As I’m writing this, it’s hard to believe that one year has passed since I got the exciting news that I had been accepted for a Long Term Fellowship with Engineers Without Borders Canada. I needed a change from my regular pace of life, and felt certain that Africa was my calling. To prepare myself for the big move I became obsessed with the movie Out of Africa starring Meryl Streep as the famous Karen Blixen. I believed that she was my kindred spirit, and I still resonate with her quotes which summarize some of my feelings about Kenya.
I really had no idea what to except moving to the mysterious and misunderstood continent of Africa. I just knew that I had to see it with my own eyes to find out. I haven’t found my soul purpose, but I have learned a lot about myself and the complex systems of our world. Kenya definitely blew my expectations out of the water, and expanded my mind to the endless array of possibilities out there. I have met so many amazing and inspiring people this year, devoting their lives to making our planet a better place. All my soul searching has given me a newly acquired appreciation for stability and home which I didn’t have before. No longer do I question people that say yes to a corporate job, knowing that it provides that sense of stability, while being able to carve out time for the people they love and have the money to spend on keeping their passions alive. I also have a deep admiration for those who dedicate their lives to working on ground in the non-for-profit industry, seeing the daily impact of their work on the people on the bottom of the pyramid who need it the most. But every very path is different, so it all comes down to how you define your purpose and how you make that a reality in your day-to-day. So here is my last post on Kenya, culminating my travels across the country and ending with some of the deep and hard-earned lessons I gained through this experience. Hope you enjoy.
PS - Here is my Spotify playlist if you’re wondering what I’ve been listening to all year: East Africa Vibes
The Kenyan Coast
My 21 year-old niece Viktoria came to visit me in August for three weeks. We went on a whirlwind trip through Kenya, starting at the coast, cycling through Hell’s Gate National Park amidst giraffes and zebras, climbing our way up 4985m to the top of Mount Kenya, and ending with a spectacular safari at the Masai Mara reserve, with a couple of nights dedicated to experiencing the alluring nightlife of Nairobi of course. This country is simply stunning to say the least. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity (and the finances - thank you corporate job) to go on these travels. Here is an overview of our itinerary which I am happy to share in more detail to anyone planning a trip out there as I think we spent our time quite efficiently. :)
The day after Viktoria arrived, we hopped on a plane to Lamu with Air Kenya. We landed on Manda Island and took a dhow (hand-made boat) to the Lamu port. We were greeted by donkeys, curious children and elderly mzee’s (men) happy as always to see some mzungu’s. Lamu is a car-free zone, although last year they introduced motorbikes to the island and the locals aren’t too happy due to the incessant honking of horns that distracts from the peaceful silence coveting the island. We spent three nights at the Seafront Guesthouse with Kirsty and her family. We had delicious fruit salads and mandazi’s with fresh pressed mango juice in the mornings followed by a strong Swahili style coffee with ‘tangawizi’ (ginger) on the street. Kirsty’s brother-in-law Abu took extremely good care of us and showed us all that Lamu has to offer, starting with an educational walking tour of the town. If you want to learn about Swahili culture, the Kenyan coast is the place to do it. Due to it’s highly prosperous port location, Lamu was highly influenced by Arabic, Portuguese and Indian culture. This presence can be seen on the old original doors of the Swahili style homes. The Lamu Fort still stands strong and has become a local hang out spot, with an open-air market next door and a beautiful baobab tree to provide shade from the strong equatorial sun. I could have spent weeks walking up and down the narrow streets, inspecting the different doors and learning more about the lives behind them. Shela is only a 30-minute walk from Lamu and is the spot to AirBnB fabulous Swahili mansions only meters away from pristine shore-fronts. My favourite meals were the Swahili style fish (grilled tilapia in coconut curry sauce) and vegetable biriyani washed down with sweet tamarind juice. After saying goodbye to our new friends and watching a colourful sunset whilst inhaling the scent of fresh samosas we flew down to Mombasa and took a matatu to Diani beach. If you’re on a budget then I recommend taking a matatu, but you must be OK sitting in a van that fits 15 with 20+ people and that doesn’t move until it’s full. We spent the next 3 days lounging at Diani Backpackers Hostel, playing my ukulele on the white sand beaches and getting our tan (read burn) on, while being bombarded by the local Beach Boys hoping to make a sale in bracelets and coconuts.
Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park is the only park located within city limits on this planet. Read my first blog post about Nairobi National Park to learn more. We went on a night drive with the family whom I was living with in Ridgeways, Nairobi. Just as I was saying how I had never seen a Rhino, out pop three of them! Ask the universe and you shall receive. We so badly wanted to spot a lion and almost gave up hope until we ran into a crowd on our way out of the park and a beautiful proud lioness walked right past my window. Grace asked me to hold Imani, their 2-year old daughter tight, and to keep the window closed - I don’t blame her!
This was my second time to Naivasha. Read my previous blog post to picture Naivasha in the dry season. It was extraordinary at this time of year, with all the vegetation coloured a bright green. We met a lovely couple from Spain at Camp Carnelleys who joined us both days on our hiking adventures. The first day we went to Crater Lake Sanctuary. It’s a fairly easy hike offering panoramic views of Crater Lake; left over formations of volcanic eruptions from millions of years ago, evidenced by the crystallized obsidian stone found along the walking paths. Since we had a guide with us we were able to walk down around the lake and get up close and personal with giraffes, zebras, elands and warthogs. Did you know that when a zebra is still a baby their stripes are brown not black? Neither did I! Eland’s are interesting creatures, something between an elk and a gazelle, differentiated by the hairy hanging nipple-like-thing on their chest. I’m not really sure what evolutionary purpose it served. I got some great shots of my favourite colobus monkey too. They are black and white with fabulously long fur that sways in the wind as they jump between tree branches. After our hike we got back just in time for a sunset boat ride. All the hippos were out basking in the sun, and the plethora of birds was humbling. Naivasha lake offers the best sunrise and sunset views out of all the lakes I’ve seen in Kenya and it is a quick and easy trip from the city. We took a matatu for only 400 KSh (~ 4USD) round trip, which is only about 2.5hrs drive one way (with the caveat that you avoid peak Nairobi traffic-jam time that is).
The next day we rented bicycles and went cycling through Hell’s Gate. This national park offers jagged red rocks (perfect for climbing), herds of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, water buffalo and warthogs, and the Gorges Canyon with it’s hot thermal springs dripping down mossy rock faces. It was a journey trekking through the canyon at this time of year since the long rains had just finished, flooding the canyon with streams and mini-waterfalls that end at a place called “The Devil’s Bedroom”. We cycled our way from the bottom to the top of Buffalo Circuit. This is a very steep-path and not for the light-hearted but if you can make it to the top then you’ll be rewarded with an exciting ride down, and beautiful views of Lake Naivasha and Mount Longonot along the way.
The next morning we took a matatu to the nearby Mount Longonot for a quick day-hike before heading back to Nairobi. Mount Longonot is a stratovolcano located southeast of Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. It is thought to have last erupted in the 1860s. We didn’t make our way around the whole crater (7km distance) but really enjoyed having lunch overlooking the green crater. Heading back to Nairobi we had been waiting a long time for the matatu until a friendly passerby found us a semi-truck to hop onto so we could go back to Naivasha and take the matatu from there. Everything is possible in Africa!
Back in Nairobi we made more memories with the dear friends I met this past year. In June I moved in to a new place closer to town. I found this character house in Kilimani with an amazing back yard and super cool housemates. Kevin (aka Bankslave) is a grafitti artist born and raised in Kibera, Nairobi. He is the mastermind behind the mural in these photos, check out his work on his Facebook Page. My Kenyan friends came up with an idea for a Paint & Sip’ party that we hosted at my place. It was a fun-filled day with fruity drinks and grilled choma sizzling on the bbq. When staying in Nairobi, I think you need about two days to cover all the sights, here’s an example itinerary: Day 1) Start your morning with a delicious brunch at Wasp & Sprout, The Nook or K1 Flea Market (if it’s Sunday) to work off that hang-over after your big night out at The Alchemist or Jay’s. Burn off those calories by going for a leisurely walk through the Arboretum Gardens in Kilileshwa or Karura Forest. Karura Forest is the legacy of Professor Wangari Maathai who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work of keeping this precious forest safe from urban development. You can visit the forest on foot or bike, taking in the sights of a beautiful waterfall and getting a brief history lesson on the Mau-Mau Caves, where Kenyan soldiers fought against the Colonists and won their independence in 1964. Day 2) Get to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage by 10AM to make sure you get a front row spot to view the adorable baby elephants. When you are done awing over them head over to the nearby Giraffe Centre to get in your slobbery kisses from that prickly long purple tongue. Next, head into the CBD to see the craziness of the matatus, and purchase all your souvenirs at Maasai Market near Kencom Bus Stage. Walk over to Uhuru Park and get a 50 KSh ice cream cone before heading up to the top of KICC for stunning pre-sunset views (note they close at 6PM). A dawn or dusk game drive at Nairobi National Park is definitely a must while visiting this cosmopolitan city.
