Beautiful Rwanda

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.

Everyone helps!

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.

Fort Jesus, Mombasa

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 current entrance to Fort Jesus, Mombasa, Kenya.

Entrance (above) and main corridor in the Passage of the Arches.

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.

Above, the Omani House and a Plumeria tree, which has a lovely fragrance.

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.

Coffee, Tea, and Karen

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.

The Karen Inn

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 Karen Blixen Museum in Karen, Nairobi, Kenya

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.

Showing me a specimen coffee bush.

The coffee equipment used in preparing the beans for shipment.
View across the back lawn. They were setting up for a later event.
A poinsettia tree! In the warmer African weather, “houseplants” become full-size.

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!

Colobus monkey comes down to retrieve the snack left on the tree by our guide.
And his friends came to see, too.
Checking to see if there’s any more….

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.

This is something I love about traveling – friends on the spot!

Lunch was delicious, the company was wonderful, and dessert and tea was a great finish to the day.

Elephant Orphans and Friendly Giraffes

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage

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.

The Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage is located at the edge of Nairobi, Kenya.

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.

People are instructed not to touch the elephants, but it’s tempting to some.

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.

There is a rope on the other side of the spectators, but the elephants hardly notice.

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.


The Best Western Plus Meridian sits in downtown Nairobi. A Best Western in Nairobi, Kenya, struck me as odd, but I never found out how this happened. I’m not sure anyone at the site would have known, simply because their “radar screen” was narrow. It seems to be another fact lost in the mists of time, and their website holds no clues.

It’s a nice hotel, though, and the staff are very nice, too. It has a small, but nice, good-for-cooling-off-and-not-much-else pool on the roof, along with a bar, spa, fitness room, and lounging area, all on the roof also. (The fitness room has a great view of the traffic jams that you’re not in!) The first floor restaurant is good, and the coffee bar makes a respectable cafe mocha.

View from the fitness room at the Best Western Plus Meridian.
Downtown Nairobi from the hotel roof.

And, it’s in downtown Nairobi, a central location for experiencing the city. Lonely Planet describes Nairobi as “gritty.” It’s true. Nairobi has bad traffic and a bad reputation for petty crime, as in purse-snatching or pickpocketing, and even violent robberies, mainly at night. I never had a problem, but I didn’t walk around Nairobi by myself, nor did I go out at night by myself. (I don’t go out at night by myself anywhere that I’m not familiar with.) During this walking tour of Nairobi, I was accompanied by Wallace, one of the hotel’s go-to guides.

Arab traders came to Kenya first. If you have been reading earlier posts, you know that Swahili, the unifying language in Kenya, is a mash-up of local African languages and Arabic. Indians came next, and were in Kenya as early as the 15th century when Vasco de Gama came exploring. As the Portuguese traders began displacing the Arab traders, eventually cracking the Arabs’ commercial dominance, the Indian accountants and bankers began working for the Portuguese, just as they had for the Arab traders.

By the 1800s, Indian merchants were settling in many places in East Africa. In the late 1800s, the British established naval superiority in the area, displacing Oman’s sultan. The British followed this by moving the East Africa Association, originally founded in Bombay, to Mombasa, a city on the coast of Kenya.

Between 1896 and 1901, approximately thirty-two thousand indentured workers were recruited from India to work on a railroad to Uganda. Some of these workers settled in the area and then brought their families after the railway was completed. The railway opened the interior part of East Africa for trade, and some Indians migrated toward the interior settlements.

Europeans were the next large immigration, and beginning in 1902, they were given large tracts of land in the White Highlands. These cooler highlands were more desirable to the Europeans and were reserved for them by the government. Excluding Kenyans, Indians and other Asians from these lands created friction between the British and other Europeans that lasted for decades.

Denied land in the highlands, many Indians moved to the “new town” of Nairobi. The British East Africa Association was taken over by the British East Africa Protectorate, who declared Nairobi as their capital, and Indians were allowed to settle there, but black Africans were not. As was happening elsewhere in Africa, people were being segregated by color – being Indian was more acceptable than being black African, and the white British retained political power.

