Torrential rains have triggered devastating floods and landslides across East Africa in recent weeks, aggravating an already challenging situation as countries in the region battle the coronavirus pandemic.
Floods and landslides in Kenya have killed nearly 200 people, displaced 100,000 and strained critical infrastructure, after the River Nzola burst its banks.
Although May usually marks the end of the rainy season, the Kenya Meteorological Department has forecast that heavy rains, which accelerated in mid-April, are expected to continue in the coming weeks.
In western Kenya, residents have had to carry their belongings away from their submerged houses using boats and motorbikes. The government is providing food and water to the displaced people and has also requested the Ministry of Health to provide them with masks as a precautionary measure.
Floods have destroyed 8,000 acres of rice fields. Kenya was already facing a looming rice shortage due to shipping disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
The heavy rains and landslides are threatening water shortages as well. The infrastructure used to deliver water has been washed away and pipelines have been clogged. Residents of several cities, including in the capital Nairobi, are being asked to use their water in a “rational” manner.
Kenda Mutongi, a professor of history at MIT, writes about the development of the matatu bus business amid the backdrop of a developing country with all the inevitable problems associated with a neophyte nation.
She tells of the ingenuity and tenacity of Nairobi’s mwanainchi (true citizens) despite the racist policies, economic oppression, and political corruption that permeated their world.
Though I lack even the tiniest bit of knowledge concerning urban development, Matatu: A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi offered me a way to navigate the socioeconomic and political themes that play out in a newly developing, fast growing city.
I’m captivated by today’s matatu culture. Perhaps that’s why Professor Mutongi’s book, which might otherwise have been a long, laborious educational workshop was, for me, a fascinating adventure. The professor describes how Nairobi’s rapid growth ran in parallel with the evolution of the matatu transport business, as she chronicles both events from the time Britain relinquished colonial control, on into the twenty-first century. The two processes intertwine so completely that her claim that the success of one could not have happened without the success of the other, appears indisputable.
Matatu: A History doesn’t read like a dry, slow-moving textbook, but rather an engrossing tale of exploding urbanization, poverty, racism, bribery and exploitation, along with entrepreneurship, upward mobility, artistic expression, pop culture and a city’s sputtering lurch toward democracy. It’s all there for the reader to absorb.
Need something lighter? Try The Matatu by Eric Walters.
From the Forward by Ruth Kaytha, Director of The Creation of Hope
“Every culture has its own folktales and stories. Among the Kamba of Kikima, Kenya there is a story told about animals and matatus. Eric Walters and I were driving around when I told him a brief version of the story about the goat, the sheep and the dog. He decided to expand it and create a picturebook. We believe Kamba stories should be told by members of our tribe. In June of 2009, Eric was made a Kamba elder. It is only fitting that Eric has expanded and retold this Kamba story, as we consider him one of our own.”
A number of internet sites warn tourists against using Nairobi’s matatus, citing their utter disregard for traffic laws, lurking pickpockets and eager conmen. Other travel guides tout the buses’ quirkiness, with one detailing how to take kids on a tour of Nairobi using matatus as the singular mode of transportation.
I’m not remotely interested in cars of any kinda, but I became fascinated with these mobile works of art, and quickly found myself caught up in the matatu culture.
Matatus started as rickety, wired-together junkyard vans and pickups with wooden benches meant to accommodate commuters and farm animals. They were merely functional (when they functioned!). They have evolved into luxury mini buses blaring hip-hop music out into the streets while sporting snappy slogans and images of popular national and international stars. They are now fashionable as well as functional.
Each matatu is built entirely from scratch, usually from the stripped chassis of a new truck. Fabricators weld the skeletons and attach the side panels.
Upholsterers often work in tandem with the fabricators. Wiring for souped-up speakers and high definition TVs is installed.
Once the blank canvas is ready, matatu artists embellish the buses with graffiti and bold designs, covering them with images of movie stars, politicians, religious icons, cartoon characters, war heroes and humanitarian champions. A customized paint job can easily cost up to $20,000.
Sarafina Mumbi is a young Nairobi woman who is using her talents to break into the male dominated graffiti business. She began breaking ground as Kenya’s only female matatu artist in 2013. Despite overt prejudice and ill-treatment, she is now creating some of the most colorful matatus on the road.
Part of her break-through into this multi-million dollar industry was due to a 14-seat bus, commissioned by UNICEF, that she painted for International Women’s Day 2018. The text and images on that bus promoted Women’s Empowerment.
