EAST AFRICA 2021-2022. EPISODE THREE

‘FOOTING’ IT… A SAFARI INTO THE KERIO VALLEY

The magnificent Kerio Valley, 4000 feet deep – and HOT

“Eh, poverty level in this area is very high,” says William as we pass a crude earth shack on the sloping dusty scrubland below Kessup. “You get a lot of children. They don’t go to school. What can you eat here? Poverty!” A bit further down the broken slopes to the fiery furnace that shimmers far below, William says, “Now this is my land. Useless! Look at it; it can produce NOTHING without water. Investing in pipes is exPENSive! Then if you have crops here, you must pay dearly to transport them to market. USELESS!” We stumble and slip down through his inherited land, dry grasses crunching, thorny twigs whipping at us as we head for the yawning drop just ahead through the trees, where Kerio Valley is laid to infinity like a brown bush map. “Useless…” Yet, oddly enough, the parched valley below is known for the best mangoes in East Africa. They’re only just coming in season, these sweetest, juiciest, least fibrous mangoes I ate. Elixir indeed. “Eh, life in Kerio Valley..!”

“Poverty!”

We are heading for the valley floor; the expedition we planned a couple of weeks ago. As we slither down the scree-like rocky slopes amongst desiccated trees and scrub, the heat rises from the huge chasm below. A hot wind gusts up, scant shade helps me to survive the ordeal. Why am I doing this, I wonder? Well, because it’s there, it’s a challenge and because I know that to understand this burning landscape and the people who scratch a living here, I have to walk its hot paths, one foot in front of the other. There’s so much to see when you walk: things I miss on my motorbike; things I can’t share unless I live the life – thankfully, only for a day or two.

William surveys the valley

A few days ago, When Marion was going to town to search for mtumba wear, I gave her money to find me a large white cotton shirt as a sun barrier for this journey. I’m wearing it now, 70 penn’orth of Mr Currter’s shirt. His name is written four times on the corner of the tail. I suspect it’s the late Mr Currter, and he died in an old people’s home or hospital in America, or perhaps Germany. This is the real ‘dead white men’s’ clothes, as our rejects are called in Ghana. After all, why wouldMr Currter, or anyone, throw away serviceable clothes – in which everyone here is dressed – if they were not dead? The concept of Western waste just isn’t conceived here. Mr Currter was a large man, and his shirt has become a bit of a joke for William and I. “Eh, put on Mr Currter! It’s HOT!”

Mr Currter gets an outing. What a landscape to discover on foot!

William showed me his ‘ceremonial safari’ shoes yesterday: today he’s wearing an aged pair of secondhand canvas deck shoes, and his socks, I notice, have no heels whatsoever. When he showed me his ‘ceremonial shoes’ at our beer time above the sweeping valley, he was laughing. “Eh, when I bought them from Iten, the mtumba seller did not notice that they are different sizes! But they look exactly the same!” Someone, somewhere in Africa, has a similar mismatched pair of shoes. But people here don’t really worry about such things: they are shoes…

As we stumble downwards, slithering on the gravelly scratch of track, William phones his friend whom he has taxed with finding us a place to sleep in the valley. With his love of ‘British discipline’ and order (I try not to disillusion him by telling him how things have changed since he was trained as a police officer), he likes to organise things for ‘his mzungu’. And how things have changed here too these past few years. Here, slipping down the broken sides of the Great Rift Valley, we have not just phone signals but 4G internet.

I fall to thinking how different were my world travels when I started roaming, forty eight years (!) ago. William enjoys my stories of places he’s never been: most here have intense interest in how people live elsewhere. One quality most Africans enjoy is curiosity – which, if you’ve read these journals, you’ll know is my most admired human quality, along with compassion. The two are prevalent here, one of the reasons Africa weaves such power over my life.

“It was so exciting to go travelling back then…” I tell William as he lifts a vicious thorn branch with a stick he’s broken from a young tree. The stick will accompany him for the next two days; it’s a tradition to carry one, arising originally I suspect from a fear of reptiles and bush animals. We are unlikely to see either these days: that’s changed too…

Forty eight years ago, I could fly to distant places in long cigar-tube aeroplanes and it WAS exciting, not the tedious transition it’s become. You felt you were leaving home far behind. I had no contact with home on most of my journeys, except slow mail, or in emergency – if there was a general post office available, I suppose by telegram – almost no international phones, such that it wasn’t an option. Letters took two or three weeks from that first South American journey and the Asian ones, and the replies about the same. Any news was old news. Mostly, my letters came (grudgingly) by the British Embassies or unreliable poste restante, where they might be filed under any letter of the alphabet, especially in places that didn’t use our alphabet. I could very occasionally buy an old English newspaper or visit the British Council in big cities. Money transfer was almost impossible and very expensive, facilitated reluctantly by banks. I was on my own. And that was much of the attraction: adventure and dealing with things myself, living on my wits. I couldn’t ‘share’ my every trivial thought and post ‘selfies’ of where I was. I couldn’t read my Guardian Online; check my bank balance from remote places; be in constant – immediate – touch with people; carry on an intercontinental design business from far away places; talk to my friends on video – in colour and real time. It’s easy to forget that as late as my second Sahara crossing in 1989, we still used letters for communication. When did I last write a letter – or a postcard? Who sells postcards these days?

Despite its trials and complications, I enjoyed using my own wits. I learned so much about myself then. When I had that accident (first, of four, I think), rolling 360 degrees in a big bus, (THAT’S happened twice!) and broke minor bones and suffered from confidence-shaking shock, the process of coping with it was important for the rest of my life. Most of the misadventures turned into the stories I’ve continued to tell all my life. So did the fantastic opportunities, the times that really felt like discovery – without Wikipedia and the internet in every last corner. There’s no doubt that those times made me extraordinarily self-sufficient and gave me a wealth of experience – and self confidence – to deal with everything else. And I SAW all those places for myself! I’ve a vast compendium of memories, stories, influences, and been witness to so many different opinions, events and lifestyles. And I made many friends, with an address book (an old fashioned indexed one) with friends made on the road, with whom I shared a few hours, a day or two, a week or two, from the world over. I sometimes wonder what happened to them, but I know they will remember the times strongly, as I do.

“Eh, you have travelled!” says William, without envy. He knows that my wealth has created opportunities his life could never produce. Wechiga’s the same: no jealousy but a huge curiosity about other ways of life. It’s something very African, that there is scant envy and great generosity, and an acceptance that life is the way it is – usually attributed to how God creates things, with no question of why that god would allow such devastating inequality… Usually my FIRST question.

A view of Kerio Valley. We’re on our way down…

The steady chop of panga on wood across the precipitous escarpment makes me wonder how there are any trees left in Africa at all. We can’t see the wood cutter, but the sound of women’s voices floats on the incredible silence of this immense emptiness. Of course, if you travel the desert regions here, there are very few trees in sight. Just big sacks of charcoal for sale at the roadsides, brought from far, far away across the barren landscapes of sand and rock.

“It’s not for their own use,” says William, always quick to explain life here for me. “They will sell it at the top.” The ‘top’ is now about 2500 scree-rolling, semi-vertical feet above. The women will lug the heavy bales of wood on their backs, held on woven straps across their foreheads.

“How much do they get?”

“Just 150 bob! It’s food for their families.”

150 Kenya shillings is one sterling pound…

“Eh, but this season is very BAad! DRY! I don’t think even bush animals will survive now. How do people exist here?”

