I went to Kenya for business, but it was the spirit of its people that will draw me back.
There was a great irony in this situation as, while I was discussing with hundreds of prospective Kenyan students all the things they might be able to do for the first time if they choose to study in the UK – attend a Premier League match, take a ride in a black cab or make a snowman – I was experiencing their country for the first time.
I was in wonderment only minutes after landing at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Travelling along the Mombasa Road towards the centre of the capital in an Uber, I saw zebras for the first time outside of a cage. It was an awe-inspiring moment and I asked that the taxi driver went around the roundabout a second time so I could film the beautiful sight.
Although I was only in Nairobi for a few days, I attempted to immerse myself into the local culture as much as possible – mainly through my love of food.
I had an incredible night with colleagues at Roadhouse Grill, complete with dancing, one or two Tusker beers and ‘nyama choma’ (grilled meat), accompanied with mountains of ‘ugali’ (cornmeal), ‘irio’ (mashed potato, corn and peas) and fresh salad. This was truly one of the greatest meals I have had the pleasure of devouring and I can’t wait to try it again.
If my night at Roadhouse Grill wasn’t enough, the following evening I attempted to demolish another plate of meat at Carnivore, this time switching goat for more exotic offerings; crocodile, ostrich and… buffalo testicles! The staff here were wonderfully welcoming and the restaurant’s location is a veritable feast for the eyes itself.
Furthermore, as you would expect, the tea and coffee served in Kenya cafés and restaurants was fantastic, and I brought lots of lovely blends home to enjoy.
During my stay, Kenyans would ask what it was like visiting my country’s ‘little sister’. While Kenya may be less developed than the UK, clearly its people are embracing the digital age at a pace that leaves most of us Brits in the dust. Mobile financing services like those offered through M-Pesa are almost unheard of in the UK and I was amazed to see that most people had more than one mobile phone on their person.
Of course, there are lots of similarities between the UK and Kenya too. We drive on the same side of the road, refer to money as ‘bob’ and our biscuit aisles in the supermarket are almost identical – shortcake, anyone?
My trip allowed one free day and I decided to spend most of it exploring Nairobi National Park. Led by a knowledgeable guide from Perfect Wilderness Safaris, we first visited the Giraffe Centre, which protects the endangered Rothschild giraffe. Our next stop was at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where orphaned elephants are cared for and reintegrated back into Kenyan wildlife.
After a stop for lunch, we entered the National Park proper and I ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhed’ as all the wonderful creatures I had only ever read about or seen in a zoo passed right in front of me in their natural habitat.
From a lion devouring a kill to a family of rhinos relaxing on the plain, I was mesmerised throughout, and all such a short distance from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis; the view of the savannah is pierced by Nairobi’s skyscrapers in the distance.
During the excursion, I also developed a soft spot for the warthog. I guess it is something about the way they move and that they never seem perturbed by the other creatures around them.
I also managed to squeeze in a brief visit to Nairobi Railway Museum. As well as showcasing a fantastic collection for train buffs like myself, the museum also offers an insight into the history of Kenya, particularly colonial times.
Although most of the collection was situated outside, the locomotives were immaculately presented and I met with lots of staff on site who were working hard to ensure the steam engines were well maintained.
One of the most interesting – and gruesome – pieces of rolling stock on display relates to so-called ‘Kima Killer’, a man-eating lion responsible for the deaths of a number of construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1900. At the museum, you can climb into the observation saloon, number 13, belonging to Police Superintendent C. H. Ryall, who he was killed in his sleep by the lion. After several attempts to try and make a meal out of other staff at Kima railway station, the lion was eventually captured by workers.
Despite Kenya’s incredible flora and fauna, I think it is the people that I met who will have the most lasting impression on me. I’ve never met individuals who are so intrinsically linked with their culture, history and geography, and can talk confidently about all three with great pride.
I really hope that some of the students I met at the Sarit Centre decide to come and study at my institution, as they will undoubtedly enrich our campus community with their warmth, kindness and great optimism, as well as a great desire to make a positive difference for Kenya and the global community.
All the students I met insisted I explored the Portuguese and Islamic architecture of Mombasa’s Old Town. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to venture beyond Nairobi’s environs on this trip, but based on that recommendation alone, I now have a longing to explore more of this incredible country.
Plus, with a new standard-gauge railway – SGR – cutting train journeys between Nairobi and Mombasa by nearly two-thirds, I know it won’t be long before I come back.