Photos / Massai Market, Nairobi

Open only for three hours during the day, the Massai Market is an open air market that takes place in different parts of the city in Nairobi, rotating depending on the date. The open air market includes artisans who come and lay their things on the floor, while you bargain away and try not to buy everything. The Masaai Market is a bit different in the sense that the items reflect almost exclusively to the culture of the Massai tribe in Kenya. Thus, the items, such as the patterns on the khangas to beaded necklaces are distinct from other products in the region, given the unique tribal traditions.

The Masaai Market was also established as a venue for women to sell their products and handmade crafts, to help their livelihood. It used to be exclusive for women, but with no ban on commercial sellers, you can see men more and more, which has garnered some controversy in terms of whether the market is serving its purposes anymore to empower female entrepreneurs.

The Massai Market reflects the celebration of color in East Africa. At first it is explosive, and as someone who loves patterns and bright color combinations, it was hard not to buy everything. You will also see women sitting around actually creating the necklaces, earrings, to sandals and bags and polishing wood carvings as you walk around to eye the items and try not to spend everything you have (sadly, or not so sadly, I destroyed by budget). Artisans use beautiful beads to make colorful items that speak to the Massai culture and traditions, neatly creating designs practiced for years.  Here are some photos that I took after shopping around.

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Baby elephants at the Elephant Orphanage, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Nairobi, Kenya

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While I will observe wild elephants in my safari next week, a trip was made to see the much talked about elephant orphanage in outskirts of Nairobi. To check out what was actually happening at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, you have to plan—they are open everyday but only from 11-12 pm, and it is about a thirty minute drive from the Westlands area of Nairobi, which with traffic can be challenging. The drive alone is beautiful, as you pass the city and gorgeous landscape, and also get a view of post-colonial architecture (i.e. massive bungalows representing unprecedented wealth during the British rule). The nursery of the Trust is one of few around the world and the most successful orphan-elephant rescue and rehabilitation center (National Geographic).

The fee is a donation of 500 shillings per person, which is not much considering how it can cost over $900 per elephant per year to raise and nurture them. Elephants are brought in two rounds for viewing, from the very young ones at first, followed by two to three year olds, some of whom can already feed themselves while others are still dependent on the keepers for milk.

It is a wonderfully organized center, where a local keeper will describe the elephants, where they were rescued from, their names, and what is being done at the center. The baby elephants are so cute. Bev and I were gushing at the orphan elephants, which are victims of poaching and brought to the center from all over Kenya. Many were also abandoned by their mothers if they were too slow to begin moving about, which left them orphaned. During the one-hour viewing, they play around with mud and water or their favorite acacias trees, and are also fed milk from giant bottles, which is just adorable on its own. The milk is in fact now cows milk because it has too much fat, but a mix of soy, coconut, and proteins made at the center to replace a mother’s milk.

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Once the elephants are not dependent on milk anymore, they are moved hundreds of miles away to Tsavo National Park. However, because elephants have extremely good memory and are sensitive to changes in environments or noise, it can take from five to ten years to just be able to transition into the wild from the holding centers at Tsavo. Charles Siebert  notes, “the program is a cutting-edge experiment in cross-species empathy that only the worst extremes of human insensitivity could have necessitated.”

Before visiting the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, I was not the biggest animal enthusiast. I never grew up with pets and have been scared of them most of my life. It was just last year that I got comfortable with a dog around me (no joke). I don’t like zoos, and not amused by animal tricks at the circus. It was from when I started studying abroad that I began to be interested in larger animals, especially camels in the Middle East. The two times I engaged with an elephant was in Jairpur, India in 2008 where I have a photo with one, horrified, and in Thailand in 2011, where me and my friend Katie rode elephants in the outskirts of Bangkok.

In Nairobi, there is no such thing as riding elephants. Rather, you come here and you are humbled to learn about these perilous animals that were once abundant throughout the world. Elephants are more known for being poached and killed for their tusks or bush meat, and human-led violence is actually increasing. Yet it is up to the humans to help rescue them and bring their numbers back, as Daphne, a fourth-generation Kenya-born woman of British origin started with the establishment of the center in 1987 with her husband David Sheldrick, a famous naturalist.

There is a lot of politics around the elephants, from local Masaai beliefs about their natural habitat and place in their culture, to increased demand of elephant tusks in global trade, and to the discussion of who bears responsibility to nurture, raise, and educate the masses about them. While most travelers are weary of visiting animals in captivity, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is a must see for anyone in Nairobi, as it will show you the depth of human activity and its effect on the world we live in in just a short period of time.

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A note on the flight alone to Nairobi + Volun-tourism

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My flight to Nairobi was something on its own to note because, well, it’s just surprising. People on your flight: American missionaries, American college kids doing research on AIDS/HIV or education (or the typical developing-world-issues, you pick one), nuns, families going on safaris, and ‘volun-tourists,’ or a type of tourism where you also ‘volunteer’ to make yourself feel better, and lots of Europeans who are going on similar purposes. The flight from Brussels included an American priest who decided it was his job to loudly recite prayers before takeoff and during landing. The general voice level is excitement, of ‘going to Africa’ and ‘saving the world.’ From my other posts on this blog it should be clear that I have an issue with this whole ‘saving the world’ mantra that travelers from the West has continued to feel obliged to do, especially those who can also afford to go to this very, very large continent.

The passengers on religious missions was a bit surprising because I did not know that still took place so actively. The volunteer tourism is a bit more problematic. While the purpose of it has been marketed to promote responsible visitors and allow people to engage in sustainable tourism, it is still tourism in which people, mostly affluent families from the US, are enforced the feeling of 1) false superiority, direct of indirect, 2) the assumption that the location of their volunteer tourism is in a dire state,  3) still expect to be treated as a superior and have all the amenities of a vacation, and especially nice things since it is a developing country. All of this might sound extreme but I feel that this new volun-tourism is just perpetuating socioeconomic divides, and more controversially, racial divides (I use the word controversial because people still feel queasy pointing to the elephant in the room, but yes, this is a racial issue).

Such volun-tourism is more about boosting the ego of the tourists who are landing at the airport and being escorted by nice cars to their nice hotels (all of which are not only expected from the tourists but also surprises them because they thought they were coming to a developing country and people are supposed to be poor, an obvious double standard). Also, not all locals want to be reminded that they need help, or asked for help, or even actually need help in the first place (living standards and what is deemed as ‘approprate’ and not are objective, after all).

Of course this is not to push down intentions or to say all volunteer tourists are ignorant, but an element of ignorance is there. Bangladesh has recently started to jump on this whole volunteer tourism thing, where marketing companies are hired by travel agency to make fancy websites and charge unbelievable amounts for packages to do things that locals usually laugh at, and locals are always better at. I remember talking to someone who worked at such travel agency and he told me how it’s usually something like letting the tourist teach a class at a school, clean fish freshly caught from pollutants, and other tasks that are not dangerous (because if something happens to the tourist, well, that would ruin the whole purpose, and this also assures that the demands of safety are met by these tourists), meager, and, just funny and costs next to nothing for the agency to arrange. What does help is that the amounts paid by these tourists to do what locals would deem as odd activities to actually help trigger employment in the area.

Lets not forget that these tourists are not going to be given some cultural background or education on the way people usually live in the area so again, they are coming in with the idea that their society and living standards is automatically better than the host country.

I am not sure that there is a solution other than asking people to go read some books. Tourism is a great cash cow and a way to boost a region’s economy, and even help local employment and small businesses to an extent. Exploitation of perception, and increased conviction of ‘developing world poverty’ after such visits are a social issue, which goes beyond reading books.