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Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

Nairobi’s Best-Kept Secret

On Valentine’s Day 2015 my friend Kirstin and I met George out the front of the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nairobi.  It wasn’t some kinky Valentines arrangement, but rather a very informative and entertaining walking tour of Nairobi’s CBD.

From the Hilton, we walked to Kimathi Street where a statue of the war hero General Kimathi stands.  When this statue was being erected, there was significant controversy about whether Kimathi was worthy of a statue or not.  After one year of deliberation he got his place.  Kimathi was a leader of the Mau Mau rebellion which has been viewed by some Kenyans as the great rebellion that gave Kenya its independence and by other Kenyans as a group of rogues who caused needless trouble while more formal efforts were taking place.

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Next we headed up to Kenyatta Avenue where the impressive Sarova Stanley Hotel dominates.  Inside the hotel is the Thorn Tree Cafe where an acacia tree used to stand.  The acacia tree held a message board where colonial settlers left messages for one another.  Nowadays, you may have heard of Lonely Planet’s online travel forum dubbed “Thorn Tree” – that’s where the name comes from!

Also at this intersection, a statue of Lord Delamere used to stand.  It marked the division of Nairobi – to the west of Delamere was the side of the city for the white colonialists and to the east was the rough and tumble of Indian merchants and Kenyan vendors.  Still today you can see the difference between the east and west sides of the city.

Along Kenyatta Avenue, we stopped to admire Cameo.  Not because it’s a popular night spot, but because it is the oldest building in Nairobi at over 100 years old.  Ironically Nairobi’s newest store is located inside – Subway, the sandwich chain has made a foray into the Kenyan market.  Next door is the Bank of India which has had quite a history.  It has been the Parliament House, before the current Parliament was built, and also the National Archives before those too were relocated to their current home on Moi Avenue.

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Turning off Kenyatta onto Wabera Street we found the McMillan National Library.  It’s not hard to find anything if it’s address is Wabera Street, as the street is only 100 metres long!  Next to the library is Jamia Mosque and continuing alongside the mosque to the end we arrived at Chai House and the City Market.  The market sells everything from meat and fish to vegetables and souvenirs.  Despite all the shops though, the market was empty of customers.  Outside however, the rose sellers were doing a booming Valentines trade!

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Our last stop was the Kenya International Conference Centre (KICC), the tallest building in Nairobi at 28 floors.  The second floor from the top was a revolving restaurant, but the large empty space was today a place for young couples to hang out.  On the roof is a helicopter landing pad and for a fee you can walk around for 360 degree views of Nairobi.

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On weekends there is an open air market that George offered to take us to for some souvenir shopping.  But it had started to rain and Kirstin and I figured this wouldn’t be our one and only chance to buy souvenirs, so we skipped it and went to a cafe instead.  Over a cup of tea we learnt more about George who had been taken in by Mathare Children’s Fund (MCF) when he was a child and received support from the community organisation to complete school.  MCF also provided him with the training to become a city tour guide, facilitated by the National Museums of Kenya.  George is also attending university, studying economics, and the guiding allows him to earn some money to help him through school.

MCF have trained several young people to be guides on city walking tours.  Even though I have lived in Kenya for over four years, there was a lot we saw on the tour that I had never noticed before (even if I had walked past it a dozen times!).  And things I had noticed, I hadn’t known about.  The tour lasts two hours (not including the cup of tea at the end!) and costs 1000 Kenyan shillings (approximately US$10) per person plus 400KES to go to the top of KICC.

Covering three of Kenya’s lesser-known game parks, OTA’s 6 Day Northern Trails Safari heads up to the arid north of Kenya.  Before the safari, you have the opportunity to explore Nairobi on one of these walking tours.  If you are interested in joining this trip in October, please get in touch: tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.

