“Oh, we are working on it! Come tomorrow.” It’s the call of all African officialdom.
On Monday, I set out to visit the family in Uganda. Alex and Precious and the two small children live only 100 miles or so from Kitale, around Mount Elgon, the spreading mountain that raises its shoulders over the west of Kenya and the east of Uganda. My ride there is one of the finest I know in Africa – hard, rocky, incredibly dusty and endowed with magnificent scenery. The track winds about the slopes of the mountain, sometimes carved from the hillsides, with misty views into the expanses of northern Uganda. It’s rural and lined with friendly people who don’t see many mzungus going that rough way.
At the remote border post, Suam River, marked by a muddy trickle beneath a tumbledown colonial era concrete bridge, I discovered that to enter Uganda I needed a negative Covid test within the last 72 hours. Checking the Uganda government website, the information is ambiguous at best, referring to arrivals at the international airport but not to those at the land borders. Wanyoni, the Kenya medical officer of health, was helpful. He would walk down to the broken bridge and talk to his opposite number, the MOH on the Uganda side.
To save a ride back to Kitale and a wait of a day or three, Harison, the Uganda MOH, agreed to do the test and let me in. It would cost me £48. If it was the only way in, then so be it… I was checked out of Kenya, immigration stamp, customs for the Mosquito. I rode over the bridge and parked up before the nail-porcupine barrier dragged across the rutted track that forms the international highway.
Harison took ages to input my details, take my money, issue receipts and exchange phone numbers. As he wrote, his colleague put on full sci-fi anti-hazard gear, from hooded white overalls to slip-over shoes and face visor. Then he poked a swab uncomfortably up my right nostril and wriggled it about, before proceeding to remove the entire anti-hazard gear as Harison bagged up the sample.
I walked over to the immigration building in the hot sun. Lucy, overweight and quite bizarre in a hat-like wig of magenta Afro-curls, took one look at my papers and asked where were the results of my test? Well, across the track in a plastic tent so far…
“But you can’t enter Uganda without a negative test!” I referred her to Harison, who limped over on his different-lengthed legs, poor fellow. A quite impassioned discussion ensued. Finally, I was stamped into Uganda. Then it’s a clamber up a broken two metre embankment to Customs for the motorbike. “Still no steps, then?” I called to the watching policemen.
“But where’s your test result?” By now it had all taken two hot hours. The final policeman, it seemed, had the veto and he wasn’t going to relent. “You must come back on Thursday, when you have the results; if I let you go now, you will be stopped often and people will make a lot of trouble for you, and ask for money everywhere.” Quite possibly correct…
Of course, I had to be stamped back out of Uganda and into Kenya! “That’s my shortest stay in Uganda!” I called to the officials – all of them charming and friendly. “We will let you pass quickly when you return on Thursday,” they all promised with big smiles for the old mzungu on his motorbike, who really ought to know better, in their opinion.
‘Lay an extra place for supper!’ I texted Adelight.
So, home to Kitale.
Now Thursday is here. At 08.00, boots on, bags prepared, I phoned Harison. “Are my results back?”
“We expect them today or tomorrow. We are working on it! Be patient, come tomorrow!”
“But tomorrow will be 96 hours since the test and you say it must be 72 hours maximum…”
“No, we will let you go! Come tomorrow.”
Well, we’ll see, I suppose. But it’s equally likely that the final policeman will exercise his veto again. Just another day in Africa…
I have a quite philosophical attitude. I’m the lucky one. I have time on my side. If I have to, I can afford to take yet another test, maybe at Kitale Hospital. I am not shut in my house in Harberton in the gloom and cold. I am free to wander the roads of Kenya in the sun. I have a comfortable base here in Kitale, where I am surrounded by warm, cheerful people. “Don’t worry! You can stay in Jonathan’s House!” says Rico as we sit and drink beer on the porch in the equatorial sunset. And Adelight keeps her Scrabble opponent. I am still determined to go to Uganda for a few days somehow, if I can. “I don’t know how I will tell Precious!” exclaimed Alex when I rang to tell him I was returning to Kitale. “She has been cooking and preparing the whole day!”
