EAST AFRICA 2023 – EPISODE THREE

BUILDING WORKS AND HIKES IN UGANDA AND BACK TO KENYA. January 2nd to 18th 2023

Sometimes I feel like the Pied piper in rural Uganda, where most children have never seen a mzungu before.

Alex and I like to walk, the best legacy of the pandemic, when I came to understand how much we miss in our vehicular haste. Walking, I can tune in with the landscape – and in Africa with the people too. It’s an influence I’ve brought to Alex, for no one here would consider walking for any reason but necessity. “Eh, these white men, nothing better to do but walk!” is a comment Alex has overheard and translated in passing. He now occasionally takes a long walk when he’s stressed – but he tells no one what he’s doing!

Wonderful country for hiking.

Once a week or so, when I stay in Sipi, we take a long hike. It’s great country for it: with the cliffs and expansive views, the huge plains way below to the west and north, and thick vegetation to wander amongst up on the mountain slopes – and then there’s the avenues of excited children we find everywhere in this child-filled land.

Two year old Rosemary is fascinated by the mzungu and greets formally with a curtesy.

Having completed the kitchen floor, it needs to cure before the next phase: ideal time for a hike. Alex has worked out a route that will take us deep into the valley to the north, and then circle back into the steep slopes above which Sipi stands. That’s the only trouble here: we have to end the day with a 1000 foot clamber after several hours baking down below. By the final cliffs, where we sometimes have to teeter up ladders of twisted timbers, or steel stairways, I am stumbling along – but it’s all part of the challenge…

It’s hot and dry, hiking down to the great plains below Sipi, but the sense of space is energising.

This walk must have been little shy of 20 miles, in a hot dry region, the temperature soaring as we drop into the valley. As we walk down the winding highway from Sipi village, we are joined by a middle aged man, who is going our way. Alex knows him, he’s called Kenyatta, having been born in 1963 at the time of independence. He walks the next two or three hours with us. At one point, we stop for water and peanuts at his farmland, a bumpy patch of hillside far from his Sipi home. Here, he has a mud-hut shelter perched on a terrace with fine views to the north.

Kenyatta’s farm hut and a welcome pause for water and groundnuts. Abraham, Alex and Kenyatta.
A fine view over the Karamajong plains.

We sit on local chairs and drink water he has carried a quarter of a mile uphill from an irrigation water pipe. We’ve also been joined today by Abraham, the small 16 year old who’s been helping with the kitchen work. He’s a nice lad, quiet but hard working, unlike so many. He doesn’t manage the whole distance, and we have to send him back on a boda-boda still eight miles from Sipi – his legs are short and he’s flagging. He carries back three huge sweet pineapples we buy from the back of a pick up for 50 pence each – the best ones I’ve eaten this year. The pineapples I’ve been buying in Kenya come from Uganda too, but they cost nearly three times as much as these.

Dropping down the steep dusty paths through the rocks, we come across men yelling and shouting, chasing three big baboons from their crops. Nasty aggressive animals, they watch us from treetops and rocks and Alex is amusingly afraid they are humanly grudging enough to throw rocks back at us as we walk under the cliffs from which they are warily observing us. We can imagine the anger and challenge in their eyes. We put on an involuntary spurt as we pass beneath them!

Perhaps it’s a vindictive baboon!

Finally, we are down to the plain that stretches far, far north across the Karamajong region to the borders of Sudan. I tried to ride that way three years ago, but was beaten by mud after some hard riding. Now, where we finally emerge from the footpaths onto a wide dirt road, they are building a new road – more Chinese debt. We must walk along this road in clouds of dust raised by the big gravel trucks, tedious walking for three miles or so, and when we reach the junction of the tar road that climbs back up into the mountains, I urge Alex that we should take a boda-boda some of the way back up the tar road; there’s no pleasure in walking the tarmac verge beside smelly grinding trucks. The hill is a very long slope, climbing hundreds of feet; I’ve ridden it a number of times, one-up on 200ccs, and it’s a gear-shifting experience. Now we number: the rider, Abraham, Alex and me, with three big bags of groceries that Abraham will take home while we get off and walk the final rises. We’re on a 100cc motorbike with me on the rear carrier. It’s first gear stuff. Slow.

Alex and I alight part way up the hill and take to dust roads once more. I’m happy here, trudging through the matoke trees past earth and stick homes with corrugated roofs. There’s a huge wedding on in the district, so the houses are quiet, just children everywhere, running to greet the very rare mzungu or hiding in fear. So far, we’ve existed the whole day on various mugs of local water from houses as we passed, a plastic beaker of lumpy local drinking yoghurt called bongo (drunk in a scruffy dusty village coincidentally called Nabongo) and a handful of homegrown peanuts. Now we are flagging, even Alex, half my age. We have a thousand feet to climb before I can sit down with my Tusker and relax, at the end of maybe 18 or 19 miles of uneven walking…

Shamadi, met on the road. A joker and charmer!

By the time I get up from beside the fire pit three hours later, I can stagger just about as far as bed. But it’s a grand way to experience the countryside, the thousands of people I have greeted, the hundreds of hands I have shaken and the many – frequently untranslated – jokes of which I have been the butt on this hot, parched, dusty day in rural Uganda.

*

Next day, we clamber 700 feet back down the cliffs to visit Alex’s friend Tom, the wood-butcher who’s built much of the 1818 bar and restaurant and done much of the so-called carpentry at Rock Gardens. He’s asked us to go, as no mzungu has ever been down to the community around his home. Fortunately, I don’t mind being a display item to amuse the hundreds of children.

On display! Boys watch from outside as I relax.
Satya
Chemonges.

It’s difficult to describe the phenomenon of just how many children there are in Uganda. The vast majority of humans I see in any day are children and babies. It’s fun to be such a celebrity, but it’s shocking too, what it means for their future. Most are poorly educated, and by their mid to late teens will be already producing multiple children – probably seven and often more. They too will be sketchily educated, and producing another generation even before they reach school-leaving age. But what subsistence farmer, scratching maize from semi-vertical patches of rocky soil can afford school fees or even has time for stimulating the young brains of these giant families? The churches, of myriad scamming money-making cults, do nothing to stem the tide, male dominated Islam even less. If a woman doesn’t produce, she is likely to be abandoned and sent home (it’s never the man’s fault of course) and the man will ‘remarry’. Precious tells me the story of a mother crying on her knees in the school bursar’s office, whose husband was supposed to take the money to school but diverted and drank it all away with his male friends (£175!); shame set in too late and by then the man had found a sympathetic ‘other woman’ and disappeared. It’s a common story here. Men have so little responsibility and dump all their pride and aggression on poor uneducated women. I’m proud that Precious, born to a large poor family and lesser educated than Alex, is now withstanding extreme peer pressure to produce more than her two delightful (intelligent, stimulated, educated, very-good-English-speaking and bright) children. This couple have decided to give their children a future in which they have an opportunity to achieve the dreams that were so limited for them, Precious with twelve siblings and Alex with eight, plus three half siblings by other mothers. It’s a large part of the reason I support this couple: they actually think ahead, unlike most Ugandans, who bow to family and peer pressure – called, as with many of the other socially costly bad practices of life here, ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’.

Children are intrigued by the hair on my arms. Pity about the handkerchief/ cap! Sadly necessary on these walks by the Equator.

*

The sick old lady died down in her dingy earth and stick hut on the slopes below us. Now the family must have, by ‘tradition’, a huge funeral that will cost perhaps £1000 – in this subsistence community. “Do you think THIS is tradition?” I ask Alex as the noise begins: highly amplified techno-rapp music that will pound through the next three nights, disturbing the entire neighbourhood. Everyone is expected to donate, school fees and hunger not withstanding. Family farmland is sold, valuable cows slaughtered – in the name of ‘culture’. It’s not ‘culture’, it’s pure pride and arrogance. Every funeral must be bigger. Those who donate are praised by the master of ceremonies for their generosity – in front of all the so-called mourners, who are really there not to show grief and support but for the prospect of a free meal.

On burial day, Alex becomes MC, this educated younger member of the clan. He tells me of the unseemly fights that ensued over the free food and shares with me his record of the accounts so far. They include (and remember, this is explained as ‘tradition’):

  • Tents and chairs hiring £160
  • Music system £93
  • Petrol (for power) £50
  • Coffin £100
  • Cement, sand, blocks, tiles, iron sheets for tomb £93
  • Food £186

Total – so far… £685

This, in a poor, badly educated rural subsistence farming community where money is always the scarcest commodity.

“If you tell the people to give this money when the old lady is sick – you saw her yourself – nobody will give 50 shillings! That money would fund a child through most its future school life,” says Alex wisely. “Or given to a school, or orphans…” adds Precious. In this country, education is a low priority for most people. Every tiny hamlet has several ‘churches’, usually tin shacks closed all week and less leaky than the majority of crude houses, but no schools. There are far more ‘churches’ in these countries than schools – formed by self-elected ‘pastors’ as a business (that pay no taxes), frequently funded by right wing ‘religious’ Americans, exploiting the poor education and ignorance of the country-people. The chief pastor demanded £7 – considerably more than most earn in a day, for transport from just down the road (a boda-boda would be perhaps 1000 shillings – 20 pence) to come to lead the funeral prayers. The whole shebang is no more than a money-making opportunity; the funeral a chance of free food and drink or to demonstrate status and ‘generosity’ of the Big Men. With no election due, there were at least no politicians to make capital from it by distributing tenpenny bribes to potential voters but I could hear, from half a mile away as I worked on the kitchen, the amplified rants of fake pastors and self-serving speeches from local men of ‘status’.

This is what ‘tradition’ has become in this crumbling country. Life here can often be very depressing. Despite my pleasure at everyday times in the family, I am VERY thankful I don’t have to live here in this decrepit, backward land, ruled by avarice and corruption. Poor Alex. Integrity brings such slower rewards.

*

The rustic kitchen develops.

While Alex acted MC for the burial day at the huge noisy funeral, I worked with wood-butcher Tom on the kitchen. It’s one of the most frustrating events of recent life. If Tom can do things awkwardly and illogically, he does. He wants no new ideas and is resistant to experiment, just content to do things ‘the way we do it here’. And no one wants to actually WORK! They prevaricate and get distracted by phones, expectation of food, chatting with visitors – and they NEVER clean up. Alex laughs that most of the dreadful ‘workers’ who come because they think the mzungu has a lot of money, never come for a second day: I make them clean their tools and the worksite before they leave, and I lead and drive them into much harder work than they are prepared to do. As a consequence of my energy we use a changing succession of inept, unmotivated labourers! Alex, returning in the evening from the funeral was astonished that I had driven Tom to do so much in a day. We had raised the entire kitchen structure of posts and roofed it with zinc sheets.

“This would usually take him three days! Mama Keilah, how long would it take Tom to do this work himself?” exclaims Alex.

“Four days at LEAST!” replies Precious as Alex laughs that I even made Tom use local tree posts. “Eh, if I’d told him he must use local posts, he would have REFUSED! He’d want me to buy cut wood. Expensive!”

Bread oven, table and water heater. A bit medieval maybe, but novelties in Sipi.

Meanwhile, I am also constructing a mud bread oven from a book I found in a Totnes charity shop. We’ve had fun with that, as the mud needs to be worked into a paste with the feet on a tarpaulin. One day, we worked just as a family, the children and Precious joining in with gusto and a lot of jollity, treading mud, dancing and singing. Family life at its best: all focussed on our project. Precious and Alex are desperate to be able to make real bread like that they ate on their visit to Kitale where they enjoyed Adelight’s bread, a tradition that’s travelled the world: Joy Bean’s bread recipe.

Dancing in mud. Rach, Precious and Jonathan Bean 2

*

The two children have been a constant source of delight. Now there’s an admission! Keilah is five and a half, and Jonathan just over four. They are intelligent and stimulated and being close in age play happily together with shrieks of fun. In the evening, they come with long stories from their lively imaginations. Jonathan talks endlessly and noisily, while Keilah is quiet and very charming. She’s a pretty girl and warm-hearted. Each morning I get a run and a hug. JB copies most of what she does. Both speak English fluently already, as well as the local languages. They are bright. When we work together they have the greatest glee: with trowel and cement they help as they know and quickly learn. They are usually filthy beyond description by the end of the day in this mud and dust-filled homestead. They are unsophisticated, just small cheerful children. There’s not a ‘device’ in sight and apart from JB’s football, there’re no toys: Keilah’s Chinese plastic recorder and Jonathan’s Chinese plastic police car, so coveted at Christmas, are things of the past, already in local landfill – buried with all the other Chinese plastic rubbish in the pit from the old latrine. The football, however (leather and NOT made in China), was an inspired present, sometimes bringing together the whole family in a spirited game amongst the shrubs and flowers of our burgeoning gardens.

*

In a desperate need to focus on something more than cement, sand and stone, I suggested another hike. This was one of our hardest. It’s magnificent scenery for hiking, but very hard work, along the edges of this high escarpment. We walked for eight hours, probably about 18 miles again, but that doesn’t tell the half of the effort, for we must constantly rise and fall over these lower slopes of Mt Elgon, and sometime descend the cliff faces, only to clamber up again further along our walk.

Lovely country for hiking, but a LOT of up and down!

Our destination was one of Alex’s sister’s home, around three great outcrops of the escarpment. We’ve hiked this way before, but every route is different. With the expansive plains of northern Uganda down to our right, we scrambled part way into the valley between the first two outcrops and took to a dust road through endless small villages and scattered habitations. I said before, it’s difficult to describe the experience of being in a country with such a VAST population of children. Where we walk in these rural areas, most children have never seen a mzungu before. Cries surround us: “Come and see! There’s a mzungu coming! Come and see!” Sometimes, it’s not just the children either. Hundreds upon hundreds come from their fields and doors to observe the phenomenon, to greet, shake hands or just stare. Old ladies call out in their local languages (and those change every few miles. Just four or five miles from home, Alex – a true linguist – is struggling), “Thank you for the visitor to our village!”

Ignatius harvesting ginger.

We come across Ignatius and his family harvesting ginger on an embankment beside the road. We poke and investigate, and walk on carrying a couple of kilos of ginger for our masala tea, that I enjoy so much. Two kilos from Ignatius direct costs us 40 pence. Alex is delighted; in town it’d be at least £2. And that £1.60 can feed the family for the day or two. Later, at Alex’s sister Doreen’s home we drink coffee grown right here on the slopes around the mud house, in her shamba.

The views are spectacular. On our left, the great cliffs soar towards the bright blue, sun-filled sky. Trees teeter along the top edge of the sometimes overhanging precipices. It’s very dramatic, this enormous volcanic scenery. It’s green, green, green, heavily cultivated by the legions of subsistence farmers wherever there’s a chance to carve out a tiny field or terrace. And amongst the thick growth hundreds of basic mud and stick homes with rusty zinc roofs are hidden. Sadly, one gets used to wading through acres of plastic refuse: it’s everywhere underfoot and we crunch on single-use bottles, and black plastic bags wave everywhere. Broken Chinese products litter the slopes amongst the graceful matoke trees. I realise that I’ve become almost blind to the filth. I have to frame it out of my photos.

Playing marbles.

We are warmly welcomed when we stop for water here and there at houses we pass. Children come to stare from doorways, many of them reacting to my outstretched hand of greeting, but others running away with squeals and wails of fear. Some children approach bravely, intrigued by the odd being passing among them. Many rub the hairs on my arms in fascination, unlike the smooth skins of their own race. They like to feel the ‘pig’ hair on my head too when they get opportunity. Alex once wrote about his walks, when he takes along his phone camera, inspired by me to photograph people, “But I am not a slebrity like you!”

The great plain stretches FAR below.

At Doreen’s house, we stop for a couple of hours. She insists on a meal to follow her own coffee. We must submit to rice and some stringy meat in a stew – ALL meat here is stringy, a trial for my teeth; I haven’t an appetite in the heat of the day but I must make a show. When we leave, we are carrying a kilo or two of fresh coffee beans and a large bunch of just-plucked spinach.

Hard country…

Doreen and her husband, Leonard, will accompany us to the base of the huge ladders that cling to the cliff 500 feet above their home. High on the mountainside, at the bottom of the first steep steel ladder, we say goodbye to Doreen, but Leonard volunteers to guide us several more miles on our way. He’s a pleasant fellow, a subsistence farmer, intelligent and a good conversationalist with lots of local information. He and Doreen have four children I think, but as we walk, Leonard gives me the shock of the year so far. I am talking to him about the VAST population of children in this country, with 55% of the population under 18 years old, second in the world only to poverty-stricken Niger…

And then Leonard tells me that his father has 60 children!!! With ten ‘wives’ (aka baby-making machines) he has SIXTY children. Leonard is from the most recent wife… I doubt the father can even remember – maybe not recognise – that many children. And how can he hope to give them any life but that of subsistence? Even Precious is shocked when I tell her next morning. “SIXTY?!” she exclaims. “Look how hard it is to care for TWO!” as Keilah and Jonathan race about the garden making cheerful noise. What hope is there for this crippled country?

To Alex’s laughter, I suggest that perhaps circumcision ceremonies aren’t drastic enough…

*

Just don’t look down!
Or over the edge…

Leonard leaves us after about five miles at a junction by a bridge. We’ve just had to drop steeply down through small farms with children shouting, “Come and look, there’s a mzungu!” Leonard is amused. He’s never walked with a mzungu before. He’ll be taking stories back to the family as he hails a boda-boda to carry him home.

Ambrose, 83, stopped us with a history lesson on Uganda’s independence
Ambrose and his friends were drinking local maize beer. It’s drunk through nasty plastic tubes and the container constantly topped up with warm water. It’s pretty disgusting (IMO)!

The sun’s getting very low and we now have to struggle up the other side of the steep valley. It’s an endless climb, accompanied by a Pied Piper groups of children dancing and joking: one of them has a small battery music speaker. It’s fun and makes us all laugh. There’s so much goodwill it’d be impossible not to enjoy such jollity, even though both Alex and I are now tired out.

We’ve another six miles or so to stagger and I realise we’ll be walking the last couple of miles in the dark. I hate that as I don’t have the night vision that most of my Africans seem to enjoy.

I’ve brought along my head torch just in case. We stumble the last miles in pretty much pitch blackness on the broken dust road. My sock’s worn through to a blister, but poor Alex admits next morning that his blisters were between his thighs! He’s an ideal, easy-going companion for these long days: intelligent and quick, friendly to those we pass, and informative about the life around us – and always willing for just one more hill.

*

Charcoal stove in the part-completed kitchen.

Our new kitchen is rather rustic in style, constructed from local freshly cut eucalyptus trees, with a zinc roof. I’ve built a substantial charcoal stove from stone, more heavy work. Behind it I am building the bread oven. That’s been a process adapting the instructions in the book to the – very few – tools and materials available here in rural Uganda… There is of course plenty of mud! It’s the bane of my time here: everything covered in a layer of thick red dust, until it rains and becomes slithery mud. We buried empty bottles for insulation (even those are scarce, when they must be paid for if not returned to the wholesaler) in a layer of mud-crete – earth and sand mixed and beaten smooth by various feet. Then I managed to form the brick arch. The book told me blithely to make a forma of plywood or 4×2 timbers. Yeah… Try finding anything as useful as those in Sipi. All I had was Alex to hold up the two sides as I inserted the keystone, holding it all with claggy mud.

The arch. I was proud of this in the circumstances…

Behind the arch, on the mud base I had a frustrating time forming a dome of damp sand, not easy in such a hot dry climate. We rigged up a shelter from an old piece of borrowed canvas to provide shade. We needed newspapers to cover the sand dome, and even those had to be searched for in this community. I can’t rely on a store of useful ‘stuff’ for inventing practical projects: there’s nothing here except earth – everything else must be bought (and is often unavailable anywhere closer than Kapchorwa, ten miles away), or traded for pennies from neighbours. No one shares much here: it’s very much a cash-based rural economy. Everything, even scraps of timber or stone, has a value amongst poverty. One of the most irritating aspects of working here is that the inept ‘workers’ whom we employ frequently leave their filthy work site and steal the few tools we have, most of them brought by me from the hardware supermarket in Kenya. Tom, the wood butcher, has taken our tape measure and hammer. Martin, the useless ‘mason’, has pinched our decent float and best trowel. They have to be retrieved with argument, and are always damaged and unclean. It takes patience and resolve to achieve anything here.

*

The two JBs get stuck in with trowels and cement.

But it’s the children who have given me so much pleasure these two and a half weeks, with their noise and energy, such that many days I haven’t left the compound. We’ve worked together, Alex and I, assisted by Rach, one of Alex’s half brothers, aged 14, Mark his bar keeper and Precious. The children have joined in with gusto, slapping cement and plaster about as they watch and learn. At this stage of life, they are lucky to have no ‘devices’, as they learn to interact and work with others or to make their own fun with their bright imaginations. In some ways, to me, this is a healthy environment that allows them to be just children for a time, although African children have many duties in the household. The persuasive influences of commercialism generally pass them by: they aren’t targeted by rampant consumer pressure and material aspiration; they have no ‘stuff’ and are dressed in grubby rags, but life is happy and carefree in a very old fashioned way, loved and fed by fond parents but free as they wish. In many ways an ideal young childhood I think.

Keilah
Jonathan

*

Work continued: a second thick layer of mud and saw chippings from the eucalyptus trees that are constantly and rapaciously felled for building and firewood; a wood fired water heater from an oil drum and stone and more wood butchery by others.

*

JB2

Then a ride back around the big mountain after 16 cheerful, hard-working days because of a problem with my credit card. Of such are the new rules of international travel: I needed better internet to sort out my finances! Mind you, when I think back to the frustrations of my earlier world wanderings and managing money far from home – with NO internet, just dog-eared ledgers; travellers’ cheques and crumbling banknotes hidden about my body – I suppose a three hour ride in wonderful scenery is better than that time spent fretting in aged banks beneath dirt-whirling ceiling fans…

*

Precious cried and I rode away up the rutted red dust track, sad to leave.

The ride back to Kitale is so beautiful. Now I can blow along at speed (well, 200ccs only allows ‘speed’ to be about 50mph) on a smooth curling road, remembering from wayside topography where I used to struggle down steps of rock, twist along ledges of slippery dust and slither up and down those hills through the pine forest in an all-enveloping cloud of fine red dust. By next year, all effort will be a thing of the past. I miss the delights of the old track, but maybe as an ‘old’ rider there are advantages to the new road!

