Ever since taking a university class on politics in Africa, I have been borderline obsessed with humankind’s first inhabited continent. The cultural, political, and historical distinctness of the place swelled in my mind.
Despite hours spent researching the topic of Africa, the shock and awe of reality during my first encounter with the continent went far beyond any book I had read.
The Sore Thumb
As a pale-skinned, shorts-and-sandals-wearing Westerner, I stuck out like a sore thumb in Kenya. From the start, I was inescapably an outsider.
Interactions in Kenya are, to put it simply, raw – at least compared to those in the Western world. For instance, when you sit down at a cafe the waitress doesn’t ask you how you are; she asks you want you want to eat. They were quite clear about my position in their county as a tourist – someone with expendable funds.
Kenya’s economy is very much based on tourism, which is the country’s principal source of foreign exchange. The economy and society are very much set up with this in mind. Our hotel in Mombasa, the country’s beach location, which I visited for a weekend had a very clear price list, with different rates for (in ascending price order) Kenyan residents, residents of nearby Central African countries, and visitors. Likewise, at Nairobi National Park, where we went on an afternoon “safari” drive, my companions (British) and I (American) were both required to pay in U.S. dollars (which, I hasten to add, we had to attain by finding a currency exchange shop), whereas our Kenyan friend and driver paid in Kenyan shillings – and at only a fraction of our rate.
Probably the most astounding tourist situation was the market. We were followed by our own personal shoppers, who did the bargaining on behalf of the sellers. My Kenyan friend was able to make his own purchases at his leisure (again, at a much lower price).
Getting the Experience
Experiencing the true Kenya was a challenge for a few reasons. One reason was the danger that I would have put myself in if I had explored each place that interested me. For example, I desperately wanted to see the city’s Shanty Town, but this was not an option, since shady characters and Taliban members are known to hide there.
My situation as a foreigner became blatantly obvious when a local fisherman in Mombasa described his favorite drink – a coconut wine made in a nearby village. My desire to taste this beverage was accompanied by the knowledge that I was not part of the circle of locals and thus could not partake.
Taking It Home
The striking images I saw were nearly impossible to capture. Portable electronics, other than mobile phones (which can be found even in remote areas), are not common in Kenya. For this reason, a camera is an awkward thing to pull out, emphasizing otherness and advertising to thieves. Further, it feels so sleazy, so insensitive, somehow, to snap away at another’s hardships, or even at the mere difference between the subject and the traveler.
Aside from the logistic problems in creating evidence of one’s African journey, there is still a difficulty in describing one’s experience. The feelings within me during my first trip to my beloved continent are impossible to pass on – both the uplifting and the frustrating.
Writer: Sabrina Cargill-Greer
Location: Sacramento, California
Sabrina Cargill-Greer has three things to thank for her MA in Philosophy: Post-it notes, good running shoes, and the ability to throw random ingredients into a slow cooker and hope for the best. When she’s not simultaneously accruing air miles and trying to offset her carbon footprint, she is taking pictures of her food and posting them on her blog