WEST & EAST AFRICA 2017-2018 – Journal five

DAY 35 SUNDAY 24th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA

How we enjoyed this cheerful Christmas Eve! It’s a great leveller to be amongst Africans at this season, that I associate with excess and commercialism.

The four girls now in the house, Scovia, Marion, Rose and Bo, have been busy for days preparing presents in fancy wrappings that they displayed under the winking tree in a corner of the living room next to the ironing board. The glittery pile grew daily. This evening we rearranged the porch furniture, lit the charcoal barbecue and ate supper of Scovia’s fried rice, with barbecued beef, followed by delicious fresh pineapple and ice cream, a Christmas treat.

Then it was time to start on the presents. It was the most enjoyable Christmas present unwrapping I can remember. The presents were simple but given in such a heartfelt, generous spirit that they became so much more valuable in warmth and acceptance than much greater gifts. The girls gave one another inexpensive, fashionable clothes, some of them second hand but all of them unwrapped with glee and pleasure. When Marion mixed up her labels there were moments of hilarity as I received a pair of rather sexy, narrow trousers meant for 14 year old Bo, while she got a green tee shirt. Scovia gave me a mug, specially printed with a picture of us both that she had mysteriously insisted Rico take before I left home the other day. From Bo, a Kenya bracelet. I value the simple second hand tee shirts, the half share in a bottle of local brandy (from Adelight to Rico and I) and the small gifts more than I would all the new iPhones, ‘devices’ and expensive presents that youths in the West will be opening today. It really IS the thought that counts.

Perhaps I copped out a bit: I don’t know what young Kenyan women want for Christmas – although I am certain that whatever I had chosen would have been accepted in generous spirit – so I rode to town to look for something to wrap, to which I could attach some money, better than plain envelopes. I decided on four boxes of fruit juice (!), wrapped them elaborately in shiny paper and attached 1500 shillings to each, about £11. I was truly moved at the excitement that erupted as all the girls undid these, their last presents. They clamoured with genuine delight and danced about hugging their white uncle. Now they can make trips to town and enjoy shopping together for whatever they want. In fact, Scovia told me that she will open a bank account with her money.

The most difficult lesson for a Westerner to learn in Africa is to accept from the heart, in the manner that gifts are given from the heart here. Not to count the cost is SO difficult. I have often eaten food that would have been supper for the family hosting me; I have had to accept gifts that I know the giver could not afford; and I have accepted hospitality that meant sacrifices for the giver. But I have learned too that my thanks and appreciation are more evident, and give greater happiness, in grateful acceptance rather than any demurral at ‘unaffordable’ generosity.

This was the happiest of evenings!

*

Music pounded late into the night from a big party nearby, maybe at one of the so-called churches in the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, Gerry, one of the four friendly dogs – Alsatian-like – gave birth to eight tiny puppies out in the yard shed. Bo cares for the dogs, a task she takes seriously. As with all African dogs, they are of course outdoor dogs, their noise better than any security device at night, even if I often have to resort to my earplugs in my garden room.

DAY 36 MONDAY CHRISTMAS DAY 2017. KITALE, KENYA

Christmas day in Kenya. For most of it I sat on the porch reading, chatting and relaxing, hardly moving from the old settee, except to eat too much as is usual on this day, everywhere that people have a modicum of money. The girls bustled about, busy with chores, singing happily and trying on their new clothes. In the evening, beer and beef again, the neighbours joining us for a long, slow supper time. By coincidence, the neighbours are another Dutch/ Kenyan couple with a couple of small girls, one a baby younger than little smiling Maria.

Scovia drew the short straw for washing up tonight. The girls have some sort of informal rota for the cooking and washing up duties of the house. Scovia was cheerfully washing up late into the evening after a party of eleven for three courses. Remember, hot water is a luxury in much of this continent. She warmed a pan over the barbecue charcoals and set to. No one EVER complains, even on Christmas night.

DAY 37 TUESDAY 26th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA

I came to bed tonight with a sense of satisfaction – and pride. Rico rigged up a sheet, dusted off a now old fashioned slide projector and we took trip down memory lane – or memory piste, I suppose.

Looking at those slightly fading pictures from our Sahara crossing thirty one years ago, a journey that so changed both our lives, is like looking at someone else – until I recollect that that was ME, involved in the moment recorded in a brief photograph, in all it meant to be there and all that surrounded the moment – the emotions, the excitement, the sensations. It was ME! I was there.

