Istanbul, Part Two: Out and About

IMG_3736Since we had such an amazing free tour of Istanbul during our brief stop on the way to London, when we spent a couple days on the way back to Kenya we’d already seen most of the sights! This was perfect because it meant we got to focus on wandering around and eating. I am so glad this worked out! We lived taking in the atmosphere and were absolutely blown away by how friendly and hospitable the people were. One night we went to dinner at a restaurant and ordered a bottle of water with our food. When we finished and gathered our stuff to walk out we grabbed the bottle since there was just a bit left in the bottom. The waiter stopped us on the way out, saying “No, please, you must take a full bottle!” and gave us a brand new 1.5L bottle for free. We had just come from London where people are not so… Well, like I said – we were blown away!

We spent most of our four days talking about how it could be possible that fresh pomegranate juice passes for street food. Nothing is better than this.IMG_3784

We had a great time just wandering the winding streets and enjoying the markets. The atmosphere was so lively, but in a really un-intimidating way. We even rode the underground system  around(second oldest in the world, after London!) and found it easy and relaxed to navigate.IMG_3776

The Grand Bazaar was exciting to see – it’s the largest open air covered market in the world, and really old – but since they don’t sell camels and such anymore we really loved the slightly smaller but amazing smelling Spice Bazaar. We spent a long time chatting with the spice sellers, and since we got back to Kenya our new favorite meal has become a chicken dish with Ottoman spices that we picked up here.IMG_3773

This might sound kind of obvious, but Turkish Delight in Turkey is AMAZING. There are so many different kinds, and we had fun trying out and choosing different flavors to buy. And then we ate all of it really quickly and also a bunch of free samples in the airport on the way out and a week later went into serious Turkish Delight withdrawal. It feels like such a guilty pleasure… especially since I associate Turkish Delight with Edmund’s betrayal in the Chronicles of Narnia! IMG_3769

We took a boat on the Bosphorous, the strip of waterway that divides Europe and Asia – the city of Istanbul exists on both sides and in fact most of the country is “in Asia.” Of course according to my Global Human Geography class in college this all depends on how you define Asia, but we’ll roll with it. It was freezing on the boat, but we had a nice time trying to communicate with a Greek couple on their honeymoon. They didn’t speak much English, but they found the words to tell us how much better Greece is, and showed us the pictures on their smartphone to prove it.IMG_3757

We also got this amazing meatballs sandwich for $1 right before we got on the boat, and it was amazing. Google Turkish meatballs – they are famously good, and taste even better after you’ve been wandering around a foreign city all day.IMG_3741

We also picked the right hotel, for sure. They had the most amazing tea service in the afternoon, with so much food that we could have skipped dinner (but we didn’t). There was MORE Turkish delight, Turkish tea, and all sorts of odd and unnamed and delicious treats. We planned our days around the time tea was served.IMG_3730

Overall, there are a lot of great things to do in Istanbul but we recommend you visit even if you just want to hang around and eat. Because that’s mostly what we did! And it was one of the best and most relaxing vacations I’ve ever had.




The first time I began to consider development work a career was my freshman year of college when I took a class called “Nongovernmental Organizations and Development in Poor Countries,” an upper division class full of grad students who were way out of my league. I loved the class and I spent more time and attention than I think I ever have on a paper looking at the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the involvement of the US in the exploitation of Congo’s rich mineral resources, and the lack of interest in the situation from the international media. That same year a family of gorillas was murdered in Virunga National Park in Eastern Congo as groups trading in charcoal hoped to wipe out the gorillas in the park to make the area no longer worth protecting.

Mt. Nyiragongo, DRC

Mt. Nyiragongo, DRC

Last week we were in Rwanda visiting friends and we stayed on the shores of Lake Kivu, right at the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo – inches and an exorbitant visa fee from the place that I had spent so much time studying and thinking about. Also last week, the Head Warden of Virunga, Emmanuel de Mérode, was ambushed and shot by three rebels in the park. Fortunately he is now in stable condition and recovering, but as we drove down to the lake shore we were stunned into silence by the incredible view beyond Goma of Mt. Nyiragongo, glowing from the fire of the world’s largest lava lake within its crater. I couldn’t help but think of the enormous risks that Mr. de Mérode and his fellow rangers take to protect the first park in Africa, the most bio-diverse park in Africa, the only place where you can see all three great apes that exist in Africa, and the home of 25% of the worlds remaining population of mountain gorillas.

