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Valley residents lead transformative safaris

Raza Visram lives in the Lehigh Valley, but part of his heart remains in Kenya, where he was born. He is the co-owner and U.S. manager of African Mecca Safaris, through which he brings small tour groups into the bush to help them get back in touch with nature and fulfill their longing for community. The company partners with guides and hospitality providers in eastern and southern Africa to build a business ecosystem that sustains, rather than exploits, the natural environment and local communities.

When Visram came to Pennsylvania for his college education in his late teens, he realized that many Americans have little knowledge of either the diverse peoples or the varied environments of the African continent.

“[People I met] had all these negative perceptions,” he says, “Flies on people, ‘We Are the World,” giving aid to Africa … and people reflected that on me.” His classmates’ image of nature in Africa was also based on television stereotypes, while the reality of living on a continent with lions and elephants is much more complex.

Before moving to the United States, Visram had worked in tourism. He decided to return to this field after college, serving as a kind of ambassador for Africa. He has been organizing safari tours to eastern and southern Africa for 25 years.

In addition to giving Americans opportunities to interact with the people of Africa, African Mecca opens up the world of wild animal preserves to them.

“In the preserves, the tribal communities live in harmony with the environment,” Visram notes. “They’ve been living with wildlife for thousands of years […] They’re learned how to interact and have a balance within that environment.”

Hilary Smith, a registered nurse and practitioner of Eastern healing arts, works with Visram to facilitate the company’s small group tours. Smith went on her first African safari in 2006, and her first safari organized by African Mecca in 2016.

At that time, Visram was organizing only private tours – for example, honeymoon safaris for couples – but after Smith returned from Africa and found that many of her friends and family were interested in taking a trip, she and Visram developed the company’s group tour program.

The group program offers packaged tours, which Smith escorts. She prepares the guests while they are stateside, then stays with the safari when they reach Africa and the domain of the local guides.

“I prepare people for the trip, and I’m the liaison between the camp staff and the crew,” she explains. “Before a trip, I’ll have a Zoom meeting with the group, show them the appropriate clothes to pack, tell them what medicine and equipment to bring, when to apply for a visa.”

How close to nature do safari participants get?

“On these group trips, the goal is wildlife,” Smith makes clear. “We get there the day before the safari starts and stay overnight in a major city – Nairobi for Kenya safaris, Dar es Salaam for Tanzania, or Johannesburg for southern Africa – to get over jet lag and [to alleviate concerns about] tight [flight] connections. The next day we move on to the ‘real trip.’

“We use open-sided [Land Cruisers]; depending on the time of year sometimes there’s a canvas roof. In Kenya, we go out on game drives early morning and late afternoon, because that’s when the animals are most active. At midday, when it’s the hottest, we’re in camp. People will go by the river and watch the animals in the river, take a nap, or look at the pictures they’ve taken.”

The experience is truly immersive, and some people can be nervous about seeing up close the animals they’ve only previously seen in National Geographic.

“People feel some apprehension [about big cats and predators],” Smith says, “but the guides are so capable and so well trained and instill so much confidence in you that you know you’re going to be safe. Some people do get a little nervous when a lion walks right by the truck, but then they see that the lion just walked by and they’re fine.”

Smith notes that safari guests enter villages that satisfy their longing for human connection and community, as well as preserving generational knowledge.

“One thing we try to do on the group trips is stay […] in camps that are supportive of the local communities. […] That’s a real high priority for African Mecca on these trips: conserve the environment, conserve the wildlife, and help support people and what’s important to them.”

Visram and Smith believe the safari experience is transformative for participants.

Visram notes that being removed from the world of keeping up appearances, chasing income opportunities and answering nonstop texts and emails allows safari participants to experience the sublime.

“Your spirit is livened up,” he says. “There is this amazing understanding and feeling that you get overwhelmed by – see the animals, see how people are living with less, yet are so much happier […] Having come back from it, you will be a different you.”

Because of the cost, Smith notes, “for some people, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, but I’ve had other people come back three or four times, because it doesn’t feel like anywhere else.”

She compares it to becoming a mother, or falling in love, or anything else that creates a feeling of awe.

“Awe arises spontaneously in response to something, and you’re in awe the whole time you’re there,” she says. “I’ve never had anyone regret going on a trip.”

Hilary Smith captured this image of a lion in Kenya on a recent safari. She notes that although internet access is available in the tents on safari, most people use their phones only for photography.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HILARY SMITH A juvenile elephant follows its parent, while a cattle egret enjoys a free ride in this photo taken in Kenya.
PHOTO COURTESY OF HILARY SMITH. A gorilla unwittingly poses for a photo with Hilary Smith in the foreground. Smith notes that although there is Wi-Fi available in camp on African Mecca safaris, most people use their phones primarily to take pictures.
PHOTO COURTESY OF RAZA VISRAM Raza Visram is the co-owner of African Mecca Safaris, which leads individual and small group tours of eastern and southern Africa. Visram is a native of Kenya who lives in the Lehigh Valley.