DAY 71 WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 20th 2019. KITALE, KENYA
And so, full circle – although the ride back from Addis Ababa can hardly be said to be a circle, as I followed many of the same roads as those with which I went. But back to my surrogate home in East Africa, where I am assured of a warm, familiar welcome. I am allowed to feel ‘at home’ here: I don’t seem to disrupt the family activity too much, just an extra mouth at mealtimes, and conversation for Adelight. This week is half term, so Marion and Bo are at home with Adelight and Scovia, and happy little Maria. Also back now; she was at home for the Christmas holidays, is Sarah, the rather timid, quiet, house girl.
The house is in some upheaval just now, in the midst of renovations: an internal wall that had to be replaced, repainting the walls, new covers for the settees, painting the exterior, and later, new tiles for the floor. Life in every African household is hand to mouth, no less so in this one, which relies on income when Rico gets a contract. Right now he is in central Zambia renovating a fleet of Land Cruisers for a private safari park. It’s a good, rolling contract – there are a couple of dozen vehicles – and should keep the family finances afloat for a time. He still has school fees and all the other costs of his large extended family to bear in this most admirable ‘family’ I know, composed of so many young women, many of whom have no blood relation to one another, but form the most cohesive family I am happy to know – and even be accepted into for a few weeks each year, these past trips. It’s been Rico’s huge commitment, a real expression of absolute generosity that one doesn’t often witness: to make the formation of such a family your life’s interest. It’s had its ups and downs: a few children fell by the wayside, but it has the ultimate reward in the love and respect they feel for him. Rico’s a year older than me, and Adelight a good deal younger, so she must find some measure of independence. About the time I leave Kenya, she will go to Eldoret to take a short course in mushroom cultivation, and a couple of buildings are in progress in the compound for this purpose. She reckons to have already the main customer, one of the larger Kitale supermarkets waiting for her supplies.
“Oh, we can’t do this work when Rico is here! He hasn’t the patience!” exclaims Adelight, as more and more furniture is pushed to the centre of the main living room and piled up away from the walls. It IS a bit of a mess, but a happy mess, as Scovia clambers on a stool, paintbrush in hand. Mike, another sibling of Adelight’s – same father, different mother: polygamy is quite common here in Kenya (although never two husbands per wife, that’s still very sexistly called infidelity… Different rules for men and their behaviour in Africa) is painting while the other girls give the house a deep clean behind them. It’s a merry bustle; no one complains that they want to be elsewhere, not doing these chores. They all know how fortunate they are to live happily together in this cheerful household. Shared chores are what they expect.
DAY 72 THURSDAY FEBRUARY 21st 2019. KITALE, KENYA
Adelight and I go to town to collect newly made stripy cushions from a tailor by the street side. We enjoy one another’s company, Adelight and I. She’s happy because I can always find things to watch in town while she does her business. Rico doesn’t have that patience – but then it’s not all new for him as it is for me. The house is in complete upheaval today, slowly getting back to normal this evening as we all return furniture and Adelight delights in her new cushions. She’s chosen a sort of zebra theme for the living room, with white walls. She enjoys this activity.
Kitale is a busy town; small enough to be friendly. Under the clutter you can still see some of the colonial architecture, with an Indian influence from the earlier traders. There are still Indian businesses in town. It intrigues me to see how ‘Indian’ the Indians remain, considering that most of them are second or third generation at least and most probably no longer have any connection with their not-very-home country. They still remain somewhat aloof from the Kenyans.
The streets are wide, filled with people and randomly parked cars. Council attendants collect parking fees. There are boda-bodas everywhere, weaving about, vastly overloaded with sacks, crates, multiple passengers, timber, bundles and even piles of trays of eggs; the riders often have to sit on their tanks. Many of them have the habit of texting or talking on the ubiquitous mobiles as they ride.