If you have more time to spend in Nairobi, I highly suggest visiting the African Cultural Heritage House. Alan Donovan is the mastermind behind this astounding collection of African Arts. He’s held exhibitions around the world and his collection is the ultimate Pan-Africa Arts collection. Tours cost 4000KSh for a group of up to 4 people. You’ll get a chance to meet Alan Donovan and get a tour of his entire household collection. His backyard overlooks Nairobi National Park and even has it’s own train stop, if you are travelling with a big group it is an exciting way to arrive at your destination!
Fourteen Falls near Thika Town is also a nice half-day activity. You take a little boat along the bottom of the falls to get across, then you hike your way up and back over the top of the falls. It seemed a little dangerous at first but “just have faith” and you will make it. :)
One of my greatest accomplishments this year (besides making it through the entire season of The Wire) was summiting Point Lenana at 4985m of the mighty Mount Kenya range. Viktoria and I did a 4-day hiking trip up and down the Naro Moru route. This route takes you up the Vertical Bog, which gets it's name from the steep bog-like conditions. Along the way we watched the vegetation change from jungle rain forest to sub-alpine fuzzy-soft lobelia plants to no-vegetation alpine land. I’ve done my fair share of hiking over the last few years, however this was the hardest hike I have ever done. Do not take altitude of this type lightly! It was only the two of us on this hike, along with our wonderful mountaineering guide Paul who in-spite of being 2.5 times my age led the way at 2AM to summit Point Lenana. Taking breath-stops in the vast silence of this snowy mountain, looking up at diamond-sparkling sky of constellations brought tears to my eyes. We made it to the highest accessible point by foot just as the sun peaked it’s way through valleys of clouds. This moment also brought tears to my eyes, and being able to do it with my niece who I have grown up with is a memory that will be imprinted on my heart forever. I didn’t take my camera on this trip which I regret but luckily we still got a few iPhone snaps. Sammy our tour operator and his crew took incredibly good care of us so if you’re looking for someone to take you up this unforgettable mountain please reach out!
Our final stop on this grand tour of Kenya was the Maasai Mara. This is the setting for the safari in Out of Africa and it really lives up to it’s name. It is the home of the Big 5 (lion, leopard, rhino, water buffalo and elephant) as well as many more, including the Ugly 5 (hyena, wildebeest, vulture, warthog, marabou stork) although I feel a bit mean saying that about them because I find the warthog to be quite cute! This was the time of the world renowned Wildebeest Migration. Although we saw tens of thousands of wildebeest forming lines to make the journey from Kenya to Tanzania, we unfortunately did not see them race across the river. The day we went was especially busy as it was a public holiday in Kenya, meaning that there were many tourists and residents there. I saw an ugly side of tourism that day. In order to get the best viewing spot for their clients, safari cars actually blocked the regular passage ways for the wildebeest, frightening and confusing them out of crossing the river. As much as I love to travel, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the ecological impact it has. We burn fossil fuels to get form point A to point B and disturb natural ecosystems along the way all for our enjoyment and to check things off our bucket list just so we can take a picture and post it on Instagram. I don’t mean to sound jaded, but it’s a truth we must accept when we make the choice to travel, and do whatever is in our power to do it in an ecologically sustainable way. Besides that the safari was amazing. Here’s some of my favourite photos from this 2-day adventure.
