Quick! Point out Kenya on a map. No, not Kentucky, Cancun or Katmandu, but Kenya, ancestral home of Barack Hussein Obama Sr., father of the president-elect of the United States of America. More than likely you'll be hearing about Kenya a great deal in the next four years, so here's a short course if you don't anything about this wondrous country.
Hint: It's in Africa, that vast continent southeasterly across the Pond from North America. Kenya is but one of the continent of Africa's 47 nations (53, counting the islands).
To find Kenya, follow your finger on an atlas to the horn of East Africa on the Indian Ocean. There it is, bordered by Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan on its northern fringes, Uganda to the west, and Tanzania to the south. Kenya, the heartbeat of East Africa, is pronounced as KEN-ya and not KEEN-ya, as the colonial English used to do before the Mau-Mau uprising and its independence from the British in 1963.
I have loved Kenya ever since I first stepped off the plane in Nairobi in 2002, just as much for its incredible beauty as for its people. In my journeys across the globe both as a writer and a tourist, I have never known a people as gentle as the Kenyans. Friendliness is simply their natural gift.
Even in President-elect Obama, whose father was of the Luo tribe, that warmth and charisma come across in his million-watt smile. If you watched the Kenyans celebrating Obama's win, you can easily see the genuine sincerity in their faces. There's nothing at all fake about Kenyans.
Most tourists come for safari on the Masai Mara, that rust-colored landscape alive with culture and wildlife. Chances are high that you'll see the Big Five — lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, rhino and elephant — as well as a virtual Noah's Ark of other species and dazzling plant and birdlife. And here, the sunsets are as brilliant as a Kenyan's smile — they are scribbled with the stunning liquidity of iridescent gold, topaz and ruby that melts into nightfall. These are images burned into my soul forever.
If you go, schedule your trip during the Great Wildebeest Migration from about July until October when these grunting, snorting "beests" storm the Mara from the Serengeti in search of greener pastures of lush grass that is required for their survival. Thousands of zebra and impala escort the wildebeests on their journey, mixing and mingling like a naturally orchestrated circus. Above these plains crammed with creatures the rain comes softly. You can see it miles before it reaches you, as the open sky goes on forever and forever.
A safari is just a small taste of Kenya. Fans of literature will want to visit Bogani, Karen Blixen's home near Nairobi. Kuki Gallman, author of I Dreamed of Africa, whose character was portrayed by Kim Basinger in the movie version, still lives at Laikipia and runs the Gallman Africa Conservancy that supports cultural, educational and environmental research. Dame Daphne Sheldrick's Elephant Trust is a crucial part of Kenya's conservation efforts.
And there's Kilimanjaro. Officially belonging to neighboring Tanzania but resting in both countries, its shadows grow long on the plains of Amboseli National Park, home to great herds of elephants. Mount Kenya, Africa's second highest peak after "Killy," is farther north and is a sort of Holy Grail for climbers and hikers.
If you visit coastal resort towns of Mombasa or Lamu on the Indian Ocean, not only should you stick your toes in the sugar-soft sands and swim in its emerald waters, but you should experience dining on a traditional Arab dhow. As you marvel at its ancient-looking wooden structure and triangular sails, feast on authentic Swahili food and have a dawa, the traditional Kenyan cocktail made of vodka, lime, sugar and honey.
Far, far away
In underdeveloped, poverty-stricken western Kenya near Lake Victoria, where Obama's father was born, tourists rarely visit the remote landscape scattered with mud huts and occupied by barefooted villagers. But rest assured you would be most welcome if you come. Obama's stepgrandmother, Sarah Onyango, and other relatives still live in the village of Kogelo. The nearest airport is Kisumu, but do hire a driver. Trust me, you do not want to navigate Kenya's roadways on your own.
From my journal entries from my two trips to Kenya, I wrote that I found it to be a spiritual place. It's an intellectual's country, as it provides fodder for deep thinking. You come away with the sense that secular possessions are truly insignificant in this place where nature reigns with a power all its own. With so much talk of Obama and Kenya, I dug around in boxes until I found my journals of my trips there.
"On the drive to Amboseli from Nairobi," I wrote, "we crisscrossed open plains peppered with acacia and passed herds of cows and goats tended by Maasai. How courageous the early settlers must have been to explore and live in the vastness of Kenya! It is raw, unforgiving country, but so starkly beautiful that it takes away my breath. No doubt, one must have tremendous grit and stamina to come here. One wrong turn, and you're toast. The ride is long and very, very, very bumpy. Hot dust swirls everywhere, creating whirling dervishes. We're sidetracked by helping another Land Rover with two flat tires. We took the tires back into a small, scrappy village to have them repaired. Then, amazingly, we have our own flat tire later on in the middle of nowhere with no scrappy village to be seen. We all pitch in and change the tire."
Later, we stopped at a Maasai village where the kids called, "Sweets! Sweets!" All I had was chewing gum, which appeased them mightily. Everywhere around the village were dots of red-attired Maasai shepherds tending their herds. The winds howled down from Killy, with more dust nudged from earth by roaring winds. The moment was pure National Geographic.
Days later at the 250,000-acre Borana Ranch in northern Kenya, I'm reminded of the Lion King again when we pass the "Lion King rock," the very outcropping that partly inspired the film. At Borana, I learned what a "dawn chorus" is: The birds serenade you awake in the early mornings. That evening on our sundowner, from our Land Rover we sipped wine and watched two lionesses stalking a buffalo. Dark enveloped us before we knew whether or not the two felines dined that evening.
From the Mara, we flew to Mombasa. We overnighted at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, now owned by Bonnie Dunbar, a feisty American doctor from Houston. My journal entry attests to its charm: "Masses of exotic flowers grow here, from bougainvillea to jacaranda to bottlebrush. Soft Kenyan breezes rule here. There was an ibis in the birdfeeder today, making all kinds of racket as it splashed about. This evening in the bar, a Louis Armstrong sound-alike played Dixieland-style jazz. I'm convinced that Armstrong didn't die; he just moved to Kenya."
Learn before you go
Despite its beauty, it is Third World, no doubt, and, like Obama taking on the presidency in the most uncertain times of our generation, it still faces a host of formidable challenges even in the 21st century: poverty, drought, corrupt politics (but improving all the time), famine, AIDS. But no matter those challenges, there are always the Kenyan smiles. Always.
Before you go, do your homework and watch a few movies and read a lot, because it is not an easy country. I recommend Out of Africa, the book and the movie. I own it and watch it three or four times a year. But there are others, too, including Born Free, I Dreamed of Africa, The Ghost and the Darkness and Sometimes in April. Read anything by Karen Blixen and Hemingway, particularly The Snows of Kilimanjaro and An African Story. Netflix has a host of documentaries on Kenya.
A State Department travel warning exists for Kenya and you must follow ground rules and just be careful. Avoid the slums of Nairobi. Take your anti-malarial medication without fail. Leave your expensive jewelry at home. Goats and cattle pretty much have the right of way on the roads, so be patient. Just as you can get into plenty of trouble in your own hometown by not paying attention to your surroundings, it can happen in Kenya, too. Overall, it's extremely safe and worth every effort to get there.