Ma Roche’s Campsite: A Backpacker’s Paradise

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It is not exactly the most luxurious or comfortable accommodation.

As Ma Roche says, “the majority who stay here are young tourists. There are a few old ones but usually they are frail and want comfort. There is no comfort here, it is rough.”

Walking into Ma Roche’s through a big black gate with a sign warning intruders of vicious dogs within, it resembles any other residence – a small green house in the middle of a large garden.

But scattered all over the garden, are tents of all kinds, sizes and colours, Land Rovers and overland trucks. There are haphazard clothes lines with dripping wet clothes hanging from them, smouldering campfires and the odd camp chair.

For a mere Ksh150 ($2.70) per person per night, one can park a car or an overland truck or set up a tent. There are washing facilities and Ma Roche provides breakfast, but most of her guests have their own utensils and do their own cooking.

Right outside the gate arematatus to the city centre, a 10-minute ride away.

The atmosphere is casual. ‘Guests’ wander around in their hiking boots, dirty Jeans and T-shirts. There are dogs everywhere. “Many tourists come through here and abandon dogs they have picked up in neighbouring countries, but I try to look after them,” says Ma Roche.

As I sit talking to her in her kitchen, on a cold and wet Nairobi day, a constant stream of young travellers come and go, shouting greetings to ‘Ma’ and giving the impression of a big happy family.

Ma Roche says lately she has fewer tourists passing through and those that do don’t have much money to spend because everything has become so expensive. They also complain that they don’t feel safe in the capital so they only stay for a few days.

“On the other hand everyone benefits from the tourists, the matatus, the Asians and the people who sell food or curios to them. People tell me to sell and get out of the country, but why should I? In Europe life is harder faster, here it is pole pole (relaxed), you do things the way you want. In Europe, people are always in too much of a hurry to stop and talk or laugh or even smile. Here everyone is happy and life goes on.”

Ma Roche is yet another example of the variety of nationalities who have settled in Kenya and made it their home.

Born in Poland in 1935, she and her family were thrown out by the Russians during the Second World War.

By the age of 13, she found herself in a refugee camp in Tanzania . It was there she first met her husband whom she married in Kenya in 1947, when she was 16. But he died in 1971 and shortly after that her two children left for Canada, leaving her alone. Three years earlier, her mother had been strangled in the same house by robbers.

“At that time the tourists camped in City Park so I decided to open the house. Slowly people came and word spread. Now Ma Roche’s is in every travel guide in the world.

“I am 60 years old, Kenya is my home, my life, my everything. I won’t go anywhere else. I live and work with the tourists, some are good, some are bad but I put up with them.

“I try to please them, they try to please me, youngsters, they need help, I need help,” she says in her heavy Polish accent.

Ma Roche remembers the days when tourists would come and stay for months. “We had a lot of fun in those days. My guests would cook dinner for me, we would eat, talk, play the violin and sing together. Once we went to the Carnivore Restaurant in a big group, had dinner and then ‘jumped’ to rock all night at Simba Salon. We also used to sit down and have many drinking parties but Mama is getting old and can’t drink the whisky like before.”

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