The next day we drove up a nearby hill to get a better look (and some photos) and stood in awe of the giant volcano looming over the city and its bright glow illuminating the sky.

Finally, last week also marked the release of the film Virunga at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film focuses on the threats to the park from rebel group M23 and the UK based company SOCO International as they make plans to drill for oil. While I haven’t seen the full film the trailer is incredibly moving, and although SOCO has denied allegation made in the film it seems that the filmakers are onto something important. Check out a review here and the official website here.

We weren’t able to go gorilla tracking while in Rwanda, but my hope is that one day we will be able to see the gorillas in Congo and provide our tourist dollars as support to the amazing rangers who have given their all to preserve the peace and beauty of Virunga National Park and all the animals and people that call the place home.

If you’re interested in joining the campaign against oil drilling in Virunga or supporting the work of the rangers that protect the park and the gorillas within, check out the WWF campaign here.

Istanbul, Part One: “TourIstanbul”

When traveling back from our Christmas in London we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to stop for a mini vacation in Istanbul! Since we flew Turkish air in both directions to and from Nairobi we also had a long layover on our way out, and as exhausted as we were we took advantage of those hours to get a “preview” of what we would be able to do when we had days on our way back.


Blue Mosque

Turkish Air has an awesome program called TourIstanbul – it is a free city tour for anyone flying with them with a layover over 10 hours. We had heard rumors about the tour but we didn’t know anyone who had actually taken advantage of the deal and we were skeptical because, really? Free?

Really, it’s free! While it took us a little while to find the counter where you can sign up for the program (in between Starbucks and and Café Nero on the bottom floor of the airport, across from arrivals lounge and next to a reasonably priced baggage drop that we took advantage of), after we found our way the entire day was remarkably easy and well taken care of. We presented our boarding passes and were given maps of the city and an information slip along with name tags marking us as part of the tour. We sat and waited and Starbucks for about 15 minutes before our tour guide showed up – just long enough to get coffees since after our red eye we were already dragging.

There were about 20 people on the tour – they seemed to be from every corner of Europe, but we were definitely the only Americans. There were old people and little kids, families and single travelers and the tour seemed to work well for everyone. After a brief intro in heavily accented but really clear English our tour guide ushered us onto a bus and told us we would be heading straight for a free lunch in the city (free!). Everyone let up a quiet cheer. It appears the love of free food is universal!IMG_9873

Medusa’s head, re purposed for the bottom of a pillar in the Basilica Cistern

We drove from the airport into the city as our tour guide pointed out the pieces of Hadrian’s wall scattered along the road side and water’s edge. It was really amazing to see the modern city and roads juxtaposed with the crumbling remnants of one of the most ancient empires. We stopped just inside town for lunch, and while it wasn’t the best food we had in Turkey it was really quite good and totally free, and there was plenty of food for everyone.


Blue Mosque

Once we were all happy and well fed, our guide marched us off to see the sites. We stopped at the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi palace. At each place with an entrance fee the guide left us waiting while he ran off to pay for all of us. Like I said, FREE! Between the Cisterns and Topkapi palace we saved about $40 each in entrance fees by going with the tour. The guide gave us a short intro to each site and then plenty of time to explore – we didn’t feel rushed at all.  Our only complaint would be that coming straight from Nairobi we didn’t have any winter coats, and it had snowed the week before! The other people on the tour kept asking us if we were cold. Yes!

The Blue Mosque is so named for all the blue tile work inside, but is locally known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Sultan Ahmed almost got in trouble for building the mosque with six minarets – much more than the ordinarily accepted four, and equal with the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The issue was settled after Ahmed agreed to pay for a seventh minaret to be added to the Grand Mosque. The vibrant colors on the interior and the Arabic script are beautiful, and the scale of the building inside and out is awe inspiring. Since it is a working mosque and open for prayer you have to dress appropriately (women, I’m talking to you!) but there were women at the entrance handing any particularly immodest visitors pieces of fabric to cover up their legs and heads. I was wearing pants but they were deemed modest enough for a visit, and I had my own scarf to cover up with so I didn’t have to wear anything borrowed. You also have to take your shoes off.IMG_9832

Blue Mosque

Around the outside of the mosque were a series of taps intended for ritual washing before prayer, and despite the cold there were dozens of people cleaning thoroughly before going in to prayer. The stones in front of each tap showed worn grooves from the knees of worshippers, and I was impressed both by the history apparent in the worn stone and the dedication of all those taking their time to get clean out in freezing cold!