I can never be dissatisfied that I did not live life to the full. I crossed the Sahara desert on my motorbike! Twice! I was THERE. It’s part of my story. It’s part of what I am and who I am. I have no illusion that anyone will remember or be impressed in another thirty years – but I DID it, I did it then and I still do it now, as it’s all part of me.

How we shared all that! The girls dozed off, less impressed, amused by the svelte Rico and Uncle Jonathan with a black beard and hair. The old African Elephant, in my workshop in Harberton at this moment, featured in many pictures – floundering through the thick sand; parked beside Rico, Marti and Liesbeth’s old Land Rover; flying across the desert, a dust cloud feathering behind. Oh, it was all such fun! It’s probably 28 years since I saw those pictures but the sensation remains as vivid as ever, even if the details have faded. The stories remain, Rico recollecting different details…

So passed Boxing Day, with me once again on the old stripy sofa on the porch, reading old guide books, perusing maps, searching websites and inspiring myself for another journey in Africa, thirty one years after that momentous introduction.

DAY 38 WEDNESDAY 27th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA

In Africa you develop a new patience: by necessity. It will still be days before that logbook is issued, if it is then. I am in the same situation that I was in 357 days ago; all for want of someone, somewhere, pushing a few computer keys or just doing their work.

When I went to town to meet Adelight in her tailoring kiosk, she was frustrated even before our visit to the post office vehicle licensing department. Her employee had not turned up for work, customers were clamouring for their orders and business was impossible. She had to sack that tailor, who wouldn’t answer his phone, by telling his wife he no longer had work, and look for a new one and change the padlock on her shop. “This is the problem with paying a monthly salary in Africa!” exclaimed Rico. “You must pay the new tailor by the work done.” Being a business woman here is fraught with so many small problems. “How can I pay rent if no work is done?” How indeed.

At the post office, the coupon queueing system had clocked up to “NUMber seven thousand eight hundred and fiftEEN, counter TWOOO… please.” The licensing office was still heaped with miscellaneous papers (I kept a careful eye on mine as they were dumped on the heap), and crowded with paper-waving customers. Another delaying excuse was given, despite the fact that we have a one year old receipt for the transfer. We left empty handed, Adelight thinking up schemes of people who can help us – the usual African answer to bureaucratic obfuscation. But the man who may be able to help us in Nairobi has “travelled to a funeral…” So goes another week in Africa. Another long weekend holiday is approaching… Maybe it would have been as easy to ship my Elephant here once again!

And then I recollect shipping my Elephant to relatively efficient South Africa in 2002 and the month it took to get it out of a dock strike and through Customs, who then had the cheek to charge me storage for their inefficiency. I took pettily revengeful satisfaction from breaking apart the crate in the Customs shed and driving away leaving the shattered remains in the middle of the floor for them to remove.

It appears that Yuri, from whom I bought the bike, has to talk to his uncle, who arranged the deal with the previous owners, a large farming company in Nairobi, so we can get the magic password to their tax identification, that we have to have before papers can be issued. T’is always thus in Africa: someone always has to speak to their uncle in these roundabout dealings…

Well, at least I have congenial surroundings and generous hosts to look after me here in Kitale. I guess I’ll take a short safari for a few days, but not leaving the country yet.

DAY 39 THURSDAY 28th DECEMBER 2017. ISECHENO, KAKAMEGA, KENYA

For such a large tract of indigenous woodland, Kakamega Forest takes a lot of finding. I seemed to spend much of my day lost on dust tracks searching for the Kenya Wildlife Service signboards. The place I intended to visit was impossible to find so I find myself in the bigger expanse of forest a few miles south. One signboard I did find, and followed for several kilometres down rutted and rocky paths until I found a rangers’ post, but it seemed I had struggled the wrong way for the next bridge, said Mark, a quietly spoken young ranger, was ‘out’ and I wouldn’t get through. I should go all the way back to the tar road, turn left and look for the next signpost. Huh! Next signpost indeed. I was marooned in mile upon mile of roadworks, dust and un-signposted detours, where all signs had been destroyed in making the new road. In the end, finding myself in the next large town, I just headed instead for the larger forest, managing to miss that too and having to back track ten kilometres to find the place again.

I’ve ended up in a basic lodging place on the edge of the forest. A pleasant garden surrounds this odd collection of unsophisticated cells and the block of latrines and showers in the garden. The water – to wash away a thick layer of red dust – is warmed by a wood burning brazier outside. At £6.50 for my dark room, it will do for the night and supper was good. Tomorrow I’ll take a guided walk in the forest for a few hours: a rather pressurised hard sell from a community guide, as unsmiling as her name: Eunice.

