DAYS 49/50/51. FRIDAY – SUNDAY 14/15/16th FEBRUARY 2020. KITALE – KAPSABET. KENYA
After two unremarkable but warmly welcomed days at ‘home’ in Kitale, I have set off for a few days – the final short journeys before I leave East Africa this year.
It’s Sunday evening now, in a noisy (football league) Moslem hotel in Kapsabet, a bustling town of little attraction except the handsome surroundings of the Nandi Hills, carpeted with tea estates and graced by tall dark woodland. It’s fifty or sixty miles south of Kitale, on the way towards Lake Victoria. I’d intended to get to the town of Nandi Hills itself, only a few miles further along the hilly roads, but heavy rain once again intervened. I stopped and found a place to stay, where I have to drink tea instead of beer!
It’s not easy, finding my way in rural areas utterly lacking in signposting. There are few direction posts anywhere in the country, and none whatsoever on these dirt back roads. The consequence? I rode fifty rough kilometres and ended up about 25 kilometres from where I started, on the wrong road. Somewhere I made two thirds of a circle instead of a direct line to the small town I was seeking. It’s often pointless to even ask directions, as I often find that the people I ask – usually boda-boda riders, on the assumption that they at least know the roads – perhaps don’t actually understand my question and answer the one they think they might have heard! I probably added at least forty very hard kilometres to my ride today – having asked my way and received extravagant confirmatory nods.
On a few occasions, I’ve ridden back and forth on these hills and have a couple of pleasant short cuts. Well ‘short’ isn’t very accurate, I suppose. They are long rugged tracks over the rolling hills. One of them I discovered about three years ago and actually marked on my map as a lovely road. It WAS a lovely road, even a year ago. Now it’s severely damaged by the constant rains of this climate-changed dry season, surely one of the worst roads in East Africa. Of the 100 miles I rode today, about seventy must have been the hardest trails I’ve ridden in a long time. The rains have certainly altered the process of moving about this year. Today I have been shaken, rattled and battered. Only a year ago this was a pleasant smoothish gravel road. Not now.
It’s fine scenery though, stretches of forest and farmland and a hundred dilapidated ribbon villages of general ugliness. There’s not a lot of time to study them. I have to keep my eyes glued to the pitted track ahead. Every yard is a potential hazard on these roads. A moment’s inattention and I’m in trouble with the deep, serious parallel ruts, often a foot deep. I wonder if the physio nurse at Totnes hospital had anything like this in mind as a recovery technique for my Achille’s tendon! I doubt it somehow. But much of the way is only made bearable by standing on my foot pegs and transferring my weight to the front wheel and the centre of gravity down to the footrests. That way I can dance and weave, anticipate and correct. It’s hard exercise. The little bike takes a lot of punishment too.
It took over four hours to reach Kapsabet. For the last hour, I watched heavy storm clouds gather and hoped I would make it to the tarred road before the rain made my trail a slippery ski run. I knew the final miles would be surfaced and didn’t let up until I was there. Light rain began minutes later and I cut short my journey, finding a round thatched hut in this slightly down at heel guest house for £11.50. It has a fine, big bed with spotless sheets and a vast red Chinese blanket that never saw a sheep or any other living organism in its production. There’s a small bathroom with a warm shower to wash off the appalling red dust. (Except the water heater fused!). It’s chilly now. Kapsabet is quite high and the rain has cooled the air up here. I’m almost exactly on the Equator, but elevation signifies more than latitude. And this year the weather is so much cooler than usual. There’s much talk, too, of the record plague of locusts invading and stripping the vegetation of the northern desert and bush lands of Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. Biblical proportions, I guess you might say. Had I succeeded in my ambition of making the safari round the north of Uganda in the Karamajong region ten days ago, I might have been fighting off locusts as I rode. Pictures show them in veritable clouds up there.
I’ve just eaten parts of a chicken that ran a marathon recently. Quite likely won. The rice and vegetables were beaten to submission and held down until they drowned in oil. And, add to this, I have to drink bloody tea! And there’s a certain pall of deep misery that hangs over Moslem hotels. It’s a joyless religion and its women particularly gloomy. The travelling life. It’s not all exotic and adventurous by any means!
