Tag Archives: Kenya

More Than Just Big Game

Mention Kenya to just about anyone and one word comes to mind–safari.  Most packaged tours of this East African nation consist of an endless series of visits to big game parks, with perhaps a day or two in Nairobi for souvenir shopping and nightlife. Sadly, these types of tours overlook a superb opportunity available to the African traveler–learning first-hand about the evolution of Homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man.

Anthropologists generally agree that humans first appeared on Earth in the Great Rift Valley, a scar on the landscape running more than 1,500 miles from the Middle East to southern Africa.  Most important hominid remains were unearthed in the East African section, which bisects Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania. Numerous archeological sites are located in this region, and they are often staffed by professionals eager to explain to the visitor how finds from this site contributed to our knowledge of human evolution. Given that my wife and I were in Kenya on a working vacation and would be there for well over three months, we were not about to make this mistake. We talked to my faculty colleagues at the University of Nairobi who suggested a few important  historical sites that would be both fun and informative.

So, with our trusty road map and spare auto parts in hand, Ruth and I piled into our 10-year old rented Nissan, hoping that the engine was in better shape than the bald tires and rusted body.  We headed out from Nairobi deep into the Rift Valley to visit Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, a 52-acre national park built around an archeological dig first excavated by Drs. Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1940s.  Only 60 miles from Nairobi, it has been lovingly preserved as a field museum, complete with early hominid tools and fossils of extinct animals displayed in situ–exactly as they appeared when first uncovered.  A wooden catwalk encircles a prehistoric living area that includes a fire pit and the fossil remains of a 1.2 million year old hominid dinner. Paleontology students from the University of Nairobi conduct tours of the site explaining the significance of the artifacts and fossils on display.  Since so few tourists make it this way (Ruth and I were the only visitors that entire day) the student guides will spend as much time with you as you want and will even invite you to join them for lunch–an offer we happily accepted.  Similar prehistoric sites are found throughout the region, including Kariandusi, Koobi Fora, and Olduvai, across the border in Tanzania).

All too often African guided tours are geared for what a tour agency believes visitor want to see, not what they actually might like to see if they were aware of all available options.   Many places believe that if  you photograph the big five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, rhino) your African trip has been a complete success, regardless of what other possibilities were overlooked.  One of the great thing about a working vacation is that your itinerary is not predetermined; instead, you have time to meet and talk with locals, learn about the country and what it has to offer, and discover some interesting, but perhaps lesser known, tourism gems.   That is exactly what happened to us as we enjoyed some of the amazing archeological venues of East Africa.  Combining these visits with our tours of Kenya’s superb game parks (yes, we did see the big five and much more) added greatly to the joys of our 3+ month Kenyan working vacation.

(Read more about our adventures living and working in Kenya in On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying.)

Poverty Tourism

(This article first appeared on June 30, 2010. I thought it was interesting enough to warrant a “rerun” and hope you will agree.)

A friend from Minneapolis gave us the name of a former parish priest, Father George, who left his pulpit in Minnesota to work with the Missionaries of Charity in Nairobi, a worldwide organization established by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Mother Teresa.  Its volunteers, both lay and clergy, are committed to helping the neediest members of society—lepers, AIDS sufferers, street children, the homeless. Soon after our arrival in Kenya for a three-month working vacation, we contacted Father George who invited us to join him as he made the rounds of Kibera, a place utterly unimaginable to anyone who has not traveled outside the first world.

Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi and the second largest in Africa. It covers only one square mile but is home to one million people, a population density greater than that of Mumbai, the most densely populated city in the world. Dilapidated dwellings sit cheek-to-jowl and rise atop mounds of rotting garbage and human waste. Due to the absence of sewers and drains these residences flood during the rainy season and must be completely rebuilt every year. Although Kibera is geographically within the city of Nairobi, it is not really part of it as the police refuse to enter, and it has no access to basic city services such as water, sanitation, and electricity.

