Golden Monkeys were new to me. I was told not to confuse them with Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys. Until that moment, there was utterly no danger of that, since I’d never heard of Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys. I am now clear on the difference. You can Google them if you’re interested, but the two species are distinctly different-looking, and Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys live only in China, where they are critically endangered.
The Golden Monkeys that live in Central Africa are an endangered species according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature.) Like too many species, their endangerment has been caused mainly by loss of habitat.
Golden Monkeys live in highland forest of the Virunga volcanic mountains, where the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda come together. There are four national parks there that are contiguous to each other: Mgahinga Gorilla NP (where we visited the gorillas,) Volcanoes NP, Virunga NP, and the Kahuzi-Biega NP.
Golden Monkeys are “Old World” monkeys. This means that they are part of a family of primates known as Cercopithecidae, which includes 24 genera and 138 species – the largest primate family. Baboons and macaques are also Old World monkeys, and Old World monkeys range across Asia and Africa. Old World and New World monkeys diverged from their common ancestor about 55 million years ago.
Cercopithecus Kandti is the scientific name for Golden Monkeys. They have not been studied or observed in the same way as the mountain gorillas, so their day-to-day habits are not nearly as well known. We know they travel in social groups of up to sixty monkeys, and they travel to follow food. Their food consists of fruit when available, and bamboo leaves all year long. It is believed that they also eat insects. At night, they sleep in tree tops or bamboo tops.
We had to hike about an hour to visit the Golden Monkeys, through fields again, then up into the woods, and into the bamboo forest. It was an easier trek than the gorilla trek – not as steep, and we didn’t have to climb rock walls – but it had been raining that morning, and the paths were very muddy and slippery. I fell a couple of times on the way up – my feet slipped out from under me and I landed on my fanny. Mud filled the grooves in the soles of my shoes, so I had very little traction. By the time we were coming down, the paths had dried a little, and were not as slippery.
They are beautiful monkeys, sociable and curious, at least when we were there. I would have liked to settle in and watch for a while, but visitors are only allowed an hour. (It’s the same with the gorillas.)
The monkeys were eating and jumping around, obviously excited that we were there. Their fur shows that they got wet in the rain, too. Cameras were snapping, including mine, so much of this post is comprised of golden monkey photos.
Eventually, we had to leave. Again, I would have liked to stay and watch them as they went about their day, but couldn’t.
The trip down from anyplace I have climbed always seems shorter than the way up. We wound our way back through the bamboo forest and the farms. Our experience was well worth the hike, plus, I didn’t fall! Many, many times in Africa I have been moved by how beautiful the land is, and I hope that, even as it becomes developed, as it inevitably will, the people will conserve as much wild land as possible.
We were headed for Kisoro, a village a little north of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, which is in Uganda. Rwanda raised their fee for a gorilla permit to Volcanoes National Park a few years ago, and it is now about twice as expensive as a permit from Uganda.
Uganda was not very far away, and we soon pulled up to the Cyanika Border Post.
As an American citizen, everywhere in Africa that I had visited, I was able to get a “visa on arrival,” meaning that I did not have to apply for a visa in advance and have it in my possession already when I was ready to enter the country. This is because our passports (and other countries, too, but not all) are “secure” in the sense that our identification and authentication procedures are reliable – there is a high certainty that what my passport says is accurate and another country can rely on it. Visas can be purchased at airports and most land crossings. Uganda, however, required advance application and a letter of approval.
I had filled out the application while I was in Kenya, and paid the fee online. Two days later, I received a letter of approval via an email with a link to my documents. I wrote down the number of my application and letter of approval and put the note in my passport for safekeeping. I didn’t print the letter because I didn’t have easy access to a printer and I figured that the number would allow the border immigration officers to pull it up on their computer screen. When it was time to fly to Kigali and join the tour, I went with confidence.
Well…it turned out I had overestimated their system’s capability to share data. The immigration officer was not able to pull up my documents. That possibility simply had not occurred to me. He also didn’t speak English, but luckily Jacob speaks Swahili and was able to serve as translator as we considered the options.
Considering the options was also an over-estimation because really there were only two options: I could stay in Rwanda and miss the gorilla trek, or I could produce a letter of approval. Eek! The immigration officer was very nice, apologized, but was firm. No letter, no entry. There was an office across the road from the immigration office that had a computer and a printer. The immigration officer sent Jacob and me over there. The man working at the desk was very gracious and allowed us to use the computer. I had to access my Yahoo email, find the email, open the link, and pull up the pdf. Printing was also a struggle – it took a while to get the link to find my document file, and to print the pdf, but the humans prevailed, and I was allowed to enter Uganda. Whew!
Even though the distance was short, Uganda looked different from Rwanda. It didn’t seem as open. The people were nice, but not as outgoing – less likely to wave. More shy in some ways.
We arrived at our hotel mid-afternoon, and were taken on a nature walk. Nature was right there with us, because it was pouring rain, and I mean pouring!
We walked back to the hotel, where we congregated in the bar for a post-walk warming-up. Lynda, my roommate, is a beer person. I’m allergic to beer, so I was looking for wine, but had to settle on a whisky and Coke. The bar didn’t stock wine or liquor, but they would send someone to buy it for you, and then supply soft drinks, water, juice, etc. In this case, hard liquor was the available choice, and a small bottle turned out to be $30. The cost was so high because it was an American brand that was imported.
While we were gathered, the Prime Minister of Uganda and his entourage appeared. It turned out that the owner of the hotel was related somehow to the prime minister, so he stopped in on his way through town. One of his assistants kept suggesting to us that we should ask for selfies with the PM. The PM was a friendly guy, and probably would have been disappointed if he didn’t have people making a fuss over him. I’m sure his assistant was trying to score points with his boss, too.
After the Prime Minister departed, Jacob called us together to talk about visiting the mountain gorillas. We would go in different groups – Lynda, Lily, and Patrina; Shelley and me; and Rosemary and Nancy. Jacob said the trek was strenuous, but that there were usually paths that were easier, and some of us would be taken that way. My nose was a little out of joint – I don’t think of myself as needing an “easier way,” but, in the end, I had to admit he was right.
We were all up and away before dawn, driving to the place where we would start. Our driver would walk with us up the path toward the ranger station. It was not a long walk, but it was rough because the path was covered with small rock – not small enough to become a cohesive surface, but not big enough to provide steps – just big enough to turn unexpectedly when you put your weight on them.
Mgahinga Gorilla NP, where Shelley and I were hiking, is the smallest of Uganda’s national parks, but it is home to three Virunga volcanoes: Muhavura, which has a lake at the top; Mount Gahinga, with a swamp-filled crater, and Sabinyo, where the three countries meet (Uganda, Rwanda, and DRC.) Muhavura is the tallest at 13,540 feet/4,127 meters. The other two are between eleven and twelve thousand feet. Mgahinga Gorilla NP has only one “habituated” gorilla group, which means only eight visitors per day. The gorillas would get off easy today.
