DAY 20 to 23. THURSDAY – SUNDAY JANUARY 16-19 2020. KESSUP, KENYA
Sometimes I think I’m one of the luckiest people around! Not only do I surround myself with congenial friends, but when my newly restored motorbike breaks down, it does so at the junction to the guest house I plan to reach, and the lane from there is downhill! For that’s how my afternoon finished: with my engine, which had been struggling for the final 30 kilometres, failing at the top of the rocky track to Lelin Campsite, my destination tonight. It’s not so much a campsite as a small, wonderfully situated ‘resort’ with chalet rooms, perched on the very edge of the vast Kerio Valley, a branch of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. I’ve stayed here many times and am welcomed back as an old friend.
I’ve come here to revisit my friend William, the retired policeman who’s been my companion in Kessup these past four years. I am ‘William’s Mzungu’, just as I am ‘Alex’s Rich Mzungu’. How fortunate I am to have these kind friends.
My journey began well enough. If you aren’t and have never been a biker, you won’t perhaps understand the sense of freedom and pleasure I felt to be setting off on a journey, having not ridden for over four months – apart from those two brief test rides up the road outside Rico’s house this week. So I set out with a smile on my face once again. A road I know well. Unexciting but quiet and with decent tarmac. And hundreds of boring speed humps, the obsession of Kenya’s Highway Authority. Maybe it keeps the speeds down for these many not very safe vehicles and bad drivers. They also cause a lot of mechanical damage and a few very serious accidents. The road sweeps in a large curve from the north of Kitale and heads to the north east, skirting the green mountains covered in dark conifers. It sweeps between some straggly towns and villages, past thousands of shambas and commercial farms, and is pleasantly rural much of the way, nipping past the northern outskirts of ugly, busy Eldoret quite quickly. Then it’s north in a steady rise towards Iten, ‘Home of Champions’, as the sign across the road at the entrance to town claims. Here are many training camps for international runners and Olympians, taking advantage of the high altitude at 7900 feet.
Through scruffy Iten, and by now I didn’t dare to stop for the ATM, for the bike was struggling seriously. And then one of the finest scenic reveals in East Africa. Round two tight bends the road drops steeply out of Iten with its untidy markets and dilapidated business buildings, to the very lip of the Rift Valley. Suddenly, the vista opens up across the depths of the Kerio Valley, thousands of feet below, scrubland and pale green expanses stretching far to the north, where they join the main Rift that splits the Earth from Mozambique to Jordan. It’s a memorable sight indeed. I still recollect my amazement the first time I came upon this theatrical reveal, back in 2001.
The Mosquito was struggling badly, losing power and gasping for fuel or air, it seemed. Downhill the symptoms reduced a little, so I kept rolling, knowing that my destination was several hundred feet lower, down the winding main road, the great view off to the left now. About four miles down I reach the rocky turn I need to bring me back to familiar Kessup. Right at the last, I decided to turn the bike and try a little venture uphill once more. Within moments the engine failed. At least all I had to do now was to freewheel to my destination, helped by enthusiastic pushing on the rocky track by a group of delightful schoolboys, thrilled to push the mzungu’s bike. Their glee was enough to lift my spirits at this latest upset. Dark blue jumpers over white shirts and dark shorts, their merriment and chatter accompanied me as I tried to slow them down to keep up! Then a slow bumpy roll down the track past William’s shamba so quietly that he didn’t hear me pass, even though he had been waiting with anticipation for the sound of the Mosquito.
What’s happened to my wheels? All those new parts and yet disaster. It sounds serious. I think repatriation to Kitale may be called for. At least I am now amongst friends who will assist in whatever way they can. I am a well known celebrity in these villages. Many of the people are featured on the portrait walls of Rock Cottage and I have just brought back a pile of prints that will be received with heartfelt friendship as William and make a regal tour tomorrow. It’s a response that I love – and one no tourist gets from their expensive animal safaris. To engage with people is why I am here. When I first met William it was in the guise of a local guide. Oddly, one of the first times I ever hired one. Instinct again? The then guest house manager, Chesoli, thought I might like a guide for a local walk. A favour to William, who lives on fresh air, his own vegetables and milk and yoghurt from his five cows and whatever his daughter, training to be a nurse in Australia sends him. “He’ll guide you to our waterfalls…”
When I met William I was immediately comfortable and later we bonded as friends. “I’m not interested in your waterfalls,” I said, “but I’d love to meet your neighbours! That’s much more interesting to me.” I found William to be a respected member of his rural community and his friendship has been my open sesame throughout the villages along this scenic plateau. I’ve been in many houses, met hundreds of his neighbours and am now ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’. “Oh, people have been asking, when is our mzungu coming?” says William within moments when we meet on the track past his small hillside shamba.
