Congo what? Congo-Brazzaville!

Never in my wildest imaginations thought I would come here. I have been to Congo – Kinshasa many times, rather the big nation, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire). But the other Congo, The Republic of Congo, just across the might river has always been a vague entity.

But thanks to some business, I landed in Brazzaville, the capitol of the Republic of Congo.

The consulate in Nairobi gave me a visa in a record 30 minutes. The ladies in charge of the the visa section did not talk much. Took the documents, the fee and I was on my way.

I landed at Maya Maya airport and regretted skipping my college French lessons. Yes, they proudly speak French here.

Brazzaville is a pleasant city on the shores of River Congo. Across the river, you can see Kinshasa, the capitol of The Democratic Republic of Congo. It is actually a five-minute ride by a motorised boat between the two. The two cities are the closest capitols in the world.

At times I would have lunch or dinner at Mami Water, a famous restaurant and watch over the other city or fishermen in the river.

Brazzaville is small – well done streets and amazing architecture. One of its major features is the Pont du Août 5 bridge, a 560-metre cable-braced viaduct. It is a wonderful piece of art. And every Sunday they close the road to the bridge to all vehicle moment and let the people walk and enjoy. On this day, you will find families, joggers, lovers, photographers and choirs in practice.

On the southern part of the city stands the concave Nabemba Tower, the tallest building (30 storeys) in the country which rises from the banks of the river, loading over the city with magnificence.

But my eye popping moments are always in the markets and clubs. In the markets, I saw live and dead bats on sale. Yes, Ebola virus is not going away any time soon! I also saw massive worms on sale – big, succulent, fat worms! I was curious as to how they would taste once roasted. It is a delicacy and an important source of proteins here.

The people of this nation take things easy – polite, too. The Senegalese and other traders from the north (the Fulani) do most of the businesses. They literally run every part of Poto Poto, one of the major markets in Brazzaville.

My best moments here are at the street bars and restaurants. At the end of the day, they seem to pop out of nowhere. It is amazing to watch how evenings turn out where people set tables and seats outside their homes and have a good time.  Of course, the hot and humid weather makes it a necessity to do this in the evening.

For international shoppers, sorry – Brazzaville has few options. There are only two malls. A few hotel brands like the Radisson Blue and Michaels are present – you will find an expatriate crowd here.

For an East African, I finally found out the meaning of Lingala music – yes, here, it runs in blood and they can dance!

My First Flight after ET302 and Africa’s Emotional Connection with Ethiopian Airlines

The flight was tense. The passengers politely sat back as if awaiting a disaster to happen. A passenger on my left had a bible at hand, praying quietly.

I was aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane a few days after the tragic crash of their Boeing 737 Max 8 which killed all on board. The ill-fated ET302 flight connecting Addis Ababa and Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six minutes after take-off killing 157 occupants on March 10.

I was traveling from Congo Brazzaville to Zimbabwe but the drama of flying in Africa meant several connections and a night in Addis Ababa (which I didn’t mind). The first stop was Ponte-Noir, a port city at the Atlantic Ocean near the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

The landing was rough and a few passengers screamed! Was it the pilot or an uneven runway? I don’t know.

The point is, this was an emotional flight. It is an emotional connection to an airline that Africans have come to love. We love Ethiopian Airline because it represents what a great Africa could be. It represents excellence.

Ethiopian Airline has become a shining beacon in a continent where management of large corporations can sometimes look dodgy.

In the 90s and early 2000s when pan African airlines started to falter, leaving most of West Africa in confusion, Ethiopian Airlines stepped in and connected the region to the rest of the continent and the world.

While its major peers and competitors (Kenya and South African Airways) continue to suffer under incompetent management, making losses and seeking government bailouts, Ethiopian Airline is thriving with efficiency. So how can we NOT love this airline?

When the news of the accident broke out, it actually broke the heart of Africa. We mourned from every nation, ethnicity and language.

More importantly, what the rest of the world missed during the tragic accident is that those who died are not just passengers on fun travel. They were Africa’s best brains – children, pilots, scientists, sports-people, business-people, engineers, journalists and doctors.

Most Africans who travel in the continent are not tourists but problem solvers – gifted people who are working all around to solve problems facing our continent.

So, we can’t forgive Boeing for what it did. This is a costly price that Boeing can never have enough money to pay for.

Fuck Boeing!

Over the last eight weeks, I travelled extensively with the airline and seeing its planes lined up at various airports across the continent is such a source of pride.

The Marvel of Kenya’s Hell’s Kitchen

The spectacular Marafa Depression, also known as Hell’s Kitchen, is a sandstone canyon outside of Malindi, Kenya. 

