kenya: first thoughts

I am totally at awe with the culture and nature of Kenya. Such a beautiful, humbling country. I cannot think where to begin describing Kenya to you. It commands an unusual excitement that grabs you as soon as you step off the plane - giddy yet very self aware. No third hand experience can ever really prepare you.

For me, it was the smell of the country that struck me immediately. A mixture of burning sweet smelling wood, fresh foliage and sandalwood greets you as you emerge from the plane and grows stronger and stronger as you travel into the depth of the country. It's a perfume that you never quite get used to, always lingering at your nostrils, seeking to remind you of where you are. It becomes a comfort blanket, something to warm the already excited soul.

As we queue nervously in line to present our visa and yellow fever certificates, we find ourselves practicing what little Swahili we know - "Jambo" the double entendre meaning hello, but also "problems?" We quickly decide that it may not be the best opener with which to greet Government officials, so we settle for the cheesy grin over the elaborately craved ebony counter. We needn't have worried: Kenyan people are a law unto themselves - incredibly friendly, to whom nothing is too much trouble. Eager to meet every new tourist passing through, the ambush of friendly faces - a sea of smiles - greet you as you enter the "arrivals lounge." It's a world away from Heathrow - there's no denying that, but you immediately find yourself asking if this is a better world? They have nothing but the clothes on their back, the corrugated iron shack they live in on the outskirts of Nairobi (if they are lucky) and a family to feed and nurture, yet they are more open, friendly and intriguing than us westerners - with our designer luggage, an array of digital cameras and mobile phones - could ever be.

It's a dichotomy pitched at the start of the holiday, which is prevalent throughout; who truly is the better off? Us with our modern day wizardry, gadgets and distractions or a race who place their love, energy and soul into preservation of family and culture? I hope, in some way, to be able to draw an answer for you through my observations.

We arrived mid-October, in a comfortable heat and sunshine, with the jacaranda trees flowering brilliant indigo, the rivers starting to enliven again, the brush at times brilliant green, in other places still scorched and straw white. The magical trees, dotted across the landscape, interspersed with mud huts and dirt tracks, will never stop being an awe-inspiring reminder of this very special, and much scarred continent. This is a place where, perhaps, man was first formed; but more than that, it is a place where nature roams, endangered by the elements as much as by humanity's amoebic expansion, where everything is alive, where everything is important, no matter how small.

As an infrequent visitor to South Africa, I was struck - and I shouldn't have been - by the fact that there were very few white people. This is, after all, one of the heartland countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and supposedly untouched by the White Hand to the extent that Zimbabwe and South Africa have been. Yet while 99% of the inhabitants are black, it is clear that colony has played an important role in shaping the country, whether positive or negative. This is a very young and immature country, having achieved independence from colonial rule in only the late 1960s; unfortunately, initial observations show it to be in a permanent state of deterioration and division, as far as economic and class systems are involved.

In comparison, it is almost encouraging to be able to apply the race question to South Africa's disparate economic worlds, because it offers an explanation for the wealth divide, as unfair as it is. In Kenya, there is no such opportunity - there are simply capitalists and poor. Coca Cola adverts and mobile phone stands are omnipresent, even in areas where tribal populations are way in excess of the expanding city mass. Yet the Western influence seems ever expansive, and ever divisive; I commented that a can of coke costs only five pence just outside Mombasa, but five pence is a significant financial commitment to 90% of Kenyans who earn way below the poverty line. A country which allows, and perpetuates, this kind of division, has already stepped too far into a dangerous territory where its initial values of freedom and equality have been manipulated into a terrifying capitalist monstrosity of competition, where survival can only be assured by slaying competitors. In the heartlands of the United Kingdom or the USA, this is only to be expected, and can be very progressive; but this is only because the backbone of the system allows it - there is adequate financial aid, health insurance, and other provisions, which allow a level of risk to be afforded. In a new and bold country, not just the weak, but the moderately unsuccessful too, will fall by the wayside when the accumulation of wealth becomes the modus operandi. In comparison with the traditional values that still exist in all 42 of Kenya's tribes, one is saddened to realise that the erosion is inevitable, and that it's our fault.