you get your flavour.  Kenyans don’t use a lot of spices in their cooking – flavour is added by salt and maybe chicken or beef stock cubes.  But the vegetables are fresh, they haven’t been months in cold storage as we often get in the west, so you get the full flavours of the actual food you are eating.

Guests often have mixed reactions throughout their visit.  On first entering the compound and then the house there is definitely some trepidation as it is quite a different way of life than what we are used to.  There’s also uncertainty about how to react if the food proves inedible.  And then there’s relief as fish, rice, chicken, mashed potato and cabbage is presented.  It might be cooked a bit differently, but it is recognizable and definitely edible!  As conversation flows guests relax into their surrounds.  The children play outside together and by the end of the meal there’s pleas from the kids that they want to keep playing.  Friendships are formed, connections made, and bonding over a shared meal leaves everyone with the warmth that comes from being with other humans.  Despite the nerves at the outset, all our guests have come away from this experience with positivity and believe that it was a key part of their whole Kenyan safari.

If you would like to share a meal with a Kenyan family as part of your safari adventure, please email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

*not their real names

4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

4 Myths that you can dispel and travel Kenya safely

You don’t need to be scared to go on safari.  When CNN described Kenya last year as “a hotbed of terrorism” it called attention to some crazy myths that must be prevailing to prevent travellers coming to Kenya.  I want to address some of these myths to help put your mind at ease and feel confident to experience that bucket list safari you’ve always wanted.  This won’t be a marketing spiel; I live in Kenya so I know the good, the bad and the ugly and will share all of it with you.

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Myth 1: Kenya is full of terrorists

CNN’s description of Kenya was outlandish to say the least.  Kenya suffered several terrorism incidents throughout 2013 and 2014, the most notable of which was the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre.  Most of the activities were much smaller scale however – grenades thrown into bus stations, churches and nightclubs.  In April 2015 the Garissa University was attacked and since then Kenya has not had another attack (time of writing is August 2016, I hope I don’t jinx it!).  Al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group from Somalia, are reported to be the key offenders.

Unfortunately today, terrorism occurs everywhere and anywhere.  In the last year we have seen attacks in Paris, Sydney, Brussels and Istanbul.  But travellers still flock to these places.

Fifty million people survive every day in Kenya, so your chances are pretty good that you will come out alive.  Like saying “all Muslims are terrorists”, Kenyans want peace as much as the next person.  Moreover, the parts of Kenya you, as a traveller, would be frequenting are not terrorist targets – there have been no attacks on any national parks or game reserves to date.   There is a terrorist risk near the Somali border and in parts of Nairobi.

The current travel advisory from the Australian government is that only some areas are dangerous, not the whole country.  And the dangerous areas don’t have much of interest to the average safari-goer.

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Myth 2:  Nairobi is “Nai-robbery”

A decade ago carjackings, armed robbery, and muggings were relatively common in Nairobi, earning the city the nickname “Nai-robbery”.  But one mayor did a lot of work with the street boys and nowadays Nairobi is just as safe (or risky) as any other big city in the world.  Expatarrivals.com says that crime in Nairobi is “opportunistic, unsophisticated, comparable to other world capitals.”  The crime rate has decreased each year since 2012 according to Standard Digital.

I have lived in Nairobi for five years now and I have never been physically attacked.  One evening, my phone was snatched – but who walks in the city centre in the evening alone talking on their phone; it was totally my fault.  However, everyone who saw the thief chased him and I got my phone back!  Nairobians themselves are tired of crime in their city, especially towards foreigners because they don’t want travellers to have a bad experience of Kenya.

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Myth 3: Corruption is rife and foreigners are targeted because they are thought to have more money

I cannot say that corruption is not rife.  It is, but as a tourist you are unlikely to encounter it.  If you book a full package safari, there will be little opportunity for police or any other official to ask you for a bribe.  Tourists are rarely targeted.  Foreigners are not an easy target because we tend to ask too many questions and don’t always understand what’s really happening.  It’s not in our habit to slip some money in the door handle for the traffic policeman for example.  Expatriates who participate in corruption means crime continues unpunished and Kenya’s development remains stymied.  The phrase “When in Rome…” should not apply to bribery and corruption.

President Kenyatta says the right things about cleaning up Kenya’s corruption, but it’s going to take a huge shift.  However it’s certainly not a reason to avoid a Kenyan safari!

