Out of Africa: Nairobi, Kenya

Where once the Maasai came to water their cattle, now 2 million people live in the metropole that's Kenya's capital city of Nairobi. It's where Karen Blixen lived her novel 'Out of Africa' and where wildlife roams near the city limits.

Out of Africa: Nairobi, Kenya

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by mooncross on June 7, 2002

Go shopping for souvenirs. Be prepared to buy something; it's virtually impossible to keep turning down the insistent sellers. Bartering is mandatory, and can be a lot of fun.${QuickSuggestions} Visit Karen Blixen's mansion (details in journal), feed the giraffes at Giraffe Manor (details in journal), observe wildlife in Nairobi National Park (not in journal - a perfect alternative to an extensive safari). ${BestWay} It's not advisable to go city-tripping by yourself, especially not if you're female, and certainly not by night! Make use of taxis, or try to find a guide. Hotel reception personnel will be able to advise you on the best way to get around. Public transport is available in the form of small minivans, called matatus.

Safari Park Hotel

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by mooncross on June 7, 2002

Barbecue and bagpipes

"Some zebra, ma'am?" A meter high spit is placed point down on the hot plate in front of me. The meat is still sizzling from the barbecue fire. "Yes, please," I nod at the waiter and with a sharp knife he cuts off a slice that falls onto my plate.

We are enjoying an African barbecue in the hotel restaurant. Chicken, beef and lamb are on the menu. And also more exotic meats like zebra, gazelle and crocodile. We, the guests, do not have to do any barbecuing; no, here the meat is being cooked on large spits over an enormous fire, overseen by several cooks. The telltale scent of barbecue can be smelled a mile off.

I take a cautious bite of the meat on my plate, and decide that zebra is not quite my thing. Too tough. The others agree. Gazelle and giraffe, on the other hand, are quite delicious. Crocodile tastes oddly like fish.

Halfway through dinner, the most incongruous sound one can imagine hearing in Africa startles us: it is the sound of Scottish bagpipes! Four pipers march onto the restaurant grounds (no walls, just a roof to keep the rains out) and play well-known classics. They seem to march back and forth between this restaurant and the other eating-place on the premises of the Safari Park Hotel, delighting the diners with their music. Not quite what one would expect in an African restaurant.

The after-dinner show, however, is more in tune with our surroundings and the gentle late night air. A troupe of some two dozen dancers gives a whirling performance that is a mixture of tribal dance, modern ballet, and acrobatics.

All in all, this dinner was quite the experience. It is exemplary for the way guests are treated and spoiled in the Safari Park Hotel. The hotel also has a large outdoor pool, a casino and shops on the premises.

Safari Park Hotel And Casino
Kasarani on Thika Rd.
Nairobi, Kenya
+254 (20) 862222

Karen Blixen Museum

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by mooncross on June 7, 2002

The manor surprised me by being larger than I had expected. And it is cool inside, despite the hot sun that burns twelve hours a day on its roof. We took a short walk through the gardens; the sheer size of the various cacti and agaves awed us. The agaves are taller than myself; a cactus of the kind that might decorate a window sill back home grows five, six meters high without effort.

Meryl Streep gave her a face in the movie, but it was Karen Blixen's own words in her books 'Letters from Africa,' 'Shadows in the Grass,' and 'Out of Africa' that made her famous. Her house is now a museum in the suburb of Karen in Nairobi.

Baroness Karen Blixen moved to Africa in 1914. At the foot of Ngong hills, she established herself as a farmer. After her departure in 1931, the suburbs retained the commemorative home of Karen.

At independence, the Danish government donated the house and the surrounding land to Kenya. The house was restored by the Danish government and was used during the filming of 'Out of Africa'. The museum was opened to the public in 1986.

The house built in 1910 has a red tile roof and mellow wood paneling in the rooms. When Baroness Karen Blixen bought the property in 1917, it had 6,000 acres of land. Only 600 acres were developed for growing coffee; the rest was retained under natural forest.

Much of the original furniture is on display in the house. The aim here is to take an individual back in time and provide a visual impression of settler life in Kenya.

