Narinder Heyer – safari planner extraordinaire!
Born in Nairobi in 1942, Narinder Heyer is a third generation Kenyan whose grandfather came from India in 1918.
As a child, her family travelled quite a lot, visiting other Indian families in various parts of the country. “We children would be packed into the back of my father’s rickety old pickup. Driving on the rough roads of Kenya in the 1940s was quite an adventure,” says Narinder. Most likely this is what inspired her love of travelling.
All her life Narinder has been interested in libraries, museums, the environment and travel.
She is a founder member of the Asian African Heritage exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum that opened in 2000. It was meant to be a temporary exhibition for one year but due to popular demand it stayed on for almost five years.
Narinder guided at this exhibition every Friday for the five years and she remembers hundreds of schoolchildren running through the halls. “So we devised a plan to have small groups from schools that were interested. We handed the children a prepared questionnaire and they made better use of their visit.”
How did you become actively involved with the National Museums of Kenya?
I was a member of Nature Kenya (then called The East Africa Natural History Society) long before I joined KMS. I assisted at Nature Kenya in the 1990’s and became a keen member of the Birding group. I participated in the Museum’s annual water-bird counts called ‘The African Waterfowl Census’. Through this I got to know many wonderful parts of Kenya. In 1999 I coordinated the world birdwatch for Kenya.
Also, in the 1990s there was a society called ‘Uvumbuzi’ that was based at the Museum. Members were young adult professionals that had been members of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya while at school. I travelled a lot with them and was struck by how comfortable Africans were in the wilderness. I learnt a lot from them.
Tell us about your experience with the Kenya Museum Society
I joined KMS sometime in the early 2000. I belong to many societies but KMS is my favourite. One reason is that the membership is very varied, with many international members and people who have held jobs in different countries. Over the years I made many interesting friendships and met people who are keen to learn about Kenya.
In the 1990s I was involved in the wonderful Know Kenya Course organised by KMS. My job was to prepare folders for the participants, almost 100 people. I would scout the libraries and magazines for articles related to the topics, maps for the course, etc. I would choose a smart folder made by Kenyan crafts people. Some years I also brought Indian singers or dancers for the entertainment. It was such a pleasure for me!
In more recent years you have organised safaris for KMS?
I was the KMS Weekend Safaris coordinator for about 12 years. I liked doing trips to remote areas of Kenya. Since I had studied history, I included a lot of historic trips where I would give a 40-minute talk on the history subject of the safari. Some of the historic safaris stories I talked about are:
- The Delamere family story
- The extensive estates of Ewart Grogan in Taveta and Lake Jipe
- The mystery of Lord Errol’s death
- The ever-popular Happy Valley set. After repeating this trip 3 times, even I began to find Lady Idina Hay and Alice de Janze interesting!
- The George and Joy Adamson story during visits to Meru National Park, Isiolo and Shaba National Reserve
What are some of your favourite safaris?
Always Turkana! The 10-day journey to the National Museum’s site at Koobi Fora and back is out of this world. What a site! On the way home, we stayed at remote and fascinating places like South Horr and North Horr. Or camp under star-studded skies of the Chalbi desert.
Another favourite is the Tana River delta. I discovered the fascination of Garissa town and the remote road from Garissa to Garsen. The delta itself is awesome and here I saw the biggest number of hippos, a 150-strong pod! There were crocodiles all over the place, pythons, millions of creepy crawlies and the wonderful Oromo herdsmen. Due to perceived insecurity this circuit has all but collapsed. The charming Italian lodge we used to stay at was also washed away when the Tana changed course and eroded the cliff where the lodge stood. The whole cliff face collapsed.
The Marich Pass at the edge of the Turkana plains is another favourite. It is a place of haunting natural beauty.
What were some of the challenges of organising trips to remote places?
I always tried to look for an area where the road hadn’t collapsed or where there were no security issues. But sometimes things happen that are beyond your control. Once, two days before a safari, I was told there was a big cholera outbreak in Marich Pass! On a trip through Tana county, our group ran into floods on the Bura – Garsen road. A member’s car skidded and crashed into a tree but thankfully there were no casualties.
Another time, a member fell and broke her shoulder and had to be evacuated by air. During a trip to western Kenya, we were sheltering from the sun under a tree and without warning the tree fell down. Fortunately, the members were fast runners and everyone escaped unhurt.
