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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

*not their real names

The McDonnell Family on Safari

The McDonnell Family on Safari

It was Ashley who first wrote to me about a safari for her family.  I assumed she was the mother of this Irish family of six, but it turned out she was the 20-year-old daughter, older sister to her three brothers, and super-organised in getting the family’s Christmas plans into shape.  She was clear on time frame, travel goals and budget (most importantly) and with that information we were able to put together a holiday that fitted their needs.

It seemed to be going so well in the lead up and we were very excited to be spending Christmas with a big family ourselves, albeit cooking the dinner while they were off enjoying themselves.  But that’s our job and we love it!  So it was a bit of a surprise to meet only four rather than six people at the airport on Christmas Eve.  The youngest, Ryan, had a passport that was to expire in five months rather than the recommended six.  Although Ryan was only nine years old, the check-in agents in Ireland had suggested that it would be better he go and find another passport because the Kenyan authorities would not have many qualms in detaining a child (I still don’t really want to believe it to be true, but better not to test the theory).  So Ryan and his father set off to the passport office to try and get a new passport (on Christmas Eve!) and be on the flight the next day, Christmas.

Meanwhile the rest of the family landed in Nairobi and settled into their campsite.  We discussed the options of staying an extra night in Nairobi versus continuing with the trip and having the other two catch us up.  They decided to do the latter – we weren’t travelling too far the next day and it was very easy to organise another vehicle to meet them at the airport and bring them to Lake Naivasha.

1. Ready for safari!

We didn’t expect Ryan and Fergus to arrive much before dinner, so the rest of the family went for a bicycle ride around to Lake Oloiden, a soda lake adjacent to fresh water Lake Naivasha.  There is an incredible array of birdlife and several hippos residing in the lake and a boat ride is the perfect way to enjoy it.  But as if that wasn’t enough, you will never guess what else they saw…… a leopard!!!  Yes!  It was climbing in a tree close to the shore.  It took me five months in Africa before I spotted my first leopard and here were the McDonnell family just 24 hours on the continent being spoilt with the most awesome sighting!  Just don’t tell Ryan and Fergus, who were still battling their way through immigration.

The family reunited in time for Christmas dinner (roast pork, vegetable skewers, rice, brussell sprouts, carrot mash and Christmas cake) during which we were regaled with the tale of getting a new passport during the Christmas holidays.  It all worked out and here everyone was.

2. Christmas Dinner

Boxing Day was much more relaxed and the family could settle into holiday mode properly now.  We spent the day at Lake Naivasha and started with a walking safari in Wileli Conservancy.  There aren’t many predators in the Naivasha area (never mind the leopard from the previous day!) so it is one of the few places in Kenya where you can enjoy walking and cycling safaris.  I think jet lag and the general stress of the passport problem caught up with everyone in the afternoon because they all disappeared.  Everyone except Ryan that is, who had hired a bike and was zooming around the campsite at top speeds startling the Marabou Storks.  Rain threatened and Francis diligently ensured all the tents were closed up, thinking the family were in the bar.  Half an hour later a red-faced Chris emerged from one of the tents looking like he’d just come from the sauna.  That’s when we realised we had shut everyone inside their tents as they slept. At least they were dry!

The following day Francis took the McDonnells to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve.  Kenya’s premier tourist destination, the Maasai Mara is home to the famous Wildebeest Migration and has the highest population density of lions anywhere in the world.  It wasn’t the right time of year for the migration, but animals they spotted included lion, elephants, impala, topi, and a giraffe who wandered in at lunch as the family picnicked under an acacia tree.


3. Who's hiding in the bush


4. Giraffe crashing the picnic

At the Mara River there is a good opportunity to stretch legs as spending a full day game driving can get tiring.  There are rangers at the river who will escort you for a short walk to see crocs and hippos in the river….. Just don’t get too close!

Back to Nairobi to explore properly and rest a bit before beginning the big drive to the coast.  The David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is one of Nairobi’s “must sees” and that is where we could be found at feeding time the next day.  The baby elephants are too cute, but their stories are sad.  The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust does excellent work looking after the young orphans and eventually rehabilitating them back into the wild.  They are bottle-fed a special milk formula at 11am everyday when visitors are allowed to come, meet them and pat them if you are lucky.

5. Setting up camp

Ashley and Grace McDonnell

Chris, Ryan & David McDonnell

After the elephant orphanage we stopped at the mall for lunch (the boys wanted a KFC fix) before heading to the Kibera slum.  Amani Kibera is a community-based organisation that works with young people through sport, education and economic empowerment to give them opportunities for a better future.  The McDonnells had bought several non-fiction books at the mall to donate to Amani Kibera’s library including an atlas.  Students of all ages study at the library after school and at weekends and the books are a key resource to assist them with their studies.

