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Like Karen Blixen, I long for the plains of Kenya

The Croft Magazine // Looking back at a school trip to the Masai Mara, on safari and volunteering at a remote school.

By Xander Brett, Travel Editor

The Croft Magazine // Looking back at a school trip to the Masai Mara, on safari and volunteering at a remote school.

Every year, if your letter was good enough, ten pupils from school were sent to rural Kenya to study the country and its people over two weeks. The trip was overseen by the parents of a pupil who, rather awkwardly, was semi-expelled the year after my successful application, putting the arrangement in jeopardy (she’d bunked off at night to see her boyfriend in town, caught out by a fire alarm). Normally, accommodation for the group was a luxury lodge on the top of a hill, looking out over the border with Tanzania.

My year, for reasons I’ve forgotten, we were sent down to a branch camp to sleep on beds in tents. But with ten staff to ten pupils, cooked three course meals and provided with fire, we were certainly well looked after. Each morning, we were sent to work at the local school, teaching children everything from French to maths. After lunch (which for the children – if it had successfully arrived – was a form of porridge, served from a small hut), we were taken for safaris in the plains. Or it was up to head camp for a drink and a swim in the infinity pool, or a dip under the fountain.

Every day we were on safari | Epigram / Xander Brett

Each day saw a new sighting of leopards, lions, cheetahs and elephants. There were crocodiles, zebras and wildebeest too, on their migration… the ‘Big Five’ very nearly ticked off. We were right in the south of Kenya, a day by car from the airport in Nairobi, over gravel roads by land, but also connected by a landing strip. Arriving back in the capital on our return, we had lunch with our headmaster, who was flying down to the camp we’d just left with his family.

We were at the home of the trip’s organiser (his base in the capital, with a team of servants and security guards). It’s in Nairobi, indeed, away from rural happiness, and connected by miles of banana-selling roads, the harsh reality of this country comes into focus. Passing the Kibera slum, through airport checkpoints, you’re reminded this is a nation still plagued by terrorism: the Al-Shabaab group active in Nairobi, and on the west coast, in the second city of Mombasa.

Beds in the Masai Mara | Epigram / Xander Brett

Still, it’s easy to forget that. Kenya contains the happiest population I’ve met. Driving through the village each morning, a crowd swarmed our cars to wave frantically and wish us good morning. At school, the national anthem was sung each morning under a large Kenyan flag, with a portrait of the president hanging inside. This is a country now independent of British rule, but where our queen is still much admired, our culture adored, and our football teams positively worshiped. English remains the language of government, though Swahili is the intertribal language (it isn’t long before you pick some up), and the tribal languages – in this case Masai – are spoken at home… (any words of it in school, though, and children can expect a thwacking from the headmaster).

To say this country is conservative, certainly, is an understatement, but it’s no less liberal than the rest of Africa, and no less blighted by corruption at the top. Death is part of life… those lives lived under mud huts, but with excellent phone signal and televisions in the richest homes. Landing back in the UK, for a holiday in Cornwall, the memories lingered (where were the banana sellers?). I watched the film adaptation of Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa longing, like her, to return – if not to my farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills – then to that camp on the mara.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett