EAST AFRICA SAFARI 2017 – Fifteen

DAY 81 MONDAY 27th FEBRUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

The circle complete, I am back to Kitale and cheerful welcomes from Adelight, and also Rose, Bo and Shamilla, for this is their half term. I went away as they went to school and came back for their holiday, a bonus for me with all these happy girls round the house.

The other reason for coming back now is that tonight I am attempting to join a meeting in Boston, USA with my colleagues and clients for the forthcoming project in Tampa, Florida – the pirate theatre that I have already conceived, in what seems right now to be another life. Little is further from my thoughts than ‘immersive’ pirate theatres. I trust I can busk my way through a meeting. At least I know the clients and they have faith in me, so if I sound less than perky on the subject I shall expect them to forgive me. I am, after all, in Darkest Africa so far as most Americans are concerned. By good foresight I did bring along a copy of the theatre plan I drew in early December and left in my bag here in Kitale. Of course, the trouble with such a meeting is that the clients are flying up from Florida to Boston and starting the meeting around one o’clock, already nine in my evening, and continuing until five, my one in the morning! Considering that the last two evenings I went to bed at 8.30 I may not be at my best… The wifi here at Rico and Adelight’s house is no better than it was in December (non-existent most of the time) so we have been to town to fire up the wifi on her phone so that I can Skype my colleagues (probably from my bed!).

Later: a total failure! Having spent £8 to add wifi time to Adelight’s tablet phone, we couldn’t charge up the battery because the whole area has been under a total power cut since afternoon! So much for my attempts and plans. I managed a short call to them on my cheap East African phone, to greet them and apologise at least. Africa, outside large cities, is not conducive to international business, something we now take for granted in Europe. It’s not so long ago, well within my travelling life, that I had NO contact with home, except the postal service for weeks and even months on end while I travelled. Why, even as late as 1990, my brother Wechiga made his first international telephone call – with a Bakelite handset from a wooden booth in the main Navrongo post office – to my mother in England. I well remember his excitement. Now we speak every couple of weeks, he from his fields in northern Ghana to my living room in Harberton.

*

It was a short ride home today, just two and a half hours or so, all on roads I have ridden several times already. I’m very fortunate to have a ‘home base’ for these journeys, as I did these past four years in South Africa. I hope to have another brief trip to Uganda this week, and then the little blue bike and some of my luggage will be stored in Rico’s garage until I can use it again, all being well next British winter.

*

My usual luck held and I arrived at home just a few minutes before the first shower of this showery day. There was noisy rain on the roof of my chalet room at Kessup last night, rattling on the steel sheets. The rainy season is now on its way. Through the afternoon and evening we have had several heavy showers. Time for me to leave.

*

I have been known to expound on my opinion that religion is business in Africa. (Just now and again!). For the past three days, just for fun, I have been recording some of the bizarre array of churches I have passed. In the little notebook I keep in my riding jacket pocket, I jotted this laughable collection:

Repentance and Holiness Church
Repent and Healing Ministries
Repentance Church
Full Gospel Church
Redeemed Gospel Church
African Gospel Church
All Nations Gospel Church
Gospel of Peace Ministry
Universal Gospel Ministries
Faith in International Missions Church
Word of Faith Church
Word of Life Christian Fellowship Church
Christian Fellowship Foundation Church
Full Pentecostal Church
Pentecostal Assemblies of God
United Pentecostal Evangelical Church
New Pentecostal Praiseland Church
Light of the World Church
All Nations Lighthouse Church
Testament Church of God
New Testament Church of God
Jesus Disciples Tabernacle International Ministry
Faithful Worshipper Ministries
King Jesus Faith Ministry
Jesus Apostolic Church
Apostolic Faith Church
Life if Risen Christ Church
Path of Christ Mission
Christus Church
Christ the Shepherd Church
Christian Outreach Mission Church
King’s Outreach Church
Reformed Church of East Africa
Seventh Day Adventists
Inland Church of Africa
House of Praise and Happy Church (!)
Rejoice Baptist Church
Love Christ Ministries and Church
Growth Church
Deliverance Church
Christ for All People Church
Christian Hope Church
Fountain of Hope Church
Miracle Life Church
Believers’ Mission Church
Voice of God Believers’ Ministry
Calvary Celebration Church
Grace of Calvary Church
New Calvary Church

Then, of course, you have the Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Salvation Army, the barking Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the others, so-called established churches. I even spotted a Coptic Health Centre somewhere on my road. Even the Quakers are here.