Ashley & Grace McDonnell @ Galleria

To cap off the day, the McDonnells opted to have dinner with a Kenyan family.  We went to the home of Barack and Elizabeth where we were greeted with far too much food!  Barack’s son Collins was around the same age as Ryan and we barely saw the two boys for the rest of the evening.  They continue to be pen pals.  Elizabeth had cooked up a storm of traditional Kenyan dishes including mukimo, matoke, rice, tilapia, cabbage, sikuma wiki, githeri, chapatti, beef stew, sweet potato and ugali.

6. Dinner with a Kenyan family

7. At Amani Kibera's library

2014-12-30 18.28.18

The next day was a long drive to the village of Itinyi where we stayed at Mama Mercy’s Ndoto Bandas.  Mama Mercy works in her community assisting girls to get an education and be safe in the process.  She is helping to establish a boarding house at the girls’ secondary school.  Girls often get into trouble with men, sometimes by choice and sometimes not by choice, as they travel between school and home.  Eliminating this travel by having the girls accommodated at the school is vital to the success of the girl into her future.  Mama Mercy also personally sponsors five girls, paying their fees and hosting them in her home.  She is truly a woman who practices what she preaches.  The money she raises by hosting guests in her bandas (a Kenyan word for a small hut) helps her in her sponsorship. She also assists women in the village by selling their handicrafts in a small shop co-located with the bandas.

New Years Eve at Mama Mercy’s was a bit of a quiet affair; after the long drive everyone was a bit tired to stay up to see 2015 click in.  Most of us made it though.

Finally we got to the coast.  In order to avoid the horrendous traffic through the middle of Mombasa we took a detour through the Shimba Hills – it was a longer drive distance-wise, but beautifully scenic.  We pitched our tents at a campsite right on the beach; a perfect conclusion to this safari.  Everyone disappeared to the water almost immediately.

8. Camping on the beach

After a morning of snorkelling, Chris and David were ready for something more adventurous.  So we headed to Amani Tiwi Beach Resort for lunch and whatever activities could be found there.  Chris and David found diving, Ashley and Ryan found beach volleyball, Fergus found wi-fi and Grace found a glass of wine.  Something for everybody!

10. Breakfast at Twiga Camp

9. Playing beach volleyball

And then it was the end of the trip.  The tents were pulled down for the last time and we headed to the airport.  It was such a fun ten days for all of us – it’s why I love my job, it doesn’t really feel like work when we get to travel with such a fun family!

Chris McDonnell

Ashley’s review on Trip Advisor ( and the video she made ( also tell the story.

Trekking Magnificent Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi

Trekking Magnificent Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi

Long sleeves and long trousers: check.  Sturdy walking boots: check.  Rain jacket: check.  Trousers tucked into socks: check.  Walking sticks: check.  And so we dived into the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on an expedition like none we had experienced before.   We were looking for the Nkuringo family of mountain gorillas and I was bursting with excitement of seeing real live gorillas in the wild.

The night before the trek, we had travelled to a nearby village where local children had entertained us in the evening with traditional song and dance and we had walked around the village marvelling at the landscape as we were right on the edge of Bwindi Forest.  It was mountainous terrain covered in dense forest, so many shades of green that I never imagined.

Early in the morning we headed to the ranger station.  We wove around the mountain roads as breathtaking vistas presented themselves at every turn.  One of our group commented “It’s like heaven on earth” and that was it for me: Belinda Carlisle’s song plagued me for the rest of the day!

When I wasn’t being Belinda Carlisle, I had moments where I thought that this must be how David Livingstone, Henry Stanley, John Speke and all the other explorers who wandered this continent throughout the 1800s must have experienced Africa.  Of course gorillas don’t care for marked trails in the forest and so after about an hour of comfortable walking we diverted off the trail and into the forest proper.  As we beat our way through the bush, fording streams, dodging safari ants, trying not to get caught by prickly trees, and slipping through mud I was glad of the walking stick, which I have to admit I thought at first was a bit of a contrivance.

After a couple of hours the pace slowed and we realised that we were close to the gorilla family.  Our moods quietened immediately and we were led into a …. I can’t call it a clearing, but it was as much of a clearing as Bwindi would offer.  There were gorillas all around us in the trees.  We were entertained by a baby gorilla swinging from vines and generally being a pest to mum.  Then a massive silverback ambled into the view and sat under a tree approximately 15 metres away.  A younger silverback also decided to come closer to check us out.  He sat very close and looked wistfully at the sky, as if wondering if it would rain later.  And indeed it did – a brief shower just on top of us.  It was a gorilla in the tree overhead relieving itself.  A little bit gross, but how many of my friends back home could say they’ve been pee-ed on by a mountain gorilla?!Kenya to Kigali Adventure; OTA Kenya Safaris;

There was one moment that made us all hold our breath, when the larger silverback rose from his place under the tree and walked towards the younger silverback.  We wondered if we were going to witness a fight for alpha status or if he was going to come and swat at us.  He passed by us not two metres away and the rangers told us to hold our ground; you should never run away from a gorilla.  But he paid us no mind and nor his younger counterpart, he just kept walking and disappeared into the forest.  An anti-climax sure, but these animals are big and I wasn’t keen to see them fight each other or us.

