Saturday, 12 March 2016

Kenya dig it?

A couple of years ago, along with about a dozen other supporters, I visited Kajuki, a small village in Kenya, to see the work of a small UK charity called St Peter's Lifeline (to which I would urge you to donate. Visit: The charity supports the work of St Peter's primary school and community through education, micro finance, empowering girls, feeding programmes, clean water, sanitation and the prevention of disease. The community was extremely poor, with repeated periods of drought hitting its agricultural economy hard, but the people we met were, almost without exception, hard working, positive and optimistic.

We spent several days travelling around the area, seeing the work of the schools, anti-FGM campaigners and micro-finance groups, all of which was immensely impressive and deeply moving. At the end of a week, we were waved off by the community in the same way that we had been greeted, with a typically dazzling display of warmth and hospitality, and a farewell performance of singing and dancing. It had been intense but wonderful and we left the community bearing gifts and very powerful memories. It had been arranged long in advance that, after seeing the work of the charity, and contributing to it by our visit, we would spend another few days on safari, seeing the wildlife of Kenya.

We arrived at Sweetwaters Serena Camp on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a massive safari park and wildlife preserve, after a long and dusty drive along the Meru-Nairobi Highway. The camp itself was essentially an open-air hotel with large tents instead of rooms, arranged around an old colonial farm building. The drive itself was fascinating, with the dry and dusty roads around Kajuki gradually giving way to lush verdant meadows, north of Mount Kenya. Watching as it slipped past, I was reminded strangely of driving through Somerset in England, although on a somewhat grander scale. Further on, there were the vast greenhouses beside the road that provide other countries with cut flowers and out of season vegetables, and we mulled over the pros and cons of a poor country that can struggle to feed its people using precious water and resources to grow food for others.

The Camp felt like an alien world; geographically close to the people we had spent time with, but it was an international and luxurious hotel that felt a million miles away. Around us were holiday-makers from all over the world, for whom this would, by and large, be their only experience of the country, and as we regrouped at breakfast and dinner, eating well cooked international cuisine, I could see that most of my group were equally dazed by the contrast with where we had just come from. Its very easy to sound po-faced about insensitive tourists, and I wouldn't want to pretend to have been much more than that myself, but it was hard not to feel that it was unjust, such abundance so close to people who had become friends, and who, in contrast, had so little.

We were here to see the animals, though, and as we were driven out into the Conservancy, it was hard not to get caught up in the search for wildlife. The first drive was a little underwhelming, only seeing an elephant at some distance, and then a herd of zebra. Later, when we went out again, we saw giraffes, and then, trundling slowly down a dusty side track, came almost literally face to face with the glorious lioness shown above. We were standing up in the safari truck, and she felt close enough to touch. There's something intangibly thrilling about making eye contact with such a powerful wild animal, and after taking a few pictures, I just watched her as she watched us. I found myself narrowing my eyes at her, an instinctive greeting towards cats, and felt, just for a moment, that we understood each other.

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