I was really excited to get to Lake Baringo as it is known for being one of the best bird-watching spots in Kenya. I became obsessed with bird-watching this past year and was delighted to spend an afternoon sitting by the lake with these darling creatures fluttering overhead. I took a matatu from Nairobi which wasn’t the easiest way to travel (this 5 hour journey required 2 matatu connections and hitching a ride with someone to the lake), however it definitely was the most cost-efficient! We hiked up to a crater to watch sunset, and the next day did a boat tour over to giraffe island. We stayed at Robert’s Camp which I would highly recommend due to the great price and great service. If you get annoyed easily by bird noises then I wouldn’t recommend visiting here as it does get quite noisy! My favourite birds were the Goliath Heron and the Njemp’s Hornbill (named after the Njemp’s tribe which formed from the inter-marriage between Maasai and Samburu tribes). We also saw the worlds tiniest owl but I didn’t have my zoom lens on me so no shots of it unfortunately. Lake Bogoria is about 60km away and is also a popular tourist spot due to the geysers (hot springs) shooting out of the water. Although I wouldn’t recommend going here as entry to the lake is $60USD and you can spot geysers from Lake Baringo for free!
PS - if you’ve been wondering what my drink of choice was in Kenya, it’s a White Cap beer. You’ve probably heard of Tusker but White Cap is better since it has no added sugar. ;) I found a Goliath Heron feather in the lake as a perfect souvenir from this adventure.
Overall if I had to describe my experience living in Kenya in one word I’d say: rollercoaster. For me, it was a place where the highs were higher and the lows were lower and every day my morals were brought to judgement. I moved to Kenya, naive in my thinking that only the corporate world was characterized by profit in expense of people and environment. What I learned was that non-for-profit has its own shadows, and at the end of the day, people are people and they are good and/or bad in any sector. I wanted to do my part in “changing the world” and “having an impact”. I thought I would meet all like-minded people here, find my soul-mate, find my purpose and all that jazz, but I was left feeling more confused than when I started this journey one year ago. It goes without saying that there are inspiring people doing real impactful work in the non-for-profit and start-up social enterprise sector on the ground, but I learned that sometimes the true impact can be deceiving, or even have unintended consequences. I’ve also witnessed a lot of prejudice on this continent, attributed I believe, by the residual effects of colonization which was incredibly hard for me to turn a blind eye to, but it did teach me what my core values are. I don’t think we can change the world, and I think that’s a very high goal to set for oneself, because unfortunately some systems are broken. I personally think the best we can do is have a bigger impact on a smaller group that’s within our sphere of influence. Maybe that impact is working for an NGO in a developing country, or maybe it’s having a stable corporate job that allows you to take care of yourself and your loved ones, but that’s for us to decide on our own terms. It’s been a whirlwind year, and I probably won’t recognize all the personal growth I’ve gained until I’m situated back in my comfort zone of Canada, but here are some of the lessons I learned along the way which I want to share as they may resonate with you too.
The 3 C’s of Success: Contribution, Community, Compartmentalization
My biggest takeaway from this year was learning what (in my opinion) is required in order to be successful. This becomes especially important when you are embarking on a significant change from your usual routine. For me, the 3 C’s of Success are: Contribution, Community and Compartmentalization. Contribution in other words is your purpose. That thing in your daily routine which wakes you up in the morning and allows you to contribute to society, and to feel like you’re having an impact. It’s where we spend majority of our time and where we donate much of our headspace and health. For most of us this is our job, as contribution is very closely connected to monetary appreciation. You may disagree about the monetary part, but even those who have said no to corporate salaries and benefits, and who were lucky enough to turn their passion into their career, well they still get paid for the services they provide. It’s a means of survival and of gratification to reinforce that we are contributing to society in some way. Community is essential to thrive. This community/tribe doesn’t need to be large in size, but it does need to consist of people whom share similar beliefs and values to you and whom you can count on to support you, in good times and bad. This one is pretty simple, but isn’t always the easiest to find, especially when you are far away from home. Compartmentalization is the quality that I think successful professional do very well. It allows Executives of big companies to make difficult decisions where they need to separate business from personal relationships. It allows Police Officers and Emergency Health Professionals to see tragedy daily but still go home to their families and find the light in situations. There is a lot of injustice in the world, but if we focus solely on the negative, we soon wind up in a position where we can’t help because we are too jaded to be motivated. I think this last attribute is only possible if we have the first 2 C’s strongly in place however.
There is a big difference between feeling along and feeling lonely.
