I’m settling in and just adapting to African rhythms. Much of the past week’s been spent in the warm atmosphere of the Kitale family, with a short trip to Kessup, to greet my friend William and be, for a day and a half, ‘Kessup’s mzungu’. “Oh, that’s our mzungu!” William reports people say as we pass. Everyone waves and calls out. Returning to see people again confers respect in Africa. The fact that I have been to this rural area so frequently in the past five journeys allows the populous to ‘own’ me and know me. I receive great respect myself. For many, I am the only mzungu with whom they have felt some equality or even greeted close up. It’s always fun to go back to Kessup on its green plateau threaded with red trails, part way down the wall of the Great Rift Valley. I stayed just the 29th and 30th, back to Kitale in time for New Year celebrations, which said more about saying goodbye to the grim year of 2020 than greeting the uncertainties of 2021.
Every time, I forget how chilly it can be to ride a piki-piki up here at the altitudes of the Kenyan highlands. For the trip to Kessup, I decided to ride the new Cheringani Highway. It’s not the first time: I have been riding this way for several years, but never in this direction, always the other way; on one of the finest rides in the region, over high rolling hills and along the dramatic edge of the huge escarpment into the Rift Valley, sometimes five or six thousand feet below, apparently stretching implausibly far away into hazed blue infinity. I knew this road first before the Chinese highway was constructed. It was, for me, more fun, more sense of achievement, as a long rugged dirt and rock road through rural scenery. Now, as elsewhere across this continent, the Chinese footprint is heavily imposed in a new sweeping road that carves through the hills and along the high ridges. It’s fine engineering, this largely empty road to almost nowhere. Of course, it’s opened the region for the local people, mainly the Pokot tribe, a rather aggressive lot, quick to fight their disagreements bloodily.
It’s still a mystery to me why such a bad mechanic should enjoy so much to ride motorbikes in rural Africa. I sit and worry almost constantly, listening for the knock and rattle of disaster, or the silence that spells trouble. Oddly though, when it happens, I am calm – and if I diagnose the problem (not that difficult on such a basic, simple machine actually) I am inordinately proud. It was the unsettling silence of complete engine failure this time. It didn’t take long to discover that I had ruptured the earth lead from the battery, leaping rather too enthusiastically over one of the thousands of speed humps. I cut some barbed wire from a nearby fence and effected a temporary repair to get me to the next town, where a boda-boda butcher stripped the cable and knotted it around the terminal. Most of the boda-boda boys would call this a permanent fix, but I shall be going back to Rico in due course. He won’t accept this bodge.
It’s chilly up there, even in the searing sun beneath a vast dome of uninterrupted azure sky. I’m chilled, riding at altitudes around 2500 metres, sometimes above, where the air is cool on my chest. The valley below simmers in the heat of its depths, so far below, where the landscape spreads in endless bush lands. I am only half a degree from the Equator. Then, after the high town of Iten, where many international athletes train at its altitude, the road plunges down the side of the Rift, starting with an almost laughably theatrical reveal as I turn the corner out of the untidy commercial town. Suddenly the Rift explodes dramatically ahead and below as I start down the edge of the escarpment in a series of tight loops. I vividly remember the moment I first saw this thrilling reveal twenty years ago, on my first bike journey in East Africa. The temperature rises for every metre I descend. Down the bottom, another fifteen kilometres ahead, the warmth is dramatic. But my destination is only 500 feet or so down the escarpment, on the long narrow plateau that forms the villages of Kessup and its satellite communities. It’s like a big green step in the landscape, the vast valley as a constant backdrop, hazed by distance and heat.
