- CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin traveled to Africa twice this year
- She found a deeper understanding of the vast continent and broadened her idea of 'home'
That's how you're greeted at Sanctuary Olonana in the Masai Mara, a remote 583-square-mile national reserve in southeastern Kenya where wildlife and Maasai villagers coexist.
"Welcome home." Thing is, I'd never visited Kenya before this trip (the Nairobi airport doesn't count). In fact, until just a few months ago, Africa was a distant destination, a dream destination, for sure, but a place that existed for me largely in my mind.
Africa had never been home, but my understanding of this continent changed dramatically this year with not just one but two very distinct "pinch me" experiences.
The first involved summiting Africa's highest peak, a bucket list trip that altered me in ways I wasn't expecting. The second involved a different kind of peak -- a career highlight for sure -- and certainly solidified my feelings toward this once-faraway place.
I first set foot on African soil just four months ago, when I traveled to Tanzania. I was 35 years old, had just moved to New York and decided it was time to stop talking about Africa and finally go.
But I needed to go in a big way -- and to me, that meant attempting to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, all 19,345 feet of it.
By the time I reached the summit, I was changed, physically and emotionally. From the moment I started back down the mountain, the little voice in my head wondered: When would I return to Africa?
Little did I know that answer would be just four months later.
In late spring, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would be traveling to Kenya in July for his Entrepreneurship Summit.
Last summer, he invited all the African leaders to Washington, and he has created a number of U.S.-based African initiatives.
But this trip would be special, because it would be the first time as sitting president that Obama would return to Kenya and revisit his roots.
It was a story I wanted to tell. With hard work and some good help, I eventually landed an exclusive interview with Auma Obama, President Obama's half-sister.
My producer and I would travel to the Obama family's ancestral village in western Kenya, visit Sauti Kuu (Swahili for "powerful voices"), Auma's foundation empowering children and families in that community, and see how these Kenyans -- half a world away -- feel about Obama's return "home."
Through our days on the ground, I discovered that our opportunity with Auma would also provide a rare window into the Obama family. She is easily the closest sibling to the President (and as a result, she is fiercely private and protective of her family).
She shared stories with me about what it feels like when she returns to her ancestral home of Nyang'oma Kogelo, where, seven years after her brother arrived in the White House, many little boys are now named "Barack Obama."
Auma took us to her family homestead and introduced me to "Mama Sarah," the 93-year-old grandmother to Auma and Barack. Auma even walked me to her father's grave, where she shared with me in almost a whisper what she believes her father -- if he were still alive -- would say to his son, the President of the United States.
I left West Kenya pensive, the theme of "home" starting to tug at me. What does "home" really mean? Is it merely geography, where you were born? Could it include straddling two continents and cultures? Or perhaps it's a place with a spiritual magnetism -- a feeling toward a culture or people -- that's tough to put into words?
And that feeling brings me to the final leg of my Kenyan journey: the Masai Mara (or the "Mara," as the locals call it), a vast national reserve in southwestern Kenya.
If you time your visit just right, you get to witness the Great Migration, the crossing of hundreds of thousands of gazelles, wildebeests, zebras and impala from Tanzania's Serengeti into Kenya's Mara, seeking fresh grass, food and water. Animals seeking a new home ...
Our guide, Joseph Koyie, took us immediately on our first game drive. Not two minutes into our adventure, his well-attuned eye spotted a lioness in the distance.
Only, it was slinking our way. As in, at one point, this beautiful creature (with mighty large teeth) was crouched 2 feet from our vehicle. I froze.
Joseph whispered, "Don't move. Shhhhhh."
I couldn't help it; my hand went for my friend's arm, and I SQUEEZED. Hard. "Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ... it's. Right. There!" For the next 30 minutes, we sat absolutely transfixed.
We watched the lioness creep up on a warthog, which Joseph explained she had been eyeing from afar for lunch (lions are known for their keen eye sight and patience).
But the nearby impalas were on lookout and perhaps sent a signal to this little warthog, and the next thing we knew, the lioness was left alone and still hungry.
Over the course of the next two days, I saw elephants, entire families of them. I also saw many giraffes -- my other favorite animal on safari -- cutting such a stunning silhouette in the distance. Their long, regal necks and those eyelashes!
I watched lions sleeping in trees. I listened to the calls between wildebeests. At dusk on our drive back in, I even caught a glimpse of the rarest of all: a black rhino. Here I was, in their home.
And the Maasai people? They're known for their beadwork, their colorful dress (red is their signature color), the men's bent-leg stance, their strength, endurance and nomadic lifestyle. You never ask a Maasai warrior how many cattle he has; it's like asking someone how much money they've got in their bank account.
But it was the Maasai singing in their own tribal language -- welcome songs, songs for children, warrior songs -- that I marveled at, as this tradition has managed to survive centuries, despite the modernization of Africa even in remote parts like the Mara.
To hear and see them, and in particular the men, chant and jump was mesmerizing. But what I really came to appreciate: the modern Maasai who prioritize education.
They leave their villages for 21st-century jobs, but they almost always return home. Just like Joseph, our safari guide, they continue to give back, never forgetting their roots, their home.
The Masai Mara may not be my physical home. Nyang'oma Kogelo may not be my home. Kilimanjaro may not be my home. But home, for me, is not just a place but a feeling.
The warmth of Mama Sarah's house, the traditional villages of the Maasai, the unequaled view from Uhuru Peak: I have discovered, in opening my eyes and heart to these new experiences, I am always welcomed home.