The second half of my journey was pretty grim: heavy traffic on a narrow, broken road, followed by those miles of roadworks. Most of the motorbikes ride on the new carriageway, a stony surface awaiting tar. The matatus and cars bounce along on devious dirt tracks formed at the roadside. There’s dust everywhere and speed humps every few hundred yards. Then suddenly, across the road was stretched tape and piles of new earth, backed by big machines and Chinamen. There had been no indication whatsoever that there was a detour through dusty villages and across fields for a couple of miles. Frustrated, I turned round again and searched for the detour. I arrived at Isecheno with the customary red beard and dusty clothes.

I felt the need to take a short trip, although everyone wants me back to see in the New Year at Kitale. The frustrations of all the bureaucracy are just too tedious without making some activity, even though it’s really Adelight who deals with most of it on my behalf.

DAY 40 FRIDAY 29th DECEMBER 2017. BROOKE, KENYA

Had I known, as I got soaked to the underpants by a torrential rain shower, that I was crossing the Equator, I think it would have seemed so much more acceptable. As it was, it was a rather miserable experience as I descended from pretty hills, curling down a road that suddenly became a river. By good fortune I was losing altitude and every minute became warmer and steamier, until I passed out from under the rain into warm balminess that soon dried my trousers, although my boots continue sodden and muggy. I stopped and removed my soaked jacket and pulled my fleece body warmer and waterproof jacket over my wet tee shirt and was soon dry. The rain happened too quickly to prepare: often the way in Africa.

*

Kakamega Forest is the last small patch of indigenous equatorial rain forest left in Kenya, just 240 square kilometres of it. This forest used to stretch from the Kenya highlands as far as the Atlantic Ocean – Atlantic, not Indian… Even now it is under pressure from the expanding population and the need for farm and grazing land. It’s protected and managed now by the well established Kenya Wildlife Service: a green lung, with two metres of rainfall in a year, 1500 to 1700 metres above the sea.

Real natural peace is so scarce. Kakamega is a haven. It’s a big tranquil space given over to just the sounds of nature: fluting, whistling and booming of birds of all sizes; rustling breezes through the canopy; crashing and swishing as monkeys leap above; a tattoo from a distant woodpecker; the eternal faint hum of insects and bees everywhere; the constant crisp tapping of dead leaves falling onto the forest floor.

Happily, Eunice belied her appearance and we spent almost four hours sauntering quietly in the forest paths and undergrowth. Lost within yards, for all I know she just led me round in small circles and we didn’t really go anywhere far at all! It didn’t matter, for there was plenty to enjoy, and even Eunice softened a bit in time. She was born nearby and has wandered the forest since she was a child – her grandfather was a local herbalist. Now she works as a community guide, charge about £7.50 for a four hour walk, of which she gets half and half goes to support community projects. She lives just outside the forest, is divorced with two daughters, the 17 year old at university in Mombasa, the other in high school. She certainly appeared to know her way about the thick forest, which all looks much the same to an untutored eye.

We saw little fauna: just colobus and blue monkeys; many birds and some wonderfully decorative butterflies, of which the forest supports 450 species. As the sun became higher and warmer they flapped and flitted all around us, a kaleidoscope of fleeting colours. Snakes (33 species) are seldom seen: the vibration of human footfalls assures secrecy. But of flora we saw plenty, especially the fine trees and the always fascinating parasitical strangling figs, that start as a seed lodged high in the host tree, drop roots to the floor far below and then slowly strangle the host tree that rots away until it is replaced by the bizarrely melding, eventually self-supporting trunk of the parasite.

*

I rode away from the rustic guest house about one, continuing along the dusty forest road to tarmac and weaving my way over and around the Nandi Hills, wooded and spread here and there with neat tea plantations. Far away to the south west is Lake Victoria, and I dropped several hundred feet to more clement warmth. But this is Friday and the bigger roads were busy. The worst part of every travelling day is searching for and selecting a place to sleep, so, knowing that I was only about 25 miles from Brooke, where I stayed for four nights in February, when my little blue Mosquito broke down and had to be repaired here, I decided to head back to the Brooke Hotel, where an adequate more or less en suite room costs me £8.50 and the staff recognised and welcomed me back. My room looks across the busy main road onto a spreading sea of bright green tea bushes, for Brooke is named after Brooke Bond. Who, now in the guise of aggressive Unilever, operate HUGE tea estates all around this area, Kenya being third exporter of tea to Britain after India and Sri Lanka, most of it from around Kericho, the big town two miles back up the road, where accommodation costs several times as much as at the simple and not very fashionable Brooke Hotel.

