I am not sure what exactly I expected from Kenya - maybe a frame. Like every time Sub-Saharan Africa is represented in the Western world - with a UNICEF frame around it. I tried to ignore my friends as they raised their eyebrows in judgement and screeched: “You are going to Africa? Why?!” It was questioned in the same tone as during my trips or moving of residence to Latin America, Middle East, and Southeast Asia; as if the only socially acceptable travel destination for a young white European woman is Western Europe and North America (limited only to the USA and Canada). I guess it all comes down to the media and reaffirming of the social stereotypes. The stereotype here being that every other part of the world is dangerous and not suitable for a female traveller, especially if she is alone. Although in this case, I was not. I was travelling with my university in order to observe the animal life in its natural habitat.
Natural as this animal habitat may have been, our’s was not. We travelled from Nayeri to Nakuru to Nairobi, the capital, on a strict academic schedule. A Biology themed trip that was supposed to show us the immense diversity of the East African region. I felt confined. The moment we got out of the airport we were greeted by our guides and instructed into white safari vans in which we will spend the majority of our trip. As a European coming from an American university, I felt like all of this, this country, this nature, this life, has been laid out for us like a red carpet. I couldn’t help but compare us to the animals in zoo cages, the same variable staying constant all along - the bars are there to protect the Westerners. We drove between the cities, from hotel to hotel - the only times when our feet were allowed to touch the ground. Throughout all of this, I saw no danger beyond our shiny van windows. I saw no reason for us to stay cooped up in our comfortable leather seats.
My feet touched the ground of real Kenya at one moment, I believe, when one of the vans broke down and we were left stranded on the side of the road leading to a village. A few of us crossed the road to a little sideline store, not to buy anything, but to see, to really see. I think all of us felt like we were being fooled, like we weren’t allowed to see the real Kenya - and I still do not understand why that was the case. We made our way to a little kiosk and struck up a conversation with some men our age, studying at a university in a nearby city. We talked of our majors and where we come from - replicating the same conversation I had numerous times in Europe and numerous times at my American university.
I want to write a travel piece about Kenya, yet I find myself constrained. I would be lying if I were to claim this is a travel piece about Kenya. This is a documentary at its best, the moments singled out for the viewers’ pleasure, a storyteller in a perfect position - not ever having seen the background of the marvelous scenery set for the camera shots.
Have you ever seen a lion? Of course you have, everyone has. Usually in square boxes - whether it be square-fenced boxes of a zoo or square boxes of YouTube videos. Having gotten so familiar with lions over the course of almost two decades I found it hard to comprehend them as actually real the moment I saw them in Nakuru National Park. It still felt like watching a documentary on a flat screen TV with surround sound at my living room back in Croatia. So there we were, in a little safari shuttle car, poking our heads out of an open roof, gazing at two male lions napping in the shadow of a lone tree, and a half eaten buffalo carcass discarded a few dozen meters south from them with two or three jackals feeding on lion leftovers. My professor was tearing up, having achieved his lifelong dream of seeing a lion in the wild. Standing thirty meters away from a lion in the wild, I didn’t even realize the position it put me in. I have gotten used to lions by that point, lions behind bars, lions behind pixels.
And then he roared. One of the lions stood up from his afternoon nap, faced the road on which a car carrying people midst laughter and conversation and noise was parked, opened his jaw, and produced an agitated roar from the bottom of his chest. Something came over me, I still cannot explain what, at the moment I thought I was simply replicating my professor’s tears. For the first time then, I felt the moment we were in. Not behind bars, not behind a screen, we were only meters away from a strong predator that could gulp us up in a matter of seconds. My eyes started watering and this was it, I was here, finally I felt it.
Throughout the trip, I kept having these moments of truth, so to call them. Seeing zebras walking through the savanna in one perfect line. Two giraffes interlocking their necks in an embrace. A hippo chasing a motorboat away from his family. This is nature, I thought, and what have we made out of it? Cruising around in our motorboats and our safari carts. Pretending all along like we are just floating by, like the nature does not even notice us because we do not get too close and we do not touch it. Is that true? Can we get away with that?
It took me a long time to write this piece. I have been struggling with how to frame it. Should I make it a mainstream travel piece and write of the places I’ve seen and their beauties? Or should I compromise my future as a travel blogger and dare to say that this trip just did not feel right? It felt fabricated. It felt staged. From the moment we were greeted at the airport by our guides dressed in the dress of the Masai tribe, until the moment we were given little gift bags, casually left at the seats of our white safari vans, containing Masai necklaces and porcelain elephants.
It would be a lie to say I did not enjoy this trip. In a way, I feel like a saw the world for what it really was without being able to touch it. And that is the point after all, isn’t it? You are not supposed to touch the world. You are not entitled to it. So why would you? I have traveled through Europe and I have traveled through North America, all along dragging my fingertips over the ruins, the history, the nature… feeling like I need to touch the soil in order to feel it. This trip to Kenya has denied me that, it has denied me the feeling of touch. I extend my arm towards the lion and I do not feel his fur, nor the bars, nor the screen, I feel space and emptiness. And for the first time, I feel him as my equal, staring back at me in my white safari van, asking me if this is how it is supposed to be.