My Masai Mara Safari Diary 2.0

“I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself.” Nelson Mandela

The king of the jungle awaits. This cool guy is certainly at peace with himself.

The Maasai drivers enjoying a break. Kaitek is first on the left.

Kaitek, our articulate Maasai guide,  reminded us to just “let nature take control”. A good idea.

This is his answer to our comments on the relationships of animals in the Masai Mara National Park – where the lion reigns as king. While we decry violence, these animals kill for food and that’s how life in the park goes around. The fittest survives. Nature takes control. Sounds familiar.

We did not come to compete with the lions. Instead of pushing our boundaries, we decided to go slow and enjoy our stay in the camp. It’s time for a real, honest-to-goodness holiday.  Someone who said, “The happiest people don’t have the best of everything. They just make the best of everything”, must have thought of us. continue reading

My Masai Mara Safari Diary 1.0

The long road inside Masai Mara leading to Entim Camp.

“Some people…find they need animals to look at and to learn from. They have discovered that men, not beasts, are uncivilized.” – Cynthia Nolan, ‘One Traveller’s Africa’ 1965

Stunned at First Bite

Just between us, I crammed on work the day I am to leave for a Masai Mara safari off Nairobi, Kenya, I didn’t have time to think what it will be like. I was thinking it would be more on getting some rest (paying several hundred green bucks seemed a downer) and leaving all the emails behind.

continue reading

Beads, pots and cheerful Kazuri women

Elizabeth's hands dedicated to years of shaping colorful beads that fashionably adorned women around the world.

Today, give a stranger one of your smiles.  It might be the only sunshine he sees all day.” ~Quoted in P.S. I Love You, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

-o0o-

Elizabeth worked and sat on the same spot for 36 years.

Most likely with that same wide smile that could warm anyone’s heart in a chilly Nairobi morning. She dared me to speak in Swahili so she can answer my questions conveniently. Then laughed her heart out because she knew I can’t.

Delicate hands lovingly put the clay together to various shapes.

You can see the pride in her eyes every time guests and tourists are taken around to see her, while other co-workers close by creatively shape, color and string together the lovely beads that end up making many women happy all over the globe.

Among them former US First Lady Laura Bush, whose letter of appreciation is nicely displayed at the corner, as a happy owner of Kazuri fashion beads.

What was planned as a light, relaxing day turned out to be a very heartwarming one as well. An Aussie colleague, Elsa, and I have been frequent visitors of Kazuri shops in the shopping malls around Nairobi.

Delightful Gabrielle, a German who also speaks French, did the organizing and we were so grateful. Faith, our American colleague, completed the group. It was a wonderful girls day out!

We were pleasantly surprised to realize that the bead necklaces we have been pouring on for hours came from the shop we toured.

They might even have come straight from Elizabeth’s creative hands! Manned by over 300 women, Kazuri Ltd. produces a wide array of colorful bead trinkets – from bracelets, necklaces to earrings – and delicate clay pots, dainty and memorably African.

Often, and amazingly, the best things are the simplest and the least expected. Getting to know business with a heart right in a Nairobi suburb is among them. Apart from a daily income of USD7-8 per day, the women are provided basic services, giving them dignity and pride in the work that they do.

After the brief tour and an hour-long, tireless inspection of the shimmering beads in the sales shop, bags were filled, paid and safely tucked at the back of our car.

It felt good to be entertained and amazed on this one lovely Saturday and able to share in the Kenyan women’s labor of love.

There are always pleasant surprises in our every day life. All you need to do is feel them and be ready to get inspired.

Get a Kazuri when you are in Kenya, or when you see their shops anywhere abroad. You are helping bring cheer to the lives of these hardworking women.

-oo0oo-

Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight.  Extend to them all the care, kindness and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward.  Your life will never be the same again.”  ~Og Mandino

Lessons from Africa

A cheerful vendor selling huge tomatoes at the roadside in Bulawayo.

It was almost midnight when I stepped out of my Qatar Airways flight in Nairobi, Kenya. I can barely see anything as I staggered from sleeplessness, but a different kind of excitement boiled inside me. Finally! My first African assignment (not the last, I am sure).

The earlier stop-over in Johannesburg, South Africa hardly counted. Except pouring at the airport bookstore, I was not able to go out for lack of time (and that visa thing, of course). In between stops, I managed to make a list of things I learned along the way.

Here goes the top 5 I picked up like precious stones. There’s more but the rest would best be divided for future blogs. You can’t wait, can you?

1)  Patience is a necessity. We lined up for check-in @ the counter of South African Airways flight to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe an hour before departure. After an hour we’re still there listlessly lined up, without anyone coming over to check us in – or to explain what’s going on.