We are nearing the bottom of the escarpment now. We’ve been scrambling down for about three hours. The app on my phone – the only thing I like about said iPhone – indicates that we have descended 2650 feet. We stop in the shade of a scraggy tree, perhaps another 50 feet to go to till the earth levels out again and we can walk with straight legs. A woman lives here; William says that she looks after his mother’s goats. His family has a good deal of inherited land on these final slopes into the valley. “What do you eat here?” William calls down to the woman. She’s burned almost black by the harsh sun and pared to the bone: a thin black shadow of a woman. “Especially veggytable?” She points upwards, such that I need no translation, and replies that all fresh produce, if she can afford it, comes from climbing to the top of the escarpment, back to the Kessup plateau from which we’ve just slithered. All that way for 50 bob of green local vegetables and a bag of maize flour for the inevitable starchy ughali.

The long dusty road arrows along the valley

We reach the dusty white road that we have seen so often from our beer perch outside my rented room high above on the edge of the escarpment. It runs seemingly straight as a line along the foot of the mountains, disappearing each way into the heat haze of distance. It’s extremely hot now. ‘Mr Currter’ is becoming unbearable, but I keep it on to stop the beetroot sunburn that erupts so quickly here. Invisible radar-equipped children shrill, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” from amongst the brush. We take over-sweet tea in enamel mugs in an informal tea house by the road. This is where it’s so good to have my cheerful companion with me. He knows the culture so well. He knows quite a lot of the people too. We bump into several of his old classmates over these three days; men he’s long lost touch with. Now we sit on split planks on logs and chew a chapati with our tea. Most of the homes here are built from sticks and mud – local resources – with rusty zinc roofs. It’s a few moments before the women of the house and other customers become comfortable with the sudden, shocking, arrival of a mzungu. I don’t think many come, unless in vehicles to the national reserve in the valley centre. A white man ‘footing’ it through their valley is a rarity indeed, and everyone’s tongue-tied at first. But these curious folk can’t keep the reservation for long and soon the questions begin, as always.

With friendly goodbyes and good wishes for our stay, we continue on the white dust road, joined now by a ‘nephew’ of William’s. His family relationships are complex: his recently deceased father had two wives. It makes for difficult explanations (I’m the only one who seems to need to know) of how this young man, a local baker making oily fried bread cakes, is William’s uncle’s wife’s son by a half sister – or something! He sells his slimy dough balls at kiosks and local hotels along the valley. He’ll come with us to the place William thinks we will stay tonight.

But when we reach the Valley Joy Hotel, it’s pretty grim, badly maintained and scruffy. Not good enough for William’s mzungu – at least by William’s reckoning. I can see by his face that he disapproves of the people and their lax manners. No discipline. I leave him to negotiate. “Come, we go,” he says eventually. “We take a boda-boda. My nephew knows a better place.” He’s dismissive of the hotel. “Plenty of Valley; no Joy!” I quip, as we ride away to the Kipioywo Guest House five miles up the dust road.

*

It’s difficult to express the satisfaction that comes from experiences like our stay at Kipioywo – to which we are determined to return in the blast furnace of the Kerio Valley.

The guest house is little more than a series of empty concrete rooms, with clean tiled floors, tidily painted and equipped with no more than a bed and two sheets and a plastic washing bowl. It’s hot and silent. William and I sat with our beers under thin trees in the dust of the valley floor as the dusk quickly drew darkness over the harsh surroundings. And then… And then, the stars began to shimmer: a glittering vault above the dry valley air.

All around us moved friendly, respectful people, scratching a living despite the horror conditions, apparently adapted to their hardy lot, full of warmth and responsive to my smiles, even when culture separates us. I am a celebrity amongst the children, sitting in the gathering dark watching in wonder their first ever mzungu. In the starlight I smile at the inexpressible delight of a small boy when I tear off half my chapati and surreptitiously slip it to him in the dark, manna indeed: a gift from a mzungu. Their warmth is all these people have to give. They give it generously.

There’s no power here except a few solar panels and the torches that spray about the dry dusty scrub as neighbours gather their goats and herd them home for the night, quietly greeting as they pass. We wait in – unrewarded – anticipation for the possibility of elephants, that several passers-by have assured us may come to the nearby borehole. William, now with his four bottles of Tusker inside him, is ecstatic about the experience of our calm evening in the heat of Kerio Valley. The elephants might not perform for us, either on Saturday or Sunday, but the chance is there, always the tantalising aspect of wild animals following their own instincts.

*

Next day, we find a couple more of William’s relatives, his direct maternal uncle and another cousin’s nephew, related by another uncle’s father, and we walk the hot lands to find moratina, difficult to find, but Edward, the ‘cousin’, knows a village some kilometres off where it’s brewed on Sunday. Moratina, I discover, is made by boiling honey and water and introducing split oak acorns that cause fermentation over four days. It’s sweet and alcoholic, and very tasty. “Oh, you’ll be drunk!” exclaims William as we walk on our shadows northwards.

It seems we join a gathering of most of the remote village, idling about on logs, bricks and old sacks behind a pointy hill covered in scrub and dry vegetation, this balmy Sunday lunchtime. Many are on the way to inebriety already. The scourge of Africa: drunkenness. “But you people, you make these spirits: whisky, vodka, gin!” says Elizabeth, seated on a sack nearby. She’s intelligent and becomes the spokeswoman for the villagers. “Yes,” I agree, “we do. But when I buy a bottle of spirits, it lasts me for many weeks, and I take a tot at a time, mixed with juice or water or soda. When you buy a quarter bottle of KK (Kenya Kane spirit) or wirigi (local distillation from maize) you drink it all at once. Neat!” On empty stomachs… Many die in these countries from sclerosis.

About 25 village people have gathered. They are all intrigued. I am the first mzungu ever to join their Sunday communal throng. They are full of welcome; laughter abounds, and then the questions start. I love this interaction: it’s why I’m here. Elizabeth says that all their problems in this burned-up place stem from lack of water. There’s plenty of water up on the valley top, 4000 feet above us, but no management, no money to buy pipes and construct a tank. The government doesn’t care about these rural people and they have meagre resources of their own. They’ve little influence, forgotten down here eking a living on the dust.

Kemboi

An old man hobbles into the village circle: lined face and cheeky, boyish grin with wispy white whiskers. There’s amusement that this man is my ‘age-mate’ so I leap up to shake his hand. Everyone laughs. It’s difficult not to behave with some exaggeration in this situation. I am their celebrity this morning. The old man lowers himself gingerly onto a log. He looks about 100. Life expectancy is low here; we’re probably a decade beyond it already. No one bears any fat; lean bodies pared by poor nutrition, heat and gruelling hard work, dressed in faded rags. But I never hear complaints, they just adapt their expectations and ambitions to what’s affordable: not much.

There was an article in the Guardian the other day: ‘Can we think ourselves young?’, a catchy headline that disguised an intriguing article. It seems that a great deal of scientific research has gone into how our attitudes of positivity or negativity affect old age, and the overwhelming evidence is that those with positive attitudes to their ageing process live considerably longer, are less likely to suffer Alzheimers, heart disease and other ailments. I’ve said for a long time that it’s far more fun travelling as an older person than a youth!

*

Later, we walk on with William’s uncle, also William, and Edward. They want to show me the landscape of the valley interior. Edward lives deep into the valley, “Amongst the elephants!” he says with a chuckle. “But they don’t trouble me. I light a fire and they know humans are there and they walk by. They came last night; maybe you’ll see them tonight!” But again we don’t: the elephants have their own agenda.

