Okay, I am obviously a little nervous to write about this. I want to do these ideas justice and I don’t want to be across as unaware or worse. But it seems pointless to have a blog about politics and travel and not write anything about the inherent politics of being a privileged, white family travelling through Kenya. As an extremely privileged white woman, I am not trying to explain racial tensions in Kenya, nor am I pretending to have an exhaustive knowledge of British colonialism in the country. These are just my observations, because most of the bloggers I see who write about their travels across Africa (and the rest of the world) do little to examine the various tensions and privileges at play.
Before we left, a friend said to my mum, “did you think twice about going because of the colonial implications?” I found this question odd. I agree that there are colonial implications for rich Brits travelling in a former British colony that remains marred by poverty and racism, but the notion that we would consider not visiting because of that didn’t quite resonate with me. Maybe you think differently, I don’t know. To me, it seems like a weird solution to the ongoing colonialist legacy of the British to… pretend it’s not happening? Sure, we could only travel to other wealthy, majority white countries, and we would avoid turning up and moving through other countries in a way that unavoidably makes clear both our privilege and the privilege of our nation. But that wouldn’t address racial and economic issues in Kenya – if anything, that perspective only encourages white people to block these inequalities from their minds and bury our heads in the sand. While I’m not pretending that this safari holiday did anything meaningful for anyone in Kenya but my family, I also know that we talked every day about our role as privileged white travellers and, as best we knew how, didn’t shy away from discussing what can be awkward topics with each other. We also, obviously, contributed to the economy with our tourism. Tourism makes up around 10% percent of Kenya’s GDP, so for now, many people’s jobs do depend on an influx of visitors coming to Kenya every year. Anyway, to me, staying home in white enclaves does not seem to be a useful way of navigating one’s own privilege in the world. I don’t know how the Kenyans we met really feel about the regular groups of white British and American families who turn up, so perhaps it is viewed resentfully. I know that we felt a lot of guilt for having the opportunity to take a trip like this and addressed that in the only way Brits know how: large tips and excessive politeness. We also addressed it in the only way my family knows how: by talking about it together, trying to understand our role in these dynamics and trying to navigate them thoughtfully.
One of the things that was immediately clear was that, while all of the staff in the lodges and camps where we stayed were black, all of the owners and managers were white. Many of them were Kenyan nationals, but given that white Kenyans make up a mere 0.08% of the population, that’s not great, and speaks more to how concentrated ownership is with Kenyans with British heritage. Most of the other guests were white too. It did feel keenly awkward to be a group of highly privileged white people (I mean, anyone who can go on safari is highly privileged, let’s face it) served solely by black staff in an African country. It’s not that I think the world has moved passed entrenched institutional racism – you only have to read the news right now to see that it plainly has not – but that it did make clear how easy it is for these colonial dynamics to continue to exist around the world.
We asked one of our guides, Anthony, a white Kenyan, some more direct questions about these ideas. From all his years as a safari guide, he said that the black Kenyan middle class rarely went on safaris; it appeared to be a cultural thing and that they would often travel to London and Paris, but that many of the black kids in his children’s classes had never seen an elephant in the wild, despite Nairobi National Park being a mere forty-five minutes away with dirt cheap tickets for Kenyan citizens. I can’t speak to whether this is true or not on a large scale but this is what I was told. Regardless, I feel like there’s more to the conversation why safari guests are almost exclusively foreign white English-speakers.
However, to act as if it was only rich white people being served by poor black Kenyans denies the skill and agency of many of the people we were lucky to work with. All of our guides were experienced zoologists and conservationists, at least one of which obtained his degree studying wildlife. Jackson – his Maasai name was Lankas, but he goes by Jackson for the most part, another nod to how other cultures are forced to anglicise – was extremely experienced and skilled, and was able to give us endless facts and context for the animals we were seeing. Sure, it’s not as if he would ever be able to take a trip like the one we were experiencing, but it’s also not the case that he wasn’t a respected professional working in a sought-after job. We talked a lot with Jackson about the differences between his upbringing in the Maasai and British culture, many of which were enlightening. The Maasai adolescent circumcision ceremonies are not for the faint of heart. Jackson also asked if there was polygamy in the UK, and we told him that it was illegal. He was confused. “But if I am happy, and my wife is happy, what’s the problem?”
We then explained that of course you could live and have children with multiple people, you just couldn’t be legally married. He smiled. “Ah, I see what the problem is. Paperwork.”
Obviously, the feeling of guilt that comes from doing something which highlights how lucky you are is par for the course. It’s fair that we would grapple with these ideas and our own similarities to oppressors past given that, ultimately, we will always be okay, because that’s how structural advantage works. But I rarely hear people talking about these ideas, not just about trips to Africa but other places too. While the specifics differ, there are also keen political dynamics of being on a gap yah in South East Asia or volunteering abroad in Ecuador (don’t even get me started on voluntourism). Travel is political. Who gets to do it, where we go, what we do, how we behave. To pretend otherwise is to remain wilfully ignorant of the powerful forces that shape our societies, which are often never clearer than when you step outside your bubble.
We visited Kenya for the breathtaking wildlife. There is nowhere else on Earth with wildlife quite like this, with so many animals of such size and stature. But we couldn’t – and shouldn’t – ignore the other things that crop up while roaming around the planet. You can’t avert your eyes from the obvious poverty on the streets while you drive to a beautiful house on the beach for a few days of snorkelling and swimming – or at least I can’t, and don’t want to. The day where being confronted with our world’s great inequalities doesn’t make me feel something is a day I never want to reach. I can’t avoid the privileges of my birth, but I can avoid becoming numb to them and apathetic to the lives of those around me. For those of us who have the great fortune to travel the world, I’d urge us all to do the same.