DAY 24 WEDNESDAY 13th DECEMBER 2017. NAIROBI, KENYA
Well, if it’s Wednesday, it must be Kenya!
Nairobi, I always said, was a city I desperately wished to avoid for the rest of my life. I’ve often called it the worst city in Africa. Today I have reconsidered and upgraded it considerably. Arriving direct from Accra, still pretty much a ‘third world’ city, I can see how improved is the infrastructure of East Africa. It’s another world. It helps that I am staying in a pleasant part of the city, residential and with a few High Commissions and international offices around. The traffic, although dense and heavy, is relatively well disciplined, polite and exceptionally quiet. There are pavements on most roads and a lot of people walking. You wouldn’t want to be in a wheelchair, it’s true, but with eyes peeled, you can walk without having to battle in the road around carelessly parked cars, hooting tro-tros and pushing vehicles battling for headway. The comparison with Accra puts Nairobi in a better light. People too are calm, well mannered and exceptionally polite – and ready to talk with an equality that I seldom find in West Africa, where I always represent the white man. Here in East Africa the exposure to white men has been longer and deeper. Few Europeans settled West Africa, the White Man’s Grave, with its malaria and endemic diseases, while much of the land in these countries was colonised and farmed by white men for the past 150 years. They introduced European ways and infrastructure that still stand these now independent countries in good stead.
Stepping out of the airport, with its friendly, efficient staff, was like arriving back in Europe. It was early in the morning: the sun was just up. I was through my visa application in minutes ($100 for a 90 day visa that allows me multiple entires between Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda), collected my bag and was stepping out into the cool morning (plunging to 15C degrees! A shock to my system after burning Navrongo). Taxi drivers were polite and let me pass and I went to an outdoor cafe for strong coffee and a breakfast of fried eggs on brown toast, served by an intelligent, polite and smart waitress. Some days ago I booked into the guest house Rico favours but I knew that check in time was not until noon, so I had time to kill. At 7.15 I negotiated calmly for a taxi to take me there, some 20 kilometres away, a journey that took an hour in packed but cooperative and courteous traffic. I had thought to leave my luggage and roam until I could get my room, but Lois, the charming, talkative receptionist gave me the key there and then. I dozed away the next four hours gratefully.
There’s not a lot to do in Nairobi, and getting about is not easy, especially after a sleepless night, so I just wandered locally in the afternoon, to the popular and smart Yaya shopping centre, a few streets away. With a food court and ATMs it served my purposes and I was delighted to find a bookshop with good, though expensive, maps of Kenya and Ethiopia. My maps from last year are old and tattered, aged things of Rico’s.
My day was made by the Nairobi Girls’ Chorale! Eighteen or so pretty young women were performing for free at the entrance to the shopping centre. Their voices rose in Christmas songs with that spine tingling cadence that is unique to African women’s voices. One young woman sang all the solos, with that rhythm and power that is so wonderful in African music, her voice soaring with that raw guttural harmony. Her control was that of a trained singer but she looked unaware of the effect her voice could have, pricking tears to the eyes and shivers to the spine. I listened for an hour or so, ecstatic entertainment that uplifted my weariness and thrilled me through and through. Wonderful! A great beginning to my East African safari. Wonderful!
Nairobi, at its 5000 or so feet above sea level, is temperate at this time of the year. Just a few miles south of the Equator, the sun is high and strong through the day, but this evening I need a jersey for the first time since I left Bristol. My small room in the guest house, a fine friendly place in which Rico is held in fond regard by Lois on reception and Nancy, the owner, is cool and I have a duvet tonight and the first hot water for weeks. It’s good to feel properly clean again after all the cold bucket baths of Ghana. Gone too is the constipation, a fact perhaps not unconnected with the return to flushing lavatories that actually even take the paper as well (rather than an unsightly cardboard box in the corner) and the lack of a seething mass of maggots below as I shit! Yes, I know the details aren’t necessary, but it’s all part of travelling life – armchair stories or first hand revulsion!
DAY 25 THURSDAY 14th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
The pleasure of old friends – and new ones – is what keeps me travelling. Here I am, after nine months, back in Kitale with Rico and Adelight and the lovely family of girls and young women who made last year’s journey such warm fun. I am made so welcome and privileged to be able to claim that I have friends all over the world. They have even used my visit to build me a small, simple ‘guest house’ in the garden. They’ve actually reformed and decorated the askari’s hut for me (an askari is a watchman). So for the next few weeks, on and off, I have a small home from home here in the family.