DAY 52. MONDAY 17th FEBRUARY 2020. BROOKE. KENYA
I’m sitting in the terrace of the noisiest hotel in Kenya, shuddering to the sounds of large lorries with air brakes hissing and racing to a halt at the bottom of a long hill and crashing and rattling over the speed humps on the main East African highway outside. The road runs from Nairobi to the second Kenyan city, Kisumu, down on the lake. Rain is pouring and tumbling on the tin roof over my head. It’s cascading down. I’m wearing my jersey and fleece. This is the hot season. The dry season. In East Africa. Meanwhile, Australia is on fire, England is getting a month’s rain in a day and has 400 flood alerts, there’s a plague of locusts just to the north of here and the Antarctic recorded its highest ever temperature. And people claim climate change is fake news.
The Brooke Hotel is a vast ugly heap of pink and grey concrete with hideous pea green highlights, five storeys high around a central well. It’s a place of studied ugliness and bad design. It’s one of those places that when the cook drops a saucepan lid, the reverberations echo for minutes amongst the hard surfaces. So what does the bar staff do? Wind up the sub-bass speakers to rock the hotel in accompaniment to the screeching brakes, the rattling empty wagons and the rain hammering like machine gun fire on the tin roofs. I only stay here because all the hotels around the town of Kericho seem to have an over-egged view of their worth for some unaccountable reason. It seems to be one of the most expensive towns in which I ever searched for accommodation. Just out of interest, I asked the tariff at the next guest house up the road, a fancyish place set amongst the beautiful tea estates. The price for a resident is a bit more than double the room here, at £24, and for a foreigner it tallies at no less than 80 US dollars. I forbore to ask why it costs more to look after a foreigner than a Kenyan resident. I just puffed in disgust and left! I hate this extortion of outsiders. It smacks of exploitation. I rode away and returned to the Brooke Hotel, noise and all. I insisted on a room at the very back of the block, and being Monday night it’s probably quite empty anyway. I’ve an adequate room and a sense of justice preserved all for less than twelve quid!
I took against Kericho the very first time I visited – in 2001. It appears to have a snobbish appeal that is uncommon in Kenya. It’s the centre of the tea industry, surrounded by magnificent rolling hills carpeted in close-cropped tea bushes. But the town itself is as ugly as any other, crazy traffic, coarse petrol stations and supermarkets, glass and steel edifices of supreme architectural horror, and just behind the facade, the usual shacks and businesses of the struggling populous. Brooke, four miles to the north, is a squalid place, a rough trading centre. The poor relation to Kericho’s imagined splendour. So the hotel costs a fraction.
The ride down from the Nandi Hills is fine. A winding road that drops to the lower lands that now run away towards Lake Victoria, itself at over 1000 metres high. Tea and sugar are the main crops, on an industrial scale hereabouts. Brooke, this straggly marketing centre, is synonymous with Brooke Bond, the centre of endless tea estates. Estates, I found a couple of years ago, that don’t like visitors. I suspect that might be to hide some pretty awful employment practices… Tomorrow morning, hopefully back in sunshine, I’ll sit on the first floor terrace of this hideous hotel, as now, and look across the smiling miles of brilliantly green tea bushes to the black tree-clad hills under blue skies. It’s a magnificent landscape. When it’s not bucketing with rain.
I came this way round once again, to say hello to Nashon, the kindly, shy mechanic who has helped me out on various occasions with my little Mosquito, since the time we fortuitously met when the starter gears shed several teeth into the engine of my machine, necessitating the entire stripping and washing of every cog, chain, pipe, pump, shaft and nut of the bike. All this carried out onto a flattened cardboard box and greasy nylon sack on the oily mud at the edge of the road, under my very anxious eyes. A process that took a couple of days and a lot of my peace of mind. But it turned out that Nashon wasn’t a Chinese-bike butcher, but a reasonably knowledgeable mechanic who went way beyond the call of duty to a passing customer. And one thing I have learned – and appreciate – in Africa, is that going back to say hello shows respect and bolsters the standing of my acquaintances and friends. Nashon’s a kind man. Worthy of passing by to pay my respects.
DAY 53. TUESDAY 18th FEBRUARY 2020. ELDAMA RAVINE. KENYA
It’s the third time I’ve stayed in Eldama Ravine, and the third hotel. I wish I’d found this one first. The first night I stayed here is memorable for the noisiest disco I ever suffered, with bass beats that shook the entire, vast, four storey hotel. Last year I stopped a night in a scruffy place off the road, which was acceptable, but now I’ve found a decent room at the back of an interestingly designed building with raised bridges leading between the upper rooms, and even a balcony looking over some scrubby fields to distant hills. A good place. Quiet, comfortable and cheap. And a not bad outdoor restaurant too. The only trouble with the place is heavy cold rain tonight once again. But the hotel can’t help that, and again I reached dry accommodation before the rains.
