I hear you’re going to Kenya—that’s great! Kenya has a special place in my heart. It was my home for a year while I worked at a remote field site studying baboon social behavior. Not unlike your job at the White House, I’d dare to say.
Kenya is, in my experience, one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s diverse not only in landscape—with everything from sweeping acacia scrubland to dense, bustling city centers—but in its people too. There are 43 distinct tribes with at least as many languages and dialects, and the culture fleckles influences from abroad as well; while I was there I saw people speaking Italian, wearing “I <3 Bieber” t-shirts, eating Cadbury chocolate, and making some of the best Indian food I’ve tasted.
Thus, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advice to help you Be [your] Best [self].
Why? I’ve been in your shoes. Figuratively speaking, anyway. Three years ago I left for Kenya—for Africa—for the first time in my life. Okay, so I flew economy class and wore ratty ASICS and stuffed the leftover dinner rolls in my bag, but in so many ways, Melania, I was you.
I’m not here to tell you to get your travel shots or carry a copy of your passport in your suitcase. You already know that—or at least someone in your security detail does. I’m here to let you in on a few secrets, from one mzungu woman to another. Which brings me to my first piece of advice:
Once you land in Kenya, you are no longer Slovenian, or American, or Slovenian-American, or even Melania for that matter. You are now mzungu. Before you get offended—don’t. You are a white foreigner of European descent, are you not? Though the epithet might be spoken with a hint of a smile, it’s not meant as judgment or disrespect, but merely as an accurate description of what you are. A pet name, if you will. Embrace it. Learn to love it. I did.
Secondly, and this is important, especially for you: Dress appropriately. In Nairobi, there’s a fine line between casual and tourist casual, and you want to be on the right side of it. There’s a way to look approachable without accidentally saying, “I really don’t care, do u?” You’ll want to keep your knees covered out of respect; at the same time, there’s nothing wrong (and everything right!) with a form-fitting, brightly patterned dress. Which, for the record, you can totally pull off. And for the love of god, if you go to the Elephant Orphanage (which you really must do), please bring proper footwear. Rain may be unpredictable in Nairobi, but the effect of rain on dirt is not. Don’t be that tourist who’s squelching through the mud in soggy sandals. Or, in your case, Louboutin stilettos. Ruining those would make us both cry.
Assuming that you’ve planned a safari, I encourage you not to wear all beige. Nothing screams tourist like cargo shorts, a safari hat, and a vest with 182,937 pockets filled with nothing but gum wrappers and hand sanitizer. Bring a pair of comfortable pants and some layers for up top. Mornings can be chilly, even in Kenya. And fill your reasonable number of pockets with sensible things like lip balm for dry air, baby wipes for the dust, and sunscreen. Because no amount of fake tanner will protect you from that hot, African sun.
Okay, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, one that gave me some serious social currency while I was in Kenya: Try not to give in to the temptation to say “hakuna matata” to everyone you meet. I know! If you’re like me, it’s the one Swahili phrase you’ve prepared for your trip. The good news? There’s another expression that means almost exactly the same thing, except it’s, like, way cooler. So the next time some witty local baits you with a cheerful “hakuna matata!”—which they will do, and then chuckle at your expense—or tries to sell you a t-shirt printed with the phrase, you can respond with a smooth “hakuna shida!” No problem. (Suggestion: Buy the “I’m with Stupid” t-shirt instead.)
When it comes to food, aim for a healthy balance of adventure and common sense. Well-cooked meat is a safe bet, so give that goat stew a taste. For extra points, clean your bowl with a greasy piece of chapati—it’s both delicious and a sign of appreciation. Also, if they tell you not to drink the water, DON’T DRINK THE WATER. (Pro tip: Avoid drinks with ice, especially if you’ve got a sensitive stomach.) Besides, there’s nothing like a cold Tusker to complement your meal. Just try it—you’re on vacation, for Pete’s sake—I promise I won’t tell your teetotaler-in-crime. Oh, and wash your fruit, every day, all seven pieces of it—with bottled water, of course.
Finally, don’t be a martyr. Take your malaria pills and use your mosquito net. It’s there for a reason. You wouldn’t want to start any more sick narratives or “Where’s Melania?” conspiracies, now would you? It’s your first solo trip to Africa—put your Best foot forward, and enjoy the freedom while you’ve got it.
Your new friend,
Leah Worthington is the Online Editor for California Magazine. After a year living in Kenya’s beautiful Laikipia Plateau, she finally decided to heed her mother’s advice: “If you want to study baboons, stay in America.”