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Protecting Kenya’s Wildlife at the Maasai Olympics

Protecting Kenya’s Wildlife at the Maasai Olympics

Safari to Maasai Olympics in Kenya

The Maasai Olympics is a biennial event in Kenya that started in 2012. 2014 saw the second Olympics and we are very excited for the next one this year. So in the lead up to the next event, we have a look at what it is all about.

Big Life Foundation and Lion Guardians work closely with the Maasai communities in the region surrounding Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks in southern Kenya to hold this event. The Maasai traditional initiation rite was to hunt and kill a lion. But a few years ago, in 2008, the elders of the area recognised the practice as unsustainable and approached Big Life Foundation to assist in setting up a different way to prove the manhood of the Maasai. And so the Maasai Olympics were born, to educate the communities and gain their committment to conserving wildlife and habitat for the future and to recognise that this is their only sustainable way of life.

The Olympics consists of five events: rungu throwing, spear throwing, high jump, 200-metre sprint and five-kilometre run. A rungu is a club that most Maasai men carry (you often see it tucked into their belt) and the throwing competition tests accuracy while the spear-throwing competition tests distance. The high jump is not the standard high jump we think of in the west. The Maasai traditional dance involves a lot of jumping where the men simply stand on the spot and jump as high as they can, staying as rigid as a pole. Trophies, cash and even a prize bull are up for grabs for the winners. The two winners of the five-kilometre run in 2014 even received a sponsored trip to the 2015 New York Marathon!

Changing the tide to conserve lions (and other animals) is vital for the survival of Kenya’s delicate eco-system. The initiative taken by the Maasai elders a few years ago is admirable and the Maasai Olympics stands as an example to other communities to work towards conservation and education of their youth. More information can be found on Big Life Foundation’s website.

The Maasai Olympics takes place every two years in December usually somewhere in the Amboseli-Tsavo eco-system. If you would like to be join OTA’s safari in Kenya which includes attending the event, please contact us on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com and we will add you to the list and let you know as more information becomes available.

Community Engagement on Safari

Community Engagement on Safari

Gone are the days when “Safari” was only for the elite of Britain’s colonial population.  Nowadays the Dark Continent is accessible to anyone on any budget.  And it is no longer about hunting or simply wildlife spotting.  Increasingly, travellers are looking for ways to connect with people, to find out how other cultures live, what they eat, what their houses are like, and what jobs they do.  Of course, travellers coming to Africa want to see wildlife, but sprinkle a smattering of meeting people through the safari and you enhance the experience and bring more life to the trip.  Although community-based tourism is relatively new in Africa, there are some great experiences you can include in your safari to break up the game drives.

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One of the simplest, and most overlooked, ways of getting to know a culture is to talk to your guide.  Many people fly in and out of the game reserves and don’t have time to interact with a guide on the ground (they might talk to their driver on a game drive).  Travelling by road rather than flying gives you more opportunity to see more of the country and ask your guide lots of questions.  Moreover, you can choose a tour company that uses local guides in some places on your itinerary meaning that your tourist dollar is spread more widely and you are getting the expert knowledge of someone who lives in that area.  Examples include:

  • In Kenya at Lakes Naivasha and Baringo there are local guides who can take you on a boat or for a walk
  • MCF Panairobi (http://mcfpanairobi.or.ke/) offers walking tours with street kids in the Nairobi CBD
  • In Cape Town and Johannesburg you can do township tours
  • In the Okavango Delta in Botswana you can take a mokoro (dugout canoe) trip with local polers

You get the benefit of the experience of someone who has grown up in that area and they get access to some tourist dollars.  If you are travelling with a tour company, ask them if they use local guides.

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Home stays or just a meal with a family gives you a perfect opportunity to see real life in your destination.  If you are not completely comfortable with imposing yourself on a family, you can request your driver-guide take you to a local restaurant instead of the tourist restaurants.  If you do go for a meal with a family, there is sometimes the opportunity for a cooking lesson before the meal and you all eat what you produce.  Mwenya Uganda (http://www.mwenya-uganda.org/) is a community organisation that hosts such an experience as a day trip from Kampala.