The bike parked, I decided to think no more about it for a day or two. I’ll probably have to get it back to Kitale somehow, so I may as well enjoy my sojourn in Kessup for now. My leg has coped with the ride, somewhat swollen now from the position for two and a half hours. Soon William and I were catching up in one of the small shelters overlooking the great valley, beers in hand. I sleep in my usual room, ‘Mexico’, in which I have stayed many nights now. William takes it as his personal responsibility to make sure his mzungu is looked after, harrying the staff with demands that, were he not a neighbour, me well known and the fact that I come to visit him brings them my custom, must irritate the management! The price for my room has not risen in three years, still under £12 for a simple room with a basic bathroom and a balcony room that overlooks the wonderful view below. Most places it’d cost a lot more – but then most places I guess there’d be a lavatory seat and less African foam green emulsion paint. But I like it here much better than those more pretentious places and, after all, what do I need but a bed, preferably clean, to lay my head and a door to lock out the world for eight hours?
Kessup’s mzungu is back.
“I thought I’d bring the stick that I use for my cows, but I knew you wouldn’t like it!” says William, arriving in the garden at breakfast time.
“No William! I’m not old enough for a stick! My pride won’t allow it. People here already think their white man is old as Methuselah!”
He’s brought an enamel mug of his cow’s ‘milik’. Fresh and delicious, it’s cool from the night. “My house is of wood, so it’s cool at night,” he explains. “I boiled it last night.” We are going to walk down in the villages below, greeting William’s neighbours and distributing photos. It’s to be a long walk, probably the longest I took in four months, apart maybe from struggling around Nairobi the other day. “We will go slowwly! For your foot!” William is very caring, like most of the Kenyans I’ve come to know. Solicitous for my comfort. Everything must be right for his mzungu.
William’s gangly, spare, a lined face a little distorted by the attack with a machete that made him end his police career. He was in the Flying Squad in Nairobi. Then in hospital for three months with the possibility of a brain operation. It was enough to make him decide to quit the violence of his job and return to his meagre shamba here in Kessup. His house is little more than a shack, his possessions few, comforts almost nil, except the flat screen satellite TV his daughter in Australia subsidised, partly as an alternative to alcohol, so that he can follow his revered Manchester City. He’s respected in the area, an upright citizen with a strong sense of honesty and fairness. He’s turning white about his sparse beard now, and white hairs appear in his receding hair. He’s 54 now. A calm, relaxed fellow who knows everyone on the plateau, and introduces me to most of them.
It’s a relaxed wander. “Oh, it will be HOT!” he exclaims, seeing me tie my thin jersey round my waist as we leave. But I explain that I am from England and we never take the weather for granted. Later I am grateful to throw the jersey over my neck to screen the burning sun. It IS hot! VERY hot, as we amble between small houses and shambas, shaking hands with hundreds, joking with children, being welcomed into fields and compounds, greeted and hailed as we walk. I add twenty or thirty portraits to my collection each day we walk, smiling, cheerful folk, happy to welcome ‘their mzungu’ again. It’s convivial and generous. Soon I have my pockets bulging with ripe passion fruits, a crop that seems to be being cultivating everywhere this year. Purple eggs filled with mysterious, slightly slimy but the sweetest pulp and seeds. This is fruit season in East Africa. Juice-dripping pineapples unlike any we know in Europe cost a pound. Mangoes are the sweetest and most succulent, about 15 pence each. Two ultimately delicious fruits.
I’ve brought back at least forty photos that we must hand out. It’s a great introduction of course. Invariably, I must take more. People are happy and pose cheerfully. It’s difficult in this beating, high sunshine, so near the Equator. I have to choose my locations carefully, otherwise all I get is a black silhouette – black faces against the squintingly dazzling landscape. Harsh light, strong contrast, black skins, white smiles.