In those uncertain reaches of the night in my garden house here in the compound, I have woken and worried a few times about the decision I made to escape – those hours when you ponder anxiously in the dark. Should I have stayed and waited out the dramas at home? What if things change here? How and when will I be allowed to go home? Did I compound the difficulties and uncertainties of life in these odd times?
Then I rationalise… I made my decision and must make the best of it. Nothing I hear from home convinces me that it was mistaken. On an online calculator, I checked the assessment of when I might expect a vaccination. A day or two after Christmas, this was put at between February 7th and March 12th. Checking two days ago, this had extended to the 29th March to 23rd May. Already. There are between 6,029,525 and 9,926,645 people ahead of me in the queue, despite our inept prime minister’s foolish promise that ‘all the over 70s will have been vaccinated by mid-February’. He’s not managed to organise anything else as promised yet, so this seems equally as vacuous as all other predictions. I’d like to be wrong.
Yes, I made my choice – and so far, it’s been a grand one. This journey may be a little more circumscribed than usual; I may be less able to roam easily and I will probably have to stay within Kenyan borders except for a brief trip round the mountain to Sipi in Uganda. But Kenya is a huge country, and there’s still plenty I haven’t really explored much, and a lot of places I’ll be happy to revisit. My way of travel is much more relaxed these days and I am philosophical about the restrictions I may face. These countries seem to have a hold on the regulations and the virus has a low statistical profile. Africa in all has recorded just 66,672 deaths (out of one point two billion population) and has 2.8 million cases and 2.3 million recovered. Kenya, a land with pretty good infrastructure and statistical recording, has 96,802 cases, 1685 deaths and 79,073 recovered. My temperature is taken in every shop and business and, as I found this week, I cannot cross land borders without a recent negative test, and require one to come back if it’s after two weeks. Hotels and restaurants are open (and probably rather desperate for business) and life does not revolve around the crisis – it tends to be on about page three in the national newspapers. I do note, however, that the government just extended the nighttime curfews for a further 69 days to March 12th, and – surprise, surprise – bans all political rallies and demonstrations! A very convenient excuse for an authoritarian government…
It’s been a relaxing week, with plenty of goodwill around me. Each afternoon, I try to take an hour or two walk – often in the hot, high sun. We live just far enough from town – about 6 kilometres from the centre – to have rural areas around the house. I can walk into fields and tracks, undisturbed by traffic. Small homesteads and rural shambas (smallholdings) stretch away towards the floating mountain to the west, eucalyptus trees wave and shimmer and new crops grow. The orchestra of birdsong is a joy down in the fields – natural woodwind and tympani in the trees. Hornbills, with long ugly curved beaks, break cover with a strident HAAAH! HAAAH!, a flash of viridian on each wing but shimmering with a deep indigo ripple as the fly up, alarmed. A tall heron stands on the dust road, flapping ungainly away as I approach to twenty yards. Two giant crested cranes, over a metre high, lope off across a field, their topknots flickering, their gait somehow expressing offence at my presence. Pigeons call everywhere – and unseen children chorus, “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are yoooo?” from amongst shambas and crude homes of earth, sticks and rusty zinc.
Maria started school yesterday. She is a very bright three year old. We went to inspect the new school, run by Eva – Kitale born, married to a mzungu, who trained in Kenya, did a masters degree in Slough and lived for a time in USA. Her private school is impressive, neat, tidy and well cared for, with a patch of green grass and a huge sandpit too. Maria watched all the activity around us as we talked to ‘Miss Eva’. She has been excited about going to school, and not disappointed by her first day.
It’s not cheap, at about £550 per year, which includes her tuition, uniform, three simple meals a day, books and activities. Extra options include swimming – at the Kitale Club, where we all spent an afternoon last weekend; skating in the big school hall, and chess, a popular pastime in Kenya. Rico has found these sums for many years and for many girls, now mainly young women, but Bo and Marion still needing fees. And now Maria. He’s paid for education from primary to the end of senior schools and training colleges for his clutch of a dozen or so Rico Girls, who all look to him as their father, despite no blood relations, except Maria. A selfless generosity to be much admired.
Tomorrow I will phone Harison and attempt once again to get to Uganda. If I go quiet for ten days, then perhaps I got there! If nor, I shall abort the mission and replan later.
“We are working on it!” Yeah…