Kenya Part 1: Nairobi & Maasai Mara Photography - M1key - Michal Huniewicz
Jambo! A while ago a friend of mine teased me about my never having been below the Equator, so the plan for 2013 was to simply
"Go below the Equator". Kenya happens to be easy to reach from where I live, and it seemed like an "Africa for Newbies" kind of country to me,
so I decided to pay a visit, with two of my friends.
This gallery depicts Nairobi and Maasai Mara, both being popular tourist attractions. As usual, I try to step off the beaten path too; and I attempt to introduce Kenya to you,
as well as describe my personal experience.
Thanks: Ammar (grammar); Christabel, Maryann, Maureen (captions).
Uploaded on: 2013-10-27.
Welcome to Nairobi
We, primates, have lived in Kenya for more than 20 million years! Our possible direct ancestors, Homo habilis
and Homo erectus
, lived near lake Turkana [1
It should therefore come as no surprise that Kenya is often referred to as "the Cradle of Humankind" [9, p. 26
You might also expect Nairobi, pictured here, to be a very old city too, but in fact the capital of Kenya was only founded in 1899.
ISO 200, 170mm, f/5.6, 1/400s.
The location of the city was chosen due to its central position between Mombasa and Kampala when the British decided to build the Uganda Railway, colloquially known as The Lunatic Express,
a railway linking Uganda and Kenya with the Indian Ocean at Mombasa (more about it in the next gallery).
Nairobi is located at 1,661 metres above sea level, and it has been suggested that this also was a reason for founding it there, as the height supposedly makes it difficult for malaria
mosquitoes to survive (due to lower temperatures) [4; 9, p. 15
]. My GP advised me against
taking malaria tablets, should I visit Nairobi alone. However, there are
plenty of malaria cases in Nairobi now [6
and there have been
plenty historically too [5, 7
You do the math. At the very least, take your mosquito repellent with you (I bought a fancy one, and then lost it on my way between England and Kenya - fail).
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1000s.
While the vast majority of Kenyans are Christian (83%), there are sizeable minorities, among them the Muslims, who constitute 11.2% of the population.
Like the whole of Nairobi,
it's not very old (1906), but Jamia Mosque is
the most important mosque in the country. At the site, there is a pharmacy there, a training institute, and a library. It's Sunni; and I was told that no, no, Shias were rebels,
when I inquired with one of the old men leaving the mosque after their morning prayer. [10
ISO 250, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/80s.
How safe is Nairobi?
One of the big questions about Nairobi and Kenya is - well, how safe is it? Generally speaking, the crime rate in all regions in Kenya is high. The most common
crime is carjacking [8
], and if you oppose the attackers, you will likely be killed. "Snatch and run" crimes have become more common too,
but you must be wary before you scream "thief!", as it has happened before that the alleged thief was immediately seized by people around, and stoned in front of
everyone, right on the spot [9, p. 141
That would make for a unique travel experience!
ISO 1000, 27mm, f/4.0, 1/80s.
In a restaurant
Many windows have bars in them. Some bedrooms are protected with "rape gates", and there are "panic buttons" you can press to summon
vans of security personnel (or so you would hope) [9, p. 52
Having said that, my friends and I, hardly of imposing stature, felt safe, and nothing bad happened to us, despite having visited somewhat dodgy places and slums.
Unlike in India, women in Kenya don't disappear from the streets right after it gets dark.
What's more, we were told that George Bush's War on Terror, rather unpopular in the West, made a huge impact on local security as far as the threat of terrorism is concerned,
and that our trip would have looked very different a decade before. The War on Terror has resulted in many al Qaeda members in the region being killed
or captured. [11
Still, terrorism is not yet defeated: 1 day after my departure, the Westgate Mall in Nairobi was attacked, which sent shivers down my spine, because only 24 hours before I had eaten breakfast right there.
That attack claimed dozens of lives of innocent people.
ISO 250, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/80s.
In the kitchen
Kenyan cuisine often makes use of maize and potatoes; goat and sheep meat are common too. There are genuine Indian restaurants, as Kenya has a small Indian population (contrary
to popular belief, they are not all descendants of those brought in by the British to build the Uganda Railway; they have lived there for hundreds of years [9, p. 23
We were careful with street food, but not as careful as in India
, and never got sick!
ISO 1100, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/80s.
Kenyatta International Conference Centre
This is the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) in Nairobi.
