Travel diary: Fun escapades in the land of the Pharaohs

Young African journalist trainees at the Giza Pyramids tourist site in Egypt.

Photo credit: Anita Chepkoech | Nation Media Group

Visiting Egypt feels like stepping into a scene from a favourite movie, perhaps because of its bragging rights as the cradle of art, culture and civilisation, the richest source of archaeological treasures on the planet and its pivotal role in the Bible.

The aerial view of the sprawling city as we descended and touched down at Cairo International Airport on the morning of April 18 was breath-taking. I couldn’t help but marvel at the unique city plan with identical structures for each residential estate, forming eye-catching patterns, with some buildings assuming the ancient architecture, characterised by dome-shaped roofs and high towers.

We were a group of 18 journalists — from eight African countries -- excited to experience the land of the Pharaohs over the next three weeks, courtesy of the 58th edition of the Media Training for Young African Journalists. The training is organised twice a year by the Union of African Journalists (UAJ) in partnership with the Supreme Council for Media Regulations (SCMR).

In addition to the classes listed on the programme, we were looking forward to visiting the pyramids, the Museum of Civilisation, ancient shrines and monuments, and a dinner cruise on the Nile. But the cherry on top was the planned tour of Alexandria, second largest city in Egypt on the Mediterranean coast.

We put up at the Infantry House in Nasser City, surrounded by military installations.

For our first breakfast, we were served black beans, local bread (naan) and a variety of cheese, which would be the mainstay of our menu for the rest of our days there, with the addition of eggs, assorted pastries, potatoes once in a while, and vegetables. Fruits were rare, so we trained our minds to embrace tomatoes served in plenty in every meal-- well, scientifically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.

Al Alhy stadium

On my first evening at the Infantry, Awuor Olero, a colleague from the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and I crashed the birthday party of Denis Ontere, a Kenya Ports Authority volleyball team coach, one of the Kenyans who were in Egypt for the African Club Volleyball games. We were informed about the party by a charming, indiscreet, Egyptian hotel attendant. He escorted us to the venue, all the while chatting animatedly about his beloved children. When we got there, he declared our presence to the players who were having their dinner and they erupted in an applause of welcome.

We teased the "birthday boy" and chatted over mounds of cake before excusing ourselves with a promise to watch their matches at the Al Alhy stadium. We never got to keep that promise due to busy schedules despite receiving more invitations from other Kenyan players, including Equity Club's Libero Beethoven Okombo.

A view of the Mediterranean Sea and adjacent buildings from the 11th floor of the Sheraton Hotel in Alexandria City, Egypt.

Photo credit: Anita Chepkoech | Nation Media Group

The first colleagues I interacted with were Francophones Grace and Patience from Brazzaville, Congo, who were warm and kept the conversations going despite their little knowledge of English. I also linked up with Happiness and Kaitira from Tanzania with whom we referred to one another as Jirani (neighbour).

The following day at dinner, I chatted with colleagues from Nigeria; Emmanuel, Sunday and Dr Chris Isiguzo who is the president of the Congress of African Journalists, accompanied at the table by Nathan from Chad.

Latifah and Yousra proudly represented Morocco while Ebo and Portio are Ghanaian patriots by word and deed.

Later, Mr Abbas Mahmoud, head of Chadian Journalists Syndicate and Edmund Kofi Yeboah, general secretary for Ghana Journalists Association joined in, and we were all treated to the warmth and hospitality of our Egyptian colleagues, Eman, Randa, Bassant, Marwa and Ahmed.

Bringing together such creative minds ensured there was never a dull moment, especially during meals and daily commutes on the bus that were seasoned with bits of friendly banter among peers.

In Egypt, the week starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday. Our opening ceremony was on Saturday, April 20, and on Sunday morning, we hit the ground running with classes, the first of which was “Energy in Africa: Possibilities and Challenges” by former Egyptian Ambassador to Kenya Ahmed Haggag, a nonagenarian with a razor-sharp brain and wealth of knowledge.