This was a light day. I spent some time in gentle conversation with Nashon and his wife in their one room home. They’ve a girl and two boys and how they manage in one 12X12 room I’m never sure. But many many Africans do just that. A bed behind a curtain, raised up on boxes to utilise the space beneath, a pile of old suitcases for wardrobes, an easy chair and settee, a coffee table, stereo system, TV and gas ring. All in one room beneath a tin roof, cheek by jowl with seven other rooms in two rows, a narrow walkway and communal washing space between. This is life for millions of African people. There’s a row of latrines and a scabby yard with worn grass and mud. Inside, the walls are covered by religious posters and calendars. It’s not so different, I suppose, to working class Britain a bit over 100 years ago . It’s surprising how we forget our own history and react with horror to others’…
Nashon’s workshop is nearby, a greasy, oily lock up by a broken street in the market area of the unattractive town. Kindly, his wife insisted on making milky chai and I only just managed to avoid fried eggs, having just finished breakfast in my hotel up the road. Nashon and the family borrowed a car and went home to visit his mother yesterday, a village about 40 kilometres away. He was taking today off, but generously replaced my brake shoes in an attempt to give me a rear brake again. A pair of Indian brake shoes cost £2.30, probably one tenth of what I might expect at home. He’s a conscientious mechanic, always going beyond the minimum and doing a professional job. The bike is better for 45 minutes’ of his ministrations.
We then rode to find an arboretum for which I have searched on various occasions, a pleasant public park owned by the major tea estate, itself part of the giant Unilever multinational. He also showed me a charming garden, open to the public on a private farm – tea and dairy – a few miles from Brooke. Set in a valley backed by woodland and carpeted by tea bushes, was a small lake and trickling brooks. Abundant bird life swooped and flitted about. Peaceful and brightly sunny under the blue dome of the sky.
Then it was off on a winding road through hilly country, riding northwards to Mau Summit, where the old colonial railway from Mombasa on the coast to Kampala, half way across Uganda, toiled towards the heights of the Equator. At 8300 feet, the air has a chill that forced me to stop and put on my fleece jerkin under my riding jacket. Tonight at Eldama Ravine I even resorted to a bowl of soup to warm up. I had to join the unpleasant main highway for some miles, the one that carries all the traffic from Nairobi and Mombasa up to the Kenyan highlands and on to Uganda. I dislike this road very much. It’s a constant line of steep hills with toiling lorries belching their incontinent way at crawling speed, causing faster vehicles to risk all in a race to overtake. Happily, I have only about fifteen miles of this to suffer. Another year I found a direct short cut on an appalling, rock and dirt road, but discretion suggests I avoid the unnecessary ones this year; they are so damaged by the recent weather, and my foot damaged by rounders. Turning off onto the quiet road to Eldama Ravine, I crossed the Equator once more.
And so to this busy small town an hour before the rain began. A gentle day of generally pleasant scenic hills. I know this region quite well by now and always enjoy the ride. Spacious country.
DAY 54. WEDNESDAY 19th FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA
It’s three months since my orthopaedic boot was removed. As I wrote before, I rather doubt that the hospital had in mind quite the exercise regime I have undertaken. Three to six months was their diagnosis for recovery time. I can’t claim recovery, but it IS getting stronger with my harsh treatment. The ankle swells less each day now. I was happy this morning to see that my ankles matched exactly when I got up from a long, good sleep in the quiet hotel. Progress, I felt.
One of my favourite roads in this part of the world is the one that winds from Eldama Ravine, a regional town of little attraction, via Tenges to Kabarnet. I’ve ridden this way at least once each of the years I have spent riding in East Africa, sometimes more often. I like it because it has such variety and such scenic splendours. In only about 75 miles it coils through climatic zones, climbing alongside yawning drops into the Rift Valley on one side and the Kerio Valley on the other. In the day I climb and drop thousands of feet, twisting down to spiky acacia, aloes and cactus-like plants scratching a life from pale sand and rocks, upwards through thirsty eucalyptus trees, leaves shimmying in the breezes from below and on up to coniferous woodland with magnificent views down into deep valleys. Then, from Kabarnet, the process unwinds the other way, serpentining down into the vast split in the Earth’s surface, deep into the dry Kerio Valley, the green forested opposite wall of which looks entirely unscalable – and I know of only three ‘roads’ that do scale the heights. Two of them are seriously rough rocky staircase tracks and the third the only viable road on four normal wheels, that wriggles and clambers back up to Iten, some five thousand feet above, atop the jagged precipices of the cliffs of the escarpment. Two thirds of the way up is familiar Kessup.
