In Kenya, luxury meets mind-boggling poverty. The result is a life-changing adventure.It was at the end of a 15-day safari in Kenya when Jane Pinto, owner of Micato Safaris in Kenya, leaned over to one of her clients, Jennifer Walsh, and said, “Would you like to see another part of Africa, one that I cherish just as much as the wildlife?” Walsh and her husband, Bernard Wharton, had already read the literature on Micato’s Lend a Helping Hand on Safari program and knew that guests had the option to see the numerous projects of Micato’s philanthropic arm, AmericaShare, at work. The couple also realized that they could decline the offer and continue on their sybaritic ways by retreating to their hotel pool with a cool Tusker Ale beer.
“We felt very strongly that we should go, so we took the kids kicking and screaming,” Wharton says.
So off they went, but not to some tree-planting demonstration in a remote forest on the outskirts of town or a nice luncheon at a school on a backcountry road. No, Micato’s work is firmly entrenched in one of the poorest communities of the world, the Nairobi slum of Mukuru.
“Flying over the Masai Mara National Reserve on my return to Nairobi one day, I saw the distressing number of vehicles weaving across the land. Seeing the damage being done to this fragile ecosystem — home to the greatest concentration of wildlife on earth — galvanized me to take action,” says Jorie Butler Kent, vice chairman of Abercrombie & Kent. So in 1982, she and her former husband, Geoffrey Kent, founded the Friends of Conservation (FOC). Off-road driving has since been curtailed, and FOC has fought hard to protect rhinos and elephants from poachers, forming Conservation Clubs at 50 area schools. Abercrombie & Kent’s clients have also chipped in, with one American woman handing over a $55,000 check to build a boarding home for girls at the Olopkidongoe School, a Maasai village on the outskirts of the Mara. www.abercrombiekent.com
Wildlife conservation has to play an integral role in any safari company or, in the future, they might not have a realistic business model. Great Plains Conservation, on the other hand, thinks of itself as a conservation organization that runs a handful of camps in Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and South Africa to help subsidize its efforts to minimize poaching, mining, farming and other development that might further encroach the diminishing African habitat. In Kenya, they operate Ol Donyo Lodge (in Chyulu Hills National Park) and the Mara Plains Camp (in the Masai Mara). greatplainsconservation.com
Nairobi attracts wide-eyed optimists from rural communities around Kenya. They come to the city hoping for a chance at a better life but almost instantaneously deal with the harsh reality of little or no opportunity and wind up landing in Mukuru. It’s hard to get a decent census of how many people live in this settlement. The latest estimate is close to half a million people, with slightly more than half of those adults streaming out of Mukuru’s main thoroughfare every morning to walk to nearby manufacturing plants, which pay, on average, $2 a day.
Seeing such a staggering density of population in such a small area is what hits me with a slap of awakening as I drive into Mukuru five years after Walsh and Wharton made their first fateful jaunt. The rusted, corrugated shacks are much smaller than the “matchbox” homes of Soweto, the streets narrower than any poverty-stricken neighborhood in North America. Everywhere you look is a web of dirt roads clogged with congestion. For cars, there’s only one deeply rutted road in and out — and this is the central corridor of commerce. Women walk by with bananas on their head, men carry the weight of water, goat meat hangs from a wire, and vegetables and fruit are sold from mats.
I hide behind the veil of objective journalism, trying my best to be detached as I scribble down notes, which is impossible because the road is so bumpy. Initially, I avoid eye contact, refusing to be sucked into this world of misery. Totally out of my element, I feel the guilty pleasure of a voyeur who knows he can leave at any time. But this is no darkened movie theater where I’m watching Slumdog Millionaire as I dig into a bag of popcorn. This is a harsh dose of reality on a continent that’s been saddled with every woe known to modernity, from tyrannical despots to genocide to HIV and AIDS to malaria.
When I finally put down my pen and paper and muster up the courage to say hello, I don’t see the downtrodden eyes of a person who has suffered terribly. Instead, I see the stern look of a man who remains proud. Many of the children shout, “How are you?” obviously used to seeing the Micato Land Cruisers scurry by. Smiles plastered on their faces, there is no sorrow in their look, only faces brimming with hope.
It was a face like that which helped launch AmericaShare.