Hakuna Matata: 8 Lessons I Learned in Kenya

DenaMarch 24, 2010

The Adventure Begins

I was taking a required elective, World Geography, during my senior year of college. If it hadn’t been for that elective, I would have never been in the Science Building at all. (I was an English Major with a Creative Writing focus.) But for whatever reason, I was there in the Science Building and one morning while walking to class, I noticed a flier on the wall: “Kenya Study Abroad Program, Summer 2006.”

It was March.

I was sold.

When I told my friends and family that I was going to Africa, their reactions ranged from confusion to fear. When I told them that I had a layover in Dubai, they were panic-stricken. I grew up in a small suburb in Northern New Jersey where most of the population is WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants). The idea of going to Africa, let alone having a layover in the Middle East, is completely terrifying to most of these people. My closest friends and family tried desperately to talk me out of it.

Of course that only made me want to go more. Yes, I’m one of those. I had to prove that not only was it completely safe to travel to these places; but it was also completely necessary and wonderful. I had to teach them that there is a great, big, beautiful world outside of the little box that they were living in. (Yes, believe it or not, there is life beyond New York City.)

Lesson 1: Do not listen to a damned thing that anyone tells you out of ignorance. Learn for yourself. Change your perspective (and theirs).

I spent the next few months thinking about my trip obsessively. I could not wait. I was beyond excited. I had been waiting for an opportunity like this my entire life: a chance to experience another culture and world. (I’d been to England & Wales but it wasn’t quite the adventure I’d been seeking.)

Finally, after months of anticipation, July approached. One day I was at work, sitting at my desk, watching the clock as usual, when suddenly I became dizzy. I almost fell off my chair. Minutes went by and it didn’t go away. In fact, it got worse. I tried to get up but I couldn’t stand. I asked a co-worker to help me to the restroom. I splashed cold water on my face, drank water, and ate crackers. I did all of the things that you’re supposed to do when you’re dizzy. But it only got worse.

A friend drove me home that day. I went to sleep early. I woke up and the dizziness was still there. The constant, spinning vertigo was making me nauseous. My mother took me to the emergency room.

This was two weeks before Africa. My Africa.

When I got to the hospital they took some tests and hooked me up to an IV. After an hour of waiting, a doctor came into my room.

“You have a condition called Labyrinthitis,” he said.

Now I’ll be damned if I had a clue what that meant. It sounded like a low-budget 80’s movie to me. I only cared about one thing. “How long will it last?” I asked.

“It could be 6 days. It could be 6 years,” he said.

That was one of the scariest moments of my life. Later I learned that labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear. The inflammation affects the balance part of the brain and causes vertigo. In all likelihood, it was the mononucleosis vaccine I’d had a week prior as a part of my travel vaccinations. I spent the next few days in bed, devastated and terrified. After several days laid up, I slowly began to walk again with the help of a cane.

There I was, two weeks before my Africa, crippled. Some friends forced me out of the house and to the movies. Even with my cane, I fell several times. They had to carry me to the car.

Still, I practiced walking with my cane every day. Eventually, I was on the move, with a cane, but on the move. I had expressed my fears about my condition to the trip’s director.

“You have to come,” she said. The next day I found her son (who I’d never met before) at my doorstep, telling me that I absolutely had to come. He told me that he would be on the trip too and would take care of me no matter what. The kindness of strangers.

I went to the doctors a few more times that week. I finally asked the big question, could I physically go on the trip. He advised me that the decision was mine to make, physically I would make it, but I had to do what I thought was best.

Could I go to Africa with a cane? With a dizzy head?

I didn’t make my decision until the night before my departure. I was torn between fear and bravery. In the end bravery won out. One of the students I would be traveling with lived near me and we decided to drive to the airport together. I arrived at her house early that morning. Her father drove us to the airport (JFK in New York City) through rush hour traffic in his white plumbing van. When we arrived, we exited the van and made our way into the airport. I watched the white van disappear into the vast sea of traffic as he drove away. We lugged our bags inside and sat down to wait for the rest of our group.

