Unexpected friends and discoveries

by Sergio Rejado Albaina (Spain)

Making a local connection Kenya

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There are some places that tourist go through and do not see, and where incredible experiences are waiting to those who are willing to step just a few feet out of the beaten truck. Where turning your head just a few degrees towards the sides can show you secrets you could not suspect. Shimoni is a small fishing town in the Southern Kenyan coast, just a few kilometers from the Tanzanian border. Mostly Muslim, and unapologetically Swahili, life in this town runs with the characteristic tropical laid-back vibe, where hours flow calmly under the baobabs, sliding quietly in the narrow alleys between its small houses. Dozens of tourists pass through this town every day. In high season, this figure can rapidly rise to hundreds. Vans from the touristic hub in nearby Diani come every morning, cross the village, and drop the tourists at the peer where they will jump in for a whalewatching experience in the Kisite-Mpunguti Marine Park. In the afternoon, the boats return and the tourists jump into the neatly lined up vans to return to the comfort of their hotels in Diani. But there is more than meets the eye. For those who decide to overnight in Shimoni, I recommed to find your breakfast in the village. In the little local restaurants, you will easily find delicious chapatis and pastries to eat while calmly enjoying a traditional chai: heavily spiced black tea brewed in milk. There, it is likely you will jump into Atamani. Tall and slim, he confidently pulls up a goatee. He is a charismatic community leader, heavily invested in the protection of the local environment and the preservation of local culture and heritage. His charisma will rapidly draw you, and the conversation will rapidly escalate into a full account of the history of the town, from the times where the Zanzibaris used the local caves to “store” the slaves captured inland before their voyage to Zanzibar. Before you realize, you will be bound to learn about local customs that merge Islamic and animist beliefs in harmonious equilibrium. By then, you are likely already headed towards the local forest. And with good reason. Atamani will guide you through the labyrinthic forest. Mind your steps of the sharp coral rock on which the large trips deepen their majestic roots. You are likely to meet the charismatic black-and-white colobus monkeys, the flashy Fisher’s turaco and, if you are really lucky, an elusive elephant shrew. Feel humbled when you walk through the tree of oblivion: a self-standing vine that long ago grew around a baobab. The underlaying tree died, and the living vine stands like the ethereal ghost of the long-gone baobab that nurtured it. But the highlight of the journey lays ahead, in the depth of the forest, where the coral rock falls into the mangrove flat that meets the sea. There you will discover the ancient shrines where the spirits of the forest live, known as “kayas”. The entrances to these sanctuaries are signlaed with abundant bottles of rose water (the spirits’ brew of choice) brought as offerings. Colored laces tied to the trees are witness to the surviving animist beliefs. The different colors of the laces are related to the nature of the request of the person that came: some colors indicate a request for fortune, other for love, and other even for revenge (fortunately, the least frequent). You will never see a person performing these ancient rituals. If you want to come to formulate your request, it must enter the forest at night, alone, and barefoot. Quite a challenge, keeping in mind the knife-sharp coral stones. Don’t forget the rose water and lace. You may even get to meet the spirit, who may appear incorporated as a lion or hyena. You will know it is the spirit because these species have long been absent from this part of the country. But after visiting the kaya, you will certainly be hungry. Follow Atamani’s advice, and join him to for lunch (fresh fish and coconut rice) in one of the local restaurants. These are the kind of connections that make a trip matter.