Transformation Through Love
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Kenya
2007

Ahhh Kenya. What a fascinating country. As in many other African countries, Kenya had its own specific set of interesting, sometimes annoying, customs and traditions. Some facets of the everyday culture I couldn’t help but compare to my native Italy. Especially their chronic lateness. They are always late for everything. Unless it’s a guided, paid tour, setting up an appointment for 4 in the afternoon means that it could potentially happen anytime between 4 and 7 in the evening. And generally no one makes a fuss about it. Just as in Southern Italy, where you may end up waiting and waiting for hours on end. Then there’s the crazy driving. Another aspect comparable to Southern Italy and reminded me of driving around in Naples, where green means “go”, and red means “go”. Anything goes!

Although I’ve rented cars in countless countries around the world, I am so very glad that I didn’t have to choose that option while I was in Kenya. I can’t imagine driving in Nairobi (or any city in Kenya, for that matter) as a foreigner, and I’m Italian! I can only imagine what it must be like for a Northern European to try to adapt to the traffic chaos there.

Ahhh Kenya. What a fascinating country. As in many other African countries, Kenya had its own specific set of interesting, sometimes annoying, customs and traditions. Some facets of the everyday culture I couldn’t help but compare to my native Italy. Especially their chronic lateness. They are always late for everything. Unless it’s a guided, paid tour, setting up an appointment for 4 in the afternoon means that it could potentially happen anytime between 4 and 7 in the evening. And generally no one makes a fuss about it. Just as in Southern Italy, where you may end up waiting and waiting for hours on end. Then there’s the crazy driving. Another aspect comparable to Southern Italy and reminded me of driving around in Naples, where green means “go”, and red means “go”. Anything goes! 

Although I’ve rented cars in countless countries around the world, I am so very glad that I didn’t have to choose that option while I was in Kenya. I can’t imagine driving in Nairobi (or any city in Kenya, for that matter) as a foreigner, and I’m Italian! I can only imagine what it must be like for a Northern European to try to adapt to the traffic chaos there. 

Had I known that traveling all the way to Kenya would have led me to create that connection with Africa that I’d started to crave, I would have never doubted the power of intention. It didn’t happen immediately, of course. In fact, it took another two trips back to Kenya before my intention even started to materialize, one of helping to end the brutality in the world however I could with whatever I had. My encounter with Merciful Redeemer Children’s Home didn’t occur until the following February, 2018, but in the meantime I got to travel in my guides’ home country, which is rich in natural beauty and exciting things to see and do. And at that time, I was able to meet many different cultures within the country itself. I think that almost every country in Africa has its own tribes, with their different local dialects and traditions, but it is also true that almost every country in Africa also has such diverse landscapes within each region. This means that when you cross one on an overland trip, you can see such huge diversity that I often marveled that I was in the same place! 

Kenya wasn’t any different. From the Masai Mara National Park where the wildebeest migrate into the Serengeti in Tanzania, the hustling and bustling of Nairobi, all the way to the Indian Ocean’s island of Lamu and Malindi Bay, the variety is immense and so are the opportunities to see many kinds of predatory animals, but also elephants, giraffes, antelopes, and warthogs running around wild with their babies as usual. If you are lucky enough to be there during the migration season in July, herds of wildebeest cross the Mara river in search for greener pastures. 

Although we didn’t get to see the Great Migration, we experienced the Masai Mara and Nairobi National parks (Merciful Redeemer’s neighbor). We also visited the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, home to orphaned baby elephants; the Giraffe Center; Lake Nakuru and the adjacent forest of spectacular acacia trees, where we had the opportunity to stop on a road high above the treetops; and Tsavo National Park.