The road is very busy, and one of the billions of speed humps that define driving in Kenya, sits outside as I write on the balcony bar. I reckon it might be window shut AND earplugs this Friday before the New Year long weekend…

DAY 41 SATURDAY 30th DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA

A grand ride: the sort that keeps me motorbiking round Africa. I rode 150 miles back to Kitale through the pretty Nandi Hills,

a fertile, heavily cultivated upland area dotted with the beauties of many tea estates, in vast commercial landscapes and small subsistence fields. The hills are heavily wooded and magnificent, rolling this way and that. But this being overpopulated Africa, even in the remotest parts you never leave people and habitation behind. The swelling population – seven times bigger in sixty years – colonises even the remotest of rural roads with their crude houses and split-wood fenced shambas. The figures of six million in 1950 to near forty one million in 2010 explains the dwindling resources, the spreading shambas and the sheer numbers of people everywhere – and gives a good indication of the doomed future of the planet in its ability to sustain mankind on board very much longer…

However, to be more positive than that train of thought, which is never far away in Africa: after a noisy night behind the gold brocade curtains of the Brooke Hotel (on brassy rails, with the finials protected forever by plastic bags!), my ears plugged reasonably successfully against the holiday traffic and air brakes of the heavy lorries heading to Uganda and beyond on the speed hump outside the hotel, I said goodbye to the friendly staff and rode away. First I went to visit Nashon, the quiet mechanic who rescued my Mosquito for me in February, when it required a complete strip down to its component cogs and nuts. I was so fortunate to find a competent mechanic in a small Kenyan town: they are a rare breed amongst the bike butchers. Nashon’s face lit up when I wove through the people and traffic to his market-centre lock up. It was worth riding those extra miles yesterday for the apparent pleasure of his greeting. A thoroughly decent man, and a good mechanic to boot.

This was a fresh sunny morning, a delight to be riding. Past the tea carpets, through busy Kericho and onto the main highway to Kisumu, Kenya’s second city, for some miles; a fine highway overlooking vistas of sugar fields to the far green mountains that I was shortly to climb. Across the plain and the climb began, twisting and curling across the Equator, dry and sunny today, into the lovely Nandi Hills.

Up and up and then into the brilliant green sea swell of tea country, neat waves of tea dotted with pickers, throwing shoots into capacious wicker baskets on their backs, their colourful clothes making the scene wonderful. Here and there amongst the bushes grew bright red or yellow lilies, small islands left, one can only imagine, not for their use but for pure beauty on the eye. It’s an intensely managed landscape, narrow red dust paths cut the tea into segments, a few trees decorate the view and mature dark trees back the patchwork. It’s one of the loveliest crops in the world.

Mid-morning, I reached Kapsabet, a busy trading town on the hills. I have learned to make a point of asking my way frequently: always from other drivers. In a petrol station, a kind gentleman in his tidy car told me to ride a few kilometres east to pick up the cross country road I was seeking, to avoid the holiday traffic on the main roads. For a few miles I was delighted: a quiet, pretty road through tall trees and neat shambas – and tarred. Then, as always, the tar ended and I was onto fifty miles of dust and rock, the last twenty some of the worst I have ridden in Kenya! Rutted, potholed, broken, corrugated, slippery with dust: it was a physical trial as I bashed and bounced, balanced and concentrated. But it’s such fun (when you get to the other end!) to be out in these rural areas, people astonished at the mzungu flying by in a pall of dust.

Somewhere I passed through the tiniest of remote villages on the edge of a ridge with a magnificent view down across far woodlands and patchwork fields, dissolving into the sun-drenched distance. Below the dusty road I spotted a newly painted ‘hotel’, and on the verandah a couple of young men roasting meat. Desperate for a drink, I turned round and went back, to the amazement and delight of the gathered villagers. Hotel… don’t imagine anything more than a single storey lock up shop with a tin roof. At the back, on a slope overlooking the view, the enterprising owner is constructing four basic rooms, an outside pit latrine and shower cubicle, all of which will be completed in a month or so, Linus, the young man who seemed to be in charge, assured me. I was in Kebulonik, he told me.