I first stopped at the Lelin Campsite at the start of my earliest journey in Kenya with my Mosquito. Rico had recommended a road I would enjoy, the one I can gaze down on from my ‘banda’ at Lelin – my room on the edge of the world. Rico knows the rides I relish and suggested the steep track down into the Kerio Valley – an arm at the side of the Great Rift – and the white dust and rock road along its floor. I was new to my small motorbike then and unaccustomed to distances that looked so insignificant on my map of this large country. I slithered down the steep curling dust over 3000 feet into the valley, the escarpment looming above to my left. Then, at the bottom, I turned right, south, and bounced through the bush lands on a remote trail. Habitation was thin and the bush dry and hot. In the only small, remote village I stopped for refreshment – the last time I drank Coca Cola: the ONLY refreshment available there. I didn’t yet know to ask for sweet milky chai, far more energising and healthier (and so much more morally justifiable than supporting the multinational corporation that has done so much to damage the health of most of the world in pursuit of vast profit). If I’d known that I still had fifty miles to slip and bounce to the tar road, I’d perhaps have stopped at the basic hotel in that village, Arror. But I assumed that fifteen miles or so would bring me back to civilisation with a wider choice of accommodation. When at last I reached the junction I felt like giving the tar a Papal kiss. I was exhausted. I rode back up the curling road looking for a place to stay. Which is how I found the campsite at Lelin. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as I hardly ever see anyone camping there. It serves the local community as a place for outings, and relatively few guests enjoy the self contained rooms with a huge view across the valley. Next morning the then manager introduced me to William, a neighbour to the guest house, retired from the police in Nairobi after a serious attack by a criminal with a machete that shocked him so much that, lying in hospital with a possible brain operation looming, he decided to return to his humble shamba at Kessup, his home village. Sometimes he worked as a guide for the few mzungu tourists who stopped at Lelin. “So, shall we walk to the waterfalls?” he asked. “I’m not very interested in waterfalls,” I demurred, “I’d rather walk in the villages and meet your neighbours!”
And so I became, first ‘William’s Mzungu’ and then ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’.
“Jambo!” people call cheerfully, giving me a fist bump, the Covid greeting that has been universally adopted from the previous acknowledgement of the youth. Voices of children cry, “Eh! Mzungu!” lost amongst fields and vegetation, running to greet and follow me like the Pied Piper, laughing self-consciously as they joke and jest shyly behind us. Rills ripple and worry down from the wooded escarpment rising almost sheer above us, water that brings life and green richness to this agricultural plateau. Water gurgles and fizzes from breaks in the many snaking plastic pipes that feed homes and locally made sprinklers in small fields wrought laboriously from the hilly terrain by generations of Kessupians. This is the planting season and there are small seedbeds of brilliant green as we walk, people bending and planting expanses of young onions on terraces distorted by the rocky landscape. “We will harvest in about two and a half months,” says Robert, bending all day long over his small earthy steps of onion seedlings.
As well as Kessup’s Mzungu, I have become Kessup’s photographer, with now hundreds of portraits of the people hereabouts. William clutches a small folder of photos that we distribute from last winter’s journey. And Robert and his handsome, happy family want to join the rolls, many of them on my walls at home. “I need some shade!” I say, for photos of black faces in this high-overhead bright sunshine make only silhouettes. So we repair to the family homestead below the red dirt track that winds through their small fields. It’s a typical home of rough boards and zinc sheets, dusty and rusty. There’s some fine stonework too, sharp-edged volcanic rocks, black and purple, with grimy (very photogenic as backgrounds) doors and metal framed windows that sport no glass. Many houses here are constructed from red mud plastered on sticks, the local vernacular. There aren’t many possessions or comforts inside, just the basics for life here – some foam-cushioned wooden settees, low tables, religious posters, simple crockery. Cooking is done outside, on charcoal or sticks and the crockery, cutlery, pots and pans drain on a stick platform in the yard. A clutch of banana trees gives a little shade. I am made very welcome and offers of chai come quickly. But we drink local water from chipped enamel mugs. It’s untreated, but clean and tasty. Later, we return here and eat some kitere – local beans and maize that serves most here as lunch. Now, the family lines up, laughing for my photos. “You have to smile for me,” I joke. They all begin to laugh, for Robert is my first subject. “Oh, he won’t smile!” says his wife Zedi. “He has no teeth!” Everyone breaks in peals of laughter at the joke, and I tell them that I have all-metal teeth, smiling widely to show my implants. “Oh, you must tell us how to do that!” says Zedi, but for the price of my teeth, I could probably purchase much of this village. My privilege…
They’re a nice looking family, poor Robert’s teeth notwithstanding. Young Kevin, 15 years, smart and respectful but questioning, makes a lovely photo, and wants a photo with the old mzungu too. The family has wide-spaced, almond-shaped eyes and the customary bright smiles. They laugh and joke, and William is well practiced at parrying the jests and easing my way into these warm family gatherings. We’ve done this many many times on these slopes. We order 50 bobs’ worth (about 35p) of black nightshade, a rich dark green vegetable leaf that I like. We’ll call on the way back and collect a bulging bag, freshly picked from the dry fields, to take back to the cook at the campsite for our supper.