*

You will have noticed that this safari is different from so many others. For half a century my travels have been footloose and exploratory and except those to Navrongo, the African journeys mainly overland wanderings. These past two or three years, initially thanks to pandemic restrictions, but now through instinct, I’m finding much pleasure in concentrating my energies on those I’ve come to respect and love as family and friends. I’m also able to share my good fortune at still being employed and well paid at my age to provide a measure of independence and good education for a few people’s future. There may be some more adventurous travels in February, when I look like having a (paid plus expenses!) contract to arrange and direct some filming in Tanzania for my American associates. That will be in a far remote corner of north western Tanzania that I’ve ridden through just once before, close to the borders of Uganda and Rwanda, around the bottom of Lake Victoria from here, but maybe only a three day ride, an area I’ll be happy to explore some more. My customary good fortune continues!

Precious’s sister Rhona, JBs 1&2, Precious, Keilah, Mark the barman, and Rach.

EAST AFRICA 2023 – EPISODE TWO

Christmas and New Year in Kenya and Uganda.

I’ve been away from internet access in Uganda since the 2nd of January, so it’s been a while since I updated. So there’ll be two episodes coming in quick succession.

With Keilah, Maria and Jonathan Bean Cheptai.

Christmas in Africa is a very different experience to the commercial, materialist bonanza of the season in the so-called developed world. ‘Developed’? I frequently question arrogance while I am in Africa. Yes, developed in the way that we have rejected many of the ‘cultural’ restrictions and belief systems of less educated Africa, but socially Africa has retained many of the more humane emotions that we have lost to the material ambitions and aspirations that seem so important to our way of life. Christmas here, where few have money anyway, is a family festival without the cost-counting I’ve come to associate with Christmas in the North.

Here, all travel home to commune with our families, few carrying those expensive gifts so much expected in other parts of the world. Of course, all here know that I represent that material world and are happy with my small gifts, but none are expected: it’s not an obligation, just a way to have fun together. The small children are excited by coloured pencils, a football, a toy car, a plastic flute. Maybe by giving these I am subverting their Christmas? But there is no expectation – that’s the difference. No one will count the petty cost of my small gifts: the fun is in having a rare parcel to open, wrapped in the only paper available, cheap and thin.

*

On the 27th, we drove to the border post, 30 miles away, to collect Alex, Precious, Keilah and little Jonathan for their ‘foreign’ holiday. For Precious and the children, this was a first time ‘overseas’, as we joked about the insignificant trickle of the Suam River that divides Uganda from Kenya just here on the lower slopes of Mt Elgon. The new road, so unlike the hard trail riding I used to enjoy so much between the two homes, makes for speedy transport now. I’ll miss the challenge of what used to be a long, hard ride but I must concede that the new blacktop will bring economic advantages, access and new wealth to this poor, inaccessible region.

Now the Sipi family arrive at the border without hassle; they can travel between the two countries quite informally. Many here share tribal roots anyway, on whichever side of the unthinking colonial borders they reside. Adelight herself is partly Ugandan, and everyone has relatives across these leaky borders. It’s more bureaucratic for me, but for them, they just walk across the decrepit bridge to the tumbledown corrugated iron and timber plank sheds that will soon be abandoned to history in the huge construction project to make a modern One Stop border. I liked the old border post, all mud, huts and dust-covered tents; it had a certain charm and overland adventure feel, and I became known from year to year as the old white man on the motorbike. Soon, it will be all show and impersonal formalities in big mirror-glass, concrete offices and the new soaring four lane bridge.

The Sipi family are a little overwhelmed to be away from home. But Keilah’s welcome of ‘her mzungu’ is delightful, knocking me backwards with a cannonball run, arms outstretched in excitement. For Precious, her generous welcome and cushion hug is perhaps thankfulness that at my advanced age I have survived the nine months since I last rode away from Sipi. My four year old namesake has lost all fear of his mzungu uncle and become a talkative, energetic child. And for Ugandans coming to Kenya it is a bit like getting back to Europe for me: relatively ordered, considerably less corrupt and richer. Poor, poor Uganda, struggling from decades of utterly corrupt government; vast world loans – that it was this week calculated will take 95 years to repay; crippling over-population and the vagaries of climate change adding to the toll of economic failures. A country in a complete mess. Kenya, by contrast, is a country of relative cultural freedom, reduction of old fashioned social pressures to conform and free(ish) from massive corruption that exists at every level in Uganda.

Jonathan, Keilah and Maria soon play.

At home, the children soon bond again – Maria and Keilah have remained firm friends since we all went to Sipi in early 2020. Soon, Maria’s much-repaired bicycle and the playhouse that Rico converted from the old chicken shed, are causing noisy excited cries. We’ve put balloons in the trees to welcome the foreigners and there’s a festive Christmassy air about proceedings.

Alex gives JB2 a bicycle lesson.
Keilah and Maria enjoy the playhouse.

Next evening, I have small gifts for the Sipians too, opened with spontaneous dancing and excitement. It’s rare for anyone to get a gift here. The children dance to music from a phone and little Jonathan, at first reluctant (“Dancing is for girls!”) makes us all laugh as the most enthusiastic dancer of all, and last man standing. It’s all simple, humorous fun. JB2 has a small leather football that will not leave his hands for days, and a Chinese plastic police car that will be clutched all the way home in their matatu, but be demolished soon after they reach Sipi. Keilah has a Chinese plastic flute that will bleat away for days, until it too disintegrates in Sipi. For Alex, flower seeds from Harberton, and for Precious a framed photo of her with her mzungu, and a pair of secondhand shoes Adelight has chosen. It’s all simple and heartfelt, causing wild dances of joy. For Precious, a glass or three of very rare wine helps the excitement. Alex drinks his tea as usual. That night, JB2 can’t sleep from over-excitement.

JB2

Alex tours Rico’s compound and garage picking up ideas, and Precious and Adelight spend a few hours in town, for Kitale is like a big city beside Kapchorwa, the only town available to Precious. I introduce Alex to the hardware supermarket, unlike anything we can find in Uganda. Then we walk the four miles home, carrying a heavy can of floor paint – unknown across the border – and a box of plants from the big nursery on the outskirts of town. He’s amazed how much choice there is and reckons he’ll be a more frequent visitor now he can reach Kitale by matatu in four hours.

Adelight, Alex and Jonathan pluck an urgent order for Adelight’s chicken business.

The Sipi family set off on the 30th, Alex always anxious for his business; Jonathan clutching his plastic police car and Keilah and Maria hugging goodbye amidst the construction works of the new border post and walking away over the broken down bridge to find a matatu home.

Maria paints a portrait of Keilah…
Keilah by Maria

*

New Year’s Eve somehow peters out about 10.45 after Adelight bakes bread and samosas. “Well, it’s already New Year somewhere!” Adelight says as we go to bed.

“What was the best thing in 2022?” I ask Maria.

“Keilah came for Christmas.”

I often take a walk in the rural area below the house in Kitale.

