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BREATHTAKING KENYA NEEDS TOURISTS

Ever since I was a child living in rural Georgia and watching the sun rise each morning in the East toward Africa ... ever since I read Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Tarzan, the Ape Man" for the first time ... and ever since I watched, spellbound and completely beguiled, the film version of "Out of Africa" ... I knew I had to journey to Africa.

Finally, I made my first trip there several years ago, flying for more than a day from Savannah, Ga., to Nairobi. My life changed inexplicably from the moment the Kenya Airways jet first touched down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, that mad, bustling city of millions that was so completely different from my hometown of fewer than four thousand people.

Nairobi, always a maelstrom of activity and humanity and the back yard of Karen Blixen's Bogani, the coffee plantation featured in "Out of Africa,"
smells of smoke and roasting corn and diesel from the matatus - or minibuses
- spilling over with riders. The streets are crowded with roadside vendors selling everything from tomatoes to ebony. And, like many African cities like Johannesburg, Kampala and Cairo, it never sleeps.

Nairobi is the gateway to the extraordinarily beautiful Kenya, a country so inspiring that Hemingway wrote of it often. Kenya has touched my heart and soul as no place ever has, except for my home state. I could easily live there if I didn't love Georgia so passionately and unequally. In my next life, though, if I'm given the choice, I will come back as a Kenyan.

Kenya, for years on the fast track from Third World to Second World - and in some instances First World - has recently fallen on difficult times because of accusations of corruption and fraud during December's presidential election. The resulting countrywide unrest has thrust this marvelous, wondrous country into a dangerous tailspin of instability that threatens to tear it apart at the seams.

If you are contemplating a trip to Kenya, here's what you must know: This, too, shall pass, and for the sake of Kenya and its people, who very much depend on tourism dollars for their livelihoods, don't be hesitant about visiting. Despite what the country is going through now, Kenya - deep down in its heart a land reveling in warmth, tremendous cultural diversity and, of course, that incredible wildlife - is home to the friendliest people on earth.

Having met so many Kenyans, I know this to be true. Their loyalty to their homeland is fierce, and while politics - sometimes very dirty politics - has been a cornerstone of its history since it gained independence from British, I believe this merely adds to rather than detracts from its air of mysticism. But that is a part of all of Africa, really, and I'm sure that the unsettling pictures that you see on the evening news are only temporary setbacks that will soon fade away into the history books.

According to the Kenya Tourist Board, last week Kenyan tour operators were working on full schedules and reporting few cancellations and each airline representative with whom I spoke said they were operating normally and on schedule.

What makes Kenya so special? I don't think it can be wholly explained. Instead, its splendor and uniqueness must be experienced in bits and pieces, but you must first know its history. Kenya has dozens of cultures, tribes, and sub-tribes that date back to the beginning of mankind. Two major languages distinguish more than 70 tribal groups: the Bantu, which includes the Meru and Kikuyu, and the Nilotic, which includes the Luo, Maasai and Samburu.

Kenya was colonized over the past couple of centuries by mainly the British, and the mishmash of its tribal societies with the Europeans helped the country evolve into one of distinct multiculturalism. To stoke the ethnic fires even more, the coastal region around Mombasa and Lamu is home to the Swahili people, whose language and customs are deeply rooted in Arabic. The country, known most widely as British East Africa, gained its independence in 1963 and became a republic in 1964. Jomo Kenyatta, its namesake, became its first president.

But the utter surprise of Kenya, through which the Equator meanders, is not entirely in its diverse culture, but also its wide range of topographical features. The land is of great contrasts: About one-third is covered by the grasslands of the savannah, another third is dusty and dry desert, and the remainder is cool highlands, deeply wooded forests and jagged snow-capped mountains, with its centerpiece of the 17,000-foot Mount Kenya.

Kenya is without comparison when it comes to natural beauty. Etched into the acacia-covered landscape are Eden-like plateaus and gardens of wildly growing, gemstone-hued bougainvillea and jacaranda so profuse that it seems as if a flowery mist has settled upon the land.

Toward the Indian Ocean, Kenya's coastline, scalloped by warm winds and amazingly translucent emerald waters of the Indian Ocean, is set on coral reefs and pearl-soft beaches.

But as much for its beauty, Kenya is also perhaps most widely known for its incredible fusion of wildlife. The Swahili word for journey is safari, and no place conjures up images of safari more than the Maasai Mara. As your plane glides onto a dusty airstrip - it's best to fly into the Mara since the roads are atrocious at best - you quickly realize the land is not bare:
it comes alive, slowly at first, and then forms a natural circus of the most exotic animals on the face of the earth. As a friend once said, the best thing about the Mara is that there's no telling what's going to come crashing through the bush.

This is the same Africa as thousands of years ago, and nothing you have read or seen prepares you for that close encounter with a herd of elephants or troop of giraffes bounding across the dusty savannah, a pride of lionesses motherly grooming their playful cubs, a bloat of hippos lazily sunning themselves on a river bank, or a crowd of monkeys or baboons chattering away in a stand of acacia.

And from July to October, there is always the spectacle of the great wildebeest migration when about two million of the critters and a convoy of untold thousands of zebra and gazelle storm into the Mara from Tanzania's Serengeti to graze the rich grass and water they need to survive.

Ever mindful of effective conservation efforts, the Kenyan government banned hunting in the 1970s, in part to preserve the animals for generations to come. Now Kenya is home to more than 80 major animal species, including the "Big Five" of lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, any or all of which you're likely to see in the scattering of national parks, reserves and private sanctuaries.

In the chilly highlands near the Great Rift Valley, you'll find settings like Lake Naivasha, Crescent Island and Hell's Gate, where you'll learn firsthand that Kenya is the best country in Africa for bird watching, with hundreds of vivid species like cuckoos, bee-eaters and sunbirds flitting about. Toward the coast, you can visit the Gedi Ruins, a 15th century rock-and-stone village ruled by a sultan, explore the tropical forests of Arabuko Sokoke, or dine aboard an authentic Arab dhow as it sails the waters around Mombasa’s Old Town and Fort Jesus.

These are the things that Kenya is about, not the riots and mayhem of the moment. It is soul-stirring colors and senses and sounds, but most of all it is the people and their fervor for their homeland.

Article by Mary Ann Anderson, a Journalist from Georgia USA

Have you been to Kenya lately? We would love to read and share your experience with the rest of the world. Send us your most memorable moments, photos via email to info@kenyatourism.org.

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