When it comes to small aircraft, I am like a small boy! Sometimes I think I’d have liked to learn to fly. I can see links between motorbiking and flying small planes: they both involve an essential freedom to move about, an independence, a fluidity of movement, a combination of man and machine. So I was thrilled when Adelight managed to book my flight to Kitale from Wilson airport in Nairobi, a small airfield that deals with hundreds of small domestic planes, local passenger aircraft and the ones that fly wealthy tourists off on their safaris, as well as many small private aircraft. Flights tend to leave in the early morning so I had to leave the guest house at 5.30am by taxi through the still dark, waking streets to Wilson.
The daily flights to Kitale, and many other outlying towns, are in small aircraft not much more than a minibus with wings and a propellor. We flew up in some form of Cessna, thirteen seats and a cupboard for baggage. Despite being told that I had a cancellation to get on the full planes, it turned out that we were only four adults and two children on board with a single pilot for the hour and a quarter flight. I bagged a seat behind the co-pilot’s seat so I could watch the instruments as well as the spectacular scenery of Kenya, especially that moment when you fly out over the edge of the great Africa Rift Valley. Flying at 10,500 feet with Kenya below, itself at 5000 and 6000 feet, the views are wonderful, even on a dull cloudy morning before the sun burns off the cloud and bathes the African landscape. We flew right past Longonot volcanic crater, a classic geological feature that might be fun to investigate sometime in the coming weeks. Flying over the lakes of the Rift Valley, you see the intense market gardening activity of this fertile region that produces so many of the products in European supermarkets, as well as plane loads of fresh flowers for world markets, with many acres of land under hot houses for large commercial operations. Far away to the north, the pilot turned and pointed out Mount Kenya behind the Aberdares range to me. Later you fly over forested areas, past the lovely Kerio Valley, dropping dramatically green and steep to the dry bush floor far below, where I shall return soon on my little blue bike. By the time you land at the small airstrip at Kitale Kenya has climbed to 5630 feet above sea level, to a temperate climate beneath the equatorial sun, for here I will crisscross the Equator many times.
Adelight, Rico and baby Maria were waiting at the airstrip to greet me as I clambered out of the sky minibus and collected my bag from the cupboard underneath – actually underneath the other plane that had flown up with us, into which my bag had been loaded. We had flown underneath the other small plane for a while, my pilot taking photos through the cockpit roof glass with his phone before it diverged and flew alongside much of the way, oddly small and insect-like against the huge backdrop of the African landscape.
Baby Maria is an addition to the family since I was here in March. She is Rico’s only actual child in Africa, despite the size of this cheerful, charming family. Maria is a happy baby, surrounded by legions of sisters and aunties here in the house. Currently five of the girls are at home: delightful Scovia, now 19, Marion, Rose, Bo and Sherri. We came home for a happy reunion and a simple family breakfast as the sun warmed off the definite chill of the morning, cool as low as 13 degrees.
Adelight and Scovia shopped in town (many hair extensions that Scovia will weave onto her sisters’ heads for Christmas fashion! and food and beer) while Rico and I sat in the now hot sun, parked in the busy town centre, catching up and watching the people. Later we furnished my simple chalet from bits and pieces around the yard and house and looked over my little blue bike (it needs a name: Rico suggests the Blue Mosquito!), that he has worked on while I was away, and Scovia cheerfully washed the other day. It’s been parked in his large garage and he has managed to procure a single seat for me. By the end of the last trip, I had become accustomed to the bike, but the seat was excruciating! Too narrow for long distances. While on contract with Medicines sans Frontieres in Congo, he managed to persuade them to release a wide single seat that he brought back, not without problems, partly caused because it was hurriedly stuffed into a plastic sack and plastic bags are not allowed to be imported in Rwanda, and Kenyan authorities tried to impose duties on entry. But he got it here and has cleverly made a new sub-frame and fitted the seat. I will make a test run tomorrow and I bet it will make this journey very much more physically enjoyable!
It’s such fun to be back here in this terrific family atmosphere. Although so few of the young women in this house are related by blood, they form the truest family it’s my pleasure to know: little competition, no discord, quiet satisfaction with the little they have, happy cooperation, easy acceptance of the chores of the house and warm, delightful company together that extends to include their old white uncle too. Happy to be back, and very happy to be invited for Christmas again.
DAY 26 FRIDAY 15th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
The little Blue Mosquito has its new seat, cleverly fitted by my resident engineer, Rico. Rico is such a clever mechanic, adapted completely to the African way of making do and being inventive. To fit the seat he’s had to design and make a new sub-frame for it, adapting the fixings to suit the new, much wider, single seat. We’ve worked on the bike a bit today, new handgrips, refining the headlight – so that it shines at the road, not the starry skies. In a day or two we’ll fit the new drive sprockets and chain that I have carried all the way from Florida. It was very much cheaper to have them sent to Leslie’s house for me to pick up and lug back in my luggage than it was to purchase them in England. I will be glad to carry them no further.