The matatu industry is a source of employment for hundreds of thousands of people, mostly youths. It employs garage, car wash and parking lot attendants, welders, system engineers, car dealers, upholsterers, drivers, conductors, mechanics and, of course, graffiti artists. Matatus aren’t simply modes of transportation. These Art Galleries on Wheels are a way of life.
– “The best word to describe Nairobi traffic? HECTIC! After hectic, it is CRAZY.” – “You know you’re in Nairobi when the main topic of conversation is the terrible traffic . . .” – “Woe unto you if any part of your day involves getting from one side of the city to the other.”
Comments like these pop up whenever a newspaper, internet site or travel book discusses transportation in the city of Nairobi.
In September 2019, Nairobi was ranked as the fourth most congested city in the world, an improvement over its 2017 second place ranking.
Knowing we’ll be visiting several tourist sites while in Nairobi, I looked into public transportation. Along with taxis, Uber, auto-rickshaws (tuk-tuks), motorcycle taxis (piki pikis) and city-run buses, there are privately owned vehicles called matatus.
Matatus are minibuses that weave and bounce around the city, blaring music and displaying 60s psychedelic-like art as they nimbly steer alternate routes, connecting the city more adeptly and more frequently than other types of transportation. Turning a blind eye to reckless driving, they’re able to dodge traffic jams, something only the single-seat motorcycle taxi can emulate. They’re cheap too, costing no more than $1.50 to go just about anywhere in the city. And they run well after dark.
Each matatu, as required by law, has a crew of two; a driver and a conductor. The driver’s job is to get the passengers to their destinations as quickly as possible. If that means driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding down a busy street, or reeling around blind up-hill corners, so be it.
The conductor performs many tasks, acting as a circus barker beckoning commuters to choose his bus, collecting fares and signaling the driver when to pick up or drop off passengers. He does all this while he hangs outside the matatu, even when it’s moving.
It is estimated that there are 18 thousand matatus connecting every inch of the city.
Individual matatu buses and routes are privately owned and operated, which means schedules and ticket prices can change at the whim of whoever’s in charge. Pick up and drop off points are called stages. It’s best to locate your boarding stage well in advance if you’re new to the city. Even finding the right stop can be tricky. As one travel book put it, “You just kind of have to know.” If you choose the wrong line, you could waste half a day on an already long trip.
As with any free market, price alone is not enough to attract customers, particularly the youth. Competition among matatu owners is high. They need to ensure their minibuses are top notch, spending up to $70,000 for the over-the-top amenities alone.
Matatus offer high speed internet connections and comfortable seats. (Seatbelts are now required by law.) Many have flat screen TVs, both inside and out, that continually play movies, music videos and sporting events. Some provide power sockets and USB outlets at every seat. iPads are available upon request. There are even Matatus with disco balls, fish aquariums and airline-type TVs on the back of every seat.
For longer trips outside the city, matatu owners have introduced hostesses, who offer services like those you might expect on a plane or train, carrying luggage or lounge waitressing.
Matatu culture is loved and loathed in equal measure. Some prefer the less pimped up versions, hoping to avoid the mayhem of loud music and questionable driving, but the urban youth continue to view them as part of their African identity.
In 2008, Africa’s Northern White Rhinos were considered extinct in the wild. In the years that followed, the situation got worse. But scientists had a plan.
PHASE 1: GATHER UP THOSE THAT REMAIN
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, at the base of Mt. Kenya, houses the only 2 remaining Northern White Rhinos in the world: Fatu, 30, and her daughter Najin, 19.
They live there under 24-hour armed guard.
In 2009, they were moved to Ol Pejeta, along with two males, Suni and Sudan, from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Of the eight Northern Whites left in the world, these four rhinos were thought to be the most fertile.
The rhinos were packed in special wooden crates built to support their weight for the flight to Kenya.
But first they had to be crate trained so that they’d enter the crates on their own. Those of us with dogs know how easy that must have been!
The rhinos were moved to the conservancy in hopes that a natural environment would encourage them to mate and reproduce. They did mate. They did not reproduce.
It was discovered that neither of the females were able to carry a calf. Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus and Najin has weak hind legs which could cause complications if she became pregnant.
A final blow was delivered in 2018 when Sudan, the last remaining male, had to be euthanized.
While Sudan’s death was devastating, scientists were prepared. An international consortium of scientists and conservationists had been collecting and freezing semen from Northern White Rhino bulls for years.
At the same time, the team was devising an in vitro fertilization process for the endangered whites (where an egg and sperm are fertilized outside the body).
This was an amazing undertaking. Artificial insemination had successfully produced white rhino calves, but in vitro fertilization had never been completed with rhinos before.