While it was a great sight to see, we also witnessed some really appalling behavior by tourists such as adopting a pose of mock prayer for pictures, and loudly exclaiming about the oddness of the actual worshipers.  I suppose that the community puts up with this because they see the opportunity to evangelize (there were “Ask us about Islam” signs around the mosque), but I felt embarrassed by the display and bad for the devout trying to pray.IMG_9871

Basilica Cistern

We also had the opportunity during the tour to see the Egyptian Obolisk in the hippodrome, which was once the site of ancient chariot races, and the carved head of Medusa deep inside the underground cisterns – an artifact thought to have been brought from Greece. As a major world power the Ottoman Empire attracted gifts and the spoils of conquest from all across antiquity, and there is much to see in Istanbul that is actually from somewhere else.

At Topkapi Palace we saw the rooms where Sultans would receive guests, enormous jewels, elaborate thrones, and rich clothing from the height of the empire. By this point we were exhausted, so we were also happy to take a moment in the palace gardens looking across the Bosphorus into Asia.IMG_9882

Topkapi Palace

We were cold and very tired by the end of day, but after a warm bus ride we were dropped back at the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight to London. The day was relaxing and we were well taken care of. While we aren’t usually tour people, this was an awesome way to see some really spectacular and expensive sites for free, and gave us a great preview of the city for our return a couple weeks later!

Love and Marriage

Things have been really busy around here lately, so we nearly glossed over the fact that we just had our second anniversary! To celebrate we decided to jet out of town on a Friday right after work and head out to Rondo Retreat – a really beautiful retreat center in Kakamega forest that also just happens to have great food (we had horseradish sauce with dinner! we asked them where they got it and the response was “we find it sometimes.” Thanks a lot, guys).


It was really nice to get away (no internet out there!) and have the opportunity to reflect on our marriage and how grateful we are for each other and the opportunities we’ve been able to take advantage of as a couple over the past two years. I’ll be honest that the place is a little weirdly formal – I think we have the British to thank for that – but the candlelit dinner was definitely the best anniversary option around!

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A massive trail of safari ants. Always watch where you’re stepping!

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It has been really interesting to explore how marriages work here, and how that can sometimes differ from the way that we define and approach our marriage. Keep in mind, though, that my observations really only apply to rural Western Kenya. I don’t want to paint Kenya or anyone I know here with a broad brush – my friends and colleagues range from struggling to middle upper class and are from all over the country, so I have a huge diversity of people to hear from about love and marriage! So with that qualifier, some things I’ve noticed about marriage and relationships in Western Kenya:

1. Let’s start with the most sensitive topic I could bring up: polygamy. Wikipedia says that the Luhya “used to” practice polygamy. Apparently no one writing about the Luhya on Wikipedia has been to Western Kenya lately, because polygamy is alive and well! One day in the field we were looking for a child, and the mother informed us that the child lives with the other wife because that wife lives closer to the school. Sometimes it can be really hard to keep track of these family structures – once during a census our program was running we found a compound with 100 people, 8 wives (5 pregnant) and 1 man.


This is what you might imagine polygamy here looks like (Maasai women)

Of course it’s worth noting that a lot of people are very against polygamy – especially in areas that are mostly Christian or don’t have a strong history of polygamy to begin with. One of my coworkers, M, spent a whole year on a practical joke convincing one of my American friends, H, that he had two wives – he even went as far as introducing the “second wife” at his father’s funeral. This guy is serious about his pranks. When the truth finally came out M laughed and said “I can’t believe you fell for it – I’m a Christian!” But let’s not be too hard on H – we’ve both met plenty of Christian polygamists in this area. It can be a little maddening that you never know quite what to believe!  But check out this article to convince you there’s plenty of polygamous pride in Kenya.

