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Meeting Kenya’s lions

When you’ve been living in a particular place for a number of years, you tend to forget that a world outside exists. Sure, you see glimpses of that world on television, in the newspapers, in books and pictures – you see the mountains, the forests, the beaches, the towns and cities, the wild animals, the different-colored people. But after a while you must switch off – there are assignments to do, meals to cook, bills to pay, sick relatives to visit, committee parties to attend. And so each day passes, drifting into the other, exactly the same as the one before. On one of these days, you will die, and you may well be a contented, satisfied person, in a worldly sort of way – you had a successful career, a nice family, a nice house, nice friends, a decent social life; perhaps not the most faultless of characters, but still, respectable; and overall yours was a rather cushy existence.

But there is one thing you always wanted to do, and never quite did – your heart would reproach you about it often, about your lack of spontaneity, your unwillingness to accept a change – until finally it spoke no more, its voice drowned in the multitudinous hum of air conditioners and cellular phones.

And on your deathbed, you will wish you had listened. You will wish you had stepped out of the television frames of vicarious existence, stepped out of that neatly-drawn, static little circle you called life, and seen the jungles for yourself.

Heard, smelt, tasted, felt, understood.

You will wish you had traveled.

I’ve always had a fixation with traveling, and I’ve done quite a bit of it too as a teenager, most of the time with family, a few times with friends or for conferences. It’s all been tremendous fun, in the frenzied, touristy kind of way, but this time – my 20th summer – I felt something different. Something more compelling, more powerful; a quieter kind of excitement, a deeper, older, inward kind of joy. I felt it once before, in Mecca last year, when I stood before the Ka’ba, transfixed, eyes sparkling with tears, thinking only that I’d never seen anything more beautiful. That was my faith-temple, my sacred soul-home, but there are temples and soul-homes scattered all over the world – and one of these I discovered past summer, in Africa.

Kenya, to be more precise – any generalization about that vast and beautiful continent is grossly unfair. I’d never been to Kenya, or anywhere in Africa before, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. I had some general impressions – stuff that your mind picks up from random TV shows, nature magazines and Disney movies – all thoroughly wrong, of course, as preconceived impressions are apt to be, and as we learnt (or rather unlearnt), eventually.
The first of these ‘unlearning’ experiences happened as soon as we disembarked at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, and noticed something odd – i.e., the cold! It was the middle of July, a time when back home the temperatures are such you could fry eggs on the windowpanes. Not that I mind cold, of course – I’m a winter person, and cold wind does to me what coffee does to caffeine addicts. But this was a bit of a situation – our packing consisted almost entirely of t-shirts, and, well, t-shirts, save for the two denim jackets Ammi had emphatically made us pack at the last minute. It seems that mom’s active little sixth sense had already whisperingly informed her subconscious that Kenya happens to lie below the equator, making July the blusteriest nippiest wintriest month of the year (a fact that had eluded us completely in all the pre-trip excitement and preparation, which included vaccinations for yellow fever and a month of religious tread-milling at the gym!) We also later discovered that the weather in Nairobi stays cool all year round, averaging 20ºCelsius daytime – which explained why there was no central heating or cooling in any of the homes or buildings, not even fans! It was a paradisiacal sort of climate, crispy cool, dappled with deliciously warm sun, a tickling breeze and minty-fresh air. Now this was something of a revelation to us, after all those pictures of sticky, mosquito-bitten, khaki-clad explorers plodding through parched savannahs under torrid, merciless suns (they obviously didn’t know the best time to visit). And so, happy and suddenly revived, with those denim jackets our salvation, we piled into the High Commissioner’s black Prado for our first look at the city of Nairobi, capital of Kenya.

When I was a participant at some of these international youth summits in America, I remember people asking me questions like, “Do you have computers in Pakistan? Roads? Do you live in mud huts?” and I would get a little annoyed, not so much at the people, but at the startlingly skewed perspective of the international media. While it’s true that millions of people in Pakistan still do live in mud huts in villages with dirt roads and no electricity, millions also live in regular cities, just like cities anywhere else in the world. And what’s funny is that I found myself wondering the same things about Kenya before we left for the trip – and when I came back my friends asked me the same things: “So, is it like, civilized?”  Which, if you think about it, isn’t such an absurd question, considering that the only things we do see about Africa on TV are animals, natives in tribal costumes, civil wars, AIDS, famine. So when we passed the big telecom billboards, the colorful Sunday markets, the bus stops, the roundabouts, the churches, the lovely tile-roofed houses, the banks and shopping malls, the people in ordinary jeans and t-shirts, less the face paint and beaded chokers, I admit it was a bit of a surprise. Nairobi could’ve easily been Islamabad (the pretty hilly capital of Pakistan). In parts, it could’ve been Lahore too (the lovely old big-tree-lined city where I live), and sometimes even Murree (a fun northern mountain-resort). I loved it instantly – it had this cheerful, easy-going, very homey feel about it that told me I could live here rather happily. But what reminded us that we were in Kenya and not Pakistan, what made it Nairobi and not Islamabad or Murree, and what were really Nairobi’s greatest treasure, were – the trees.

I have never in my life seen such gorgeous trees. It is as if the city were an amorphous wild creature, winding and weaving its way through a web of virgin forest. They may have paved the earth, they may have put tall concrete structures in the sky, but here the jungle was still mistress, still queen, and green was the color of her throne, green were her fluttering banners, vivid, glistening, exuberant, alive.  And in the silence of the night, you could hear her breathe, hear her grow – in every twig and leaf and blade of grass, in every flaming flower, you could hear the humming drumbeat of the jungle.