Jomo Kenyatta was the first president after the country gained independence in 1963 [19
], allied it with the West,
led Kenya to stability, but also imposed a one-party system, and can be held partially responsible for reinforcing tribalism. [18; 20, p. 102
His successor was Daniel arap Moi, who generally continued the policies of the first president. Both he and Kenyatta harboured corruption, and are quite possibly responsible for several assassinations
of political opponents (Kenyatta's nickname changed over time from The Father of the Nation to The Little Killer [20, p. 119
]. On a positive note, in opposition to Moi, Kenyan civil society began to forge. Finally, opposed by academic society, women [20, p. 187
churches [20, p. 179
], foreign powers [20, p. 185
], and gradually more and more Kenyans, he gave way to
a multi-party system in the Wind of Change times of the 20th century, in 1992 to be precise. Himself, he stayed in power, and was eventually replaced by Mwai Kibaki in 2002, who proved a bit better than his
predecessor, while not particularly effective [38
]. He was replaced in 2013 by Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Jomo - I suppose the jury is still out on him; but Kenya clearly hasn't been particularly lucky with the quality of its leaders so far, and perhaps
the most accurate name for its political system is a hybrid of democracy and authoritarianism [20, p. 296
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1000s.
The most serious diseases plaguing Kenya are, in my amateur judgement, tribalism and corruption, both of which can be traced to inequalities and general poverty of a sizeable part of the population
(around 45-50% are below poverty line [9, p. 34; 33
]). [20, p. 293
There is a general lack of trust for the courts and the police, who have, time after time, proved incapable of "protecting and serving"; and it is not unknown for the police
to use live ammunition and kill hundreds of demonstrators, as well as random people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. [20, p. 272
Corruption is and has been omnipresent and severe [20, p. 104
], which would be well-known even without having surfaced through Wikileaks in late 2010 [20, p. 284
and, more to the point, in the words of Bill Bryson, "Kenya has become a case study in mismanagement and corruption". [22
Tribalism, on the other hand, has led to bloodshed on countless occasions, and is all-too-willingly leveraged by politicians to achieve serious gains. [20, p. 199
Keep that in mind, we will come back to this in a few moments...
In the picture: the Helipad on top of the KICC building offers nice views of the city, but, unless you're a Kenyan citizen, you will have to pay a lot more for entering, as is customary in Kenya.
ISO 200, 27mm, f/4.0, 1/640s.
When my friends announced we would eat our dinner here, I almost fainted. The place reeked of death, and insects feasted in sepulchral silence on what was to be our meal,
all of which looked more like a setting for an early Marilyn Manson music video than a restaurant. In the end I refused to eat there, to my delicate stomach's relief, but my tough
travel companions recklessly ingested whatever was served, ignoring the charnel stench, like roadkill-devouring baboons on the road to Maasai Mara.
I must point out they were okay afterwards.
ISO 560, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/80s.
On the balcony
This is my friend Maureen, looking great on the balcony of our headquarters, the barbed wire-embellished fortress with guards, where we stayed while in Nairobi.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/60s.
Great Rift Valley
From the popular viewing point one gets to admire the Great Rift Valley.
Around 6,000 kilometres in length, the Valley stretches from northern Syria to central Mozambique. The East African Rift part of it (pictured here) is in the process of splitting the African Plate into two new separate
plates. As we speak.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1000s.
South of Lake Naivasha, there lies Hell's Gate National Park, which was once a lake that fed our prehistoric ancestors. [13
] Being a not particularly popular tourist attraction,
it gives you the opportunity to peacefully and quietly ride a bike among zebras, giraffes, warthogs, and others, rather than fry in the uncomfortable trap of a safari van.
The setting of Lion King was modelled after this place [13
ISO 200, 42mm, f/4.5, 1/800s.
This is a volcanic plug called Fischer's Tower. It is a volcanic landform created when magma hardened within the vent on the active volcano that lies beneath. It could one day
cause an extreme build-up of pressure, and lead to an explosive eruption - now, isn't that cool?
Fact: The Edinburgh Castle in Scotland is built upon an ancient volcanic plug. [14
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1600s.
Hell's Gate Gorge is where supposedly Tomb Raider 2 was filmed, and where you can find plenty of hot springs. In the picture, our Maasai guard.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/4.5, 1/800s.
Kenya has a severe HIV epidemic, but in recent years, there has been a decline in HIV prevalence. [15
] Rather unsurprisingly, the numbers are especially
high among drug users and prostitutes.
You might not expect that many men would dare to take a condom from a box with an elephant on it, but the box was actually empty.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/4.5, 1/800s.
One tough woman
My friends and I decided to climb Mount Longonot, a 2,776 metre high stratovolcano. The forest at the foot of it was cool and pleasant, and we saw zebras and giraffes.