I ordered tea – chai, tea brewed with milk and sugar – (at least I know it’s local, even if I don’t relish the sweetness) from a thermos and took a plastic chair onto the verandah, sinecure of all eyes, and revelled in the warmth, the blue sky with its cotton ball clouds, the knowledge of the fine view into the hazed distance behind the building – all a third of a degree north of the Equator on the penultimate day of 2017.

In the shack hotel, people (where from?) ate ughali and vegetables and meat at plywood tables for 40 to 80/- a dish (30 to 60 pence) as I drank my 9p mugs of tea. Country and Western music, interspersed with Kenyan Gospel, drifted not unpleasantly from the next shack, ambitiously entitled ‘Shop’, where a young girl in totally unsuitable high heeled boots and tight pants tottered across the dusty threshold and the steep dusty frontage.

At the roadside a battered truck stopped and a boda-boda submerged beneath bundles of tea shoots freshly picked from fields around was unloaded. The driver’s mate extended a balance from the back of the truck and weighed the bags, loaded them into his truck and went on to the next small supplier and the processing factory down the road. The grower gets 26 to 30 shillings a kilo for the shoots, Linus told me, 19 to 22 pence. I wondered how long it takes to pick a kilo of tea shoots…

“Do you want some soup?” asked one of the young men by the barbecue brazier and pot on the verandah. But I had been watching what went into the pot – progressively – and it somewhat reduced my already small appetite. The boy was doing unspeakable things with unspeakable bits of a goat. Nothing goes to waste, as he stripped the cheeks and flesh off toothy jaws and a broken skull. He’d made his own black pudding and unattractive bits of the billy goat were formed into new delicacies stuffed, sausage-like into intestines. At least it’s not ‘rendered’ in a factory like our cheap sausage meats. The goat had scavenged the village and probably lived out the back by the view. I politely refused a plastic mug of greasy soup. The goat’s balls had just been dunked, parked – as in life – in the scrotum, but now speared onto a piece of fencing wire picked up from the floor.

Much refreshed and amused by the hour I spent outside the ‘hotel’, I rode on through the dusty, sunny day, the sun now overhead, just a few days past its southern zenith. At the oddly named Turbo, a seething market place on a main road between east and west, I crossed the road and began the worst journey I can remember in Kenya, ricocheting from pit to hole, sliding and bouncing for the next twenty miles, the track often dividing confusingly, such that I always had to ask directions of boda-boda boys. By the time I once again reached the tar road, I was grateful for the easy ride home, in heavy traffic, back to a shower and beers with Rico on the porch. I am happy I decided to return today. Tomorrow we will celebrate New Year at the Kitale Club, as last year. I can imagine making such a rigorous ride and then having to remain awake until midnight afterwards! As it is, bed is very welcome. I need to stretch all those different muscles I used today.

DAY 42 SUNDAY 31st DECEMBER 2017. KITALE, KENYA

So ends 2017: ending, as it started, in Africa; with 110 days of the year spent in Africa and 40 in America; half of it in friendly Harberton.

As last New Year, we all went to the Kitale Club, a complete time warp of old colonial echoes, now gone almost completely ‘native’, as they’d have said, horrified at the idea, in those culturally arrogant days. It’s easy to imagine crusty white settlers downing their gin and bitters, served by ‘native’ boys in unsuitable colonial costume, in the wood lined bar with its fly-spotted and damp-curled photos of thankfully bygone days, and its cabinet of old silver golf trophies from another era, the silver polished away to thin brassy hues; the names those of white men long gone to the great golf course in the sky. The floors are of old hardwood, the fittings peeling and battered, the view across the golf course to Mount Elgon attractive and somehow un-African: the clipped greens and the distant players trailing carts. Shorts not allowed in the clubhouse: “for goodness sake, don’t urinate in a dark corner of the greens!” expostulated Rico, aware of my proclivity for free-range pissing, seeing me get up from the table. “You’ll be fined!”

Sadly, the entertaining live music of last year’s party was replaced by a noisy disco. Rico’s tolerance for loud music may even be less than mine! We persevered until 10.45, when, somewhat to the irritation of the girls, amongst their friends, but to my quiet gratitude, he made the call to leave. I wasn’t sorry, as the temperature had dropped to 15C by then. Adelight and I saw in 2018 playing Scrabble, a brandy in my hand, back at home.

And so to 2018! Starting out amongst generous friends, in warm African sunshine can’t be a bad beginning…

 

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