Days pass very comfortably here in the cheerful house amongst the family of happy young women – now heavily occupied with the intricacies of hair weaving and extensions for the Christmas holiday. Scovia went to a salon and came back with a wonderful frizz of dizzy, wild curly extensions decorated with a few beads, a style that so suits her animated personality and her prettiness. She has given Bo a new style and is now involved doing Marion’s Christmas frivolity. It takes hours and hours to make these intricate styles. They have to come off again before school starts.
Adelight has started a tailoring business and now has a small shop in town, making shirts, blouses and what I’d call harem trousers from printed cotton fabrics. Caring for little Maria is, of course, very easy in this house full of young women. Seldom has a baby had more happy sisters and aunties to look after her.
DAY 27 SATURDAY 16th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
We’ve been working on the Mosquito today. It’s not a chore I enjoy, but I do understand that it is good for me to understand a bit more of its workings, and working with Rico, who is knowledgable and skilful, makes it good exercise for me. We have put new sprockets and drive chain, and even removed the rear tyre to put in a new spoke and messed with the headlight too. Funny how I feel so little empathy for mechanics. It’d make these journeys a lot more comfortable and confident if I knew I could fix problems myself.
DAY 28 SUNDAY 17th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
We all went as a family party to a private ‘resort’ fifteen kilometres out of town, set in trees with views of the distant Cheringani Hills. This part of Kenya is so green; such a relief after grey, dusty Ghana. Levels of development are much higher in East Africa too; there’s a sense of order and a discipline that is alien to much of West Africa. It’s much easier to travel here…
It’s so cheerful, to be part of this family for a time. The resort/ restaurant was well set up and we sat together at a round table beneath a shady umbrella beside a small swimming pool, that all the girls enjoyed; had drinks and lunch. This was my slightly belated birthday treat for Scovia, who turned 19 last week – I arrived on her 18th birthday last year. You know, I’ve never seen squeezed faces; heard dissent, complaints or meanness amongst these young women? They are content with what they have, which isn’t much in materials terms, but is a high prize in family and social terms. I am amused that there is even an empty room in the house right now, complete with two large beds. These young women prefer to sleep together in the other room, all five or six (or however many it becomes) sharing two large beds. They have large heaps of clothes, many of which they mix and share. They look smart and pretty but for them to have a few coins is probably riches. Imagine this in privileged Europe, where five children sleeping in one room, eating the basic fare that is here accepted as food, doing the household chores (by hand), having one TV for the household and NO ‘devices’, en suite bathroom, own TV and wifi, air-con in America and all the rest, would now be classified as near poverty! As I write, on a sunny morning on the porch, Scovia is washing all the floors (by hand), Rose is washing a vast heap of clothes, Bo is also washing floors, Marion is washing the dishes and tidying the girls’ room and little Sherri is folding clothes (from the last hand wash), all are intermittently playing with and attending to the equally smiling baby, as Adelight heads out to work at her new tailoring business. This is family life as it was meant to be, before we began to judge by what we own rather than what we are. Send your problem, disgruntled Western children to Africa: it’ll soon sort out the priorities!
DAY 29 MONDAY 18th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
Must get going soon! It’s easy to stay here and convince myself I am resting. Resting from what, I wonder? Well, yes, Ghana was quite hard on the body with its heat and dust, nasal congestion and sanitation-encouraged constipation (!) – but hardly hard work! No, I am just lulled by the comforts and pleasures of family life in Kitale. And I much enjoy the evening beers with Rico as the sun sets and we sit and converse while supper smells emanate from the nearby kitchen.
The Blue Mosquito is now ready for its 2018 journey and I should make a short trip to settle it down with its new chain and sprockets, seat and small repairs. All I’ve done so far is ride it about town. But somehow, the sun shines, I relax and days pass.
We do need to sort out the log book for my bike. It turns out that it was never sent from the licensing office in Eldoret, the next large city, when we applied on that terrible bureaucratic day a year ago. Before I leave the country this time, I need my papers in order. At present I have decided to keep the little bike longer. Once bought, and the money gone, it’s not costing much to keep a bike in Africa for future plans, whatever they are. I have become accustomed to the little bike, small though it is. I have come to appreciate the lightness of it and its versatility on bad ground. This afternoon I had to ride the old rail tracks in an industrial part of town (I was looking for the beer distributor in a vain search for stout, as a change from the local lager that I don’t much like) and at one point did a pirouette that would have seen me fall heavily from my bigger bikes. Thanks to the lightness of this little bike, I was able to throw my weight the other way and leap sideways over the rail in a fashion that impressed the gathered boda-boda riders, to whom my 200cc bike is a ‘big’ machine. In the kingdom of the boda-boda, the man with the 200cc piki-piki is king!
