Lion King. That’s what I knew about Kenya before I came. Zazu, Rafiki, Simba—hakuna matata. Having been to Zambia, I understood some of the broad strokes of a continent but nothing particular about a very different people, culture, and history.
Opening scene: pride rock jettisons out over the rich plains populated with savannah animals. “Asante Sana, squashed banana,” sings Rafiki,the wise monkey. From 90 minutes of animated brilliance, I own my perception of Kenya.
Large parts of the movie hold true. Simba is Swahili for lion and rafiki means friend. Asante Sana (thank you very much) now anchors my forgettable vocabulary. I’ve seen the rich plains of the Rift Valley on the 45km drive from Nairobi to Maai Maihu. I’ve pictured the running of the wildebeest down that same valley into the distant Mara. (Mara see; Ace Ventura 2, National Geographic and Planet Earth.) I’ve witnessed a lion feeding at Nairobi National Park and touched the bones of an elephant, forestalled from its graveyard. Check, check, and check. I’ve seen the Lion King in Kenya but that’s not all.
I’ve been in homes built of tin, lit by a kerosene lamp. On the lone table, I count 4 cell phones and near-by a sleek tablet. I’ve done yoga with ex-pats. I’ve wandered through miles of open-air markets and I’ve eaten the most delicious BBQ goat. I’ve visited with the branch manager of a burgeoning micro-finance group. I’ve taken a heart-stopping motorcycle taxi through the streets of central Nairobi. I’ve witnessed the meaning of flash flood as the monsoon rains tore away the road. This, in one week.
During my travels, one of the things I have consistently noted are the amazing low cost innovations: Toilets franchised a la Subway, medical advice on-demand from a cell-phone and a high-yield bag garden that contains only a tin can, rocks, sand, dirt and seedlings. The total cost for this home-garden kit?. . just under $1.
The list doesn’t end there. This country is awash with billion dollar ideas modified to fit a ‘bob budget (kenyan shilling). A technical drip irrigation system is adapted at home with a corn oil bucket, plastic piping and a strip of shirt for a filter. A sophisticated money exchange and savings system is accessible to anyone on a $9 phone. A rural citizen without an ID uses biometric recognition to access their bank account. And me? I realized on Saturday that I couldn’t even fix my broken zipper.
These paradox have shaken my boundary of perception and heightened my awareness of a unique place. I am now more in tune with a country and a culture that feels on the cusp. As Jay-Z once said, “you can’t knock the hustle,” and that’s exactly my sentiment. I’ve begun to recognize the richness of everyday people hustling to make a lot out of a little. In doing so, I’ve also recognized some of my own poverty. See; Home Ec./zipper.
Alas, Kenya is not the Lion King. It is so much more.
Stay tuned. Kisumu update next.