*

On the second day of the year, I ride round the mountain to Sipi in Uganda. The border’s only 30 miles from Kitale and the road is now smooth and quick, unlike the dust and dirt of so many years. At the border, which is being rebuilt as a One Stop Border – where I will be able to complete both Kenyan and Ugandan formalities in one go, I interrupt the customs officer from a game of billiards on a table behind the ramshackle offices. It’s not a busy border; maybe the new roads will increase traffic, but for now it is so remote and unhurried that I ride over the broken old colonial bridge across the Suam River trickle – a bridge on its absolute last legs, parapet gone on one side, barely hanging on, literally, on the other (the other side had gone three weeks later). It might just last until the big new bridge beside it is complete. At the corrugated hut that presently serves for Ugandan Immigration, I am recognised: “Hey, Jonathan, you are back! Welcome!” It’s Harison, the medical officer, who’s been stationed here for a couple of years through the pandemic, dealing with Covid testing and registration. We had several dealings as I came and went over this border during the pandemic years. I was one of the only mzungus to pass for two years. Now, it’s a mere formality: I must be entered in the dog-eared ledger and have my temperature taken, but it’s all a bit lacklustre and no one seems much interested. I ask Harison about ebola, for Uganda had an outbreak recently that excited all the prophets of doom to expect me to cancel my journey. “If we reach the 10th, it will be declared clear. It was dealt with quickly.” I am told that it was not only quick but draconian in this dictatorship: anyone trying to break the cordon round the infected area would be summarily shot! But it seems the measures worked and the infection contained…

The chubby lady at the immigration window recognises me too: there aren’t many white-haired mzungus coming this way on motorbikes; not may mzungus at all. She looks away from the Bollywood drama on the office TV long enough to take my details and then I ride away, trying to recognise the filthy, dusty township of Suam that I recollect from only last February and previous journeys. It’s all changed, bulldozed to rubble for the new international road. The shanties and shacks of the roadside traders have gone and the place looks positively refreshed. The road for the next 30 kilometres is still dust and gravel, but now it’s graded smoothly over the hills, waiting for tarmac.

My smile, already broad, stretches to a split as I enter Uganda. These people have such a capacity for laughter and smiles, without reserve or self-consciousness, despite their collapsed country. Hands wave everywhere and everyone turns to watch the mzee mzungu ride and bounce past. I’m a celebrity riding an avenue of welcome.

The views into northern Uganda are still magnificent.

The road’s lost its attraction as one of the great trail rides of Africa. Where there was an eight foot wide pitted, stepped, rocky track is now a thirty metre wide swathe of graded red murram, and later of smooth blacktop. The earth moving that has gone on these past two or three years is astounding. More crippling debts to China, to add to the 95 year long repayments.

Soon, after the straggly town of Bukwo, where I used to bounce and crash down the ‘main street’ on steps of rock and dust, standing on the foot-pegs for balance, I begin the curling climb on these slopes of Mount Elgon. This used to be a tough ride requiring some rough trail riding experience. I loved it, but always feared being caught by rain on this slippery, cloying surface when it got wet. It’s difficult to recognise the roughest bits that I came to know: the steep hill of ankle-deep dust where I had to ski downhill to a broken concrete bridge; the deeply rutted section that leaned outwards towards the steep slopes and was hardly passable on four wheels; the hill where the clagging mud built up so much on my wheels that it stalled my engine; places I struggled and slithered in dense red dust; where I’ve gasped into meagre tea houses gagging for liquid to quell the dust; where I’ve tumbled off in ruts and had to lift the bike from craters and steps on a ‘road’ no better than a cattle path. Now, the Chinese have moved the mountains, displaced the forests and made a wide tar road on which I can sweep along, riding with one hand – the other for waving – as I gaze into the magnificence of limitless expanses of northern Uganda displayed far below, the blue landscape pimpled with old volcanic hills, waving matoke trees waving artlessly in the foreground.

Still one of the great rides!

To be riding along in this high mountain scenery (I’m over 2000 metres) on my responsive little bike, gulping in the freshest air, under a sparkling blue dome of sky sprinkled with snowy clouds on a summer’s day, with half Uganda waving excitedly at me – in the knowledge that at my destination there awaits an ebullient, heartfelt welcome – well, life doesn’t come much better!

Great riding!

*

The last half mile of my journey still holds the challenges of trail riding, more so this year after the interminable rainfall. I take the short cut from the main road towards Rock Gardens. The track is serrated by the recent rains. It’s now maybe the biggest obstacle to our Rock Gardens project: customers can’t get here in wet season weather. And in this country, the prospect of road improvement for a poor rural neighbourhood is remote.

I vibrate down the track, teeth rattling. They’ve heard me coming. Precious begins to dance, Keilah and JB are running helter-skelter as Alex holds open the wooden gate beneath its thatched roof. As soon as I dismount, the children launch themselves at their mzungu. It’s very charming; I’ve become very fond of these two: quiet, smiling, warm-hearted Keilah and obstreperous, talkative, grubby Jonathan.

Jonathan Bean 2 and Keilah

Precious has been busy decorating ‘Jonathan’s Room’, one of the two round thatched houses, with flower posies in bottles, in wraps of cloth buried amongst the pillows and intricately folded towels: skills she learned working in the big western Uganda hotel where she and Alex met. Keilah has been busy blowing up balloons to make the place festive. Later, as I look around the gardens, I think perhaps Precious picked every flower on the property for my arrival! In the nine months since I was here, the gardens have flourished. Given enough water, Africa provides sun for growth. Trees that we planted as seedlings in February are now higher than my head; flowerbeds in which we sowed seeds from England, are bright with abundant plants – (currently shorn of flower heads!); the local shrubs have grown luxuriant already. The place looks well established. Ramps that I left as brown dust and packed earth are now sloping lawns. We are well on the way to creating the botanical garden of our dreams.

1818’, the bar and restaurant, is 1818 metres above sea level.
I’m delighted that a Harberton hollyhock seed has germinated here. Maybe next year it’ll bloom?

But where will we find the customers? Alex, and I upbraid him for this once again, has extended the ‘1818’ restaurant with two balconies, back and front. They are cleverly decorated with timber palisades and woven banana leaf ceilings, wide cut boards for floors; there’s new furniture: chairs and tables and fine local wood settees. But there’s STILL no kitchen! Alex has such a vision of how he wants his business to look, but skates over the practicalities. When he built his raised restaurant, ten feet above the gardens, he constructed a framework of heavy posts and joists – in a country notorious for termite infestation. I accused him of building the roof before the foundations, and we had to spend several hundred pounds putting heavy stone walls beneath the flimsy structure. He loves the decoration, but has little practical skill, and his local builders are appalling: talentless, poor workers and with no tools beyond a hammer and machete.

Alex may smile, but I’ve never seen such bad work by a so-called ‘mason’.

He’s started the new kitchen and I can see the worst stonework of my experience, laid by so-called stone masons. It’s double the size we need and Alex has been bamboozled by the inept local builders. They’ve taken the (my) money and gone, leaving a complete mess. My advice to Alex is that we knock it down and start again, and forget the hundredweights of cement and sand that have been wasted on three inch wide joints in a ridiculous 3:1 mortar mix that is the custom here. No one ever uses initiative, they just do things ‘the way it is done’, even if it’s wrong. Every joint in the pipework in my room leaks: carried out by a so-called local plumber; the expensive double latrine a ‘proper’ contractor built (£2000) has one stall for the ladies beside another stall with a pipe in a corner, just like the one next door for the men’s urinal. “Sorry, Alex,” I say, “women don’t piss that way! Where’s the hole in the floor?” He hasn’t an answer, except that the contractor took the money but it wasn’t enough. I will have to use my ingenuity to find an answer…

But where will we get customers? “Oh, they will come!” says Alex confidently. But he needs to concentrate on marketing now; he needs a decent kitchen; a reliable electric connection; to complete the toilet block; to lobby for road repairs; get his website finished, pamphlets distributed. But he’s more interested for me to build him a bread oven and to chose crockery!

*

Before we start to knock down the kitchen, such as it is, or reshape the ladies loo, we spend a day visiting relatives. Alex was born here and most of his extended family live round and about amongst the matoke trees and shambas. I find it difficult to find my way about: we seem to approach places I know by different routes every time, but then the growth is fast and furious and the landscape always changing at ground level.