A ravine cut by the power of rainstorms on the escarpment above, and a rickety bridge

It’s desiccated and thorny, the goats have eaten anything that provides nourishment. We come to a ravine; it’s 15 feet deep and eight foot across, sliced by powerful water when it rains up on the mountains above. We teeter across a sort of bridge of sticks. William’s not keen: he’s no head for heights. It’s quite dramatic. Nearby, a household deep in the bush introduces me to their illicit wirigi still, a nasty looking contraption of old pipes and an earthen pot boiling the maize, a half-tub of water to cool the alcohol as it drips into a grubby container. 100 bob buys a small, oft-used plastic bottle of the poison. It’s Sunday: everyone’s steadily losing focus. Within half an hour the elder William is talking nonsense and wobbly on his feet. Today he’s probably taken tea and a few kernels of dry maize and a handful of black beans – and 330cls of hard spirit, perhaps 40% alcohol. We leave him to weave his way to his home that is little more than a hut of mud and zinc with a small fire smoking in the corner and a bed of branches with some rather unsavoury looking blankets. He raises goats, burns charcoal and in the rainy season I suppose he grows some crops on this arid ground. And imbibes his neighbour’s wirigi… He’s seven years younger than me and looks seven years older: I’d hazard that wirigi causes a good deal of the difference.

“Eh, I am glad I left behind the wirigi! And the bulsa… And the cigarettes. Now, just a few beers with my mzungu brother!” William looks so much healthier for his abstinence than when we first met five years ago.

Kerio Valley children get to study their first mzungu

By the time we get back to our simple guest house, it’s almost our own beer time. We sit again in the dusk and await the stars. It’s wonderfully warm at this time: balmy. William has become a comfortable companion. Ann, the pretty cook, fries up a slightly scraggy chicken William has managed to procure from somewhere. Will the elephants come tonight to the bore hole nearby? (No). It’s a magical night. And deeply quiet.

Anne, a good cook

*

What goes down the mountain must go back up. We’ve decided to take the new road – little more than a track hacked from the escarpment, and as yet unfinished. Somewhere we must take to a steep dusty path and scramble through thorn trees and prickly pear cactus where the improbable road ends, three or four hundred feet to where it begins again above. I reckon that by the time we get back to the guest house at the top, where I’ve left the Mosquito and my bags, we’ll have clambered perhaps 15 miles, mostly uphill today. It’s a long winding dusty road. We stop now and again where we can get shade. Mr Currter is getting pretty grubby round the edges. We’ve got a couple of litres of water, until we find a rare spring bubbling over rocks half way up, by a shallow pool where dragonflies flit, electric blue.

The long and winding road back up the mountianside

I guess the temperature is in the high 30s and the sun’s relentless. But the feeling of satisfaction, as the valley expands below, and we look back over the dusty pink scribble of our road, is great. Over the final ridge, and we stop for tea with Caroline, who entertained us generously two weeks ago. She’s thrilled to see us, clambering up the mountain to her compound. Tea’s quickly brewed and energy flows back – but we still have at least four kilometres to walk before I can wash down and enjoy my Tusker, looking back into the huge abyss of the Great Rift Valley. We did it! And now we sit and plan an even longer trek next time I come to Kessup. “I like to be active!” says William. “Without this, what will I be doing? Nothing!”

*

I ride back to Kitale on the high roads, a route I love. I’ve another ‘meeting’ with my American colleagues from my computer in the garden. The family’s smaller now: just Adelight, Rico and Maria and Marion, but she goes back to college, far the other side of Nairobi, on the 13th. Soon too, Rico will leave for a month or more work in Congo, and I want to plan my safari to Sipi in Uganda. Alex and Precious are very anxious to see me: I’m getting messages or calls every day. For this I need another PCR corona test. I’ve asked Adelight to find how I do this in Kitale, and she says it can be done at the district hospital. Last year I had to go to Eldoret, 40 miles downcountry, or to the border and back, waiting three days while the sample was sent across Uganda to Entebbe on Lake Victoria. Adelight says she’s been troubling her nurse friend at the hospital with a lot of calls to organise Rico’s various vaccinations for Congo, so it’s better I ring Euni, her friend myself.

I call and explain to Euni what I want. But we are talking different Englishes. In the end Adelight has to take over and bursts into laughter when Euni complains that, “Your friend’s English is TOOOO strong” for her to understand. Her African intonations made my comprehension impossible too! So Adelight gets my information. When the call’s over, she says, “You must go on Thasaday!”

“No,” I say, “Saturday’s the day I want to leave for Uganda.”

“Yes! So you go on Thasaday! Tomorrow!” Oh, sometimes we all use our English to complete cross purposes.

On Thasaday, the hospital says, “Come on Monday.” But I hold my ground, smile and wait. Ten minutes and a young lab assistant, Seth, comes, talking softly through a mask, that adds layers of confusion to the accent problems. Seems he’s the only one who can operate the lab machine and he has a backlog of work. We discuss options for another fifteen minutes: Eldoret… “Yes, I did that last year, but the only man who could do the test had ‘travelled’ and that road is so dangerous on my motorbike. I suppose I’ll just have to ride to Suam border and pay the Uganda medical officer and come back and wait while the sample goes to Entebbe and back.”

Seth is shocked that I might consider riding so far (it’s about 30 miles away). “How much did they charge you there?”

“I forget… About 5500 bob, I think.” (£40). Seth is open mouthed (behind his blue mask) in horror. I know from long African experience that patience and talk gets most things done my way. Now he is so aghast at the expense, and the ‘long’ ride I must undertake, that he’ll, “talk to his colleague.”

He leaves me in a dingy office full of piles of forms for another fifteen minutes. He comes back and proposes that he will do the test so I don’t have to ride to Suam. The government price is 1100 shillings – just £7.60. I don’t mention that the private health company (Nuffield Money Printing Partners) at Bristol Airport changed me £120! Seth says he’ll have to work late and take private transport home tonight, but he’ll do it for the £7.60. The way Africa works… It’s not a bribe this time, just that it would be appreciated if I help a bit. So I give him 2000 bob and suggest he keeps the balance. We are both happy! It’s just the way it works. And who knows, next time I leave for Uganda, I’ll have Seth’s goodwill to facilitate the test, maybe even when I leave Africa in March.

*

The test result arrived from Seth on Thursday evening as he’d promised. So now, after already a month in Africa, I am ready to leave for Uganda, where Alex, Precious and the children anxiously await my arrival. I should arrive on Saturday afternoon. There will be much happiness in Sipi.

Cynthia, half Ugandan, half Kenyan, wants to work for the Uganda Prison Service

EAST AFRICA 2021 – 2022. EPISODE TWO

NEW YEAR 2022

Love it or loathe it: this was a popular Christmas gift from England!

Despite the numerous times I have seen it, and the relative intimacy with which I now know the area, this first dramatic reveal of the great African Rift Valley never fails to catch my breath and bring a frisson of excitement at its immensity – and my presence, here gazing into its blue depths. This giant cleft in our planet’s crust is a wonder of the world. Stretching all the way from Mozambique to Jordan, plunging up to 6000 feet deep, it is truly vast.

As I ride through the scruffy town of Iten, at about 2000 metres, where international runners like to train at altitude, there’s no indication that the chasm is nearby: it all just looks like more and more of the rolling mountains and occasional coniferous woodlands through which I’ve passed for the previous couple of hours. Then, as I leave the mess of the small town, with its boda-boda butchers, its market traders, petrol stations, unappealing hotels, scrap metals, infestation of small motorbikes and its battered cars, comes a gateway over the road that thanks me for visiting the ‘Home of Champions’ and a couple of tight sweeping bends to left and right. It’s that right hander that suddenly reveals the valley, behind a crowded viewpoint at this holiday time. Instantly, the Rift drops away, the vast African sky – a wonder itself – arching endlessly above, filled with white clouds.

