“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” ~ Mark Twain
A strong irresistible desire to get close to the tallest beast on earth-a giraffe-and plant a kiss on its mouth has always stuck to me with the tenacity of a leech. I have ever played football with a calf elephant at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and hugged a monkey at the Nairobi City Park but kissing a giraffe still tops my bucket list. I am here at the Nairobi Giraffe Centre to fulfill my longtime dream.
At the reception, there is a long queue of foreign tourists, speaking animatedly in a cacophony of English and French accents. I am the only black tourist at the queue-a strong centre of attention. Most visitors keep on mistaking me for a subordinate staff at the Giraffe Centre. On the other hand, I incessantly dismiss them politely with a plastic calm smile but deep inside me, I feel like grabbing them by their collar bones and dragging them on a tarmac road.
It is now my turn to pay. “Hi ma’am. What are the charges?” I ask in a fake North American accent to avoid any further awkward moment. “American?” She asks, eagerly awaiting for an answer in the affirmative. “No, me I am a Kenyan,” I reply, unconsciously reverting to Kenyan English. “You will pay Ksh 400,” she says in Kiswahili, struggling hard to contain a loud laughter. I place a crispy Ksh 1000 note on her desk. “We don’t accept cash. Pay via MPesa.”
“My MPesa balance is zero,” I respond. Silence rules. We stare at each other helplessly. I can hear her co-ticketing officer giving a foreign tourist two options of payment: Visa card or MPesa. “Do you accept Visa cards?” I break the embarrassing silence. “Yes,” she exclaims , looking surprised. She completes the transaction avoiding eye contact with me.
I walk to the giraffes’ viewpoint, eyeing at a tower of giraffes. A young tour guide, reading my anxiety, greets me and welcomes me with pellets to feed the giraffes. He asks if I may be interested in reading leaflets containing information about giraffes. I nod. He leads me to the education room on the first floor. I pick two long brown leaflets from an antique table and walk to an elevated viewpoint, the kind tour guide trailing behind me.
“Place the pellets on your palm and stretch your hands in front of you. A giraffe will come running towards you,” he instructs me. I close my eyes and stretch my hands, visualizing how it feels planting a kiss on a giraffe’s mouth. True to the guide’s words, a tall beast materializes from a nearby bush, walking gracefully like an international fashion model on a runway. “She is called Daisy IV. She turned 11 years old last month,” he says.
Daisy IV bares her long tongue and licks the pellets. She does so, gently like a trained domesticated animal. Daisy IV seems to have read my mind. She slowly shifts her head close to my face. This is the golden moment that I have been waiting for long. I cease the opportunity and plant a kiss on her mouth, attracting cheers and screams from tourists around me.
“Village Africans keep pet giraffes. They even ride on them to their tree huts,” remarks a middle-aged burly man in an Australian accent while pointing at me. “I used to own three pet giraffes and a crocodile but they all died of ebola,” I chip in their conversation uninvited. “Oh! That’s sad. How do you move to your tree hut?” asks the man’s partner. “Have you ever heard of Black voodoo? I just sit on a special broom, mutter incantations in my tribal language and bingo! I am in my tree hut.” The burly man interprets satire in my statement. He throws back his head and laughs his heart out. His partner, however, insists that I should turn to Jesus to avoid hell fire for practicing Black magic.
I ask her to provide me with their Facebook account names. The idea of an African villager owning a smart phone startles her. “I actually own a borrowed phone from an American philanthropist who is committed to change my poor continent,” I say almost attracting a flood of tears from her eyes. Too emotional to speak, her husband comes to her aid-furnishing me with details of their social media accounts.
I excuse myself and walk back to the education centre. The walls are graced by children’s art, highlighting the need for environmental conservation and literature on various giraffe species.
Exhilarated by pieces of art on the wall, I request a young man tapping on his phone to photograph me using my phone. He responds by granting me a contemptuous look and holding his phone more tightly. Though offended by the foreigner, I take many selfies and leave the room. Outside, I take another selfie in front of a Rothschild’s giraffe, dipping its head on a feeding trough.
My Facebook account has been dormant for the past 3 hours. I log onto it and send friend requests to the Australian couple. I also upload my latest photo and caption it: “I am about to take a ride on a giraffe to my tree hut. I took this selfie using a borrowed phone from an American philanthropist committed to change poor Africa. The shirt I am wearing is a gift from my grandmother. It is designed from banana leaves , carefully dyed with black clay and white ostrich shit.”
“I can’t wait to tag the Australian couple in the comments segment,” I mutter to myself as I hail an Uber taxi.