Johannesburg from the sky, enroute to Maseru, Lesotho.

Even the neighboring counters just blankly mouthed a “no clue” at the getting-angrier passengers. Not worth the temper. After almost 2 hours,we boarded. I asked a seat mate why the delay. He just shrugged and said, “Welcome to Africa.” I heard this several times in the course of my trip. Patience, I ticked – top priority!

2) Don’t assume. Check again. It was a Sunday, so I decided I should venture and go to a church in Nairobi. The friendly staff in Jacaranda Hotel where I stayed told me distinctly, that at the far-end of the road I need to get to an overpass to cross. As soon as I saw a cross jutting out. I entered. Mass was starting. Maybe he got it wrong, no need for an overpass. I was wondering the whole time why the process seemed similar but different.

When a colleague and I passed the church again I told him I went there. He asked, “I thought you are Catholic? That’s an Anglican Church.” Ah, ok. Then we both doubled laughing. Anyway, I loved the service and it was one of my most memorable moments. The church was lovely, too, and people were warm. There was only I time when I got puzzled why the priest – garbed in a vestment – was talking about his wife and children. That got answered at least.

The guys seemed to find me weird but that didn't stop me from taking time with the donkeys.

3) Enjoy the worrying surprises. They don’t last. As soon as it was my turn at the immigration line in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, I was told Filipinos are on a no-visa-no-entry status. Gosh! The officer was quite stern-looking. I stared at my colleague what will be next. Then, I was advised to pay for the entry visa. Whew.

When I reached for my bag I asked him why he didn’t look worried. He said: :”If they’re not giving you a visa, they would make the plane wait and get you on board fast.” Uh-huh. I sat at the back of a huge pick-up car and enjoyed the yellowing trees ready for winter. Finally, Zimbabwe!

4) Don’t put valuables and important documents in your checked-in luggage. If you do, be prepared of the consequence (this principle applies in all trips although some airports could be more notorious). When we arrived Maseru, Lesotho, 4 luggages were ripped open. I am glad I used a worn-out one nobody took interest. But come to think of it – if you just lugged your travel documents and lost your bag, sharp headaches will surely haunt you.

And don’t forget to put a pair or two of clothes in your hand-carry. Just in case you don’t like wearing the same wrinkled clothes and you have no time to shop after losing a luggage.

The almost-cuddly tigers at Zimbabwe's Princess Diana of Wales Rehabilitation and Education Center. Princess Diana supported and opened the center herself.

5) Elephants are not cute most of the time. When we passed an herd in Mombasa, Kenya, I requested the driver to stop for some pictures. A staff who accompanied me argued and never allowed me out of the car. He said a lot of rogue elephants roam around this part of the country and they can go wild for no reason, especially if it just lost a turf to another elephant. Huh, sounds very human. So, I put my photography skills on hold that day.

Our last argument that I won’t forget in wrinkled irony was when I hardheadedly insisted: “I can always run when they come charging. They’re heavy and slow. He answered me in a non-budging monotone: “They are slow. But they hardly get tired when they are after of something – or someone.” He did not add, I am in-charge of your safe passage here, but I heard it loud and clear.

Sixth lesson learned, locals know better. Don’t insist. It’s for your own good.

-o0o-

A homestead is a group of mud huts used by one family. One could be for sleeping, another as a kitchen and one more for storage,

There’s something even bigger we can’t capture on film. I call it our ‘inner journey’. Your inner journey is everything that goes on inside your brain when you travel – the unique thoughts, emotions and reactions you experience in unfamiliar surroundings. The inner journey is often the most powerful part of the trip.” – David Fox, Globejotting

Life takes Binkoluhre to its limit

How far can we stretch our threshold on pain? A day? A month? Perhaps a year? How deep we can endure a loved one’s suffering – not counting our own?

When I stepped out of our car to visit Njuke Clinic in Zimbabwe, I braced myself on what I will see. I am not sure how it would feel. I was briefed the monthly food distribution was for HIV and AIDS patients and their families. I expected a pall of misery in the air.

I was getting ahead of my emotion – and its not good. When I go for a writing assignment, I try to keep it in check. But you and I know it is easier said than done.

We always fall for sob stories – and regardless of how many mind-boggling breaking news I’ve watched on TV, doing the actual story interview can still swing an unexpected shock.

It was in Njuke where I met the couple Bickford and Binkoluhre. Both were tested positive of HIV and AIDS – including their two small sons. Yes, the entire family.

Holding my breath standing under the eucalyptus tree, I got speechless for few minutes. I tried to grasp on the reality of this family’s condition. Certainly not the innocent children.

I decided asking how it happened was a non-issue. They stood by each other – and that’s what really matters.