We held most of our trainings at Maspero Building in Tahrir Square, which hosts a media training centre and SCMR, an equivalent of the Media Council of Kenya, from where you can catch a glimpse of a pyramid from the top floors. Maspero is a stone throw away from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was named after the French architect who designed it.

On the first week, we visited some of the main attraction sites in Cairo, starting with the Citadel of Saladin, a monument built in 1176 AD, Khan El Khalily, an iconic market since 1382, and Al Moez, one of their oldest streets with Egyptian artifacts and regalia that make exceptional souvenirs.

Nothing quite tells the story of tolerance and coexistence like the Religious Complex in Old Cairo. It’s a pilgrimage where the three Abrahamic religions; Islam, Judaism and Christianity – including Orthodox and Roman Catholics converge.

Ancient fortress  

It is located near the ancient fortress of Babylon, built in the 6th century BC when King Nebuchadnezzar conquered and ruled Egypt.

The Giza City Pyramid Complex is majestic and it's no surprise that 14.7 million visitors from around the world thronged the site in last year alone to behold the mystic structures built from granite, limestone and other minerals around 4,500 years ago.

 “What many don’t know is that there are about 200 pyramids in the country, but those in Giza are the most visited due to their proximity. The tallest one is called the Great Pyramid, representing the king, while Khafre and Menkaure that sandwich it symbolise the queens,” a guide explained.

For all of the trainees, visiting the pyramids was definitely ticking an item off their bucket list. And it came right before another exciting activity; a dinner cruise on the Nile to mark the close of the week.

As we set on sail with the whizz of evening breeze overlapping the sound of classic music, a party mode set in. The excitement was palpable as the trainees, together with the other patrons on the cruise, danced themselves lame.

Besides the sumptuous buffet, we experienced thrilling belly dance performances, a tannoura show, and live music.

The scribes always found a way to connect with one another despite the language barrier between English, Francophones and Arabic speakers, which sort of recast the “Mind Your Language” comedy.

But the inconveniences that came with it were sometimes exasperating. For instance, Awuor and I got lost on our way back to the hotel from Attaba Market. When we stepped outside the Infantry for shopping, someone offered to guide us to one of the best shopping destinations. He escorted us to a train station and off we zoomed to Attaba, five stations away on an underground speed train.

Tinge of fear

We arrived at the market that was a flurry of activities and fed our eyes to an array of items that beckoned us from all sides. Our excitement had a tinge of fear— typical of tourists outside the confines of their abode—but it didn’t stop us from indulging a bit. We then made our way to the train station ready to go back to Fair Zone.

We inquired which train to board but language barrier landed us in a Giza-bound train. We had to get off and take a taxi back to the hotel with the help of Mr Abdelaziz Mohamed from the Supreme Council. He and his colleagues made our stay in Egypt wonderful.

 Alexandria is 200 kilometres from Cairo and it took us about half a day to get there. The city named after Alexander the Great has a more relaxed environment.

We visited Alexandria Library, one of the largest bibliotheca in the world, Qaitbay Citadel, a 15th-century defensive fortress similar to Fort Jesus in Mombasa, among other attractions.

Is Alexandria the poshest vicinity where the One Percent lives?

 “Certainly not. Marassi North Coast and El Gouna are unrivalled,” responded Dr Mai Mowafy, lecturer of English at the Al-Azhar University, who was our translator.

The final week was quite eventful, although homesickness had kicked in. The Tanzanians and Nigerians were more outspoken about it.

We visited the largest and oldest media houses for Al Akbar Newspaper, Al Ahram Weekly, Union of African Journalists head office, Egyptian Press Syndicate, the equivalent of the Kenya News Agency.

 From our interactions with colleagues from various media houses, it became clear that all Egyptian newsrooms seem to run only on state-sanctioned news. The trainees from Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria felt that their democracies and media freedom have come of age compared to Egypt’s. Chadians felt the situation in their country was worse off.

Administrative capital

We narrowly missed visiting the New Administrative Capital established from scratch in a desert, thanks to the many holidays that occurred during our stay. The administrative capital, size of Nairobi by projected population, is 45 kilometres to the east of Cairo, on a swath of desert equal to the size of Singapore.