Every small village, however mean – and they usually are – has a rows of churches along its roads, always the biggest, best constructed buildings in the village, used for a few hours of singing and nonsense and collecting money that people cannot afford, to construct buildings that are used once a week, while the populous live in squalor. I know the argument that it gives people hope but surely there are more practical ways to help than this crazy proliferation of small, greedy, money-making enterprises fleecing the uneducated? Many of these ‘churches’ obtain sponsorship, many from crazed religiously narrow-minded Americans, and so-called, self created ‘pastors’ fleece their earnest, desperate flocks with their specious promises. And that’s not to mention the religious ‘crusades’ and rallies orchestrated by exploitative American evangelists…

Sorry, it makes me angry as a compassionate being to see this abuse of trust. I’m afraid Africa makes me into an increasingly militant atheist. Reading ‘The God Delusion’ while working in right wing Florida (of all places) put a lot into perspective for me. End of subject – for now.

DAY 82 TUESDAY 28th FEBRUARY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

February’s gone so I can think about going home now! The worst month of winter is done.

This was a day of mere relaxation, not much achieved except arranging a ticket with one of the small planes that fly from Kitale to Nairobi for next week. There are several companies in competition now so the prices have plummeted to £48. For one who loves flying in small planes that’s a price well worth paying for a trip over Kenya. I flew in a six-seater, back in 2001, from the northwest of Kenya to Nairobi and it was one of the finest flights I ever took, soaring over the Rift Valley and the hills and forests that I have ridden through these past weeks.

Oh, I did fix the lavatory cistern! So I did achieve something today, taking it to pieces and replacing the defective diaphragm. ‘Lavatory Cisterns of the World I have repaired’, would be a sizeable volume, with all the broken ones I have encountered in a large percentage of the cheap hotels in which I have stayed in my aggregate eleven years of travelling out of Britain.

I have very much enjoyed Adelight’s company. She is a very warm, capable woman full of good humour. She makes a very equal partner for Rico, in a way that I think is probably rare in African/ European couples. It’s been so good to make a new friend in her, to bond and to be more than just a friend of her husband’s. We’ve become comfortable together very easily. I have warm invitations to return next Christmas. All being well, perhaps I shall indeed. Plus, of course, there are all the girls who seem to accept me easily too. A charming family – and, as I wrote some weeks ago, a family in the truest sense, considering the disparate relationships of their blood lines. Happy times. Maybe next Christmas the family will travel up to Turkanaland in the far north, the wild hinterlands of Kenya.

DAY 83 WEDNESDAY 1st MARCH 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

The sun is setting palely over Uganda from my vantage point on the cliff at the Coffeeland Resort, to which I have returned, after six wandering weeks, to an excited welcome from young Alex, the charming manager. Precious doesn’t seem to be here this evening. Alex tells me that in my absence another mzungu on a motorbike pulled into the guest house and he rushed up and hugged him, calling to Precious, “Jonathan has returned! Jonathan is back!” Edward, a Scottish biker, was somewhat surprised by his warm welcome! But he stayed three days, so he must have enjoyed the friendly personal attention too!

*

Discussing the filth of the deep dust road from Kitale via Suam border that I took last time and was reluctant to face again, Adelight told me there was another small border to the south of Kitale that would mean I didn’t have to go through the very busy border post on the main East African Highway, my other option. “It’s tar!” she said. Well, the first bit was..! But I still had to suffer 70kms of very rough track that frequently dwindled to little more than a village path that made me doubt I was on an international route. Asking often if I was still on the road, it seemed I was.

At last I arrived at the Kenya border…

…Where I had to do some fast talking. I’m an old hand at border crossings – fortunately – and I know the last thing I must do is appear irritated or dubious about the whole ridiculous process, for those processes justify the status of the officials. And status, for officials, is all.

