This most recent trip to Kenya was unique for me in a number of ways. It’s the first time I took my wife along. It’s the first time I went to Kenya for the sake of going to Kenya, and not because it was a stopping point to somewhere else. It’s also the first time I went to Kenya at least partially as a tourist. It’s the last aspect that I’d like to focus on today, because as a tourist I was made aware of things that I hadn’t noticed before.
They say that the American interstate highway system was designed to make it possible to go from one end of the country to the other without actually seeing anything. I believe a similar concept is true about the western-geared tourist industry in Africa, and probably elsewhere for that matter.
On our third through our sixth days in Kenya, we stayed at a place on Mt Kenya called the Castle Forest Lodge. Now before you jump to conclusions and assume I didn’t like it there, you’d be wrong. The place was absolutely amazing, from the views to the food to the character of the place to the elephants that visited twice in three days. In fact I will be leaving a glowing review on trip advisor, and I would highly recommend staying there to any vacationer coming to Kenya. So what’s the problem?
Every time I’ve come to Africa previously, I’ve stayed either in a local guest house, or with a family, or in a church. I’ve been immersed in the culture and gotten to know the locals. I’ve discussed local issues with the people who live there, eaten their food. I’ve walked down the road and just explored. I’ve gotten to know the character of Africa. Staying at the Castle Forest Lodge was staying at the western idealized version of Africa. The guests were all white, whether they were from Holland or Canada or elsewhere. The staff were all Kenyans, but they were of course all in subservient positions. It was very, well, colonial. My wife and I walked three kilometers through the forest into the town of Kimunye to catch some of the local culture and watch the work going on in the tea plantations. This was an experience, but the reaction from the locals to two white people walking out of the forest seemed to them a bit disconcerting, and it seemed pretty apparent that this was not something the white guests at the lodge normally do. There is apparently a certain level of insulation between visitor and local. The children of course were thrilled to see us and all of them, and I do mean all, had to shake our hands. The adults were more reserved, as if our presence spelled trouble somehow. Nevertheless we took in the town and the tea fields anyway. We even stopped in at a local bar and had a couple of Stoneys. It was the kind of bar that was truly local, with just a curtain for a door and a television tuned to a channel where everything was in Swahili. Maybe next time the locals won’t be so on edge.
But this brings me to my point. The tourist industry is designed so people can see the kind of Africa they WANT to see, not necessarily what Africa is. It delivers an amusement park experience without letting you get to know the people of Africa. Without the people, you no longer have Africa. You really do just have an amusement park. So if you are going to go to Africa, by all means enjoy the sights. Go on a tour, and see the things Africa is famous for. But don’t forget to experience the real Africa. Skip the taxi and ride a matatu or a motorcycle taxi. Walk the streets and go to a local restaurant or a bar. Talk to people on the street. Make friends. One thing that is almost universal in my experience is the friendliness of Africans. Meet the people on their level. Your experience and your understanding of Africa will be richer for it.