The call of Mt. Whitney, Contiguous USA Highest Peak

I started hiking a few years ago because it is a bit of a mix of sports and outdoors, both of which I enjoy.

At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal to hike Mt.Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada with an elevation of 14,505 ft (4421 meters), 22 miles (36km) round-trip, 6,100 ft (1859 meters) elevation gain. In order to prepare for this challenge, I hiked many of the Southern California mountains including San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California with 11,503 ft (3506 meters).

After few months of training, on Sunday, July 3, 2016, at 2:00AM, I started the journey to conquering the world famous Whitney trail with three of my team members. The weather was pleasant, except for some temperature fluctuation in the early hours. The recent warm temperature has melted most of the Winter snow on the trail. There was some snow towards the summit, which required me to have my micro-spikes. The trail starts at 8,360 ft (2548 meters) with quick elevation gain. I saw few people struggle with elevation, but I have found myself to acclimate relatively well so the quick elevation gain did not bother me.

After 7 hours and 11 miles (18km) of continuous ascent, I was able to reach the summit to be rewarded with such a magnificent view that Mt. Whitney can only offer. I stayed at the summit for about 40 minutes enjoying the views and taking plenty of pictures. I was also able to sign the Mt. Whitney registry as part of Mt. Whitney legacy, which was so special.

Hiking Whitney was a difficult physical and mental challenge, but it has also been very rewarding. I felt greater sense of accomplishment and a sense of assurance that anything is possible if we put our mind and effort into it. I always encourage people to go out and experience what nature has to offer. There is so much beauty not to enjoy.

Signing the famous register

*Selam Mesfin is an Ethiopian-American adventurer. She lives in California and has traveled to 67 countries and 42 US States.

Ololokwe: In the clouds of a perfect mountain

Perfect timing for a perfect Mountain!  Mt Ololokwe aka Oldoinyio Sapache  is my last major hike for 2018. 

It not only closed a remarkable hiking year but also a milestone for a mountain that has deep spiritual connections among the Maa speakers of Northern Kenya. It was only fair that I came here after Oldoinyio Lengai– another shrine of a mountain where my people converse with God during challenging times in the south (northern Tanzania).

The night before the hike was at Sabache Camp, a gem that’s sandwiched between Mt. Ololokwe and Loontare Hill. I am in the company of seasoned travellers (LG Shiks and two friends). We arrived at night by following Dipa, the camp manager, on a winding dirt road, not seeing much beyond the headlights but the profiles of dark mountains against the moonlight.

6:00 AM: We filed out of the camp, led by a quiet Samburu guide. I prayed for God’s protection and asked my legs to bravely carry me. The climb is steep and the trail is narrow – one foot after the other, following the famous elephant trail towards the top. At 6:37AM, the sun rose, painting the east with shades of orange.

The magic of sunrise and mountains. Photo: John Kisimir

There were two men ahead of us and one gasped at the rising sun. He has never seen sunrise from such a vantage point. That is the magic of mountains.

As we trudged on, elephant dung on the trail, broken branches and barks peeled off from trees – this is elephant country.

We reached the eastern rim slightly after an hour.  Loontare Hill sat pretty from northeast, shyly touching the rear side of his superior brother. From a distance I could see the famous rocks (Nkadoru Murto) where rich tourists sometimes land helicopters. 

Below us, the Isiolo – Moyale highway beautifully finds its way through the arid country.

I looked down again to admire the amazing view of Sabache camp – perfect location.  My mind drifted towards its manager, Dipa. When we arrived late last night, he offered us his room because another group arrived at the camp with more guests than booked and dislodged us. When I woke up at 5:00AM to get ready for the hike, I found him asleep on a mat by the bonfire site.  

To the West is a surprising view– all green, a mix of forest and open lush grass patches. Now I understood why elephants take the trouble of making treacherous trails to come here. 

The guide nudged us on, a little impatient with our pace. We walked west into the forest. The clean heavy oxygen hit our lungs as the calm breeze cooled down the sweat. It is an easy walk mostly on flat land.

At the top is lush and green! Photo: John Kisimir

We arrived at the Southern rim of the mountain after another hour. It’s a mammoth rock face and is what gives this mountain its magnificent shape. From a distance, the rock wears the top of the mountain like a hat, and then drops down hundreds of metres, making Mt. Ololokwe look like a massive tree stump from a distance.

Engulfed by clouds on the southern rim. Photo: John Kisimir

Below us, the eagles flew in cyclic patterns – six pairs and my heart leapt in awe at their welcoming party! Cattle bells of the Samburu people rang from a distance. Their circular villages are perched under miniature hills many kilometres below us. 