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Home stays are not for everyone, but there are some places that provide a great balance between having your own privacy while being part of the community.  Maji Moto (http://majimotomaasaicamp.com/) near the Maasai Mara in Kenya is one example: you have your own hut close to the Maasai village, your meals are prepared by the Maasai and you participate in village life during the day.

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Visiting community-based organisations is becoming a popular offering of many tour companies.  You might spend a day teaching English in a school, tutoring students in a library, playing with children at an orphanage or planting trees.  Or you can simply visit the projects to see the positive development work occurring in the communities.  If you want to bring donations, visit Pack For A Purpose (www.packforapurpose.org) and search for your accommodation and/or tour operator.  There you will find a list of supplies you can donate to the projects your tour operator/ accommodation supports.  Investours (http://investours.org/home/) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is a day experience where your fee becomes a micro-loan for one entrepreneur who you choose through the course of the day as you visit several small businesses and get to understand daily life.

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There are many tribes throughout the African continent that have a representation in the form of a cultural village or a living museum.  In Kenya there are several Maasai villages around the Maasai Mara, Samburu villages around Samburu National Reserve, an El Molo village at Lake Turkana, and a Kikuyu cultural centre at Githunguri.  In Namibia there is a Damara living museum near Twyfelfontein and a Himba village near Kamanjab.  In Tanzania you can visit the Bushmen near Lake Eyasi and in Botswana there are also opportunities to see the San Bushmen around Ghanzi.

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Festivals are a great way to experience local culture if you can time your trip well.  The Lake Turkana Cultural Festival in northern Kenya occurs each May and brings together fourteen ethnic groups in a flurry of singing and dancing.  Lake of Stars in Malawi and Rift Valley Festival in Kenya are two contemporary music festivals both happening around August or September each year.  There are plenty of festivals which can usually be found on the internet or by asking your tour operator.

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As you can see volunteering for two weeks is not the only way to engage with communities as you travel.  Throughout the African continent there are various opportunities to meet local people and learn their cultures and traditions.  As you plan your African safari keep your eye out for different experiences – trawl travel forums, blogs and ask your tour operator – so that your safari embraces all aspects of the country.

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At OTA we specialise in unique tailor-made experiences. Contact us today to start planning your African adventure on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com.  As an extra bonus, from March to June 2018 we are offering a free day trip to visit some of Nairobi’s highlights with every safari!

Sheila and Christine’s African Safari Extravaganza

Sheila and Christine’s African Safari Extravaganza

Walking safari at Lake Naivasha

Waaaaaay back in May 2014, I sat in Sheila’s lounge room with Sheila and Christine to talk about an African adventure.  They had travelled to South America a few years before and wanted to make the most of their Yellow Fever vaccination, so Africa was the logical next step for them.

Of course they had to come to Kenya, as that is where our little tour company is based and it’s the place for the best safaris in the world (I’m not biased!).  They also wanted to visit Botswana, being fans of the The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and Victoria Falls.  They had three weeks to experience the best of the African continent and so we set to work planning an itinerary.

There were a couple of challenges.  First of all, Kenya has so much and we wanted to show them all of it, but we had to narrow the safari down to just a week.  Secondly was finding an affordable way to travel in Botswana.  Botswana caters to the high-end luxury traveller, and lodges are typically US$400+ per person per night.  For your average retired teacher, this is not affordable.  The alternative is a mobile camping safari and our intrepid ladies agreed.

Eighteen months later Sheila and Christine landed at Nairobi’s airport, looking quite fresh after the 22-hour flight.  We headed straight to the accommodation for a quick shower and then went to the mall to take care of some essentials – changing money, buying things that had been left behind and having a cold Kenyan beer as we discussed the week ahead.