Up there, however, it was super-hot and sunny, and maybe also due to low oxygen
we had a really hard time going up, even though it's just a hike with no climbing. Suddenly, as we were recording goodbye messages for our families to be found next to our dry skeletons,
this older woman, looking fresh and robust, passed us by, vigorously walking down. Or maybe she was just a mirage.
The volcano itself has not erupted in the last 150 years. [16
] In case you are wondering, stratovolcano is a volcano built up by many layers of hardened lava, tephra,
pumice, and volcanic ash, and the most famous stratovolcano is probably Vesuvius.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/6.3, 1/800s.
On the edge of a volcano
Once we reached the summit, the temperature dropped, and I stopped being a melting crybaby, roasted slowly in the merciless sun, to become myself again. I will never complain about low
Lake Oleidon aka Lake Naivasha can be seen in the distance.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/5.0, 1/640s.
And here's the crater. There's a path going all the way around, but we didn't have the time to hike much longer. There's also a path
leading down to the crater, which must be quite amazing.
Multiple images stitched together. ISO 200, 18mm, f/9.0, 1/500s.
Coming back to tribalism...
There are as many as 42 tribes in Kenya. They differ in terms of looks, culture, language, etc. (Swahili is the lingua franca of Kenya [20, p. 290
]). Political support is divided along tribal lines, and since gaining independence, tribalism was actually encouraged by the elites [20, p. 15
], so that there has been bloody violence between various tribes
over land and - after a multi-party system was implemented - election results, as politicians skilfully channelled anger towards them into anger towards other tribes. People from different tribes are sometimes referred to as foreigners! [20, p. 286
In fact, after Kenya became independent in 1963, many of its residents didn't see themselves as Kenyans at all. [20, p. 28
Since the number of Kenyans has skyrocketed in the last decades [20, p. 15
], the land disputes are becoming ever more difficult to reconcile, as the problem was never properly solved in the first place after 1963.
All of that despite the motto of Kenya - Harambee
, meaning "let's all pull together" [9, p. 15
ISO 400, 70mm, f/5.0, 1/1250s.
Salesman in Narok
Tribalism, however, seems to be slowly going away. [9, p. 38
] Most Kenyan people I talked to seemed rather positive about the future,
which was quite refreshing after good old European complaining.
Some tribal practices are now outlawed, among them female circumcision (more on that further below). [9, p. 58
] Speaking of nonsense,
Kenyan people are often superstitious, and despite the popularity of Christianity and Islam, paganism prevails - in the form of the power of ancestors, various spirits, shamans, soothsayers, and so on [9, p. 63
Of particular importance to photographers might be that, in some rural areas, people apparently believe the camera steals souls! [9, p. 77
Click. After I left this guy soulless, we travelled on to Maasai Mara.
ISO 200, 28mm, f/4.0, 1/640s.
Going to the cattle market
I was in for a surprise here...
Spoiled after how welcoming people in India where, I expected a warm welcome at the local cattle market, where this boy is going. These people are Maasai, and (in Western consciousness at least)
they are supposed to be "noble savages" [9, p. 19
], characterised by impeccable manners and impressive presence.
Well, that's not exactly the case. I was uh, urged to walk away, to put it mildly, and my presence at the cattle market was rather unappreciated.
ISO 200, 34mm, f/4.2, 1/1600s.
In the woods
Taken aback, I decided to take some pictures from the car, but most people shook their hands at me angrily. "What the hell, this is worse than the Middle East",
Some people suggest it is actually illegal to take pictures of the Maasai without their consent [23
], but this is not something we were ever told while
in Kenya. Our guide didn't say anything, but when I asked him about the hostile attitude of the Maasai, he explained they wanted to be "tipped" for having their photos
"But I'm a famous photographer, you should pay me
for taking your photo!", I responded to someone demanding payment even before I took the shoot. "In that case,
you will sell it for a lot of money, and what will I get?", came the response, and I was left speechless. This behaviour is typical of the Maasai.[31, p. 286
Fair enough, maybe they just don't want to be treated like animals in a zoo, I thought. The reality, however, is a bit more complex than just that (more further below).
ISO 640, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250s.
This is the Maasai Mara National Reserve. It covers 1,510 square kilometres, and is a very popular safari destination. Often swarming with tourist vans,
it nevertheless offers plenty of opportunities to see elephants, lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, wildebeests, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, and more.
Some two decades ago, one could also see armed poachers in some of Kenya's national parks [20, p. 172
], and even not have lived to tell the tale [24
as well as be simply assaulted and killed [25
]. Now, however, you're as safe as houses.