“Habituated” means that they are accustomed to human visitors. The groups are generally monitored by the same scouting rangers because, like many animals (including humans,) the gorillas have habits that are knowable and relatively predictable – where they eat and where they sleep in particular.
Volcanoes NP in Rwanda has two volcanoes and ten habituated gorilla groups, while Virunga NP in DRC has the “Mountains of the Moon,” the active volcano Nyiragongo, and six habituated gorilla groups.
When Shelley and I got to the ranger station, our driver headed back down the hill, and we waited there for the porters and another tourist group. The porters arrived, but the other tourists did not, so Shelley and I were the only visitors.
We set out, taking a wide path around the hill, through the local farms, being careful to step on the paths between the fields and not through the farmers’ fields. The idea was that we would walk slowly uphill by going around the mountain, and then – when we were near the gorillas’ location – going uphill more directly.
This was the easy part. It was very wet, the soil was very dark and rich, and the grass-covered paths were slippery to walk on, but they were comparatively level. I did okay climbing over the rock walls that bounded the fields, yet I was feeling it already. Several times during that hike, I would repeat to myself Nietzsche’s quote: “That which does not kill us….”
The guide, a park ranger, was in touch by radio with the “scouts,” the men who located the different groups of gorillas. The scouts had located the group we would visit, and would keep track of them, so our job now was to get there.
The trek was arduous, and my legs were tired. When we turned uphill, the wet grass made it hard to climb upward. I was jealous of the rangers and porters – they did this all the time and it was just another day for them!
We were getting closer, though, and that gave me some energy. The guide indicated that there was a hole in the ground, under the grass, so jump over this place….
I tried to jump. I didn’t have a lot of energy in my legs, so naturally, I landed exactly where he said to avoid. I started to fall in. I grabbed at the grass. Luckily, they grabbed my arms to stop me from falling. I kicked my legs to try to climb out of the hole, but there was nothing for my legs to get a foothold. They just swung in empty air below the grassy ground. I was unnerved a little by that. I had no choice but to stop struggling and let them pull me up. As soon as I could get my knees on the ground, I was able to get to my feet and scramble up the hill away from the hole.
I got over the fall almost immediately, because we were there! One of the scouts came to us and showed us where they were. I counted eight. They were spread over a large area, eating fruit from the trees growing there. The “kids” were now looking at us and showing off by jumping around the trees and swinging from the vines. It was an amazing sight.
One scout waved to me to come over to where he was standing, near a large silver back who was sitting, contentedly pulling the small, fruited branches from the tree and munching them.
Eventually, we had to leave. It would have been fascinating to spend a whole day watching them. But, they were human enough that they wanted privacy, and they retired from view.
Hiking down was easier, and seemed shorter, as it always does. We stopped to have some lunch, and to get a group photo.
We all compared notes, sitting in the bar, and relaxing after a strenuous, but satisfying day.
Lake Kivu is one of Africa’s “Great Lakes.” The lake covers an area of 2700 square kilometers (1,043 square miles) and is 480 meters deep (about 1,575 feet.) It sits in the East African Rift – a groove in the Earth’s crust – at the foot of the Virunga Volcano chain. The western shore is the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, and the eastern shore is Rwanda. The border runs roughly through the center, with the large island in the middle going to the DRC. The lake used to drain to the north, but the Virunga volcanoes there blocked it about twelve thousand years ago, and now it drains to the south, into the Ruzizi River and then into the Congo River.
Lake Kivu is one of a few lakes in Africa that are called “killer lakes” because of their carbon dioxide content that seeps into the lake through the volcanic rock from nearby volcanoes. There are two other lakes in Africa, Lake Nyos and Lake Manoun, both in Cameroon.
Lake Kivu has an additional hazard. The water of Lake Kivu sits on top of not just one, but two huge layers of gas: carbon dioxide and methane. Bacteria have spent about 15,000 years converting dead organic matter and magma-related carbon dioxide into methane, which is a process unique to Lake Kivu. There are efforts now going on to tap into the methane gas reserve and use it to generate electricity, which Rwanda needs.
And we were off to Uganda to visit the mountain gorillas.
We drove by the Hotel des Collines today, which was the scene of the movie, “Hotel Rwanda.” The name means “Hotel of the Thousand Hills,” a play on Rwanda’s nickname during the Belgian colonization, Pays des Mille Collines, or “Country of the Thousand Hills.”
It is still a working luxury hotel, and not a scheduled stop for us. A few days later, I went there for lunch, but I didn’t see anything there to commemorate the 1994 genocide. That wasn’t really a surprise.
Our guide, Jacob, says that the movie is banned in Rwanda, that it has never been shown because the government does not feel the story has been portrayed accurately. I have not seen the movie, so I have no opinion one way or the other. Rather, let me tell you what we have seen and heard in the last two days.
The three months, “the hundred days,” of extreme violence, usually referred to as “The Genocide,” began on April 6th. President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was flying back from a meeting with leaders of Uganda, Burundi, and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo,) where agreements had been made to defuse the growing tension between the Hutu and Tutsi. Those countries had significant Tutsi and Hutu populations, most of them refugees from previous conflicts.
The party responsible for shooting down the plane carrying Habyarimana, his staff, and the president of Burundi has never been determined. Some say Hutu extremists, anxious to eliminate the Tutsis, who did not support the negotiated approach of Habyarimana, and some say President Nagame, then leader of the Rwandan Peoples Front (RPF,) who has always vehemently denied these accusations.
The reaction was immediate: road blocks, checkpoints, and militia were all moved into place, making the plane incident appear to be part of a larger plan made by someone. In the space of a hundred days, April 6th to about July 19th, perpetrators of the genocide, mostly Hutus, killed between 800,000 to 1,000,000 victims, mostly Tutsis. “Moderate” Hutus and Twa, an indigenous minority (about 1%, who were a smaller-statured ethnic group, were killed also. We visited three memorials – the Murambi Genocide Memorial, the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, and the Kigali Genocide Memorial, each with their own story.
The Murambi Genocide Memorial is located in Murambi village, in the Gikongoro region of Rwanda. It is housed in what was intended to be the Murambi Technical School, which was under construction at the time of the genocide. As the government’s Interhamwe militias arrived in Gikongoro region, they started killing Tutsis and looting and burning their houses in an organized, efficient operation. Local government leaders, Hutus, at the outbreak of violence, told the Murambi area Tutsis that they could not protect them while they remained widely scattered, and so the government would escort them to a place in Murambi where they could be protected.
In the next two weeks, Tutsi residents were sent or taken to the school. Hutu residents were separated and sent elsewhere. According to our guide at the Murambi memorial, French soldiers were present, and entertained themselves by choosing women to rape. (France denies this.) Once gathered at the school, the water lines were cut and food was withheld. On April 18th, the interim president, Theodore Sindikuswabu, and Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, both Hutus, met with Gikongoro leaders, also Hutus. On the next morning, April 19, 1994, the attacks began.