Safari Begins

Our first destination was the Maasai Mara.  The wildebeest migration was in town, and Sheila and Christine could be forgiven for never wanting to see another wildebeest ever again!  But do you think we could find an elephant?  The night before, a herd of about 15 elephants had crashed through our camp, but there was not a trace of them or their friends until 5pm when I glimpsed a big grey face in the bushes.  Elephants do not like all the noise of millions of wildebeest and tend to disappear until the rowdy tourists have gone back to Serengeti (kind of like Philip Island residents on Grand Prix weekend!).  On our ellie hunt though, we were lucky to find five lions – two males and three females – supervising a herd of buffalo.  No one else had found this group, and so we got to enjoy the sighting all alone.  Magical!

Lionesses survey a herd of buffalo in the Maasai Mara

Lake Naivasha

From the Maasai Mara we went to Lake Naivasha for two nights.  The next day started with a walking safari in Wileli Conservancy where we got excited spotting many different birds (see the list below) and getting close to some giraffes who were necking.  Necking isn’t as romantic as it sounds; it’s actually the term for how giraffes fight.  From a distance they look quite graceful and almost gentle as they swing their necks against one another.  But once we got close, we could hear the thumps as they crashed together.  They can cause serious injury or even death as they fight for supremacy of the herd.

We had a very lovely lunch at Sanctuary Farm and then went for a boat ride around part of the shore of Lake Naivasha.  We requested our captain keep us a safe distance from the hippos, and despite his respect of the request, I was still very nervous – I don’t think I should do any more boat trips in hippo-infested waters as I suspect my nerves make everyone else a bit edgier.  But they are really big!

Cormorants in Lake Naivasha

Samburu Safari

Our final destination in Kenya was Samburu.  This is where Sheila and Christine got a bit of a taste of what was to come on their camping safari in Botswana, as we stayed in tents inside the park.  Camping in the park is such a great experience, even if you think you aren’t the camping type, it’s worth trying just once.  Samburu gets really hot in the middle of the day and all the animals retire to the shade, making game driving at that time a little boring.  Fortunately there’s a lodge near the campsite with a pool that one can use for a small fee.  While Sheila and Christine cooled off, Francis and I ducked out to Umoja Primary School.  Last year, Bev had spent a day teaching at the school and later sent some money that her students in Australia had raised.  We used that money to buy hoops and footballs for the school and at last we had the opportunity to deliver them.  The students remembered Bev and I heard murmurs about rockets (one of the activities Bev had done with them) as they gathered to receive the gifts.

Delivering a donation to Umoja School

As we headed back to Nairobi, there was one last stop to make: Kiota Children’s Home.  At our fundraising event in Melbourne earlier this year, Sheila had signed up to sponsor a Kenyan student.  Being in Kenya now, it only made sense for her and the student to meet.  Ndunda is a very shy young boy, but he graciously received the stationery that Sheila and Christine had brought for all the children at the home.  He then showed us around the home, pointing out the place where he kept his school bag and shoes, his homework, his bed, and common areas where they hang out.  We also met Samuel and Simon who are also sponsored by people who came to our Melbourne event.

Sheila and Christine hand over donations for Kiota Children's Home

I can’t write too much more about Sheila and Christine’s adventure, as they flew out of Nairobi the next day and left us behind.  They went to the mighty Victoria Falls for a few nights before heading to Botswana.  They had a night in the Chobe Safari Lodge where they did a boat cruise on the Chobe River.  That’s an amazing cruise as the animals come down to the water to drink in the evening.  Chobe has the highest population of elephants in Africa – it certainly must have made up for the ellies’ absence in Maasai Mara!

Seeing Sheila and Christine off a the airport

Then they joined their camping safari, travelling to Savute, Moremi Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta.  It was surely an adventure, and I hope that they have written about it somewhere so we can hear all about it!