Already a month into my trip and the chill of English winter is just a thought that passes in a moment. By chance I happened on the weather forecast for Totnes today, and looked in mild interest to see a sunny day with a ‘feels like’ temperature of minus one degree. I sit under a blue sky in shorts and tee shirt. Haha!
DAY 30 TUESDAY 19th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
Things can be mended and repaired in Africa. At home I would probably have to throw damaged items away. Here I can find someone – or Adelight can find someone – to mend my pannier bags, after their hard journey last year that wore corners and pulled at stitching. I have with me also my small backpack. It has been to Africa for many years, mended many times. I recollect trying to get the previous one repaired in Yorkshire. It cost half the price of a new one to stitch in one new canvas panel. Today I spent £4 on revitalising three panniers for the trip to come.
Tomorrow I intend to set off on a short trip. I need to get back in the mood and settle down to my journey. I will be back for Christmas with the Kitale family – to which I am contributing the cost of a goat (expensive at this season as it is everyone’s preferred Christmas fare), but we have decided to buy other meats instead for a barbecue. I have also insisted on pineapples and ice cream!
Without that logbook I still have no proof of Adelight’s ownership of the bike. Last year I travelled with a receipt but I need to sort this out before I think of leaving the country. Now it transpires that Adelight’s contact at the vehicle registration department in Eldoret has been transferred to Mombasa… Bureaucracy is SO complex in so much of Africa. It’s the price I pay to have my own transport here. The other option was to bring my own motorbike from Devon – transport costs about £2000 one way and the newly privatised British ‘carnet de passage’ customs document at £750 or more for one year. Huh… I guess Kenyan bureaucracy is at least cheap, if arcane.
But it’s time to get moving, one way or the other.
DAY 31 WEDNESDAY 20th DECEMBER 2017. KESSUP, KENYA
A profound, deep silence in the velvet night is a gift that can seldom be enjoyed. I had forgotten how the night enfolds this place, perched on the very lip of the yawning Kerio Valley, a side branch of the great Rift Valley, that plunges outside my window, down from the tall eucalyptus and pine on the escarpment above this narrow plateau, down into the depths of the inky bush lands on the valley floor, where elephants roam and small dark villages are without electricity. Far across the abyss wink the lights of Kabarnet, a straggly town on the other rim of the Kerio Valley. To the north stretch desert-like lands far up Africa. When the power failed in the night, as it frequently does in much of Africa where demand so far outstrips supply, the darkness became almost tangible, the silence such that all I could hear was my own heartbeat.
If you followed my journey earlier this year, the name of Kessup might ring a bell. It was here that I arrived on January 8th after a shockingly hard ride on my bike, then new to me, exhausted by a rugged road through the Rift Valley, on my first real ride of the journey. I found the Lelin Campsite by chance, slept the best sleep of the entire journey on several occasions, and met my friend William, the ex-police officer. My silent chalet room (£15) has a huge view across the valley, dark and mysterious and filled with elephants and African magic – and I am in bed, and ready to sleep at 8.45, anticipating just the deep, satisfying rest that last year’s stays provided.
William I met by introduction as a sort of informal guide that the then guest house manager could provide for local walks. Usually I prefer to be my own guide and just see what happens, but in January I decided to meet William for a tour of the area. “I’m not very interested in the waterfall,” I told him, knowing it’s the usual fare on offer. “I’d rather meet the people of the village!”
So it was that I ended up taking several walks with William, quickly recognising that he was a man of integrity and bonding over beers and talk, as well as meeting so many of his friends and acquaintances and being welcomed into family compounds and homes across the plateau that forms the Kessup village. It spreads quite prettily between the steep cliffs that rise to the highlands behind, about 500 feet higher, and the depths of the valley below. Here on the plateau are many small shambas (farms) amongst dotted homesteads and trees. From my vantage point as I write at the large window looking over the misted valley, red dust roads wander the plateau towards the sharply defined rim, with a silhouette of trees where the shining morning mist hides the valley. Glinting through the silver haze is the islanded patch of the small lake that attracts the game animals in a reserve on the valley floor and I am beginning to make out a subtle darkness of the shadow that forms the opposite escarpment ten or fifteen miles away. The morning is still, except for the calls of pigeons that clatter on the zinc roof of my room. I appear to be the sole guest, my motorbike outside the door and breakfast no doubt being prepared by quiet Vicky, from whom I received the warm welcome reserved for old friends.
William was excited. We unloaded my Mosquito and repaired to a table beneath the trees overlooking the great valley to drink beer and catch up. William was a policeman but was so shocked by the criminal life of Nairobi and a vicious attack by machete, that slightly disfigures his thin face, that he resigned and returned to his small shamba in Kessup, where he ekes a living I’m not really sure how – just one of those African mysteries. He is an essentially very decent man, now 52, with good conversation and respected in his community. He is immensely proud of his daughter, currently training to be a nurse in Perth. Getting a child out to train abroad is a great achievement, incurring many sacrifices, but Lydia now sends William what she can afford from her probably meagre student nurse earnings. His wife, about whom I hear very little, is a policewoman in Eldoret, the nearest city, 30 miles away. There’s a son too, with a small IT business in Kenya.
William is tall and skinny, almost as tall as me. He looks sprucer and healthier than he did almost a year ago. It came out in our conversation that he seldom visits the bar that we frequented on my visits before. “I have given up the… this thing, the spirit. I don’t take it any more! I listened to your advice and I thought, my friend Jonathan advises me to stop; I should stop!” For William could down quantities of the strong local spirits while I drank my relatively nutritious beers. It caused me to tell him of all the strong young people I have seen die in Navrongo, the violent locally distilled liquors taken into empty stomachs and rotting livers. Africa has, as you will have read often in my diaries, a severe alcohol problem: perhaps one of the quickest threats to life here, but one that can be managed by individuals and not dependent on outside forces so I often find myself talking against it. Not against beer and local home brewed beers, all of which have some nutrition and vitamins, but distilled liquors with nothing but 40% (and various unknown) alcohol glugged down for its effect. Well, with Wechiga and William I have had some small success.
The ride from Kitale is uninspiring, but this IS African landscapes, something everywhere to watch as I pootle along at maximum 50mph on the whirring Mosquito. I’m taking just a short trip, going back for family Christmas, just to get back in the travelling mood. The little bike runs well and Rico’s new seat is a great success, infinitely more comfortable than the narrow torture seat fitted as standard. Well, the bike wasn’t meant for African touring, just for short journeys with off-road capabilities. With the new saddle and the pannier racks, Rico has turned it into a touring bike, albeit rather a lightweight, small one. But with my microlight luggage, it will do fine.
A frustrating logbook visit to the post office (I noted they have a numerical coupon system in the main crowded hall: “Ticket NUMber three thousand, two hundred and seventeen to winDOW oNE, please”). The licensing office is a tiny room out the back, perhaps 7 feet by 10 feet, into which is packed a huge desk, a large photocopier, a row of computer terminals in booths, six chairs – and anything up to eight or nine people waving papers. A couple of what I assume are officials, although it’s difficult to spot the difference from the jostling customers, enter things on computers, ask for random information to delay decision making and send you away again, defeated this time, to come again tomorrow with more papers. Now, despite the fact that we have a receipt, issued by this office, and signed by the previous owners, for the change of ownership to Adelight, the official says he must have the contact details of the previous owner and contact them to check, before the new logbook can be issued. I foresee a long, frustrating wait, especially with Christmas coming…
DAY 32 THURSDAY 21st DECEMBER 2017. KESSUP, KENYA
Below my window with its vista of the deep valley, away to the left and north of the view winds a red dust road, meandering between neat shambas and small houses over the flowing landscape of the sort of shelf that forms Kessup and Kewapsoss villages before it drops over the edge of the great crack in Africa. William and I wandered that way today, inspecting the tidy gardens and intricate rocky terraces, the fast flowing streams that make the ridge so fertile, and meeting the villagers wherever we went. I shook a hundred hands and was made most welcome everywhere under the high burning sun. Not many wazungu come this way, certainly not in such close contact, so I provide a magnet for snotty-nosed children and am visible from afar, greetings rising from all about the landscape. And of course, it’s just the sort of day I enjoy.
Onions, tomatoes, cabbages, kale, beans, passion fruits, maize, potatoes and a lot of local green vegetables I can’t name are cultivated here, water channelled and piped from the various streams that race from the escarpment above the plateau. Farming in Africa is hard graft, but people here are fortunate in the fertility of the region. There are few machines here, beyond the odd small grinding mill; work is done by hand with hoes and rakes, ploughing behind bullocks. At this season, before the rains come, people are nursing their seed beds and growing young crops in tidy plots, many of which straggle up the steeper hillsides, terraced in tiny beds held by dark, sharp volcanic rocks. But in Africa, if you have water, there is always plenty of sun – and things grow.
For an hour we sat amongst scrubby trees, on the dusty rocks, drinking bulsa with local men. Bulsa is similar to pito in Navrongo, komek in Uganda and a hundred other variants across the continent: a mildly alcoholic brew of grain, yeast and water. In Navrongo you drink fermenting millet; in Kewapsoss, fermenting maize. It has a faintly sour flavour – not much to my liking, but I drink it for solidarity, which is so much appreciated! It is a scummy liquid, thick with particles of grain that bubble gently as it works and leaves a residue in the bottom of the cooking fat containers that are the local mugs. At about 4% alcohol, at least it also has some nutritional value. I try to shut off my taste buds and slurp it down with what I hope looks like some pleasure as we talk in the shade, people passing or sitting around the shelter of sticks and zinc sheeting where Salima brews her mixture in sooty pans and dispenses from old plastic oil containers. We talk quietly, often an opportunity for me to answer questions about life in the West, seen only as luxurious and comfortable as portrayed in the ridiculous glitzy dramas that count for these farming folks as views of real life. It surprises them to understand that we too have to work for our money; the costs of living shock them and I try to make them understand that the relative wealth that we wazungu appear to bring to Africa is an effect of the difference in our economies, not from the amount I can pluck from those infamous money trees of the West. For me to provide four one pint plastic containers of bulsa for 75 pence is ridiculously cheap, but, I tell them, for me to buy my friends four pints of beer in the Church House Inn is wildly expensive… and I work it out in Kenya shillings… “…about 1900 bob!” The whole place goes silent in horror. I doubt anyone here earns nineteen hundred shillings in a week, most not in a month. Later, William needed a to make a small donation, just 50 bob (37 pence), and I learned that he had not a single coin in his pocket; a situation frequently common for Wechiga when we go on our ‘roaming’.
Questions come seem amusing, but I mustn’t laugh: “is Australia part of Britain?”, “is England the same as Britain?”, “are there hills? Is Europe part of America? Do you have cows? Do you drink bulsa?” I try to enlighten, for often these people have never before sat with a mzungu or had the chance to ask questions. Most wazungu they see are passing in luxurious safari vehicles or soaring above them on paragliders, for this is a place for ‘adventure’ holidays, where tourists spend huge money to fly above the little shambas, but seldom take much interest in local life below.
Rocky streams trickle and burble down the steep wooded slopes and large raptors circle above on the same currents that attract the paragliding crowd. The sun beats down and we are within a few miles of the Equator. Life is slow and calm, a few battered boda-bodas the only vehicles on these dusty tracks. Hoes hack at the red soil and water leaks from hundreds of plastic pipelines that water small fields where young tomatoes wilt and wait for their turn beneath the valuable locally engineered sprinklers. Children are on holiday for Christmas and play or watch cattle, calling to the passing white man from behind every hedge and aloe. It’s an attractive life, on the surface – until I am reminded of the harshness that lies beneath the bucolic, sylvan exterior. Fascinating to come and look and fool myself that I am ‘part of it’ for an hour or two, but even better to escape back to my own so much more comfortable life later!
We relaxed for a time back amongst the well tended terraced lawns and trees of the Lelin campsite. My en suite chalet room, a bit rough round the edges, costs £14.70 (about the same as those four pints in the Church House Inn…). I only once saw a tent: it seems to cater more to day-visiting conference groups. Then William and I set off on our afternoon ‘tour’. This time we climbed into the great green amphitheatre above the plateau, to attend the funeral of Zipporah Chesire, grandmother to some of the teenagers I photographed here last year and related to just about everyone, it would appear, in this place where family lines mix in complex manners. So, for the second time in a few days, I found myself gazing on another dead body, but this one in a simpler coffin on a hillside, being buried in the family compound – and having died only last Friday, not four months ago. Zipporah was despatched amongst her family and neighbours on a picturesque hillside, in a simple ceremony that owed more to tradition than pomp, pride and status than that last ugly, pretentious affair in Navrongo.
About two hundred people had gathered, sitting about on the dusty hillside with fabulous views of the great valley and the pine clad escarpment weaving away to our right. An extension cable had been snaked up the slopes – we crossed the knotted and taped joints for a couple of hundred feet on the sandy path – to facilitate many speeches, all in Kalenjin, a language that is a mystery to me. The deceased was born in 1947, ‘saved’ by one of the pastor-ridden business ‘churches’ in 2000 and died of asthma last week. Her coffin, complete with glazed window, sat under a billowing curtain on the edge of the compound slope, where a theatrically robed pastor led some sort of service when the speeches were done. Briefly, we all filed past the coffin and dropped a note into a basket to help with funeral expenses. “Oh, people will be happy!” exclaimed William later, “even a mzungu came to her funeral!” Meanwhile, of course, I felt a bit of a fake – but perception in Africa is quite different: I had honoured the family – as was obvious from the warm handshake and greeting I got, perhaps from a son, as I stepped away from the coffin having deposited my 200 shillings in the basket. “Oh, yes, it’s wonderful. It’s never happened in Kessup before. A mzungu at a funeral!” said William.
