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Where Not to Build a Mosque in Kenya: Demolition on Safari


It's been long time since I've committed any thoughts to this travel blog. I've been on several trips since I last wrote — to the States, to France, to Thailand, to Bermuda, to the Republic of Georgia and all around Israel — but as inspiring as those travels were, they couldn't jolt me to write. It's part laziness, part writer's block, and a small part simple self-doubt; after writing what amounted to a small book on our motorcycle accident in Laos last year, nothing seemed to whisper "Write about me" quite the same. But that was before Tali and I spent 3 weeks in Africa.

In our time in Kenya and Ethiopia, we easily slipped back into the backpacker mindset that's always entranced me; the feeling of waking up each morning and deciding, right there and then, what the day would hold, with plenty of room for the unexpected. I've got dozens of stories from our trip; here, check out one of the most absurd.

Where Not to Build a Mosque in Kenya

In Kenya, the tourist trail is so well-worn it might as well be paved (it's not). People land, spend one day in Nairobi, speed off on a safari to (usually) Masai Mara National Park for a few days, return to Nairobi and sometimes jet to the coast, then they fly home. Even researching the country online gave me an uninspiring list of things to do: national park, national park, national park, beach, national park. Where were all the people, all the culture, all the food? The tourist trail in Kenya, from everything I read, seemed incredibly... monochrome. I know myself, and I knew that sitting in a safari van — no matter how amazing the animals outside were — would keep me engaged for two days tops. So while our trip would marginally include those must-do's, I was searching for ways to stretch out of the tourist infrastructure from the second we landed.

My first method: Couchsurfing, which was a total and complete disaster. We crashed at the apartment of a family in Nairobi, and through a mix of miscommunication, my lack of a backbone and their subtle peer pressure ended up paying for their food, drinks, gas and even park entry — which is, by definition, the opposite of what Couchsurfing is about.

By our third day in Kenya, though, we were barreling through the Great Rift Valley on our way to Masai Mara Park on safari, very much back on the tourist trail. I'd booked a short, two-day safari in the country's most famous park. Against my nature, sure, but there are limits to my squirming out of the expected tourist activities — to have visited Kenya and not seen any animals at all just seemed stupid.

A seven-hour drive from Nairobi, Masai Mara National Park is so popular because it's a surefire pick. Unless your safari driver is actually blind (in which case you have bigger worries), you will undoubtedly see wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, baboons, gazelles, elephants and warthogs. And if your driver is at least marginally good, you'll be within feet of lions, leopards and even cheetahs. The effect is wild — you drive through the park's entry gate, and within seconds you see them. Thousands of them. Living their lives, eating grass lazily, eating each other a bit more energetically.

In our two days in the park, we saw some Lion King-level wildlife (driving past 10's of thousands of wildebeests all standing in a herd, I cursed them for killing Mufasa), including a leopard stalking prey in a tree, a lion puking, a family of elephants hanging at the watering hole and a herd of giraffes standing there looking awkward, which is scientifically the only thing they do ever.

Included in our safari was tent lodging at a camp outside the park — ours was one of several tourist camps run by the local tribe, the Masai Mara. When you picture tall Kenyans wearing patterned cloth and jump-dancing, these are your dudes. And as we learned, they've taken what could've been a culture-destroying trend (the major influx of tourists that've been parking our asses on their land for decades to see the animals) and turned it into something productive. Indeed, as the Masai don't farm, tourism to the park is one of their biggest sources of income — if not their only.

You pay a few dollars to enter their nearby village; you pay when they try to sell you the tooth of a lion they killed with a spear because it harmed their livestock (I mean, vegetarian or not, it's gonna protect me from evil for the rest of time). Is it suckering tourists? Sure. Did this dude actually kill a lion? I mean, maybe? Or maybe I just bought a well-polished and impressively sharp rock. Either way, it was easy to get swept up in the dramatic beauty and the sheer otherworldliness of the place.

And yet, when we returned from the park on the second day of the safari, I wanted to do some exploring on my own. Just off the road that connected the tourist camps to the national park was an actual village — cinderblock buildings with corrugated tin roofs, signs for a general store and a bar, goats and trash everywhere and people milling around the dirt roads. In other words, the real shit. So naturally, Tal and I took a walk outside our camp to explore it.

Immediately upon leaving the camp, a gaggle of school kids surrounded us. High-fives were doled out, names were exchanged, smiles abounded. But we couldn't help but notice that across the field from the village was a group of about 200 people. After asking a few folks from the village and piecing information together, we learned that local Masai leaders had gathered the people of the village to discuss some local matters. It was a happy meeting, we learned. People were excited to hear from these village elders. Tal and I poked our head around the small village; we chatted with some Masai villagers (only a few, we understood, lived in the mud-hut village visited by tourists) and some Muslim and Christian Kenyans who worked nearby.