Another reason I relish the Tenges road so well is that it is amongst the friendliest of the area. I suspect that the education level is high in this county. This could be explained by the county being that of the birthplace and home of the late crook, Daniel Arap Moi, president of Kenya for many years. The home regions of presidents in Africa get preferential treatment. It’s the payoff for buying all those votes. I remember back in 2001 I noted that this region had the best, smoothest roads in East Africa. “It’s the home of the president! Of course it has the best roads; you could play billiards on them!” declared Rico.
One of my happiest activities on these footloose safaris is to stop and meet the people. Towards the top of the winding potholed road, a view of the huge Rift Valley was suddenly released from constant roadside growth. On rounding a bend I looked down onto an open saddle with big views far into the sun-bleached distance. I pulled up and stepped over the steel accident barrier to enjoy the vista and take a picture. Within moments I was joined by a whole family, and friends, from the only visible homestead on the saddle, their small home 100 yards away on the precipitous edge of the road. They came to welcome me and out of open curiosity. And curiosity is an attribute I greatly admire. Curiosity and compassion, I always say, make people good humans. I stayed half an hour with those ten cheerful, respectful people, four men, some teenagers, a number of children and Priscilla, a smart, handsome middle aged woman. Boda-bodas pulled up to join the interest. Everyone exuded warmth and welcome. I felt very privileged to be sitting on that remote roadside barrier with such charming, warm-hearted people. The one thing we shared was common interest and warmth. I felt accepted for myself, with no real sense that I represented anything other than a different human being, with unusual attributes that they didn’t often get an opportunity to investigate. It was a delightful meeting.
Riding on, the road wiggles along the very ridge between the two giant valleys, irregular fields hacked and fought from the steeply sloping mountainsides through generations of hard physical work. Small houses cling to the slopes and fences of vertically split logs add staccato graphic hatching to the green roadside, the views downward pixillated through the bright gaps. Mature trees spread their glorious shade above and glimpses of incredibly scaled panoramas flicker behind the abundant growth. High on the mountain, the woodland gives way to rich natural forest, heavy leafed trees draped with lianas, the sunlight dappling and flashing in the canopy high overhead. It’s simply magnificent. From one small rocky promontory, I seem to be able to gaze over half Africa, displayed into endless heat haze at least 100 miles to the east.
Spotting a ‘hotel’ – a mean shack with a large Chinese flask prominent on its wooden counter, I chose to stop for chai. Served by polite Alfred, thrilled to have a mzungu stop by to chat and drink his sweet tea and eat a couple of dry chapatis, I was immediately joined by two small girls, pulling a Chinese chair ever closer to the white ancient, and politely greeted by most of the village elders and cheerily acknowledged by every passing pedestrian and vehicle. I stayed an hour, relaxing in the welcome of a whole community. “Aren’t you afraid?” so many ask me at home. Afraid of feeling so content I move to this remotely splendid mountain village, maybe!
From that tea house I texted William that I would arrive later at Kessup. I’d thought I might stay somewhere on the road, but Kessup was only another 60 kilometres or so, and I know I am received so kindly here. It felt like a good way to end a contented, people-filled day. So I rode on, down into the steamy Kerio Valley so far below and toiling up towards the familiar guest house and my usual room. At this rate they’ll change the room’s name from Mexico (I have no idea…) to another ‘Jonathan’s Room’.
It’s one of the best 75 miles you can ride in this part of the world. Eldama Ravine to Kessup. Just lovely. Of course, I am assured of a happy welcome from William and the guest house staff. I’m almost a fixture this year. It’s considerably warmer tonight than on my last perishing visit. We’ve sat outside in the open garden, with a young Norwegian traveller, as the night drew its veil over the spreading valley far below, now a mystery of darkness, a few winking lights and the promise of an elephant or two beneath the equatorial stars. It’s a fine place to be.
Leaving the hotel this morning, the gateman came to unlock the steel gates. I’d woken to dull skies, chill and damp earth. Unpromising, although the gloom burned off in the equatorial sunshine. I was, after all, only about five miles from that tantalising imaginary line.
“I don’t like your weather much this year!” I quipped, as I zipped up my jacket, pulled on gloves and swung my leg over the bike.