Then the clouds came in intervals, running over the mountain – engulfing us in acceptance.

I feel the presence of God. Mountains will always remain my true place of worship!  

We returned to the camp in time for lunch. Dipa, again showed his kindness by driving me to the nearest town, Archers Post, where I hitch hiked to my next destination.

Sabache camp, perched between mountains. Photo: John Kisimir
An eagle welcoming party, flying in cyclic patterns. Photo: John Kisimir

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On the Footsteps of Marsabit Peacemakers

I am in Marsabit, Kenya’s northern county – a land of camels, mountains, elephants, deserts and diverse people. It is the home of Ahmed – the greatest elephant that ever walked on earth and the only one in history to have been protected by a presidential decree until its death. It is the home of Lake Paradise, possibly the most breathtaking place you will ever see.

I am not here to chase mountains but rather in search of peacemakers. Marsabit is beautiful but also a troubled land. Its people have been fighting for the last six months – lives have been lost and property damaged.

Mediators huddle together for a quick brief before a peace meeting.

For days in the last three months, I watched my friend Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan post depressing messages on social media – calling for peace among her people. She is the head of, Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI), an organization that uses soccer to create peaceful co-existence among various communities.

Fatuma’s posts were heartbreaking and in the process informed me that they have formed an interfaith team that will go around dangerous places to mediate peace. I got curious. What does it take to make peace when lives have been lost? What kind of people would put their lives on the firing line in search of peace?

So, I drove 550K from Nairobi to meet the Marsabit peacemakers also called Interfaith Mediation Team.

We left Marsabit town in the morning towards the conflict zone. In my company was Fatuma, two priests (Anglican and Catholic), a Sheikh, an ex-politician, a teacher, NGO and government officials. We headed east, dropping from the mountain height towards arid land. The mood was jovial – the group made jokes about their faiths, families and trivial things. They also reviewed the outcome of a meeting they had in a different village yesterday – it did not go well but no life was lost. They called that a win.

Mediators convincing Borana elders to attend a peace meeting with the Gabra.

Today, the aim is to negotiate a ceasefire between two villages – Jaldesa and Shurr villages

The road is rough and rocky and this was the first time that any vehicle has plied here in 90 days. On arrival at Jaldessa, men with guns accompanied by elders and their chief surrounded us. The armed men are called KPR and armed by the government to protect their villages. Some were very angry at our presence. To make things worse, the peacemakers wanted their elders to accompany them to Shurr village for a peace meeting.

This will not happen! They said. They are not willing to walk into the lion’s den. There was a melee. I could see anger, pain and genuine fear in their eyes. Someone’s father and husband was killed here. Inside a pump house where they draw water, I was shown bullet marks on the generator, an effort by their rivals to destroy their only source of water.

After almost an hour of tantrums, several elders and the chief agreed to go to Shurr. As we were about to leave, one elder walked away from the group – no, he was not going to give his life to the enemy.

The drive to Shurr was not long, may be 15kms but the tension in the vehicle smelled of a war zone. No one knows what waits ahead. A few peacemakers have already received calls warning them not go. Chances of a bloody ambush were real.

Shurr is stunning village – about 300 dorm shaped colourful houses surrounded by large umbrella-shaped tortilis tees. Our arrival was shrouded with palpable tension. Elders and young men under a tree even though they knew of our coming, were not welcoming. They had knives and guns. One commented while servicing his weapon and said “this gun should do a good job today,”

A mediation meeting under a tree in Shurr between Borana an.d Gabra people

We were directed to a place for lunch. There was immediate relief. Provision of a meal is a very good sign – they are willing to talk.

I heard from mediators that Shurr was not just attacked but bombed! Several people died but the numbers are dodgy depending on the source.

The negotiations started under a massive tree – cold shed. Only few elders (men and women) joined us with all the furious young men staying away.

There were long-winded speeches from sides. There was talk about how some of the elders have been friends before the conflict – they had visitations, friendships and intermarriages.

I heard about the source of the conflict – boundaries over land, access to water sources and grazing rights. I heard about politics too – that local politicians are fuelling the conflict by buying guns and grenades for their respective tribes.

The armed youths trickled in – mostly on motorcycles and sat at a distance, observing the process. None uttered a word.

The mediation team pressed both sides for a ceasefire and after about four hours, I started to see a relaxed mood and at the end, they agreed to talk further. A meeting was set for the following day at Jaldesa. Hope is in the air.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.

The meeting ended with prayer – no one was smiling but the elders from both villages hugged one another. This was good enough for the mediators. Peacemaking is a process.