Traders fill every pavement and the areas in front of the old lock-up shops. There’s colour everywhere you look. On the corner where the cushion tailor sits at his foot-treadle sewing machine, stitching Adelight’s black and white covers, sit several other sewers, machine stitching intricate embroidery. One woman is embroidering the name of a schoolgirl onto a pile of clothing, even on the outside of the blouse collars. Everyone will know Olivia’s name: it’s even stitched onto her socks for school. In the sunshine, across the covered, arcaded shop fronts where all the tailors, and the lottery sellers sit amongst heaps of new suitcases and bags, blankets and plastic clothes’ dummies – oddly pink in hue for Africa – are stalls selling ironware. I always like to look at these, for there are so many useful items: handmade axes, hammers, spades, forks, locks, hinges, and spanners. A man pumps at a treadle sharpener made from a bicycle wheel and grinding disc. It hums as it spins; he hones one of the big axes for a customer. “Hey, mzungu!” calls a woman selling Chinese clothes, draped on hangers and a few wan dummies in a corner between crumbling buildings. Every space is utilised somehow. This is how people scratch a living. It’s a cheerful hubbub; noisy and colourful. As if anyone needs it, loud, boringly repetitive music plays from huge speakers across the street, but it’s all part of the town atmosphere, and everyone seems deaf to the chaos. Occasionally, someone pulls a protesting goat or drives sheep across the street. The fat beggar-woman, with a deformed leg, who habitually reduces the pavement to single file outside the supermarket, talks on her mobile phone; Matatus hoot and call for passengers, men load trucks and boda-bodas; horrid vultures wheel and soar in the cloudless blue above, circling for carrion. For a moment I mistake a tall, gangly crane on a roof for a sculpture, then it moves its long head and swings its huge beak and beady eyes to the distance and flies off, ungainly, legs trailing. Almost together, Adelight and I decide we might as well wait in the cafe behind the tailor’s sewing machine spot. We’ve been watching him for half an hour, probably stressing him. He can get on without us; he’s fifteen cushions to sew up and insert zips. The cafe is busy on this street corner but most of the things on the plastic encapsulated menu aren’t actually available – just wishful thinking. So long as you want goat, ughali, chips, or fried chicken you might be lucky. Ask for fresh juices and there’s no hope: soda, yes, sickly sweet, made by the evil Coca Cola Corporation that has taken over the world. I order mixed tea, and Adelight has a Coke. We both choose a couple of samosas and agree they are rather good. “Samosas have to be greasy like this!” I joke as the oil runs onto the plate in a pool as we bite them.
My phone rings in my pocket. I feel it vibrate. It’s a funny story; becoming something of a running joke. You may remember that I met Jessica in Archers Post when she joined me to chat after supper. She’d arrived recently from near Kitale to work as a cleaner and bed-maker at the campsite and huts in the women’s cooperative guest house. Feeling sorry for her plight – single mother with three boys left at home 500 miles away to fend for themselves while she chased a poorly paid job so far away, I gave her 1000 bob (£7.70) as I left and told her to send it to the children. Of course, I was naive, not remembering that from a mzungu this would be seen as next to a proposal of marriage! She texted several times after I left and then started making calls to my phone, even a Valentine’s message! Wazungu are so often seen in this rather mercenary, romantic light by women of a certain age in Africa… While walking the last few days with William, I switched off my phone, but any time anyone called HIM, we’d joke, “Archers Post!” Now Adelight is in on the joke.
“Next time she rings, let ME answer it!” She laughs her cheerful laugh, imagining how she will answer and ask what Jessica wants with her ‘husband’! “Then your calls will stop!” We enjoy this joke. Adelight and I are very compatible company. She’s not only a very warm, capable woman, but has a quick wit and excellent English, although I sometimes have to unravel her Kenyan intonation a bit. “Haha! I will answer as your wife!” The trouble is, probably lonely, Jessica dreams of escape and she met a mzungu… My small gesture of generosity was typically misinterpreted. But I know she wants my email address, and once she gets it, she will bug me for months. Perhaps I am ducking the issue but it’s a lot simpler just to let her think perhaps I lost my phone..? Well, the SIM card in my phone dies when I leave Kenya in three weeks. That’ll solve the problem. My trouble is, I’m too soft-hearted…
Rico’s neighbour and old friend, Dutchman Cor, has set my mind at ease about the Mosquito for now. He knows about motorbike engines. He says the oil burning is an issue with the new piston rings. What’s wrong, we don’t know, but he assures me that, while not very environmentally friendly, burning the oil isn’t really any immediate problem for the continuation of my current journey: I can ride to Sipi next week, so long as I make sure the engine’s topped up. He also has an answer for the drive sprocket. “It’s even in the online manuals: as soon as you get your Suzuki, remove the sprocket bolt and replace using LockTite! It’s in the manual. A common problem. No, paint and superglue don’t work. Paint doesn’t dry and lubricates, and superglue gets too hot and brittle and breaks. You need proper LockTite. Rico and I have it, or you can buy it in town.” He’s promised to look at the sprocket for me tomorrow. I’ll probably head for Sipi on Monday – the hardest ride of all: 60 miles of serious trail riding. Fun though, and a journey I am perversely proud I can still make, pushing 70 – or 37…
DAY 73 FRIDAY FEBRUARY 22nd 2019. KITALE, KENYA
Showers, precursors of what seem, again, to be early rains, concern me a bit. They make my riding so much more difficult if they become regular, controlling my riding hours and routes. The road to Sipi, for instance, will be impassible, or at least even more challenging, if the thick dust turns to slithery mud. Oh well, what will be, will be.
