Almost two years on and waking up these days is feeling less and less like Ground Hog day, although to think that the pandemic is all over may be a wee bit premature. What worries me most is that the people in power are quite happy to keep the new “normal” as it is, and to me, this is not a new “normal” I want to see continue.
I vividly remember sitting in Atlanta international airport on the 18th of march 2020, listening to Boris Johnson talking about ‘herd immunity’ – something which having done Biology at A level I knew a little bit about. Living in Kenya too, herd immunity is certainly something that we see time and time again on the African plains, brutal as it is – it is mother natures way of culling and keeping populations healthy. Applying this to the human race however, is not something for which I would want the responsibility. Nevertheless, having checked into my flight and then been directed to the ‘domestic departures” section of the airport, because due to Covid the International Section was closed……..(yep, stupidity would be a very valid reason for mother nature to cull), I sat and listened to what Boris had to say. Being relatively young and healthy, and owning a business, I felt that Boris was looking out for me – clearly at the detriment of everyone else though – but I appreciated the sentiment.
I flew via London and throughout my journey I got the feeling that COVID was a storm in a tea cup and everyone really was panicking over what sounded more and more like the common cold. Security at Heathrow was dreadful and had I been a terrorist this would have been a superb opportunity to attack, as everyone was literally packing up and leaving. Shops were closed, planes were loaded to the gunwales as everyone made their last dash home before everything shut down – and I found myself along with other fellow Kenyans on the last flight out of the First world back home to the Third. This was indeed a 21st Century ‘Scramble for Africa’!
It was not until the British Airways doors were flung open in Nairobi and we were greeted by an army of people in Hazmat suits that the stark reality of this pandemic hit me. I was stunned, more so that it appeared Kenya seemed to be taking this pandemic more seriously than America and the United Kingdom and in fact the rest of the world.
Of course you have to remember that as a third-world African country, this is indeed not Kenya’s first rodeo. With the possibility of fatal diseases on the vast African continent Kenya never takes any chances , and the ‘shoot first ask questions later’ attitude of our government was most definitely the right one. I did feel a little bit of panic that perhaps we were not being told the truth and I spent the next half an hour waiting, signing forms, being ‘screened’ wondering how many people had coughed on me and if we were on the brink of an apocalypse.
And of-course, it would only happen when you are standing with well over 700 people waiting to collect bags, that I suddenly developed an itchy throat that quickly turned into an uncontrollable dry cough. I would have been better off if I had farted to be honest – the look of horror and speedy distancing made me feel that any moment now, people in white lab coats would attack me and throw me into the back of a van. I managed to melt off to the ladies – thankfully no one was there – and get control of myself. People certainly glared at me and gave me a little distance as I re-approached the baggage claim. This had its benefits as I now suddenly had a clear reach to grab my bags and scuttle out of the airport.
I got home and was dragged into quarantine; I must say spending 2 weeks in room number 10 at The Emakoko was bliss. Food and drink being delivered to my door, stunning views and the local wildlife checking in on me every morning and afternoon was surreal. Meanwhile, unbeknown to me, Anthony was busy gambling with our lives and our business and trying to make decisions based on the forecast from a dear doctor friend who had told us in no uncertain terms that we need to be get ready for two years of this and be prepared to /mothball The Emakoko’ and to re-open once this was all over. TWO YEARS? TWO YEARS!!!! What a load of rubbish I thought – and yet here we now are, two years on and still the new normal has prevailed. I guess he was better informed than we were!
Back in the ‘First World’ most modern governments provided support for the people who lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic, although many had no help at all.
In Kenya there was no such support and many people were sent on ‘unpaid leave’ indefinitely. With no state back-up – millions of people were simply left to survive, or not. Holiday deposits were refunded and day after day businesses went bankrupt, were mothballed or simply sank – never to return again. All the while, the wildlife of Kenya looked on wondering where everyone was, and perhaps life for our wildlife friends for the first time in decades, returned to what it should be – just wild.
In March 2020, The Emakoko was ten years old, and the staff had been a part of this since back then. We had no option but to get ready to close down the lodge completely, and so took an enormous loan and IOU from the family in order to pay every member of staff their 10 years of severance pay due to them before sending them home. They were sent home as we closed and were given a six month notice period before contracts were terminated and they were paid their terminal dues. It was devastating but necessary and we had hoped that something would change in that time frame to allow us to bring everyone back before the notice period expired. Anthony had six months to ‘make it happen’ and the pressure was on, not only for his completely understanding and forgiving wife – but more importantly for the 26 members of staff who were responsible for quite a few mouths to feed.
