Riaz Meghji | April 2012
In December of 2011, I went on the most important trip of my life.
After years of contemplation, my family finally committed to a journey to East Africa to explore our roots together. Throw in a trek through the Serengeti—capped off with a powerful volunteering experience with Free The Children in Kenya—and this one might go down as one of the greatest family adventures of all time!
Because I was raised in British Columbia, cities such as Mwanza, Tanzania and Kisumu, Kenya—birthplaces for my mother and father, respectively—were places I had only ever heard about. My parents came to Canada in the early ‘70s, but thanks to them and to family still living in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam I now have a greater sense of identity and family history from my first visit ever to East Africa. My brother and I were able to see the houses our parents grew up in and the schools they went to and better understand how their families (numbering eight or nine siblings each) supported one another to get by. It was a humbling moment for me to stop and wonder what my life could have been like if my folks didn’t migrate to Canada.
Although many speak English in both countries, Swahili is the native tongue in Kenya and Tanzania. I would suggest learning these three phrases if you’re heading that way:
1. “Jambo. Habari?”
Translation: “Hello. How are you?” (Basic greeting)
2. “Ninataka kipumzika.”
Translation: “I need to take a nap.” (Story of my life)
3. “Una onakana mezori lejo.”
Translation: “You look good today.” (Solid go-to phrase for any scenario)
I am the last guy to call himself an avid viewer of National Geographic. Prior to our trip, the closest thing to venturing out on safari I ever did was watching The Lion King in 3D. So when the chance of trekking through the epic Serengeti National Park came up—even though I passed on purchasing a pith helmet—I have to admit I was excited.
With the Serengeti being one of the ‘ten natural travel wonders of the world’, there were huge expectations. We loaded up our safari truck for a trip that would last days. The entire time, I kept a steady hand on my telephoto lens, ready to capture candid shots of lions, leopards, elephants and zebras.
Observing these animals in their element was peaceful yet intense, and we knew that at any moment we might witness a predator pounce on its prey in this unique ecosystem. At one point we were surrounded by thousands of zebras and wildebeests and it actually felt like we were on the set of a big-budget movie. Alas, Peter Jackson was nowhere to be seen. Although we didn’t end up witnessing any gruesome kills on safari, we did see a lion and lioness practicing the true meaning of the “Circle of Life”—Mufasa would have been proud of that one!
For three days we bunked at the Bogani Cottages, just outside the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Electricity was a precious commodity, only available for four hours each night in the camp. This was actually a non-factor, as we soon realized that a rest from modern conveniences can help make you appreciate the simple moment you find yourself in.
You may have heard about Free The Children (FTC) or ‘We Day’, initiatives co-founded by visionary Craig Kielburger—a man I respect a great deal. When I reached out to him about traveling to Kenya, he made a call to set us up on a ‘Me to We’ (metowe.com) trip that provided some of the most powerful moments of my life.
The ‘Me to We’ trips provide an array of activities that include meeting the local mamas and understanding their daily challenges. They brought us into their modest homes—made with clay walls and grass roofs—and introduced us to their families. We supported them through ‘water walks’ (which involved filling 20-litre canisters down by the river to be filtered back home for clean drinking water), tree planting in the community, assisting in the construction of the local medical clinic and by touring various schools that have been built so children can look forward to a positive future for themselves and their families. Our trip was capped off with some Masaai warrior training—I’ll stick to my day job—and an emotional song-and-dance sendoff from the remarkable staff at the Bogani Cottages.
When I think of our remarkable journey, I am reminded again of just how much can be accomplished during a vacation. Sure, kicking back on a beach provides temporary relaxation, but the invigorating feeling of discovering my own family identity—of giving back to my ancestral community and connecting through priceless conversations—has got me thinking a whole different way about how I will use my time off in the years ahead. Hopefully one day it will for you, too.