Ugh, where to begin?
I spent a good amount of time during my first week in Africa debating how to start my inaugural blog post. Do I talk about how Kenya is like The Lion King come to life? How the people here are some of the nicest I have ever met? How the night skies are so dark you can see stars you never knew existed?
Clearly, that internal debate remains unresolved. But I knew as soon as I stepped out of the Jomo Kenyatta Airport into the warm Nairobi sun that I was in for the experience of a lifetime. Because despite the 30 hours of travel, the complete lack of sleep, and the incredibly annoying leg cramps I was more excited than I had ever been in my life. Unfortunately, though, the travel was not over as I had one more 5 hour drive to my African home.
It seems intuitive, but the drive from the airport to my final destination really opened my eyes to just how different Africa is to any place I’ve ever been. The bustling village markets, the herds of goats and cattle that block traffic, the little kids who play along the side of the highway but stop to wave as you pass by…it was all so surreal for me. But of course, what really blew my mind were the animals. I saw baboons scurrying through canopy, zebra grazing in the grasses and, the real kicker, towering giraffes peeking through the trees – all in my first few hours in Kenya. It’s amazing what you can see just on the side of the road in Africa – things you’d expect to be so rare and hard to find. As a nature lover there’s nothing more thrilling than seeing an animal as beautiful and majestic as a giraffe living peacefully in its intended habitat. I’ve since seen many giraffes since that first one, but the excitement never diminishes.
A little orientation: I am spending most of my 3 months in Kenya at the Mpala Wildlife & Research Center in Central Kenya. It’s a vast 49,000 acres of pristine wilderness that millions of animals call home – from enormous elephants to prowling leopards to hungry hippos. What makes Mpala so special is that it’s operated by not just Kenyan organizations (like the National Museum of Kenya), but also American ones like the Smithsonian and Princeton. It’s an international conglomerate set on promoting the importance of protecting the increasingly threatened African savannah.
While it honestly doesn’t seem like it, I did actually come to Africa to do work. Over the next 12 weeks I’ll be taking 4 research based field classes dedicated to studying different interactions between animals, humans, and the environment. My first class is Vector Biology – the study of the organisms that carry and spread diseases (mosquitoes, in particular). At first, I thought the class was a crazy idea. What kind of idiot goes to Africa – home of the world’s deadliest mosquitoes – and goes out of their way to spend time with them? But after just a week I’ve grown a new appreciation for mosquitoes (although I’m still questioning my intelligence) and their role in transmitting some of the world’s most infamous killers. The class is taught by the incomparable Dino Martins, accompanied by good boy Barabara (which means “road” in Swahili) and classroom distraction Dudu (“insect”).
It’s so difficult to pick a highlight from my first week, but the game drives really stood out. Each one is a treasure hunt for some exotic and elusive animal, and you really never know what you’re going to find. Adding to the fun is the transportation: we drive around in these safari vans designed to allow us all to stand and peek our heads out the roof.
A few nights ago we spotted two male lions roaming around after dark – an extremely rare occurrence at Mpala. For reference, our TA has been here for 5 months and hadn’t seen a lion before that night. It is impossible to describe the rush we all felt as we watched those two kings stroll calmly next to our vans. They paid no mind to our excited whispers and the constant clicks of our cameras – as if they knew that the savannah was theirs to rule. (Apologies for the poor quality of the photo below – photographing in the dark without a tripod is a very difficult task.)
If there’s one common theme from my first week in Kenya, it’s that everything here – from the villagers to the elephants to the army ants – works together in a harmonious environment the likes of which I’ve never encountered. This is the first place I’ve ever visited where the people truly consider themselves to be a part of the natural world, not above it. It’s a mindset and a way of life that I hope the rest of the world will one day grow to rediscover.
If my first week is any indication, my time in Kenya is going to be truly special. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll stay tuned for next week’s post! I’ll leave you with one final photo of the magnificent Mount Kenya during a classic African sunrise:
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