Belle of Edenic getaway in Kisii

Isabella Lumumba is the owner of Ufanisi Resorts, which is redefining country logding, writes TONY MOCHAMA

Kisii is the county of rolling green hills and vividly yellow bananas, with smooth tarmac roads meandering serenely through the scenery. Kisii town is itself another matter — a crowded urban centre where the buildings jostle for space as the shillings from the local economy, and the dollars from Gusiis doing white collar jobs, arrive from the Diaspora. It can drive one bananas.

Isabella Lumumba is the co-owner of Ufanisi resort, an off-road establishment nestled on an Edenic compound in Kisii and cut off from all the hubbub.

Isabella, the mother of two and a teacher-turned-hotelier

Ufanisi Resorts also has another branch in Nakuru Town, and although Isabella spends most of her time in Kisii, she also makes time to travel to Nakuru to oversee that resort, and to Nairobi too, where her family lives. Kisii, though, is the family home.

"I spotted the need for a place like Ufanisi a few years ago," Isabella explains. "Other places then seemed slightly run down, while the Storm — like its name — is more of a place to have some fun and drink." Indeed Ufanisi, with its serene ambience, seems very much a shelter from the storms of Kisii Town. The air is fresh and the tree-filled compound and walkways of Ufanisi an invitation to inner peace.

"This was our ancestral home," Isabella says," where there was acreage of maize. My hubby and I thought of a car park, but it was a little off-town. We played around with the idea of putting up rental houses, but then in the end opted for a hotel.’

Promised land

"I would like our guests and visitors here at Ufanisi to feel that they are getting personalised service," Isabella explains with a smile.

And this trim belle is the mother of a teenage daughter.

"In this hotel industry," Isabella explains," people are judged by the image they portray. One needs to be vibrant, understanding and accommodating. Ufanisi, Kisii, has been in operation since the December 2009, and I am very grateful to all our customers, mostly local folks from around and from Nairobi, for the fantastic support they have given us these last 18 months."

Isabella often refers to herself modestly as a simple country girl, but she is no bumpkin.

"I am a Nairobi girl who went to Ngara Girls for my high school, then to Moi University in Eldoret for my bachelors degree in Education. My specialty was in English literature, and I taught and stayed in Nakuru for a few years."

With no training or experience in hotel management, Isabella runs this resort like professional clockwork, from the cleaning right up to the day-to-night management.

"I just built the sort of place I’d love to stay at, both here in Kisii, and in Nakuru — and I have a very high standards and expectations."

She and her husband, Lumumba, took off from the country a few years ago to try and open a new chapter in the ‘Promised Land’, America. They sold off almost everything, packed up and shipped out.

Back from the US

"But I experienced the most debilitating culture shock," Isabella says wryly. "Life is hard in the Diaspora. Just to have a car, comfortable rental accommodation, and pay the bills is an almighty struggle. You work for eight hours at your main job for that weekly pay, but that’s not the end of your day. You then have to put in another four hours part-time for a cheque, to help ends meet."

So after a while, the couple — and their two children — returned to Kenya.

"We had to start afresh," Isabella says. "From the ground up, with everything we had saved in the United States."

The end result is easy on the eye. A resort complete with standard and deluxe rooms, trees, dining areas, a nice bar and a makuti lounging centre. It’s like Maasai Mara in the most unlikely of spaces – Kisii.

"We got workmen from Mombasa and some building materials from Taita to create that getaway resort look," says Isabella, adding: "Bricks and mortar make a hotel zone look lifeless. You want a resort to have the trees breathing, the grass talking, lawns for nature walks, and so on. Then you’re in a good zone." She is a true naturalist.

"We buy trees all the time. Tree seedlings are only Sh500. If you can plant a baobab, or any other tree, that’s wonderful." Little wonder, then, that Wangari Maathai is one of her heroines.

A DJ called Spice spices the audio-ambience upwards, afterwards, with’80s songs. "Baby, baby, stop for a minute…" But as one thinks back to the pre-sunset sky, the thrilling rapidity of its change, the way its brushstroke covers only a corner, and the weird vapours of grey as the rain moves in like a thermonuclear explosion, one harnesses one thought: Isabella isn’t about to stop achieving anything in her chosen field of building resorts in the most unlikely of places.

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