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Reflections: The 2013 Experience in Africa


MARCH 12 MARCH 15: THE MOUNTAIN GORILLA TREK

After a long trip from San Francisco to Entebbe, Uganda, a group of Make It Real travelers arrived at Cassia Lodge in Kampala.  We awoke early the next morning and joined 3 other travelers from GoPhilanthropic for a 2-van caravan to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  Once there, we enjoyed dinner and settled into our rustic cabins, preparing the next morning for the trek to view the Mountain Gorillas, who were up and over a gigantic ridge and deep into the jungle.  Our Ugandan guide for the trip was excellent, with a rich history of the area, the plants and all the animals we encountered.  Each person making the trek had a personal “porter” to help him or her on the rigorous hike.  In some cases, the porters would double up on a person and provide a “push-pull” approach that would get them up and over the very steep terrain.  Two military guards also joined us on the trek, armed with AK-47 rifles.  Reassuring? Or maybe not so much . . .

After 5 hours of very demanding hiking (at altitude!), we were told we were close to the gorillas.  We dropped our bags and walking sticks and followed the guides into the dense jungle forest.  On his back, lazily eating bamboo shoots, was the Silverback himself.  He didn’t seem to care a whit that we were all watching him intently, and he eventually got up and moved further into the jungle, just brushing by one of us (OMG).  We followed the guide further into the jungle and found a grouping of 5 more gorillas, foraging and kicking back in the sunshine. 

We took so many pictures!  The gorillas were at once frightening and yet non-threatening.  The Silverback weighed in the range of 400 to 500 pounds and could easily dismember any of us!  But we had been told to always stand below him, and to avoid eye contact – so we would not create any impression that we were (unintentionally) challenging him.  The Silverback and the other gorillas got extremely close to us as they moved freely through the jungle and around us and our clicking cameras.

On our way back to Kampala, we went through Queen Elizabeth Park, where we got our first views of safari animals, such as zebras, Thomsen’s gazelles, baboons, elephants and other wildlife.

MARCH 16 MARCH 22: M-LISADA AND MAJI MOTO

Uganda.
After the Mountain Gorilla journey, we had our single day off to relax and pull together pictures of our experiences.  We were about to embark on the philanthropic portion of the trip, set in the slums of Kampala, Uganda, and in the back country of Kenya. 

On Saturday morning we met as a group on the lawn of the Cassia Lodge with Segawa Bosco, Bwanika Henry, Tebezined Derrick and others from M-Lisada, an abbreviation for Musical Life Skills and Destitution Alleviation.  The group was started in 1996 by this band of street children who dreamed of starting their own brass band.  Today the monies raised from performances provide shelter for over 75 children and serve a total of 150.  With Bosco and others as our guides, we visited a very poor Kampala slum – Katwe, one of the city's worst - and saw where so many of the children come from and where they continue to live.  Many have been orphaned by AIDS, many have it themselves.

After traveling through unimaginable poverty in Katwe, we came upon the doors to the M-Lisada orphanage.  With the byline, “Music to the Rescue”, written large, Bosco opened the steel doors and out poured 75 very excited kids.  They completely embraced us and made us feel very welcomed.

We toured the orphanage and were treated to a performance by a young man who had been at M-Lisada for 10 years, Shafic, on the piano.  He was absolutely amazing, and self-taught over a 2 year period.  We settled into our chairs in the courtyard, children everywhere, and were treated to an authentic Ugandan lunch.  Afterwards, we thoroughly enjoyed a full performance on the facility’s big stage by the kids.  There were thunderous native dances, drums and music, acrobatics and finally, a big brass band.  It was a great day.

Some of us returned the next day and, separated by gender, enjoyed some time with the “Amazing Girls” club (the women), and the “Golden Boys” club (the men).  The conversations were very thoughtful –even emotional – and turned out to be a highlight of the entire trip.  Afterwards, we lightened up the mood with a baseball game with a large group of kids.  They had some equipment, a tennis ball and bat, some gloves and a very bumpy park-like area nearby where we used bricks for bases.  The older boys were the pitchers and catchers, while the rest of us fumbled our way through an exciting baseball game.   When it was time to leave, the kids rallied around each of us, wrote some of us personal letters, and made it hard to say goodbye.

Kenya.  From Entebbe, Uganda, we flew to Nairobi, Kenya.  After a night of relative luxury at the Norfolk (Fairmont), we got into the vans and made our way to the land of the Maasai in Southwestern Kenya.  Upon our arrival, we were met by a group of Maasai women and warriors who treated us to a special greeting song and dance.

They showed us to our manyattas (mud huts with extra features for Westerners), where we stayed for 2 nights.  At lunch on the first day, we met Hellen Nkuraiya, the driving force behind Maji Moto.  Salaton Ole Ntutu, the local chieftain who works with Hellen and whom we had met on an earlier trip to the United States, had already departed for Russia on a cultural mission.  Hellen had a great sense of humor, as well as a very compelling personal story.  She led us to the widows' village, a short hike from our campsite.  In Maasai culture, young women are often married to older men, and when they are widowed, they have no means to support themselves.  They cannot inherit property and generally have no education.  Hellen is working to give these women a place where they can live in peace and in conformance with their culture.  After being greeted by another song and dance, they brought us into their village, where we toured their huts and bought some of their beadwork and ornaments.

