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  • Writer's pictureBrian Hancock

A country of joys and challenges, beauty and complexity

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

After two weeks of teaching and proctoring exams at St. Xavier High School in Bungoma, Kenya, the final bell rang. Students were met with a well-deserved week off, and most returned home to see their families. As for us, we had plans to embark on a safari down in Kenya’s southwest corner and to relax on its eastern coast.

The privilege was not lost on us. In Bungoma, we had just worked with kids whose families struggled to raise the $500 yearly tuition fee. Hundreds of homeless boys meandered their way through the dusty downtown streets on a daily basis. In the lot adjacent to the school, a family literally lived in a house made of mud and sticks. In 2022. In the face of all this, we set out on a luxury weekend safari at the world-renowned Maasai Mara, then followed it with a few days at the beach near the city of Mombasa. We did it simply because we could.

The safari was extraordinary. Imagine The Lion King in real life (“Circle of Life” was stuck in my head the entire time). After flying from the capital of Nairobi to the Mara, we landed on a dirt runway. The Mara is not a zoo; there are no fences, no concrete, and it spans more than 12,000 square miles. It is simply animals living in their natural habitat…and it happens to be some of the most beautiful and beloved animals in the world.

Our guide Peter picks us up and drives us to our camp, situated along the Mara river. Without even trying, on our way to the camp we see a herd of elephants (including the tiniest baby elephant I’ve ever seen), a “dazzle” of zebras, impala antelope, baboons, and crowned cranes. At our camp, we take a few moments to lounge overlooking the river, where hippos play, fight, and fornicate down below.

Over the next two days, we got about three feet away from a leopard, saw at least eight lions and more than a dozen giraffes, as well as hyenas, ostriches, warthogs, hundreds of elephants and buffalo, and thousands of zebras. These stretched over the endless and glorious savannah plains that were fractured by small, crystal clear streams and dotted with elegant Acadia trees.

Perhaps what was most beautiful was the peaceful coexistence of it all. A scene not uncommon was tens of elephants, zebras, baboons, and antelope all intermixed and eating together in complete and utter silence. How all of these animals, so completely diverse from one another, could live together in total tranquility was a marvel to me. It was the experience of a lifetime.

Waving goodbye to the giraffes, we took propeller planes back across Kenya to the eastern coastal city of Mombasa. It’s Kenya’s oldest city, serving as a key east African port for over a thousand years. It’s also the country’s second most populous city, home to over 3 million people. While we hadn’t left Kenya, driving through Mombasa provided something of a culture shock: Thousands of people flooded the roads, crossing every which way; others jockeyed for position in cars, TukTuks, or Picky Pickies. A noticeable amount of trash lined the streets, and horns blared.

This new, chaotic scene juxtaposed that which we had just encountered. One was a natural paradise filled with different species coexisting harmoniously; the other, a polluted place where the same species cut one another off just to get ahead. One was a God moment; the next felt like random confusion.

Eventually, we made it to our resort on the beach. An evening walk along the Indian Ocean allowed us to touch our third of four oceans! For the entire three miles, we were also the only mzungus (white people) on a packed beach. Thousands of Kenyans were talking, swimming, selling items, and playing soccer. Occasionally, people called out at us, laughing at us, it seemed. I had experienced the small, rural town of Bungoma, the pristine beauty of the Mara, and was now feeling out a chaotic Kenyan city (as an obvious foreigner). The hope of our trip was to get an authentic feel for this country halfway around the world, positive and negative experiences alike.

We explored the 16th century Fort Jesus, went snorkeling and diving, and admired the view over the course of the coming days. On our final morning, we came to a fork in the road–my time in Kenya had come to an end, while Bobby would stay in the country for a few more weeks. On this bright Wednesday morning, as we walked along the now empty beach, looking out at the pale blue water and down at the trash that occasionally washed up, Bobby asked, “Now what?” We had received this experience–an experience so unique, mind bending, and perspective shifting. What were we obligated to do with it?

Throughout my 3+ weeks in Kenya, I met many great people. I saw sweeping vistas. I observed hard workers and interacted with intelligent youth. I also viewed inferior infrastructure, pronounced poverty, and pessimism about the future. How is it that the U.S. has untold bridges, skyscrapers, commerce, and technology while so much of the entire continent of Africa is so far behind? Of course, the answer is riddled with complexities, and not limited to: inefficient agriculture, exploitative colonization, subsequent instability, tribalism, extreme corruption, and Western meddling.

Our guide Raphael cautioned us to leave Kenya before the elections on Aug. 9. While myriad reasons resulted in Kenya’s underdevelopment compared to much of the rest of the world, political corruption now plagues it further. Residents often matter-of-factly comment on the overt corruption by practically every elected leader. One Sunday afternoon, for instance, we swam at a posh resort in the middle of an undeveloped area of town. The resort had been built by a local political leader for the sole purpose of flaunting his wealth and power, our friend explained.

So, back to Bobby’s question of, “Now what?” A trip across the world, a slow and impartial unraveling of the intricacies of life there, perhaps only served to complicate the answer further. Still, while there is so much we do not know, or cannot solve, our time in Kenya did teach us one thing–that there is a hungry and skilled new generation that understands the persisting realities, but has the drive and is developing the skills to perhaps overcome them. We met its members each and every day at St. X Bungoma. And, while we can’t wave our magic American wands to suddenly create better roads or newfound industry, we can support the next generation that could possess these powers. I hope to remain in touch with the staff at St. X Bungoma, and encourage anyone reading to find legitimate positive educational outlets such as this to support as well.

In Kenya, I was ten feet away from a lion; I sat under a Eucalyptus tree surrounded by 30 students and discussed cultural differences; I traveled for over 70 hours and got fairly sick; I rode helmetless down the main roads on the back of a motorbike driven by someone I had never met before; I prayed with others at 6:30 in the morning; and, I met some kind, funny, and interesting people.

I learned that “African” time is my time, in that nothing starts on time. I got a little worn out on the traditional ugali food, and rejoiced at the bag of Peanut M&Ms I found in my kitchen upon return. I will miss the wonderful Kenyan accent.

And overall, I have found that while we travel to see new sights and places, it is typically the people we meet that we later reflect on the most. Bobby and I lived with postulants of the Xaverian Brothers during our time in Kenya–a small group of 25-30 year-old men who are pious, studious, athletic, considerate, and hilarious. Seeing lions was amazing, but I’ll probably miss the postulants the most.

Thank you for taking this journey through Kenya with me through this blog. I hope your next adventure, no matter how near or far, has moments of humor and spontaneity, and stretches your mind in challenging and fulfilling ways.

Donations to St. Xavier Bungoma can be made by contacting the author or via GoFundMe.

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