The Tutsi resisted with bricks and stones, during two days of attacks, but then the main assault began. This assault was perpetrated by militia, police, and Hutu residents of the area, and the attack was much more forceful. They circled the school, which was on a hilltop. Tutsi trying to escape were easily spotted and killed. There was no escape. Of the approximately 50,000 people in the area, there were 34 survivors.
The local Hutu leaders and French soldiers organized bulldozers to dig mass graves. No one’s story includes the French soldiers in the actual killing, but they were accused of protecting the Hutu who had perpetrated the genocide. France denies this, too. Our guide told us that the French soldiers built a volleyball court on top of the graves.
Our group had read the displays in the lobby of the school building that had some history of the leaders of various groups, such as Nagame, who was the leader of the RPF at the time, and Ferdinand Nahimana, a radio personality, a Hutu, who spent his energy inciting hatred of Tutsis in the months leading up to the Genocide.
Our guide, a woman in her forties, was a survivor. She did not escort us to the next building, but told us what we would see in the classrooms. In September, 1995, the hastily made mass graves were opened and bodies were exhumed. The bodies had been so tightly packed together that they had hardly decomposed over the intervening months. Of the thousands, over 400 bodies were covered in lime powder to preserve them. What we would see were these bodies, placed on wooden tables in the classrooms, but, she said, she could not accompany us there. She didn’t say why, although it was obvious that the trauma was just too great for her. She said that she would meet us over by the new graves.
I stepped into the first classroom filled with bodies. I still remember the air, which was thick and humid, with a slightly acidic smell. The bodies were laid out, but not like a funeral. Some were on their back, some on their sides, all of their arms and legs and heads at awkward angles, depending on how their bodies had taken shape in the mass grave. They were not bodies at rest. They were bodies in torment. They had not been simply executed, they had been beaten, tortured, and hacked to death. You could see it.
Looking back, I wondered why I had not felt more emotion in those rooms. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I get choked up during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” watching a husband and wife enjoying a joke together, or trying to tell some stories about amazing kindnesses. But, there, in that room, I stood, dry-eyed, staring at victims of such unimaginable inhumanity.
I have concluded since that the sight of those bodies was just that: unimaginable. I have been lucky in my life, and there was simply nothing that I have experienced that could help me grasp and internalize what had happened here. I was solemn, as were others in our group. The scene made us quiet, looking, standing still, trying to see what was in front of our eyes.
We joined our guide again over by the large mass graves. It was not possible to identify all of the victims buried in the mass graves and re-bury them individually, so there are now these large places of interment. It seems right that they should be together in death as they died, the ones bonded forever by the ghastliness. Occasionally, even now, twenty-five years later, new remains are discovered in Gikongoro. Their identity can rarely be determined, and they join the others in these crypts.
In the Bugesera region, thirty-five kilometers from Kigali, is the Nyamata Genocide Memorial, formerly a Catholic Church. This place became representative of the brutality perpetrated against women in particular, and the area suffered some of the greatest devastation.
Our guide, a member of the church and a survivor, began their story. As the Interhamwe began attacking Bugesera, area residents gathered in the church, hoping that they would be protected there. Churches were traditionally places of sanctuary. People padlocked the gates and bolted and locked the doors.
The Interhamwe, a name meaning “the ones who attack together,” the Hutu militia acting on behalf of the government, broke through the locked gates.
Along with the Rwandan government forces and other Hutu militia, the Interhamwe entered the church area with rifles, grenades, and machetes. They used sledge hammers to break holes into the walls, and then tossed hand grenades inside. The grenades killed the first people, and then, breaking through the doors, the attackers used guns and machetes, killing about two thousand five hundred people who were hiding in the church. Bullet holes are still visible in the walls and in the ceiling.
The clothing of the victims was placed in piles on the pews. Men’s, women’s, children’s, and infants’ clothing, sometimes grouped in “families.” Occasionally, you can spot a bone peeking out of a blood-stained sleeve. The blood spilled onto the altar cloth, which was spread across the place of Holy Communion. She did not say that the church had been de-sanctified, but the church is no longer used for any services, only to stand in silent witness to the acts of inhumanity that occurred here.
The church basement, accessible in back of the church, has become a permanent catacomb. On either side of the narrow halls are shelves that hold bones, skulls, and coffins. The coffins do not hold individual bodies. Instead, the coffins were used to gather the bones of families together, and the family name was written on the end of the coffin.
Two thousand five hundred were killed at the church, but across the Bugesera region, there were over ten thousand victims of The Genocide. The remains are interred in two mass graves behind the church.
Above the entrance to the church itself, there is a banner in Kinyarwanda, “If you had known me, and you had really known yourself, you would not have killed me.”
In the capital, Kigali, is the Kigali Genocide Memorial. This was our last visit to a genocide memorial. The mass graves hold the largest number of victims, over two hundred fifty thousand (250,000.) Equal parts museum and memorial, it serves as a place for relatives and friends of victims to grieve and pray for those they lost, and also as a place to educate Rwandans and foreign visitors about what happened, what the causes were, what Rwanda is doing to prevent recurrences and to promote unity.
In this museum, the Genocide was described in painful, grisly detail: “The genocidaires often mutilated their victims before killing them. Victims had their tendons cut so they could not run away, they were tied and beaten. They were made to wait helplessly to be clubbed, raped, or cut by machete. Family members were made to watch on as their parents or children were tortured, beaten or raped in front of their eyes. On occasion, victims were thrown alive down deep latrines and rocks were thrown in one at a time until their screams subsided into silence. On other occasions, large numbers of victims were thrown down pit latrines. Victims trampled each other to death. The piles were sometimes ten bodies deep. Death was made a painful, agonizing, frightening, humiliating end.”
“Many families had been totally wiped out, with no one to remember or document their deaths. The streets were littered with corpses. Dogs were eating the rotting flesh of their owners. The country smelt of the stench of death. The genocidaires had been more successful in their evil aims than anyone would have dared to believe. Rwanda was dead.”
What happened to cause such deep-seated hatred between Hutus and Tutsi? History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It was not the first nor was it the last of the fighting. Killing happened not just in Rwanda, but also Zaire/Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Burundi.
Many scholars believe that the Hutus settled in the Great Lakes region of central Africa, which would be Rwanda, Burundi, and southern Uganda, between 1000 – 500 BC. The Hutus were agricultural people living in large family groups. The Tutsis (aka “Watutsis”) were nomads who arrived about 1600 AD, settling alongside the Hutus, adopting their language, beliefs, and customs. “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people.” [“Heart of the Hutu-Tutsi Conflict,” PBS News Hour presentation, October 10, 1999.]