“Why have you given me special food?” I asked Adelight as we sat down to supper. Everyone was served very good vegetables and ughali, which I quite like; but on my plate was also some meat, reheated from last night. No one else got meat. “I don’t need to be treated differently!”
“But you are the guest!” Adelight declared.
“I’m still one of the family, and anyway, I did nothing useful at all today. Can you think of anything useful I achieved that deserves extra food?”
“No, you sat on your arse all day!” exclaimed Adelight, causing all the girls to join in my ridicule.
And, I guess she summed it up.
But it’s a grand atmosphere in which to relax. The renovations continue, mainly outside now, so the disruption is a bit less. Adelight and I went to town to purchase timber and paint; timber for the mushroom house that is drying across the garden. It’s built about half way up from local baked bricks set in mud, and from there in mud blocks made by the workers – watchman, Vincent and a couple of hired builders – dried in the hot sun. In a day or two, “Oh, they can start tomorrow,” says Adelight. They will cement render on top of the mud and bricks, inside and out, sealing the structure. A zinc sheet roof will complete the simple building. Much of Africa builds with mud. Talking with Francisca in Kessup the other day, she was bemoaning the state of her mud built house. “How old is it?” I asked. “Fifteen years,” she told me; not bad for a mud structure. Well maintained, they can survive the rains for years; the main problem is termites attacking the wooden parts and foundation posts, if there are any. Timber in Africa is always a vulnerable material.
We drove to a timber yard in the most crowded part of town. Stacked twenty foot high on racks was tons of timber, curling and twisting in the hot sun, unseasoned and newly cut. This is the customary structural material. Two men planed down planks, somewhat unevenly. I thought of my frequent trips to my local builders’ merchants and Southern Timber; how I select the straight seasoned planks, reject the unacceptably – very slightly! – warped ones. Here. It’s just a case of taking what’s available. On a devilish circular saw (no safety guard) two fellows cut rough six by twos into three by twos for us. As they came off the saw they bent away from each other like live things.
I’ll try not to start on another tirade about TV..! But… Oh dear, this is half term, so with a group of young people in the house, the TV gets a lot of air time. The available fare (or perhaps just the selections they make) is of such lousy quality. The continent is invaded by the worst, most trivial and insidious of American TV. Young Bo, fourteen and most susceptible to the lure of the mall screen – a phone scroller too – chooses action movies directed at teenagers. They extol, of course, the American Way of Life: consumerism, romance and economic success, and denigrate ‘evil’ influences in such terrible cliches that I wonder why the, presumably adult, script writers aren’t embarrassed to attach their names to this crap. The images are all computer tweaked and the editing, to my eye, cuts together the fighting, violence and fantasy in such glaringly unsubtle technique as to remove any need for imagination. Meanwhile, the viewers – on every continent, I guess, as this culturally arid shit is now everywhere – infuse the influences; their imaginations atrophy; they become couch potatoes and set themselves up for lifetime health problems – manipulated by global corporations for their own profit.
And as for the – African made – music video channels..! All repetitive beat music created by computer engineers, not songsmiths or composers, to images sexually manipulative (all bums and tits in tight clothes) and sexist, and conspicuous consumption: sports cars and swimming pools, flashy, tasteless mansions and the like…
And this is what young people watch – all day long.
Sorry… Maybe it’s always been the role of the old(er) to criticise the taste of the young? But at least I haven’t railed much about religion this year!