After this explosive reveal, this road will wind itself down the escarpment, falling away for the next twenty kilometres, the astonishing view always there to the left and ahead as the rocky red cliffs rise higher on the right. Here, I’m descending into the Kerio Valley, a branch of the Great Rift that is perhaps 50 miles long, leaving its mother valley to the north and ending in tall steep faces that I have ridden many times, around and up and down, to the south, for this is one of my favourite regions of East Africa. Across the immediate valley rises the barrier of the brown Tugen Hills, that divide the Kerio Valley from the Rift itself. Just here it’s something like four and a half thousand feet deep and maybe five miles across, but at my familiar destination, Kessup, I am about one and a half thousand feet down the escarpment on a wide plateau, about half a mile across and two or three long. It’s one of the parts of Africa that I’ve come to know – and understand – most fully, thanks to William.

William is a feature of these journals past, since we met five years back here at the Lelin Campsite – a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually pleasant gardens with a number of small cabins and bandas, ranged along the very lip of the valley – and I’ve seldom seen a tent. It enjoys views worth hundreds of dollars for just £11 a night. I found the place by accident. I was desperately tired that evening, after a 70 mile rough ride on trails along the depths of the valley below. Once I saw the view, there was no other choice. I stayed. The then manager, Chesoli, offered me a guide for a walk next day: William. It’s funny, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of guides I have hired on my travels, unless they are mandatory in parks and monuments. I like to explore for myself, not be shown the local ‘sights’ by rote. So this time, what made me accept, such that I made a good friend, whom I have returned to visit so many times? We bonded quickly by instinct. I recognised a man of integrity, good to find in an African ex-policeman, not know for their probity…

“The goodness is, we both like to walk!” exclaims William frequently. And we both like people too, wandering amongst the homes and shambas of the plateau and occasionally further afield to the valley bottom or the clifftop heights. He’s dead honest and respected amongst his neighbours, speaks English very easily – and understands my accent well too. Over the years, he’s come to appreciate the stories and explanations I like to hear of his culture, and the facts and everyday things we pass on our long-ranging walks. It’s a two way exchange, for he questions life and attitudes in Europe too. Our companionable walks are extending, even down to oppressive heat of the valley bottom. Last trip, we did it down and back in a day and it was almost a killer: 2600 feet down and 2600 feet back up! “But you were determined!” says William, not realising that I was faint from effort and seeing strange starry lights much of the time! “…Determined!”

“This time,” I suggest, “let’s go down and stay a couple of nights.” And already, William is planning our ‘tour’. Of course, I don’t ‘hire’ him as a guide any more. He’s become a good friend now, and we wander cheerfully. My support these days is for his tomato farming, a new pair of (secondhand) shoes now and again, a gift of some banknotes here and there, and the confidence of a friend who’s here in need.

We make friends everywhere, William and I. I’m making a brief hello visit this time, just a couple of nights. It was going to be three, but somehow my new phone picked up an email from Boston asking me to join an online meeting on Wednesday evening at 5.00, so I must return to Kitale where I know I have internet. So we’ve only a day to ramble the red dirt paths and tracks. Oddly enough, we’ve both had the same thought: we’d like to investigate a tempting zigzag trail we spotted from afar last year on one of our longer walks. It careers wildly down the escarpment a mile and a half or so to the north of Kessup. We could make out vertiginous corkscrew turns that looked impossibly contorted and steep for anything but feet and cows. I doubt a car – even an African one – would be able to negotiate the turns and precipitous angles (although a Suzuki DR 200 motorbike might!).

We drop steeply down from the guest house through patchwork fields of villagers’ shamba to the red track that I see from my room, winding along the plateau below. I’m like the Pied Piper: everywhere I go I am followed by the voices of excited children calling, “MZUNGU! MZUNGU!” Sometimes they are far away, obscured amongst vegetation or amongst small village homes built of corrugated zinc, mud and sticks or stone and cob. It’s often impossible to make out from where the shouts are coming. I am as visible to them as if they had radar.

“How are you for shoes this year?” I ask William, looking at his footwear that has seen a great deal of use, even before he bought them from a secondhand stall in Iten. Maybe, if we are going to take the long walk we are planning – down into the valley and across to the other side, ten miles and two and half thousand feet or more below, maybe I should buy him some other ‘new’ shoes from the mtumba market.

“Oh, I am very OK! The ones from last year are still strong. But I am keeping them for our ceremonial safaris!” I love the quaint usage that the English language sometimes finds here.

*

On our way down into the valley, to investigate the dramatic road we spotted last year, we pick up a young boy, Rogers, and a rather smelly drunk. “Oh, he smells very badly!” says William, “I think he took bad booze!” It takes a long time to shake off the drunk, such is the insensitivity of the inebriated, but Rogers we are happy to have along, with his smiles and chirpiness.

Chirpy Rogers

As we pass one shamba, William calls to the owner to ask if she will prepare us tea for 50 bob for when we return up the winding red track. It’s lovely that we can just ask like this, and people are happy to oblige with that generosity that opens hearts here in the rural landscape. So as we clamber back up, we stop at Caroline’s house. A group of children are excited, sitting about on a giant rock inside her ragged hedge, behind which the view expands into the blue haze. It’s quite cloudy today, great for my walk, but I will still end up like a beetroot by evening. Caroline finds us stools in the shade of her zinc house. She finally drives away the drunkard and we are left in peace to converse with her and her bright niece, Doris. Doris graduated from Eldoret University this year and is now teaching computer skills and mathematics down-country in Limuru, on the main highway to Nairobi. She’s bright and intelligent, yet a product of this deeply rural area where opportunities are few – but grabbed enthusiastically and respected by hard work. It’s the only way out of this trap of a near-poverty life in the heat on the dry slopes of this huge valley. The land here is good; water generally enough to raise some fairly lucrative vegetable crops, but this year it’s dry, so dry. Everyone complains that the rains have been bad and the crops are failing. In Kitale it’s been a wet year, just 100 miles away, with mosquitoes to suit. Doris is 26 and says she’s enjoying her work, even if it’s far away. It’s her first post and she’ll have little choice as a new graduate, but she’s making the most of it. She knows she’s on her way to better things in life than if she had stayed here on the edge of the Kerio Valley with inevitable marriage to a farmer and a life on the land, scratching a living at the vagaries of this harsh climate. Caroline makes us a flask of tea and brings small bags of groundnuts from her kiosk at the gate, from which she supplies local people with a few necessities. I share my peanuts with Rogers, and in the kindly way that I respect so much, Caroline thanks me for my gesture on his behalf.

We stay forty minutes or so and promise to phone ahead when we are going to take our long walk into the valley, when we’ll take this steep path again. William takes her number. Phones are ubiquitous: in most hands, from goatherds to businessmen. I’ve hardly seen anyone in East Africa read a book – it’s completely gone from the vocabulary. There are few books available anywhere outside the cities – except Bibles of course, and they’re everywhere. Now thumbs flick and everyone finds some form of pastime from the ether. Sad that so much of it is exploitative and trivial, but it’s just the new way.

*

A couple of months ago, even I finally accepted that life was getting difficult without a smartphone myself. There’s so much you are just expected and assumed to be able to download, upload and show to authorities: PCR test results, QR codes for Kenyan health authorities, vaccination certificates, visa details, security codes from banks and so forth. The one application I am enjoying on my secondhand iPhone is the compass and altimeter. Here and there on my journeys I stop to check the height, often an impressive feature of travelling in East Africa. My English phone roams for connections to local networks and just one of those allows me to receive emails out in the sticks. Sadly, it’s not the service the phone usually finds, but at a height along my way to Kessup, I got an email from USA. Could I join a ‘meeting’ with my colleagues for the new project on Wednesday? ‘I’d be grateful if you could remember I am now eight hours ahead of you in Boston’, I replied, ‘ but I’ll do my very best. Should be able to get to an internet connection by then’. It meant this trip would be cut short; just a quick hello to William for a day’s wandering, and then back to Kitale.