Our conversation was mostly hopeless 'missed connections' in America.

"I have cousin. He lives in Texas. His name is Abdu."

"I also know a few people in Texas. Who knows, maybe they're buds."

Then we heard it. Yelling. Shouting. Hooting.

It seemed like the shift took only a second, but the crowd across the field burst into sound and movement. We saw staffs and sticks waving around in the air, their voices carrying over the flat ground. In another second, the crowd was moving — fast, decisively towards the main road. And in that third second, we saw the object of their anger: a small, shining tin shack.

New sounds were traveling across the grass now. Sharp sounds. The crowd was throwing stones at the small shack, denting the walls with each blow. They used their fists, their feet, their sticks. The building was crumpling like tin foil.

"What is happening?" I asked, nervously. The villagers smiled. "All is ok, all is ok."

But it didn't seem ok. Two hundred people versus a tiny metal structure — it didn't stand a chance. The crowd was now standing on what was, just a few moments before, the walls and roof. The scene felt like a dream, like watching a dramatic battle in some cinematic epic. Tal was pulling at my sleeve; she wanted to run away, but I couldn't take my eyes off of this mass of raw, primal energy and destruction. There was a hot-blooded violence to the crowd, an unbridled passion that I've rarely seen unleashed.

The building was destroyed, and the hollering turned from anger to elation. We were, by now, watching from afar. In the long list of "Places a Very Small Jew from Pennsylvania Should Not Be," right next to an angry mob in Kenya is in the top half.

We were desperate for information. What the hell was happening? The most, and best, information came from a young Masai guy who was walking towards the crowd as we were anxiously speed walking away. And the story went like this:

Many of the local businesses were owned by Somalis — many of whom were refugees who had fled their country in fear of terrorist groups like the militant Muslim extremists Al-Shabaab. About 100 lived in the village, and they hadn't caused much trouble... until they began speaking about their need for a mosque. When the village elders refused their request, the Somalis bribed a local government official to give them a permit to build right at the village entrance, and within days the small, tin shack had gone up. At the very next village meeting — the one we witnessed — the village elders had basically said, "Corrupt permit be damned, tear that damn thing down." And so they did, ever so energetically.

But why the refusal? Shouldn't everyone have a place to worship? As a born American, that thought is simply second nature. But the answer wasn't so simple.

The Muslim Somalis can pray to whatever god they want, our Masai friend told us. But the Masai rely on tourism to make money. And they wouldn't risk their livelihoods.

I asked for the rationale. What did one have to do with the other?

Where there is a mosque, there could be Al-Shabaab, he said. And Al-Shabaab (as we soon came to understand through a few dozen other conversations) just love kidnapping and killing tourists. So there would be no mosque in this village.

My head spun a little bit. Wasn't this Islamophobia, pure and simple? And isn't that wrong — like, Donald Trump racism wrong? In a country where Somali refugees are regularly rounded up and shipped back to their war-torn land, reason unknown; in a country that went to war with Somalia over Al-Shabaab's terrorist plots to kill tourists, I could imagine how, for the Masai, the decision seemed simple. The risk was too great. Accepting the 'other' was just not worth the possible damage. Were these Somali shop owners in any way associated with Al-Shabaab? There was no way to say no for sure, they thought, so it didn't matter that there was no way to say yes.

But then I looked at what was left of the mosque, the field now completely vacant short of a few kids kicking a soccer ball and some meandering goats. It was a pile of rubble among other piles of rubble. Instead of choosing to trust the Somalis who lived and worked among them, this Masai village had chosen fear. Distrust. Suspicion.

Would the Somalis act against the Masai, now that their place of worship had been violently, impulsively destroyed, I asked.

No, said the Masai. They'd never do anything to risk getting sent back to Somalia. Living without a mosque was better than not living at all.

We walked back to our tourist camp alongside Masai young men smiling widely, like they'd just watched their favorite baseball team win a big game. The next morning, our safari van left the camp early for the long drive back to Nairobi. As we bumped down the dirt road past the remnants of the mosque, I asked our driver to stop for just a moment. Anticipating this blog post, I wanted to briefly take a picture.

"You can take one picture, but very quickly. And if someone throws a stone at you it is not my fault," he said sternly.

The guy who, for two days, had stopped the van a hundred times and urged us to take pictures of lions and warthogs and giraffes didn't want me to take a photo of an open field. An open field that I wasn't supposed to have seen. That tourist trail suddenly seemed misleading, intentionally disguising, like a veil, and there was so much bubbling underneath that I wanted to understand — and I had a few more weeks to keep digging.

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