DAY 74 SATURDAY FEBRUARY 23rd 2019. KITALE, KENYA
Sad to say, the rains seem to have arrived. Very early this year and not to my liking. I hoped to get out of Kenya before the wet season commenced. I’ve still about 500 miles that I have promised to ride: to visit Alex and Precious in Sipi; to revisit Nashon, the mechanic in Brooke, and to call by William’s in Kessup on the way back if I have time. It’s beginning to look as if I may have to ride to Sipi on the tar road, through the major border crossing to the south of Kitale. That’s much more of a bureaucratic hassle, and twice the distance, than going through remote Suam, but that road will be becoming almost impassible if this weather continues. I want to start on Monday, so I have a few days back here at home with Rico before I leave the country.
It’s been all go, round the homestead today. Adelight and Rico have decided, wisely, to become independent for water supply, and have hired a couple of well diggers to dig down to the relatively abundant water levels below the garden. Today they started, digging a hole about four feet around with a crowbar; a hoe and bucket on a rope. When we left at lunchtime, they had already progressed about two metres. The soil was completely dry every centimetre of the way, as it will be for some time yet. They expect to meet dry season water anywhere after 30 feet deep. Meanwhile, the mushroom factory got its roof timbers and zinc sheets. Work in the house was restricted to completing the painting of the porch, as we all went on a family trip to visit Betty, Adelight, Scovia and Marion’s mother, who lives about 30 miles south.
She lives in a rural area on the lower slopes of Mt Elgon. Her children have been assisting in building her a house (designed by Rico) but it’s rather unfinished, not an uncommon state of accommodation in Africa, where many live in part-completed ruins for years, awaiting funds to continue. “We had to complete our own house, so we stopped building here…” says Adelight, looking round the bare cement walls, the rough concrete floor and the unlined roof. There’s no electricity connected yet and most of the rooms are bare shells, but that never stops Africans moving in; it saves rent and everyone’s used to rough conditions, so a few paraffin lanterns and your bed under a net in a part-built bedroom is luxury when you know you own the bedroom.
Betty has six children: Adelight and her twin sister in Nairobi (mother of lovely little Shamilla), Scovia, Ken, Tito and Marion.
“And your father? How many children has he?” For he is a polygamist.
“Total..?” Adelight thinks for a moment, “…around fifteen..?” with a laugh. She knows what I am thinking, but as a woman, even she’d never criticise openly. Abandon hope, Planet Earth. If nothing else brings us down as a species, African men will do the job very efficiently.
Scovia and Marion have lived with, and been the responsibility of Adelight and Rico for a decade or more, just part of the extended family. They’ve taken Rico’s name as a surname. Betty and the children moved to remote Lodwar back in about 2003 (mainly, I infer, to get away from their father). and that’s where Rico was living, in the deep northern desert, amongst the fascinating, but very rugged and troublesome tribal area of the Turkana people, a tribe of semi-nomadic animal herders with few trappings of modern life. I stayed in Lodwar for a few weeks in 2001 and 2002, one of the most outlandish African frontiers, or so it felt.
Days pass in easy contentment and cheerful large family fun. I’m accepted by these lovely girls warmly. That’s the wonder of the extended family, an institution I have come to respect like no other in Africa. It is so flexible that it can welcome even someone of a different generation and culture. I have my extended families all over Africa – and have encouraged a few in other parts of the world too! Our frequently dysfunctional ‘nuclear’ families are so selfishly based; the extended family of Africa is based on equality and generous warmth. We all bring to it what we have. I know that sometimes I am the money provider, but I get back so much in emotional warmth. It’s just that I am the one who has more money; as I said the other day: I never resent paying for William’s beer and food. I know instinctively that if he had money he would share with me. It’s the way friendship, and especially ‘family’ works on this continent: an entirely different, generally more healthy way of quantifying relationships, unlike the way we count the cost and feel responsibility to reciprocate equally. The most generous people I meet around this world are those with the least material wealth to give: they give whatever they have and don’t count the cost.
It’s cool and damp tonight. The weather’s changing fast now.
DAY 75. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 24th 2019. KITALE, KENYA
There’s no way I can take the scenic route to Sipi tomorrow. It’s been raining hard again tonight and the temperature has dropped. The rough road will be muddy and slippery on two wheels.