But the cattle-tending Tutsis accrued more wealth than the farming Hutus, resulting in a society that was dominated by the Tutsis, even though the Tutsis were the minority. While the cultures and religions meshed, the economic class divisions became synonymous with ethnic designations. According to Congolese Professor George Izangola, “If you were close to the King, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the King, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.”
Germany colonized “German East Africa” in 1891. German East Africa encompassed Burundi, most of Tanzania, and Rwanda. After WWI, the Belgians occupied Rwanda. It was the Belgians who forced the Hutus and Tutsis to carry ethnic identity cards, their “ethnic group” determined by certain physical characteristics. They favored the Tutsi, and Hutus were barred from higher education and governmental positions of power.
When independence came in 1962, the Belgians left, and Ruanda and Urundi became Rwanda and Burundi. Rwanda became a republic with a Hutu majority. The Hutus’ resentment boiled over and thousands of Tutsis were killed and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi fled to Uganda. In Burundi, which became a military dictatorship, the Tutsi retained control of the military and used it to terrorize the Hutu. When the Tutsi Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda, Tutsi refugees from Rwanda, the RFP, had a base from which to attack the Hutu government in Rwanda. Violence in these countries broke out sporadically, from independence up to, and including, the worst – The 1994 Genocide.
The UNAMIR task force, created by the UN Security Council to see that the Arusha Accords were enforced, arrived too late to prevent the bloodshed, and even then, their commander, Canadian Romeo Dallaire, was prohibited from involving the force in protecting civilians. The international community did virtually nothing to prevent or stop the killing.
The 1994 Genocide was so especially violent, so especially cruel, and so especially vast, it was as if the survivors on both sides were so shocked by what they had done and what they had suffered, that there was born a determination to prevent it from happening ever again.
There are still resentments. People who murdered their neighbors still live with survivors. As hard as it is for Rwandans to face one another, I think it must be impossible for anyone who wasn’t there to understand. The Kigali Genocide Memorial runs programs to help understand what happened, to enhance communication as a way to prevent or resolve conflicts, and, most of all, to remember the victims and help survivors cope.
I was in Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys. Given the need for advance planning and permits, I joined a small seven-day tour: seven people, a guide, and a driver, and let the tour company deal with the details. In addition, we would visit the genocide memorials – learning about the genocide was on my agenda, too.
Rwanda is a beautiful country. It’s roughly 10,000 square miles, and very green because of all the water. There are two rainy seasons and two dry seasons each year in Rwanda. The lowest point in Rwanda is over 3,000 meters above sea level, and it’s old nickname was “pays a la Mille Collines,” or “Land of a Thousand Hills.” There is very little level ground in Rwanda, and yet about 98% of the population farms, building terraces that form giant steps down the hillsides.
From across the ocean, it is easy to lump all of the African countries together, but if you visit more than one, you will find that they each have their own personality. Where Kenya had been about wildlife, and Nairobi rather gritty, Rwanda was about people, and Kigali was an open, airy city, with signs of prosperity blossoming around. Their optimism is expressed in their national anthem, “Beautiful Rwanda.”
I had flown in from Kenya a day ahead of the tour’s start date. Others trickled in the next day, and at dinner time, it became apparent that we were all here for the same reason, and we were all women, which gave the tour an interesting twist. Two from South Africa, two from Australia, one from Canada, me, and another American. Lynda, the Canadian, and I were roommates for the duration, meeting at our rendezvous, the Beausejour Hotel.
The hotel’s restaurant set up a table for us as we introduced ourselves. The guide, however, was missing. The meeting time came and went, still no guide. Finally, as we were finishing dinner, Jacob appeared, full of apologies, blaming flight delays. Questions and answers ensued, and we were starting by visiting the Murambi Genocide Memorial on Day 1.
I hired a car and driver to get from Mombasa to Watamu, which is on the Kenyan coast, further north than Mombasa. The public transportation is limited to minibuses that carry too many people and are accident-prone.
The hotel manager arranged for the driver and car, and the driver asked if he could take along his friend, an older man – they all seemed okay, so we left about 9:30 a.m. The trip takes about three hours, I was quite comfy in the back seat, and the two men had a good time talking to each other about what was in the newspaper the older man was reading.
When I was a child, we traveled by car. My sister, by virtue of being older, always sat in the passenger seat next to Mom. They would talk, and I would look at the scenery and entertain my own thoughts. I am still a quiet car traveler, looking at the scenery and entertaining my own thoughts.
I love the way Kenyans decorate their vehicles, whether they are vans or tuk-tuks. Some are flamboyant, like the blue van below, and some express some religious thought or invoke the name of Jesus, Mary, Allah, Jehovah, or a saint.
One of the sadder scenes. There are many poor people in Africa, and trash-picking is not uncommon.
These are sisal plants, used for making rope and mats and such. There were miles of these along the road. The ones below have been harvested. They are harvested with a machete by hand.
It wasn’t long before we got to Watamu, but it took us a while to find the guesthouse where I was staying. It was simple once we found it, but it was past the place that looked like the road ended.
It is owned and managed by an Italian woman, now a long-time resident of Watamu, called “Mama Zawadi.” That’s not actually her name, but it’s what the local residents call her.
I came here to see the ocean and to relax, and the relaxation part was going to be a piece of cake.
My room is to the right, behind the stairway. It came with a porch and a small, but lovely room:
I was amused to recognize the bead curtain in the bathroom – beads from Ocean Sole, the Nairobi company that recycles flip-flops!
After checking in and unpacking a little, I headed to a local eatery for an early dinner. The restaurant had upstairs seating, which gave me a nice place to watch the village as darkness fell and the evening prayer call was heard through the dusk.
I slept like a rock that evening, and woke up to the sound of birds and a beautiful breakfast.
It was lovely, sitting peacefully in the shelter of the open dining area, watching the birds at the bird feeder, and enjoying the garden.
Mama Zawadi has two dogs who keep an eye on things;
It rained one of the days that I was there, and I didn’t mind at all. It was so peaceful to lie on the porch by my room and read.
But, one can’t lie around forever! Mama Zawadi sent me off to dinner one evening at a charming restaurant, tucked into a mangrove wood by a channel that ran inland from the ocean. For gratuities, young men will pole you in their boat around the channel, and then you can watch the sunset from the restaurant itself. My poler is a student home for a visit from university, earning some money for the coming term. And, yes, I was a soft touch.
He’s majoring in business. When I have the opportunity to talk with people of his age, I find that – when they are in school – they are studying about businesses, how to establish them and manage them. The younger set, not just in Kenya, but also in Zimbabwe and Zambia, has figured out that they will have to create their own opportunities.
The restaurant itself is a project, trying to create a local enterprise to create jobs, and not tearing down the mangroves to sell. Mangroves, as you probably know, perform the same function as a wetland with cattails, filtering water as it returns to aquifers, and creating a habitat that enables smaller creatures to live and grow before entering the wide world.
The samosas were excellent, and I’m sure I had something else, too, but what I really remember is the experience – the wonderful people, the birds along the shore, watching the fishermen, and the setting sun. Mama Zawadi was right.