We drove out as the sun painted the sky orange on the horizon of Mt. Marsabit. The mediators were tired but satisfied by the outcome. A joke went round about how much water they drunk but no one went to the toilet.

We arrived at Jaldesa and were received by an anxious community – glad to have their elders back in one piece. They could not believe that they were not hurt. The mediators briefed them on the outcome and requested that they prepare to host the mediation meeting the next day.

The drive back to Marsabit was one of emotions and relief. Father Racho skilfully paced the Landcruiser through the bends towards the mountain. There will be more meetings like this in the coming days and weeks until peace is achieved.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.  May God bless these men and women. 

Good evening Marsabit!

Naloolo: The Spirit of African Exploration

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I am an Explorer. An explorer is a traveller-storyteller, a seeker of the unknown. I travel and tell stories of our people, mountains, rangelands, rivers and wildlife in East Africa.

I have traveled to 40 countries around the world – Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.  One of my favourite accomplishments so far was driving 6000Km from South Africa to Ethiopia.

My inspiration to travel came from my father when I was very young. One evening, he brought home a large book with a black cover.

“What is that?” I asked.
“It is a map,” he answered.
“What is a map?”  I asked.
Dunia.The world,” he said.

He opened the atlas – I saw the different parts of Kenya, Africa and the world. My eyeballs could have fallen out with excitement. I had never seen such a colourful book in my entire life. I had no idea how big the world was and we spent hours following roads, towns, rivers, mountains and oceans on the maps.

This encounter changed my perspective about school and developed a singular focus to finish school and travel the world.

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Why Naloolo Explorer?
There are two things that worry me about the environment in Africa. The first is that many Africans are getting disconnected from nature as they embrace urbanisation. Many can no longer connect their future to the existence of pristine rangelands, mountains, forests and wildlife.

Secondly, even though Africa has changed in the last few centuries, what has not changed is how the story of exploration and expeditions is told. This story and its tellers have not changed since the arrival of the first European explorers in the 15thcentury. Western travel and conservation media outlets still majorly control the narrative.

This story telling space needs to be expanded to accommodate the natives of Africa. Expanding it will bring not just add Africans voices to the media but millions of audiences that will re-connect with their lands, cultures and wildlife heritage.

In late 2017, I set out to change the above issues and formed Naloolo Explorer (www.naloolo.wordpress.com), an exploration outfit that will put passionate modern day African explorers in the media to tell stories of their continent and in the process reconnect people to nature.

It has been a life changing experience building Naloolo Explorer from a simple blog to something that many people follow and admire.

 In order to do this, I drew inspiration from the wandering spirit of my people – a people that travelled the vast lands of eastern Africa for centuries. With their long spears, they ruled this land until they were silenced by the arrival of incurable diseases (that killed 70% of their population) and the power of European weaponry. Like many nomadic people in Africa, the Maasai were the true explorers.

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I started traveling – climbing mountains and other amazing destinations in East Africa. I wrote and photographed about these adventures and shared with my social media followers. The response was astounding. The first question from fellow Africans is always:

“Why are you doing this?”

My response: “Why Not?”

Over the months as I traveled, wrote and photographed, the narrative changed to:

“Can I come with you on your next hike?”

“I admire your courage”

“I love what you do” and “You make us proud.”

I expect this movement to keep growing and I am happy that my travels, writing and photography is encouraging people to travel and connect with nature. The more citizens travel, the more they are inclined to care and protect their environment.

Stories matter and must be told and that is my purpose in life.

See details www.naloolo.wordpress.com
Naloolo Explorer: The Journey Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqUBeJqjZ5A

Ngong Hills Adventure: Hiking with My Father

My name is Timpiyian Nanana Kisimir.  I am 13 years old.  I am going to tell you about my experience of a recent hike on Ngong Hills. Ngong Hills is a series of seven peaks. We started early walking up the first hill from the gate (I, dad and brother, Lemayian) after saying hello to the rangers. It was fun as we took photos of the wind turbines and talked to friendly Maasai children who were selling sweets along the way. Dad told us many stories and learned a lot about the mountain and animals that live on it.

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We started cheerfully with my brother, Lemayian.

The first hill was quite long but not steep, had a nice breeze, which a think is caused by the tall wind turbines. We took breaks to rest, drunk water and snacked.

We proceeded to the second hill, which was quiet steep. As we approached it, dad asked me if I wanted to use a short cut but I was determined to take the rough and tough way. It was a hard, steep and slippery but we still climbed and reached the top.

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I chose the tough steep climbs, avoided short cuts. Not an easy job!