Also, Kenya turned out to be a fairly clean country, and I cynically missed the pollution-diffused skies of India, as they offered nicer light for photography.
Here, we were blessed with some clouds.
ISO 250, 29mm, f/4.0, 1/500s.
This is a lion; it's right after mating, which takes literally 5 seconds, every quarter of an hour, and lasts for days. [26
While the act isn't necessarily pleasurable for the female (feline penises are barbed [27
it frankly looks quite hilarious, and I don't mind re-enacting it for your entertainment.
ISO 200, 200mm, f/10.0, 1/400s.
This is how giraffes drink
This is how giraffes drink. It reminded me of my algebra classes in primary school.
ISO 200, 170mm, f/9.0, 1/500s.
To the Maasai village!
As I mentioned before, the Maasai don't seem to like having their pictures taken. They look extraordinary though, so it is very tempting for tourists to do photograph them anyway,
and for that reason, as well as general interest in the Maasai culture, there are Maasai villages available for you to visit and click away to your heart's content,
as well as experience a bit of Maasai customs and lifestyle - you are told to pay upfront ($35 per person in our case), which supposedly supports the Maasai community, and that opens all the doors for you.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1250s.
"I hope your cattle is well" is a traditional Maasai greeting. [9, p. 19
] They live in Kenya (over 800,000 of them) and Tanzania (430,000) [28
and are one of the lower tribes [23
]. To some Maasai, the fact that you don't own any cows is just wrong and uncivilised. [23
] On the other hand,
according to traditional Maasai beliefs, all cattle were given to them by God, meaning they now own all the cattle in the world - unsurprisingly, that has caused trouble in the past. [29
When a Maasai child is born, he or she is not referred to as a boy or girl, but lashe
- male or female cow respectively. [23
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/2500s.
There is a question in the travel community surrounding these villages - how genuine are they? I was told of Maasai villages being built just for the purpose of serving tourists.
Intrigued, I have talked to quite a few people from Kenya to get more information about this, and have done a bit of research. Let's have a look...
This ceremony is called Adumu, and you are welcome to participate. It's a traditional dance sometimes called jumping dance, often performed by Maasai warriors. Whoever jumps the highest, "wins", and in our case
it was me (this is somewhat disputed by my obviously jealous friends). This dance is performed every time a group of tourists enters the village, and there is a separate and different ceremony for women.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/2000s.
When some Maasai introduce themselves to you, they may use a Western name. This does not necessarily mean the Maasai isn't genuine - in Kenya education in public schools has been free and
universal since 2003, and while it's not compulsory, some Maasai parents will more or less willingly send one or more children to the local primary school. [23
The child will then get a Western name and possibly get baptised, especially when the school is run by missionaries. This is a bit controversial, as it's seen as something that could erode
traditional Maasai culture.
ISO 200, 95mm, f/5.3, 1/800s.
Notice the pierced ears.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/250s.
This village was called Oldepesi (or something similar), and, like many Maasai villages, was somewhat commercialised. It felt odd to pay upfront, and then be allowed to
go anywhere one pleased, take as many pictures as one wanted ("Don't ask them for permission, just photograph", I was told; I still asked, and felt uneasy when they a bit
reluctantly or half-heartedly agreed), albeit surrounded by Maasai people trying to sell various souvenirs, which, one of them claimed, were made in the village,
but we believe they were at best assembled in the village, and maybe not even that.
Behind the village there was actually a little souvenir market.
ISO 200, 24mm, f/3.8, 1/250s.
"How do you want her? Baby in the front? Baby in the back? No baby? Facing which way?"
ISO 200, 29mm, f/4.0, 1/250s.
Both Maasai boys and Maasai girls are supposed to be circumcised, even though female circumcision is banned in Kenya and Tanzania.
Female circumcision is ingrained in the culture of certain tribes to such an extent, that even though it is illegal, it is estimated that between
10 to 29% of Kenyan women have been circumcised, albeit the numbers are going down. Female circumcision also became a way of symbolically opposing colonisation,
as white missionaries in Kenya campaigned against the practice, and after it was eventually banned in 1956, thousands of girls circumcised each other
with razor blades. [32
There is an ongoing effort to replace it with "cutting with words" for those who can't just discard the whole idea. [28
In the photo, a young woman milking goats.
ISO 250, 34mm, f/4.2, 1/80s.
Some quick facts about the Maasai:
- The Maasai are polygynous and, in a way, polyandrous. [35, 36, 37] Men can have many wives, and if you're a Maasai woman and your husband's friend visits you, you and the friend can have sex,
as long as you both want to. 