Apparently, to take a vehicle out of Kenya, I am supposed to lodge the log book at the customs office in Eldoret (my least favourite Kenyan city) and obtain a customs document like a carnet…

I have just ridden 7000 kilometres through four countries! When I left Kenya through Suam border some weeks ago I asked if I needed papers for the bike. “No,” said a bemused Customs man, “you can go…” So I did. At length, William, customs officer today, (…long experience, very important, been doing it a long time, official regulations, for my protection, penalty of ignoring the regulations etc etc…) told me my obligations, and how I was contravening the Kenyan law. I kept a straight face throughout, of course. I mean, I’ve passed through eight border checks in the last few weeks. As a concession to not keeping my log book there at the border, he made a photocopy and wrote over the form that he had retained a copy. This, of course, took time and a lot of smiling faces from me and prolific grovelling thanks for his help, boosting his status! Then it transpired that I had no entry stamp for Kenya in my passport. Well, I knew that, as I actually went back and asked the immigration officer last week when I came in from Tanzania if I didn’t need one. “No, you are done. You can go!” he assured me. So I did. More sweet talking to get round THAT one. Anyhow, I got an exit stamp for this border, so now the missing one won’t figure.

At last I rode through the pedestrian gate and bounced over the rutted pathway to Uganda. This is as remote and backwoods as Suam border was, just a few extra ‘jobsworths’ here. Over a dusty bridge across a stream and up to the Uganda post. Now with the correct papers this was to be easier.

“Your visa has expired!” said the immigration fellow. “Look, it is valid from the 10th December 2016 to the 9th March 2016.” And so it is! I’ve passed through all these borders with it and no one’s spotted the mistake made at Nairobi airport eleven weeks ago. Oh well, I only have to exit at the same airport – oh, and get back into Kenya, of course. But the mistake is easy enough to talk my way out of. I hope. If the rains stay light, I might go back through relaxed Suam border, where no one seems to care for bureaucracy.

Being ‘old’ is a great help when it comes to bullshitting. No one can believe that an ‘old’ man of 67 is riding a motorbike about rural Africa. “But you look YOUNG!” exclaimed William, the immigration officer as his face registered disbelief. “How do you stay so young?”

“By thinking young and being positive, plenty of exercise, eating sensibly and riding motorbikes round Africa!” said I, thinking of my late mother’s delight as she got older and people took her for 20 years younger than she was! I am a chip off that block, happily.

*

Into Uganda again, and still on a lousy, rutted dirt road winding through rural areas. It’s surprising how tiring fifty miles of this can be, for not only must I move about a lot, but I have to maintain concentration on the ‘road’ and many live, moving obstacles in front. At last I reached the tar road as a light shower passed, just enough for me to get out the waterproofs for fifteen minutes to pass through the busy town of Mbale, where I searched at length for a new spark plug some weeks ago. Then I was onto the road to Sipi, which is in the process of being rebuilt, with various stretches of gravel and bumpy diversions. At long, long last, six hours and 120 miles after leaving Kitale, I turned onto the track I know that leads to the edge of this cliff and Alex’s Coffeeland Resort. By now I was dusty and dry, tired and grubby. These were soon rectified by a wash from a jerrycan in the corrugated bathhouse, some glasses of water from another large yellow jerrycan, and a couple of bottles of Uganda beer. Alex is one of the best cooks that I have found on my journey, a natural instinct that I appreciate! Now I am sitting in my simple, rustic room with lights dimly winking in the vast valley below. Alex has been looking at my pictures and chatting in my room for a congenial hour and a half, drinking his evening tea while I finished my beer. Sometimes I just meet people whom I instinctively like and trust. Alex is one of those. He is smart, courteous and intelligent, good company.

“I wanted to study to be a doctor, but I am one of nine…” he tells me with an acceptance that this is just how things are in Africa, especially in Uganda with its ballooning birthrate and 6.8 children the average for every woman. “My father, he is 53 and still supporting the last boy through Primary Three. Imagine if he were to educate that boy to university, how old he will be!” Bear in mind that only 2% of Ugandans reach 65 years; 53 is already beyond the average life expectancy. Alex, you may remember from Day 43, is a Male Champion in the community here, working with the Reproductive Health Centre (the one whose meeting I had to address!) to attempt to encourage people in this, the world’s ‘youngest’ country by demographics, to reduce the number of births – and value girls equally.

