This article is the first in a three-part series on Africa. The second instalment, The Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, will appear on Saturday, Jan. 21. The third will appear on Saturday, Feb. 4.
My penchant is for sleeping, not humanitarianism. My resume as a seasoned snoozer overwhelms my credentials as helper of fellow man.
So why travel halfway ’round the world to the deep corners of tropical Africa, overcome by fatigue and jet lag, into malaria-infested jungle on a 14-day journey to help the poor and underprivileged? God only knows. But here we were, fresh off two nine-hour overnight flights (with a short stop off in London, England) in Kenya, 10 time zones from Red Deer.
The first morning began as a proper tourist trip should: a glorious sunrise safari along the shores of Lake Nakuru National Park. Precocious baboons greeted us at the park gate, scrambling through open van windows in search of food, oblivious to our hysterical concerns.
Our guide hustled the audacious primates out the door and a slow bumpy ramble along the lakeshore began. Thousands of flamingos and pelicans gave the water’s edge a pink hue. The flocks scattered in a burst of magenta as dangerous cape buffalo trampled shoreward through thick mud, seeking a morning bath. Timid Thompson gazelles and tiny dik-dik antelope, wary of leopards, darted from our vehicle’s advance. On the horizon an endangered white rhinoceros and her calf trotted past a solitary acacia tree.
After the safari, breakfast.
At 9:30 a.m., we were bumping our way toward a remote Kenyan orphanage founded by an Australian couple. Ralph and May Spinks adopted their first African child 14 years ago. The East African Mission Orphanage (EAMO) now houses over 200 children ranging in age from two to 20. Many of the children were orphaned by AIDS. Some are HIV positive. We shared a box lunch with these enthusiastic, happy kids. Delighted boys strummed my ever-present ukulele. A realization struck: watching these lads make awkward music was as entertaining as the sight of a herd of zebras grazing the savannah.
We were in Kenya with A Better World. Our exuberant leader Eric Rajah is the organization’s co-founder. The goals were to visit existing projects (schoolrooms, dorms, water wells), conduct medical clinics, consider the wisdom of starting new endeavours and, not least importantly, enjoy the splendour of Africa.
Fifty-three Canadians from various walks of life made the journey. One group boasted a medical background: doctors, a dentist, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists. This contingent was tireless and invested much of their two week African “holiday” attending to the needs of the desperately poor and sick. The rest of us assisted where we could — fancy law degrees pretty much useless — taking on more mundane tasks like “crowd control.”
Eric’s approach is unique and impressive: no middlemen, no bureaucracy. If a community seeks help, A Better World goes straight to the village and offers assistance. A plan is formed and a mutual commitment agreed upon. We didn’t bring our hammers. Locals attend to construction. They are capable and need the work. Funds are advanced as the project progresses. Happily, many of these undertakings are located near world-class safari destinations. We could visit communities in need and view animals in native habitat the same day.
After two days with our young EAMO friends, we left Nakuru and headed west over, around and through roads that could be labeled horrific — but that would be flattering. In a few hours, we reached the community of Sitwoet for the ribbon-cutting of new school-rooms — funded by two of our fellow travellers.
Bouncing our way into the village, we were greeted by the laughing faces of children dressed in bright school uniform — one of the few positive remnants of British colonialism. The youngsters sat politely in the equatorial sun while dignitaries waxed philosophical. After a formal offering of Fanta soft drinks, we jolted our way off to the Kenyan Highlands.
The Tea Hotel is situate in Kericho, a town hugging the highlands overlooking the Great Rift Valley of western Kenya. As its name suggests, the hotel was originally part of a tea plantation, built in the 1950s by the giant international Brooke Bond Co.
Today the hotel is a faded remnant of its former self. Staff politely serve tea in the grand reception room while wallpaper quietly peels in the humid African afternoon. Quaintly, hotel showers rely on electricity to heat water. An aging chord hangs overhead, tentatively attached to the shower head. When the tap is turned, tepid water and a blue shorting flicker spit downward. Unwilling to suffer the indignity of electrocution while standing naked in an African bathtub, I took to wearing Crocs while showering.
