DAY 12 TUESDAY DECEMBER 20th KITALE, KENYA to DAY 15, FRIDAY DECEMBER 23rd.
Despite all the endless internet frustrations here at home, it looks as if my motorbike may soon be on its way up from Nairobi. I HOPE that I have transferred the money to Yuri and that tomorrow morning, Wednesday, he will drop it off at the transporter for carriage up to Kitale over the next couple of days. Let’s hope it went smoothly… It’s all a bit of a leap of faith. Using the internet in Africa is seldom straightforward which, considering how modern life now relies on the convenience, means patience. A few days ago I punched in the wrong PIN number on my credit card (I have two with similar but transposed numbers) and the card was blocked. It takes a few minutes to unblock it – if you have a convenient phone line to the Bank of Ireland, in this case. Try that from rural Kenya! The only phone I have available is to Skype on my iPad, for which I need a strong signal. Huh! The internet cafe manager kindly lent me his office for the business, where it then took me forty minutes to reestablish my summarily discontinued Skype account! “Just take your card to any ATM and select ‘card services’,” said an Irish voice eventually. Of course, the ATM I found had no such selection – but it did pay out £240 in Kenya shillings..! Ho hum.
Today also, we have had a break in the water pipes in Kitale, leading to no running water and later to cloudy water unwise to drink. Then in the evening an hour-long power cut. Infrastructure in Africa is so stretched by poor maintenance, overuse and bad workmanship and, not infrequently, corruption. The power cut created a lovely atmosphere, happening after ‘beer o’clock’ as Rico, Cor and I sat after sunset on the verandah, the stars spreading into the dark night sky and an occasional firefly sparkling across the garden. Behind us in the kitchen Adelight fried banana chips for supper by candlelight, the aroma wafting out to us. The children and girls played and talked and there was no intrusion from the media world. Sometimes I wish there were more power cuts in Africa! (I shouldn’t have written that! See later…).
Digging a hole to support the seesaw that Rico intends to build for the girls took all my energy – a hole a couple of feet by two and a half, and only ten inches deep. By the end, hefting a sharp hoe, I was exhausted for much of the rest of the day – here at 6200 feet on the sunny Equator. Still, I sleep well in my garage bedroom, much as I did in 2001 when I slept in a battered old brown tent in Rico’s garden up in desert Lodwar, until flooded out one night by extraordinary and rare torrents of brown water that inundated the yard and made rivers flow fast enough to wash uprooted trees and trucks down the previously parched riverbeds. When nature takes over in Africa, things don’t happen by halves.
On Thursday Rico, Adelight and I drove down to Eldoret, the ugly, bustling, traffic-clogged town fifty miles back along the main road towards Nairobi. “I’ve seen enough of Eldoret for this trip!” I exclaimed as we finally shook loose of the traffic jams later in the afternoon. I recollect that feeling fifteen years ago on a brief visit. I shall do my best to avoid the place. But even in the chaos, one of the things I like best in Africa is the way in which people return a look. Catch their eye and everyone reacts, a smile, a wave, an ironic shrug. No on ever looks away embarrassed.
A stiff wind blew all day, whisking dust and plastic bags, the ‘Flowers of Africa’ into whirling clouds; the most persistent wind Rico could remember here in western Kenya, where wind usually only comes with rain or in brief episodes. Chaos ruled in the town, traffic congested and filthy, people everywhere. The big supermarket was full of families Christmas shopping, flocking the aisles, dithering with trollies. We went there so I could buy presents for the girls back home for Christmas; Rico and Adelight’s suggestions being a large Scrabble set for the older girls and a plastic bowling set for the younger ones – (and perfume for Adelight)! Life isn’t cheap in Kenya, much more than in South Africa and its surrounding states. Those items and a few groceries came to about £70, with VAT here at 16%. Food is quite expensive, especially when you have ten or so young stomachs to fill.
