Laurence Zerafa: A Visit to East Africa

I like travelling and sub-Sahara black Africa had long been on my mind and in my heart for various reasons.  Travels to exotic places, encountering big animals wildlife, the varied natural environment on a grand scale, different peoples and cultures, a continent which is increasingly interacting with Europe through migration and finally a mission country where several Maltese Catholics serve directly and many more Maltese support this work, including myself. Since about 25 years I have been supporting the education of a child in Hola, a village in East Kenya, where the Maltese Capuchin Franciscans have a mission, and since my mother passed away, 8 years ago, I continued sponsoring the education of ‘her’ child as well.

A year ago, things started getting together to make this trip possible. Most important was the right mindset because for the solo traveller Africa can be daunting. The Franciscan mission in Hola accepted my request to host me for a week and a half and I made contact with a Maltese Salesian in Nairobi to spend some days with them in Nairobi.  Finally for the overland adventure trip starting in Nairobi, crossing west into Uganda, crossing further west in Rwanda and then back to Nairobi I found and picked the right tour company. When travelling solo it takes some careful planning to coordinate visas, vaccinations, flights, bookings etc but it can be done. 

In the end, the nearly 5 weeks I spent in East Africa (mid August to mid September 2015) were a very varied experience. The first part of the trip was 10 days in East Kenya starting in Mombasa where I was picked up by Fr. Joe Galea OFM Cap., who drove us to Hola (via Malindi) with the numerous tiny villages around it. Hola, on the Tana River, is an area of Kenya with hardly any western people in it because of troubles with Somali guerrillas whose border is close to Kenya in this region.  This is unlike Malindi further south on the coast where numerous Italians have holiday homes. Garissa just 150 kms away, witnessed an attack by Al-Shabaab Somali militants this year on Maundy Thursday, which brutal attack left 148 Christians dead. All this has affected immensely the tourism industry in this part of Kenya especially the two main tourists spots Malindi and Mombasa both beach resorts. 

In Hola I could see at first hand the single Maltese Capuchin missionary and his 2 Franciscan African collaborators at work through their mission compounds with numerous outlying small churches, schools and clinics. Fr Galea personally has been directly involved in designing and building numerous churches. The people are poor but friendly and welcoming once one is introduced. I also had the opportunity of meeting at their home the two young children whose education I sponsor. The Maltese Capuchin mission is held in high regard.

Before leaving East Kenya I had the opportunity to tour around the tourist town of Malindi (a Maltese Bishop, Fr. Emanuel Barbara OFM Cap. is responsible for this Diocese) and the two main attractions in the vicinity, Gede ruins the remains of an old Swahili town located in modern day Gede village and the Marafa depression a vast canyon-like area resulting from soil erosion that looks like a Martian landscape because of it predominant red and yellow colours. Getting to this remote Marafa village using public transport was an adventure in itself with the matatu (public minibus) driver assigning a passenger to me to guide me in changing buses at the bus station even though they knew no English. Trust with caution has to be exercised.

From Malindi it’s just a short one hour flight to Nairobi, the capital and largest city of Kenya and one of the most prominent cities in Africa, both politically and financially. Here, I was hosted by Bro Damian Formosa SDB a Maltese Salesian. The Salesians in Nairobi are based in the Karen District, which area name comes from Karen Blixen of ‘Out of Africa’ fame whose house, now a museum, is in the area. The Salesians were kind to show me around their houses in the area which include Boy’s Town, Bosco Boys, a Seminary, Don Bosco Youths Educations Services (DBYES) and Bosco Eastern Africa Multimedia Services (BEAMS). They do great work especially with youth from all backgrounds especially the poor but also the well off. I could also see that they host several volunteers who support the Salesians in various aspects of their work.

The rest of my trip (18 days) was an organised group overland tour from Nairobi to Eldoret (Kenya) onto Kampala and Kabale (Uganda) onto Musanze and Kigali (Rwanda) and back to Nairobi with numerous stops in villages and town stops (Jinja, Mbarara, Bujagali, Kisumu, Kericho etc) in between besides visits to the two major Nature Parks; Lake Nakuru in Kenya and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The latter park is one of the few places on earth where one can encounter several of the 800 remaining gorillas in the wild and made famous through the work of Diane Fossey. 

On the road and especially during the major stops there was ample opportunity to go one’s way apart from the pre-organised group activities. I used these opportunities to walk the streets and observe ordinary people going about their lives besides visiting the landmarks. If one keeps alert and absolutely avoids the streets in the evenings and nights one does not encounter problems, at least I did not or perhaps from what I was told I was lucky. Some places however can only be visited with a guide. Two such places I visited were Kibera in Nairobi and Kamwookya in Kampala both of which are slum areas. Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi, and the largest urban slum in Africa. Both visits were eye-openers to how so many millions of people struggle to survive, yet, surprisingly for us, given the opportunity, few actually choose to leave this physically extremely degraded environment. 

In several other places I also visited local NGOs (church or otherwise) who work on promoting development in education and health. All three countries are full of such local initiatives which get support from developed countries including the European Union as a body. I have to admit that my general notion that people in African countries hardly help themselves was a wrong one. 

Back from East Africa, which is just a tiny part of the huge Continent that is Africa, I bring back with me many positive memories and would like to go back, this time for a longer time with the balance tipping towards more towards direct involvement in development aid though the desire to travel and explore new countries is there too.

 Laurence Zerafa (RODS)