In 1998 my husband Wilton and I decided to take a trip to Kenya, which fulfilled one of my lifelong dreams of being able to see wild animals in their natural habitats. I had read so many books about life in the jungle and loved Isak Dinesen’s book and the movie Out of Africa. I enjoyed trips to the zoo to see elephants, lions, and giraffes, but always longed to see them in Africa as they were in Born Free.
But in August of 1998, terrorists bombed the American embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, killing 213 and wounding over 4000 people. My daughters Wendy and Kathi said, “Surely you’re not going to Kenya now.”
Now what? We really wanted to go and figured with all the security forces alerted, Kenya was safer now than ever. We also thought Elderhostel (now Road Scholar) wouldn’t take a group to Kenya if it wasn’t safe, so we continued with our plans. Our tour held so much promise and included a safari at several locations throughout Kenya.
When we left Atlanta in October, headed for Africa, I was ecstatic. Storytelling had become a major interest for me and I had even gone back to school at East Tennessee State University to get a Master’s Degree in storytelling. African folktales especially interested me because they are such beautiful teaching tales, and I could hardly wait to hear them from native storytellers.
Since the flight over was so long, we decided to let our internal clocks catch up before the tour started. We flew from Atlanta to London. After several hours, we flew to Nairobi and changed to a smaller plane to fly to Mombasa. Someone was supposed to meet us there to drive us to Pinewood Village Beach Resort on the Indian Ocean. After a lot of confusion we finally made the connection and headed south on our big adventure—in Africa!
Once we left the airport, we drove through crowded streets that eventually led to an inlet from the ocean that we had to cross on a ferry to leave Mombasa Island and get to the southern part of Kenya. The large wooden ferry was packed with people and vehicles and I couldn’t help remembering a news story I’d heard a few years earlier about an overcrowded ferry sinking at the same place which resulted in almost 300 people drowning. But we had no choice.
Our driver managed to get on the ferry and we crossed the strong current coming in from the Indian Ocean and finally made it to the other side. Once we left Mombasa, the huge crowds diminished and everything changed. After bouncing on the dirt roads full of potholes for over two hours, we arrived at the coastal resort where we had reserved a small guest house. All of the other dwellings seemed empty, probably due to diminished tourism after the embassy bombing. We settled into our place, which came with a house boy to cook and clean for us, and then headed to the beach to see the Indian Ocean.
Over the next few days we rested and took local tours of the land and water around the area. Everyone we encountered smiled and warmly welcomed us to their country. Our meals were delicious, cooked from fresh local produce and fish that Jomo bought at the market each day. One morning I asked him why the monkeys came into our room when we left out windows open. He said, “Because white people feed monkeys. Monkeys don’t go into black people’s rooms.”
Every day I asked Jomo if he knew any stories and he promised to think about it. On our last day on the coast, I reminded him that I wanted him to tell me a story and he said he couldn’t remember any. How disappointing!
Fully rested, we left the coast and headed back to Mombasa, where we checked in at the train station for our evening trip to Nairobi. We were relieved to know they had our reservation and found a place to leave our luggage. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the town and exploring many strange sights. We saw spice markets, huge temples, a museum, the port with large ships, and streets crowded with people, mostly walking like we were. We bought food from a street vendor and did not see a single person who looked like us during the entire day. Several times someone approached us and offered to show us around but we said we wanted to explore on our own. When we came out of Fort Jesus, a young man walked along with us for a while and we enjoyed talking with him. I asked him if he knew a story he could tell me and he said no.
We found our way back to the station and boarded our train at 7PM for the 12 hour ride to Nairobi. After settling into our sleeper room, we poked around the train to find the restrooms and the dining car. The train finally left the station and we headed out to cross Kenya. The train looked exactly like the one Meryl Streep rode on in “Out of Africa” and the scenery looked just like I remember from the movie. I couldn’t stop staring out the window, trying to soak up everything I saw. As the sun disappeared, the landscape turned dark since there was no electricity in the countryside.
I was thrilled to be sleeping on a train—something I had never done. I slept on the top bunk but had difficulty going to sleep because I was afraid I might miss something. Looking out into the night, I saw campfires in the distance. Every time the train stopped, I jumped out of bed, opened our window, and poked my head outside. After several times of doing this, Wilton said, “Would you close the window and get back in bed?” But I was far too excited to sleep.