You are also known as a ‘foodie’ and very good cook
I enjoy cooking and usually organise self-catering safaris. I love devising menus, loved shopping frugally yet getting quality ingredients, packing and all of that. I do not always follow recipes I often improvise as I go along. On the trips I just cook what is easy and tasty. But breakfasts were always English style with bacon, sausages, eggs, toast etc.
And coffee. KMS members are particularly partial to well brewed coffee. Being Indian I am a tea drinker so I was initiated into the joys of drinking coffee by the demand of the members. Eventually I equipped myself with a plunger, discovered the best coffee brands and never looked back.
Spending time with past KMS chair, Peta Meyer
By Kari Mutu
Peta Mayer Meyer was the chairperson of the KMS council in 1999-2000. She joined KMS in 1996, after relocating from Uganda. “My friends in Kampala had already told me about KMS, so I made a beeline for the Museum soon after moving to Nairobi,” says Peta. A keen birder, Peta’s main interest at the time was the weekly bird walks. After some time, she took over management of KMS’s Tracker newsletter, bringing along her wealth of knowledge as an editor and book designer. “It was a cyclostyled sheet at the time and I produced the first computer version,” she says.
Eventually, she joined the KMS Council and became the main coordinator of the Know Kenya Course, an annual public workshop in the 1980s and 90s. “Ironically, it left me so busy I could no longer join the weekly bird walks.”
What do you enjoy about being a KMS member?
KMS gives me an opportunity to meet like-minded people interested in the cultures and the natural history of Kenya. I enjoy going to the evening talks by museum researchers and, more recently, attending events by webinar. KMS also organises interesting outings and safaris around the country.
Tell us about the Know Kenya Course
It was the biggest fundraiser for KMS. The KKC consisted of a series of morning lectures and afternoon behind-the-scenes visits that stretched over 2 weeks – and that was the shortened version! The original KKC lasted about 6 weeks, with a mix of day and evening lectures and activities in both Nairobi and Mombasa; but that was before my time. Lectures were held in the auditorium of the Nairobi Museum and popular speakers could fill the hall. Staging the KKC took an army of volunteers, right down to door clerks armed with torches in case of blackouts and one designated “Mama Rosy” whose job it was to make sure the washrooms never ran out of toilet paper.
How have you seen KMS evolve over the years?
One of the big differences is that 20 years ago in Kenya, far fewer of our female members worked outside the home. Most expatriate spouses (99% of them women) could not obtain work permits, no matter how qualified they were. So KMS had more volunteers, we could hold more ambitious events, and our activities also drew far bigger audiences. The KMS office and the museum guide programme were totally staffed by volunteers.
What was required to become a guide at the Nairobi Museum?
Fulltime attendance at the KKC was a prerequisite for training to be a museum guide. With all our volunteers, KMS could offer guided tours in many different languages. For languages other than English, you had to book a guide in advance. I remember one occasion when a couple of visiting priests from the Vatican booked themselves a guided tour of the palaeontology gallery.
Currently you edit KMS’s Kenya Past & Present journal, tell us about this work?
As an editor it is always interesting getting to know researchers and learning new things. Sometimes writers approach KMS; at other times I will read an interesting topic somewhere and track down the author to do an article for us.
One of the original aims of KP&P was to publish original research done by museum staff, particularly those funded by KMS. An example is the discovery of plant fossils dating during the eruption of Mt Kenya millions of years ago, and how the fossil stone is now being dug up for building material.
However, KP&P is unique in not being a specialist journal. It publishes on an eclectic range of topics; some of them don’t fit into easy categories. A good example is an article some years back on the Art Deco houses of Parklands, Nairobi. Another is Kenya’s Asian-African heritage. More recently, the ‘lost’ Portuguese monuments in Mombasa.
Why do you think people should visit the national museums and join KMS?
Aside from the cultural artefacts from generations past, and the gallery on Kenyan history, everyone should visit the palaeontology gallery at the Nairobi Museum. Kenya is famous for its research into human origins and researchers come from all over the world to visit what we have on our doorstep every day. As a KMS member you can join guided tours of the palaeontology department and other departments. And, of course, join the KMS safaris, which take you to places you won’t find in the tourist brochures.