In 1900, the Indians had organized the Mombasa Indian Association, backed by wealthy Indian businessmen Allidini Visram and the Juvanjee brothers, to protect the interests of the resident Indian population. The Indian community had considerable economic leverage, which in turn gave them political leverage, and this was their first political organization. By 1927, Indians used their political leverage to obtain five seats on the legislative council, as opposed to the eleven seats reserved for Europeans. Both groups denied any participation for black Africans.

After WWII, Indians and other Asians were found in all occupations – police, bureaucracy, professions, and in business. Their skills in commerce and administration helped bring prosperity to Kenya and East Africa generally. The 1950s saw the growth of anti-colonial feeling, and Asians pushed for increased rights.

By 1962, the Indians dominated the urban political community. They were two percent of the population, but thirty-three percent of Nairobi’s population, where they dominated the business community and owned approximately seventy-five percent of “non-agricultural private assets.” There were many buildings with Indian names.

Indian citizens invested in their communities. Here, one of the Juvanjee brothers created a neighborhood park. Like many things in Nairobi, it has not been kept up – maintenance costs money, and there have been other priorities.

In 1964, Kenya won their independence, led by Jomo Kenyatta, who served as their first president. Jomo Kenyatta stayed in office for 14 years, until he died in 1978. The airport in Nairobi and the major street are named after him, along with many other buildings.

He was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, who served as president for 24 years, the longest serving president to date. In his later years, he was accused of abusing human rights and corruption. Moi designated Uhuru Kenyatta (Jomo’s son) as his successor, but Mwai Kibaki won the election. Kibaki, too, became controversial.

After turmoil that boiled over into violence, and rejecting a proposed constitution in 2005, Kenyans approved the new Constitution proposed in 2010, and Uhuru Kenyatta was elected president. Kenyatta was re-elected in a controversial 2017 election where much of his campaign reportedly was managed by Cambridge Analytica. Kenyatta is still president today.

Independence also began a period of friction and political conflict between Africans and Asians. Black Africans were assumed to be Kenyan citizens. All others – Indians and whites – were given two years to apply for Kenyan citizenship and surrender their British or Indian passports. Those who chose not to become Kenyan citizens were viewed with suspicion.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many Indians and Europeans who held British passports were discriminated against by the Kenyatta government, and left for Britain to re-settle. While those days are behind them, the perception of government corruption clings — a couple of people at the Meridian complained to me about the corruption of the bureaucracy and that the leaders allowed it to remain. They wanted to know how to become more like America.

There is a market in the downtown, inside the old arena. The vendors are mainly florists and sellers of souvenirs, art work, and crafts.

There are other high-rises, and they are visible from the top of the gigantic convention center.

A beautiful old library…

And a modern-era mosque

And war heroes. As with other former British colonies, Kenyans were recruited into the military during the World Wars, and there are monuments commemorating their sacrifices around Nairobi and other parts of Kenya.

Vintage buildings are hidden behind newer and less aesthetic storefronts.

The Stanley Hotel, originally built in 1902, and still privately owned, is a bright spot. It has been moved or re-built three times since 1902, to accommodate the collection of famous and rich people who were going on safari in Kenya.

I think the most famous would be Ernest Hemingway. A safari would be well within Hemingway’s mode of living on the edge. The Stanley Hotel has memorialized Hemingway, among others.

Ernest Hemingway photo in the historic Stanley Hotel, Nairobi.

But before there was Hemingway, there were Mr. Stanley and Dr. Livingstone. Those who are “of a certain age” remember the phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” It was the catch-phrase from the famous journey of Mr. Stanley, a Scot, who set out to find Dr. Livingstone. Dr. Livingstone explored much of Africa in the 1800s, including the Zambezi River. That mission ended in 1864, and made Dr. Livingstone famous in Britain and Europe, but after setting out on a new exploration, he disappeared and was not heard from for six years.