The act of feeling alone is attributed to a physical state. You don’t have anyone around you at the present moment but you know that you are loved and supported none-the-less. Feeling lonely however, can be a dark, frightening state, where you are physically alone and don’t feel loved or supported either. I chose to live on my own when I first arrived in Kenya and without a strong support network and a strong sense of purpose, I felt really lonely for the first time in my life. Right about this time a kitten appeared in my life and like a saving grace she gave me purpose in a small but very significant way. I had to learn how to depend on myself and also learned the value of relationships. They take time and require equal effort from all parties in order to build a strong foundation of mutual trust and respect. I have a completely different outlook on the relationships I’ve built back home in Calgary, and although it may not be as exciting of a place to live in like Nairobi, I know my tribe is there.
Drop a heroin addict in the middle of the Sahara desert, I promise you they’ll still find the heroin.
Don’t worry, this lesson isn’t coming from a heroin experience. However, I did come to Africa with the intention that I was going to change. I blamed my environment as the reason for why I wasn’t living a fulfilling life. I dreamed that changing my location would prompt a change in my lifestyle and give me a balanced self-care ritual (daily meditations, clean mindful eating, a strong yoga practice etc.). Someone once said to me in when I was working up north in a camp that: “It’s not this place Monika, it’s you”. Those words hurt a lot at the time as I was convinced that it wasn’t me, it was the place! I imagined moving would help solve all my problems, and although this may not apply to everyone, it really wasn’t the environment, but my mindset that was causing the roadblocks. It reminds me of other thoughts like: “I’ll be happy when… I have [blank] job, I have [blank] in my bank account, I have a [significant other]. A hard-lesson learned for me but I’m setting hard intentions for 2019 with a strong support network and knowing when and whom to reach out to for help and motivation in dark times.
Africa does not need to be saved.
I’ve met many inspiring photojournalists working in Africa who are aiming to change the Western perspective through gravitating stories. Unfortunately, thanks to the media and what sells on the news, all of what we see in the West, is an Africa of endless poverty and hunger. Of course this does exist in some places in Africa (just like it does on every other continent) but what we do not see are the stories of architecturally astounding cosmopolitan cities, thriving arts and culture scenes, and the inspiring local entrepreneurs having a positive impact on improving the wellbeing of their communities. What Africa is a victim to is colonialism and it’s overarching foreign aid. I am not a journalist, and do not feel privy to lay-out any facts for you here as I only know a tip of an iceberg, but I would suggest reading: “It’s Our Turn to Eat” by Michela Wrong and the journalist blog Africa’s a Country to debunk those preconceptions laid on to us by the media and to understand some of the underlying factors at play in shaping the Africa we know today.
Let this place make you tough, but don’t let it make you hard.
I had a really powerful moment this April as I was boarding my flight to Ethiopia. This burning sensation was forming in my heart, where I was getting overly annoyed by the little prejudices I was facing every day. At this moment I felt like my patience had worn thin, and I didn’t have compassion for anyone, or anything. I felt sceptical, jaded and like I was tuned into a negative frequency that was clouding my perspective and only showing me the bad. This is when I recalled what one of my colleagues told me while I was working up north in a camp and was facing somewhat of an existential crisis. He said: “Let this place make you tough, but don’t let it make you hard”. I didn’t really understand that statement until this year, when I started feeling like I was becoming hard. We have the power to change our behaviours and our perspectives, and behind all this cynicism the truth I have always known is that people are all just trying to survive; make the best for themselves and their loved ones. This allowed me to look past my feelings of being taken advantage of and allow myself to empathize rather than criticize. Our perspective (the only thing we have control over) forms our actions and the way we show up in the world. So let it make you tough, but don’t become hard, because compassion is the only thing that can save us.
So there you have it folks, 386 days of me living and learning in Kenya. Hope you made it through this blog post. My final East Africa post is on my second trip to Ethiopia, my favourite country in the region. Check it out!
I am completely humbled by this whole experience. Coming back to Canada has been very eye-opening for me; realizing how much I have to be grateful for, reconnecting with friends and family and reflecting upon this past year. And there are many things I will miss about Kenya; riding my motorbike around the city, the weather, the dancing, the music, the cheap food and the day-to-day excitement. I tried to stay in Kenya, create a life for myself there; I learned the language, learned how to ride a motorbike, toured into the corners of the slums and the city, but I feel I’m not meant to be there at this time. So goodbye Kenya, for now.