We drove to Eldoret to collect Faith, another of the ‘original’ Rico Girls that I remember from 2002. Faith is now married to Felix, a young German who has worked a good deal in Africa – mainly Tanzania, and is something of an expert on alternative energies. Faith and Felix have a five month old baby, Liam, and have come for Christmas here in Kitale from their home base in Berlin. Faith is the daughter of Rico’s first wife Anna’s sister, who died in the first months of Faith’s life, her father having died in a traffic accident even before she was born. A grandmother took her in until Rico and Anna took her into their family aged three. These are stories so common in Africa, well, the former part of the story is common, finding a new family and being brought up as generously as Faith was is far from common of course. Rico deserves so much admiration for his total involvement in Africa, his astonishing support of so many waifs who, without him, would have had hard, difficult lives – the lives so common to so many that fall by the wayside in these hand to mouth economies in Africa.
Adelight, of whom I have become increasingly fond and respectful, must now also be mentioned in despatches for her complete commitment to the family of girls. Happily, she is now pregnant with her own child, so Rico will have one blood relative in Africa after all. Between them, Rico and Adelight have created a delightful family, seldom more in evidence than with the excitement of the return of their sister Faith, and especially, of course, her baby! We arrived to great elation and animation.
At home the power had been off since the morning; now on Friday morning it is still off. It makes for peaceful times, only a couple of solar bulbs and candles, the TV quiet, the night star-filled and silent. Adelight and the older girls cooked up a big saucepan of pilau rice and small cubes of meat and I went to bed happy, with a couple of litres of thin, gassy beer inside me and stinking, no doubt, of Adelight’s chopped garlic with mayonnaise.
No internet; no news therefore of the bike or money transfers. It’s so frustrating… “Oh, this is Africa!” says everyone with a shrug, an acceptance that perpetuates the inefficiency endlessly. It’s always the excuse and it never solves the problems, never improves the situation, never provokes activity; just this ceaseless inability to take initiative and do something about it! THAT is Africa!
But one must adapt, for I myself can change little. My dear friend Leslie paid me a fine compliment in a recent email: ‘I know you appreciate your surroundings and situations more than most people I know. One of the things I love about you. You bloom where you are planted.’ It’s not a struggle to bloom when surrounded by warmth and generous friendship.
DAY 16. SATURDAY, CHRISTMAS EVE 2016. KITALE, KENYA
I’ve come to the conclusion that to achieve one thing in a day here in Kenya is good progress. This sort of resigned acceptance makes life so much easier. Yesterday I finally made the money transfer to Yuri the bike mechanic in Nairobi – but we have yet to find out the status of quite where the motorbike actually IS! Maybe it is at this minute on the road north? Maybe… I’ve been here two weeks and at least I know there’s a bike on the way. I have to be satisfied with that.
The power has been off for 48 hours as I write. It is on next door to the east, but off for the whole block towards the Ugandan sunsets. We fear that if it doesn’t get repaired today we will have no power until after the holiday. Well, ‘this is Africa’, comes the usual excuse for lack of initiative. Meanwhile, everyone copes and rearranges their lives, adapts and compromises. It’s a lesson in fortitude for Europeans so used to light at the flick of a switch and water at the turn of a tap. We had no water for some hours, followed by cloudy stuff flowing from a broken pipe somewhere. And Kenya prides itself on more advanced infrastructure! Haha.
Life continues pleasantly here in the cheery household. Scovia just spotted the roll of Christmas paper on the desk in front of me, left over from wrapping the Scrabble, bowls and perfume. She’s taken it away to wrap around the bucket that is holding the Christmas tree, made from a tall branch of some conifer from the garden. I suggested to Adelight that I should buy ice cream and fruit as a Christmas treat, to go with the goat that is currently roaming outside the gate (safe from the compound dogs!). Maybe we can keep it cold enough in the fridge in the room that Faith and Felix are fortunately renting next door – to the powered east! You see, adaptation is the key to African life… So is complete patience – 16 days in and I am still where I started!
I spent the warm afternoon restoring chairs. “I can’t mend cars but let me do some crafty odd-jobs and I’m happy!” I told Rico, as he and Cor fixed and mended vehicle electrics and discussed things technical with Felix, expert in alternative power generation. I’ve no interest, let alone aptitude, but give me a chair to reupholster and I’ll make my best efforts! Useful skills in an African household economy.