*

At noon on Wednesday I wave goodbye to William and set off back across the fine high Cherengani Hills, which, as Rico says, would be called mountains anywhere else. I forget every time, just how chilly I can get on my little bike at these altitudes. Thanks to the new app, I know that at one point on my ride I reach 3060 metres above sea level – just over 10,000 feet; not surprising there’s a chill in the air despite the searing African sun. I love to ride up here, on quiet roads now tarred by the Chinese, although I enjoyed it more when I had to ride the broken trails a couple of years ago: somehow, it felt a bit more adventurous and intrepid. The views are magnificent; the air clear and fresh; the dark fir trees shadows on the bright patchwork of small fields that clamber the slopes, testimony to centuries of hard graft. Zinc corrugated houses, that must be chilly at night, glint where they aren’t rusted; narrow orange dusty paths meander across the hillsides; fences are frequently of grained split timbers from those same ancient firs and cedars, the ones that survive the need for firewood that I see carried in heavy bundles on backs everywhere, often by teenage girls. Teenagers in the global north have little concept of how privileged they are to avoid such duties: not to be lugging firewood in heaps I can hardly lift off the floor up the sides of the Great Rift Valley and from distant forests. Life is hard here for all ages…

I KNOW there’s a way to connect the road I am on now to the one I used on my way here. There are big hills between, but I just know that dusty gravel roads web across these fine hills. On my way to Kessup two days ago, I stopped for tea in a small village, mainly so I’d fall into conversation with local people. Of course, I did: my smile assures that. A young tea-server by the rather unlikely name of Ian, recited a list of villages I must look for to find the connecting trails. “A few kilometres from here, before the bridge at Kabomoi you turn left…”

“I know that bridge! There’s a small petrol station place there.”

“Turn by the petrol pumps. Then you will go to Sugut, Kapnasu and Karandili.”

Looking for new roads to travel…

Well, I found Sugut and Kapnasu, but I’ve no idea how I missed Karandili – and ended up on the road from which I’d started 15 miles before. All I’d made was a big loop through some pretty hills on a rugged rock track. It’s often like that here. There’s no useful large scale map available, and the online versions don’t help much as they don’t differentiate between the main tracks and the goat tracks, and few of the small hamlets get a name, not even most of the towns.

On my way home, I finally find a connecting trail that bumps me through magnificent high forests with views down into distant valleys and distant soaring slopes. I see now it’s a track I once used: I recognise a scruffy, back-of-beyond village where I stopped for chai, sinecure of all village eyes, as I swung down to the small hilltop town of Kapcherop, and on down in great loops and twirls to the plains below, themselves at 6000 feet or so. I love to discover new routes. I never feel any danger, however remote the places I ride – except in some of the VERY extensive deserts, which can be a bit alarming. People everywhere along these distant trails are friendly and helpful, amazed by the old mzungu bucketing his way along on his ‘big’ motorbike (all 200ccs of it – the smallest bike I ever owned!). I’m an exotic species, timidly welcomed when I stop, my smile a passport to social riches.

*

And so home to Kitale in time for my ‘meeting’ with my American colleagues. I set myself up in the garden, not too far from the internet router on the porch. Happily, there have been no power cuts for 24 hours at least. I take two chairs and a stool and make myself a makeshift desk for my computer. Then I pour a Tusker and click to join the meeting. How amused are my colleagues to see me, a few miles from the Equator, in Africa, eight hours in the direction of dawn. How astonishing, this thing we already take so much for granted: to be able to not just talk to people a third of the world away, but to SEE them too – in colour! In my childhood, telephones with pictures, probably still rooted in the hallway by a twisted flex, were the things of science fiction. And they were in black and white.

Now, I can sit on any mountaintop on the planet and converse across the globe. In an hour and a quarter, my three colleagues and I accomplished as much as if we’d been sitting round the studio table in Boston, a place that it would have taken me a day and a half to travel to – 100 years ago, weeks! Rico, passing on his way to a can of beer on the porch, took a photo of this Intercontinental designer (no longer international, as I’ve now worked on four continents!) at his ‘office’. Meeting over, I emailed the picture to USA, where it was forwarded to the clients! What they might make of their designer, beetroot red, in shorts, with a glass of beer, amongst African vegetation, computer balanced on chairs and stools – well, who knows?!

The Intercontinental designer in his Africa Office

*

Last year, I remember suggesting that we celebrate New Year at 10.30, to avoid that tedious wait for midnight. It seemed a remarkably sensible idea, we all concurred. “After all, it’s midnight for lots of people already!” said Adelight. This year, by tacit agreement, we all decided the year had ended at 9.25. Quietly, we all left the glowing ashes of an aromatic log fire and crept away to sleep amongst unseen nocturnal animals high on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

Mount Elgon National Park forms the western horizon from Kitale, a low-shouldered volcanic caldera, reckoned to be the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa and with the biggest area in the world. It rises to 4321metres, something over 14,000 feet, making it the eighth highest African mountain. But facts don’t explain the beauty of the park at this time of year, with abundant growth and ancient forests through which wind and climb orange laterite tracks.

High in the Mt Elgon Park the late sun makes a staircase of the trees

In cliff faces are caves that attract the many – largely invisible – elephants to mine and lick the salt rocks. In touring the red tracks and walking narrow paths through thick undergrowth, we saw enough elephant shit to fill a large lorry, but even huge pachyderms could be fifty metres away in such growth and remain disappointingly unseen. The memory for me will be the startling blue/ purple of the flowers of a profuse spiky-leaved shrub that grew along the red laterite trails amid numerous shades of green, the Equatorial sunoverhead. There’s the excitement too of scouring the thick growth for animals: the retiring elephants, buffaloes, bush bucks and many variety of deer, warthogs, baboons, plentiful zebras – even giraffes and jackals, one of which ranged our camp as we ate our barbecued goat meat in the firelight.

Kitkum Cave, Mt Elgon Park. Enlarged by elephants mining for salt
I’ve searched the internet to identify this wonderful shrub, to no avail. Anyone any idea?

We’d rented three basic bandas for the night. There are scarce tourists and few Kenyans have money these days for fripperies such as holiday tours. These are hard economic times everywhere, and its only the disproportionate wealth that my Western currency enjoys, that makes a family trip like this possible. For residents these things are unaffordable luxury just now. The park was quiet, even on this holiday. Tourism, currently defunct, is Kenya’s largest foreign earner. And no government subsidies to help businesses, let alone individuals, weather the pandemic storm.

A drink to start the year, with Scovia and Adelight in the National Park

Rico’s old Pajero makes reasonably light work of the pitted trails, with six adults and two children aboard, as we meandered through thick forest, between ancient gnarled cedars and finally up to higher moorland climes. Being a rounded mountain, it’s usually impossible to see any impressive peaks but the views downward over the north of Kenya and the Karimajong region of northern Uganda are apparently endless, pimpled by small extinct volcanic cones.

Mount Elgon, a beautiful park
Zebras at breakfast time
Ancient trees on Mount Elgon

*

The girls: Scovia, Marion, Bo, Shamilla and little Maria enjoy one another’s company so much; it’s delightful to watch and share with them. Their acceptance of family duties and chores; their cheerfulness together and their happiness to embrace any opportunity that comes their way is inspiring. They have none of the material advantages of Western young women, perhaps less of the social and peer pressures too. They love such fashion as is within their reach, endlessly creating new hair weaves for one another, sharing clothes and dressing stylishly in items that they search and find in the bales of secondhand fabrics in the dusty market places: clothes already discarded by their privileged age-mates in the ‘rich’ world. Rich? Africa causes me to question that definition constantly when I compare the increase in anxiety, depression and behavioural problems in our materially rich countries to the evidence of my eyes here in ‘poor’ Africa. It’s easy – for me, who has so much – to idealise and romanticise, for I know these girls have fewer opportunities than those around me in England and must accept many struggles to realise ambitions and wishes. But those very efforts enhance the rewards when, or if, they DO achieve their aims.

