A Very Bad Good Woman

I’m interrupting my series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain to write about a memorable New Year’s Eve.

I was in Nairobi carrying out a number of volunteer projects for a human rights organization.  The most interesting was interviewing activists, including a dozen slum-dwelling women who were organizing to fight police shake downs and a guy who had been tortured after protesting the 2007 election results.

I was there for December and January, and just as I was ramping up, the director announced that the office would close for two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s.  I was renting a flat with a 22-year-old German guy who was also volunteering.  He was thrilled about this development and immediately made plans to go to Ethiopia with friends to take photos of the ancient churches there.  This would undoubtedly require massive amounts of alcohol.

The prospect of hanging out in the flat for two weeks was depressing.  Kenyan TV featured the  dregs of American shows, like Baywatch, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and Beverly Hills Plastic Surgeon.  The Internet was maddeningly slow.  Going for walks was considered dangerous.  My supply of books was already running low; English ones were hard to come by and very expensive in the local malls.

So I booked myself on a safari.

I will always feel very lucky to have had this experience.  I went to Basecamp Masai Mara, a “luxury eco-resort” run by a Norwegian company where Senator Barak Obama had stayed with his family.  If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.  These links are to my safari Facebook albums.

The organization sponsoring my volunteer gig, American Jewish World Service, had paid my airfare to Nairobi.  For Americans, airfare is half the price of a safari.  It still wasn’t cheap, but it was possible.

So I spent 10 days going on game drives, touring a Masai clinic, reading, and sleeping.  Each morning I awoke to the dawn chorus of hooting, howling, growling, croaking, and cackling coming from the bush.

For each meal I sat at a white-linen-covered table, by myself except once, when a couple of fellow international development people invited me to join them.  He was Norwegian and she was Swedish.

“We know how it feels to eat alone,” he said.

For the last two nights I moved to a remote camp.  I spent New Year’s Eve gazing out over the Masai Mara and Just Being.  Words cannot describe the beauty of the land and the light.

At my last dinner, a Masai guide named Manfred pulled a chair up across the table from me.  This familiarity was unfamiliar behavior.  Manfred was 30ish and had a sweet, innocent face.  He was short and muscular and his skin had a reddish sheen from working outdoors.

He sat back in the cow-hide chair, spread his shoulders and legs wide, and clasped his hands together in front of his chest.  His body language wasn’t confrontational but he was staking his ground.  He smiled at the floor for a few seconds, then up at me.

“When you first arrived, we all thought you were a very bad woman, but now we know you are not.”

I wasn’t completely surprised by his comments.  I’d had the sense that they didn’t know what to make of me, a woman traveling alone.  But I wondered what theories they had about me.

“Did you think I deserted my husband and children?” I asked.

No, he shook his head but didn’t counter.

“Did you think I was a lesbian?” I asked next.

Manfred laughed uneasily, tipping his chair on its back legs.  Now that’s a universal male thing, I thought.

“No, we have had many homosexual guests and they are very nice people.”

That sounded like a line he’d been instructed to say.  I knew from interviewing a transgender activist that alternative sexual orientations had yet to gain acceptance in Kenya, to put it mildly. 

He couldn’t contain himself any longer; he leaned forward and said, “We thought you were a sex tourist.”

I burst out laughing.  I would turn 50 in a month.  I don’t condone sex tourism, but being suspected of it felt like a compliment.

Happy New Year’s!  Enjoy every moment of your precious life!

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