Bickford became sickly and lost his job as a stevedore. When I visited  them, Bickford earns extra income collecting bread rejects and re-selling them in villages. The monthly food ration helps them but there’s never enough for the family’s needs.

As Binkoluhre played with her son, there was that magical moment in my mind when the pain disappeared and the devastating disease stopped existing. Just for few precious minutes.

It was – is – unimaginable to be her. Poverty was stretched as far as your eyes can see. Food was scarce. Their house has almost empty – except for few clothes, darkened pots and sleeping mats.

It has not rained for months, dust was everywhere. Plants were brown and dry. How can people survive the condition year in and out? The cycle was vicious.

Winter time paints a darker gray to an already bleak setting. I imagined Bickford pedaling on his old bicycle going from house to house selling bread. He said the daily battle was tough. With very poor neighborhoods as customers, it can’t always be an easy day for him.

My imagination pans further with him going home empty-handed – to a waiting hungry family. My frequent question comes back to haunt me – How can others have so much, and this family almost nothing?

At night Binkoluhre wonders what the future holds for her children. She has no answer for that. I also don’t.

The countless inspirational books I have read did not offer any relief at that moment when I needed them most. I did not have an answer for her.

Have you gone through this experience? When you know your words would never match the grief that a family member, a friend or an acquaintance is enduring? Silence is fitting.

I remember breaking into an awkward, sad smile – I can’t think of anything I can do for her at that very moment.

Not pity. She deserves better.

0O0

“When you engage in a work that taps your talent and fuels your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by your conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.” – Stephen Covey, The 8th Habit

Then there was Michelle

She was my first interview in Zimbabwe. It was also my first day at work. After a 3-hour land trip, there I was face-to-face with Michelle.

Among thousands I have interviewed in different countries, her story did a caving hole in my heart.

She was 10, yet her story (almost) had it all – abandonment, poverty, hunger, deprivation, pain, hopelessness and more.

How do you write a story like this?

When we sat down at the headmaster’s office, her tears just dropped as she shared her life. It took us a long while to resume. I forgot my questions. I had to keep my emotions in check from time to time. It was hard trying.

She has five younger siblings. Her father abandoned them – her mother was jobless and sick. Most of the time – that’s daily – there was no food. They slept through the night – without eating.

The teacher said she found out Michelle would always keep more than half of her food ration in the school feeding project even if she was still visibly hungry – “…for my younger sisters at home”, she quietly confessed.

Most of the children, over a thousand of them in the school I visited, come in the morning with empty stomach. There simply was no food at home. Period. “The children look forward to their meal in school”, the teacher added.

The meal that consists of ground maize mixed with peas and vegetables was considered “special“. The line was long but the children were well-behaved and organzed, eager to fill the void.

In Michelle’s township, at least 35% of the children were either abandoned or orphaned. Just like Michelle, many of them go to school to get some food and survive – studying comes in a far second.

Looking at the almost endless line at the feeding station, and at the groups gathered under the trees for lunch, I felt my first of the many sinking feelings while in Africa.

I asked myself how others can have so much – and these little ones would have less, even almost none. It is unfair.

The teacher described the feeding program as a “drop in the ocean” considering the widespread hunger in her place, but “it means so much for the children here”. Maybe their only lifeline.

As Michelle innocently puts it, “I love going to school. I learn and I can eat.”

Then with sadness she shared her dream of “completing school and for my family to have what other families have – enough food to eat everyday.”

As we walked around the eating children, their youthful faces focused on their lunch, the teacher expressed wonder how the children were able to adjust to extreme hunger. “It is unthinkable how they can endure and survive”, she said.

Many of us skip meals for a smaller waistline. How often do we truly say thanks when we sit on a meal … and for the food that never runs out of our kitchen?

Many of us, that includes me, often forget – in the rush of days – how fortunate we are. Thanking God non-stop for a million years won’t even be enough.

What did I see from those faces? Gratitude. Appreciation. The day’s meal has been delivered. Hope. Tomorrow there will be another one.

There’s always a lesson to things that we encounter in our journeys. For me it is not just about work. I cannot work without loving what I do. I cannot do my stories without showing I care. God brings us to places for a reason.

That assignment in Africa, is one of the best of blessings in my life. I came to share the story of Michelle, Mapaseka and Maggie to represent the millions of lives like them.

People could say they have heard these stories a hundred times – but if they keep coming up, maybe it tells us something.

Maybe there’s a Michelle, a Mapaseka or a Maggie in our midst. She does not have to come from Africa. She is right there among us. Waiting to be heard.

…human relationships are like a vast, fragile spider’s web. What I am trying to do with my work is to restore part of that web.” _ Restoring the Web, Like the Flowing River, Paulo Coelho