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Myth 4: Tour operators are dishonest and you will lose your money if you pay in advance.

Yes, there are some briefcase businesses, but in this age of the internet you can certainly do you own due diligence and avoid being scammed.  There are plenty of review sites online and many allow you to contact reviewers directly to ask about their experience.  Use Trip Advisor, do your research, check the prices.

The tourism industry has suffered greatly the past four years (due to the myths I’m writing about here!) and tour operators are getting increasingly desperate just to make a sale.  But if park fees are included in your package, check that the total price can cover those fees.  For example, it is $80 for a 24-hour ticket to the Maasai Mara.  So if you are booking a two-night safari to Maasai Mara for $200, you can do some simple maths and calculate that $160 is for park fees, leaving only $40 for transport, accommodation and food.  Park fees are public information so you can do some rough calculations.  If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is!  Either your operator is paying bribes at the park gate, or your vehicle hasn’t been maintained, or your food will be substandard.  Or you could get the trifecta!  Please, it does not help Kenya’s fight against corruption to encourage your tour operator to pay bribes at the gate so you can get into the park cheaply.

The Kenyan Association of Tour Operators and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism are also working hard to introduce measures to curb cheats.

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Sensational media is destroying Kenya’s main industry and the economy is suffering as a result.  So if an African safari is on your bucket list, look beyond the headlines and see Kenya for the amazing country it really is.

4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

4 Reasons Why You Should Go on Safari in Kenya

A safari in Kenya is one of life’s most incredible experiences and the ultimate travel adventure.  However, many travellers share some common doubts about security and any media about Kenya seems to bring only stories of terrorism, ebola and road accidents.  But you have to be unlucky to get caught up in trouble of these sorts.  Kenya has much to offer if you can shake off the media’s negative images, so you should go on safari for the following reasons:

  1. To see the Great Wildebeest Migration
  2. Beach, bush, mountains, desert, savannah – Kenya has many different environments and with them, different cultures, wildlife and birds
  3. Poaching is increasing and gloomy predictions say there won’t be any elephants in 20 years
  4. Kenyan people are ready to welcome visitors – low tourist numbers affect the whole economy and Kenyans want to show travellers their beautiful country

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The Great Wildebeest Migration

Tourists flock to the Maasai Mara to witness the Wildebeest Migration, often touted as the eighth wonder of the natural world.  Each year approximately 120,000 tourists come to see the wildebeest cross the river while crocodiles snap at them.  But even if you miss the river crossing, seeing the massive herds (animals in their millions!) grazing the savannah is a sight to behold.  Cameras cannot do it justice; you have to see it for yourself.

Varied environments

Whether you want a beach holiday, bush retreat, mountain climb or desert experience, Kenya has it all.  And you can put together an itinerary that covers some or all of these environments without having to fly long distances.  The most common Kenyan holiday combines a safari with a few days at the beach at the end to wash the dust off.  And along with these different environments comes different cultures and wildlife – Samburu in northern Kenya has five endemic species you won’t see in the southern parks.  For culture, you can visit a Maasai village, experience 14 different ethnic groups around Lake Turkana and then finish in cosmopolitan Nairobi.  The highlight of the central highlands is Mt Kenya, but you don’t have to hike for a week to enjoy the mountains; there are coffee and tea plantations to visit and the beautiful Thomson’s Falls.  Through the Rift Valley and into western Kenya are lakes with the myriad birdlife, including the famous flamingos.

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Poaching threatens the Kenyan safari

There seems to be a misperception that poaching was a problem in years past, but is not now.  Sadly this is untrue, and in fact it is becoming worse.  One prediction is that there will be no elephants in 20 years if poaching continues at the current rate.  Lions and rhinos are also under significant threat, with rhinos disappearing at a rate that is simply not sustainable.  It’s difficult to be optimistic that humans will be able to turn around the trend with market forces so strong for ivory and rhino horn, so it is perhaps better to come to Kenya now to see these magnificent animals before it’s too late.

Kenyan people

Tourism is Kenya’s biggest industry so when tourism numbers are low the whole country feels the economic impact.  Kenyans are naturally hospitable, keen to welcome visitors and show off their country.  Not everyone is a terrorist or a madman; most are proud of their country and excited to meet travellers.  Moreover, there is a lot of positive work being carried out by Kenyans to develop Kenya that goes unseen and unheard.  Come and see for yourself and be inspired!