“Yes, it’s all changing! But it’s down to God!”
“Don’t blame God for this!” I exclaimed. “This is Man! Entirely Man! The selfishness and greed of mankind!”
“But what can we do? God makes the weather…”
And there you have a problem to ponder. However much climate activists may try to change perceptions in the West, much of the world is educated in old religious dogma and myth, and is persuaded only God can change the fates of the planet. “Oh, we’ll pray! What can WE do? It’s the will of God!”
I rode the next few miles somewhat despondently.
DAY 55. THURSDAY 20th FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA
A typical day in Kessup is for William and I to walk down in the villages. It’s funny how this has become so much part of my East African experience. After breakfast we wander off down the stony pathways between small houses and shambas and just see who we meet. Today, young Nore, a charming and mature 21 year old Norwegian student accompanied us. He appeared to get great satisfaction from the activity too, reacting happily to the many excited children who greeted us, clung to our hands and pulled the hair on our arms. He was patient and intrigued and actually commented at one point that this was the best day he’d had. He’s on a six month world tour, starting recently in Oman, on to Kenya and will wander down through some of Africa, down to Australia and back through California. A warm young man, happy to join in our unexciting peregrinations on the green hillsides.
We walked contentedly northwards along the plateau. It’s half term, so many were the children calling and following us as we meandered amongst fields and homesteads, women hard at work planting, weeding and harvesting and many of the men, as so often, sitting about talking and drinking bulsa. We too joined some men beneath shady trees to take fibrous bulsa. Nore impressively tried his best, even if he didn’t express much enthusiasm. Just being seen to drink the rather sour liquid, made from dusty fermented maize, gains a good deal of respect. He’s the makings of a good, sensitive traveller. I’m amused to find that his father crossed the Sahara in 1987, as did I.
Everywhere, people greet and chatter. We shake hands a hundred times, laugh with cheerful children, excited to touch not just one, but two, mzungus. It’s happy fun and warm-spirited. William is a good guide. He knows his community well, and his community knows him. He’s respected and well thought of, a man with integrity, honesty and good sense.
It’s rough ground and taxes my ankle. But a long rugged walk seems to be good recovery exercise. The swelling is less each day. Tomorrow is, though, to be the big test. We intend to hike all the way down to the Kerio Valley bottom, hundreds of metres down the steep, rocky slopes into the furnace below. I wonder how that will go..? I’m in kill or cure mode, fed to the teeth of this frustrating disability.
DAY 56. FRIDAY 21st FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA
I’m rather self satisfied tonight. I did it. Obstinate maybe, but I walked, indeed scrambled, down no less that 810 metres of the escarpment into the Great Rift Valley! That’s 2630 feet. A three hour hike on rough rocks and slippery gravel, tiring more for the intense concentration to carefully inspect each footfall, than the distance. Three to six months’ recovery, the hospital warned me. Well, after three months and two days, maybe I am not CURED, but I certainly feel that I am well on the way to recovery, despite the fact that the three month cure is probably for people half my age.
We set off at nine, William, Nore and I. Taking advantage of the cool of the morning. Every metre the heat increased. We walked across the plateau to the edge, where the slopes drop away dramatically, with enormous vistas of the Kerio Valley far below.
At this point, last evening, I realised that sleep was more pressing than my journal. The light went out at 8.30! Twelve hours’ sleep was required. This morning, I wake with two matching ankles. No swelling. It seems that hiking to the bottom of the Great African Rift Valley is good physiotherapy!
So, back to the clamber to the depths… Kessup sits on a plateau, maybe three miles long by three quarters from the high cliffs up to the highlands, to the drop to the steaming depths below. In total, the depth of the Rift here is about 1500 metres – 4900-odd feet. Kessup sits at about 2000 metres, the valley floor, where we emerged from the wooded hill, at 1190.