Our driver was called Agre, a rather immense fellow with brilliant black skin and a smile that betrayed his forbidding-suited-bodyguard image completely. He melted before Bia and me the moment we emerged from the airport and greeted him with a beaming “Jambo!” It was lucky I had learnt some Swahili phrases on the Internet before the trip; an occasional “Habari” (“How are you?”) or “Asante” (“Thank you!”) was all it took to win a Kenyan driver, shopkeeper or braid-maker’s heart. But I was wonderfully warmed to see how incredibly friendly everyone was! There are, you know, several types of ‘friendlinesses’, and most often we experience the obligatory type, like the flushed high-pitched overpoweringly polite waitress at Pizza Hut, or the curious blond apartment-neighbor who must feign civility even though her face has turned quite the ashen hue since you told her where you’re from.  Here, however, people were nice because they were. It was just natural. They tried to fleece you a bit, initially, because you were foreigners – very politely, of course, very pleasantly – but being desi (i.e., South Asian Indian sub-continental) and hence bargain-hunters by birth, we escaped the fleecing quite comfortably and ended up taking a nice lot of wooden masks, mini hide-drums, floppy straw hats and sea-shelled sandals back home with us.

But shopping was really the least of Kenya’s attractions. Being females, we couldn’t be pacified without doing some at least, though all thoughts of consumerism vanished from our minds (and reserved themselves for America) the moment we set out for the Safari to Masai Mara (to come later!).

One place you must visit if you’re ever in Nairobi, though, is the Nairobi City Park. You park your car outside this gateless entrance and follow a windy dirt road flanked by riotous trees of nameless varieties, until you turn a bend and come to a clearing, where, in the center, you will behold the most magnificent, unbelievably gorgeous, fuchsia-pink bougainvillea tree. A bougainvillea tree! I was just mesmerized – the tree looked to me a goddess-bride, tall and towering, her green arms and long lush tresses flowing wild with flowers. Crowned in the deepest pink, with a green mantle of vines billowing behind her, she was the most beautiful woman-tree I have ever seen. The photographs, of course, don’t even tell half the story, and the video camera shames her. But in my mind’s eye I can see her, standing there poised in her hushed, dim, light-twinkling temple, a muffled sort of chippering floating on the air… and then, suddenly, furry little shapes materialize from the darkness before your sun-speckled eyes, perched on branches, hidden in thickets, crouched in hollows in the ground, peering from behind tree trunks… and in a sudden rustling, crackling, scampering moment, you find yourself besieged by an army of wild gray Sykes’ monkeys! 

When people look at the pictures of us with the monkeys, they gasp incredulously and ask, “But weren’t you scared?” The truth is, we don’t know, because there wasn’t time to feel scared! They appeared from nowhere, and before you knew what was going in, they were swarming around you, clambering on top of you, tugging your hair, knocking off your hats, fiddling with your jacket zippers, prying into your pockets. No, it wasn’t scary at all – it was supremely exciting! I can safely say that it hasn’t often happened in my life that a big fat fuzzy 30-pounder Sykes’ monkey sits on my shoulder nibbling corn-ears from my palm – nor do you often find monkeys scrambling up your legs or prancing on your head as if it were the most normal thing in the world for them to do.
And it was at that place and moment that we began to discover the true magic of Africa.

The High Commissioner took us out for dinner that night to the yummiest and tastefullest Indian restaurant. There’s a rather large population of Indians in Kenya (something which I didn’t know), most of them descendants of the traders, artisans and laborers relocated here by the British during the 19th century (to build the Kenyan-Uganda railway, primarily). Kenya, being a former British colony, shares much of her historical experiences with Pakistan, as do all former imperial colonies. I could safely say that, post-independence, Kenya’s made much better progress as far as education is concerned, and the results are obvious – everybody can speak, read and write English; nature is respected, not vandalized; public bathrooms are sparklingly clean (an unrecognized though very significant measure of social health, in my opinion); people are polite, and do not ogle; and I don’t think I ever saw a scrap of litter on any street in the city or countryside. But there’s a downside too, a consequence of and reaction to poverty, ethnic strife and a corrupt and completely incompetent police-force – Nairobi (or rather, Nairobbery, as it is fondly referred to by the media) after dark is a veritable den of thieves, mobsters and seditionists, mostly young, unemployed men who resent rich foreigners for coming and entrenching themselves in their country, living in fine houses and having a grand time at the expense of their resources. All houses have armed watchmen, security alarm systems, barred doors and windows. Even in broad daylight you can very well be purse-pinched if you look like a foreigner and are a bit careless about where you keep your money or cell phone. Nothing of the sort happened to us, thankfully, though we were told many horror stories by acquaintances who live there – and so we tried being as discreet as possible when we went out shopping, smiling meekly at any passerby who looked remotely threatening (i.e., anyone not smiling).

I was rather upset when I learnt this, however – I’d quite set my heart on living in Nairobi some part of my life at least, but hearing about this security issue I wasn’t quite sure I still wanted to. And then I felt extremely grateful all of a sudden for little things we could do back home – going for drives late at night, leaving the windows open while sleeping, roaming around Liberty Market without the least fear of being mugged at gunpoint by any random passerby – and for all its other imperfections, I loved Lahore from the bottom of my heart.

(But I still want to live in Nairobi someday!) 

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