William is known everywhere about the plateau. He was born here 55 years ago. All his extended family lives hereabouts and he is related by distant convolutions to many. His father has two wives and relations are complex. A boda-boda stops and William greets the rider, his cousin, he tells me. As the motorbike with its rider and three passengers moves on along the rocky red track, I ask William his cousin’s name. “Oh, I don’t know!” he hesitates, chuckling. “He’s the son of a half sister by my father’s other wife… I can’t remember!”
Mama Tabitha has a new baby. The baby, Jaden, is the great granddaughter of Rongei, whom I have photographed these past couple of years. But Rongei died in late November, shortly after Jaden was born. Rongei was 92 or 93. Latterly unable to walk unaided, he lived in a small mud house, looked after by his grandchildren in shambas nearby. It’s one of my photos the family used for the funeral leaflets, something that happened many times at Navrongo funerals in Ghana over the years too. Sadly, in the photo I brought back this year of the late Rongei, I managed to elicit a small smile from the old man, who was accustomed to pose formally for his rare pictures. William encouraged him in February to smile for the mzungu, who had brought him a small twist of chewing tobacco.
We walk thus for three or four hours, meandering the red tracks winding across the low hills of the plateau, the plunging valley always away to our east. Meeting and greeting. There’s a precious breeze rising up the slopes, tempering the heat of the sun, but I can feel the tips of my ears reddening and becoming sensitive again. I’m wearing an ugly cap to protect the top of my head but I need a pint of water to regain my flagging energy. It’s like magic. Suddenly all interest is renewed and the spring back in my step. For I love this activity. It’s largely what brings me to Africa so often: meeting such warmly welcoming people and investigating their lives.
Now it’s time for William and I to repair to The Rock, a bar set in lovely gardens amongst vast boulders that have plunged down the steep mountainside, most of them back in times immemorial. But there is one, the size of a family car, embedded in one of the rental rooms at the back of the terrace, from two years ago. Bright magenta bougainvillea spreads over some of the trees, backed by the dense dark green of the conifers clinging to the cliffs above. It’s very beautiful, all this luxurious growth amongst the giant rocks and green lawns. We drink a Tusker or Guinness, and chat to William’s friend, the local vet, who rides his Chinese motorbike about the whole region. I tell him how expensive is his calling in Europe, mainly tending to pampered pets at huge expense. He laughs at the very concept of pet insurance. “Wow! It’s BIG business!” I assure him. His trade is more down to earth, keeping alive and healthy the cattle and domestic wealth of the small-time farmers everywhere. He has no permanent clinic with nurses and fancy operating theatres to treat illness in pet dogs and cats. That’s Western luxury. “Here’s the tools of my trade!” he laughs, holding up a leather holdall as he mounts his 100cc Boxer motorbike to attend to more chickens and cows. “We’ll meet again!” he promises as he rides away.
We return to the guest house to rest for a couple of hours. “I will water my cows and come at 5.30.” William is a compulsive time-keeper. “In the police, they LIKED me for my time and organisation!” He was in the Nairobi flying squad. I know he will be at my door within minutes of the time he says. Later, we sit at a plastic table overlooking the enormous view into the valley. Elephants roam in a small reserve down there. There’s a green weed-filled lake that puddles in the middle of the bush-filled expanse on the flat valley floor. A range of mountains rises at the other side of this side-valley of the Great Rift; they’re perhaps fifteen miles away. As darkness falls, the valley takes on mysterious dark depths, just a few lights, probably small fires and an occasional boda-boda headlight glinting on the one dusty white road that snakes the length of the valley. It’s the one where I fell off my Mosquito, laughing as I was helped off a sandbank onto which I had reclined, my foot under the pannier bag when my rear wheel shook loose, that day I discovered Kessup.
Now a fabulous full moon soars magnificently from behind those distant dark mountains and climbs into the enormity of the equatorial African sky, beaming brilliance onto our supper of Zedi’s black nightshade, and ughali – the dry maize flour mash that forms the basis of most East African diets – and some surprisingly tender goat meat. The young cook knows his trade this year. William, as usual, eschews the vegetables: “Why should I eat vegetable? I live on vegetable!” He gets much less chance to eat meat, so he takes the lion’s share of that while I eat a whole dish of black nightshade, the rich spinach-like chopped greens, with slivers of tomato and onion.
William managed to raise the considerable money and papers to allow his daughter, Lydia, to study nursing in Australia. Now she is sending money from her student nurse’s salary to build William a proper house to replace the crooked timber shack in which he lives. “Next year, when you come, you won’t need to pay Lelin,” he assures me. “You will be guest in my house. We will take our beers at Lelin, or maybe on the terrace of my house. It will be complete then, God willing. I’m a Catholic, you know!” He always adds this in deference to my lack of belief – we’re both quite comfortable about that.