Alex walks in the matoke, where I am soon lost.

We sit with Aunt Khalifa, Alex’s oldest aunt and his supporter amongst the family. She’s a cheerful old lady and formal in her greetings, going down on her knees to greet us in the customary fashion in Uganda, a mark of respect – sadly, always from women to men… We drink sweet black tea in her somewhat tumbledown compound. The houses are looking rather frail, a sign that she too is getting frailer, for she always patched the mud and dung plaster walls scrupulously. Khalifa is in her mid 80s.

JB2 and his great aunt Khalifa.

We visit another old lady, wife of Alex’s clan’s senior member. She is in a very sorry state, virtually comatose and unmoving. I’d guess she’s had a bad stroke, added to a broken leg and crumbling back. She was in the hospital for three months, but no one has the money for that, so the harsh fact is that it was better for the family to bring her home where she can die slowly without further expense. Life is cruel in rural communities in Africa. She’ll lie in that dingy earth hut on a locally made log bed and aged blankets until she wastes away enough that she mercifully dies, however long it takes, with no relief or comfort.

Elsewhere, we are happily welcomed into crude homes of mud and sticks with few possessions or comforts. But the greetings are warm and generous, and tea or food is always offered. I shake hands a hundred times; children come running; greetings are called. Sometimes Alex translates. One group, sitting conversing until we arrive unexpectedly, a major event in their day, comments to Alex, “You were lucky. You got a white man like him – who also likes people!” They’re only used to proud white men representing charities, big business or the church; one who mixes with them in these rural villages is a bit of a phenomenon. My support can create jealousies too, though, in a rural community without education to understand that it is Alex’s intellect and hard work ethic that has brought my aid to the family.

Later, we spend a couple of hours sitting under a stained canvas awning – everything here’s stained with the brown of the earth after this very long rainy season – with Alex’s parents and his younger brother, Nick. Nick and his age-mates recently went through the – to me – barbaric circumcision ceremonies: a public ordeal that’s always explained away (even when it goes wrong and infections set in…) as ‘tradition’ or ‘culture’ It’s a huge party time in Uganda and various communities in Kenya – as in much of Africa. Bizarrely, Nick’s walking about wearing a skirt (boys in skirts is a sight I’ll see quite often in the next days) – the reason may be obvious! – to which there’s no stigma attached – it’s ‘tradition’. He’s now officially ‘a man’ after all, with all that means in Africa: he can father and abandon children in or out of marriage, be waited on by his womenfolk, and drink away the family money… But I’m being cynical: Nick’s a decent young man whom I like, and he’s shortly off to university, an educated, thinking man. But there’s the rub: education… So few in this country enjoy its benefits, which is why crossing that border back to Kenya is like returning to a ‘developed’ country. It’s so sad: this beautiful country with its friendly population, largely uneducated and with a belief that giant families prove virility and strength.

Joanne with Praise

Passing another broken down earth, stick and zinc sheet dwelling, I photograph tiny pretty Joanne, cradling an even tinier baby, Praise, her most recent sibling – the eighth child of her worn-looking young mother. There’ll probably be more, in this failing country where three quarters of the population is now below 30 years old; a country that has grown from 5 million in 1950 and is estimated to exceed 90 million by 2050… And a mere 2% over 65… One is left with little hope, except in odd pockets such as this small family, and Alex’s determination to have only two children whom he can educate well towards a better future.

*

First, we demolish the recent work and start again…

We knocked down and undid most of the local workers’ inept efforts on the new kitchen and started again to a design by the intercontinental mzee designer. It’s frustrating working here: there are no useful tools and few available materials – and absolutely nil skilled labour of any sort. The manual labour that is available is slow, unmotivated and has little understanding of what is required. Often, it’s quicker just to do it myself… It does sometime feel that Sipi is out in the sticks. Even ‘masons’ have no concept of bonding stones, just piling them one on another blathered in inches of over-strength cement. Corners have no joints, wall sections usually built between softwood timber posts which will quickly be weakened by termites. No structure is built with any expectation of lasting more than a few years. I tell the ‘builders’ that I live in a stone house that is at least 200 years old, in a village with a church built over a thousand years ago, to their open-mouthed amazement. All here is short-termism. I doubt there’s a building within 50 miles that dates back more than 40 years, except an occasional unmaintainted colonial era ruin or civic memorial.

Rach (a half-brother to Alex) and Abraham work on the new-improved Jonathan Bean (1) type floor.

It’s hard, grubby work for a fastidious Westerner. The sun beats down, the muck and dust disturbs my tidy mind. I’m soon coated in dirt, and there’s only cold water in which to wash – and this red dust doesn’t really come off, most of it ends on the towel. By mid-evening, I am fading and most nights abed by nine. But the pay-off is long sound sleep in the fine old bedsheets I have persuaded Precious to keep for me: thick ancient continental sheets that must have arrived in some mtumba bale.

*

I watched a shocking documentary about the mtumba wear we send to Africa: the secondhand clothes that our charity shops offload here. The film was made in Ghana, where the clothes are called Broni Wawo – ‘dead white men’s clothes’. It seems that a mere 40% of the clothes and goods that are baled up and shipped to Africa – many tons at a time, from Europe and North America, are actually resale-able. The rest is causing yet another problem for Ghana: many container-loads are towed to landfill every day, and much more of it to informal mountains of rubbish along the ocean, where it washes into the sea and becomes vast knotted clumps of fabric, much of it plastic-based that will take decades to break down and meanwhile poisons the oceans of the world, mankind’s major dumping ground. All in the name of fashion and disposability built into capitalist economies. Another example of our arrogance towards this continent, sending rubbish clothes and dumping our problems on another part of the world less able to deal with it. Out of sight, out of mind…

*

Well, a good start to 2023, amongst my families in Africa. Families I value more with every visit to this unique continent…

If you don’t have a cradle, you make do… Little Haggai (a girl) seems happy enough with the arrangement!
Family fun with JB2’s Christmas football. (It was white before it came to Sipi…)

EAST AFRICA 2022 to 2023

EPISODE ONE. DECEMBER 2022. KENYA

A bicycle lesson for Maria

I have been very fortunate in my family-making. I’ve chosen instinctively those that form the oddest extended families – and I have at least five around the world. A great joy is to bring them together, which I do partly through these words. My dearest friends across the world have bonded through my descriptions and have come to know one another without ever meeting in person. To connect the families across this continent; to form friendships between my families in Kenya and in Uganda and Ghana with friends of fellow feeling from England, America and Europe is a great pleasure. I’ve formed links between people who may never meet, but now feel they know a little more about one another’s lives.

The families I’ve made in Africa give me so much joy and purpose in life, a focus I’d never have known without these footloose travels: perhaps as much pleasure and happiness as if they were my own family – but that, of course, I can never prove.

To East Africa, I now carry greetings from my friends and ‘families’ far afield, to friends and ‘families’ across Africa, bringing understanding and empathy, connection and friendship. I bring gifts from half way round the world, creating bridges and links that give us all satisfaction, small presents, cheerful words, greetings, messages, gifts. I am privileged to be the conduit for this goodwill.

Listening to Alex in Uganda on the phone, excited that his father figure – and benefactor of course – was nearby, just around the big-shouldered mountain, was delightful. Hearing him laughing with Rico from Holland, Adelight from Kenya; listening to five year old Keilah in Uganda sharing shy greetings with five year old Maria in Kitale – they remember one another from our 2019 visit – I’m making bridges and smiling inside. Family is about mutual respect, love, companionship, and generosity, trust and honesty of emotion. This is the best thing life has brought me.