What we saw

Birds

  • Common Ostrich
  • 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
  • Hadada Ibis
  • African Spoonbill
  • Egyptian Goose
  • Yellow-billed Duck
  • Secretary Bird
  • Lappet-faced Vulture
  • Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture
  • African White-backed Vulture
  • African Goshawk
  • Augur Buzzard
  • Long-crested Eagle
  • Tawny Eagle
  • African Fish Eagle
  • Francolin
  • Yellow-necked Spurfowl
  • Vulturine Guineafowl
  • Helmeted Guineafowl
  • Black Crake
  • Red-knobbed Coot
  • African Jacana
  • Blacksmith Plover
  • Crowned Plover
  • Sandpiper
  • Gull
  • Yellow-throated Sandgrouse
  • Ring-necked Dove
  • Go-away-bird
  • Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl
  • Swift
  • Grey-headed Kingfisher
  • Pied Kingfisher
  • Lilac-breasted Roller
  • Green Wood-hoopoe
  • Ground Hornbill
  • Red-billed Hornbill
  • Grey Woodpecker
  • Plain-backed Pipit
  • Common Bulbul
  • Cinnamon Bracken Warbler
  • Rattling Cisticola
  • Long-tailed Fiscal
  • Brown-crowned Tchagra
  • Cuckoo-shrike
  • Common Drongo
  • Black-headed Oriole
  • Pied Crow
  • Rüppell’s Long-tailed Starling
  • Superb Starling
  • Wattled Starling
  • Red-billed Oxpecker
  • Rufous Sparrow
  • White-headed Buffalo-Weaver
  • Sparrow Weaver
  • African Golden Weaver
  • Baglafecht (Reichenow’s) Weaver
  • Red-headed Weaver
Vuturine Guineafowl

Vuturine Guineafowl

Animals

  • Cape buffalo
  • Lion
  • Elephant
  • Black-backed jackal
  • Spotted hyena
  • Burchell’s Zebra
  • Grevy’s Zebra
  • Maasai giraffe
  • Reticulated Giraffe
  • Eland
  • Impala
  • Thomson’s gazelle
  • Grant’s gazelle
  • Wildebeest
  • Hartebeest
  • Topi
  • Waterbuck
  • Bushbuck
  • Beisa’s Oryx
  • Gerenuk
  • Dikdik
  • Rock hyrax
  • Warthog
  • Olive baboon
  • Vervet monkey
  • Hippopotamous
  • Crocodile
  • Skink
Lioness in Samburu

Lioness in Samburu

Make a Tremendous Impact and Transform a Life Through Education

Make a Tremendous Impact and Transform a Life Through Education

While I might have a few issues with the aid and development industry in countries like Kenya (who arguably does not need foreign aid, just good governance and accountability), the incredible impact of sponsoring a student’s education is something I whole-heartedly support and emphatically encourage people to do.  The cliché that there is no greater gift than education resonates as fact in developing countries and there is no shorter, sustainable way out of poverty than going to school.  If you want to assist those less fortunate, then sponsoring a student is the most effective way to ensure you make a real difference.

At Kiota Children’s Home, 20 children receive support from Dutch and Australian sponsors.  In September, we were fortunate to introduce Sheila to Ndunda, who she sponsors.  Ndunda’s story is sad, but not unusual – his parents abandoned the children and he was found with his younger brother picking through the garbage dump when he was only 5 years old.  Since arriving at Kiota, he has learnt social skills (although he is still very shy), has been able to attend school and has access to counselling.  He has a chance at a decent future now.  Moreover, when Sheila visited with her friend Christine, they “Packed For A Purpose” (www.packforapurpose.org) and were able to bring specific items needed at Kiota – pens, exercise books, coloured pencils, etc.  There is more than one way to give!