On the mountain, Scovia asked, “Uncle Jonathan, can you take our picture together? We will lie in a circle…” I was happy to oblige, even if it did seem that the gods of the camera had been well propitiated with multiple ‘selfies’ in the previous 24 hours! If it’s true a picture speaks 1000 words, I’ll stop writing and offer the picture instead.

Smiles for 2022:

Happy family. January 1st 2022

EPISODE ONE. CHRISTMAS 2021.THE DOOR HANDLE’S STILL ON MY SIDE

ANOTHER JOURNAL OF TRAVEL IN EAST AFRICA DECEMBER 15th 2021 to (at this point, I hope) 14th MARCH 2022

Despite all the naysayers, prophets of doom and pessimists, I am in Africa again. Only eight and a half months after I left last. It’s funny how the anticipation of travelling has been made so negative, encouraged by our hysterical media, while the actuality, although more bureaucratic than before, is just rather tedious but fairly logical.

The only unknown, of course, is what hurdles will be erected to hinder my eventual return – but that can wait. As I told the pessimists, “I’m not speculating. I’m an optimist and it’ll all turn out right; and if not, I’ll deal with it at the time.” Soon, I’m to be involved in a new project at the military museum on which I worked last in USA. One of the veterans of the appalling prison conditions and torture meted out to downed flyers in Vietnam described his fellow prisoners thus: “The pessimists said, ‘We’re never going to get out’. They were wrong every day except one. The optimists said, ‘One day we’ll be released.’ They were right – every day.” One of those long-term prisoners also said, “Any day the door handle is on your side is a good day.”

It’s a good motto for travellers: the door handle has always been on my side.

And it still is.

*

My journey was the usual compound of misery and elation that is every safari by long haul flight, enhanced by the sense of escape but frustrated by the current restrictions. Now I must have all the papers, QR codes, application numbers, negative test results, phone numbers and personal information in the correct order. It all makes ‘1984’ seem very innocently naive. But all that online stuff, done at home, can add efficiency too. With all those papers I was soon past the formalities and free to bargain my taxi fare to town with Anthony, a cheerful driver on an easy journey at 11.15 at night. Anthony’s jaunty merriment in the face of the realities of scratching a living for his family in overcrowded Nairobi was the customary tonic of arrival on this wonderful continent, to the happy secrets of which I have been privy for half my life.

*

Nairobi is an unlovely place full of humanity and Chinese roadworks. To wander the streets of downtown Nairobi is thought-provoking. Its broken pavements, elephant trap craters, mud pools and miscellaneous mounds of dirt separate hawkers’ stalls (laid out, inevitably, where the pavement is occasionally in good order), newsstands, and bales of secondhand clothes – cast out from the rich world from which I have just come. Its sauntering crowds, congested boda-boda taxi motorbikes, inflated killer 4X4s, driven by the proud men: made-it-and-determined-to-show-the-lowly, customarily overweight and haughty by demeanour, make my European pace impossible. I’ve just arrived: I must slow down. It’s warm: the sun’s blazing from almost overhead, here 1 degree and 16 minutes south of the Equator. My shadow’s about a foot long. I’m walking on it.

Men yell and beckon beside rattletrap buses bound for suburbs and slums; boys push trolleys, pushcarts and hand barrows between rusty buses and the bully-boy cars. Mostly, people drive on the left, which makes my adaptation simple, but it’s dangerous to assume ALL the traffic will follow the code. Security guards catch my eye from every store door; they had some terrorist troubles a few years ago, and now ‘security’ provides a lot of employment. They smile behind their ubiquitous face masks – mandatory everywhere in Kenya just now, even in private cars – and call, “Welcome mzee! Welcome mzungu!” ‘Mzee’ is ‘old man’: vanity is useless here in sub-Saharan Africa, where average life expectancy is only 61.4. I have to emphasise my smile so they can see the lift of my cheeks and the smile in my eyes above my – inevitably slipping in the warmth – snood mask. Women peddling vegetables and highly polished used shoes, slightly tattered clothing and bananas unlike any I ever ate in the North, catch my eye and greet. Bollards are dressed in secondhand dresses and jackets, impromptu tailors’ dummies. Food is sold from grimy barrows; homeless women, with toddlers, sleep on heaps of dirty blankets and cardboard; street children beg; city women totter in unsuitable heels; mad, sci-fi and worse, hair styles make me laugh. It’s fun to be a relaxed mzee mzungu here in Africa, an object of respect and sometimes celebrity. My smile is widening already. I love to be here. Again. At last.

*

Kenya, with a mere fraction of cases of coronavirus that we have allowed to breed in England, handled the whole pandemic quickly and decisively. They required negative tests from incoming travellers a whole ten months before the UK. My temperature is taken in every office and shop – I won’t be admitted if it’s over 37.5 degrees (even on a hot day!). Disgusting sanitiser is sprayed on my hands everywhere. There’s no complaint of ‘Stalinist procedures’, ‘lack of free will’ – cries of the Tory back-benchers and the privileged thoughtless; no antivaxxers. Here, people would love the opportunity of vaccination, to get on with trying to earn a living apart from disruption, to bring back the all-important tourist economy – decimated now. There’s no furlough or assistance here, and access to all government services is restricted to the vaccinated, no shilly-shallying and bowing to mad theories of lack of free will: here everyone’s in this pandemic together and ready – if the vaccines are available – to get on with life as best possible. Infection statistics are low here: it’s a young population; most people are fit and don’t suffer from the often self-induced maladies of the West: obesity, hypertension, heart disease. It’s a cruel African fact that if you get seriously ill, you probably die – without any subsidised health provision. So far, Kenya has recorded 255,000 cases of Covid (to our ten million and soaring). There are more people in hospital in UK today than have died in the whole pandemic here. I have 40 times less chance of infection here in Kenya. And yet, and yet… The chances of getting vaccinated here are minimal as well. The G20 countries snaffled up 89% of the vaccines. There is only ONE G20 member in the whole of Africa, a continent with 54 countries and a population of 1.2 billion: South Africa. The rest of the continent provides, and will until our despicable greed abates, an ideal breeding ground for variants; and viruses are clever than us. They have only one ambition: reproduction by any means. Sometimes I wonder, if Gordon Brown and I can see this, why can’t our ‘leaders’, supposedly intelligent beings (with notable current exceptions), see that until we share resources and intellectual rights, we’ll never beat this thing by pulling up drawbridges and looking after ourselves. Face the causes rather than fiddle with the symptoms! Africa’s average vaccination coverage is a pitiful: a mere 5% continent-wide have received two doses, and about 10% a first dose. Almost half African countries have rates below 2%. Many rich countries are discarding the excess doses they bought, some enough to vaccinate their populations NINE times. Variants will continue to emerge in Africa.

And there the lights went out. This is Africa.