The next morning, I took a walk down to the beach near Mama Zawadi’s. The houses around her are mainly full time residents, and apparently more are moving in. I found an apartment complex going up. So, in case you’re interested:
The beach was beautiful in that about-to-storm way, but it never really did.
The next day was sunny, and I strolled through the village until I was pulled into the Italian restaurant there by a pizza. And, oh gosh, chocolate gelato?
Eventually, of course, I had to leave Watamu. I recommend it to anyone. But my next destination had been planned for months, and I wasn’t going to miss it. It was time to head back to Mombasa, back to Nairobi, and then to Rwanda.
Hamila was waiting for me the next morning at the coffee shop we had visited the day before, which was a convenient jumping off point for “old town” Mombasa. The city leaders in Mombasa made an interesting decree some years ago – “Old Town” buildings would be painted yellow, and “modern” buildings would be painted blue and white to make things easier for tourists. Trust me, the streets are still pretty tangled.
The Jahazi Coffee House where we met didn’t give any history of the building itself, but instead wanted to communicate their mission. They are located on Main Street (“Nadia Kuu Road” locally) in Old Town. The building is intended to reflect the local style, foods, and ambiance of the area, and the culture that celebrates a local meeting place of neighbors, a KiSwahili experience.
Jahazi Coffee House is also part of a local NGO called “Darul-Salaam,” meaning “House of Peace” in Arabic. It offers positive influence and input for the youth and their families of Old Town. They provide a forum for life issues, and a place to learn arts and positive community activities.
I only had coffee with Hamila, so I can’t speak to the functions of Jahazi, but it’s easy to see why they would feel the need to help the area. It’s not unique to Old Town or Mombasa or even to Kenya, but it doesn’t take long for a visitor to see that there is a decided lack of opportunity throughout Africa. Too many, especially young men, are idle during the day because they lack good education for better jobs, and they lack even sufficient numbers of unskilled jobs that would allow for stable income.
Mombasa is an ancient city, founded around 900 AD. The name comes from the Arabic, Manbasa, but the Kiswahili name is “Kisiwa Cha Mvita,” or “Island of War,” because of the frequent changes of ownership during Mombasa’s history.
The original inhabitants were the Bantu people. History moved more slowly in ancient times – the Bantu were visited first by the Jordanians in the 6th century, the Persians in the 9th century, followed by Arab traders, especially the Omani.
Trade made Mombasa an important city. Vasco de Gama explored here in the 15th century, but the Portuguese arrived in force in 1593, building Fort Jesus (see “Fort Jesus, Mombasa” post.)
Fast forward through the exchange of possession among the Omani, the Portuguese, and a couple of interlopers such as the Mazruis, to the agreement in 1886 between Britain and Germany that, with typical European arrogance, assigned Kenya and Uganda to Britain, and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) to Germany. The British East Africa Company set up headquarters in Mombasa in 1888. Colonization of Kenya began in earnest, and the British dominance lasted until 1963, when Kenya became an independent nation.
The British railroad company managed by Cecil John Rhodes built a railroad from Uganda to Mombasa, Kenya, that was completed in 1901. It was only recently replaced by the new railroad that I rode on. The British railroad construction was plagued by “man-eating lions,” which were a real problem, killing about two dozen workers before hunters were hired to eliminate them. The incidents were memorialized in several places, one of them being this bas relief mural at a crocodile farm near Nairobi.
In reality, many more workers died of malaria during the two years of construction, but malaria did not capture the public imagination in the same way as man-eating lions.
Being an ancient city, many of the “old town” buildings, while still standing, have been long since re-purposed, often several times.
This is the site of the Portuguese Church of Misericordia. It was later converted into a cow shed. The site may also mark the burial place of Lieutenant Reitz of the Portuguese Royal Navy, although oral tradition places the burial site further along the road. The reason for interest is that the oral tradition also says, “The ghost of a young man in short trousers is said to appear here, and it is rumored that a cross marks a grave in this house within a locked room.”
We don’t know if The White House is called that because of the color or because it was the first American Consulate in Mombasa.
The building was built in the late 1700s by Esmaliji Jeevanjee, a Bohra Indian. It was rented to the Church Missionary Society between 1893 – 1904 as a “Ladies House” for unmarried lady missionaries or nuns. By 1909, the building was being used by an American firm called Arnold Chehney that traded ivory. It was after this, in 1915, that it became the first American consulate in Kenya, and served until 1918.
The original door, a “fine carved door,” has been removed, and the current door and window are carved in a Zanzibar style with “wealthy vegetal designs.” The designs are on the transom above the door, whereas the door itself is a typical Omani style.
In 1899, the post office opened, making it possible for the Indians working on the railroad to send letters and money home to their families. There was also a trolley terminal here. The balconies are very typical of Mombasa architecture.
The post office was transferred to Treasury Square in 1941. The building had been used as an immigration office during WWI. It is also a good example of Mombasa architecture, with the covered balconies on the front and back sides, supported by wooden brackets. The elevation is adorned with arch doors and windows, and embellished with rich plaster work, or it was. All of the Old Town buildings have been through hard times, it seems.
The Africa Hotel opened in 1901, with twelve bedrooms that looked over the sea. Whether it had any real success or not is unclear from the sign. Apparently, a guest in 1904 complained that “there was a smell of rancid ghee, curry, earth closets, decaying fish, and unwashed humanity.” The sign states reassuringly, “There were two other hotels in Mombasa at this time, The Grand and The Cecil.” Afterward, it became a grocery and tailoring business, and prospered as there were several consulates nearby. Again, there are the balconies and carved brackets.
There were a couple of similar, but unidentified, buildings near by:
We passed an old, but not ancient, mosque on our way from Old Town to more modern Mombasa. The minaret is distinctive, and the style has a name, but I haven’t been able to find it yet.
Here’s an exposed wall. Many of the buildings in Old Town, like Fort Jesus, were made of blocks carved from the coral reefs around the shore, then plastered over. Below are also modern decorations (not made of coral!) as we approach modern Mombasa.
Squeezing juice from sugar cane. Note that the building is white and blue now.
Halima and her mother, who is selling some of her produce at the market:
Vendors set up wherever there is room. A man brings in more jugs for water or cooking oil. Most jugs I saw for water were yellow, but later I saw a make-shift funnel that seemed like they were filling the jugs with water rather than oil. In Africa, many rural areas are without running water, and hauling water is a daily task.
Filling jugs, looking at beans, shopping, tomatoes and beets, grains and coconuts!
The building on the left is one of the market buildings. While many vendors were outside along the streets and alleys, the buildings housed larger vendors, with separate buildings for produce (vegetables, grains, spices, and others,) fish and shellfish, and meat. Kenyans eat beef, chicken, goat, and lamb most commonly. Other poultry was present – ducks, mostly – but I didn’t see domestic pigs anywhere in Africa, only bush pigs and warthogs.