It wasn’t until later, after we’d gotten through security, that it hit me: I had forgotten my cane.

Lesson 2: Sometimes the odds are going to be hell-bent stacked against you. The Universe is going to throw every obstacle in your path that it can muster. Do not be deterred. Pushing forward will lead you to the most rewarding, incredible experiences of your life.

By the time we finally arrived to the dormitories in Nairobi, we’d been traveling for a full day without sleep. Still, everyone was excited so we headed down to dinner (Kenyan food is the most delicious I’ve ever had — all of it). After dinner, there would be a brief orientation; but I couldn’t make it. I was beyond exhausted and too dizzy to stand. I excused myself to my dorm. Over the next two hours, I would go through one of the darkest experiences of my life.

I wanted to lie down and rest. But that was not going to happen. Despite my exhaustion, my mind was racing. I was in Kenya, thousands of miles away from home. I could barely walk. My heart began to race. The “what ifs” started. What if I get hurt? What if I fall? I shouldn’t have come here. My heart was pounding. I was having a heart attack. My heart was ramming out against my chest. I could feel it, I could hear it. My mind began to spin. I was having a heart attack and I was going to end up in a Kenyan hospital. I was going to need a blood transfusion. I was going to contract HIV. I fell onto my bed and cried. I wanted to die. It would be better to die.

I did not know any of my traveling companions very well at all. I knew the girl that I had driven to the airport with, Nicole, only because she lived near me. She was my only lifeline. I called her and I was hysterical. I told her what was happening, that I was having a heart attack. Her voice was sweet and calm.

“No, you are having a panic attack,” she said. “I’ll be right over.” And she came and talked me down. She had some Xanax leftover from the plane ride. She gave me one. Soon, I came back to reality. She was right. In my life, I thought I’d had panic attacks before. I hadn’t. Not like this anyway. This was the first real panic attack that I ever had, my first night in Kenya. Nicole was my angel.

Lesson 3: Angels come in all forms, shapes, and sizes. Allow them in. Accept their help.

I felt better the next morning. It is amazing what sleep-deprivation can do to the mind. After rest and a good breakfast, I was ready to take on the world (or at least Africa). That day we headed to Fourteen Falls just outside of Nairobi for our first excursion. It was a strenuous hike over rocks. A slight misstep and you could end up in the water. Luckily there were Kenyan boys playing near the falls. One of them held me by the hand & guided safely me along the entire trek. The kindness of strangers.

I was still dizzy, but as the day progressed, my vertigo faded and faded. By that evening, something miraculous happened. When I sat down to dinner — for the first time in a month — I was not dizzy at all.

For the first time in my life, I felt as though I had experienced a true miracle. That night, my faith in a higher power was restored. That faith would continue to grow over the rest of my Kenyan journey.

Lesson 4: Faith can be restored at the strangest moments & for the strangest reasons. Never give up hope, no matter what happens.

On Being the Minority

Kenya was a culture shock to me for many reasons. One of the most eye-opening aspects of the trip was the experience of being the minority for the first time in my life. Whether on campus at Kenyatta University or out on excursions, I was constantly in a very small minority. Most of my classmates on the trip were black. Among those of us that were white, there were only six. And of the six, only three of us were women. I was a white woman face in an endless sea of black faces. Sometimes, we would go entire days without seeing other white faces. It was completely exhilarating, enlightening, and frightening all at once. I will be forever grateful for that experience. It is a humbling feeling that all people should experience.

Our first few days were spent in & around Nairobi and attending classes at Kenyatta University. After that, we set out on a 14-day safari. I experienced a million different scents, smells, tastes, sounds and emotions on safari. It is impossible to describe it. Not even the 800 photographs that I snapped could do it justice. We experienced all that Kenya had to offer from the great mountain, to the vast Massai Mara plains; from the unmatched hospitality of the Kenyan people, to the giant Lake Nakuru. My heart soared without end. The wildlife was unbelievable. The generosity & bright spirits of the Kenyan people was unparalleled. It was the greatest adventure of my lifetime. And to think how close I came to missing it…

One highlight of safari was meeting with the Massai people in their village. These people live a life that is truly incomprehensible to Westerners. Their homes are merely straw huts thatched together with mud. Each home is the size of what we might consider a walk-in closet. There is no electricity and no running water. The Massai people drink the blood of the animals that they slaughter. When my companions expressed shock at this, the Massai explained that they are shocked by the fact that we drink milk. Among the Massai, money is not currency. Wealth is determined by the number of goats that a person owns. The men have many wives. The boys experience painful coming of age circumcision, and must kill a lion to be considered a warrior.