PHASE TWO: HARVESTING THE EGGS
In August of last year, the team was able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes (immature eggs), five from Najin and five from Fatu. Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch. The cost in time and research was in the millions of euros.
The eggs, which cannot be frozen, were immediately flown to a laboratory in Italy to eventually be fertilized with the frozen sperm from four deceased males.
PHASE THREE: FERTILIZING EGGS
From the ten eggs, two embryos were created in September 2019, and the third was created in December. The embryos are being stored in liquid nitrogen, with conservationists planning to implant them in a southern white rhino surrogate mother in the future.
PHASE FOUR: SET THE STAGE FOR A ROMANTIC ENCOUNTER
One of the things the scientists are struggling to work out is the timing to implant the embryo. They need to know exactly when the female’s body is best ready for the embryo to attach to the uterus lining.
Scientists are hoping that the chances of the surrogate carrying the pregnancy through to birth may be increased if they implant the embryo right after she has mated.
This hunch has led them to set the scene for the next stage in their elaborate plan. Four wild female southern white rhinos have been enclosed with their offspring in their natural habitat.
The next step is to put a sterilized southern white rhino in with the females (would-be surrogates). As soon as they see the sterilized bull mounting, they dart the female, put the embryo in and hope for the best.
In the best case scenario, only a handful of calves may be born from Najin and Fatu’s eggs, and the lack of genetic diversity between the half-siblings could make it impossible to create a viable breeding population. To tackle that problem, stem cell research will have to be done, and that brings up the question of medical ethics. Nothing is easy about this entire operation.
If all this work miraculously produces babies, the first northern white rhino to be born should be named Lazarus.
According to a not too recent Weekend Edition on NPR, Kenyans are crazy about country music. They enjoy songs from the 70s and 80s best, and are particularly fond of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. As much as you’re apt to hear Patsy Cline, Crystal Gayle and Vince Gill playing in the local bars, Kenyans don’t follow U.S. country singers exclusively.
“My Land is Kenya,” by Nairobi-born folk artist Roger Whittaker, makes even the young hip-hop crowd stand a little bit taller. (If you take time to watch and listen to the video, you’ll note that his signature whistling skills come through loud and clear.)
The song isn’t in danger of becoming a hit in my house anytime soon, but it does have some nice lines:
“My land is Kenya, so warm and wild and green. You’ll always stay with me here in my heart. My land is Kenya, right from your highlands to the sea. You’ll always stay with me here in my heart, here in my heart.” (Whittaker. Roger Whittaker in Kenya: A Musical Safari, 1982)
Try not to compare it to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and just think of it as a musical warmup to today’s rather boring topic.
My Land is Kenya and it’s covered with more than savanna grasslands.
While providing habitats for animals and livelihoods for humans, forests also offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion and mitigate climate change.
Sadly, Kenya is still allowing its forests to disappear. From 1990 to 2015, forest cover declined by 25%.
Agricultural cropland refers to that share of land suited for crops where there is no need to replant after harvest (e.g. coffee, rubber, fruit trees, etc.). Cropland has increased exponentially in the last 25 years.
The Kenyan wetlands are resources of great economic, cultural and scientific value.
Wetlands provide critical habitats for a wide range of flora and fauna, including a large number of aquatic plants, resident and migratory birds, fish, and herbivores.
Wetlands are areas of great scenic beauty. They are a tourist attraction, form important recreation sites for game and birds watching, swimming, photography and sailing.
They’re important sources of water for human consumption, agriculture and the watering of livestock. They recharge wells and springs that are often the only source of water to some rural communities.
Savanna grasslands are found where rainfall between 20-50 inches is concentrated into a few months.
Kenya’s rainy season is March-May and September–October, with long periods of drought in between. Once it rains in March, the grasses grow very rapidly, sometimes as much as an inch a day. Lots of animals are born at this time. In a good rainy season, there’s plenty of food for animals like the antelope, and mothers will have plenty of milk for their young.
In Kenya there are only three incorporated cities but there are numerous municipalities and towns with significant urban populations.
NAIROBI, THE CAPITAL CITY
Nairobi, the capital city of the Republic has grown from a simple Uganda Railway construction camp to a modern center of commercial, financial, manufacturing and tourist destination in eastern Africa.
It replaced Mombasa as Kenya’s capital in 1907 and became a city in 1950. Today, the city population stands at about 4 million. Both the Great North Road (Cairo to Cape Town) and the Trans-African Highway (Mombasa to Lagos) pass through the city.
Mombasa is the second largest city in the country, with a population of about 600,000. It is the official gateway to the country by sea. It has a history dating back to more than 2,000 years, when the Persians, Arabs, Greeks and Romans visited the East African Coast and carried out trade between the Coast and the Mediterranean Lands.