We spent the day in Kibera with Father George, distributing food and medical supplies, participating in last rites for the dying, drinking tea, and talking with residents. It was a disturbing but highly enlightening experience. The dominant emotions in Kibera are not anger and despair but determination and persistence. Residents go to Herculean efforts—for example, walking two hours each way to low paying jobs in the central city—to improve their lot and provide for their children. Hearing these stories made me embarrassed by my emotional reaction to our simple apartment with its lumpy mattresses and bare light bulbs. It also made my wife and me mindful of why these working vacations were becoming such an important part of our lives–when you work in a country you not only have a wonderful time but also a culturally and personally enriching experience.

View of the Slums of Kibera

One word of caution, though. Our visit was by invitation of someone living and working in Kibera. He wanted us to experience conditions in the slums, bring that knowledge back to the United States, and share it with students and faculty at my school, which I did.   At the time of our visit my wife and I were among a tiny handful of Western visitors to spend time in those squalid streets. The situation today is completely different because of a new form of niche travel called poverty tourism available from agencies, large and small, around the world.  These companies provide comfortable, safe, and fully narrated bus tours of not only Kibera but the slums of Calcutta, townships of South Africa, shantytowns of Mexico City, and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the last few years slum visits have become a popular form of day tripping as travelers grow bored of a standard tourist menu heavy on museums, beaches, galleries, and boutiques.

Proponents of these tours cite the educational experience of learning about conditions in the slums. They claim they are providing desperately needed jobs for bus drivers and tour guides as well as creating opportunities for residents to sell locally made handicrafts. They also believe the embarrassment of tourists witnessing horrific living conditions just a few miles from their own luxury accommodations will pressure local politicians into cleaning up these horrific neighborhoods.  However, opponents argue it is simply a way for unscrupulous travel agents to make money off the humiliation and desperation of others, and there is precious little education to be gained snapping photos of shantytowns from a bus window.  An editorial in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper, castigated movie stars, well-heeled businessmen, and other dignitaries for their fascination with slums like Kibera, perhaps fueled by the popularity of the movie The Constant Gardener in which the neighborhood played a starring role.

It is quite possible that a future working vacation will take you and your family to impoverished  or developing nations, much like this trip to Kenya as well as our later stays in Nepal, Borneo,  and Mongolia. Poverty tourism is a moral issue you need to think about and resolve in your mind as you mull over proffered visits to urban slums, charity hospitals, leper colonies, and other places of poverty, pain, and despair. Of course there is no universal answer to this dilemma, and you will need to decide each case individually based on the goals of the visit, the benefits it brings to residents, and whether you and your family will learn and grow from this intensely emotional experience.

Damn, These Kids Are Good!

One topic I have studiously avoided is my experience in overseas classrooms. This was a conscious decision as nothing could more quickly dampen enthusiasm for this blog than a few indecipherable pages of computer science minutia–even my wife starts to snooze when I begins waxing rhapsodic about a new assignment in my Data Structures course.   However, there is one misconception I need to raise and quickly put to rest—the quality of students you will encounter in a developing economy such as Zimbabwe (at least when we were there) or an even poorer third-world nation like Kenya.

One would naturally expect outstanding students at a top-tier university in countries like England, Australia, Israel, and Japan. Turkey, a NATO ally, could also rightfully be assumed to have high quality university programs filled with excellent students.   However, many North American and European faculty would shy away from working vacation opportunities in places like Kenya or Zimbabwe assuming, incorrectly, that students will be unprepared, facilities will be prehistoric, and the level of instruction will barely rise above that of grade school.  Let me assure you that this assumption is utterly wrong!

While some of the more costly resources—e.g., scientific equipment, journal collections—are often not at the level of a comparable facility in Europe or the United States, the students in both Kenya and Zimbabwe were uniformly excellent, not just smart but some of the most enthusiastic and hardest working I have had in three decades of teaching, and there is a simple explanation.

Kenya has a population of roughly forty million, with a larger percentage of its citizens of college age (18–25) than the United States. However, the country has only nineteen institutions of higher education, amounting to about one for every two million residents–the equivalent of my home state of Minnesota having only three colleges and universities.  In fact, it has 32!  This relative dearth of tertiary institutions makes admission extremely competitive, so top schools like the University of Nairobi attract the best and brightest students in the country, or at least the best and brightest who do not attend college overseas. The majority of students in my classes at the University of Nairobi and UZ would succeed and, in many cases, flourish, at a good U.S. school.