*

With Christmas approaching, I discovered that all the better buses, and all flights up-country were fully sold out until the 26th, so my choice was limited to the regular African transport option of matatus: minibuses that ply the roads everywhere, short and long rides to all corners. The last time I took the long-distance matatu from Nairobi to Kitale, a distance of about 240 miles, was 20 years ago. My memories are not comfortable; but in the intervening two decades, Kenya has made many advances in infrastructure: the minibuses are now controlled and under national legislation, and a lot more comfortable and roadworthy too. It’s still a long ride – three minutes short of ten hours on Friday – but those hours are no longer spent with my knees round my ears, packed in with 17 other passengers, their bags, livestock and babies, plus the miscellaneous boxes, crates, sacks, tractor tyres, goats and all the stuff that people have to carry from one place to another. Now I have a seat to myself amongst only 11 passengers, in a reasonably well-maintained vehicle behind a driver who is as safe as can be expected on this busy road, frustrated by lumbering lorries struggling on the hills up to over 9000 feet. Mid-afternoon we cross the Equator, that criss-crosses the roads of Kenya. All around are tall conifers and grassy banks; it’s fine up here, a landscape that seems unexpectedly like parts of Europe rather than the equatorial regions of East Africa. It’s easy to understand why the colonialists wanted to settle here and exploit this richness, sometimes in landscapes not unlike Scotland or the heights of Europe. It’s cool at these altitudes too, the heat of the sun calmed to a balmy warmth.

But today the road is busy. Well, it’s busy every day: it’s the main and only road from the Indian Ocean coast to the interior of Africa at this point. It carries all the goods and fuel from the ports to Uganda and even Rwanda. It carries the containers of imports to those countries, rumbling slowly over these heights towards Lake Victoria and the shops and businesses of several countries. It wasn’t made for so much traffic: there was a railway, one of the wonders of Africa, 100 years ago. Parts of it are now being restored – by the Chinese of course – and Kenya is investing eye-watering portions of their economy into road building. Actually, in fact, into crippling debts to a country that gives not a fig for the interests of Africa. I hear that, in the inability of Uganda to begin to repay their VAST debts, China is fighting to seize Entebbe International Airport in reparation, Uganda’s only international airport. I’ve prophesied it for years past, that this is how that country operates: it ‘generously’ gives huge loans at attractive rates, that it knows full well the poor countries cannot repay. Then it bides its time, letting the debts accrue, before pouncing on the weakened states and demanding payment in their minerals, resources and land. It’s alarming, not just for African countries, but for the planet: that this nation that cares naught for ecological crises or human rights is gaining so much control over the minerals and resources of the world. China does nothing except in its own interest. As I’ve often observed: I have yet to see a Chinese charity on this continent. It’s just not in their vocabulary as they work towards world domination.

Nairobi is transformed in just nine months by Chinese construction. I’ve stayed the first couple of nights in the old United Kenya Club with its colonial overtones; reminders of those days in its dark-stained bar and faded elegance of its cheap ensuite rooms. From the small balcony of my room I chuckle at another colonial relic: its car park with bays marked: ‘Director, Chairman, Treasurer, 1st Vice-Chairman, 2nd Vice-Chairman, Former Chairman’ and so forth (note the misogyny of the old club, formed in 1946, probably as White-only). Now, across the gardens, the view of nearby downtown is obscured by a huge concrete flyover of a raised highway that wasn’t even intimated when I stayed last on March 29th. Roadworks are everywhere, with the attendant chaos. Leaving Nairobi, the matatu stayed in almost one place for 50 minutes, battling with seven or eight informal lines of jostling traffic to pass a blockage. Drivers are extraordinary, forcing into the lines, bouncing over broken ground amongst road-making machines and piles of earth and debris to inch forward in fume-belching queues.

At last we break loose onto the highway north-westwards to the even higher lands – for Nairobi itself is so unexpectedly high at 5512 feet. From here the road is single carriageway, crushed with all that traffic. We must go at the pace of the slowest, with occasional bursts of overtaking – often in the face of oncoming traffic – in an attempt to keep the journey to Kitale down to eight hours. On Friday we failed: ten hours minus three minutes…

*

My Kenyan ‘sister’ Adelight, waited for me at the entrance to Kitale town, for a warm welcome home. I’ll be here for Christmas. For the first day or two, Rico and I stripped the rear end of my Mosquito, my little Suzuki DR200, and fitted new bearings, bushes and all the bits that will hopefully make it less rattly. In so doing, we discovered that at some time – before my ownership I’m happy to say – the machine has had a powerful hit, sufficient to bend the central frame a few millimetres. Ever-resourceful Rico, an ideal mechanic for this continent, where you must make-do and invent, found ways to cut and weld the frame so that we could extract the swinging arm to fit the parts I brought in my luggage: expensive parts that had to be obtained from a Dutch company, with all the over-priced bureaucracy and costs brought on by Brexit importation. Good to know we achieved our ‘sovereignty’ and ‘self-determination’, eh? Our new ‘freedom’ added a £12 handling fee for Fedex to sort out the shambles of various VAT rates and delays en route. Oh, happy days in Little Britain. Good to be able to observe the mess from a distance.

*

For one who takes pride in the infrequency with which I manage to penetrate the horrors of Morrisons supermarket in Totnes, I take a perverse delight in going shopping with Adelight in Kitale. The experiences could not be more opposite. Morrisons is a bleak, miserable fact of commercialism, of comestibles ungraciously presented, an anonymously dismal and dispiriting necessity. In Kitale it’s great fun! I smile and laugh, jest with traders, chat everywhere, have my leg pulled as an ‘mzee’, break conventions for fun: carrying Adelight’s sack of charcoal (a man! White, at that!); stepping into the busy road to halt traffic so she can reverse from parking spaces – “Hah, we’ve waited long enough!” I exclaim, “They’ll all stop if a mzungu stands in the street!” And they do, with big smiles and jokes at my expense that make me chuckle again.

A gigantic hoarding brings us greetings of the season from a local politician. Funny how all politicians are well fed and fat, even the regional ones. “Oh, they feed on money!” says Adelight with dismissive irony. Another big hoarding advertises a promotion for one of the ubiquitous mobile companies, the biggest business in Africa these days. The main competition prize? ‘1000 goats to be won!’ it screams in two foot high letters.

Music thunders from yet another mobile phone promotion, a disc-jockey hired to fill the street with cacophony. Boda-bodas are everywhere like insects, loaded with multiple passengers, their riders in outlandish garb, helmets back on top of their heads. Many wait, double and triple parked, or blocking pavements, for fares. It’s a desperate business, for there are thousands of small-time riders even in this fairly small regional town. But a few pennies here and there make the difference between supper for the family, medicines in illness, school fees, or hunger and destitution. It’s a fine line…

Like Nairobi, the Chinese debt is bulldozing a four lane highway through the centre of Kitale town. It meant sudden, almost overnight, demolition of big swathes of the informal, illegal, unauthorised trading area through the town, now relocated in chaos somewhere behind the market. The old railway tracks, and the colonially toned ‘Railway Canteen’ are up for renovation; more Chinese exchange for resources and power.

A security guard walks round the car as we enter the fenced supermarket car park. He languidly carries a mirror on a shaft to check for bombs under our car, but he doesn’t look at the reflection, his attention is on a pretty young woman passing by.

A dusty plastic Santa and his reindeer romp across the portico of the shopping centre and plastic elves and bespectacled Santa effigies jingle in grottos beneath snowy scenes unlike any that anyone here has seen for real. The only snow in this country is a few melting hand-sized glaciers on Mount Kenya, half way up the sky. An unconvincing fake Christmas tree appears to be oddly sporting oak leaves. In the supermarket the staff wear Father Christmas hats and the old schmaltzy Christmas horrors, ‘White Christmas…’, ‘Jingle bells…’, ‘Mary’s boy child…’ tinkle above the shelves, above family groups gathered to chat and greet – and block the aisles. Everything goes slower here in Africa, but I have to smile, as I squeeze between the congenial people. I wouldn’t be smiling in Morrisons…

In a roadside workshop, a young man jiggles to inner music as he nails dried and twisting timber into a simple coffin that looks like it’ll rot long before the body that will be buried in it. Beside the potholed town road enormous bulbous settees are formed on ragged frames amongst shavings from already curling bedsteads. Heavy skeletons of cheap wood are covered in blue foam and lurid fabrics. Dust billows from the wheels of vehicles lurching through the roadworks. One huge over-stuffed sofa is tied to the carrier of a 100cc Chinese motorbike boda-boda for delivery. It’ll wobble over the potholes and through the crowded streets to some new owner for Christmas.