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A Kenyan safari will be one of the most unforgettable experiences of your life.  I came to Kenya in 2010 and have now made it my home.  But a word of caution: you may have heard people who have travelled to Africa talk about the “Africa bug” – it bites!

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What are your perceptions of Kenya?  Do negative news reports impact your decision on where to travel or do you ignore the hype and do your own research on a destination?  Please leave your comments below.

Introduction to Magnificent Birding at Lake Naivasha

Introduction to Magnificent Birding at Lake Naivasha

If you are a keen birder then Lake Naivasha in Kenya is one place to add to your bucket list.  This article tells of the birds we have seen there and the activities available that enable you to see different species – boating for water birds, cycling for ground birds, and walking for woodland species.

birding in naivasha

Given it’s a large lake, the most obvious activity to do when visiting Naivasha is to get out on a boat.  The hippos are usually the draw-card, but the myriad waterbird species impress even those who think they aren’t interested in birds.  Here’s what we have seen while out on the lake:

  • Great White Pelican
  • Great Cormorant
  • Long-tailed Cormorant
  • Cattle Egret
  • Common Squacco Heron
  • Little Egret
  • Grey Heron
  • Purple Heron
  • Black-headed Heron
  • Hamerkop
  • Marabou Stork
  • Yellow-billed Stork
  • Sacred Ibis
  • African Spoonbill
  • Greater Flamingo
  • Lesser Flamingo
  • Egyptian Goose
  • Yellow-billed Duck
  • African Fish Eagle
  • Black Crake
  • Red-knobbed Coot
  • African Jacana
  • Black-winged Stilt
  • Blacksmith plover
  • Sandpiper
  • Gull
  • Swift
  • Pied Kingfisher

There are several conservancies around Lake Naivasha where you can enjoy a walking safari and see woodland bird species.  These include Wileli Conservancy, Green Crater Lake and Hells Gate National Park.  In Hells Gate you can also hire bicycles to explore more of the park, and there are also places where you can ride horses.  Whether you are on foot, bike or horse, spotting birds is easier than from a vehicle.  Here’s what we saw on one walk in Wileli Conservancy:

  • Hadada Ibis
  • Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture
  • Auger Buzzard
  • Long-crested Eagle
  • Crowned Plover
  • Ring-necked Dove
  • Grey Woodpecker
  • Plain-backed Pipit
  • Common Bulbul
  • Cinnamon Bracken Warbler
  • Rattling Cisticola
  • Cuckoo-shrike
  • Common Drongo
  • Black-headed Oriole
  • Rüppell’s Long-tailed Starling
  • Superb Starling
  • Wattled Starling
  • Red-billed Oxpecker
  • Rufous Sparrow
  • Baglafecht (Reichenow’s) Weaver
  • Red-headed Weaver

OTA offers birding trips with an expert bird guide visiting Kenya’s birding hotspots including Lake Naivasha.  Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to book your birding holiday now.

Covering three of East Africa’s premier game parks, OTA’s Wildlife Wonder in January 2017 circuits southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.  Watching wildlife and visiting communities of different cultures, this trip shows all sides of life in East Africa!  Book your seat today by emailing tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

Stunning Birding in Baringo

Stunning Birding in Baringo

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Kenya is a spectacular destination for birders and this article will describe the species you can expect to see at Lake Baringo as I tell you about my experience there.

Lake Baringo is home to 450 species of birds and thus a paradise for bird-watchers.  There are two activities that provide excellent birding opportunities: a walk up to the escarpment overlooking the lake or a boat ride on the lake.  The walk takes you through scrubland where you can see woodpeckers, ostriches, and we even saw a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl.  But I think the boat ride is really special and the birds we saw that morning were incredible.

We set off at 7 o’clock in the morning so we could make the most of the waking activity on the lake.  Within a few minutes we saw a Pied Kingfisher posing perfectly on a branch followed closely by a Fish Eagle that had just caught a fish!  There he stood proudly on a tree with a fish held firmly in his claw.  A beautiful Malachite Kingfisher tried to retreat into the bushes, but wasn’t quite quick enough.  One area of the lake is covered in water lilies and we spotted an African Jacana picking its way through the foliage.  The hippos also like that area and we were greeted with grunts from the herd as we passed.  A flock of Eurasian Swallows flew in and arranged themselves on a dead tree protruding out of the lake.  Local fishermen prefer the early morning for their work and we saw quite a few in their dugout canoes (not what I would like to be in when hippos are around!).