It’s hard walking, but of course local people do it frequently – often up and down in a day. Many families, William’s included, graze their cattle down there, under the care of herders. Atanas is William’s herder, a cheerful, spare man prone to cheerful drunkenness at any opportunity – like the visit of a mzungu and the infusion of a pound that will buy him enough of the killer local spirit to add to the bulsa that William will drink here, to make him inebriated for the remainder of the day. It’s a life of privations but not an arduous one, looking after grazing cows and goats. They do all the work, Atanas just has to sit under a tree and gaze into space. Once again, I wonder so much what occurs in his head in the hours he can doze patiently on a rock in the Rift Valley? He can probably read and write, just about. He’s some basic English. He has – of course – his phone. No doubt he fills the wonderful silence with terrible (to me) music played from a speaker the size of a drawing pin. He probably communes with the few other people who choose to live in this outpost of humanity. He has milk and ugali for basic sustenance, and a rugged stick and mud hut in which to sleep – and tonight to sleep off the alcohol. There’s nothing much to talk about but goats and cows – and probably league football. He’s a house and family up here on the Kessup plateau; I’ve photographed his daughter Sharon in my peregrinations with William. I guess he has domestic problems to ponder: where the next money’s coming from; how to arrange his food for the evening; a few practicalities about the animals. Maybe that’s all any of us think about most of the time. I suppose life’s not made up of philosophical musings – but it is greatly stimulated by reading a book; appreciating thoughtful opinions; considering the diversities beyond our own very limited community. Things to which Atanas has little exposure as he sits on his rock on the scrubby hillside in the furnace of the Rift Valley.
We only have to do it once, thankfully. William and I have talked of this for four years, walking down to see Atanas and William’s cows. This trip has been inspired by my Harberton neighbours, Jill and Ken, keen beekeepers. I was in touch by email last week (about the water from three consecutive storms probably flowing down my chimney!) and happened to send them a photo I had taken of a small commercial bee farm project that Alex and I discovered near Sipi. By return came an enthusiastic response and questions that I’d never considered, here in Africa, where I often see local beehives hanging in trees as I pass. “Can we find some hives and a beekeeper?” I asked William a couple of days ago. “My neighbours would be very interested.”
“Oh, of cooourse! We can find many! But not here. We have to go dow-en to the valley. There are many keeping bees there.” Immediately, out came his phone. “I will ora-ganise it! But your foot..? Will you manage?”
Manage it I did! I admit I’m happy it was no further. By the time we reached the valley floor, almost three hours after starting out, I was exhausted, as much by the intense concentration for every footstep as for the exertion of the scramble itself. I have lost some confidence as a result of my stupid injury. I don’t have my usual easy balance and quickness of recovery from a misstep, and am terrified – as yet – of damaging that ankle again. And the muscles in my right leg are still quite reduced. William, with his love of discipline and time, allowed us two ten minute breaks (phone clock in hand!), but for two and three quarter hours we stumbled and slid down those narrow cattle paths. He’s informative too, is William, and has a new listener in Nore. He pointed out medicinal trees and a tree from which, in former times, before all the animals were hunted to extinction or escaped to reserves, hunters used to poison their arrows. “Oh, if it gets into your blood, you are a-gone! Huh! No chance, if it gets in the blood!” William, as a youth, remembers hunting for antelope down here. “Are there animals now?” asks Nore.
“NOO! Only in the reserves!” William’s 54. They’ve been wiped out, unless protected by national laws and rangers, in his lifetime. Over most of Africa. Now and again, outside a park or reserve, I may see an odd antelope, zebra or ostrich. They are in remote places far from habitation, on dirt roads in the backwoods. Only in the wildest areas, deep in the deserts maybe, will you see animals really in the wild. Most game is behind fences now, corralled largely for tourist dollars, managed and accessible. “Aren’t you afraid of wild animals?” people ask me. About the biggest I see is a squirrel, unless I am on a public road that happens to pass through a park or reserve.
The sun was high when we reached our destination, a glade of trees by a water tank where we could rest and William could arrange with his brother in law to bring us bulsa for him and Atanas – with a gesture for me – and milky tea for Nore and I to rehydrate. William’s brother in law, Philip, keeps bees, but here it’s a young man’s game, and Philip at 63 is, in Kenya, too old for it. Leonard was to be our guide to the beekeeping arts in the Kerio Valley.
A smart young man, with a decent education and a determined business acumen, Leonard took up the beekeeping mantle from his grandfather. “Since 2008, I went with my grandfather, even as he grew holder.” Leonard has an odd habit of adding an ‘h’ to his vowels. “Heven when he left this a-world, he was a man of bees!” He scrambled down the hillside to a tree in which one of his hives was suspended, busy with bees. “It’s han inheritance of sorts in a family. Somehow a talent. This beekeeping, we prepare ourselves. Hit is somehow in the blood of someone! You love honey, somehow it’s a-good to keep bees!” Leonard keeps seven hives down here and thirty up on the highland plateau far above.