A flock of pale blue shrouded chickens, disguised as small girls, flutter out of a mosque, anonymous beneath obscuring veils, destined for a life of servitude after their medieval Koranic schooling in their male-dominated world order. About 11% of Kenya is Moslem, mostly far away down on the coast. Up here in the highlands every variety of deranged Christianity flourishes amongst businessmen ‘pastors’ and self-promoted ‘priests’, often subsidised by evangelical right-wing lunatic Americans. It’s big business, is religion here, fleecing poverty-stricken adherents in the name of God. The other well fed Africans, the continent over in my experience, are Catholic priests. Forgive my cynicism if you’re otherwise inclined…

On a dirty waste ground, two women cook chips in sooty pans over fires of sticks beside rickety stalls shaded by worn nylon woven sacking. The aroma of frying oil drifts on the warm, suffocating air. An altercation ensues; one young man chucks his chips at another in temper. It’s diffused in moments by the women’s laugher. I guess he’s drunk. Nearby, a street boy, perhaps 15 or 16, clutches a plastic bottle under his nose. It contains a broken tube of spirit glue and a dash of diesel fuel. Half his short life probably already behind him, he has the glazed look of the heavily drugged as he stands amidst peelings and debris on a dumping ground behind small lock-up shops. A shapely young woman taps and totters past in a tight skirt on shiny gold high heels, rising to a distinctly athletic challenge on these broken streets. A slave to fashion. A middle aged man saunters through the rabble: cream trilby, maroon blazer and cricket whites.

The streets and waste grounds are workshop, kitchen, sales-place, meeting ground, dining room and even sometimes bedroom of these busy, chaotic, noisy, frenetic, aromatic, extraordinary African towns.

*

I treat Adelight and the two small girls to lunch on the balcony of the Iroko Hotel in town. Even here there’s dust, and noise rises from the busy street below, where vehicles fight through the traders, boda-bodas and stalls in the madness caused by the major roadworks. Adelight choses smoked beef with a stodgy ball of pap made from brown millet and a very tasty soured milk sauce; I select simple vegetable curry with a chapati; the two girls – Maria’s four now, and Shamilla 11- take ketchup and chips like children the world over.

A day or two ago I bought a fruit new to me from a roadside trader. “What are they?” I asked, indicating small yellow globes not unlike very small cherry tomatoes, only more golden. “Gooseberries,” he told me. “Not like any gooseberry I’ve seen in Europe,” I replied, and bought a box for 70 pence. They proved to be delicious, a sharp citrus flavour that was approved by the whole family. I looked them up in the inevitable Wikipedia to find they are Cape gooseberries. Now I go back and the boy recognises me, greets me with a wide happy smile. This time I purchase three boxes. He’s happy. So am I. It’s such fun: I’m a figure of curiosity and celebrity, sometimes a figure of fun, always a figure of cheerfully genuine welcome. Everywhere, my wide smile is mirrored; there’s candid eye to eye contact, merry quips, greetings for the mzungu stranger.

I’m surrounded by cheer and warmth – from people who have so little in material terms and so much in social ones. A lesson in life.

*

My favourite, Scovia, came home on Thursday. I smile just to look at her, this cheerful, pretty young woman. Since I left in March, she met the love of her life, a Kenyan chef, son of an old colleague of Rico’s from his time in Lokichoggio, a parched town at the far northern ends of the Turkana deserts. She’s now engaged to Webb, a very fortunate young man. Scovia is a prize indeed. She’s Adelight’s junior sister and has a character full of fun, cheek and charm. It’s such fun to see her.

*

Meanwhile, I rode the Mosquito on a settle-down ride, with its new parts in the suspension, out to Suam River border post, the remote border I like so much to use on my safaris to Uganda. Not many tourists, and even fewer old mzungus go that way. Immediately, as I put the Mosquito onto the stand, I am recognised. “How did you get on with that visa extension?” asks the immigration officer, for he tried to help me back in March. I am remembered. I’ve come to discover the regulations this year for my journey across the border. We walk down through the mud of yet another new road – soon there’ll be a four lane, six metre high bridge across this creek. The adventure will be gone for me, on this, my most loved of African trails round the base of Mount Elgon. But it’s selfish of me to resent the trade that a new road will bring to this remote region of the two countries. I’ll have to find another adventure route. There are plenty left, maybe not quite so beautiful as this one with its vistas into northern Uganda. For now, we walk over the tumbledown colonial era bridge and up the dirt track to the Ugandan medical officer’s dusty tent. “Eh! Mr Bean! Jonathan!” exclaims Harison, the MOH, back on duty, he says, these past two weeks. We greet and exchange fist-punch greetings. I note that no one’s bothering too much about their face coverings, hanging below chins. It’s fine that way, we can express so much pleasure with our smiles. From Harison I find that the regulations haven’t changed since the beginning of the year, when I last came this way: I still need a negative PCR test result within 96 hours of travelling, and it stays valid for 14 days for return to Kenya. There doesn’t seem much logic in this, but then, logic has been a primary casualty of the pandemic. If I can’t find a place to take the test in Kitale, Harison assures me he’ll do it at the border and I can ride home and await the result from the labs at Entebbe Airport, far away across country on Lake Victoria, that airport notoriously being wrangled over as a debt repayment to China. I’d rather ride to Suam than to Eldoret, the ugly, dirty, noisy city down the Nairobi road, a dangerous ride on packed roads clogged by slow lorries. And here at Suam, I’ll be a personality recognised by everyone and treated with fun and respect.

At least it appears that my travels to Uganda will be no more complicated than last year. I’ll get to see the Sipi family again. We’ll all be happy for that.

*

And so along comes Christmas Eve. We’ll be at home in the verdant compound; incredible how things grow here in the sun. Tonight, Adelight will use the charcoal in the novel bread oven that Rico designed last year, to grill half chickens from her chicken-rearing business. Before that, Rico is to take the two small girls out for ice cream while the rest of us decorate the interior of the old chicken house that Rico has renovated into a play house, a fine Wendy House on stilts. The other day I bought vinyl for the floor and tablecloths for the walls, and I bought 100 balloons, with which we plan to fill the inside for when the chicken house is revealed to the small girls as, actually, a play house. Later, we’ll have a few simple presents: money from me for the older girls, with some secondhand clothes selected by Adelight in the mtumba-wear market in town – the rejected clothes from the charity shops of the North. The small girls will get sketchbooks and coloured pencils, Rico a block of cheese from Schipol Airport; a big jar of Marmite (from Morrisons!) for the family, who all relish it. Adelight had her present: 200 new chicks that suddenly came available for her rearing business.

This will be a reminder of Christmases past, when rampant materialism and cost-counting was less obnoxious.

*

On Christmas morning, as I upload this episode, the two small girls are singing in their new play house and drawing pictures with their pencils and sketchbooks. The sun’s shining and one of the older girls is washing pans from last night’s cheerful party on the porch. It feels to me that this was how Christmas used to be – and should be. I hope you, reading this, have as much fun as we’ve enjoyed in our simple celebration!

The old chicken house becomes a play house. Behind is Adelight’s chicken rearing shed.
Shamilla enters the play house for the first time
Marion, Shamilla, Bo, Maria, Scovia and Adelight
Christmas supper. Adelight, Rico, Maria, Shamilla, Scovia, Bo and Marion