The Main Gate to the Campus of the University of Nairobi, One of the Finest Schools in East Africa

Furthermore, because they know they are among the lucky few to be granted admission, they are eager to make the most of their good fortune by “pumping” teachers for any and all knowledge they can. This was a pleasant change from jaded students back home who treat classes not as unique learning experiences but as hurdles to get over on their way to a high paying job on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Some of my most enjoyable times were spent in the school cafeteria or neighborhood coffee house chatting with students who wanted to continue a discussion even though class had long since ended.

I can only assume this scenario would replicate itself in other disciplines as well.  For example, because of a lack of scientific research centers in most developing nations the research centers that do exist will probably employ the very best scientists the country has to offer;  similarly, with so few outlets available for displaying one’s artistic talent, the musicians, painters, and dancers you work with will likely be highly talented individuals.  And, not only will they be bright and talented, they will be eager to join you in the process of studying, learning, and growing.  I found these types of interactions to be professionally exhilarating and rewarding.

So if you are resisting applying for a working vacation in a lesser developed nation because of fears that you will end up in some primitive, backwater institution without qualified students, capable colleagues, or modern facilities, let me put your mind at ease.   While, in most cases, you will not mistake a school, research lab, or cultural center in a developing nation for Oxford, Los Alamos, or the Met, they should provide a reasonably good level of professional interaction, not to mention a unique and thoroughly enjoyable social and cultural experience.

Sharing The Secrets

As with all previous working vacations, this one ended well before Ruth and I were ready to leave. On that final day in Nairobi my feelings of exuberance and delight were in marked contrast to the tears of uncertainty described in the earlier post Fears and Doubts.   Our going-away dinner at the Carnivore Restaurant, a well-known Nairobi bar and eatery famous for game meat (see photo) was a rousing, rambunctious, and bittersweet affair. During this three-month African sojourn we had made good friends with whom we are still in contact, traveled throughout the region, and saw incomparable sights, both expected–animals, game parks–and completely unexpected–Rift Valley archeology, the vibrant Jewish community, the slums of Kibera. Best of all I was able to contribute to the academic program of the University of Nairobi, learn about life in Kenya, settle in to a comfortable routine, and even begin to feel a bit like a local.

Menu at the Carnivore Restaurant in Nairobi. Note Game Meat Items Such as Zebra, Ostrich, Hartebeest, and Crocodile

When we returned to Minneapolis in early September 1987, my wife and I agreed that this Kenyan adventure had cemented our dedication to long-term travel and convinced us that living and working overseas would be a permanent part of our professional lives. The postings described on these pages—England, Israel, Australia, and now Kenya—had brought us to the point where we were no longer travel “newbies;” no longer intimidated by daily life in a strange, new place. Instead, we were well on our way to gaining a reputation as seasoned, street-savvy world travelers able to adapt to and flourish in a new culture, a reputation those around us were also beginning to notice. Family members, friends, and colleagues began inquiring how I was able to locate, plan, and finance these exotic vacations.  They asked questions about renting out our home, finding overseas accommodations, staying healthy, and traveling safely with young children.  More and more I found myself relating stories and sharing ideas about how they might create their own colorful adventures to their own dream destinations. Thus began my lifelong passion for storytelling and helping others to live and work overseas, a passion that ultimately led me to produce this blog and author the book On The Other Guy’s Dime: A Professional’s Guide To Traveling Without Paying, a combination travel memoir and  “how-to” guide now nearing completion.

Following our return Ruth and I did not promise to duplicate this experience on a fixed schedule as we were well aware that the timing of future working vacations would depend on the vagaries of funding, family, and job availability. However, we did commit to doing everything in our power to locate and take advantage of whatever opportunities might arise, and we pledged ourselves to ensuring that the interval between trips would never become inordinately large.  Fortunately, the next adventure, an all-expenses paid working vacation to Japan, was not too long in coming.

The (Almost) Kenyan Branch of My Family

It is not only President Barack Obama who has Kenyan relatives perched in his family tree;  I almost had some as well.