Then something amazing happened, I think it came from desperation, determination or just trying our luck – but we decided to go to the powers that be and question the wording of ‘hotel closures’ rules. We were not considered to be a ‘hotel’ but more a bush lodge, we did not serve meals or drinks to outside customers and we ticked every box to become a quarantine hotel. We worked closely with the ministry of health and tourism and so as March melted into April we were lucky to have not closed our doors, with a limited capacity and with our staff staying on site for 8 weeks at a time – testing on arrival, it meant that we could now operate safely. We were back!
At this stage Nairobi had been locked down as a county so there were over 4 million Nairobians locked up with no where to go and nothing to do. But then word got out that Nairobi National Park was open and so was the Emakoko! What was wonderful is that at last, AT LAST, the people of Nairobi started to visit their own national park and use it as an escape, for the first time in living history, tourist vans were now filled with Kenyans seeing what their heritage had to offer. It was an absolutely amazing metamorphosis, and I would say that this is certainly going to help in conservation efforts in years to come, for I believe that this access will help change attitudes and our wild spaces will be preserved. The many Kenyans who for the first time have had a glimpse of the jewel in the crown of Africa’s wildlife will now see its value and importance. For decades wildlife and safaris have been limited to the international elite now it was open to everyone!
By the end of May we ‘recalled’ our redundancy notice. Due to the extraordinarily wide family structures, to our dismay some of our staff had families working in the industry who had lost their jobs, so they accepted their cancelled contracts and their redundancy payments in order to keep their extended families going. The good news was though, that most staff re-started with us (no pay cuts at all) and so we managed to reemploy 90% of our original staff and keep going.
It was wonderful to have our team back again and wonderful to see so many Kenyans enjoying Kenya. We have been so lucky that Anthony & Rihaz fought so hard to keep our doors open throughout – against all the odds.. We are so lucky too to have the most amazing, determined group of local supporters who continue to visit over and over again (I think poor Steve and the kitchen are struggling to be creative with the menus and not repeat meals!!!). We are of-course, beyond lucky, to have the most amazing team of staff – who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic to keep The Emakoko operating.
Aside from business, having my family altogether for a relatively long period of time had its moments. The ‘online learning’ was shocking but how lucky our children were to have this. I have written in a last blog about some of the embarrassing moments I found myself in. It never really dawned on me though that our teachers were now able to see what ‘the back of house’ looked like. If I could go back, I certainly would have made more of an effort and like many millions globally, I would have not stayed in my pajamas until midday and certainly would have put some makeup on.
The family and the staff went on many game drive during quiet times, football was played, bikes were ridden and long walks were had as we waited for COVID to pass. Keeping fit and trying to avoid alcohol became increasingly difficult as the bright future we had once hoped for began to fade away. My children became magnificent photographers (Asante Rihaz), fishermen and athletes, they learnt to drive a car (aged 9 & 12), change a tyre, wash dishes, iron, wash dogs, clean rooms, change beds, cook, clean, count stocks in the stores………..Basically we put them into training to become lodge managers.
At one point during the pandemic, I became a ‘Walking dead’ fan and wondered if it would ever get to that….? The thought of being the only ones left on the planet I must say did appeal at the start of the pandemic, but by day 21 I was dying to see friends, meet strangers and of-course battle with our negative trip advisor reviewers!
So how much longer is this going to go on for? Who, other than the Swedes, is going to stick their neck out and declare that we are just going to have to crack on now and re-open everything? How much longer can those with no support survive like this? How much more borrowing can a country do, that question leads me to the next most burning question;
Who the hell is this person that we are all borrowing from? Lets be honest, we have all gone to bed at night and wondered how this all works right?
So as we complete our second year of this pandemic sadly it looks like history is indeed repeating itself. After the black death, there was the peasant’s revolt…….then war and more war, more pandemics and more wars. The bad dream of the pandemic now seems to be the ‘teaser’ of the nightmare to come. We are now at war – how anyone has the appetite to start a war after what our planet has been through is truly shocking. Our thoughts and prayers are with both the people of Ukraine and Russia and we hope that a diplomatic solution can happen sooner rather than later.
Either way, one thing I am sure of, is that this pandemic has certainly changed the mind set of many. Gone are the days of planning and saving for retirement, I think the reality is – that day may never come. Someone once said ‘Travel as far as you can, for as long as you can – to as many places as you can.’ I think given our current state of affairs it may not be a bad idea, and if you are considering this – then please put Kenya (and us) at the top of the list.
A result of this world wide travel ban over the last 2 years we have lost track of many of our clients, but truly we have missed you all and we like to think that hopefully you have missed us. To remind you of the magic of Kenya, the Emakoko and the wildlife adventure there is now a book ” Yesterday, today and tomorrow”, this is a novel written by my mother and it is loosely based on The Emakoko and events that happened, when I say loosely – it really is LOOSELY!
We look forward to welcoming you back to our home.