Adelight and Rico’s home. How things grow here. Compare with 2016…
The compound just six years ago

*

Being on this continent always makes me reflect on this concept of FAMILY, a much wider entity here than that we think of in the west. The most rewarding lessons of my now 36 visits to various parts of Africa have been about family. The ‘extended family’ is the most admirable social grouping, something I began to understand as I grew to know a bit of African life in Ghana over three decades ago.

Looking up ‘extended family’ on the internet, I find the customary lack of consideration of this continent, with most entries describing narrower North American and European notions: ‘a family that extends beyond the nuclear family of parents and their children to include uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and other relatives, all living nearby or in the same household’. Even Wikipedia acknowledges ‘Africa’ only as a passing reference. Add the word ‘images’ to your search and you will be presented with page upon page of wealthy, white-skinned formal family group photos. Yet Africa encapsulates the notion of ‘extended family’ so powerfully. It goes far beyond consanguinity to include outsiders who have formed links by more organic social means, even by chance. Here in Kitale, the ‘family’ includes various children of no blood ties whatsoever, and then extends to include roaming ‘uncles’ from far away. It’s the same in Uganda, where, as a member Alex and Precious’s ‘family’, I was included last year at that giant funeral for his grandmother. An aunt welcomed me, in front of 600 people, as a ‘member of the family’ with the right to stand as a ‘grandchild’ among them. In Ghana, Wechiga is my closest ‘brother’ and so many who know me as brother or uncle, even dad.

Extended families share resources, especially in societies where poverty restricts most activity. It’s a generous concept in which everyone brings what they have to the deal. Naturally, the resource I tend to bring is frequently financial and practical; it’s the most rare and restrictive resource, after all. And its distribution is so dreadfully unequal in our selfish world, with Africa always bottom of the divvying out… But I get back generosity, warmth, love and respect in unlimited measure.

So, that’s why I’m here again.

That and the sunshine!

*

I’ve been rather too mobile these past five or six weeks and arrive weary, ready to relax into the warmth of equatorial sun and easy-going travels. After most of a month’s hard work in Boston, USA, I was home for just six days, to recover from another red-eye flight and prepare the seemingly endless bureaucratic nonsense that these days surrounds international travel – to which is no longer attached any vestige of romance.

Two nights in Nairobi, and up to the highlands by battered matatu minibus, an eight hour ordeal, crumpled into a small seat like a deckchair, into which I slid deeply every time the crazy driver braked, but accompanied by my ‘sister’ Adelight, who’d been in the city for a national Scrabble tournament. She’s addicted! And, considering English is her second language, often beats me now. Six Christmases ago, she manipulated me to the games shelf in a supermarket in Eldoret, the big city 50 miles away, and said, all innocence, “Oh, Scrabble would be a nice Christmas present for the family!” Little did I know of her fixation or the pressure to become her opponent most evenings in Kitale.

My Dutch pal, Rico, now an African brother for 35 years – since those heady days when we crossed the Sahara together in early 1987, me on my motorbike, he in an aged Land Rover – awaited us. A few weeks ago, Adelight bought a bottle of cream liqueur from an Indian Kitale supermarket. She’s partial to a glass of Bailey’s now and again and spotted a cheaper, Indian version. After two small glasses, she spent the next hour rushing back and forth to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Rico tried a glass, the imbibing of which almost killed him. He ended up for several days less than conscious, on oxygen, in intensive care in Eldoret. The symptoms appeared to be entirely consistent with methanol poisoning: wood alcohol poisoning, but his underlying health and age added to the effects. Without hasty presence of mind from Adelight, his junior by many years, he’d not be with us now. It was touch and go – expensive touch and go – for several days, followed by a long slow recovery. He’s improving by the day now, and perhaps having a companion with whom to drink (no more than two cans of lager) on the porch of an evening, has been the best medicine. He’d taken no alcohol for weeks, but now we can all see his return to near-normal health in the few days since I arrived.

*

On Sunday – a good day to ride the winding roads of the Cheringani Hills – I set off for Kessup, my favourite scenery in East Africa, to see my friend William. William and I are sociable folk and enjoy meandering the paths and red laterite lanes of his rural community, meeting people and chatting. I’m known not just as ‘William’s’ mzungu, but ‘Kessup’s mzungu’.

It was more fun on a motorbike when it was a terrible rutted, muddy dirt track through the hills!

Anywhere else, as Rico says, the Cheringani Hills would be called mountains. Maybe because they are already perched on top of these equatorial highlands they only get to qualify as ‘hills’. Maybe, too, that’s why I always forget just how cold it gets riding my motorbike on the curling roads through this lovely scenery. At times I am riding at 10,000 feet above sea level. As the chill settled through my riding jacket and I stopped to don a fleece jerkin, I pondered a question I was asked recently to which I had no answer: how is it that at altitude it gets colder, but we are nearer the sun? It’s a subject to wonder as I ride beneath a deep blue space scattered with Omo-white flounces of cloud. My road turns and twists as a biker likes and I gaze down into the rolling hills quartered by conifer woodland and small farmers’ shambas, neatly divided by fences and palisades of split timbers. Zinc rooftops wink and flash and I am surrounded by white smiles and waving hands. There are a few small dusty villages of timber and corrugated iron; it must be chilly to live up here. It’s rare to see a mzungu, especially an ‘old’ one on a motorbike. On Sunday, there’s little traffic, so I can daydream and gaze about at the green landscape as Sunday-dressed people wave.

This year there’s been a lot of rain: I can see that in the high undergrowth and the fertile fields. Last year at this time all was brown and dry – that’s the gamble of life in sub-Saharan Africa, getting more acute as climate change affects this delicate balance. But this year, instead, everyone has high inflation, so there’s still no money around. Times are even tougher now. When I left in March, petrol was 79p a litre, now it’s £1.18. When transport costs rise, so does everything else. Oddly, for me, even with the pathetic crumbling Brexit pound and crazed Tory party ideologues ostensibly ‘in charge’, I am slightly better off. A ten per cent increase in the exchange rate between the equal-worst economy of the G20 nations and Kenya indicates how bad things must be here. But Kenya has a new president, whom everyone seems to applaud for his efforts to try to rebalance the economy to help his poor people. He was raised in humble surroundings and appears to have some fellow-feeling for much of his nation. So far, he’s generally respected and liked by foreign leaders. So long as he knows when to retire to elder-statesmanship, there may be a little hope for this country, unlike the neighbour – Uganda – whose president is now going to his 37th year of uncontested utter corruption.

Kessup basks in the bright sunlight on its plateau part way down the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. My usual guest house cum campsite (where I’ve seldom seen campers) enjoys a view worth maybe not a million, but many dollars, across the huge Kerio Valley, 2700 feet below, backed by steep cliffs and wooded semi-vertical rock faces, that rise another 1000 feet on my right as I curl down one of the most dramatic roads in all Africa. My room, with its expansive view across the huge valley, costs me just £13.50.

William and Dutch

William is waiting, waving from his shamba, where he’s heard my approach down the rocky track to the guest house. In March I left him money to buy a cow; he can become independent from selling the milk. Morag, the Ayrshire cow that he bought, failed to become pregnant after five attempts, so he’s swapped her for a full-bred Friesian from the same breeder. Now ‘Dutch’ actually comes to greet me, sniffing my outstretched hand much to our amusement. “In our culture, we would say that it’s a blessing. She greeted you!” laughs William, who guides me so well, through the habits and intricacies of his culture, an understanding that’s enabled me to become ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’ these past six years.