Leonard clambered agilely into another tree, where a big hollowed log hive, about a metre long and half a metre in circumference, hung from a fairly spindly branch. The upper half of the tube was raised. They had opened it, taken the honey and the hive had needed some restoration. By leaving the hive open, the bees had been driven to find an alternative home. Leonard and his boys had repaired the old wooden log and now it was ready to host another colony. He now closed the two halves together and stuffed leafy twigs into the surrounding gap. “We close, and may-a-be by next week we have new bees!” This was a big hive. “From this we may only harvest once in the year. In Haugust or December maybe. We can get maybe 20 kilos of honey from this hive,” he called down, balancing on a bouncy bough. “From the smaller hives like the one there, we may harvest twice.”
“Eh! It’s a young man’s game, working up there!” I exclaimed, watching the bough bend.
“Yes, we will have to be three men to hempty this hive. When it is full of honey, it is a-heavy!”
“What about protection?”
“Hah!” he laughed. “We can use hoveralls and protection on the down ones,” pointing to a big hive hung only at shoulder height nearby, “but if we use hoveralls and gloves in the big trees high we damage the cloth-es. So we use mud.”
“Yes, we put mud on our skin. Loam mud.”
“What about your head and face?”
“Yes, there too! Hall over our skin. To hide the smell of our bodies. And we hopen the hives at night when the bees are quiet. We use smoke to drive them out and we pull the honey with our a-hands. We tie a plastic container in the tree and we scoop the honey and lower it down. We honly put hives in trees where we can climb!”
I imagined three men hanging about in that tree, at night, surrounded by disturbed bees, pulling horribly sticky honey from the upper half of a heavy log with their hands, stickiness everywhere imaginable, mud on limbs and faces, bees buzzing, the tree shaking… “I hope you get good money for the honey?”
“Yes, it’s good business. We get about 4000 to 5000 Kenya shillings for 4 kilos!” That’s about £8-10 a kilo, pretty good money in Kenya – but of course, they only get it once or twice a year. “We let it settle and the top honey, we get more than 1000 bob a kilo, the bottom a bit less. Our hives? This one is from 2008. The time? Oh, about four more years maybe. This hive was for my grandfather.” He showed me his stock of heavy log hives, marked inside with the patterns of combs. “Some go this way!” he pointed out the diagonal pattern across the hollow of the thick wood, “and hothers, they make it along the hive. These hives are from cypress wood. We used to make cedar, my grandfather, he made cedar, but now there’s no cedar left. Oh, I like bees! My grandfather, I inherit from him.”
We clambered back to the grove where William was drinking bulsa and Atanas by now had moved on to the wirigi, killer spirit.
A shy boy, Rogers, had brought a green plastic jug of tea for Nore and I from the distant road, 250 feet below and a quarter of a mile away. Philip had brought us honey to taste – about half a teacupful each – with a spoon. I’ve never eaten half a teacup of honey in my life. “Oh! It is good for the energy!” exclaimed William. I spooned in the honey, complete with dead bees, doubtless some mud and fibrous bits and pieces. It was as if I could feel the energy flowing back into my blood! It was delicious and a miracle of nutrition to tired muscles, still tingling from a 2630 foot scramble downhill. The sun was intense. Goats scavenged around us. Atanas drank himsel-uf a degree closer to an early death and William and Leonard chatted quietly. We two Europeans were happy to sit and stare at the wide valley below, content – as no Kenyan will ever be, William admits – to just think. “Oh, we like conversation! When we are walking or sitting like this we MUST talk!”
In the mid afternoon we stumbled the rest of the way to the white dust track in the valley, where some benighted families live in this inferno and stoney inhospitability. Even Nore, a tough 21 year old, admitted he was happy we had decided on the strength of my damaged leg, not to climb back the 2630 feet to
We negotiated for a boda-boda ride to the road junction at the bottom of the long, winding climb back to the plateau. Four up – and Nore is perhaps even a centimetre or two taller than me, and a good deal tougher – we ground along on a 100cc motorbike. The rider, Sam, would rather make an extra 50 bob (40 pence) and have the tyre rubbing on the underside of the metal mudguard than sympathise with his machine. I remember that road from four years ago, when it seemed like elastic and never ending. I’d ridden down from the top of the escarpment on a sandy, degraded track beyond the north end of the Kessup plateau and had not reckoned on the fact that the return to the road was 50 miles of sand and rock. It was that evening, exhausted and filthy, that I found the Lelin Campsite and guest house, and next morning the manager introduced me to William, now perched on the carrier of the boda-boda behind a rider and two very big wazungus.
