After driving the village’s cattle to fresh pastures near his Maasai village in southwestern Kenya, Hillary Kosen would hurry home to study before nightfall. Now he is a tour operator in East Wenatchee helping people visit Africa and bring solar powered lights to village homes.
Kenya straddles the equator with beaches on the East India Ocean rising to a high plateau of semi-arid land where the spectacular migration of 1.5 million wildebeests and other wildlife flowed past his home in the 1970s.
“I was raised in the splendor and drama of those days of untamed Africa,” he said.
Tourism is the mainstay of Kenya’s economy, although Kenya is a major exporter of flowers. The president was re-elected by a slim margin last March, which a judicial review certified and the loser peacefully accepted.
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi is one of the largest African airports. A recent fire, ruled to be accidental by international investigating teams, closed the international arrivals terminal, but Kenya’s president reopened international arrivals within eight hours.
Kosen speaks six languages, including fluent Kiswahili and English, Kenya’s national and official languages. The famous Masaai tribes have maintained their traditions and become entrepreneurs in the safari industry. Kosen’s father was a guide his entire life, hosting such dignitaries as Henry Kissinger, former president of Yugoslavia Marshall Tito and Commander of Apollo 16 mission Charlie Duke.
“To visit with my father, to live with the wildlife, to study the savannahs, captured my young heart,” Kosen said.
After Kosen graduated from high school, he volunteered for two years with organizations that were friends of conservation. He applied to Kenya’s exclusive college to earn a diploma qualifying him as a tour guide. When he said already knew birds and animals, the interviewer challenged him to name some.
“I kept going and going until he interrupted me to say, ‘We’ll see you in September.’”
He respects Disney’s commitment to educate people about wildlife in Africa and he enjoyed informing people from around the world about Kenya and its progress toward democracy, but he exercised his option to cut short his contract.
“For me, coming out of Africa and seeing those elephants happy, [the job] didn’t settle down very nicely,” he said explaining why he left.
He stayed in the United States working in tourism. People he met wanted to visit Africa, so he helped arrange tours through his Kenyan contacts at no charge.
“I came to realize I could do it by myself,” he said.
Arriving in Wenatchee in 2006 has been rewarding. He joined Paul Esvelt, his good friend at Disney to work at Stemilt, where they still work. And Kosen met his wife Diane Leshik. They had a wonderful five years raising Hailey, Kosen’s daughter and Diane’s stepdaughter, two family dogs and a horse in East Wenatchee.
In 2008 he formed a company with a website, Kosen Safaris, which has arranged guided tours for clients from Wenatchee, the U.S. and Europe.
His brother and he recently established an office with three people in Nairobi that arranges domestic tours and international flights. Kosen said China is Kenya’s biggest trading partner and Chinese tourism has increased almost five times. Kosen’s firm is hosting two travel agencies from Beijing and Shanghai next year.
While tourism is improving Kenya’s economy, Kosen is troubled by a downside: poaching has also increased. Demand for ivory is so great he quotes estimates that elephants would die out in 12 years at present kill rates.
“Most of the poaching comes from locals,” he said, “and most of the people working the tours are locals, so they see the value of keeping the elephant and rhino sustainable. I truly believe when we protect those wildlife, we are going to help Africa develop.”
Last year he added a humanitarian service to his trips.
While making arrangements to personally guide a Wenatchee family, they met an African, Dr. Claver Hategekimana, from Wenatchee Valley College, who has developed solar lights for homes without electricity. Kay Jaecks of Wenatchee and her daughter Laura Jaecks, on Wenatchee School Board, took solar lights to two homes in a Tanzania village. They also canceled a hot air balloon flight to pay for textbooks for a class and exchanged letters with a third grade class at Lee Elementary in East Wenatchee.
“Kosen made all the arrangements and did a fine job,” Kay Jaecks said.
“When I think back about how I had to study because the dark was coming,” Kosen said, “I started getting Goosebumps. Looking at the students and listening to their stories of people who are coming to those homes to study, I think maybe we will change a life of someone who may become a doctor or a teacher who comes back and contributes to the community.”
Kosen has arranged a large tour sponsored by Lake Chelan Rotary to deliver lights to 32 homes in Rwanda in 2014.
“All those years I believed that one day I wanted to live the American dream, and I’m living part of it now,” he said.