In September, we were fortunate to introduce Sheila to Ndunda, who she sponsors

In September, we were fortunate to introduce Sheila to Ndunda, who she sponsors

Jared wanted to return to university to finish a Bachelor of Public Health after his first sponsor was no longer able to support him.  Thanks to Bev, he is completing his degree this year.  Bev travelled to Uganda last year to meet Jared and spent time with his relatives, seeing his life.  From the first time I met Jared in 2012 to the time of introducing him and Bev in 2014, I saw a remarkable change in him.  He seemed to have grown, which for a man in his mid-20s was unlikely.  But he stood up straighter and had more confidence.  Regardless of any academic results, just this change in demeanour will surely take him further than the shy boy of two years previous.

Bev and Jared's relationship was cemented during Bev's travels in Uganda and Jared can continue his studies as well as take on extra-curricular activities

Bev and Jared’s relationship was cemented during Bev’s travels in Uganda and Jared can continue his studies as well as take on extra-curricular activities

Pauline travelled in Kenya in 2014 and, upon learning the plight of girls in education, wanted to sponsor a young woman.  Sylvia is a Maasai girl who achieved excellent marks in her primary school exams, but her prospects of getting to secondary school were slim to none.  The primary school she had attended had largely waived her fees in the knowledge that her parents were extremely poor but that Sylvia was very bright.  A secondary school would not make the same allowance.  Enter Pauline, and Sylvia is attending boarding school in Narok, the closest town to her family yet still 100km away.  She now has the opportunity to avoid an early marriage and a life of walking miles to fetch water and firewood.

Education is life-changing and we are committed to affording as many students the opportunity to go to school as we can.  In Melbourne, Australia we hosted a fund raising event in May 2015.  Guests were invited to sponsor individual students or make a one-off donation.  The money we collected from the donations has been given to the Titus Ngoyoni Memorial Primary School to replace the desks and chairs, which are in severe disrepair.  We intend to make the Melbourne event an annual one so we can continue to raise funds for needy schools and homes.

The money we collected from the donations has been given to the Titus Ngoyoni Memorial Primary School to replace the desks and chairs, which are in severe disrepair

The money we collected from the donations has been given to the Titus Ngoyoni Memorial Primary School to replace the desks and chairs, which are in severe disrepair

Of course there are still plenty of students who would benefit from sponsorship.  Susanna is a Maasai girl from the same area as Sylvia who is starting secondary school this year.  Winnie is a young woman in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, who has two more years of secondary school to complete.  There are children at Kiota Childen’s Home who require support for primary education.  Mara Explorers Camp in the Maasai Mara works closely with their local community to identify students in need.  And Sunrise of Africa School in Kitengela has 30% of their students attending on scholarship due to the generosity of donors.  There is even a single mother working in our local bar trying to raise money to finish her nursing degree.  In Kenya there are 91 registered nurses and 64 enrolled nurses per 100,000 people.  Compare that with Australia where there are 1195.8 nurses per 100,000 people – and Australia claims to have a health care crisis!  Sponsoring a nursing degree would not just impact the student, but all the extra people who can access her care.

Susanna is a Maasai girl from the same area as Sylvia who is starting secondary school this year

Susanna is a Maasai girl from the same area as Sylvia who is starting secondary school this year

The value of education in Kenya

Education is most needed in rural communities where schooling costs are twelve to twenty times as much as the monthly income of parents, despite the abolition of secondary school fees.  The costs are for uniforms, shoes, text books, stationery and boarding fees.  This means secondary school is out of reach for the poorest households and early marriage for their daughters is seen as a much more immediate way out of financial strife through the dowry payment.  In Kenya, one in ten young people never complete primary school and so struggle to find well-paid work.  Thus there is 60% youth (18-35 years) unemployment.  When you consider that an average wage earner supports about a dozen family members, the impact of an education that can secure a job is huge for a whole community.  Yet, one million children are still out of school in this country.  While this number is only half of what it was in 1999, it is still the ninth highest of any country in the world.