Lastly, we went to meet a friend of Halima’s at a local Hindu temple. I had never been in a Hindu temple, so it was interesting, but because I know so little about Hindu religion, it was also confusing. I did, however, get the message that if I have ever stepped on an insect, I am in deep trouble. I’m not sure where I go from there, but maybe when I get to India, I can learn. In the meantime, it’s a good thing I’m Episcopalian.
The artwork, however, is beautiful and interesting, so I look forward to the day when I will understand better.
When I think of Kenya, I think inland, but Kenya has a short coastline that faces the Indian Ocean. Kenya’s oldest city, and its now-second largest city, Mombasa, is on that coastline and a trip to the sea shore seemed like a good idea.
There are local flights between Nairobi and Mombasa, but there is also a new train line that runs between, built as a development project by China. I am fond of train travel, so that was my choice.
My understanding of the Kenyan-Chinese deal is tentative, but apparently China has lent the project funding amount to Kenya, and Kenya is going to pay it back over several years. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.
In the meantime, the train is very comfortable – air conditioning, smooth ride, comfortable seats, plug-ins for laptops, phones, iPads, etc., and fold-down trays for snacks and computers. Fares are inexpensive, even in first-class, although expensive is a relative term.
Among the benefits of train travel is watching the scenery. The scenery on the way to Mombasa was not dramatic, but had moments of interest – a cultivated landscape, a shanty town, baobab trees in a sisal farm, and, as we were passing through Tsavo National Park, a few elephants in the distance.
The Chinese railroad deal included the Mombasa train station, which is also very modern and benefits from being new.
Taxis and buses are off to the right in an organized lot with security. My taxi driver took me through Mombasa’s arches on the way to my hotel.
It’s July here. Kenya, which is an equatorial country, is hot, so, after checking in, cooling off was my first priority. “Karibu” means “welcome” in Swahili.
By now, it was late afternoon. I was only going to be here for a day and a half, and I wanted to use my half day. Fort Jesus is a major landmark in Mombasa, so I made that my objective for the afternoon. As is frequent, there are guides available. Hiring a guide is a discussion in itself, but I have had pretty good luck with it. It was here that I met Hamila, who turned out to be a great guide.
The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama arrived in Mombasa in 1498. According to the flyer, “his relations with the townspeople deteriorated rapidly,” and after a week (!) the Portuguese captain sailed on to Malindi, further north, and established their base there.
Mombasa has a beautiful, natural harbor, and it attracted the attention of the Turks, who proceeded to build a fort here in 1589. This disturbed the Portuguese in Malindi, who feared for the security of their trading route, so they attacked and captured Mombasa and the Turks’ fort in 1593.
Fort Jesus was begun in 1593 by the order of King Philip I of Portugal, who had several titles, including King Philip III of Spain and Duke of Milan – this was the era of the Hapsburg Empire, and family members were given a variety of titles. His goal was to protect the Mombasa harbor, now in their possession, and their trading routes.
The Portuguese, who were sailing under the flag of the Order of Christ, named their harbor fort Fort Jesus. It was designed by an Italian architect from Goa, with multi-angled corners, reflecting the latest in military design in the late 1590s, sitting on the edge of a coral ridge. Blocks to build the fort were cut from the coral ridge, and this is visible throughout the fort.
In 2011, Fort Jesus was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “an outstanding and well-preserved example of a 16th century Portuguese military fortification.” The fort had opened the first time as a historical monument previously in 1960.
Fort Jesus was occupied by the Portuguese, leaving Malindi behind. The people living in Mombasa, having rejected the Portuguese once before, were not excited to have them back. The Sultan of Mombasa stabbed the Portuguese captain in 1631, and took control of the fort, but eventually the Sultan abandoned Mombasa (one account says he became a pirate,) and the Portuguese reoccupied the fort in 1632.
The Sultan of Oman sacked Mombasa in 1661, but did not attack the fort, perhaps thinking it was too strong. However, in 1696, having built up their navy, the Sultan of Oman laid siege to the fort.
The Portuguese were trapped in their fort, dying of starvation and the plague. The siege lasted from 1696 to 1698, when the fort fell to the Omani.
The Passage of the Arches was used to receive deliveries – human or supply – by boat. The Passage of the Steps (below) was used to reach the gun platform, overlooking the entrance to the harbor.
These wall drawings were made by the Portuguese sailors. I expected that they would have been drawn during the siege, but the sign says that they date from the early 1600s.
The Omani maintained control of Fort Jesus for most of the next two hundred years, with interludes for mutiny, brief Portuguese occupation, and the five-year rebellion and independence by Omani governor.
During the Omani control, the walls were made higher, and rooms were built, now known as the Omani House. And doors were added, notable because the style is distinctive, tall, heavy, and decorated with stylized flowers, lotus, palm tree branches, and chains.
The Omani, perhaps taking a page from their own book, created a well and cistern to provide water inside the fort.
The Omani House was built to accommodate meetings and entertainment of guests, with seating around the perimeter.
In the courtyard of the fort, there is the ruin of a foundation for a chapel, built during Portuguese times, and probably dismantled to reuse the stone during the Omani occupation, and the skeleton of a juvenile Humpback whale, which was sort of a display/nonsequitur.
After exploring Fort Jesus, Hamila and I decamped to a nearby coffee house to cool off (well, me) and enjoy some refreshment. I had iced coffee. Hamila had hot tea. We also agreed to meet the next morning to explore more of Mombasa.
I moved from Nairobi proper to an inn on the outskirts, a district shown on the map as “Karen.” It brought me closer to some of the things I wanted to see, and – not to be overlooked – it cost less than downtown. The inn’s name was the Karen Inn, named for the neighborhood that was named for the author, and, while not as upscale as the hotel in downtown, the Karen Inn was comfortable, with a nice garden, and the staff was terrific.
Karen Blixen wrote Out of Africa, the book from which the movie, starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, was made. The movie contributed significantly to my desire to visit Africa – the scenery was beautiful and the African culture was intriguing. And here I was, right in her neighborhood.
Karen Blixen’s full name was Baroness Karen Christensen von Blixen-Finecke. She was a Danish author, who lived from 1885 to 1962, 77 years. “Isak Dinesen” was a pen name, one of several that she used in her writing.
Her husband was Baron von Blixen-Finecke, a Swedish man she married in January, 1914, in Mombasa, Kenya. They had been engaged in Europe, he came first to Kenya, then she arrived in January. They spent 1914-1917 on a small farm called M’bagathi, and they bought the coffee plantation that became famous in 1917. The Baron and Baroness separated in 1921, and Karen stayed in the house until 1931, when she returned to her family’s home in Denmark.
Timing is everything. While the climate was not ideal for growing coffee, the business was not helped by the Baron’s spendthrift ways. He ran up debts against the plantation, which were left with Karen. During 1915-1918, there were periods of severe drought that significantly reduced yields. As if those were not enough, World War I was declared in August, 1914. Battles were fought in East Africa, consuming local workers and supplies, and in 1917, Britain banned the import of coffee.