Karen Blixen Museum
Museum Hill
Nairobi, Kenya

Giraffe Manor

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by mooncross on June 7, 2002

At the Manor, visitors are allowed to feed the giraffes. Their long, wet tongues beg for crumbs of food. A raised platform puts us at eye-level with the animals, who are incredibly tall when viewed up close. The giraffe is the tallest land animal, often reaching a height of five meters.

The Giraffe Manor, built in 1932 by Sir David Duncan, is situated on 120 acres of land just a few miles from the centre of Nairobi, Kenya's capital city.

In 1974 Jock Leslie Melville, grandson of a Scottish earl, and his wife Betty, who also founded the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW), bought the Manor. They then moved five babies of the highly endangered Rothschild giraffe to their property where they have been successfully reared and now have their own babies.

In the wild, a giraffe can live for up to 26 years. They mainly feed by browsing in the tree canopy of wooded grasslands. Drinking is hard for the giraffe, who has to kneel to reach the water. That's why they only drink every two or three days.

Giraffe Manor
A few miles outside the center
Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi souvenir shopping: an experience in itself

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by mooncross on June 15, 2002

Walking? On foot? Two girls, alone? In Nairobi? Shocked, the receptionist's eyes flick from me to D. and back. We have just asked her if she knows about walking tours in the city of Nairobi, and she is appalled. Apparently, walking is for the poor in Africa, and certainly not an activity fit for a couple of white, female tourists. A bit shyly, not wanting to alarm us, she warns us to be careful about wearing watches and earrings.

We explain that that is the precise reason why we want to have a guide along on our intended walk. We point to the rest of our group: my parents and brother. The nice lady at the reception breathes a little easier when she realizes D. and I did not intend to go walking by ourselves but with a whole group, including two men. Still, it is a daunting prospect.

She promises to make some phonecalls and see what she can arrange for us. Some ten minutes later she waves us over. For US$40 each, she can offer us a city tour, a trip to the National Museum and to the Snake Farm. Dana and I exchange a look. This is exactly what we hoped to avoid: another tourist excursion. To make matters worse, the exact same trip was offered upon our arrival for US$20. Kenya must suffer from heavy inflation.

We shake our heads and again try to explain to the receptionist that we want to experience some of the city, and not the museums; we have plenty of museums at home. She blinks when we inform her of last night's 20-dollar offer and goes back to the phones.

In the end it takes a direct conversation between D. and the tour operator on the other end of the line, but then we have an offer that suits our purpose and budget. For 70 US$ we'll have a driver-guide plus van that will take us to see some of Nairobi's lesser known sights and will guide us for a short walk through the center. We agree, and a short while later the van comes to pick us up.

Our driver's name is Peter, and it's obvious he does not quite know what exactly to do with this bunch of odd tourists. However, he does a good job of pointing out the main sights, passing by the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial several times.

The first stop Peter takes us is the colorful City Market on Muindi Mbingu Street. As soon as we disembark from the van, chaos ensues. People trying to convince us to visit their shops surround us and clamor for attention. According to Peter, most of them are (unpaid) helpers that will ask the shop's owner for a percentage when they convince you to buy something from that particular shop.

A woman pushes a tattered notebook in front of me. "Money for school," she explains, and I see a long list of foreign names and places, with amounts of 100 Kshs or 200 Kshs beside them. I doubt the money will actually be used for education, but it's a clever scheme and I do have a couple of small bills in my possession. I sign her notebook, musing that at the very least she'll have an interesting list of foreigners that visited, and hand her a bill.

A young man tells me his name is Aisak - and I probably misspelled that. He owns a shop, he says, and will give me a good price for whatever I desire. "Do you have a writing pen?" he asks. "A pen?" My eyebrows raise in confusion. "Yes, I have a pen." "Good, you give me a pen and I'll give you a good price," he tells me.

