In 1986, Lorna Macleod, a recent addition to Micato Safaris’ marketing staff in New York City, was on her first trip to Kenya when she was waiting outside a Nairobi shopping center, watching a 6-year-old walk from car to car and ask for money. When the small boy finally came to her vehicle with a note that said he was trying to raise cash for the uniform he would need to go to public school, Lorna learned that he needed the equivalent of $15. She took out her Kenyan shillings and gave the boy the full amount. The young lad paused for a second. Then tears streamed down his face before he blurted, “God bless you, lady,” and ran off.
When Dennis Pinto, Jane’s son, returned to the car, Lorna turned to him and insisted that they should do something to help on a larger scale. Within a month AmericaShare was born, and so was its first project — the School Sponsorship Programme. Over the years, SSP has helped send about 350 kids from Mukuru to private boarding schools in and around Nairobi, at a cost of $1,500 a year for each child.
“We decided to bridge our well-to-do sophisticated travelers with people like that little boy — who, by the way, we never saw again. He changed so many lives and has no idea,” Macleod says.
It wasn’t hard to convince Dennis’ parents, Jane and Felix Pinto, the owners of Micato Safaris, to support AmericaShare. A native of Nairobi, Jane was already active with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity Home in town, which cared for some 800 orphans.
If you meet Jane Pinto, who has made it a point to meet each of her clients since Micato originated in 1966, dining on family-favorite Indian entrées at the Pinto home in Nairobi, you quickly realize that she cares deeply about her fellow Kenyans — far more, at times, than about the wildlife safaris they are selling. At a luncheon at Giraffe Manor, on the outskirts of Nairobi, where giraffes stick their heads into the rooms of a country estate converted to an inn, I stare in awe at the long-necked creatures while Pinto would much rather talk about Nairobi, Mukuru or the Maasai villagers in the bush. It’s hard not to be infused with her genuine joie de vivre and become part of the Micato family after meeting her. So, in essence, Pinto is giving her new extended family the option of spending one more day in a community that’s dear to her heart.
Consider the impact of going on an ultraluxurious safari — one of the most exorbitant travel experiences, where the daily cost often exceeds $1,000 per day — to spending a morning in a slum like Mukuru, where its inhabitants are hoping to make $1,000 per year. The socioeconomic extreme is at its widest gap, with the most affluent people on the planet meeting the most impoverished. Cynics would find this commingling forced and manipulative, a way for the rich to assuage their guilt after dropping so much money on a safari. Other skeptics will cry that Micato is simply adding its name to a long list of high-end outfitters that have joined the growing trend of voluntourism as a way to sell trips. But Micato started AmericaShare long before corporate social responsibility became a mandate. Plus, there’s no denying the results or the impact.
“Many Micato travelers refer to the few hours spent in Mukuru as the life-affirming highlight of their trip,” notes Dennis Pinto. Bernard Wharton concurs: “When you go to Africa that first time and you go on safari, it’s all about the animals and the landscape, with the people coming in last. Then, as you get into it, the order reverses itself. It’s all about the people. The love for the people.”