*

William, you will remember, was a Nairobi Flying Squad policeman until he was attacked by a criminal with a machete, and decided, during three months in hospital, to resign his post and return to his humble shamba and wooden house, with very basic amenities, on the Kessup hillside, where he seems to live largely on fresh air, ugali maize meal and local vegetables. Now, I see that he is very thin but looks athletic and younger than his 56 years. “Oh, I had the flu three weeks ago. I was ILL, and I couldn’t eat!” But this looks more like lack of nutrition than the result of a brief illness. He’ll be pleased I am here and will visit at various times over the three months of my safari. “I am happy when you come; I get to eat meat!” he always jokes, while, ironically, I prefer to eat the local vegetables. Oh well, dinner is a deal that suits us both well, and the £4.50 I pay to feed us both is reasonable for me.

“The goodness is, we both like to walk!” William tells me often, as we wander the paths and greet his neighbours. He’s well respected, a disciplined man of considerable integrity. Now, for two days, we saunter amongst his neighbours’ smallholdings, drink tea and tasty mountain-top water from the twisting pipes and converse in the fields – and I relish being the focus of so much goodwill. After six years, much of the population recognises me. Some of the children have grown up knowing me as their only white man, but there’s still a charming and plentiful supply of excited youngsters fascinated to touch and greet their first mzungu. I submit cheerfully to their investigation and tell them we are all the same beneath my pale exterior. “It’s like there are brown cows and white cows,” is my explanation, “but we are all cows!”

*

Of course, when you get a bit under the skin of any community you find that the romantic exterior it presents to me, a rosy-eyed visitor, is seldom the truth. Through William I often hear some of the less palatable side of life in a rural community: the lack of moral discipline; jealousies between neighbours; dereliction of responsibilities by so many useless African men who father children and leave; abandonment of families to alcohol addiction – one of this continent’s greatest problems; the personal effects of poverty and the harshness of life in a culturally and religiously repressed community in which eccentricity or individual behaviour is unacceptable.

But amongst the harsh truths I often find hope. Glory is a confident, pretty young woman who has become a GP, now working in a major hospital in Nairobi; Gideon, a brightly intelligent young man I met three years ago, who asked searching questions of me, is now at university, his proud but little-educated mother tells me as she weeds a big field of local vegetables; Doris, niece of a simple subsistence family in a rough rural compound on the slopes of the great valley, is teaching computer skills in a high school in central Kenya. These are inspiring stories of individual determination and family sacrifice and not untypical of the new generation that seizes opportunity so readily, and sometimes barely literate parents who understand the values of education unavailable to them. Education – and teachers – are well respected in all of Africa: for most, it’s the only route out of the uncertainties of subsistence life.

The Rock bar, a place to enjoy the view – but warm beer

*

Another day, we clamber up the steep mountainside – it’s 280 metres or more to the top (920 feet), a stiff climb up a broken path to the preserved scrap of forest on the very edge of the Rift Valley.

I guess it’s just two or three miles long and perhaps not much over half a mile deep, but it’s a wonderful piece of indigenous forest, towering trees, an interesting lower canopy and thick shrubs, including the lovely bright blue/purple acanthus that grows here above 2000 metres. From the rocky brim we look down on the Kessup plateau and the gigantic… well, ‘rift’, of the valley that cuts Africa from top to almost bottom.

A view from the top of the escarpment of Kessup plateau and the Rift Valley almost 4000 feet below.

We are at 2300 metres just here on these rocks, and the white stripe we can see – a dusty rocky trail we have walked on our expeditions to the valley bottom – is almost 4000 feet below. The scale of the scenery is breathtaking. A few birds soar on the up-currents, whistling past our eyrie as if with joy. But oddly, in the forest we see no birds, no animals, no snakes or lizards even. The patch of woodland is preserved by law, but nowhere in Africa is beyond exploitation. Here, the populous may take wood from trees that are already dead, and graze their animals, so it’s hardly prime forest, just a beautiful stretch of peace that clings here, conserved by skimpy national edict. Its position perched on the high red cliffs makes access from below troublesome, but through the abundant trees one is soon amongst abundant people – armed with pangas and saws…

We buy an armful of fresh spinach from ladies harvesting kale in fields below the cliffs and scrump a hard sweet carrot each from their fields. William knows that the more of the fine local vegetables we find, the more goat he will eat tonight! This year the shambas, their small terraced fields bounded by walls of balanced red rocks cleared from the soil, are green and fruitful. Water is piped from the top of the escarpment and makes Kessup’s plateau fertile. “How do you know which is your water pipe?” I ask one of William’s neighbours, who’s digging by the track side in a patch of mud. “Oh, we just know. This is for William’s mother (she lives at least a kilometre away). This is for my neighbour, and this one,” pointing to a one inch plastic pipe that is dribbling from a taped joint, “this one is for me.” Pipes weave and gurgle everywhere we walk, sometimes spraying from small fractures. Large metal pipes feed community tanks, an initiative of World Vision (the American equivalent of Oxfam) but because the water was provided free – a charitable ‘gift’ – there’re no payments to ensure ongoing maintenance. It’s often the way with ‘charity’: up-front generosity with a lot of flag waving, but backed by little real long-term benefit.

William buys 30p worth of fresh spinach from Cynthia in her field

*

Riding back to Kitale, and I get soaked to the skin up on those chilly 10,000 foot heights. The raindrops fall like marbles and bounce off the tarmac. It’s really cold until I begin to drop to lower climes, still around 6000 feet. Now I’m just soggy inside waterproofs, steaming gently around my bum. But biking’s like that – tactile to a fault, and I’ve almost never found waterproofs that actually are in rain like that.

*

Three days before Christmas, Adelight and I go shopping in town. It’s something I’d avoid like the plague at home. The very idea of Morrisons three days before Christmas makes me shudder. But in Kitale it’s fun, with smiles all around and comments and quips given and taken with goodwill. It’s not that awful shopping-by-duty that rich-world Christmas has become: no one here’s got much money, so the festival is more about getting together and being cheerful. I’m buying small gifts for the children – just coloured pencils, pads, some simple toys, a football for JB2, skipping rope for Keilah: parcels to wrap under the small Christmas tree, a reflection of Christmases past, before it all became a materialist competition.

Jolene and her big sister in Kessup get much enjoyment from a truck made from plastic waste…

The town is busy; secondary school exams finished today so children are returning home from their basic boarding schools adding to seasonal traffic. There’s a huge crawling funeral procession clogging the streets and road building everywhere leaving mounds of packed earth and clouds of dust. It’s impossible to drive at more than a crawl, with all the pushing matatus in a competition that actually slows the traffic as they jostle for road-space limited by traders, boda-boda motorbike taxis, push carts, merchandise and huge dusty road works. I don’t know how Adelight keeps patience – but she’s used to it. If we do all our errands now, we won’t have to come back until after Christmas. With a car full of groceries, sacks of chicken food and a huge bag of charcoal – from the few remaining trees up in the Turkana desert to the far north – we weave our slow way home, an hour late for beer-time. But we’ve got just about everything we need and Christmas is secure.

On Christmas eve we’ll barbecue some of Adelight’s chickens, drink a bit of wine as a treat, and enjoy family harmony. On the 27th, Alex and Precious and the children are coming to visit for three days from the other side of the mountain in Uganda. We’re all looking forward to that, it’ll be real excitement for the Ugandan children: their first ‘foreign’ visit. They don’t get many treats. I’m so happy to be the enabler of all this. On the 28th, my favourite, Scovia, Adelight’s junior sister who was brought up in this congenial household, will arrive with her new baby. It will be a family Christmas. I’m happy to be at the heart of it.

Then I must begin to plan my safari for 2023…

Happy Christmas!!

A rare selfie with a fine feather in my cap!