It is built on what was formerly an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel until a causeway was built at the beginning of this century, connecting the island with the mainland. Tourists come to Mombasa Island to enjoy its calm beauty, once described by Winston Churchill (1908) as “alluring and delicious”.
The following is part of a Birdlife International Newsletter dated April 9, 2020, 7:05 am
A Look Back at BirdLife Africa’s World Wildlife Day Celebrations 2020
On 3 March every year, people across the world gather to raise awareness of the world’s wild flora and fauna. From films and exhibitions to nature walks and face paining, Birdlife International looked back at the diverse ways its various partnerships marked the day across Africa. Special mention was made of the activities in Zambia, the island nation of Mauritius, Nigeria and Uganda (our last stop before returning home).
Nature Uganda, in conjunction with conservation groups and local governments celebrated World Wildlife Day with special focus on the Grey-crowned Crane. The Grey-crowned Crane is Uganda’s national bird. It is facing extinction.
The celebrations included a Conservation Conference in the Kampala, a Crane Festival in Kabale Town, primary school competitions and the launch of the National Species Action Plan for the Conservation of the Grey-crowned Crane.
Tim, one of the last surviving super tusters, died in Amboseli National Park early last month. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), he died of natural causes. There was evidence that his wild animal friends had tried hard to resurrect him.
Famous for his rare majestic tusks, Tim was a very popular sighting for tourists who visited Amboseli National Park. He was considered an ambassador for his species.
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which helped save Tim from a swamp in 2018, sent out a statement saying, “Kenya lost a giant today. Our hearts are heavy as we remember a magnificent elephant who we grew to know and love.”
“Our hearts are broken,” said Wildlife Direct, a Nairobi-based conservation campaign group. “Tim was one of Africa’s very few Super Tuskers, and an incredible elephant whose presence awed and inspired many. He was one of Kenya’s National Treasures.”
Tim was 50 years old. He called the Amboseli ecosystem (which spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border) his home. His body was found not far from the Kimana Gate.
Elephant tusks never stop growing, so enormous tusks are usually a sign of an old elephant. Both male and female African elephants grow tusks. African elephants are referred to as “tuskers” when their tusks grow so long that they reach the ground. Due to poaching, conservationists estimate only a few dozen such animals with tusks that size are now left on the continent.
Tim’s tusks were said to weigh more than 100 lbs each.
Tim’s body was moved to a taxidermist in Nairobi so that it can be preserved for display in the national museum for exhibition and education purposes.
United States citizens traveling abroad can register their trips with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate by signing on to the Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP). Enrollment can be done online at the U.S. Department of State website.
Kenya is a developing country, still in the process of improving its human development index. This, coupled with the recent kidnapping of a California woman in Uganda, makes registering my trip seem like a sensible, precautionary step to take. In case of an emergency, the U.S. government will know about my presence in the country and where to contact me. Registration is free.
I have also signed up to receive email notifications when the latest Travel Advisories for Kenya and Uganda are posted on travel.state.gov. Users can unsubscribe at anytime.
The U.S. State Department publishes a color coded map showing travel safety levels for the world.
Meru National Park is about 200 miles north east of Nairobi. We have a 3-day safari planned in Meru.
Meru National Park is where Joy and George Adamson reintroduced their beloved lioness Elsa back into the wild. The Adamsons wrote a book about their experience which was made into the feature film Born Free.
Rented Born Free on Amazon Video last night. The first time I saw it (which was also the last time) was in 1966, when it was originally released. I haven’t read Born Free, but I understand the film is a decent adaptation of the book.
International flight arrangements have been made. It looks as though I’ll be en route for 18 hours. Considering I was expecting over 20 hours of travel time, this is a pleasant surprise. There’s a layover in Amsterdam where I must change airlines (Delta to KLM). Since I’m traveling solo, this concerns me a bit, but I keep telling myself that I’m going to be just fine.
Los Angeles (LAX) to Amsterdam (AMS): 8 hrs, 20 mins. Layover: 3 hrs. 50 mins. Amsterdam (AMS) to Nairobi (NBO or WIL): 6 hrs, 50 mins.
The Republic of Kenya is the world’s 48th largest country by total area (224,084 square miles), and the 27th most populous. English and Swahili are its two official languages.
Black band = the natives of Kenya Red band = in memory of the blood sacrifice of freedom seekers Green band = Kenya’s natural resources White fimbriation = peace and honesty Warrior’s shield and two spears = the traditions and cultures of Kenya.