Soon at least four women had collapsed on the dirt (I fear the family crops suffered badly during the event, so many feet trampling the tiny fields on the steep slopes). Hysterical and fainting clean away they were carried off like sacks of maize and fanned by other women, one of them only regaining her senses twenty minutes later. Then some hymns were sung as the coffin was manhandled down to the lower terrace where a hole yawned in the red earth. A burial service was said by the ranting pastor and the coffin lowered and dust replaced. Food was then available – ughali (maize balls) and potatoes and some stringy meat I had seen boiling in a big sooty pan. But William said we could go now: duty had been done and we could quietly weave our way back down the rugged hill and relax with our beers and eventual supper. These two evenings, the wind has risen cooly from the valley, enough that William and I have sat in a shelter beside a tiny, comforting charcoal brazier.
An interesting day! Congenial and a small insight into how others live and survive – and die.
DAY 33 FRIDAY 22nd DECEMBER 2017. KESSUP, KENYA
Between Kessup, the main village of this plateau and Kewapsos sits another tiny village area, right beneath my eyrie up here on the hill. I can see the whole area as I write my diary, awake in the morning sun, green, with a few people walking the narrow red dust tracks between their neat fields; one man heaving a hoe to break the red sods turned by a plough, ready for planting. It’s a very quiet morning, just after eight, silent now the dawn chorus is over – for that sounds so much like a busy office of mobile phone ring tones these days, repeated burbles and bleeps, whistles, screeches and alarms. And then my sleep is shattered by the doves cavorting on the zinc roof. Happily, dawn doesn’t happen until about six or six thirty here on the Equator.
William and I walked into the view below my window, right to the lip of the steep drop that falls to the drier, hotter valley another thousand feet or more below. We sat for a time on the very edge of the slopes, the stiff breeze rushing up and over us from the valley, shaking the long grasses amongst which we sat. Emmanuel, one of our bulsa drinking characters of yesterday, sat beside me on another dry brown rock. I enjoyed Emmanuel’s company: I guess mid-twenties, full of questions, intelligent but only basically educated at the local schools. He shadowed me for the whole of our time in the villages, eager to know of life in Europe and ready to answer my questions too.
Bulsa is never far away in these rural areas, a gathering point for local gossip and idle minds. Inside a round thatched hut a number of locals were gathered drinking from an array of plastic containers. I squeezed inside and immediately spotted Vivian. Vivian is 22 and has a smile to match the very best. A pretty smile that lights her eyes and her small, open face. I had to have a photo, especially inside the dark hut, where the light from the small door reflected upwards to the faces of the drinkers. Unfortunately, this took some organisation, for two of the women were already drunk, noisy and foolish. Alcoholism makes some of my interactions difficult, particularly as I understand nothing of the local language. But William is a good translator and has come to know me quite well by now on our peregrinations about his homelands. Often it is he who suggests I want to take portraits of the people we meet. He’s well respected in the area, partly because he has managed to send his daughter to Australia, a feat very few young people here achieve. He’s unpretentious and quite wise.
So it took time for me to get the picture of pretty Vivian, time during which I sat outside on a rock beneath a banana tree with Emmanuel, joined by Vivian and others. I was touched by the way that Vivian had the confidence, on this her first meeting with a muzungu, to be fascinated by the hairs on my arms and the feel of my mzungu hair. It’s like William often says: I may be the first white man they ever touched, even shook hands with; the first foreigner they could ask questions. I find that something of a privilege, when they feel comfortable with me and welcome me as an equal into their homes. So much of travelling is just passing by, seeing the outside. Thanks to the Wechigas, the Alexes, and the Williams I meet along the way, sometimes I can see something of the inside of lives too, just a glance at least. And I can level the playing field between the false perceptions gained from the media, and show people that actually we have more in common than they imagine.
Later, we relaxed with beer on the sunny lawns of the guest house, the spectacular view before us. The place was busy today, Joseph, the cheerful fat cook, preparing huge cauldrons of chicken and vegetables as Vicky, a delightful worker I know from last year’s visits, and Nicolas, the barman, peeled sacks of potatoes. Joseph, in a big blue apron and white shirt – quite the international chef – stirred his pots with a long wooden spatula, laughing at my interest. He was cooking for 50; a Christmas party for the local government workers. “Huh! At OUR expense!” harrumphed William as we watched them all line up, in suits and ties, for a group photo behind us. William has little time for the corruption of Kenya. He saw plenty of it in his time in the police…
I found a little more of William’s life story as we gazed at the great valley. He separated from his wife a few years ago and he has, as well as his daughter in Australia and the son with a small IT business, another daughter and son still in school. His daughter in Australia provides for the two younger children and sends William bits of money from time to time – no doubt when she can afford it from a student nurse’s salary. William is a Catholic and a believer – we’ve had some good conversations about my lack of belief, matters on the whole difficult to discuss in Africa. He owned a matatu (minibuses driven by commercial drivers – badly!) that he gave to his wife in settlement when they parted ways. I really have no idea how William makes ends meet – a frequent mystery to me on this continent – except that, as he tells me, his needs are simple, he grows a bit of maize and vegetables to eat and is an essentially humble man. His home is very basic, with a recent addition of electric supply, thanks to his daughter. The final attack in his police service, when he ended in hospital for some weeks, with a possible brain operation hovering, obviously made him reconsider many things. He lives a simple life here on his shamba with four cows, two soon to give birth, and his small gardens. A beer when he has money is his treat now that he’s stopped drinking the hard alcohol.