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Polygamous? Or Not? Probably not… but get ready to embarrass yourself – don’t assume you know how anyone’s marriage works!

2. Kids. Tim and I get a lot of flack because we are married and don’t have any kids – as it has been for a long time in many places, marriage here has a lot to do with children. Once you have a child many people consider themselves “married.” Family planning is making serious inroads into Kenya, however, and it’s a lot more common to hear people talk about wanting to control the size of their family.

3. Ceremony. Recently a lot of our staff were really offended when we were trying to come up with some survey questions to assess marriage stability and wanted to define marriages as relationships that had been affirmed by a formal ceremony. Some of our staff were (rightfully) upset that we were basically telling them we thought their marriages were invalid! Everyone knows that weddings are expensive, and so that can be pretty impractical. Although everyone knows that Tim and I are married, people are sometimes surprised and impressed to hear that we had a wedding – the two aren’t always linked! (Find another account of how this works here.)

portrait and wedding photography by Chelsea Elizabeth Photography

We loved our wedding ceremony! (photo courtesy Chelsea Elizabeth Photography)

4. Dowries are also a big deal around here. I love the opportunity to talk to my staff and friends about the way that they are preparing for major life events such as weddings and babies, and dowry talk seems to come up all the time. Dowries are a hugely controversial topic across Africa, and as one friend said “If I’m worth so much, how come I don’t get that money?” Still, there is a lot of pride when your husband is able to offer a cow.

Of course there are also a lot of people here who have a big church wedding with a white dress, and the whole ordeal looks a lot like an American wedding.


From a coworker’s wedding – notice how many aspiring photographers are crowding in on the couple as they take their vows

The landscape of what marriage and weddings look like in Kenya seems to be changing rapidly. Marriage is so personal – it looks different not just across cultures, but for every individual couple. While my observations are true for some people in Kenya, the diversity of this country and rapid changes mean you can’t assume any of these things!

Overall, weddings are fun, marriages are precious, and despite the difference we all have a lot to relate about. We had a great time celebrating our anniversary, and are lucky that we get to continue to learn from that ways that everyone around us has a slightly different approach to the crazy institution called “marriage.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! (better late than never)

Of course we don’t get the day off for this American holiday and I spent most of my week out here:


But we were still able to pull together a pretty classic Thanksgiving, with everything made from scratch! And we’re never going back. This food was ridiculously delicious (no more cream of mushroom soup for me).Image

We had a chicken, green been casserole, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, apple pie and cookies. Delicious! And you know what we even did? We even fried the crispy onions for the top of the green bean casserole and I am in danger of making these every day just to snack on – they were so easy and delicious.




These pictures are less than amazing because the lighting in our apartment is dismal and this is from my phone, but I feel like we need to prove that we DID make and eat all this delicious food!

And what are we thankful for? 2 years of marriage this past week (!), our life here in Western Kenya, our families (even though they are far away), and all the support and love that has helped us to pursue this adventure together – so thanks to all of you!


As Usual

Life has been going on as usual here in Western Kenya. Of course “as usual” is always a little bit extraordinary from my outsider perspective. Recently, there was a large bull fight down the road that was sponsored and televised by a major bank, and during field work we encountered a child whose hands were too full of jiggers to do a finger prick *shudder*.

And while we were working in Bungoma, this was happening right next door:

While this story of a woman delivering unattended on the floor of the hospital (and then being slapped and yelled at by the nurses for “dirtying the floor”) has many people rightly outraged, I’m finding that this account doesn’t seem all that different from what I have heard from nearly every Kenyan woman who has ever given birth.  Even those who have access to “good” care tell me about botched last minute c-sections, being slapped and screamed at by nurses, and even tragic stories of abandonment late at night that have ended in the death of the child and near death of the mother.

Thanks to a story that has finally made the news I am reminded of how unfortunately common an experience like this might be. While the reporter who brought story to national attention has received death threats for “making the hospital look bad” and the woman on the floor has been shamed into silence, this video stands on its own and has demanded attention.