About a month before our departure from Africa we had our first and only overseas visitor, my sister Karen who came for a two-week stay. Ruth and I drove to the airport to meet her, accompanied by the Computer Science department chair, Dr. Tony Rogrigues, who insisted on joining us to ensure we got there safely. I tried to convince him that if I could navigate forty miles over the Ngong Hills to a remote archeological dig (see It Ain’t Just The Animals, People), and if I could drive  one hundred and twenty miles down to the Tanzanian border (see The Most Beautiful Place on Earth), I could certainly handle the short thirteen mile trip to the airport.  However, Tony remained unconvinced and plopped down in the back seat, not to be moved.

Zanzibar Island Resort Where Tony and My Sister Karen (But Not Us!) Spent Ten Lovely Days

The flight arrived on schedule, customs delays were minimal, and Karen exited the front door of the international arrivals terminal right on time.  On the drive back to our apartment my wife and I could already sense the “sparks” flying between them, both single and about the same age.   Tony joined us for some shopping and sightseeing on Karen’s first full day in town, and their growing closeness became even more noticeable–Ruth and I were already starting to feel like unwelcome third wheels.  Two days later Tony informed us that he and my sister would be flying to the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar for a beach holiday and would return ten days later, only one day before her scheduled return to the United States. So much for the family visit. We never even got a postcard.

Karen returned to Africa the following summer and spent a month in Nairobi, where Tony proposed marriage. However, he was quite adamant that he would not leave his home and teaching job at the university, so if she accepted the offer she would need to sell her condominium in the oceanfront community of Del Mar, California and move to Nairobi—a relocation of staggering proportions.  After agonizing deliberations, including many long and expensive phone calls to us, she decided she could not bring herself to leave her lovely home in California and relocate to Kenya.  At the end of the month she declined his proposal of marriage and returned to the U.S. Too bad; I was looking forward to some rather unique family get-togethers on the plains of the Serengeti.

In the forty or so posts on this blog I have repeatedly asserted that a short-term working vacation can be a life-changing experience for you, your spouse, and children.  In this case, though,  it was almost (but, sadly, not quite) a life-changing experience for my sibling.  I guess that, in the end, you never really know who will benefit from this type of transformative travel experience!

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

The most frequent question I get from friends and family is “What is the most fabulous place you have ever been?”  My stock answer is that I’ve enjoyed them all—exactly the cop-out reply you get from any parent when asked which of their children they love the most.  However, if you were to insist I not weasel out my response would be the Ngorongoro Crater National Park in Tanzania, a hundred-square-mile volcanic caldera encircled by mountains rising two thousand feet above the valley floor.   (Readers:  I would love to receive comments on what you think is the most beautiful place on Earth!)  My wife and I arranged for a tour from a local travel agent, drove 120 miles from Nairobi to the border city of Namanga (in our ancient Nissan), walked through customs, and were met on the Tanzanian side by our tour guide and van.

Example Of The Abundance of Wildlife Found In The Ngorongoro Crater National Park

The Ngorongoro Crater contains more than twenty-five thousand animals, including herds of zebra, gazelle, and wildebeest, large flocks of flamingos, and the important “big five” of all safari goers—rhino, lion, elephant, leopard, and cape buffalo.   We stayed at a lovely hotel perched on the crater’s edge with stunning veranda views of the landscape a half-mile below.

As we descended into the park each morning via a dirt track dropping at a stomach-wrenching 17 percent incline, the feeling was reminiscent of the undiscovered plateau in The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In this case, however, it is not a plateau keeping the animals in but a half-mile high mountain range.  Within its small area, the sunken crater includes a number of environments–lakes, swamps, highland forest, open grassland–that support an enormous range of wildlife.  Although the animals are generally free to migrate in and out of the crater, the area has the feeling of an unfenced enclosure in which the animals have been placed for your viewing pleasure.  In Ngorongoro it would not be uncommon to sit in your vehicle enjoying the sight of a large black rhino while directly behind you a pride of lions is stalking its next meal.  In virtually every direction you gaze you experience a diversity of animal life found nowhere else on earth.