Africa is a continent of enormous contrast, geographically, politically and economically. While there are some rich, a middle class seems non-existent. But the poor are everywhere; the great majority survive on wages of about $100 a month. Ironically, tourist amenities are frighteningly expensive. Hotels are often $300 a night. Park fees are $60 per person per day. As one of our group put it, “In Africa it’s either Five Star or No Star.” A load of (urgently needed) laundry cost us almost 50 bucks. A one-hour balloon ride over the savannah was $425. Someone in Africa is pocketing big margin!
Muhamed, our Kenyan driver, told me that Kenya’s biggest problems are tribalism and corruption. Tribalism explains why long-standing leaders wear out their welcome long before giving up power: a new regime could mean transferring favouritism to another tribe.
Corruption is also systemic. Most Kenyans get around by matatu: small vans seating 14 — in a vehicle we Canadians wouldn’t think fit to seat six. When police flag down a matatu there are often 18 or more people on board. That’s OK. The policeman fines the driver half the extra fare and pockets the cash. But the honest matatu driver is in trouble. If he carries the legal limit, he can’t be fined for crowding so the policeman will inspect lights, tires, wipers, etc. and extract money in this fashion. Most matatus we saw were jammed to exploding.
We left the Kenyan Highlands and drove south to the famous Masai Mara National Reserve, part of the huge Serengeti plain, which extends into Tanzania. Our quest was to observe the Big Five. We had seen rhinos and cape buffalo at Nakuru so the group was giddy when on our first sunrise trip into the Masai Mara we were treated to the final three: the huge bulk of a bull elephant crossing our muddy path, a leopard feasting in a tree and a male’s mane nuzzling a lioness. We watched jaws agape from the safety of our safari van.
Back at the lodge, I immediately headed for the gift shop to acquire an overpriced I Saw The Big Five T-shirt to flaunt in front of my envious friends freezing back in Canada.
On his first visit to the Masai Mara in 1999, Eric Rajah noticed a young man teaching a group of children under a tree near the village of Telek, just outside the park gate. The shade of an umbrella acacia was Jacob’s classroom. Today thanks to A Better World, the school has real walls, running water and 400 students.
But cultural and economic issues haunt the Masai. The gruesome practice of adult circumcision is still prevalent — for both men and women.
Jacob is married and a father now. His monthly teacher’s salary is 70,000 Kenyan shillings — about $80. He pays a herder 40,000 shillings to tend his 10 cows and 20 goats. With what’s left, Jacob must feed his young family plus five siblings — Jacob’s mother died recently, leaving them in his care.
Traditionally, Masai survive on a diet of meat, blood and milk, all supplied by the cow. When I asked, “Why not sell the animals rather than spend half your salary having them tended?” Jacob, an educated man, answered simply, “Without cows, a Masai man is nothing.”
Some Kenyan beliefs, while scientifically debatable are nevertheless laudable. Few Kenyans smoke. They believe tobacco makes a man impotent. Perhaps Health Canada should capture this image on cigarette packages?
Africa is not for everyone. If you like ice with your drinks you may want to give the Dark Continent a pass. If, like me, you react poorly to anti-malarial medication — and wind up enduring psychotic nightmares — Africa may not be your cup of chai. But if you are seeking an extraordinary experience, remarkable wildlife viewing coupled with the unique cultural opportunity afforded by helping at the grassroots level, A Better World is where it’s at.
On our last African night together, soaking in the sultry heat of Mombasa on Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast, Eric summarized, “Our group is voluntary, imperfect and collective.”
A Better World is not going to save the planet or solve its myriad problems. But as Eric Rajah, whom I affectionately refer to as the humanitarian schmoozer, says, “We can throw up our hands or we can raise them up.”
I wouldn’t say that my time in Africa has made this a better world. But I am confident that the efforts of my fellow travellers has. And I am humbled by their example.
Gerry Feehan is a retired lawyer, avid traveller and photographer, who will also be master of ceremonies at the Red Deer Justice Film Festival that runs from Jan. 20 to 22. He lives in Red Deer. For more of Gerry’s travel adventures, please visit www.gnfeehan.blogspot.com.