So this bright, educated, forceful young man has to manage a rustic hotel of just a couple of rooms on the edge of a village cliff. He’d have been a good doctor. Africa desperately needs doctors. Instead it has this utterly crazy idea that making children is what is important; having large families proves your masculinity (never mind it kills the women so much younger) and leaving a family line is important. A family line that in generations to come will despise the vanity of these male attitudes so much when poverty and privation, lack of land and resources, water shortage and global warming, wars and conflicts, increasing crime and strife, disease and early death become even more the norm than they are now.

Funny how Uganda makes me so very pessimistic about the direction mankind has taken and the destructive road it seems doomed to follow…

*

After a short, sharp deluge that settled the dust and formed consequent rainbows, the night is now deep and calm. A vast array of stars and planets glitters above, and below there is a sense of the deep gulf below the virtually sheer cliff; of human habitation without electricity, merely the occasional glimmer from solar lights. Hundreds of feet below, in the morning those zinc roofed homes and banana-filled shambas will look like models, just the echoes of cockerels and the shouts of children animating the toy scenery, carried upward on the almost still air. Coffeeland Resort was worth the energy to come back.

DAY 84 THURSDAY 2nd MARCH 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

Alex makes such a good companion on a day like this and has been charming and congenial throughout. We have meandered the earth paths between all his neighbours’ shambas, dropping in to chat with many of them, sitting with some, joining in a band of ‘komek’ drinkers (local ‘beer’ made from maize and yeast) at an informal gathering beneath the bananas, lunching with a relative and co-volunteer of Alex’s and meeting and greeting dozens of people. That’s the sort of day I enjoy here in Africa, and it’s made especially pleasant in Uganda because I can communicate so readily with just about everyone.

“You know, the reason we use English as our main language, and share so much understanding with the British way of life is that Uganda was a protectorate. We were never colonised like the rest of Africa. So we have fond memories of the British as you came and left our culture for us. You see, we never had conflict with the colonials like so many other countries. Your people came and offered us education and we took it, but we weren’t colonised.” Maybe that is why I feel a bond with Uganda, and maybe if you are not overwhelmed by an outside coloniser, you keep your cultural identity and your national pride intact and, in my experience, a country with national pride is usually a stable country.

Komek is made from fermented maize and is pretty disgusting, a fibrous scummy brew with a slightly sour flavour. It’s mildly alcoholic thanks to the yeast and fermentation and is served in a gallon container sitting on some banana leaves on the floor. The grey scum on top bubbles and ‘works’ and occasionally the producer tops up the gummy container with warm water. Meanwhile, men sit around the bucket with long plastic pipes snaking into the mixture, through which they suck sieved liquid, thanks to a filter on the bottom end, from the communal pot. It looks extremely bizarre, to see these men in a circle, curling green plastic pipes descending into the soupy, scummy mix in an old paint container, sucking gently and intently while shaking the pipes to dislodge the fibrous muck that gathers about their personal filter. Alex doesn’t drink at all but – of course – I had to borrow a pipe and taste the frothy dregs! By then one of the drinkers had brought a polythene bag of natural honey from the forest – another suspicious mixture of honey and dead bee carcasses (very tasty!) – and added it to the evil, bubbling mix.

Well, I wouldn’t want to drink it very often, and certainly not in the couple of litre quantities in which these fellows imbibe, but it wasn’t as sinister as its ominous presentation in a scummy bucket with tubes snaking up to the drinkers’ mouths suggested it would be. For me, it would have been more palatable had it not been lukewarm. In fact, over ice it could almost have been rather good – but ice in rural Uganda, and this was certainly somewhat bucolic, is a predictable rarity. Even my bottled beer, as I write, hasn’t seen the inside of a fridge. Drinking through a plastic tube, or lukewarm bottled beer is as sophisticated as it gets, less than a degree from the Equator in Arcadian Africa!