However, the highlight of Kenya for me will always remain in Amboseli National Park, at the feet of Mount Kilimanjaro in adjacent Tanzania. I experienced the most amazing safari of my life there. I had the opportunity to take a private ride with a driver/guide. We encountered no other humans that day on the vast savannah. It was like time had stopped. Snow-capped, majestic Kilimanjaro as a backdrop created a sumptuous and sacred atmosphere, while the quiet and greenery was beyond what my words can describe. The diverse park includes the savannah as well as all the wetlands where the elephants graze. The most amazing views of the natural world couldn’t compare to the awesome sight of elephants slowly grazing in the middle of huge puddles of fresh green grass, it was as if I was watching a slow-motion video. I heard nothing but my own ahhhs of wonder and gratitude as I witnessed this spectacle. 

Sitting on 39,000 hectares (or 96,370 acres), the park is well renowned for its population of elephants. There were points when I saw huge lines of mother elephants followed by their babies, in descending order from the biggest to the smallest. The last one typically was almost attached to the rear of the brother in front of him so as not to lose his pace, its little trunk curled up. And then the dust in the distance would lift up and encircle them. The name “Amboseli” comes from a Maasai word meaning “salty dust”. 

The Maasai warrior people live nearby in the park, and we visited them to discover more about their habits and traditions. They improvised one of their dances for me, with their typical Maasai jumping, and also sang in their Maa language. Many wore their traditional robe, called a “Shuka”, a red garment originally created to scare off lions even from a distance. They made beautiful jewelry out of wire and beads. Even the men wore ankle bracelets alone with their large, colorfully-decorated bead necklaces with designs that help distinguish one clan from another. 

The largest ethnic group in Kenya is the Kikuyu, part of the Bantu groups, but there are as many as 42 different groups living in the country, all of whom contribute to the rich culture of the country. Minority groups have just recently started being protected by the constitution, and include the Luo (a Nilotic group, meaning from the Nile region), the Turkana, Gabbra and Boni. The Maasai also belong to the Nilotic group, and they are the most commonly distinguishable thanks to their colorful clothing and jewelry. I personally encountered many of them residing in villages adjacent to the national parks, especially the Mara and Amboseli. And Merciful has a program to help the children of the Maasai. 

Although Amboseli remains my favorite out of all the parks that we visited in Kenya, the Maasai Mara was also spectacular because of the abundance of big cats. We spotted lions on the trees and lionesses with their cubs in the bushes. 4X4s would typically communicate to the other Jeeps with their walkie talkies as they recognized a potential sighting. One time, we got so close to a lioness with her babies, and I became truly frightened. Our driver stopped the car at a still safe distance, although we were so close that it felt like we could almost touch them. After a few minutes of clicking with our cameras and taking photos with our cell phones, we started hearing the lioness’ sudden grunt. It was unavoidable, because about a half-dozen other jeeps had stopped right there to take in the sight too. 

Although we remained silent, there was always someone who just couldn’t avoid talking. When the silence broke, she became super protective of her little ones. Then one of the ladies from another car screamed and the lioness got up. Even our driver became frantic at that point.

All of us in our jeep recoiled in terror and then the next thing I knew all the vehicles turned in their ignitions and we all off we drove quickly back into the savannah’s trails. Equally sensational was our spotting of a cheetah. The Maasai Mara is one of the national parks that has the highest density of cheetahs in Africa, although it is still not necessarily a given that one will be seen, since it’s estimated that no more than 300 live there. And the park is huge, about 583 square miles. But we did spot them, two beautiful adults with a baby walking in the distance. Because these are the fastest mammals on earth (60 miles per hour), it wasn’t wise to go too close. We didn’t want them to blast off had we gotten too near! We sat there in awe from our jeep, witnessing every move and staring at their incredibly built bodies, machines made for running. And right there, I realized that I’d finally seen every major wild animal that I’d hoped to see! However, yet again, another vehicle had joined in and it was again time to start our engines and head back to the trails of the savannah. Although I ended up returning to Kenya two more times and went back to the Maasai Mara reserve, it wasn’t until my third visit to Kenya that I decided to go back to the Sheldrick elephant orphanage, and foster a baby elephant for the year. At the time I started the sponsorship of Esampu, she’d just turned two years old. I decided to sponsor Esampu as a birthday present to my son Blaise, because I knew how much he loved animals as well. Upon sponsoring, I received a little packet with Esampu’s story, and how my contribution would help throughout the year. For just $50 a year, I helped to contribute to her wellbeing together with hundreds of other sponsors. Esampu had become my first “real” connection to Africa, before I’d work to help Merciful Redeemer. My connection to Africa would continue to deepen.