Typical Veranda Views From Hotel Rooms On The Rim Of The Crater

That four-day Tanzanian safari was an unforgettable experience, especially as it was not a long-planned, carefully researched expedition but rather an impromptu “let’s get out of town” jaunt taken during school vacation, much as you might impulsively head to the beach or a lake cabin on a three-day holiday weekend.  Rather than having to pre-plan and pre-book your entire holiday, which can be difficult in an unfamiliar country, a two- or three-month working vacation affords you the time to settle in to a new residence, talk to locals, learn about those special out-of-the-way places that you really must see, and book a tour from a local travel agent at your convenience and at a fraction of the cost. The end result is that your holiday becomes much more like life back home where you may read about an event or see a travel deal advertised in the newspaper and, on a whim, give it a try.  It is a wonderfully  spontaneous way to travel.

It Ain’t Just The Animals, People!

When we told friends we would be working in Kenya for three months one word sprang to everyone’s lips: safari.  The reason is obvious–most tours of East Africa consist of an endless series of game-park excursions, with perhaps a day or two in Nairobi for souvenir shopping. Sadly, these animal-centric  itineraries miss out on a unique cultural experience—learning firsthand about the evolution of homo erectus, the ancestor of modern man, in the Rift Valley area of Eastern Africa. With months, not weeks, to explore this fascinating country we were not about to make the same mistake.

The Catwalk At Olorgesailie National Historic Park

Therefore, our first African adventure was not, as you might expect, to one of Kenya’s well-known game parks but, instead, to Olorgesailie, a Stone Age archeological dig excavated about 75 years ago by world-famous anthropologists Drs. Mary and Louis Leakey.  The 50-acre site, which dates to 600,000 to 900,000 BCE, was recently declared a National Historic Park and includes in situ fire pits, animal bones, stone tools (especially hand axes), and hominid remains.  Best of all, it is only 40 miles southwest of Nairobi on paved roads.

Ruth and I piled into our newly acquired rental car, a tired, 10-year-old Nissan with a ghastly two-tone brown and yellow paint job.  Hoping the engine was in better shape than the balding tires and rusted body, we drove over the Ngong hills, sans road map, and down into the Rift Valley with its incomparable African scenery. Along the way we had our “welcome to Africa” moment—a lone giraffe, indifferent to our presence, standing by the side of the highway munching acacia leaves. To a local Kikuyu or Luo farmer that is probably as common a sight as a squirrel collecting acorns is to a Midwesterner, but to us it was worth an extended stop and at least a dozen photos.

We made it to the dig in three hours–one hour of driving and two-hours of drinking the in scenery and photographing wildlife.  The park guide, a paleontology major from the University of Nairobi, was quite happy to see us as we were the first people to arrive in two days.  He gave us a personalized tour (not surprising with so few visitors), carefully explaining the history of the dig and the artifacts at the site.  We strolled along a wooden catwalk encircling a prehistoric living area with a cooking pit and the fossilized remains of an 800,000 year-old hominid dinner.

Following the tour the guide invited us to join him for lunch, but since there was no restaurant–brown bag only–we had to decline.  He also invited us to spend the night at one of the park’s bandas, thatched-roof cabins rented out by the day, but again I had to say no as I needed to return to Nairobi and teach the following day.  However, we did linger long enough to have a fascinating discussion about the many archaeological sites in Kenya that are woefully underutilized by tourists who come only to see lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants.  When we departed after a truly fascinating day I saw the guide in my rear view mirror standing there wondering when the next batch of visitors might unexpectedly appear over the horizon.

We followed up our trip to Olorgesailie with a visit to the world-class Nairobi National Museum and its exhibit of Lucy, a 3 million year old hominid whose remains are among the most important artifacts in the world, and we attended a lecture on human evolution in East Africa by Dr. Richard Leaky, son of Mary and Louis.  Our unplanned and unexpected enjoyment in learning about Rift Valley archeology was one of the highlights of our time in Kenya.

Many countries where you may work have a single feature for which it is justly world famous–the food of Paris, the art of Florence, the mountains of Nepal, the beaches of Fiji.  However, when living and working there don’t become so narrowly focused on that lone attraction that you miss out on the full range of adventures a country can offer.  One of the joys of a working vacation is that it affords you the time needed to visit and experience both the expected and the unexpected.  While it certainly would be criminal to go to Kenya and not enjoy its spectacular wildlife in my opinion it would also be criminal to come to this country and not sample a few of its incomparable archeological wonders.