Going down hill number two was not a problem because it was filled with long nice grass and not rocky. Our goal was to reach the summit and we would not give up. Lemayian walked faster than us but slowed down many times to wait for us. In hiking, one of the rules is to stick together so that no one gets lost.

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Tough but fun. We were determined to reach the summit!

The third hill was even steeper than the second and was rocky but dad helped me. Lemayian did not need any help – he had good shoes and was good at climbing. Climbing the third hill was easy. The fourth hill was not steep but it was one of the hardest to climb because of all the rocks and the soil was very slippery. Going down was very nice and smooth filled with good grass.

We met many people on the way and said hello. We saw people who came to the mountain to pray because of the quietness and beautiful nature. They pray for the country and other things.

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We also found people who had given up climbing and were waiting for their companions to come back so they can return together. We met found a lady who had flat shoes and a formal white dress! Dad told us that he had even met ladies who came to the mountain on high heels! I could not imagine myself climbing hills with high heels! I also saw a boy who used to be in my school with four other boys, accompanied by their father.

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Keep waking. Don’t even think of giving up!

Now it was time to climb the hardest of them all – the fifth hill! In the middle of the fourth and fifth hill there is about 100 meters of flat land. We rested, took photos as we prepared for the climb to the summit. This is the tallest of all hills that makes Ngong Hills. It is steep and a forest. We were surrounded by so many trees and insects like fire ants. I did not enjoy this stretch because of the rocks – I slipped many times as I led us upwards. It was tough but I was determined to reach the top and there was a lot of sweat and pain as but we finally reached the top.

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The forest area as a tough section with twigs, bees, wasps and fire ants.

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We took breaks to rest and eat. I was tired. So tired!

We sat down – exhausted and had snacks (yoghurt, cup cakes, milk, soda). We then had conversations with other hikers who were at the summit.

Going down the hills was very rough and painful.  I thought it would be easier to go down but I was surprised to find it very tough. Dad knows this mountain inside out so we took some short cuts around the steep sections because the shoes were hurting my toes. It was very painful but got better when I removed the shoes and walked barefoot. I had to walk without shoes!

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Mission accomplished! Celebration on reaching the summit.

We got back late afternoon and passed by a friend’s place for lunch. I fell asleep while watching T.V and it really helped. We then said our good byes and left at around 5:30pm and returned home for a restful movie night.

My experience at Ngong hills was fun and adventurous. It was my first serious hike on a mountain – I really enjoyed it even though it was quiet hard. I will never forget!

Naserian Maasai Mara Camp: Nature, Culture and Luxury

DSC00442.JPGOne of the negative aspects of Kenya’s tourism sector is the simplification of African cultures. The much you would encounter in most Maasai Mara lodges and camps is a little Maasai dance – just colour, men jumping, mostly singing about nothing. You might also stop by a manyatta –  where poor school drop outs and their families would dance for you, for a pittance.

The big attraction here is wildlife – a resource that has been protected by a culture of tolerance that borders on deep spirituality. But tourism and conservation does not want to share that credit with local cultures.

So, over the years I have experienced African cultures being over simplified for the tourist – a story here, a dance here, a false tale to impress.

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Last week, after a day long hike to hike to Kileleoni Hill, the highest point in the Mara ecosystem, I found myself at Naserian Mara Camp – a new luxury facility in the north of the game reserve.

I met the proprietor, Mark ole Karbolo – an interesting fellow, with intense views on things life. Over a bonfire, we chatted over the state of wildlife, tourism and culture.

Mark is still putting final touches on the facility in readiness for flood of tourists in the coming weeks. He is among the very few locals who own such a facility in the Mara.

“I will give you nature, culture and luxury,” Mark told me. It is an assertion from the heart – you can feel it in his breathe and spark in his eyes.SONY DSC

We had a long chat about his dream for an exceptional facility – a place where both wildlife and Maa culture will truly be celebrated in equal footing. A place that not only give five start hotel service but also educate the tourists.

As an experienced traveler and critic of Kenya’s tourism industry, it is impossible to doubt that Naserian Camp has joined the elite luxury facilities in the Mara. The rooms have been meticulously done, spacious and cozy. The wildlife is a stone throw away and lions actually had a huge brawl though out the night.

SONY DSCWhat will set this camp apart from the others is its possibility to deliver authentic Maasai culture to its clients. That is where everyone has failed or just not interested.

Mark is convinced that he has no business running just another tourist facility if it offers what he believes has been the failure of others.

Only time will tell and I will surely return in the near future to see it for myself.

https://naserianmaracamp.com