“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.”
I came across it because I’ll be traveling around Kenya as National Geographic Travel’s Digital Nomad for the next month, and, if I’m being honest, I’m not yet sure how to write—as Ernest Hemingway might put it—“one true sentence” about the country.
This is my first time to Kenya, which, incidentally, happens to be the first African nation I knew by name. When I was a kid, family friends returning from a trip there regaled us with tales of safari camps and baby hippos that never left me.
In the coming weeks I’ll see thousands of blue wildebeests migrate across the Masai Mara reserve; solo hike through the Great Rift Valley; snorkel in the Indian ocean; ride a horse past giraffes with Mount Kilimanjaro as the backdrop in Kenya’s least visited national park, Chyulu Hills; and—importantly—talk with Kenyans. Who knows, maybe I’ll even catch a country music show in Nairobi.
Of late, the country of 44 million has been in the news owing to its distant past, complex present, and promising future.
Meanwhile, in late July, United States President Barack Obama (whose late father was Kenyan) joined entrepreneurs at an international summit in Nairobi that helped position Kenya—and its growing economy—as a beacon for a new globally connected Africa.
This is welcome news after violence along the country’s border with Somalia prompted the U.S. State Department and other governments to caution travelers. I’ll be avoiding those areas, which fortunately leaves the bulk of Kenya to explore.
For me at least, pre-research for major trips is half the fun. In the course of my preparation, I read the 1937 book Out of Africa by Karen von Blixen-Finecke (pen name Isak Dinesen), but preferred Beryl Markham’s account of living in the country during the same time period, when what is now Kenya was under British colonial rule.
In West With the Night, Markham, who grew up on a farm near the Great Rift Valley and went on to become an iconic bush pilot who crossed the Atlantic, writes, “There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa.”
The best I’ve read so far is Binyavanga Wainaina’s One Day I Will Write About This Place, a memoir of growing up outside Nairobi and learning to write. He describes a love of breakdancing, being mesmerized by Lionel Ritchie’s teeth, and life as a “Cold War kid”—which ultimately sounds a lot like my life growing up in Oklahoma.
In the weeks before my plane was to leave, I’ve caught myself telling people “I’m going to Africa.” But if all goes right, my experience on the ground will change that.
If I have any one goal—other than to fall in love with the place, see some animals, meet locals I won’t forget, and find at least one true sentence—it’ll be to say after my trip not “I went to Africa,” but “I went to Kenya.”