Some of the stops were too dark to see anything, but others had small buildings with lanterns and a few people standing around carrying torches. One place we saw folks in red robes talking in loud voices. Something was definitely going on because we stayed there a long time, but we had no idea why.
I must have slept a little, but not much. When the sun finally began to lighten the countryside, we dressed and went back to the dining car for breakfast. That’s when we discovered that the skirmish during the night had delayed our arrival time, although we never found out what it was about.
When we arrived in Nairobi, we left the train and found a taxi to take us to the Lenana Mount Hotel to meet up with our group. They had arrived that morning and were about to have a briefing from our wonderful native guide, Victoria. We felt relieved to be with the group so we no longer had to struggle to find our way in a country so different from our own.
After eating lunch, we boarded a bus for an afternoon excursion around Nairobi. The tour of markets, parks, museums and other points of interest included driving by the U.S. Embassy, which was a big pile of rubble surrounded by a lot of armed guards. I was impressed with the buildings in Nairobi—much more modern than Mombasa, but still very different from the U.S. We had dinner back at the hotel and another briefing of the next day’s activities.
The following morning we headed away from town to Kiambethu Tea Plantation where the British owner, Mrs. Wilson, talked to us about the tea industry in Kenya and took us on a fascinating walk around her plantation. Many Kenyans worked for her, but the way she talked down to them irritated me.
The next morning we left Nairobi on our way to Aberdare National Park to stay in the Ark Lodge—a large hotel structure in the middle of nowhere that was shaped like Noah’s ark. We stopped for lunch at a beautiful building in the park where we started to see wild animals. We walked around the grounds after our meal and then continued the drive to The Ark. We checked into our room and gathered at the huge viewing room at one end of the Ark. Many strange animals wandered around outside, but their big attraction is the large animals that come at night into a lighted space outside which is home to the largest natural mineral-lick in the area. Whenever a large animal wanders in, an alarm goes off inside the ark and people jump out of bed and wander in their pajamas down to see the animals through the glass. The alarm went off several times that night and we saw elephants, black rhinoceros, buffalo, bushbuck, white-tailed mongoose, monkeys and so much more. I was too excited to sleep again! Finally…lots of animals, but still no stories.
I asked Victoria and our driver David several times about hearing some local stories and they promised to work on it, but both said they didn’t know any themselves. Finally one day David approached me with excitement and said, “I’ve found somebody that knows some African stories. If you come after dinner to the back area where the drivers eat, he’ll tell them to you. You can’t bring a lot of people with you—only you and your husband.”
I thanked him profusely and told him we’d definitely be there. I could hardly wait. Finally I was going to hear stories.
So Wilton and I found our way to the back of the resort and looked for David among the drivers. He waved to us and then introduced us to the ten or so drivers at his table, including the one that knew some stories. He began by telling some experiences about things that happened with the British came to Kenya. One was called “Why Africans Have Flat Noses.” He said that when the British took over everything in Kenya, many locals went to their offices to get a job. When they stuck their heads in the doorway, the British slammed the door in their faces, which mashed their noses flat. And that’s why Africans have flat noses. All the drivers laughed and the storyteller asked me if I would tell that story in my country. I said, “No, that is not my story and I would not feel comfortable to tell it.”
He told a few others similar to the first one, and I thought he was just telling them to entertain his buddies. Finally I spoke up and said, “I have many books of African folktales that I love because they are such beautiful stories that usually carry a message. I consider them teaching tales, and yet I have not heard a single story in Kenya until tonight. Why is that? Is it because I’m white?”
One of the drivers spoke up, “No, it’s because we really don’t know those stories—only jokes. When the Christian missionaries came to Kenya, they told us that our music and stories were all bad, and had to go. So everybody quit telling them.”
“Don’t you resent that?” I asked.
“No, not really,” he said. “They brought medicine and education and many good things we didn’t have, so it was okay to give up our stories.”
“No it wasn’t. Those stories were part of your culture and were a wonderful way to pass your values and your history to the next generation. Didn’t your grandmothers ever tell stories to you when you were young?” I asked.
They all looked at each other and shook their heads and said, “No, not really. Not that we remember.”
“Well I would resent that and it makes me angry and I’m not even from Kenya. I would not like anyone telling me that part of my past was no good.”
Another driver spoke up and said, “Actually the Catholic missionaries were not as bad as the Protestants. They just said ‘Do whatever you want to do—it doesn’t matter as long as you go to mass on Saturday. But the Protestants said it was all bad—our stories, our music, everything—and it all had to stop.”