The robustness of Egypt’s tourism makes a child’s play of Kenya’s sector, thanks to their clever marketing. Someone remarked that Egypt is cashing in from “dead” tourism, in reference to the mummies and pyramids, while Kenya with its “life” tourism; rich wildlife, marine, flora and fauna, is at a fair sale at best. In 2023, Egypt shattered its tourism records with 14.9 million international tourist arrivals, generating about Sh2 trillion ($15 billion) as opposed to Kenya’s Sh352.5 billion in the period.

In curio shops, it’s common to find mementos inscribed “King Tut” and curiosity took the better part of me. I mean, the last ruler, Queen Cleopatra, had an illustrious reign, there was King Xerxes too, just to name the two of 170 Pharaohs, why is Tutankhamun popular despite his short reign?

History has it that in 1922, famed English Egyptologist Howard Carter and his financier Lord Carnavon discovered his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, making it one of the most significant archaeological discoveries. It was made Unesco world heritage site in 1979, the same year Olduvai Gorge, the cradle of mankind in Turkana, Kenya, was also listed by the world agency.

Perhaps catching a whiff of the homesickness, we had the culture day scheduled in that final week. Awuor and I represented Kenya well. We rocked Maasai outfit and performed Luyha dance that not only got a roaring applause but also the audience begging for more.

Awuor and I managed to squeeze in a visit to the visit the Kenyan Embassy situated in New Cairo, to a rousing welcome by the Charge d’Affaires, Ms Victoria Rotich and her team. Perhaps this is why we weren’t as homesick as the rest because we had all these detour associations with our countrymen…

In the course of our stay, we also interacted with some Kenyan military officers who were on a benchmark trip, understandably so, because the Egyptian military controls much of the economy and is hailed for raising billions in revenue for treasury. When President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former general, took the reigns of power in 2014, he handed the military major management roles in the civilian economy. The military replaced the government in awarding contracts and managing civilian housing and public infrastructure programmes funded by the state. The military also helps provide civilian markets with affordable goods, including food.

Civilian agencies

Although Sisi’s move is believed to have been political, to prove (to the West) that Africa can set systems that work, pundits say there is the downside of relying on the military to compensate for the failings of civilian agencies, which serves to weaken the very agencies.

I couldn’t help but note some commonalities between Egypt and Rwanda; Left-hand drive, an hour behind Kenya, cleanliness of the cities and similar patterns as far as democracy is concerned, even though the former has a whopping population of over 110 million and a slightly over a million square kilometres in area, multiple times larger than the East African country whose total populace is 14 million, about half of that of Cairo alone.

Egyptians are very trusting and caring people, and the culture of welcoming visitors is encouraged even at the political level because tourism is the backbone of their economy.

Discussing local politics is an uneasy topic for most Egyptians, and they speak of the Israel-Palestine war with passion in favour of Palestine. They also have close ties with Sudan and many Sudanese live in Egypt.

 The Arab country that placed a premium on health from as far as documentation goes, has battled with obesity for a long time. On average, an Egyptian consumes 10 spoonfuls of sugar, which is more than 5.75 tsp World Health Organisation recommended daily intake for improved health. Their staple food is wheat-based.

The smoking culture in Egypt is outstanding and was the main culture shock for the trainees. The only instances I saw a “No Smoking” sign in the country was at the underground railway station and the American University of Cairo. Otherwise, people smoke freely in public, including offices and restaurants. We were baffled that a traffic officer would light a cigar and puff unabatedly in front of the traffic he was controlling. “Had this been Kenya…” I heard Awuor mutter in shock.

We closed our third week with a journalism workshop at the American University in Cairo and an emotional closing session the following day that marked the end our stay in the land of Pharaohs.

Back home, I brought garri, pounded yam that I got from Emmanuel and Sunday, a box of Ghanaian chocolate from Kofi, a sling back from Randa and a souvenir with my name in Arabic from Eman. I am indebted.