birding in Baringo

There is an island in the middle of the lake and as we drew closer, we saw the mansion of a nest that Hamerkops had built, but unfortunately we didn’t spot the residents.  One fisherman feeds the Fish Eagles for the visitors each morning and so we watched the spectacle of a Fish Eagle swooping in for the catch.  We continued around the island and there we found two Water Thick-knees paddling in the shallows.  The island is rocky on one side and we were lucky to see some rock hyraxes and a monitor lizard basking in the sun.  We also saw two Madagascar Bee-eaters in a tree and a Long-tailed Cormorant perched on a rock drying its wings.  As we returned to the camp, the boat came close to the shore where Lesser Masked Weavers were busy building nests.  And finally, just when we thought we had seen enough, a Pied Kingfisher appeared from seemingly nowhere, dove into the water in front of our boat and emerged with a fish!  Spectacular!

Are you excited to visit Lake Baringo?  Then book OTA’s Baringo Birding Tour for a week of birding in Kenya!

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And if you travel between 1 March and 30 June 2016, you will enjoy a free day tour around some of Nairobi’s highlights including the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, AFEW Giraffe Centre, Kazuri Beads workshop or Amani Kibera’s community projects.  Get in touch today: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

Traditional Entertainment of Kenya

Traditional Entertainment of Kenya

With 42 tribes in Kenya, defining a specific entertainment as ‘traditional’ is nearly impossible without going into an excessive treatise on the subject.  Each tribe has song, dance, costumes and musical instruments particular to their area.  This article gives a brief overview of the types of entertainment, some examples from various tribes and where you can find traditional entertainment when you come to Kenya.

Song is a form of traditional entertainment almost globally so it is no surprise to find Kenyan tribes also singing.  Each of the 42 tribes has their own language, so it is simple to tell where the song is from…. so long as you can recognise the language!  Across the tribes one thing is the same: there are different beats and words for songs associated with the various ceremonies.  This means that when a Kikuyu returns to his village and hears singing he can tell what is happening.  It doesn’t mean however that if a Taita goes to the Kikuyu village he will also be able to tell what is happening, unless he understands Kikuyu.  So each tribe has circumcision songs, party songs, wedding songs, funeral songs, new baby songs and so on.

Along with singing comes dancing and, again, movements differ across the tribes.  Kikuyus wear bells on their ankles with men and women pairing up, putting palms together and swaying.  In Luhya culture, the dance is all about the shoulders and for Luos it’s about the hips.  The Maasai men jump and it is a show of manliness if they can jump higher than their peers.

Dance is complemented by the traditional costumes which are made from materials found in a tribe’s area.  Luo men wear grass skirts from the reeds by Lake Victoria and cow hide on their back.  Towards the coast, Taita men wear kangas from the Swahili culture while the women wear grass skirts.  In the central highlands, the Kikuyus’ costumes are a bit more substantial to protect against the cold, with sheepskin hats confusing many travellers as they look similar to the typical Russian hats!  The men generally wear white and the women a brown-beige colour.  Kikuyu men also carry swords and have a belt made of animal skin to carry the sword.

Musical instruments often accompany the singing and dancing and most people are familiar with the African drum.  But there are even differences in how the drum is used across Kenya.  For example, the Kamba sit with the drum between their legs while the Luhya hold the drum under their arm.  Kamba also use a whistle to signify a beat change.

Story-telling is common with the old men teaching lessons through stories to the young boys.  Nowadays comedy is becoming popular, with sketches performed between music sets.  The stories and sketches are usually set in everyday situations that Kenyans can easily relate to.

Bomas of Kenya put on a lengthy performance every afternoon which showcases singing, dancing, costumes and musical instruments from each of the tribes.  Shade Hotel in Karen also does a more informal afternoon of traditional entertainment every Sunday and on public holidays.  If you visit a Maasai village on your safari, the villagers will perform a welcome dance for you.  The Samburu villages do the same in northern Kenya.  Finally, the Lake Turkana Cultural Festival might be the best opportunity to see a variety of traditional entertainment.  A gathering of 14 tribes from northern Kenya, this Festival is a celebration of different cultures living together.  They sing, they dance, they build huts, they cook, they dress traditionally – it’s fantastic!  It is held every May in Loiyangalani on the shore of Lake Turkana and well worth the journey.

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