On transforming negative experiences into positive global change 

This story began at the end of my rope. My mom died the same year my divorce became final and in the aftermath, I wanted to sell most of my possessions, travel, and struggle. I chose to struggle because I began to feel a kinship with those who’d hit rock bottom around the world. I believed that empathizing with others in their vulnerability helped me become part of a greater whole. Initially, co-struggling lifted my burden, I suppose, but then it turned into something much more. 

I guess the deep wounds which set me on this journey caused me to want to begin to heal the wounds of the worlds’ most vulnerable. I encountered them during my travels in ways I’d never had before which made it impossible for me to witness, comprehend and not act. 

At the outset, I knew that my struggles were nothing compared to the cruelty of the world. In the aftermath of my personal tragedies, there was a letting go of my own ego. Stripped of who I had known myself to be, it was my intention to become a blank page for the world to write upon. I chose to see suffering first-hand and see the world through the eyes of the poor because I had a burning curiosity to know what falls down at the crossroads of their needs and circumstances. I felt the best way to accomplish this would be to embark upon a very long overland trip that began in South Africa and ended in Zanzibar. 

I guess my decision to live free of material things and head into the world on a mission of empathy might be seen as a form of courage by some people. But I wouldn’t know the true meaning of the word until I met an extraordinary Kenyan woman who would change my life. Although the media constantly portrays hatred, wars, and superficial news, marvelous people exist who come from the worst situations. Their tenacity and perseverance have more than inspired me and gave me a kind of roadmap of how they stepped out of their darkness so that I’d have the courage and fortitude to step out of my own. 

When I first separated from my ex-husband, I left America with both of my children to journey back to Europe on my own. We established ourselves in Florence, Italy for a few years. The daunting experience was made easier because I knew in my heart that we would be okay, especially since I had my archaeology degree. When we settled into a home in Florence, my kids attended the International School of Florence, and I worked as a translator, interpreter, and as an archaeology assistant. 

I guess after having to dodge a few curveballs myself, I understand them in new ways now. To be born in rural Africa with no chance of a proper education, hygiene, running water or electricity made most of my first-world problems pale by comparison. I became even more aware of how much I took my own circumstances for granted. So much so, I quickly redefined the concept of privilege in my own mind: If you have a roof over your head, you lead a privileged life. And that realization caused a million questions to arise––How can I help the people here? Why is there no safety net for the world’s most vulnerable? What circumstances lead to this kind of poverty? Was life ever easier for the people I saw living in the streets? 

Instead of only donating left and right––which I still do––I knew there must be a better way for me to make a difference. As important and rewarding as it can be, just sending money felt hollow. I wanted more of a connection with the work I would do and the people that it would benefit. So I began to think about establishing my own foundation. This way, I figured I’d actually be able to travel to a specific country and do some type of helpful work there. I wanted to work with people one-on-one. And so my search began. 

I’d been flabbergasted by one of the first needs I noticed. Although the race among grocery retailers to establish and grow their footprints across Africa has been ongoing, the vast majority of people in Africa make a living by selling their fruits and vegetables along the streets. A far cry from the chock-full grocery stores in the United States. 

Surrounded by trash, food stands share roadside space with all sorts of merchandise sellers, including run-down internet kiosks, taxi bike stands, and a plethora of mismatched tiny businesses while livestock nonchalantly walk by. The scene had been compounded by half-naked children playing in the dirt amidst the trash. These striking, disturbing sights became so common that I realized a lack of consistent, proper hygiene was the reality in most of the rural areas of Africa.