At the road we pushed our way into a vastly overcrowded matatu, 21 adults, a baby and assorted bags boxes and rolls of roofing sheets, to uncomfortably grind our way back up the 800 metres height to our evening beer. “Walking down was more comfortable than the journey home!” I joked with William, falling undignified from the packed vehicle.
And, amazingly, almost no oedema in my ankle, despite the exertions. I must suggest to Torbay Hospital that a cure for a ruptured Achille’s might involve scrambling down into Africa’s Great Rift Valley! At least it’s entertaining. Better than stretching that damned rubber exercise band all the time.
DAY 57. SATURDAY 22nd FEBRUARY 2020. KESSUP. KENYA
Another easy day of meeting the people as we wandered the village lanes. It’s been fun to have another mzungu along, with his obvious enthusiasm for the simple activity – unusual in one so young. Nore has enjoyed his interaction with many village people and learned a good deal about rural African life quickly, something that’s often not easy for a mzungu to investigate, yet is how so many African people exist. He’s a good traveller and already says he thinks he may travel quite a lot, more than his contemporaries, most of whom appear to have taken a year’s placement in another university, while he chose a footloose period. He’s a surprisingly mature attitude to all he sees about him, and a pleasant confidence that makes him popular with the villagers.
Once again, we drifted about the red tracks and lanes, greeting all we passed, sitting here and there, spreading a bit of understanding, we hoped; purchasing some green vegetables for supper – the guest house, like most African kitchens, relies on scraggy meat and starch; drinking some bulsa in one compound, to the excitement fo the inhabitants and seeking avocados unsuccessfully. We met Martin, an age-mate to William, a wiry man with a lined face and shaggy hair now touched with white, who made the foolish decision to look for some money by smuggling on the Uganda border in 1986. Not a good time to enter that country without papers. It was the time that the present crook, Museveni, was leading the resistance to the previous (even worse) crook Idi Amin. The young fellow was arrested on suspicion of spying, threatened, tortured, saw some appalling atrocities and mass graves filled with skulls – Africa can treat life very cheaply – and was tried. He avoided execution but the soldiers destroyed his right forefinger and thumb so that he wouldn’t be able to fire a gun. Now, 34 years on, he tells the story with a laugh at his own adventurous stupidity. Underneath, no doubt, the trauma must be real. What is it about Africa that causes such terrible cruelty? Ordinary people, largely compassionate, professing allegiance to Christianity or Islam almost universally, who then carry out unbelievable atrocities on their fellows, sometimes even in their own kith and kin. It’s difficult to forget the story of the Hutu child in Rwanda who killed his Tutsi mother because she was of the ‘wrong’ tribe in that awful conflict – the evidence of which I have witnessed in all those broken skull and shattered bone mausoleums outside almost every village in the small country. Mind you, I ask what it is about Africa and forget to question the atrocities amongst ‘normal’ people in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf States… Yes, Africa has no monopoly on massacres of their fellows.
Invited into numerous houses, we managed, by William’s diligence with his clock, so frequently in hand, to return in time for the first football match of his day on the satellite TV that his daughter sends him on the proceeds of her nursing studies in Australia. It was a bribe to stop him wasting his time, money and health on booze! He laughs as he tells Nore that story. “Oh, Jonathan and my daughter, they both told me to leave the alcohol! And the cigarettes! Now I only take a little bulsa sometimes.” He is passionate about football, especially ‘his team’, Manchester City. He showed us his TV, and innocent that I am, I had no idea that you can watch football, from somewhere, at any and every hour of the day or night! His house is basic, a place of wooden walls and a burning zinc roof. He has some battered and threadbare foam armchairs and a settee, an untidy sideboard and a small table with a gas ring and his entire crockery, cutlet and utensils. A tattered net curtain divides off the plywood-enclosed bedroom area. It’s the necessities, with no frills or comforts except the TV. It’s how most rural Kenyans live. I was impressed to find his house without any security whatsoever. “Oh, no, everyone knows William, and William knows everyone! No one will steal here.”
Tomorrow I’ll head Kitale way once more. I’ve just a few more days in East Africa before I fly to South Africa on Friday. It’s been a different sort of tip, this time. I’ve not ridden far and seen no new horizons, but there’s a satisfaction in strengthening friendships and becoming a familiar figure – evidenced by how often in the past couple of days I have been hailed from fields and compounds by my name. I’ve broken through some of the exotic mzungu state and am accepted as an equal in these villages.