While committing to an ongoing sponsorship of a child can seem a little daunting, the relationships we have seen forming between sponsor and student are far more rewarding than anyone imagined.  Of course, it is important to be updated on the academic progress of the student, but a personal connection is also possible and can be amazing – as evidenced by Bev and Jared mentioned earlier.  If you are interested in connecting directly with a student who needs sponsorship, do contact us.  We are committed to ensuring students get the education and resources they need to succeed and also to enabling you to have the accountability and connection you are looking for.  Email tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com for more information about how you can directly transform a young Kenyan’s life today.

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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Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

Four Advantages to Staying in a Local Guesthouse Instead of a Safari Lodge (and Seven Disadvantages!)

If you are a backpacker, independent traveller or more experienced safari-goer you might be considering your accommodation options for your next visit to Kenya.  This article offers advice about the different types of accommodation and whether it is better to stay in a nearby town when visiting the national parks.  The answer does somewhat depend on your definition of “better” – in terms of quality usually it is not better, but in terms of cost it usually is.  My recommendation is to stay outside the park but close to the gate where you can usually find campsites and cheaper lodges than inside the park, but still enjoy the convenience of being at the park.

For many backpackers and independent travellers, “better” can often mean “cheaper” so let’s start with that as a definition to decide the best place to stay.  Although the cost of the accommodation in the towns will be lower than accommodation inside the parks, you also need to factor in the cost of transport between the town accommodation and the park.  Sometimes camping is preferable to dingy local guesthouses and can be the same price. Camping inside the parks is expensive, but at most parks in Kenya there are campsites close to the park gates that have good amenities (including cold beer) for around US$6-10 per person per night.

Aside from cost, there are more experiential definitions of “better” to decide where to stay.  Guesthouses in towns can offer a deeper insight into local culture and if you get lucky with your fellow guests it can be a very good experience.  You have more freedom to explore when you are close to the action.  You can go out to find a local restaurant and again have a more local experience with your meals.  Public transport to towns in Kenya is readily available so getting to your accommodation in a town is easier.

To counter these positive aspects, there are some things to consider.  Local guesthouses are often co-located with a restaurant and bar so it can be quite noisy at night, especially if there is a big football game on.  They also may not have the quality of facilities that we might expect at home.  While the overall cleanliness might look OK, the attention to detail is often lacking.  Many local establishments have squat toilets or even just a hole in the ground.  If there is a toilet, there is often not a toilet seat.  On the coast you will be hard-pressed to find a hot water shower and inland the hot water showers are electric (so you have to remember to flick the switch to get hot water).  If mosquito nets are provided, they often have holes in them.  Because most travellers do stay closer to the park, you also need to be prepared to be stared at as you will be a novelty (especially women).

If your priority for visiting that area is to see the wildlife in the park, then it is far more convenient to stay inside the park or just outside the gate, rather than in a nearby town.  Realistically, the closest towns are just not that close – for Maasai Mara you would be staying in Narok which is two hours away on a corrugated road, and for Samburu you would be looking for somewhere to stay in Isiolo which is over half an hour away.

If you do want to stay in a local guesthouse then I suggest doing as much research as you can.  Sites like Trip Advisor may not be so useful for small local places, so you are probably better asking people who have been before – perhaps expats or Kenyans in Nairobi who have to travel to that area for work.  It will help to find out the types of people who frequent the accommodation (is it geared towards business travellers or bus/truck drivers) and if there is anything to be especially aware of (i.e. some guesthouses act as the local brothel, which is only known to locals, not unwitting tourists).

Even if you prefer travelling independently, when visiting national parks in Kenya it is often easier to go with a tour operator who can cater to your budget and needs.  Your safety and security is much higher with an operator and their knowledge of the accommodation options means you have more choices available to you.  But if you still prefer to go it alone, then hopefully this article has provided you with more awareness about the advantages and disadvantages of different accommodation options.

Have you stayed in local guesthouses in Kenya? What has been your experience?  And what is your recommendation for fellow travelers in choosing their accommodation?

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