Members of the "Global Grannies" travel group came home from Kenya recently with thousands of photos and uncounted memories.
They saw elephants, rhinos, leopards, cape buffalo, lions, baboons and warthogs. They gazed on 17,000-foot Mount Kenya, visited a portion of the Great Rift Valley and spent time among the Masai, once famous as warriors. A Global Granny even had a tug of war with a monkey over a plate of fruit.
But one of the most memorable parts of the trip was an un-touristy visit to a school outside of Nairobi, where all of the pupils come from the slums of the capital city and 80 percent of them are AIDS orphans. The visiting women all had tears in their eyes as the leader of the school, "Mama" Margaret Nyabuto, described her work.
The visitors had come prepared with gifts of school supplies, but they were so moved by their visit that they recently sent cash donations to buy uniforms for the pupils, and they are now gathering backpacks full of additional supplies to send to the school.
"Donating what we did -- that made my Christmas," Linda Sokoloski said.
Sokoloski is the owner of L.S. Global Travel, the agent who arranges trips for the Global Grannies. The group started in 1997, when three Billings women who found themselves alone after many years of marriage started a travel club that would allow them to see the world in a safe manner.
The group now numbers about 300, most of them from the Billings area, with a sizable contingent from the Cody, Wyo., area and a scattering of others from around the globe.
"We pick up people everywhere we go," said Karen Durfey, a member who was on the trip to Kenya. The daughters of some members have joined the club, but members have to be adults and they have to be women -- "No global grampas," as Durfey put it.
Sokoloski arranges 12 trips a year, which are attended by as many members as want to go. She was afraid the trip to Kenya might attract a small group, but 23 women, including Sokoloski, ended up going, and many of them considered it the best trip of their lives, she said.
The trip to the school outside Nairobi, the Tenderfeet Education Center, was arranged through the Collette Foundation, which is associated with Collette Travel and supports projects to help children around the world. A previous Global Grannies trip took the group to a Peruvian school established by the foundation.
The foundation helped Nyabuto open the Tenderfeet Education Center, originally located in the slums of Nairobi, in a village outside the city. The Global Grannies, many of them former teachers and nurses, brought over donations of pens, pencils, notebooks and other school supplies.
When they got home from their two-week trip on Nov. 18 and started thinking of what else they could do to help, they quickly ruled out sending Christmas presents. Although Kenya is a largely Christian country, Sokoloski said, most families spend what little extra money they have to visit their relatives, and few gifts are given.
But all schools in Kenya are required to have their children dress in uniforms, and at Tenderfeet many of the children had only one uniform, some of them quite worn out. So, the Global Grannies took up a collection and sent money to the school for new uniforms. They are now gathering additional school supplies for a later shipment.
One member of the group is also thinking of going back to volunteer at a dental clinic in an area that serves members of the Masai tribe, herders who live in houses clustered inside enclosures known as kraals. The visitors were fascinated by the Masai, who preserve many of their ancient customs but are slowly being Westernized.
When she pulled out her Blackberry in front of one Masai man, Sokoloski said, he whipped out his own cell phone and said, "Oh, we can be Facebook friends."
The visitors were also supportive of a group of Masai women who created bracelets and other adornments from intricately folded paper. They all bought numerous pieces and many of them gave articles of their own clothing to the women as gifts.
One of the Global Grannies, however, said they were a little taken aback by the patriarchal Masai customs.
"The women make the jewelry, and when you buy the jewelry, you hand the money to the men," Rae Chaney said.
The tug of war involved Billings resident Lyla Dyer, who was sick one day and had her food delivered to her by her tentmate, Durfey. Dyer was sitting down outside the tent to eat when Durfey briefly went inside. When she came back out, there was the ailing Dyer and a monkey, fighting over a plate of fruit.
Dyer won, Durfey said, "but there was a little bit of a worry because there were four more monkeys waiting."