Talk about some of the KMS trips you have taken
KMS trips are a great way to visit places without having to organize things yourself. You never know quite what to expect and you will make new friends.
On a trip to the Rift Valley, we stayed in Iten where we kept a lookout for famous marathon runners but instead, we were enraptured by paragliders taking off into the sky by simply jumping off the cliff next to the lodge.
On a trip to Samburu, we climbed to the top of an extinct volcano – I’ve forgotten the name but it was obviously a popular climb because the track was littered with plastic. So we collected bits of plastic all the way down.
As a birdwatcher, one unforgettable trip for me was to the World War I battlefields of Taita-Taveta. Driving through Tsavo West coincided with the arrival of steppe eagles, which migrate from Russia to spend the winter in Africa.
That day in Tsavo, the flock must have literally just arrived because there were large brown eagles on trees, in the bushes, even standing on the grass next to the track. You never normally see so many eagles close together like that. What a privilege.
Saryoo Shah is a 3rd generation Kenyan Indian born in 1947. She joined the Kenya Museum Society (KMS) in the 1980s, making her one of the longest members, and has served on the KMS Council since 2001.
Starting in 1991, Saryoo was a certified guide at the Nairobi National Museum with a strong knowledge of the Asian African Heritage gallery. An art lover, Saryoo has for many years helped organize the annual Affordable Art Show, one of the largest visual arts exhibitions in Kenya.
Saryoo loves to tell stories about life in the old days, the participation of the Asian community in Kenya’s independence struggle and how Kenyan Indians contributed to launching some of the galleries at the Nairobi Museum, “even though Asians were not allowed into the Museum.” A mother and grandmother, Saryoo is an excellent cook and an avid book reader.
What do you enjoy about being a KMS member?
Being part of the Museum you get to learn so much about natural history through the different departments in the Museum. For example, palaeontology, birds, mammals and insects. Now I love bird watching and I have been teaching my young grandchildren. When he was 3 years old, my grandson could name almost 50 different birds.
Tell us about your time as chairperson of KMS in 2006?
It happened quite suddenly. The chairperson at the time, Rhodia Mann, had to step down quite abruptly after only a few months and handed the role to me. I was not prepared to be the chairperson but I did the best that I could. It was not an easy position. I was the only Asian on a committee of white people, and being a woman as well, it was tough.
During my position as chair, I managed to persuade the then director general, Dr Idle Farrah, to preserve a rare Coelacanth fish, the only coelacanth ever to be caught on the coast of Kenya. It was lying in formalin for 3 to 4 years after having been caught in Malindi by the fishermen in 2001. KMS funded 50% and the National Museums of Kenya funded 50% of the cost of preserving the fossil fish.
What other experiences have you enjoyed as a KMS member?
I enjoyed being a museum guide because we learned a lot about the museum galleries. We had to go through guide training for six weeks, then pass a test before we were awarded certificates as qualified museum guides. Palaeontology was compulsory course and we had to train in one gallery of our choice and one gallery chosen by the examiner.
I was also actively involved with the Know Kenya Course in the 1990s. The workshop took place over 5 weeks and we were educated about different aspects of Kenya’s prehistory, ethnography, geography and natural history.
You organize children’s activities at the Nairobi Museum, tell us about them?
We have held Origami sessions which is the Japanese craft of folding paper into different shapes. Origami was quite popular with the children. We have worked with clay, done fossil-making with plaster of Paris and I have also taken children behind the scenes to a few departments in the Nairobi Museum.
The most memorable children’s event was organizing an Indian culture morning with the help of another guide, Liz Lampard. The children dressed in Indian clothes, participated in folk dancing, applied henna dye on their hands, did forehead decorations like the Indian brides and were served with bhajias and a slice of pizza. One mother celebrated his son’s birthday by bringing his friends to the event.
Why should people visit the national museums and join KMS?
People should visit to increase their knowledge about Kenya and its wealth regarding birds, mammals, insects, ethnography and much more. By joining the KMS, members are privileged to access many departments and back-of-house sections that are not open to the general public.
What books are you reading at the moment?
I am reading Horrible Geography by Anita Ganeri and Mike Phillips. It’s meant for kids but I ended up reading it as it was so informative and I could connect easily with my grandson.
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