We meet Maureen and Mercy; Rael and Purity. We meet cheerful ‘Lunch’. “Eh, even as a young boy, if you asked him where he was going, he would reply, ‘No, I am going for lunch’, so we gave him that name!” explains William with a laugh. Later, we meet Changwony – William’s 85 year old father; also Rongue, his senior by seven years. Old men here. Changwony’s senior brother is even older. “Maybe 100!” says William. Who knows? I often hear that people are “100”, but it’s difficult to know. It doesn’t matter. They receive the respect of their community, these rare old men. Rongue lives in a small earth house on a dusty terrace. He can’t walk any more and is looked after by his daughter and her husband, visited by legions of grandchildren, respected for his extreme age. He knows he was born in 1928, but not the month. He was a policeman too. We sit in his dark, stained bedroom. He sits on the iron bedstead, on somewhat unsavoury blankets. A kitten sleeps on the bed. Rongue has all his wits and even his eyes are sharp enough to enjoy my photos, even to laugh at the picture I take of him, viewed on the back of my camera. I got him to smile this year. Last year I got only a formal stare, these old people maybe only used to posed photos for colonial ID passes. No photographer ever came to Rongue’s simple house before. In the evening we send him two bottles of Coke via his daughter, a well received mark of respect, William says.
The children, Faith, Ruth, Cherile and Mercy are fascinated to be close to a mzungu who sits on a black rock on the edge of the great escarpment down to the usually parched Kerio Valley below. This year, it’s green and the lake in the middle, used by elephants and animals that roam down there in a small national reserve, has swelled to four times its size, now covered in dense green weed, visible from my vantage point up here amongst the children several miles away. The children are excited and touch my skin, feel the hair on my arms, stare at my blue eyes, exclaiming. Probably they never came close to white skin before, as they pull my ears and stroke my hair, giggling at their bravery. “There’s only a millimetre of difference!” I explain. But Purity, their mother, believes I am white all the way through! She’s astonished when I tell her that my blood is just as red as hers. She’s probably not very well educated. She lives in a crude compound that I can see far below, amongst usually arid fields. Her shamba is poor. I visited last year and wondered how anyone could live in such privation.
Education levels are very mixed here. It depends on the family. I meet one mother whose five children are all at university. Her last-born, a quiet youth, has just finished school with the highest marks in the region. He’s bound for university in due course too. In September, his mother tells me. She’s stopped briefly from weeding her flowers around her simple zinc and timber home. A well maintained compound, not many grow flowers around their homes. This is a family with keen intelligence and education. “The only thing you can do for your children is to educate them and make them independent!” she says. But I wonder why then she has five children?
Folk here in the villages have no idea of world affairs. Of fears of the climate crisis. To them, the resources of our ailing planet are infinite. They know nothing of global warming, the climate emergency, the depletion of their soils, contamination of their lands, overpopulation – the cause of their self-inflicted poverty. No one educates them of the consequences of having so many children. In fact, the opposite: the churches and mosques irresponsibly promulgate these high birth rates.
“Oh, I will have at least FIVE children!” says a young man, planting onion seedlings on a patch of red soil. “I must! It’s good to have many children. And if I don’t, who will inherit my land? How will I be remembered when I die?”
“But if you have two, you replace yourself and your wife, you can afford to educate them, keep them healthy, and you still carry on your ‘name’ and everyone has a better life…” He looks at me as if I am telling him a joke. It’s incomprehensible. Beyond belief. Madness. “…And if you have five children, they will each inherit just twenty percent of your land! If you have two they will have half each. If you have so many, and they have so many, they will end up with a piece of Kenya the size of this seed bed!”
Warnings of the heating planet mean nothing here. It’s always been hot. So what, if it gets a bit hotter? There’s no understanding that these conditions will be irreversible. That by the end of the century this land on which we are standing will be uninhabitable. That their great grandchildren (a generation here being about 18 years) will be suffering as no one has yet suffered in humankind.
In the West we may tinker with emissions targets and boast about ‘cleaner’ lifestyles, but while Africa – and the Indian Subcontinent, South East Asia, South America, and most of the world beyond the relatively educated ‘developed’ countries, keep up their exponential birth rates, there is no hope.
But the children here are charming and fun. Inquisitive, curious, cheerful. Happy to have a mzungu passing by. They chorus from distant hills and shambas, run to politely greet. Shake their fruit-sticky fingers in mine. These are happy wanderings for me.
