Last summer I traveled to Kenya with a group of fellow members of Friends of Woni to the areas we have done water projects, and supported education programs. Evie is proud of the work we do in Kenya and loves to show it off in person and through her travel outfit, Vision Adventure Safaris, she has been bringing people from around the world to visit our projects on the ground for a decade. This life-changing trip allowed me to connect with the amazing and inspiring members of Friends of Woni. And of course, no trip to East Africa is complete without going on safari, so we had a chance to get close to wildlife at Amboseli, Sweetwaters, Great Rift Valley and in the Masai Mara.
Since I returned people have always asked how it was like to go on the trip and I tell them the experience transformed me in varied ways. I saw Kenya in many ways, through the locals set of eyes, a useful reminder, worth having, that what I saw on the trip is not the only angle. I was looking at this part of the world out of a window and also immersing ourselves with the communities to gain a firsthand perspective with the locals, there was warmth, and a wealth of knowledge that emerged that was timeless when I learned their way of life and saw intricately what some have to go through to meet their basic needs.
On the first day we drove the Salama Community, 95 miles from Nairobi adjacent to the Mombasa highway. After an hour’s drive we diverted from the highway into an off terrain road which led us to the Tangu Preschool. En-route we come across a shallow dam that holds seasonal rain waters, and William explained how it’s used for watering cattle and we saw how the locals bring with them 5 gallon containers to draw the same waters, and carry to their homes for consumption and domestic use. The scenario got more drastic during dry spells when the dam dries up and further distances have to be covered by both cattle and people to get water, he explained.
Minutes later we arrived at the Tangu Preschool and we found some of the parents who were made aware of our coming waiting for us at the school grounds. They welcomed with a high-energy, singing and dancing and afterwards the young children got out of their classroom for their mid-morning break. We shared some good minutes with them on the play grounds before converging in one of their classrooms for some mid-morning chai tea and snacks. Alfred explained the developments that the preschool has been able to make since they started getting support from Friends of Woni International a year ago. The mothers of the children presented us with special gifts before we left to visit a water site that Friends of Woni has been supporting in the community and thereafter having a delicious lunch meal at one of the local homes. It was a joyous occasion for most of us and we found it very welcoming.
Our next community to visit was in Machakos. Agriculture is the mainstay of this local community but it’s regularly haunted by long drought seasons. We made a brief stop at the Kyamwili Hill for a demonstration of how Isaac Newton’s law of gravity has been defied on this hill - water poured on the road flowed upwards instead of downwards which was quite a sight to behold. Our next two stops were at Kyaani Primary School and Kyaani High School, we had a chance to meet with some of the teachers and students. The high school is one that is new in the area and has been built by the community members through fundraising, land donations and construction material by the members. We also went to the site of the magical well which Friends of Woni drilled a couple of years ago, and John Kaindi took us through the progress they have made and told us, “If it’s not pumped for a day and a half, it starts trickling over the top.” That’s how prolific the well has been with its primary water capacity.
Our next destination was Amboseli in the southern region. On our drive we caught occasional glimpses of wondrous miniature fortresses made of brown mud. These so called "Manyatta" are typical for the remote Amboseli region in the south eastern Kenya. This is the land of the Maasai, a tribe, known for their nomadic style of life which has remained essentially unchanged for centuries and their daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing their cattle. Much of its magic is derived from the fact that it is towered over the snow-capped bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro which, at 5,896 meters, above sea level is Africa’s highest mountain. Comparatively compact, the area is dotted with a series of bright green swamps, in which great herds of elephants can often be seen half-submerged amongst the papyrus grasses.
We visited the community with which Friends of Woni International has established initiatives which was located just a short drive from Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. A relatively small and roughly circular settlement, centered on a brushwood cattle boma (enclosure) and numbers just a few long low mud huts, which cluster around a central rocky area where all community life takes place. On arrival we were greeted by a pair of Maasai elders, before the village members welcomed us with chanting songs and a competitive leaping was staged by the Maasai men.
The elders offered a demonstration on how the Maasai traditionally kindle fire, before we were invited to enter a traditional hut. They walked us to the water well that was drilled by Friends of Woni a few years back, and showed us how the equipment functions and we drank from it. They also led us to their preschool which has about 60 children and we had a chance to meet them in class. At the end of the visit, which lasted around two hours, we were invited to visit a simple handicrafts market laid out on the open with some utterly authentic and beautiful examples of their traditional beadwork by the Maasai women.
After two days we left Amboseli and drove to Sweetwaters Conservancy, situated between the foot hills of the Aberdares and the magnificent snow-capped peaks of Mount Kenya, a wilderness that boasts an astounding variety of wildlife, including all the members of the ‘Big Five' (the endangered black and white rhino, leopard, elephant, buffalo and lion).
The conservancy offers sanctuary to a number of endangered species, most notably the black rhino, rare Gravy’s zebra and the Beisa Oryx as well as the only sanctuary for rescued chimpanzees.
We learnt how as the largest black rhino sanctuary in Kenya, the conservancy is at the forefront of the present conservation initiatives and already runs a number of revolutionary tracking and monitoring schemes. Additionally, the conservancy is working towards contributing a further 75,000 acres of prime black rhino habitat towards the national conservation programme.
We visited Solomon’s curio center, and on arrival we were met by him. His sense of social consciousness, and collaborative nature led him to establish this shop and employed a team of 11 carvers and shop assistants. Here we watched the hand carvers produce the beautiful unique carvings from the workshop area and assorted souvenirs that are displayed in the shop. We shared stories about the process involved in sourcing the raw material, and the making as well as our varied backgrounds which was quite interesting to learn from.
After two days we drove to the Great Rift Valley, here we spent two days exploring the Lake Elmentaita and Bogoria both of which contain some of the very interesting biotopes in the 5,592 miles long fissure in the earth’s surface that extends from the Lebanon to Mozambique and then across Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa. Lake Bogoria specifically had its large numbers of flamingos which are a breathtaking spectacle to watch and were praised by the famous geologist and scientist, John Walter Gregory as, "The most fascinating sight in Africa".
We descended the Great Rift Valley escarpment to the Maasai town of Narok before taking, “The hell road to haven” as it’s known for its rough terrain leading to the magnificent Masai Mara.
We spent 3 days here at the ILkeliani Camp, a small camp designed with a blend of the old traditional safari style with a modern and fresh feel.
In addition to action-packed game drives inside the reserve of Masai Mara, I learnt that ILkeliani Camp supports the sustenance of the surrounding villages by providing professional jobs and putting their members through an education in the art of hospitality and service industry. Many of the staff who have been at the camp for a number of years spoke a variety of languages as well.
We returned to Nairobi where we met with William’s family for lunch at the Carnivore Restaurant, the ultimate ‘Beast of a Feast’ nice place to celebrate our farewell meal in Kenya. We made a visit to the Giraffe Center where we hand-fed the endangered Rothschild Giraffe species, here they’ve had a breeding program which has been very successful over many years and the center has managed to transfer over 600 of the giraffes to the wild parks of Kenya. From here, on our way to the airport we made a stop at the Utamaduni Craft Center to repack our bags and picked a few items before heading to the airport for our homebound flight later in the evening.