Out of Africa told the story of her years in Africa, including her partner, Denys Finch Hatton, who was killed in a plane crash. The story was published in 1937, one of two memoirs about Africa, the other being Shadows of the Grass.
The house was given to Kenya by Denmark in 1964 as a gift on the occasion of Kenya’s independence. The museum was developed about twenty years later, after the movie was released and became very popular. It opened in 1986. The house was not used in the film, however – filming took place at M’bagathi, her first farm house.
The Karen Blixen Museum sits on a corner of her former coffee plantation, situated in what is now an upscale suburb of Nairobi, a town created by subdividing the plantation after Karen had returned to Denmark.
The museum consists of her house and furnishings, mostly original, but some are props from the 1985 movie. There is little natural light in the house, because of the thick walls and small-ish windows – Kenya is a hot country, and cooling depended on fans. There are a few letters framed, and artifacts such as clothing that belonged to Karen and her lover. There is a small, paved sitting area in the back, with a millstone table, and it is easy to imagine them sitting outside in the relative cool of the evening, talking over a glass or two.
As an aside, a New York Times article, written shortly after the museum opened, talked about Denys’s death and burial. Karen took great pains to honor his desire to be buried near his house, and, yes, lions really did lie across the flagstones that covered his grave. But also of interest, was the author’s mention that Denys Finch Hatton was responsible for getting five thousand square miles of what is now Serengeti National Park named as a game sanctuary in 1929.
Some of the original coffee equipment is at the museum, part of a display about how the coffee beans were processed and prepared for shipping. The grounds have been kept simple, but suitable for a wedding or other entertainment, and the museum helps support itself by being available for those kinds of occasions. There is a small gift shop that sells copies of her books, postcards, and local craft items, and when I was there, there was a local artist painting and offering his paintings for sale.
From coffee, I moved to tea, visiting the Kiambethu Farm in Limuru, about an hour’s scenic drive from Nairobi. I was an hour early, having allowed plenty of time for turning the wrong way.
Fiona Vernon, the owner of the farm, happened to be in her garden, which I was admiring. Technically, the farm was not open yet, but as often happens – because I do not look very fearsome – she invited me to enjoy the garden while she was getting ready for a full house at opening.
I miss having a garden, so I was quite content to wander around.
Other people began to arrive. Shortly, Fiona reappeared to welcome the group, and we followed her down the hill to stand beside the tea fields, which I heard alternately called “tea fields” and “tea orchards.” A tea plant is “Camellia sinensis.” “Camellia” translates literally as “tea bud.” All real tea (as opposed to herbal “teas”) come from this plant.
Fiona explained that care had to be taken in picking tea leaves. They have to be perfect, she said. Blemishes will cause the processing plant to refuse them, and if there are enough in the initial inspection, the entire truckload of bags might be refused. Speed is necessary to minimize oxidation, which is the general degradation of the leaves after picking. Oxidation is used during factory processing, but it is under controlled circumstances.
The workers use baskets, carried like a backpack, to pick the tea leaves. Because of the care needed, it takes time for a person to become speedy, but eventually, they can pick very quickly.
When their basket is full, they bring it to a central sorting area where the leaves are inspected, and then the leaves are dumped into large cloth bags for the trip to the processing center via truck.
The tea leaves are picked, inspected and picked over at the farm, and delivered to the processing plant the same day, every day, sometimes twice a day during the season. The daily picking takes the top leaves, about two inches. The pickers move from one field to the next, after its readiness has been determined. Having just the top leaves picked keeps the tea bushes at a uniform height, which, when added to the bright green of each day’s growth, gives the fields a very distinctive look.
Fiona led us back to the house, where we were served – what else? – tea and cookies, while Fiona talked about tea, life on the plantation, and how she came to be here again. She had moved back (escaped) to England as a young woman, but changes in family circumstances brought her back to manage the plantation.
Tea was first introduced to Kenya in 1903 by G.W.L. Caine, who planted it in Limuru. Commercialization of tea production began in 1924, and Kenya is now a major producer and exporter, ranked second after China for tea exports.
Small-scale producers are regulated by the KTDA, Kenya Tea Development Agency. The KTDA has sixty-six tea factories in Kenya that serve over 500,000 small-scale producers, who collectively cultivate over 100,000 hectares (207,000 acres.) These small-scale producers account for over sixty percent of Kenya’s total production.
As for the varieties of tea, green, yellow, oolong, white, and black, Fiona said that “it’s all the same tea.” Whether it’s marketed as green or black, Twinings or Lipton, it’s all from the same stuff. “The processing plant mixes all of the leaves from all of the farms together.”
There is only Camellia sinensis. The difference is not variety, but rather one leaf processed in different ways. Green tea is the least processed, and black tea is the most processed.
The “process” does not involve chemicals or anything else besides water, drying, and sorting. All tea leaves start as fresh and green, and therefore they contain moisture. Left alone, they would oxidize and spoil.
At its most basic, the process involves wilting, oxidizing, and stopping the oxidation. Green tea results from this most basic process, being wilted, steamed, rolled, and dried, allowing as little oxidation as possible. Rolling is for shaping – different types of tea are shaped and stored in different ways.
Black tea, on the other hand, is wilted, crushed lightly, fully oxidized, rolled, and dried. White tea is wilted, not crushed, baked, lightly rolled, and dried without oxidizing. Oolong is wilted, partially oxidized, and then treated much the same as black tea. After these steps, flavorings may be added, such as bergamot oil for Earl Grey tea (my personal favorite.)
Kiambethu’s tea is processed to be black tea. When it is finished, the factory seals it into large, foil-lined bags, which are imprinted with the factory’s name, known as the “factory mark.” These are then trucked to Mombasa, where the broker representing the farm will catalog it with others, and sell it at the weekly Mombasa tea auction, held under the auspices of EATTA, the East African Tea Trade Association. This is where virtually all of Kenya’s teas are sold, auctioned to international buyers for companies like Tetley, Lipton, and others. The Mombasa Auction is an important reference point for the global tea trade.
While we were listening to Fiona, her crew had set up tables for lunch on the front lawn of the house. The lunch was not ready, so we were given a tour of the farm.
They are a working farm, with a few cows, chickens, and a very large vegetable and herb garden. Many of the ingredients for their lunches come from their farm.
Our guide then took the group into a wooded area, where he pointed out specific plants that were used for medicinal purposes by the indigenous people in the area. But the biggest hit of the walk were the Colobus monkeys who live in the wooded area on the farm!
We returned to the house, where we were served a glass of wine on the veranda, and then enjoyed a lovely lunch on the lawn. Each party was assigned to a separate table. There were two of us that were “parties of one,” and we were both invited to join a mother and her two sons, so we became an international group – they from Germany, I from the U.S., and a gentleman from Australia.