I have promised to return to visit William later in my journey, but for now I shall ride back to Kitale for Christmas, via a rural road I didn’t use before.
DAY 34 SATURDAY 23rd DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA
Being chilled enough to stop to put on not just a jersey but my fleece jerkinhere, almost on the Equator, seems a contradiction. Riding today was cold for I was riding at perhaps 6000 feet or more. Here are forests of conifers, stately trees with twisted trunks; rippling brooks; plunging hillsides covered in intricate fields and cows that look like those of the northern hemisphere grazing on sloping meadows fenced with picturesque split timbers.
But above, the equatorial sun beats fiercely down. “Hah! You are RED!” exclaimed Adelight when she saw me this evening. The tops of my ears are sore and my neck is glowing red as my tee shirt. By the time I arrived back in Kitale, I sported a red beard too, filled with dust from the degraded road across the mountains.
This was a ride to enjoy slowly – really the only option on the little Mosquito. From Kessup I rode up the curling road to the busy, scruffy town of Iten 500 feet or so above, bought petrol at a chaotic station and turned north on the road towards the Cheringani Hills. After 20 kilometres my road dissolved to red dust, where I rode through the clouds from slow bouncing matatus and taxi cars. Then, oddly, a few miles of new tar before I reached a small straggly town and turned onto 25 miles of bumpy, rocky dirt track, asking my way from gathered boda-boda riders at the junctions. They always watch with interest as the mzungu on the little blue piki-piki passes. And I have learned only to ask directions, which I had to do several times as the track divided and split, from other drivers. Pedestrians – and there are always people walking the roads and tracks of Africa – often don’t go beyond their communities and have no idea how to get to distant places they seldom visit.
The road, such as it was, weaved about the hillsides with expansive views of distant high hills, heavily cultivated. These Kenyan Highlands are fertile and well used, fields bounded by wooden fences and dark trees punctuating the huge views. I have to keep an eye on where my wheels are going, but the lightness of the bike and the relative low speeds on these hills and tracks, makes for a contemplative, peaceful journey, watched by thousands as I pass, always ready to return a smile and a wave. For this I keep my open-face helmet.
The map calls my road the Cheringani Highway, a grand name for this rocky track. But one day it will be a fine tarred road. The last 30 kilometres of my cross country road to Kapenguria, a mountain town on the main road to the northern deserts and Lake Turkana, were on sweeping new tar, after a brief, difficult ride through muddy and broken road works, where Chinese men manoeuvred huge road making machines, as they are doing all over the continent – the continent that China is slowly buying up for future exploitation…
By 4.15 I was back in Kitale, frenetic with last minute holiday shoppers. Everywhere I rode today, I overtook boda-boda bikes with trussed goats, sheep and dangling chickens being transported home or to sale. Kitale was bustling, the supermarkets full as I stopped to get a couple of six-packs of beer to take home. By then it seemed a good idea to get off the roads!
So home, satisfactorily weary from 40 miles of rocky road and a lot of sun, to chatter and beer with Rico on the porch and the prospect of Christmas with the cheerful Rico Girls, all apparently happy to see me return. Adelight arrived later with several kilos of meat for a barbecue on Christmas day. This being a half-Dutch household, we will celebrate with presents on Christmas Eve. A small artificial tree winks in the corner of the living room and excitement runs high at the prospect of presents amongst these girls who haven’t much in material terms. At present we are limited to just four young women, lovely Scovia (my favourite, I admit! She makes me smile just to look at her), Marion, Rose and Bo. Having no idea what young women want for Christmas I shall cop out and give them each some money to buy their own presents: they will enjoy going to town with some notes in their pocket far more than anything I could give them.
Well, tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. My fifth Christmas in a row spent in warm sunshine. Today, the 23rd, is also Perry’s 60th birthday back in Ghana. We met half his life ago, on 23rd December 1987, an event that changed my life so much, since I decided, in 1989, to ride back to Ghana to spend that Christmas with his family. The rest is history, and my travel/ life story.