I have a vague and blurred memory of ascending stairs before going inside a building where the City Market is located. Everyone in my group has been 'adopted' by a couple of Kenyans and is shown the wares of the various stores. Aisak leads me to his store, a small alcove somewhere in the City Market. He points at the merchandise. Soapstone sculptures and woodcarvings stare down at me from shelves lining the walls. "All made by hand," the owner tells me proudly, "no machines." He asks what I want. Candles? Or animals? The choice is widely varied. Lions, leopards, giraffes. "I'd like an elephant," I tell Aisak, remembering that I planned to bring home another for my collection.

A dozen helpful hands fill mine with elephants in all shapes and sizes. Made of ebony, rosewood, or other materials. A foot-high elephant of a deep-red wood catches my attention. I only have to glance at it or someone grabs it and sets it on the floor at my feet. "Rosewood," I'm told, and someone else demonstrates that the tusks can be removed for securer transport home. Aisak pulls over a low stool and I sit down. Negotiations can begin.

Aisak writes a number on a piece of paper. 15.500 Kshs. I glance at the Shilling-to-Euro conversion table I brought along and swallow. I make a counter offer that in retrospect is way too low. But hey, I just got here! I have no idea what I'm doing, no idea how much money I want to spend on a souvenir, and hardly any clue how much a Kenyan Shilling is worth. Realizing this, Aisak changes the bidding process to US dollars. At least a currency I can understand without too much mathematics.

M. wanders past. "Are you negotiating?" my brother asks and grins when he sees me sitting on the low stool with the elephant at my feet. "I think so," I reply. I ask Dana how much she thinks I should pay for the elephant. She has no clue. H. drops by. "Fifty guilders," she ventures when I ask her advice. I know that's too little; the gap with Aisak's offer is too wide. In the meantime, three or four Kenyans have gotten involved in trying to convince me how much the carving is worth. I do believe them when they tell me that rosewood, like ebony, is a valuable wood. The sheer weight of the elephant proves the validity of their statement.

Their arguments are hard to resist. Am I buying this souvenir for someone else? In that case, why not get a crude, orangy elephant, two inches high? Or am I buying for myself? Then I should spend a little money. Am I not worth it? "Remember," a young man tells me, "someday you may get married, and you show your children the elephant." I'm not even surprised he's already noticed I don't wear a ring.

In the end, we agree on a price of 75 US$. Time to pay, and a new problem arises. Slight consternation when I inform Aisak I'm not carrying that much money around on my person, but that I need a bank first. It's Sunday, and the market is about to close. "ATM?" he asks hopefully, and relieved I nod. Yes, an ATM would help.

"Come," he waves, while other eager hands start wrapping the elephant in a newspaper. I follow him, outside the market building, along a Nairobi street, to a Visa ATM machine. I withdraw the money, pay him on the spot and he takes me back to the market. The rest of the group, surrounded by happy merchants, comes to meet us. I receive a heavy package, wrapped in paper and plastic, and two thin wood tusks. Realizing I have lost sight of my purchase for a while, and with the suspicious part of my brain telling me that this is an easy way to con an unsuspecting tourist, I try to ascertain that it is the rosewood elephant that's inside all the paper and tape. It does have an elephantine shape and I shrug. In any case, it was fun!

My suspicions were unfounded; it was indeed my elephant in the package. It survived the ten-day safari without sustaining damage and is now proudly decorating my living room. The 'writing pen' never got mentioned again.

A visit with the Maasai

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by mooncross on June 15, 2002

The words of the song in the Maa language of the Maasai are incomprehensible to my ears. I look down the long line of young men and women who are welcoming us and am somewhat relieved to see my mild embarrassment at this (paid) visit mirrored on a few of the faces.

It is the middle of the day; the sun is high and hot in a clear blue sky and in the distance the peaks of the Kilimanjaro are still visible through the haze of dust and heat. Mohamed has taken us to visit a Maasai homestead, or inkangitie, in the vicinity of the Amboseli lodge (a few hours from Nairobi). The Maasai strive to retain as much of their culture as they possibly can in this modern day and age. Yet, at the same time, sharing that culture and demonstrating it to eager tourists is a source of much-needed income. The combination makes a visit with the Maasai a strange mixture of hospitality, intercultural exchange, mutual curiosity and economic pay-offs.