Of course the response of the under-resourced hospital has been to ban cell phones from waiting areas. But even at this little hospital in rural Kenya, we are in the 21st century, and a bystander shooting a video on a cell phone is enough to make the Secretary of Health pay attention. So many studies talk about what a disaster it is that people in the developing world want a cell phone more than a toilet. Bill Gates seems to think that the internet is useless to anyone before we get rid of malaria. But it seems to me like this bystander’s cell phone has the potential to improve health for mothers in Bungoma, if not across Kenya, with only her cellphone.

5 Things That Happened

5 Things That Happened


Marlene got malaria (and we got a bug zapper racket)

Based on my own observations, expats in Africa are divided into two camps: first the “I’ve never had malaria and I can’t believe you have – surely you aren’t very careful!” group and the “I get malaria every two weeks and can’t figure out what to do about it” group. I’m not actually sure it’s possible to do anything about it (or anything more than we’re doing), but I’m hoping we end up somewhere in the middle, since now that we’ve both had malaria I would really like to avoid the experience again! There are no pictures of this particular adventure, since waking up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat as though someone had poured a bucket of water on you is not the kind of thing you want photographic evidence of. We always do our best to keep the mosquitos away, but this past week we finally managed to get our hands on a bug zapper, and hunting down all the mosquitos in our apartment has become a nightly ritual. I would also like to know why our treated mosquito net seems to kill every bug that lands on it except mosquitos. Thank goodness I was able to kill the mosquito that found its way into our net the other night… by nearly swallowing it.

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Way too excited.

photo 4The imprint on our wall of the mosquito that I am convinced gave me malaria. About two weeks before I got sick, I fell asleep outside the mosquito net. I woke up to Tim smashing this mosquito, full of my blood, against the wall. It had been biting my eyelid, which was really itchy and annoying. Then I got malaria. Is this blood splatter a little TMI? Oh well.

4WD up Mt Elgon


Easily some of the most fun we’ve had in Kenya, our fun maximized by sharing it with Anne and Cameron when they came all the way out to Western Kenya to visit! Rocketing our way through the jungle, pausing to climb through caves and around waterfalls… the far out there corners of Kenya at their best. I was only slightly nervous about getting Marburg from this cave, but so far so good! (More coming soon from the epic adventures we took with Anne, Cameron, Madison, and Nate!)


We started to actually enjoy ugali

At lunch the other day I ordered a large portion of ugali and couldn’t stop eating. I’m sure that my enjoyment had something to do with the amazing pile of nyama choma we also had, but it looks like we are finally integrating into the local culture if we are learning to love this stuff. Also, I can highly recommend a little place in Ekero for the best nyama choma in Western Kenya.

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My fear of snakes was confirmed


My number one irrational and over the top fear here is SNAKES. I am way more afraid of them than things I should be more scared of. However for some reason seeing this on safari – when you’re supposed to see wild and crazy animals – was just awesome. But let’s keep the snakes out there.



Yes, Tim actually took these pictures.

We played with animal poop

Our awesome friend Angela is here visiting! She is working on a study that involves testing animal feces. Since we’re really familiar with all things poop in our lab, we were happy to help out. So we’re in for some exciting field work collecting animal feces while everyone gives us funny looks. Crazy white people collecting animal poop!

photo 5So that’s a quick update about what’s been happening here! But that’s not everything, so more posts and pictures to come soon!

Safari in Black and White


There is something really stunning about black and white photography. In the absence of color, texture pops to the forefront and the raw beauty of the subject shines through. This lion was so close to us that his piercing eyes looking into mine sent chills down my spine, and I think this picture captures that powerful gaze. In general the beautiful simplicity of the black and white photos speak for themselves, so I won’t add too many of my own words to these photos.


To see a lone male elephant walking across the savannah is a striking sight – like a wayward ship on an ocean of rippling, swaying grass.


One of my features of elephants – their thick, wrinkly skin – especially pops in black and white.

IMG_5555-2We were really lucky to get so close to this white rhino in the rift valley (and a little terrified). This rhino’s beautiful huge horn is exactly what puts it in danger of poaching and the reason that rangers track its movements closely.

IMG_6930-2Fascinating, awkward, purple-tongued: giraffes.

IMG_7203Mama looks back to check on her baby. They are never far apart!

IMG_6957This lion was hunting with two friends, but the buffalo they were after were just too much for them to take down. Doesn’t he look hungry?