And I’m feeling very upbeat about my ankle! This was to be the test, my time in Kessup. I have wondered for some weeks how I would cope with the very rough, broken surfaces of the red footpaths and tracks amongst the village shambas, even sometimes walking over broken fields and rock strewn hills. These days I walk many kilometres, usually at a gentle amble, but on rough, steep hilly surfaces. I’m careful where I put my foot but walk up and down the hills and across the expansive plateau. By the second long walk my ankle barely swells and suddenly I can stand on my toes – which I couldn’t do even four days ago! I have decided that I am trying for the three month recovery, not the six months that the physio nurse forecast! “Three to six months from removing the big boot,” she warned me, meaning doubtless, that a 70 year old might expect the longer time. I’m now nine weeks past that day. Well, here I am getting a LOT of gentle exercise, plenty of sun and no stress. These days have made more difference than the previous weeks. It may take many months to rebuild the muscles, but even now the limp is reducing – except when I am on the home straight of a long rugged walk. In the morning my ankles look equal, all swelling gone, but I hate the fact that I have one muscle-dwindled leg of an old man and one of a healthy middle aged man, but I’ll be working on that over the next weeks too!
No, William was right, no way am I using his cow stick!
People often ask me, “What do you DO in Africa?” Well, these days were typical. I met and talked to hundreds of charming village folk on the Kessup plateau, in scorching sunshine that has turned various bits of me beetroot red.
The resort here gets to be a noisy place on weekends. A busload of teenage schoolboys arrived on Sunday morning, trooping off their bus with respectful greetings for a school day out. Middle class families often come for a treat. A few sodas and a meal of potatoes and meat at tables in the gardens overlooking the fine views of Kerio Valley. Everyone is extremely polite. As I passed one family group, with a smile and a hello, one of the boys asked, almost as if he hadn’t really meant to be heard, “How old are you?”
“Seventy!” I replied cheerily.
“But you are looking so STRONG!” said Dave. “Look at us, we are 18 and already looking old! Give us some tips.”
It’s so disarming! How could I fail to be charmed by such politeness – let alone the compliment?! I gave Dave to usual ‘tips’ about exercise and diet. To those I add one more: to remain amongst young people. Easy in Africa. Dave was very charming in his interest and respect. How attractive that he was prepared to chat so unselfconsciously with an old bloke. What fun travelling in Africa is as an older person!
The only other guests staying in the Lelin Campsite are a very congenial older couple from Germany. Wanda is in her mid sixties, and her husband Jorg just turning sixty. They are travelling in a 20 year old German registered Land Cruiser, thoughtfully converted for African travel. Like me, they have been coming for three months a year for the past eight years, after shipping the car to Cape Town and now leaving it with friends in Tanzania, as I leave my Mosquito in Kitale. They’ve visited here at Kessup these last four years, and wander about East Africa for three months. We have, of course, many similarities in our attitudes to and love of things African. Wanda is an artist and Jorg a mechanic. We’ve travelled to MANY of the same places with remarkably similar tastes. Jorg first came to Africa 40 years ago, beating me by seven years. He crossed the Sahara as a 19 year old and they’ve travelled in many countries, obsessed by Africa – as can happen! I know only too well.
Long conversations ensued and we swapped ideas and routes. They have put me off the idea of Tanzania, telling me that the rains are extreme and flooding rampant. This should be the dry season… Instead, we have been talking of northern Uganda. Well, I enjoy the Ugandans very much and haven’t seen the proper north, tribal areas different to most of the country. When Wanda and Jorg come to Kitale in a few days, I shall introduce them to Rico and Adelight. They’ll find a lot of links!
Jorg asked if he could join William and I on our third long village wander. We walked six or seven miles on rough ground and rocky red tracks. We met and interacted with probably another 100 people, shaking hands with them all, joking and laughing together, invited into homes and compounds, investigating shambas and playing with dozens of happy children. They are such fun. Natural and expressive, unlike most Western children, their inhibitions slight – once they pass their diffidence with a mzungu. It’s easy to put that to rest. Sometimes children are just so attractive that I could bring them home! Angel, about three or four, was such a child! We spent the day with a motley collection of children following the two wazungus, calling, greeting and playing. Such fun.
One of the people we met was Mokijo, an ancient lady older than Rongue. He was born in 1928. Mokijo, William translated, calls Rongue ‘no more than a young boy’. She’s another one who claims to be ‘100’. Everywhere people welcomed us with delight, a happy progress through the villages.
William has negotiated with a brother in law to carry the Mosquito back to Kitale in a pick up. I hope Rico can discover the sickness so that I can set off on my next safari before long.