And then things got really quiet until the guy who had told the stories spoke again. He said, “You know, hyena has a strong sense of smell. He can smell things a long way away and one day he was walking through the forest, just enjoying the peace and quiet when he realized how hungry he was. When he came to a fork in his path, he lifted his head and took a big whiff. WOW! Something smelled great. His mouth started to drool as he leaned toward that direction. But at that very second, he took another deep breath and he smelled something even better drifting in from the other direction. Oh my goodness. What was he going to do? Which way would he go? Every time he decided to go one way, the other fork in the path tugged at his senses. After going back and forth, back and forth, he finally backed up—way down the path he had been on. And then he started to run fast—as fast as he could run. When he got to the fork in the road he closed his eyes and ran even harder—and when he did that, he was moving so fast that he split himself right down the middle and disappeared—all because he couldn’t decide which way to go.”
Everybody was quiet at first; then we all broke out with applause. He had told the story so well and drawn us all into hyena’s dilemma. Finally I heard a great teaching tale, but I wasn’t sure what it was trying to tell me.
Then one of the drivers asked me about the African stories that I knew. I told them about the Anansi stories, “The Cow Tail Switch,” and one called “The Singing Tortoise” in which I used a sansa when I told it. (A sansa is a small piano like instrument played with the thumbs and has 8 notes.) Someone asked if I would tell the story the following day at lunch on our safari if he could find a sansa and I agreed. I even told them a short story about when electricity came to Africa and the importance of the storyteller.
This story says that when electricity first came to some of the villages in Africa, the people were very skeptical about it. So the electricity company gave a television set to some of the villages so the people could see how powerful being connected to the rest of the world could be. At first, people flocked to the television out of curiosity and watched everything they could find on the sets. But then they lost interest and returned to their life without TV. Weeks later a man from the power company came to see how the new experience was being accepted. When he arrived one evening, the television was not even turned on and most of the people were sitting around the campfire listening to stories. The power company official couldn’t believe it and asked everyone why no one was watching the television which could bring so much more information and stories from all around the world. The people replied, “It’s true that the television knows stories from everywhere, but our storyteller knows me.”
The men loved the story and seemed moved by it. The evening was getting late and we all had an early wake-up time for a safari, so I knew we needed to leave. I thanked him and gave him a hug, telling him how happy I was to hear his stories. I wondered what would happen the next day.
When we left the camp for our excursion, Victoria said that several of the drivers had told her I agreed to tell stories after lunch that day. She even handed me a sansa made from a gourd and told me she had been asked to give it to me.
So that day after lunch in the shade of trees, I told stories. I couldn’t believe how much the local people seemed to enjoy them and laughed harder than anyone in our group. They seemed to understand the stories at a level that a non-African could not. When I finished I said, “You have no idea how strange this is for me. A woman with blonde hair and blue-eyes telling African folktales…in Africa.” I could feel their connection.
A few days later, we went to Egerton University for a tour of the campus and lectures on the role of women, wildlife conservation, education in rural areas, and the history of the white highlands. All of these topics seemed so overwhelming and depressing to me, but the natives were filled with optimism and hope in a naïve, childlike way. HIV-AIDS was rampant then and yet the nurse felt like a cure was on the way.
While there, I talked to a professor about my inability to find stories while in Kenya and my fear that the few that remained would disappear soon. He agreed with me and acknowledged the need to collect the ones that still could be heard before they were gone. He talked about a research project to do that and I told him I wished I could come back and be a part of that. We learned so much about the country and its people that day.
The entire trip was amazing. I loved everything we did. When we returned to Nairobi, Victoria asked me if I would tell the stories to her family if she brought them to the hotel and I agreed. And so I got to tell African folktales in Africa once more.
I was forever changed by that trip to Kenya. Once I returned home, I often thought of the animals, the people, the country and the few stories I had heard—especially the one about hyena. I think hyena represented Africa, which was being torn apart as it struggled to hold on to its old culture while trying to embrace a new way of life. It seemed a great cautionary tale for Africa, but there was definitely something powerful in that story for everyone who hears it.
Several weeks passed before I finally realized what the story was saying—at least to me. How many times have I run off chasing a new idea or a new way to do things only to realize that the process was affecting who I am? And yet as long as I have brain cells firing, I want to learn and grow and that sometimes means letting go or changing the way I view the world. That’s the dilemma, isn’t it? Being open to new ideas and still staying true to who we really are.