Some years ago, my late mother took me to a supermarket on Christmas Eve. For years afterwards she laughed at my reaction: “Don’t EVER do that to me again!”
Yet here in Africa, I can join the throng, have trolleys driven over my feet and butt me in the bum, battle my way through dithering families, struggle at heaving checkouts, watch the proliferation of another ten thousand ‘Flower of Africa’ plastic bags – and do so with a wide, contented smile on my face, watching people. Small excited children wore shaped and knotted balloons as headdresses, tied by three fellows in Father Christmas hats for charity as the warm sun beat down outside. Ghastly mechanical mannequins jiggled inside an Alpine hut surrounded by cartoon animals and jerking felt elves. A cotton-wool bearded, black-skinned young Father Christmas ho-hoed at little girls in spangly party frocks and mothers pushed over-piled trolleys to the long queues in the compact cashier area where assistants packed a million plastic bags with groceries. This was, I have to add, a middle class shopping mall, supplying the relatively well off. The market will have looked different, of course. Guards perform a pointless security check at the entrance, their scanner beeping uselessly, probably a result of the terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi a few years ago. None of the guards check bags and I doubt the scanner actually works for it makes the same beeps and the guards the same bored actions if I empty my pockets as I did the first couple of times, or just wander through as I do now!
This evening we all crowded round the sitting room, the branch tree blinking in the corner. The TV switched off – we eventually regained power this afternoon after more than two days, resulting in ghastly Christmas singing from the South African Broadcasting Corporation – and the girls and children gathering on the floor. I hadn’t put two and two together until I remembered this is a continental household, half Dutch in spirit, and Christmas Eve is ice cream and presents round the tree time. The next hour was warm and good humoured, a few modest gifts unwrapped with laughter and jokes, with none of the extravagance and aspirations of western Christmas. Packs of new knickers and chocolate bars instead of unreasonable electronic devices and expensive toys, greeted with hugs and warmth. It’s a privilege, especially at this material time of year, to be part of such a cheerful family gathering where people are grateful for the little they have; where the love of family counts for so much more than the acquisition of ‘stuff’; where smiles and laughter express so much of the closeness of this largely unrelated FAMILY. So many lessons to learn in Africa if you look…
DAY 17. SUNDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY 2016. KITALE, KENYA
I awoke to the sound of supper: the Christmas goat being slaughtered somewhere outside in the garden. One is usually close to the sources of nutrition in Africa!
Later, little Shamilla with a crestfallen look and a tear dribbling down her cheek, sat on Rico’s knee. “They’ve killed my goat!” and he had to explain where the meat in the house comes from, a lesson seldom learned in Europe, merely a vaguely uncomfortable concept, almost never an animal screaming in the morning.
It’s been a family Christmas like many around the world; unlike Europe in the fact of the goat legs protruding from a washing up bowl on the kitchen table as Adelight and Scovia hacked with a cleaver, for the dogs playing over cloven, hairy forelegs, for the total absence of material reminders and of course for the warm, bright Equatorial sun; African in the fresh goat stew and universal for games of Scrabble and bad sentimental Christmas music from the kitchen radio.
Rico and I worked in the garage, stripping a large car lift, parts of which were stolen some time past for their scrap value, leaving the robust frame – from which we are going to make a sturdy garden swing with probably an attached seesaw. It’s heavy work but another resourceful recycling of scrap materials. Little is wasted on this continent: that’s unaffordable.
So, by some grubby manual labour, goat meat – barbecued for supper – a few beers and Scrabble games, a congenial, memorable Christmas 2016 came and went, my fourth consecutive African Christmas. Where next year, I wonder?
Seventeen days and still no motorbike. Well, one just settles into the mood and waits patiently, or as patiently as possible. I admit, I AM beginning to become a bit impatient to be on my way much though I am enjoying the warmth of and apparent total acceptance by the family here in sunny Kitale on the Equator.