Mr. Stanley, whose journey was sponsored by newspapers and private donations, found him, and uttered the words that became famous for their irony, since Dr. Livingstone was the only other white man for several hundred square miles. The adventure was made into a movie in the early 1940s, starring a young Spencer Tracy, and the phrase lived on through several generations.

Dr. Livingstone died a couple of years after being “found,” a natural death from malaria and dysentery. His body was mummified locally, and ultimately was buried in Westminster Abbey. Mr. Stanley continued to explore Africa, which is probably why the hotel is named for him and not Dr. Livingstone.

“Dr. Livingston, I presume?” Spencer Tracy plays Stanley in the story according to Hollywood.

Today, the Stanley Hotel is still a luxury hotel, and the original humble “Thorn Tree” bulletin board has been replaced with a swanky cafe.

The Thorn Tree Cafe in the modernized Stanley Hotel, Nairobi.

There is private lounge space for people who are trying to work, and the original bar is still there, awaiting their presence when they’re done!

The current bar of the Stanley Hotel, Nairobi, Kenya.

Out on the street again, we came to an open air market. It was aimed at tourists rather than locals, but still had interesting things happening. Here, an exchange student from the U.S. and the vendor were having an impromptu drum session.

Impromptu drum session in the open air market of Nairobi.

Do you remember the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, and the simultaneous bombing of our embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on August 7, 1998? Kenya does. Twelve Americans were killed, and two hundred ninety Kenyans and Tanzanians. This park was built on the former embassy site as a memorial to the victims.

The people and businesses who donated to the memorial, an interesting list, are these:

The names of those killed by the bomb’s blast are memorialized on a wall within the park.

Features of the park have symbolic meaning, especially to Kenyans: stones, gathered from Kenyan river beds line the pathway, symbolizing resilience in the face of terrorism and violence; the plants and trees are indigenous to Kenya, and include plants that are considered sacred to many Kenyan communities, and pay tribute to the diversity of those communities; the fountain is made in the form of Yin-Yang, symbolizing two sides of life, turbulence and tranquility.

There is a building in the park, utilized as meeting space, an effort to promote talking instead of killing. Inside the small museum that occupies part of the first floor, there are photos and other displays that relate the events of August 7th, and describe the aftermath. One of the other displays is a column of about a dozen quotes from famous people, quotes related to violence, peace, and change. They are Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Pope Francis, Margaret Mead, Martin Luther King, Jr., Chinua Achebe, Confucius, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and Wanagari Maathai. The quote I liked best, however, was from Lyndon Johnson: “The guns and bombs, the rockets and the warships, are all symbols of human failure.”

What happened? On August 7, 1998, two men in a truck pulled into the exit lane from the parking lot at the rear of the U.S. embassy, and demanded entry. The guards – who were unarmed – refused. The guards tried to call for help, but the single radio frequency and the phones were all busy. Shortly, the bomb exploded at the rear parking lot. Simultaneously, a truck pulled up to the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where the guards also refused entry, and the truck bomb was detonated at the gate. Eleven Tanzanians were killed, and eighty-five injured.

In Kenya, the U.S. embassy was situated at major intersection – Moi Avenue and Haile Selassi Avenue. Nearby the embassy were the railway station and a busy bus station, which meant that many more people were killed and injured beyond the embassy staff.

Notice that the force of the blast blew out all of the windows in the building nearby.

U.S. Marines were deployed to secure and guard the Kenyan site. First responders were allowed in, and embassy staff were kept at the site. Those at the site searched the rubble for survivors, teams from around the world joined the search and rescue, and sadly, to recover bodies.

All told, Kenyans, Tanzanians, and Americans, about five thousand people were hurt in this chapter of Osama bin Laden’s jihad.

The four men directly involved with the bombings were tried in U.S. Federal Court in New York City, in March, 2001. The U.S. Constitution limits its jurisdiction to crimes committed against U.S. citizens, although the scope of the deaths and injuries from the incident were made known to the jury.