A part of me is very interested to see a little bit of a lifestyle that is so alien to my western mind. Another part is anxious about doing or saying something that might be considered offensive. I wish I had learned more before coming here.

Our guide and translator will be Nicholas Karaine. He learned English in a missionary school. Before we enter the village, he says, the song welcomes us, and a prayer will be offered.

Once the rituals are over, we follow Nicholas through the long-thorned acacia fence into the village grounds. It is basically a circle of small cabins, surrounded by the fence and enclosing a couple of small trees that provide shade. Nicholas explains the program of our visit: we will be allowed inside one of the houses, and will be shown how the Maasai make fire. Because we paid the fee, we can take as many pictures as we like - doesn't mean I didn't usually ask first.

While the men and women of the welcoming committee go about their business -until the next vanload of tourists arrives- Nicholas shows us around and leads us toward a small hut, an inkajijik. It is build of tree branches and cemented with a mixture of cowdung, dirt and urine. Seen up close, it actually looks pretty sturdy.

The Maasai are a nomadic people. They herd their cattle where there is food and water. If it rains twenty kilometers further on, they will relocate their village and abandon their houses to simply build a new one. House building is a woman's work and it depends on the skill of the woman how long it takes to finish. "Could take a month, could be much faster," Nicholas says.

We crouch and follow him inside. It is gloomy; the only light filters in through the doorway and a small hole in the roof, which acts as a chimney. While our eyes grow used to the darkness, Nicholas explains that the Maasai are polygamous: a man can have more than one wife. But, he says, every wife builds her own house, and the husband will move from one home to another.

We chat some more about the differences in our marital cultures. "What if husband and wife don't get along?" D. asks. "Do they divorce?" Nicholas looks shocked. Divorces, it turns out, are very rare. The couple will just have to learn to get along as best as they can.

Back outside, Nicholas collects a couple of the men. It is time to show us how to make fire when you have no matches or a lighter. Tools are used; a flat piece made of a soft wood with holes in it, and a hard-wooded stick. A little clod of dried dung is broken apart and some straw is placed nearby. One of the men sets to work, twirling the stick between his hands and causing friction with the plank. When he tires, another man is ready to take over. In a few minutes smoke is drifting up. The fire maker kneels close and blows gently upon the dung, adds some straw and blows again. The smoke thickens and billows white. Then, although expected, a sudden yellow flame leaps up.

"Is it difficult to do?" we want to know. Nicholas grins and says, "For us, it's not difficult." We laugh. We would be so lost without our electricity and central heating and gas stove.

Nicholas points to a young man. "He is a doctor," he says. "He learned medicine from his father, who was also a doctor but who is now retired." Nicholas continues to explain how the Maasai treat malaria. The cure sounds as unpleasant as the disease itself and I make a firm resolution to not forget my prophylaxis.

Nicholas introduces his wife and child. We ask where the other children are, having noticed that there are only young men and women in sight. "They are in school," he says and points to a wood shed some hundred meters away from the village. "Would you like to see the school?"

Of course we would.

Nicholas precedes us to the small building and waves us inside. Two dozen small faces curiously look back at us. We have interrupted their English lesson and on the blackboard are exercises: words preceded by 'an' or 'a'?

Their teacher (whose name I sadly forgot) asks the children, ranging in age from 2.5 to 6 years old, to sing a welcoming song. A girl stands up and begins a tune. The other children fall in.

The children demonstrate their knowledge of mathematics, science and English as their teacher asks the class some questions. The days of the week, the months of the year, the sources of light. The pupils, like children everywhere in the world, are eager to show off what they have learned. They raise their hands as high in the air as possible, before the question is even finished.

Their teacher explains that up until several months ago, the school was located in the shade of an acacia tree. With the help of donations, they built this small, one-room building that will protect the children from the elements. Now that they mention it, I realize that the school building does look brand new.

Books and pens are another matter that is hard to obtain, Nicholas explains. Lesson plans are difficult to find and have to be bought in Nairobi (a three-hour drive away) whenever there is a donation. H. had the foresight to put several spare pens in her purse that morning and digs them out to hand them over to the school's teacher.

The children sing a goodbye song before we depart and we thank them.


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