*

One of the social aspects of Africa that never fails to impress me is that strangers are always welcomed unreservedly. Even amongst so much relative poverty, I am received warmly and must be presented with whatever people have, a glass of water, a mug of tea or, in today’s case, our hostess, a relative of Alex, must drop her work of plastering the base of her house with cow dung, mud and ash (‘women’s work’ that is repeated weekly on these earth houses), slopping the mixture with her hands onto the foundation of the walls, to produce matoke (a small, boiled savoury banana that serves as the base of most meals here at this season) and delicious stew of tomatoes and onion. Also in very African fashion, a large bowl of the same food was handed to the local madman, a slouching, tattered fellow with mental disability who had followed us into the compound. Much of rural Africa operates on this compassionate ‘there but for the grace of god’ principle and no beggar or even lunatic goes empty away.

*

I feel so sorry for Alex – one of millions of course – in his frustration at seeing his life passing without the wherewithal to achieve his ambitions or put his entrepreneurial ideas into reality. Given resources, people like him would go far and improve the lot of so many. But resources are just what’s missing in Uganda, with its vast, growing population and poverty. He tells me of his five years working in a busy hotel in Kampala, where he was feted for his customer skills – but cheated, as always, by the ‘businessman’ who ran the operation, undervalued and underpaid to the extent that he preferred to resign and take his – meagre – chances on his own out here in the sticks. Once again, here he has pennies to run this guest house that could, with investment, be a good success, using his personal charm and skills. I meet ‘Alexes’ throughout the continent, able, decent, honest, people with such integrity and personal skills – but no way to express or exploit them commercially. However hard he works, the scales are balanced against him. The world is essentially so unfair. Once again, I am so grateful to come, to witness, to understand (however superficially) – and to go back to my very privileged, easy, comfortable life. With, of course, a very different perspective that often makes the arrogant complacency of many of those about me in that life so difficult to stomach…

*

It’s delightful to be able to entertain so very many lovely children just by being here! All day small, shrill voices have called ‘Hellloooo how are yoooo?’ From amongst the banana trees, where waving children run excitedly about, some running to shake my hand with a polite curtsey, others running behind corners of their mud compounds, half afraid of the strange white-skinned man. Then there are adults, charming and smiling, joking with Alex and respectfully shaking my hand – an endless social nicety – and politely greeting us as we pass. No one, but no one, passes with the dropped eyes and apparent fear of strangers of my own land. In Africa courtesy is the default. It’s always difficult to get back to Britain, as I will in a week’s time. I smile at people in the street, greet them on the buses, and greet complete strangers. But only for a day or two until I realise I am overstepping the bounds of tight-arsed British sensitivity! Actually, that is one behavioural aspect in which Americans beat us hands down. They respond!

*

Alex, a host with great panache, just passed with a glass on a plate as if we are in the best hotel in Kampala. “Almost ready!” he says, and he’s such a good cook on his small charcoal fire in the tumbledown shed he uses for a kitchen. On the 25th of February a huge and sudden squally storm, that destroyed cement buildings (I’ve met three severely injured people today), and brought down power lines, also destroyed his thatched roof, wood kitchen. It will cost him £100 to replace it. How is it that someone so diligent and decent, even has the fickle weather working against him?

Observing him, squatting over a smoky fire in his temporary kitchen, a moment ago, I told him, “You know, Alex, of all the hotels I have stayed in in the past weeks, I have not had such personal attention as here at Coffeeland!”

“Oh, but you are like my own family now!”

There is untold warmth on this continent that I have been so privileged to discover. A text message from Rutoh, receptionist at the Brooke Hotel a few nights ago, reads: ‘I enjoyed your company so much here at the Brooke… You were like my dad… Many people have commented that we were friends and I thank them much.’

Africa is humbling and wonderful.

DAY 85 FRIDAY 3rd MARCH 2017. SIPI, UGANDA

We spent much of the day laughing at the good joke, appreciated by so many we passed, of the mzungu boda-boda, as Alex climbed on the back of the little Suzuki, cramped in by a huge branch of matoke bananas. We were riding down to see Precious. She’s not up here at Coffeeland at the moment, but in a small straggly town twenty miles away, down in the lowlands, where she and Alex have rented a tiny shop – as yet totally empty – to try to build another small business selling basic groceries to the people there. Entrepreneurial Alex is full of ideas and determination. “I am getting old! I am going to thirty years now. In Uganda if you don’t make things happen between thirty and forty five I think they won’t happen any other day!”