They were found guilty on three hundred two counts of murder, and are serving life imprisonment without parole. Many were satisfied, but many were disappointed that they were not sentenced to death.

It was moving to read the account of the attack and view the photos. I felt drained at the end.

Interesting, and less emotionally draining, was the Natural History Museum.

Ahmed of Marsabit, a “big tusker” from northern Kenya.

Ahmed, born in 1919, lived in northern Kenya, in the Marsabit National Preserve. He became famous for the size of his tusks – 68 kg/148 lbs each – and for his Presidential bodyguard. President Jomo Kenyatta was subjected to a post card campaign by school children pleading for Ahmed to be protected, and in 1970, President Kenyatta declared Ahmed a national treasure and assigned five rangers to guard Ahmed day and night from poachers.

Tales grew up around Ahmed, the most famous being that the bull elephant had to “walk backwards to go uphill.” Hard to know if that’s true, no one produced evidence, but there are photographs that show Ahmed resting his head on his tusks.

In 1974, Ahmed was found by his bodyguards (maybe 24/7 not strictly observed?) leaning against a tree, dead, but not poached, at least not successfully. His tusks were intact. He was officially declared to have died of natural causes, but there is some controversy. An autopsy was performed, and there were found two now-antique bullets in his stomach, which generated speculation that these were what killed him, although it took a long time.

His skeleton, including the tusks, is now displayed in the National Museum, with a security team focused on him to prevent theft of the tusks. A replica of Ahmed, as he appeared in life, stands outside the museum.

Since Ahmed’s death, and in response to more public awareness of elephant poaching, closer security has been given to elephants generally, but no presidential protection has been extended again to individual elephants.

After Ahmed, the skeletons of early hominids seemed dull and academic, but the museum does have some notable specimens. One is pictured below:

An interesting juxtaposition is presented by the side-by-side display of a human skeleton with a chimpanzee skeleton. The differences are listed, although it’s easy to see them if you look, and they illustrate the adjustments from life in the trees to life on the ground.

Below is Fossil KNM-WT 15000, or “Turkana Boy” to his friends. Turkana Boy was between seven and eleven years old when he died. He is about 1.6 million years old, and the most complete fossil of an early human to date, at least, as of 1984 when he was found. Turkana Boy is so named because he was found on the bank of the Nariokotome River, near Lake Turkana.

Kamoya Kimeu is the name of the fossil collector who found him. Apparently, Kimeu is well-known in the fossil-collectors’ world, having started his career with Louis and Mary Leakey, also well-known. Kimeu was recognized by the National Geographic Society in a ceremony at the White House, with a NG award presented by President Ronald Reagan. Turkana Boy now resides at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.

The final stop in Nairobi was the statue of Dedan Kimathi Wachiuri, who became famous in the Mau-Mau Uprising of the 1950s. The Mau-Mau were not a tribe, although many of their members came from the Kikuyu tribes. Rather, they began as a group of landless farmers, farmers who had lost out as land was distributed by the Europeans to other European settlers, just as the Indians lost out (discussed at the beginning of this.) The Mau-Mau name’s origin is not known, or maybe just “overlooked.” One museum historian said the phrase meant “kill, kill,” which isn’t exactly the publicity Kenya would want as it became independent.

Jomo Kenyatta and the Kenya African Union (KAU) had been pressing Britain for political rights and land reform since 1945, but not making much progress. A group of KAU activists, impatient for reform and independence, broke away and formed the Mau-Mau, a militant group that used violence to fight the British for independence. It was a violent and bloody time in Kenya.

During this time, Dedan Kimathi became a leader in the Mau-Mau movement. In 1957, he was wounded, imprisoned, and hanged by the British.

By 1960, Britain and the KAU were negotiating, and in 1964, Kenya became independent. The Mau-Mau are given part of the credit for independence because they certainly made Kenya painful to keep for the British.