Lunch was delicious, the company was wonderful, and dessert and tea was a great finish to the day.
Elephants are popular with visitors to Kenya, but they are not universally loved, sadly. The Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi was established by David Sheldrick over forty years ago to help care for elephants who are orphaned before they are mature enough to fend for themselves. The mothers of these elephants die from various causes, but the majority of them are victims of poachers after their tusks (mainly) and other body parts. Others are injured by farmers who suffer financially from elephants browsing through their fields, destroying crops along the way. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was created to manage the orphanage, and to provide an educational resource.
Visitors are allowed only in the mornings at eleven a.m., when feeding time starts. It is a “be there or be square” event, because the orphanage is closed after the feedings. There are two shifts. The elephants are divided by age to avoid overwhelming the younger elephants with competition from the adolescent elephants. The elephants are offered milk from bottles and branches from trees are in piles on the ground – these things are what they would eat in the wild, depending on their age.
These are not “show animals.” They have not been trained to do tricks. As a practical matter, however, they are trained to some extent, because you will notice that the only barrier between the elephants and the people is a rope. And yet, the elephants did not try to reach out at the people or tear down the barrier.
The goal for these elephants is to return to the wild. Some, however, have been damaged too badly to release. In the two groups that I saw, there was only one, an immature elephant whose trunk had been caught in a snare. Though it had healed enough to no longer be painful, it could not heal in a way that retained full function, so she would be staying with the Orphanage.
The elephants seem happy enough, and they spent about half an hour per group eating, playing with each other, and getting all muddy. It may not have been “standing on their heads,” but it was all the more entertaining because it was genuine. The supervisor indicated that the young male elephants would be expected to leave their families as they reached maturity, so that introducing them into the wild is a little easier. The females generally stay with their families, so finding acceptance takes more time, but is not impossible.
The orphanage is a peaceful haven for the elephants, and a popular way to educate visitors, tourists and Kenyans alike, about elephants.
The Giraffe Centre
Giraffes are found in every country that I have visited so far. They are appealing creatures, being gentle, beautiful, and – given a chance – friendly! I have always thought they were a bit stand-offish. It seemed that every time they spotted human beings, giraffes would hide themselves or walk away. (See my blog post, “Maasai Mara”) But here, giraffes are anxious to see you! Well, the food helps.
The Giraffe Centre in the Karen neighborhood of Nairobi is working to change that stand-offish image. Using a time-honored method of winning over animals, i.e. food, they are trying to bridge the cultural gap between giraffes and humans. Like all environmentally challenged animals, giraffes benefit from better publicity and supervised interactions with people.
While humans have been admonished for years “Don’t feed the animals,” it is not only okay here, it is encouraged – as long as you are using food purchased from the Center. I’m sure the proceeds help their bottom line, but more importantly, it means that the food the giraffes are getting is nutritious and not harmful to them.
They also make the food in a handy shape that makes it easy for people feed the giraffes without any nipped fingers. The giraffes who are allowed to interact with the humans are gentle, but they are giraffes, and they are stronger than humans. In the wild, the males use their necks to fight each other over the females, all giraffes can run fast, and, let’s face it, if they weren’t strong, they wouldn’t survive.
The Giraffe Center has built a two-story, round tower with a surrounding veranda that allows humans to come face to face with the giraffes. The giraffes know that these humans come bearing food, so they are eager to get to know you. There is a barrier to prevent children from falling off, and a railing strong enough to prevent a giraffe from reaching all the way into the veranda. The veranda allows a visitor to stand back from the railing and simply observe if they wish. It is a comfortable environment.
Not many humans hang back, however. Feeding the giraffes is a very popular activity, and some people raise it to “trick pony” status by holding the food nugget in their teeth (it’s basically compressed hay, after all,) and waiting to get a “kiss” from the giraffe, who uses its tongue to retrieve the nugget from the human’s jaw.
I was not keen on getting a kiss from the giraffe. Their kisses are sloppy, and I had doubts about building a durable relationship. But they were happy to accept the nuggets from my hand, and it was fun to see them so close up. The kids were variable – some stayed back, some were okay with being held by their parents, and some could hardly wait to feed these long-necked creatures.
As part of their mission, the Giraffe Center conducted educational sessions about every two hours during the day. The sessions were about forty-five minutes to an hour, depending on questions and discussions.
I sat in on a session, and learned about the different species and subspecies of giraffes, and about their habitat ranges in Kenya. I learned from one sign that “Rothschild” giraffes have been renamed as “Nubian” giraffes, indicating their home rather than the European who named them.
Giraffes are the tallest land mammal, averaging four to five meters tall (twelve to sixteen feet,) and weigh up to 1,900kg. Their necks average six feet long and have seven vertebrae, just like human beings! They gestate for fifteen months, have one calf per birth, and they live for about 25 years in the wild. Sadly, about half of all calves do not make it to one year old, mainly because of predators. The speaker also tossed in that giraffes help pollinate plants and trees as they browse, including the spiky acacia tree, which does not seem to bother them.
DNA tests done in 2016 have determined that there are four separate species of giraffe, three of which are represented in Kenya: Reticulated, Nubian, and Masai. The DNA also indicated that there was very little crossover among species, meaning that they probably evolved separately. Giraffes originated in Eurasia and the genus evolved about 7-8 million years ago. The genus includes only one other species, the Okapi, that does not have the same long neck and lives in forested areas.
Giraffes have a single heart, about 11kg in weight, that pumps 60 liters of blood through their entire body at a blood pressure that is about twice the pressure of the average human being.
They had jawbones from a giraffe, and leg bones, which are heavier than you might think. The speaker passed them around for people to see and feel their weight. When it was my turn, the leg bone was heavy enough that I had to be conscious in handling it so I didn’t drop it (“Oh my gosh, she broke it!”) or wrench my shoulder, but I didn’t need assistance to manage that, I just needed to be careful.
Giraffes, like other wild animals in Africa, have had a tough time, due primarily to poaching and loss of habitat. Their numbers have dropped significantly, especially the Nubian giraffes, which were nearly extinct in the 1950s. Masai giraffe population dropped by half, and Reticulated by seventy percent. But things are improving for them – legal protections, improved security at parks, a more educated public, and better conservation management.
Still, the expanding human population has changed the landscape. The giraffes’ range has been fractured by the growth of agriculture and by transportation infrastructure, making their access to forage more difficult. And, because giraffes have a “fusion-fission” pattern of social interaction, meaning that groups aggregate or dissipate depending on the environment’s ability to support them, the fractured range impedes the flow of genes among the population.
The Giraffe Center identifies the range of the different species of giraffe like this:
That’s four hundred Nubian giraffes, total, in Kenya.
Giraffes are charming animals. With any luck, their numbers, especially the Rothschild/Nubian/southern or northern giraffes, will increase, and we will not lose any of these gentle and unique species.