But this enforced wait has given time for my leg to repair a good deal. The walking these last three days has done wonders. The ankle hardly swells now, I begin to be able to take my weight on my toes again, and the leg is – very slowly – becoming stronger. I am content.
DAY 24/ 25 MONDAY/ TUESDAY JANUARY 20th/21st 2020. KITALE, KENYA
By pick up with two young men, Titus the driver and Leonard, William’s nephew and the owner’s son, back to Kitale. The owner has made a good profit from the 150 mile round trip, charging me £55. Oh well, I had to get the Mosquito home. An easy journey, Titus never exceeded 35 miles an hour. I sat crunched up in the middle of the small pick up seat, the bike strapped in behind.
In the afternoon, Rico and I (well, Rico really, of course) took the carburettor to pieces, for we’ve both decided that the problem must be related to fuel delivery. We put the machine up on a box and removed the carb. Then Rico began to dissect it. After a time, poking with tweezers, he called me to look at it through the magnifying glass. “What’s that..?”
‘That’ was a shred of old twisted copper flex wire, wrapped around the main jet with a strand going into the hole that the needle slides up and down inside, regulating – very finely – the petrol flow.
It took me until well into beer time, and a search back through my old diaries to identify the culprit. This out and put bodge must have been applied by a ‘mechanic’ in Masaka, Uganda two years ago:
‘It was after noon before I got away from Masaka. By then Jahz’s boys had stripped my carburettor, emptied and cleaned out my tank and found me two new Japanese spark plugs somewhere in town. Meanwhile, I adjusted the chain and washed the extremely dirty air filter. This was all done on oil and petrol soaked mud at the edge of a piece of town wasteland, during which a downpour added filth to the underfoot conditions.’
Three hours work in Masaka cost me £2. I’m pretty certain this was when the African ‘repair’ was installed in my carburettor! It’s been there several thousand miles. We’ve identified the parts we need and Rico ordered them from the Suzuki representative in Nairobi. It has taken all day to organise this. “What do you DO in Africa?” people ask. Well, every piece of business takes a day. Rico rang the company in the morning. The man in Nairobi said he’d check availability and call back in a few minutes. A couple of hours later, he asked for a photo of the parts we need but gave us an inoperative electronic address. I had to email the photo to the business address and we had to ring the salesman to check the company email. They had closed for lunch. After lunch the fellow promised he’d check and call back shortly. ‘Shortly’ was late afternoon… Finally, he admitted they had the parts in stock. “Please tell us the cost and we’ll transfer the money!” says Rico. “Then you can put them on tonight’s bus to Kitale.”
“Oh, but it’s raining here,” says the fellow in Nairobi.
“So you don’t have an umbrella?” asks Rico as I laugh in the corner.
Business in Africa is done differently. The man in Nairobi doesn’t want to get wet taking the parts, probably on a boda-boda to the bus depot. So he delays telling us the cost of the parts to keep dry. Meanwhile, I wait. I spend another day of my trip waiting, despite Rico’s insistence that I am stranded and wasting my money and time. The fellow doesn’t want to get wet! This is not Amazon next day delivery!
So, more quiet days. One thing Africa teaches is patience.
The ‘most expensive potatoes’ Adelight ever bought – the ones we bought on the Mount Elgon slopes the other evening, all turned out to be rather soft and inedible! They have all been planted in Adelight’s shamba. “So I’ll have to come back next year to enjoy the bloody things?” I asked, to her laughter.
I’m the world’s lightest sleeper. Why ever do I come to Africa? ‘Jonathan’s House’ is in the garden, a simple block of cement plaster over an earth and stick framework, with a red zinc roof. It’s becoming engulfed in a fast growing avocado tree. In the properties around there must be thirty bloody dogs, including Rico’s own three – Pablo, Booby and Gerry and the cute little hairy pup. I’ve suggested a large barbecue might make my nights a damned sight more peaceful. Rico, a dog lover, doesn’t really share my thoughts. He maintains that they are necessary for security. Of course, that’s something you can never prove without barbecuing the noisy buggers! Even ear plugs, my nightly habit here now, don’t combat the chorus some nights. How I wish I slept like an average African.
Days here are slow and congenial, family days. We eat simply, enjoy the sun, work at a relaxed pace – and wait on the whim of salesmen down in Nairobi who don’t want to get wet taking parts to the bus depot for despatch, and never calling back as they promise.
Life in Africa works at a different pace. You just have to be philosophical and relax.