After an hour with the gorillas our time was up and we began the trek back to the ranger station full of stories about how a massive King Kong-sized gorilla had eyed us off and we were seconds away from fighting for supremacy in the tribe.  Or that the baby gorilla had almost touched us.  And so it goes when you have an incredible experience but still feel the need to talk it up.

Gorilla permits in Uganda cost US$600 per person and in Rwanda US$750.  Only six permits per gorilla family are issued each day and in Uganda there are only eight habituated families, so it is wise to book early to avoid disappointment.  The trekking times vary according to where the gorillas are on any day.  The trek I did was about four hours (two hours to the gorillas and two back) while our friends went to another family the same day and took six hours.  On the other hand, we had a group who drove back down the road a bit after the briefing at the ranger station, then walked for twenty minutes before coming across the gorillas.  It is very random and you cannot really request a short trek or a long trek – it’s up to the gorillas.  But it is such a magical experience that the hardship of the trek is over-run in your memories by being so close to these incredible animals.  If you find yourself in East Africa, it is well-worth making the journey to western Uganda and seeing the mountain gorillas.

How a Ugandan Student Found a Sponsorship Opportunity

How a Ugandan Student Found a Sponsorship Opportunity

If you have been following this blog for some time, you may remember a post from Jared at the end of 2012.  Jared was a 27-year-old Ugandan, volunteering at a palliative care clinic, but by 2012 he realised that volunteering wasn’t going to pay any bills and so he started contacting several companies asking for employment, including us at OTA.  The employment market is tough however, and he wasn’t successful.  Also his heart wasn’t totally in it – he would much rather go back to university and complete his Public Health degree.  The cost of university fees made this dream impossible, so Jared requested some assistance.  He compiled a request letter and his previous results which we published on this blog to see if anyone might be able to assist.  No one was more surprised than us when Bev answered the call!  And so we connected Jared and Bev directly to organise the sponsorship.

A university education is life-changing in East Africa but many young people miss out because of the expense.  Finding a sponsor is an incredible opportunity for a young person to break out of the poverty cycle, developing themselves and also their country.  Of course there was a bit more to the story than the abridged version above describes and so this article offers three tips to ensure your sponsorship is effective and legitimate.

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  1. Ask for references

Jared and Bev were connected through us.  Bev had travelled with Tracey in 2009 for five weeks from Beijing to Istanbul – this journey undoubtedly built a high level of trust between the two.  And Jared had been communicating online with Francis and Tracey as well as having the opportunity to meet in Kampala.  Sending school fees to random email requests is fraught with danger, but being able to check with a trust-worthy source means you can be confident that your money is headed in the right direction.

  1. Conduct regular check-ups with the university

The student should be sending the sponsor regular updates of their academic progress.  In Bev and Jared’s case, the updates flew thick and fast as they also got to know more about each other’s lives, families, and cultures.  This is not necessary but receiving the results at the end of each term or semester means there is some accountability for the student to make the most of the opportunity.  If the sponsor has the name of the university, it is sometimes also possible to check directly with the university that the student is attending classes and performing well.

  1. Be aware of requests for “extra assistance”

During 2013 Jared’s bike lost its gears and needed repairs.  Jared rode fifteen kilometres to university and found the bus cost too much.  It wasn’t until he asked for help to repair the bicycle that Bev realised more help was needed.  Since then she has sent him a monthly allowance and also ensures he can attend conferences or other university activities.  However, she is quick to stress that Jared is not a “taker” – he contributes by getting holiday jobs as a laboratory assistant.  Also she has never heard from any of Jared’s friends or family members asking for her to assist them.  This can sometimes happen where sponsors get bombarded with requests from the rest of the family asking for more.

This year, Bev came to Kenya and Uganda both to see the sights and to meet Jared in person.  The emails the two exchanged over the 18 months had brought them close enough to call each other “mum” and “son”.  Now there was the opportunity to travel together so Jared could see more of his own country and get to know his benefactor.  After the safari, Bev spent a week in Kampala seeing Jared’s life – they visited the university, met his family, saw plenty of hospitals (Jared is studying Public Health after all!) and also did the tourist highlights of the city.  The relationship was cemented and Jared can continue his studies as well as take on extra-curricular activities such as attending the East Africa Health Conference in Tanzania.

How a Ugandan Student Found a Sponsorship Opportunity; OTA Kenya Safaris

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