IMG_6825What beautiful eyelashes!

Getting up close to these animals in their home is an incredible experience, and I love the intimacy of these black and white snapshots.

Top 10 Highlights After One Year

Well we just blinked and now it’s been more than a year since we packed up and moved to Kenya! It’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I don’t know if I’ve ever learned so much in such a short period of time. In celebration of making it this far, here are the top 10 highlights of the past year:

1. Celebrating our first anniversary


We’ve been married and living together in Kenya longer than we ever were in the US! What a way to start out, right?

2. Doing our jobs well enough that we (both) got promoted


It’s easy when you’ve got such a great team!

3. The Kenyan Coast


The best place in the whole world – fascinating history, pungent spices, white sand beaches, beautiful fish below the water and delicious fish above!

4. The Masai Mara


It’s not just the lions and elephants that are amazing, but the birds too!

5. Cooking up a storm

Delicious stuffed cabbage

Golabki? I thought we were in Kenya, not Poland! We have developed the wonderful skill of feeding ourselves delicious food that we cook from whole, fresh ingredients.

6. The Rift Valley


We are one with the animals!

7. A visit from family


In a whirlwind trip, the Wolfes saw (and photographed) Kenya from so many different angles!

8. Getting to see family in London for Christmas, and friends at a wedding in the US in March


Hanging out at a castle, getting nerdy with the audio tours. That sounds like the Kennedy family to me!

9. Living a new normal, and feeling comfortable finding our way around our new home

Doing dishes with a headlamp

Navigating the streets, and settling into our apartment complete with brand new TV (when the power is on). Lest you think we are somehow missing out on the Kenya outside our door in favor of watching Chopped on the Food Network, we decided having satellite is definitely not lame when we got home and plopped down to watch some TV the other day after petting a cheetah.

10. Beginning to understand the challenges and joys of life for the average Kenyan – and using our research to help meet the challenges

Getting ready to look for flies

Hands on learning – it’s up close and personal!

We are so thankful for all that we’ve learned and been able to experience this past year – when I pause and reflect on it I am stunned by just how incredible it has been! Here’s to much more to come.

Summer Visitors


It’s summer in Kenya! And I know that not because of warm weather and barbecues (actually the newspaper keeps printing articles about how to take care of your skin in the cold season and there was a display of heaters at the grocery store today), but because all of a sudden there seem to be many more mzungus (white people!) wandering around Western Kenya.

These summer visitors stand out not only because of their white skin, but because for some reason they all seem to wear tennis shoes or hiking boots with long skirts (not a great look unless entirely necessary), nodding attentively as they follow a Kenyan guide around town. In fact I remember before we moved to Kenya when we visited the travel doctor to get some vaccinations the nurse warned us, with a serious face, to “always wear tennis shoes, since the sidewalks there can be pretty uneven.” Sidewalks!? Our road is made of dirt.

There are so many misconceptions and so much anxiety when it comes to Africa, and visitors come ready to protect themselves from everything from malaria to a stubbed toe. One of the best things about being in Kenya has been the opportunity to tell other people about our experiences, to help people realize that you don’t need to wear hiking boots to get around a town where many people are barefoot (although you might want to watch out for malaria). We don’t have family or many friends who have experience in Africa or with development work, and it’s really cool to be able to share this place with people who might otherwise never experience it.  We really hope not only to show all the amazing things like the animals on safari and the gorgeous beaches on the coast, but to also show that life here is normal life in so many ways.


Recently Tim’s family came to visit, and we loved the opportunity to show them around! They came to Kakamega and saw our home, our office, and the rainforest next door – before exploring the Rift Valley, the Masai Mara, and Nairobi.



It felt good to show them both the every day and extraordinary that we experience here in Kenya. We were lucky enough to see lions hunting (unsuccessfully) in the Mara, black rhinos in Lake Nakuru, and baby elephants at an elephant orphanage in Nairobi.




We also saw monkeys and birds in the Kakamega Rainforest, went by the office to show them a bit about our work, and taught them a little Swahili.


We are looking forward to having more friends come soon! We hope that through visitors and through this blog we can show our friends and family far away a little more about what Kenya is all about.