I took Adelight and all the girls, with a couple of their friends, and young Mike, Adelight’s half brother, who’s been helping with the redecoration project in the house, to the archaic Kitale Club this evening. The girls like to swim and meet their friends, while some of us sit on the terrace and gaze across the greens towards where Mount Elgon would be seen, were it not for the rainclouds and mist. A chilly wind blew about us and it wasn’t the experience it can be in the warm equatorial sunshine. And the trouble with the club is that it invariably irritates me – and then I get ashamed of my short temper, and trying to judge by my European standards. For some reason, not disconnected to its sense of superiority and wish to appear somewhat exclusive as a private members’ golf and drinking club, it just rubs me wrong. I’d probably get just as provoked in any similar institution in England, which may be why I never joined one! The waiting staff are the worst on this continent, a fault I could probably overlook, were it not for that snobbish ‘exclusivity’ the club tries to project. I have never yet got what I ordered (I specifically ordered roast potatoes – and got the usual chips; I actually wrote a drinks order on a piece of paper, but the waiter brought only five of the eight drinks – and the bill!), and the system of accounting is so arcane that I think they just think of numbers. I queried the bill. It turned out – but it was my responsibility to prove it – that they were charging me for twelve meals, while we were eight diners… The club’s made acceptable by the view of the landscape across the greens, laid out by ancient snobbish colonial Englishmen who wanted to get away from ‘the natives’ into their own exclusionary country club. Were I a member, I’ve a suspicion I’d be removed by the ‘Members’ Committee’…
Then I feel guilty! I can’t win. Trouble is, they always make it seem as if YOU ordered incorrectly – even when you have given them a written order of eight items in simple block capitals. Oh well, the girls enjoyed seeing their friends when they could draw their eyes away from their phones. (The two visitors had serious addictive problems, thumbs scrolling obsessively, attention span zero milliseconds). The Club food’s mediocre, but it gives all these lovely teenagers a trip out and a chance for the treat of an apparently bold glass of wine in as refined surroundings as Kitale has to offer! Poor Adelight has to put up with my impatience. You can sense that I was quite put out by it all, but I’ll get over it. The grumpy old(ish) man in me doesn’t often appear in Africa, where I am generally relaxed and accepting.
Marion, in her last school year, has seldom said much to me beyond polite greetings; she’s a bit shy with the mzungu uncle. This morning, left alone at the breakfast table when all the others had scattered about their business, we had a long conversation, and found a lot of contact. She has artistic and practical tendencies and admits to being unacademic. Her school mates ridicule her for enjoying her agriculture lessons and their practical side of growing cabbages and kale. “Let them laugh!” I said. ‘You’ll have the last laugh. Anyone with practical skills will be able to live, while they, with their academia will struggle! At least you’ll be able to eat cabbage!” We laughed at the idea, but I can see that Kenyan schools are making all the mistakes of the British system, on which theirs is based: trying to get good marks for their schools in the fact-based subjects that can be easily tested. They value academia at the cost of making useful citizens with useful skills. I told her how much I hated my school, with its academic values, and dismissal of my artistic skills. (“You’re a bloody fool, boy. no one passes art in this school.” Words of the horrible deputy headmaster that I haven’t forgotten in fifty years. Maybe I got that single exam grade A of my life out of spite!). Marion showed me some sketches and she has ability, put down relentlessly by her school. Sometimes I think we get through our school years despite the school systems that are imagined to be good for us…
Marion is back to school tomorrow for her last couple of terms and exams – that will test useless things like her ability to learn and regurgitate facts. Like me, she’ll have to start afresh after school and find a direction. She’s interested in design or even architecture, using and developing drawing skills, and even might like to experiment in growing less common vegetables in the shamba at home, carrots maybe, for sale. It’s so sad to see young people with potential enterprise and enthusiasm put down by the rigidity of the school system. It’s not just a western problem, as Marion proves.
It’s surprisingly chilly outside tonight, down to 16 or 17 degrees. But my room in the garden is quiet and I sleep really well out here in the compound in my reasonably cosy mud and cement house, drops falling from the overhanging trees onto the zinc roof a bit noisily. Well, I am better off than Rico, down in central Zambia, where it hasn’t rained so much since 1925. Last Sunday, he writes in an email this morning, lightning took out the internet and 65mm of rain fell in 25 minutes. That’s over two and a half inches of rain. Poor Planet Earth: what are we doing to our fragile home?