I met with one Massai warrior & purchased a lion claw necklace from him. The claw came from a lion that he hunted before becoming a warrior. It is my most prized possession to this day. I wear it when I need strength.

Lesson 5: Accept other cultures as they are. Do not try to interpret or change them. Appreciate their beauty & their differences. We are one family, one human race.

After our safari, we headed to the coast to spend our last few days in Mombasa. We stayed at a resort right on the Indian Ocean. It was the most spectacular thing. The Indian Ocean is very different than what I am used to (the Atlantic). It is warm & clean & exotic.

One day we ventured out into Mombasa for a tour of an old castle and shopping. It was blistering hot and I wore short, white shorts and a light blue t-shirt. I will never forget that outfit. See, no one mentioned to me that Mombasa was 99% Muslim. Not only was I one of the only white faces for miles in any direction, but I was half naked in a world where women kept their entire bodies and faces covered. I spent that day with eyes burning into my skin.

Later in the marketplace, we witnessed a thief being beaten by a hoard of angry merchants. They kicked him in the stomach and battered him with sticks. Blood flew through the air in our direction. This was the law of Mombasa, a self-governed rule.

This day was difficult. I was terrified, but I am grateful for it.

Lesson 6: Pay strict attention to the cultures in the places that you travel. It is wise to be over-prepared than under. Inquire about all manners of life before venturing out — including religion and fashion. There will be good & bad in every place. This is the way of the world.

Back at the Resort

Early on we were warned about the “beach boys.” They were young Kenyan men that would troll the beach outside of the resort, selling their Kenyan goods — paintings, sea shells, bracelets. At low tide they would offer to take you out into the sea to explore the ocean life.

Despite the warnings, I decided to head out to the beach boys at low tide for a tour. The first beach boy that approached me was Allan. He had skin the color of milk chocolate and the voice of an angel. He held my hand and walked me out over the sand and coral. He pointed out the sea creatures and named each one to me. He held up giant sea anemones in every color imaginable. He plucked a pregnant starfish from the water, the brightest purple I’d ever seen and the size of a basketball! It was extraordinary.

As we headed back to shore, he asked if I would meet him at sunset. He wanted to bring me a gift of sea shells. I said that I would, then struggled with the idea for the rest of the day. I had been warned about the beach boys already. Was it risky, dangerous? When the sun began to set, I decided to skip dinner and made my way to the beach. Sure enough, Allan was there with the most beautiful sea shells in hand. He asked me to walk along the shore with him. It could have been the worst decision of my life, but it was one of the best. We walked along the shore and he pointed to all of the mansions on the cliffs, explaining the important persons that lived in each one.

We finally came to an impassable cliff and stopped to rest. Allan had small twigs in each of his ears where earrings should have been. I asked him why and he explained that he’d had family issues at one time and had to sell the earrings from his ears. I took the cubic zirconium studs from my own ears and placed them in his hands. He expressed a gratitude of which I’d never felt before. I can not explain that feeling in words. The kindness of strangers.

After that we walked back to the resort. I gave Allan my address but I never did hear from him again. A beautiful memory of a beautiful friend that I will carry in my heart always.

Lesson 7: Sometimes it is necessary to stray off the beaten path. Others may warn you against adventure, but you’ve got to follow your gut. Some risks are worth it.

The Invaluable Lesson

I came so close to missing out on my trip to Africa. I could have easily let my circumstances prevent me from going; but I went. When life presents opportunities to you, you have to grab them. My experience in Kenya is one of the great highlights of my life thus far. I carry the memories in my spirit always. I will never regret taking that chance; but if I would have let fear control me, I would have regretted it forever.