Talking with gentle Precious, I sensed that she had left the Coffeeland because of the jealousies surrounding her and Alex. It’s strange, but not uncommon, I suppose, that people resent those with ideas and ambitions who work hard to try to better their meagre lot in life. Precious comes from the other side of Uganda, from the far shores of Lake Bunyonyi, down below Kabale. They met in Kisoro, the last town I passed on the way to Rwanda some weeks back. It was the road from Kabale to Kisoro that I loved so much that I rode that way no less than five times. So now Alex runs the small, struggling resort and tries to develop his own plot along the track from here. He has a decent plot, which I estimate is perhaps half an acre, and a lot of plans to make a coffee bar, some sleeping huts and even a raised terrace area to use the view over the clifftop. He is full of ideas and desperately short of the resources to put them into practice – the old African story.

*

It’s getting time to leave East Africa. The rains are gathering and will soon make bike riding unpleasant and in places impossible. I’m going to wait for the morning to decide whether to ride that appalling track back to Suam border and Kitale, or the longer route south to the main highway border post and back up the other side. By Suam I have about 140 kilometres back to Kitale, by the highway – tar all the way is the advantage – perhaps nearer 300.

“Alex, my friend, I think we should take note of the weather!” I prompted him as we sat outside Precious’s empty shop/ kiosk. For heavy dark clouds were gathering and thunder rolled about. Neither of us had waterproofs and we had a twenty mile journey back up the curling road to the highlands. As it was, we had to shelter in a half-built church shack – a thing of sticks and zinc of some bizarre self-created sect and an acquisitive fake ‘pastor’ – for 45 minutes as the rain rattled on the zinc. Three urchins, their clothes the colour of the filthy red earth, sat with us, goggled eyed as usual at the mzungu in their midst. Other small children, spying the white man, called their customary ‘hello! How are yoooo?’ A white man in these small villages is a thing of wonder indeed. So odd in 2017.

*

There’s no place for vanity though! Visiting the market in the town up the hill of Kapchowa for Alex to buy vegetables for my supper, we were the centre of a lot of good willed humour from market ladies. “They are LAUGHING!” chuckled Alex. “They are saying, ‘Eh, your white man is OLD! They think it is wonderful!” And, of course, in a country in which less than two percent reach my age, I am indeed a wonder – and ‘old’ man with white hair riding a motorbike like a mzungu boda-boda, Alex laughing and waving to his friends from the pillion. He is popular and gregarious, and that rare thing, a man of great integrity. I’m happy we crossed paths in such a random manner and my instincts have proved so correct about him. I’m sure I will do my best to pay another visit next time I come to Kitale and renew a journey with my little blue bike.

He’s cooking up a meal of fresh vegetables as I write. It’s like having a personal cook! For a bit over a pound we bought various vegetables that filled my bag: a big cabbage for 25 pence, a bunch of some spinach-like greens, a large bundle of something akin to spring greens and a bag of tomatoes. And for another 25 pence, about ten passion fruits. I am having to write quickly tonight as the power has been off for 24 hours and I have been unable to charge my iPad. But the benefit of the power outage was when I emerged for a pee in the night and looked up in the utter darkness, without light pollution, and saw the incredible field of stars stretched across the entire sky from our vantage point up her on the clifftop, with only a few distant, dim lights winking in the unseen void of the vast valley below that seems to reach half across Uganda. Worth a power cut.

So, for now, tomorrow’s ride will be my last day ‘on the road’ as I head back home to Kitale and get ready for the journey back to that other world that so oddly coexists with this African one, this forgotten, ignored and so misrepresented continent.

STOP PRESS: I rode back via the filthy, dusty Suam border. What a great ride fory last one! Glorious sunny day and terrific senery and 100kms of trail riding!

I’ll come to the internet cafe on Monday and try to upload some pictures…

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