This time last year, Mark Somen, 42, was living in a two-bedroom in Queens with his wife, Yassi, and their three daughters, working long hours as director of operations of Soho House in North America and feeling somewhat disgruntled. “I always felt that if I wasn’t glued to my BlackBerry, and I didn’t respond in five seconds, then I wasn’t doing my job,” Somen said. “There were some weeks I wouldn’t see my kids for four days.” Then, in August, Somen quit his job to run Tribe, a top-echelon hotel in Nairobi.
“Since being here, I have seen my children awake every day and have been able to do normal things with Yassi, like have dinner together … Crazy!” said Somen, who now lives in a spacious house with a driver and household help. “Last weekend, we drove to the game park—40 minutes from home—and spent three hours just looking at animals.”
Not that it was easy to persuade Yassi, a New Yorker whose mother still resides in Queens, to move, especially after violence ripped the country apart after the 2008 elections, effectively shutting down Kenya’s tourism for over a year. “I wore her down,” Somen said. “We are here on a two-year basis, and I think she realized what a great life experience this would be.” Still, they took defensive- driving lessons.
Somen’s move is part of a mini-migration of glitterati to Kenya that’s been increasing of late. Ed Norton, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Naomi Campbell and Uma Thurman have visited the luxury camps of the Safari and Conservation Company or Cottars 1920’s Safari Camp. Morgan Freeman has rented out Lemarti’s Camp—run by German socialite Anna Trzebinski and her Samburu husband, Lemarti Loyaban—for New Year’s Eve, and Ralph and Ricky Lauren are visiting Princess Caroline of Monaco, who has a home on Lamu.
But it’s not like visiting St. Barts. Calvin Cottar has been known to ask irritable people to leave his legendary camp, the oldest in Kenya, and some of the local tribal customs may shock. Several years ago, Diana Ross came over to “find my tribe.” After exhaustive research, Ross arrived at Samatian Island in the middle of Lake Baringo. She was taken to meet the Pokot tribe. All went well until the grandmother of the biggest chief walked up to Ross and, in a sign of respect (it is considered “sharing water”), spat right in her face. Confused, Ross screamed, “This is not my tribe!”