- It's not unheard of for the Maasai to, de facto, sell their daughters for marriage. [9, p. 47]
- Traditionally, the Maasai diet consisted of raw meat, raw milk, and raw blood from cattle. Now they eat more maize and sugar though. 
- Maasai houses are made by women using a mix of mud, sticks, grass, cow dung, human urine, and ash.  It smells so bad that it takes about a week
before one can move in. [31, p. 158]
ISO 200, 46mm, f/4.5, 1/80s.
Despite a lot of scepticism and sarcasm in the travelling community, I believe that the Maasai experience is not fake, and that this particular village was genuine, even if it was obviously commercialised.
Just because the Maasai engage in tourist activities doesn't mean they are not unfeigned. [all of 31
] In fact, many may wear a Western-style
jacket 5 days a week, just to gladly return to their favourite traditional clothes on the weekend. [23
] They may not be the fearsome
warriors they used to be a hundred years ago, but they are still Maasai.
Many still live a very traditional life, and a rare trip to Nairobi or Mombasa leaves them dumbfounded, to the point of disbelief they are still in Kenya. [31
Funnily enough, we had a Maasai warrior making mildly racist jokes about tourists from China.
Clockwise starting top left: ISO 320, 40mm, f/4.5, 1/30s; ISO 500, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/30s; ISO 450, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/50s; ISO 800, 28mm, f/7.1, 1/160s.
Nevertheless, to make sure I didn't only capture "commercial Maasai" in my photos, I photographed some far enough from the "tourist-welcoming" villages.
They were "tipped" afterwards, and posed gladly, but without much joy or excitement.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/10, 1/200s.
It only dawned on me much later why the Maasai were so uneasy about the pictures.
Each tourist coming to Kenya supports thirty jobs [9, p. 36
]. However, from the regular Maasai point of view, we only appear there with our
cameras, take their photos, disappear, and sell the photos for a lot money (ha ha), while they get nothing. More to the point, the precious Maasai Mara Reserve, so important for the preservation and restoration
of poaching- and hunting-damaged wild life of Kenya, is (at least in their eyes) their land, taken away from them for our pleasure and entertainment.
There is therefore a lot of resentment about national parks and reserves in Kenya, as they seem to only benefit wealthy foreign tourists. It is however crucial that those
parks and reserves stay, as they are so important for the ecosystem and support of wild life. [9, p. 54
] As Kenya becomes more industrialised,
those parks might be actually under threat from land-hungry companies.
To resolve this conflict, there has been a lot of effort in Kenya to open national parks and reserves to Kenyans themselves - and this is why entrance fees for them are much lower.
And this is where "commercial Maasai villages" come into play. They are not about deluding tourists, as some think; they are about diverting tourism revenue
into the local population, so that the local population doesn't resent the existence of the parks. The Maasai were officially taught
to demand money for posing for pictures, so that they benefit from the tourists that way too.
What initially seemed to me like hostility, is therefore a somewhat clumsy answer to the local resentment about national parks and reserves. And I believe it is our duty
that we do tip them for posing, do go to the Maasai villages, and do buy their souvenirs, so that they are happy with the parks and reserves, and the parks and reserves can as a result remain without aggravating the Kenyans.
Let's not forget that while those parks belong to everyone, they are, after all, in Kenyan hands to take care of.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/10, 1/200s.
What an interesting, complex, and diverse country.
Kenya is considered an investment-friendly place, there is quite a lot of foreign investment, and a high level of computer literacy. Even though it wasn't blessed with
well-developed and stable neighbours, Kenya has a fairly well developed social and physical infrastructure. [33
One gets the impression that there is quite a lot going on in the country; it has seen a lot of Chinese investment in recent years; and the economic outlook is stable.
Fingers crossed for Kenya.
ISO 200, 18mm, f/3.5, 1/1000s.
Destructive force aside, what could be more elegant than a tornado? These are but dust devils though, not exactly tornadoes, only their usually harmless cousins. They occur on Mars, too!
The Kikuyu call them ngoma cia aka
(women's demon). [34
ISO 200, 32mm, f/4.5, 1/1000s.
This is the Nairobi Airport, domestic terminal (actually the cargo terminal, as it's all a bit improvised after the big airport fire).
ISO 800, 65mm, f/5.0, 1/40s.
And, to end the gallery optimistically, Maureen once again. Kenya, still a very tribal society, doesn't seem much like a nation at all,
but Maureen is the offspring of two different tribes, and what better way to end the tribal or racial nonsense than mix it all up?
Stay tuned, gallery part 2 coming soon.
ISO 200, 50mm, f/1.4, 1/60s.