Nairobi Museum

Nairobi Museum

For all the stress of Nairobi, the city, its stellar museum makes it all worthwhile.

My second safari of the season, the Howard and Godfrey families, arrived unusually altogether on Saturday night. Like most travelers to East Africa, what they wanted to do was see animals, so I’d been unsuccessful suggesting a two-night stay in Nairobi to begin.

Two nights gives you a full day to see all of the city’s attractions, and they’re really nice: in order of my preference: the museum, walking downtown and visiting contemporary art galleries, the Karen Blixen Homestead, Giraffe Manor and Kazuri Beads. There’s also the elephant feeding at Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage which is wonderful, but the 11 a.m. schedule in the Langata area often makes any other additional option then difficult.

So I made the decision that on our first day out of Nairobi, hardly 12 hours after everyone arrived, that we would visit the museum and the city, have lunch, and then bee-line it down to Tsavo. After all, it was a Sunday, the quietest day of the week, and I knew traffic would be manageable. I was … sort of right.

But the morning in the museum was a hit. I start with Ahmed, the huge (“hugest” according to Dillon) elephant ever found in Kenya. Guarded until its death a generation ago, it is now fiberglassed for eternity, and provides an excellent place to begin the fascinating discussion of elephants.

We then visit the gourd pyramid, where gourds from ethnic groups around Kenya are beautifully linked together as a demonstration of how varied the people of East Africa are.

But my favorite room is the early man exhibit, including what I really believe is one of the most phenomenally valuable exhibits of any museum in the world.

There are a number of excellent early man exhibits in museums around the world, and South Africa’s Sterkfontein Cradle of Mankind museum is probably the overall best. But what I find so wonderful about Nairobi’s exhibit is that they seem to keep it contemporary. When Michel Brunet published finding Toumai, what may be the earliest hominid ever discovered (6 mya), the display in Nairobi was changed pretty quickly to reflect this possibility.

The long glass display case of casts of early hominids is excellent arranged, with perfect, concise description. And it all begins with a hands-on exhibit of what a fossil is.

But the gem is the smaller, square and often sealed-off room that displays the original skulls of 7 early hominids including both Nutcracker Man and Turkana Boy. These are two of the most important finds ever made, certainly vying with Lucy for the most important ever. I think of the protection that Lucy received during her recent world tour, versus the trust that museum officials in Nairobi accord their visitors who stick their noses up to the glass of these invaluable fossils.

I think everyone was pretty pleased with the tour. We followed it with a walking tour of Nairobi and lunch at the Stanley’s Thorntree café.

I hope they were, anyway. The subsequent drive into Tsavo on the “new” Mombasa road was a nightmare. The truck traffic was unbelievable. More on this in a later blog.