Take risks. Go on adventures. Seize every opportunity as it is presented to you. In Kenya, the people speak a gorgeous language called Swahili. Their most favorite phrase is, “Hakuna Matata.” It means, “No Worries.” The Kenyan people spoke that phrase to me over and over. And that is Lesson 8, the most important lesson: Hakuna Matata! Stop worrying and start living! You will never regret it. I didn’t.

Comments (14)

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  • Forest

    March 25, 2010 at 8:07 am

    What an awesome post.

    I am from London, England and my first step away from home was moving to Montreal. I met my partner of 3 years now there and guess what…. We have been living in Africa now for 5 months 🙂

    Egypt to be more precise which is surely very different to Kenya but just as much a shock.

    People expressed so much shock about me moving to the Middle East and Africa all in one!… What if you get bombed, those people are extremists blah blah blah…. I had to explain to people that i grew up in London. I have experienced bomb threats and fear of violence my whole life in London but no one would ever stop you from visiting London!!!

    Cairo is crazy, the people are amazing and everything here is intense. It’s like someone took all the emotions in the world and stretched them to their limits… People will be screaming at each other and then 5 seconds later hugging and sharing a joke! I have no higher faith as such and this is such a god driven society that people don’t understand how I can go with life without such convictions…. But I draw strength from the amazing people and the amazing world around me!

    Despite the minute possibility of a tourist backlash or an extremist Cairo is one of the most safe places I have EVER been. I recently purchased a flatscreen TV at 1 in the morning and then happily wandered through the backstreets home. I would NEVER consider that in New York or London.

    Your so right, ignore people and go explore this amazing world…. I have to visit the Massai one day.

    1. Dena

      March 25, 2010 at 2:51 pm

      Forest– I am so glad that you enjoyed the post. The trip was truly one of the most incredible experiences of my lifetime, something that I will always cherish in my heart.

      I absolutely loved to hear about your move to Cairo & your experiences living there. I am absolutely dying to get to the Great Pyramids, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post. It is one of my most important goals.

      As always, thank you so much for your kind words. I truly appreciate your presence.

  • JR Moreau

    March 26, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Dena, this is amazing. Really inspirational especially considering what I’m facing right now. You’re really great at putting perspective on things that you may never have experienced if you weren’t so brave.

    Beautiful post. I’ll try to take these lessons with me when/if I wind up in S. Korea 🙂

    1. Dena

      March 26, 2010 at 12:50 pm

      JR — Thanks you so much, my friend! I am so glad that you enjoyed the post. It was an incredible adventure/journey/experience.

      I’ve been so excited to read your latest posts about SK! Hell yes. I can not wait to hear all about it. 🙂

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    March 26, 2010 at 10:19 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by DenaBotbyl: Hakuna Matata: 8 Lessons I Learned in Kenya http://goo.gl/fb/toEr via @denabotbyl…

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  • Donella Martin Braddix

    December 12, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    I have just discovered your blog and am excited to read your previous posts.  I lived in Japan and traveled throughout Asia for two and a half years and the lessons that I learned from my experiences I cannot even begin to pinpoint and describe, so I admire your ability to do so.  Looking forward to exploring the rest of your site!

    1. Dena Botbyl

      December 13, 2011 at 11:13 am

      Thanks, Donella!!  I’m so glad that you found me and enjoyed the post.  I look forward to hearing about your adventures.  ;]

  • Judith Hetherington

    October 30, 2012 at 3:55 am

    I am eager to read and absorb this, just from the headings!!!!
    I was in Africa in 2007 and illness has prevented my return. I have had a longing (like the call of the wild) to spend significant time in Africa, since I was a child. I still want it to be my second home….,.

    1. Dena Botbyl

      November 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm

      I hope you enjoyed the post, Judith. 🙂 Africa is truly an amazing place. I cherish my memories, dearly. What an experience. What part of Africa did you visit?

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