On the morning of the last day of the grim year of 2020, I ride back to Kitale. From a pharmacist in Iten, the ragged town at the top of the escarpment – Kessup’s ‘big city’, I hear that the new road is now completed, through the village of Moiben to Kachibora on the Kitale road. I once tried to come this way before the road was built, and got comprehensively lost in muddy field tracks. I’ve tried various routes home, with varying success. Some have been wonderful bumpy rides on the old rough trails, but today’s ride is fine. It’s a sweeping Chinese road, with no traffic at all, spinning through lovely scenery, curling over hills, with bends to make a motorcyclist smile – but it’d be better with another 200ccs, I must admit. Still, it’s a memorable ride, even if I don’t really know where it’s taking me and I realise, half way along the 80-odd kilometres, that I have put my trust in a random pharmacist in Iten. I know better than to put faith in a single informant. Usually I ask a series of boda-boda riders, for they use these local routes. It’s no use in Africa to ask a non-driver for directions. People will tell you what they think you’d like to know… I’ve learned the hard way.
But eventually I recognise Kapcherop, a small regional town through which I struggled on broken dirt roads some three years ago. I know now that I will descend to the main road back to Kitale. And I sweep down the bends that replace the rutted trail I used before, and emerge in the chaos of the small roadside mess of traffic, boda-bodas, jostling matatu minibuses, market traders’ stalls, scruffy lock-up shops with obtuse biblical names, cows, goats, and noise that is Kachibora. I’ve another forty kilometres or so back to Kitale.
Adelight’s having her hair done at a salon for New Year. I’ve three missed calls on my phone. She wants to liaise on our plans for the evening. But the line is bad, a lot of background noise from the town. She says the car is opposite Best Lady, a bright pink emporium of make up, hair braids and glittery confections. I wait. And wait. I’ve parked the motorbike amongst boda-boda riders, always friendly to me, admiring my ‘big’ piki-piki (all 200ccs of it). Finally, she comes and I say I’ll head to the supermarket, agreeing what I shall contribute to the evening: a bottle of wine, a bottle of not-bad champagne (£8.50), beer for Rico and I, a block of local ‘Cheddar’ cheese – expensive here at about £10 for a half kilo, some more peanut butter and honey. My bill is about £45. It’s bedlam in the Indian supermarket. Why, on such a busy day, in aisles too narrow for comfort, does everyone indulge their small children to push their trolleys? People stop and chatter in throngs, amble the narrow ways and debate long over small purchases. Outside, it’s not much better. The steps are crowded with traders, a woman carries – or tries to – a folded double foam mattress through the mess of people conversing, selling tomatoes, greeting and chatting; begging street boys sniff plastic bottles of diesel mixed with glue, brains half-gone; security men watch the cheats and traders; women sell phone time scratch cards beneath dangerously spiked umbrellas, tannoys screeching tinny advertisements over and over; boda-bodas jostle, heavily overloaded; driver discipline is scant, everyone just wants to get ahead.
I’m happy to get back on my Mosquito and take the back way home: a rutted dirt road that exits town avoiding traffic and police check posts, where few other vehicles bother to go. I seldom use the tar road now. I’ve ridden over 100miles today, senses alert as they must be here, for ill-disciplined traffic; wandering cows, goats and sheep; creeping, smoking antique trucks; mad matatu drivers desperate for a fare, and the ever-irritating boda-bodas that clog the roads.
So, back to the kitchen-chatter and cheer of the family. We’ve spent the past few New Years’ Eves together, but this year there are no celebrations at the Kitale Club – everyone has to party at home. I’ve promised the bottle of champagne. Adelight says she’s never tasted it, so it’s something to make the evening special. We decide over supper – pizzas with very tasty tomatoes I’ve brought from Kessup, where I sponsored William to buy the seeds earlier in the year to occupy his lockdown time usefully and make some income – to make New Year at 10.30. A sensible decision that omits that long dragging wait for midnight. “After all, it’s midnight for someone!” says Adelight logically. “Some people are already in 2021!”
I don’t think anyone’s very impressed by the champagne really, but the cork ricochetting off the ceiling and the novelty is fun for everyone. We take a family photo and make toasts to a better year than the one to which we are saying a thankful farewell. We toast the members of the family dispersed around the country, and Faith in distant Berlin. Then, happily, it’s time for bed. Let 2021 bring what it will, I suppose. It can’t be much worse for anyone than 2020.