On the following day, we visited, Enkiteng Lepa, a rescue school established by Hellen and Salaton in 2007.  The rescue center helps young girls avoid female genital cutting (FGC).  While circumcision is officially prohibited by the Kenyan government, many (or most) Maasai continue to practice this ritual as part of their culture and as a rite of passage for girls.  Cut between the ages of 8 and 12, young girls are usually then exchanged for cows between the ages of 10 and 16, as part of a marital arrangement.  The girls at Enkiteng Lepa live in a boarding school during the school year, and in a home in the widows' village when the school is on break.  We met with some of the teachers, stopped into a few classes, and were treated to wonderful dances by the students.  Some of the kids would ask, “Why are you here?” and we would reply, “To meet all of you and see what you are learning at Enkiteng Lepa”.  They would shake their heads, unable to understand why a group of Westerners would want to come to Africa and meet with them.

Before leaving Maji Moto, we were encouraged to engage in some warrior training with the Maasai men.  They had kindly cut some rhubarb to take the place of knives or arrows, and gave us each a shield to protect ourselves.  They then demonstrated how to throw the rhubarb with incredible force and accuracy!  Yikes – this was pretty dangerous; but we all had a great time and appreciated their patience with us Mzungu (Westerners).

MARCH 23 - MARCH 28: SAFARI!

Sekenani Camp.  We then left Maji Moto, and made our way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where we arrived at the beautiful Sekenani Camp.  There we stayed in big, sumptuous Westernized tents, spread throughout a dense green, jungle-like area along the Sekenani River.  The camp was a spectacular setting for us as we explored the Game Reserve over two days.  We saw so many animals!  Lions, elephants, giraffes, bison, cheetahs, antelope, colorful birds.  On the last day we visited a special reserve for hippopotamus, and enjoyed a lunch with fast, greedy monkeys nearby.

Maili Saba Camp. From Sekenani, we drove North to Lake Nakuru, where we stayed at the amazing Maili Saba Camp.  The camp is situated on the edge of the dormant Menengai Crater, and we slept in grass-thatched bandas (huts), each with its own unique, commanding view of the crater. While remote, we still had hot showers and great food with a Swahili influence.  On our safari the next day, we completely circled Lake Nakuru, seeing rhinoceros (white and black), more giraffes, rutting antelopes, baboons, flamingos, and other wildlife.

Samburu Game Lodge.
We then went North, crossing the equator, and arrived in time for lunch at Samburu Game Lodge.  Samburu is a beautiful, rustic lodge on the banks of the Uaso Nyiro River.  On safari there, we saw Oryx, Gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffes, elephants, a leopard (the last of the “Big 5”!), and so many other animals.  At night, the staff would lure the big crocodiles from the river, feeding them immense cow bones that would loudly crack in the powerful jaws of these prehistoric reptiles.

We also managed a visit with the women of Umoja Village. Rebecca Lolosoli is the leader of this small village of women and children near Samburu. The Umoja women specifically seek to halt FGC, spousal abuse and forced marriage, while providing opportunities for women to work and provide a better future for their children.  A group of women sang for us, and Rebecca provided a heart-wrenching story of her past experiences.

Serena Mountain Lodge.
  From the hot desert area of Samburu, we moved to the higher elevations of the Serena Mountain Lodge, arriving in time for lunch.  Set at 7200 feet on the flanks of Kenya's highest mountain, it is the only "tree hotel" ever built on Mount Kenya.  We heard the full symphony of African wildlife, as animals would arrive to drink, bathe, spar and forage around the watering hole immediately adjacent to the lodge.  A group of us joined “John”, our very informed guide, on a marvelous hike through the surrounding jungle.   A guard with an AK-47 came along as well, just in case.  John introduced us to various animal social structures and cultural traditions in the area as well as elephant trails, waterbucks, monkeys, armies of red ants, and other sights.  We also came across a huge tree that John explained boys would throw their spears over to ascend to warrior status.  At one point in the hike, we came upon a clearing with small cups of tea on upright logs, just waiting for us.  Some attendants from the hotel added some whisky if we elected, and we then roused ourselves for the final push back to the hotel.

From Serena Mountain Lodge, we made our way back to Nairobi and had a final exquisite dinner at the Fairview hotel.  We recounted the many achievements of the trip and said our goodbyes.  Africa was now a real place with real people and real relationships; we can never forget it.

Our fourth Make It Real excursion took us to Africa, and the countries of Uganda and Kenya. We joined with GoPhilanthropic, a travel company and 501(c)(3) organization, for a tour of two very compelling charities, M-Lisada and Maji Moto. In addition, we went on a fantastic Mountain Gorilla Trek (check out the pictures!) in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and of course, some great safaris throughout Kenya. Below is a summary of our experience: