I began the last episode by expressing the philosophy that I hope to get one thing done every day in Africa. Anything more is over-optimistic, and even one thing is hoping for a lot.
So far, my visa application has occupied many tedious hours. It’s all done online now, in the name of efficiency. Yeah… On Monday the 8th, ten days after I applied for a visa to enter Kenya on March 3rd from Uganda, I travelled back to Eldoret, 50 miles down the dangerous international highway. This time I rode in a matatu – minibus – for less stress than riding on that death-road. For £2 each way, it’s an easy journey, about an hour and a half of bad traffic and speed bumps, but they’re not my responsibility where I sit behind the driver, and matatus are comfortable these days as the virus regulations insist they sell only half the seats. You pay more, but so far as I am concerned, not being packed in with half Kenya, their goats and babies and cooking pots, is well worth the extra £1.50. That shows a certain lack of sympathy of course: for many in Kenya that £1.50 is as much as they hope to earn in a day.
So, a matatu ride and a boda-boda to the Immigration offices in the city centre. There to be shuffled from office to office, most officials apparently seeing the application process for the first time in their working lives, until I came upon a corpulent officer who took my application print-out and asked, “Where is your result?”
“What result? I applied ten days ago and NOTHING has changed on your website! Nothing… It’s just as well the old visa was still valid, or I’d have been waiting in Uganda for the new visa. One of your colleagues told me I should apply while I was out of Kenya, so I did. They all told me I must come here for endorsement!”
“Yes, but I can’t endorse without the printed acceptance form. Go and check online.”
“Across the road, a cyber cafe. Bring back the print.” Meanwhile, he phoned his colleague, who told him I have been granted a two month visa. It’s on the computer system. So why can’t he just GIVE me the bloody thing? Because he needs the printed acceptance. So efficient, this online stuff.
Frustrated, but keeping the smile resolutely on my face, since I know nothing happens if I lose my cool, I cross the road to a cramped lock-up internet cafe.
“Oh, their website is SLOW!” says the nice young woman, who then spends an hour and two minutes trying to log into the site for me before we give up and I go back across the road to the Immigration office.
“Yes, it’s been down all day!” the officers declare, smiling. Then why, I wonder, didn’t they tell me when I was here over an hour ago? Perhaps because a miracle might happen, and people don’t like to give disappointing news in Africa. “Come tomorrow! No problem! Come tomorrow, or any another day!”
The fact that I reside 50 miles up the road, and the bureaucracy will take another day means nothing to anyone. So much time is wasted in Africa on this sort of nonsense. From outside the offices I phone Rico, “How the **** have you endured this for 12 YEARS?” I exclaim in frustration, having just coped with a mere couple of hours of the immigration department. Rico’s been trying to regularise his ‘status’ for 12 years; he’s STILL in Kenya on a visitor’s visa… He has a wife, a family, a house, what little wealth he has is all in Kenyan accounts: his life is committed to Kenya. But he’s still a tourist.
I repair to the smart hotel nearby – a white man can do this with impunity, I’m a little ashamed of the fact, but I may as well abuse it – and indulge in a decent mug of latte by the swimming pool and calm down before I trail back, empty handed, in a matatu to Kitale. Just on principle – the same principle that a miracle may happen – I keep trying to log on to the website, just in case anyone’s bothered to repair it. But of course not. A day gone. Just as well it’s only a holiday for me and time is elastic. At 3.30 I give up. May as well try to get home for some of beer-time at least.
Now, when I go for my afternoon rambles in Kitale the swallows are settling on the electric wires alongside the red dust tracks, perhaps preparing for their imminent flight back to places north – and to Devon to shit on my motorbike seat. The rainy season is approaching. There’s a subtle change in the weather; the skies roll with intermittent thunder drums and the nights are cooler up here at nearly 2000 metres. There’s almost an autumnal feel to the faint morning mists. In the afternoons humidity builds to proportions that remind me of the wonder of that traditional Turkish hammam in Istanbul, an experience which I haven’t forgotten for almost 50 years. But it tends to rain chiefly in the afternoons, so I can generally regulate my riding to avoid the worst soakings. Anyway, one look at the Totnes weather forecast soon brings a sense of perspective. Rain and 5 degrees with a yellow warning of wind.
On the third day I get on the Immigration website, I must have slipped through an unguarded cyber wormhole. Hastily – well actually it takes 12 minutes, but on Kenya’s Immigration Service website, that’s haste – I download the confirmation page. A button in the corner suggests ‘print’. Yes, if you have a colour printer nearer than six kilometres away and have the drivers for said printer loaded in your device. For safety I snap a picture of the screen with my camera before I race to town. The cyber cafe owner spends twenty minutes trying to print the single sheet, finally resorting to loading my edited photo to his own computer and printing that. What is so utterly illogical is that it is the Immigration Department’s own system that generates the confirmation – that I have to print and deliver to THEM! It’s available to them, as to me, on their own system! Huh! It’s crazy.
Now all I have to do is take that sheet of A4 paper 50 miles to Eldoret. Where it’s already on their computer system…
Let’s hope that solves the problem…
Later, I change the flight booking over the phone with KLM in Nairobi. KLM staff use their own computers. It’s easy. Takes moments. Done! I fly out on April 8th.
I can only comfort myself and keep my patience because I am aware that this near-insurmountable nonsense was created by the British colonials as a barrier against the black-skinned man, whom we did not believe to be in any way as capable or honest as us… And any poor African trying to get a visa to my xenophobic country is treated a great deal worse and more arrogantly than anyone will ever treat a mzungu in Africa.
These shameful realities cause me to remain as patient as I am able.
My health seldom lets me down on these journeys; I have developed a pretty secure immunity to most ills. There was a hasty dismissal of some kitere and beans (tough maize kernels and beans) in Kessup, and a dire emergency – probably from beans again – on election day in Uganda in January, most inconveniently sudden, while watching the returning officer announce the result of the ‘auction’. A mighty urge overcame me, such that I had to run from the field the quarter mile back home, hoping I’d make it. I raced across the compound, much to Precious’s consternation, to the pit latrine, making it about 20 seconds too late.
Precious is convinced someone cursed me with the evil eye. “There are bad people! They can just look at you…” Alex and I laugh, but she really seems to believe in the magic. Old beliefs still have a strong hold. A couple of Imodium solve the problem in a few hours. “I must write to the manufacturers that their medicine is potent against African witches as well as diarrhoea!” I tell Precious. “They’ll be pleased.” Alex chuckles.
Last time I was in Kessup a month ago, on the way back from my abortive trip to the coast, I suffered a resurgence of an occasional problem – an inability to piss. An old man’s (never-let-it-be-uttered) problem, perhaps. In Kessup I decided to consult the local herbalist, an elderly fellow William and I sometimes bump into on our rambles, usually clutching grubby bags of leaves, twisted sticks or dusty roots – funnily enough, in these strange days, with a blue clinical face mask as a chin strap. He’s nicknamed Dawa, which means medicine in KiSwahili.
Dawa turned up at breakfast time one morning with a small bundle of rather dirty roots tied by a strip from a nylon sack. My instructions were: wash them and boil them for ten minutes in about a litre of water, let it cool and drink half a tumbler first thing in the morning for four days. I put the package in my bags and took it home to Kitale.
The boiled liquid was utterly DISGUSTING, so bad it must be beneficial. It looked like something dredged from the bottom of an equatorial swamp, thickly green, unpleasantly pungent and very bitter. However, by day two there was a resumption of service… Perhaps I had a urine infection – I’ve had them a couple of times before on these long rides. Maybe the green filth contained a natural antibiotic? It prevented the necessity of a visit to a doctor, cost 100 bob up front (70 pence) and makes a better story. Back in Kessup, it’s the custom to take the herbalist ‘a present’ – for which William is my advisor.
Eldoret is a short diversion from my ride to Kessup. Usually, I try to avoid the congested, scruffy city, but this time I have a mission. Clutching the single sheet of paper that I, instead of the officials who generated it, have printed off their cranky website, I knock on the door of Room 104, smile resolutely glued across my face and cheery greeting foremost. “I’ve got it!” I declare happily, waving the stupid, irrelevant paper. “It took three days to get on your website! Three days!”
“Oh,” says one of the women, eating a chapati, at a computer on which she can probably view a virtual copy of the paper I clutch, “it sometimes takes people more than two weeks!” In that case, I wonder to myself, why don’t you press your bosses to get the crappy website rebuilt? But these are lowly civil servants, intent on no more than their month-end salary, and one thing Africa DOES lack is initiative. I guess we colonials beat it out of them.
It takes two minutes – ignoring the hour and a half’s journey from Kitale and the one last week – to put the stamp in my passport that confers on me the right to stay in Kenya until May the 8th.
I repair again to the smart Sirikwa Hotel nearby, flashiest place in Eldoret, to celebrate with a decent mug of latte and a plate of kachamburi – my favourite tomato, onion and coriander salad – by the blue swimming pool in green gardens. If you haven’t seen it, you can’t imagine the novelty of green grass in a city like Eldoret, where all is dust and dirt and crowds and noise. Refreshed by a bit of not very African luxury, I return to the chaos outside and ride north to Kessup, 25 miles away.
Back in Kessup, I clock up my twelfth week in East Africa. What a relief it has been to spend my winter with PEOPLE. The sun, the freedom to roam, the relaxation are all incidental to that necessity of life itself. We are – I AM – social animals. Shutting us up for months on end will have lasting damage. Calling it ‘social’ rather than ‘physical’ distancing was a semantic mistake that will leak into our collective subconscious. Becoming a Covid Refugee is the best thing I have done in years. It was a gamble of course: maybe things would change for the worse in Africa; maybe I wouldn’t be let back; maybe… But I don’t live life by maybes and if onlys. Just by instinct. And instinct was correct.
As my travelling years have passed – quite a lot of them by now – I’ve come to understand that it’s people who count. It’s been the reason I roam about like this, after the initial excitement of just seeing new places faded. And Africa has been a vital part of it, for on this continent I am – largely – received without judgement; of course I am a mzungu and a somewhat exotic for that, a ‘slebrity’, as Alex put it. Assumptions are made about my wealth and privilege, but – again largely – I am accepted at face value and welcomed openly. Africans (and of course I am making generalisations) are generous and trusting; everyone – and this ISN’T a generalisation – reacts to a smile. It’s the wonder of the continent: a smile for a smile. It’s no accident that my photos are all of smiling people, and the only credit I take for that is that they are reacting to ME, not my camera.
Africa has enriched my life fundamentally and happily. Yet most are afraid of travelling here; old prejudices inculcated in colonial times by dramatic, demeaning tales and perpetuated by wilful ignorance and the shameless self interest of the rich world. Even those who DO come to Africa seldom engage with its people, keeping them as an exotic background to their animal safaris. Who needs animals in parks when they can enjoy an African village?
Which of course explains why I am back in Kessup again, with my friend and guide to his community, William. “Eh, your best friend is back!” calls the owner of the campsite, driving a truck full of big fenceposts down the rutted and rocky approach track and seeing William and I inspecting William’s newly ploughed tomato field. “And our best customer!” ONLY customer might really be more accurate. Gladys, Vicky and Millicent come to hug their mzungu as I pull in on my Mosquito.
Soon it’s time for beer. We sit beneath a flashy flame tree, its red flowers on leafless grey branches. It’s a dramatic tree, the flame tree, I’ve never seen another like it with its showy inverted scarlet tassels. Long-beaked nectar-sucking birds jump about enthusiastically overhead and the wonderful view of the Kerio Valley – part of the Great Rift – drops away at our feet. It’s a pretty special place to sit with a beer and catch up on the past month. William wants to hear of my families in Kitale and Sipi: he feels he knows them by now, again with that very African sense of concern and brotherhood. I bring him greetings from Adelight and Rico and Alex. None of them have yet met but they all express a trusting warmth – ‘any friend of yours…’
William and I wander down the red dust roads of the village on the plateau. We’re going to visit Dawa, the herbalist, and take him the ‘gift’ for my local medicine. William says 500 bob (about £3.25) will be about right, inclusive of two more bundles of the same medicinal roots and sticks to take home. Dawa lives in a couple of red-painted zinc houses behind a large primary school, down towards the edge of the plateau. Below us the valley shimmers in the heat rising from its depths. Everything’s much drier than when I was here a month ago. “There’s not much mil-ikk,” says William. “There’s nothing for the cows to eat. I think the rains will come late this year, maybe not until the beginning of the next month…” He gazes upwards. It’s certainly hot today, with a huge deep blue sky arching over us. Landscapes seem so BIG in Africa. And this is such a magnificent landscape; one of the best. “Well, we can’t all have Rift Valleys!” said Rico when we contrasted the lack of scenic beauty in West Africa. No, just ONE is terrific though, worth coming back time and again.
Dawa is expecting us, sitting on a log wearing his jacket – for me it is oven-hot already at 10 o’clock. William greets him in Kalenjin. “He’s impatient!” he tells me as Dawa pulls forward a plastic chair for me. “He knows he’s getting money and he wants his warigi!” That’s how Dawa will spend my medical fees: on the local home-distilled spirit that will ironically probably kill him from sclerosis, as it does so many. ‘Physician heal thyself’… But it’s almost certainly an addiction by now, William says later as we walk. And it’s a long walk to a house that has warigi this morning.
Before we leave, Dawa stands up to present me ceremonially with two more bundles of sticks and roots tied with a plastic strip from a woven sack. I stand to receive them, both of us exchanging the bundles with both hands. Dawa mimes spitting on his hands as the roots pass. I take the 500 bob note in both hands and present it to Dawa. He pretends to spit on the note. Maybe in pre-corona times, he’d actually spit. I enjoy these thoughtful little formalities of old local life – now largely replaced with a casual wave from the back of a boda-boda; no one’s got time any more, too busy with their phones and ‘social’ media.
I want to know a bit about his local herbal knowledge. Through William I ask Dawa if he is sharing this valuable skill with anyone younger. “Oh, he’s only allowed by tradition to tell one other!” Maddeningly, this hard-learned knowledge is dying out all over the continent, yet ‘tradition’ demands that he divulge his secrets to only one family member. So even tradition serves to force people into the hands of the multinational drugs companies, peddling chemical drugs of probably no more potency and many more side effects – making eye-wateringly HUGE profits that make Western shareholders rich.
Dawa’s itching with impatience to be off in search of his fix of hard spirit, the alcohol that I have witnessed to have killed so many I knew in my African years. Of course, it’s illegal, but commonly available and far cheaper even than beer. Who knows its alcohol content? Made from a distillation of maize and wheat, it’s more potent than gin or whisky and costs pennies. When we reach the house with warigi, half an hour’s walk along the plateau, Dawa downs more than half a litre of the spirit. Suddenly it appears he can speak English and, he says, now he can see clearly. But not for long, I bet; he’ll wander home and sleep it off, forget to take a proper meal, and be back as soon as he’s made another 70p to buy another cooking oil container of this poison. Poison I would use to strip paint and clean brushes perhaps. Poison that kills so many here.
William, who’s stopped taking warigi, stopped smoking, no longer drinks the local beer, bulsa, and cut his sugar intake, all he says, on my advice, drinks tea as Dawa gulps down the two enamel mugs of neat spirit. I recognise a young woman whom I photographed along here last year. Naomi is very attractive: widely spaced bright eyes and a happy smile of lovely teeth. She’s a happy disposition and a quickly smiling face. I snapped her last year with her small baby, Prudence. Now she’s holding a small child and I ask if it’s the same baby. She tells me quietly that Prudence is no more; she died in October last year. “But now I am calm again. Have you the photo? I have no photo of my little girl to remember…” I tell her that I have photos still on my iPad from that journey and I will do my very best to get prints for her. She’s smiling again, that pretty smile. I take her photo again, moving her to the shaded doorway of a grass-thatched round hut nearby. With the dark background and the light reflecting from the pale dust outside, they’re lovely pictures. “I think one of those will end up on my wall at home,” I tell her. She smiles quietly at the idea.
On Saturday, William and I hike in the other direction, northwards along the plateau. We’re heading back towards Siroch, the village we visited last month where I so delighted all the schoolchildren. It’s terribly hot today, the sun blasting from a sky so deep blue it’s almost ultramarine. The enormous valley is just a shade of pale blue below us, hazed by the intensity of the light and distance. Three thousand feet down it must be an inferno today. Happily, here on the edge of the high plateau there’s a strong breeze rushing out of the valley. Oddly, it’s a cool wind. It tempers the extremes for a pleasant but pretty warm walk. We greet dozens as we go and children run from shambas to see a real white man pass their villages. It’s exciting for them and the cry of, “Mzuuungu! Mzuuungu!” rises everywhere.
We don’t make it quite as far as Siroch this time. William must be back by three for a family meeting. His father is dying – well, that seems the likely outcome from his stay in the hospital in Eldoret. He’s in the final stages of prostate cancer and the doctors don’t hold out much prospect of recovery. The hospital is expensive: it’s private, as the family reckon the government hospitals are of low standard. The old man wants to come home, to his much younger second wife. “How the heck can you do that?” I ask William, for I’ve visited Changwony at home. He lives on the very outer edge of the escarpment down bumpy footpaths and rocky fields. Short of a helicopter, I can’t imagine how you’d get a terminally ill 86 year old, who can’t walk, is catheterised and bed-ridden, down to the collection of mud and thatch houses that are his home, a short mile from the tar road.
“By boda-boda!” says William, amused at the idea of a helicopter. I am silenced by shock. Four men and a stretcher, maybe. But a boda-boda..? A clapped out Chinese motorbike..?
So the family is meeting to discuss what they will do. If the old man is dying, why keep him in an expensive hospital where he’s discontented? “The meeting will be to discuss if we shall sell some of his cows. Which ones… And what we are to do if he insists on coming home.” William’s family is long-established here and relatively wealthy – in land and cattle at least. “Maybe he can live another year. Maybe two!” But with a diagnosis of late stage prostate cancer it seems unlikely.
Later in the day, when we meet for supper and beer beneath our flame tree, William says his father will be discharged tomorrow. He’ll come back to wife number one’s house, William’s mother. “How does he get on with her?” I ask, polygamy a mystery.
“Oh, it will be very OK. And my mother and the young wife, they are alright too.”
But for some days the family has to resist Changwony’s insistence that he wants to go down to his own house and his younger wife. I wonder how it will play out, if indeed he does survive for weeks or months, bedridden, requiring nursing and discontent to be at his number-one-wife’s house?
“The goodness is..” as William says, that we both like to walk. We’ve roamed this plateau extensively, but Sunday was our first time to climb UP out of the Rift Valley. It’s over 1000 feet of stiff rocky scrambling to the top edge, the giant valley laid out now over 4000 feet below, baking in the equatorial sun. Another hot day, maybe 30 or 32 degrees. Even more in the sun. But the top of the cliff’s cooler than when we walked down into the inferno.
It’s hard work though… I struggle up the steep incline, my feet slipping on the dust and rocks, vicious thorns grabbing at my skin. It’s almost straight up at right angles to the incline. Feels that way anyway. The path is overgrown and not very well used, yet William points out some sticks that have dropped from bundles on backs. “Even here, women from Kessup come for firewood!” he says over his shoulder, phone in that grip that must soon become a new human physical attribute. (‘Women’, you note). Kessup is now about eight hundred feet below us, laid out like a map on its giant step in the drop to the Rift. We come to a narrow passage between a huge rock on our left, the upward side, and a line of rocks that have split away aeons ago. As we emerge, we are greeted by our two guides. They’ve been sent down to guide us the rest of the way to Leonard’s compound. Leonard is the beekeeper that we visited last year at the bottom of the Kerio Valley. He showed me his bee hives and his business down there with great patience. Now we have made an appointment to visit him at home, up here on the top of the escarpment. We’re over 7000 feet; I tend to forget that. Any effort is multiplied, although I’ve been at high altitude most of the time for the past three months.
Elias and Timothy are our guides. Elias turns out to be a complete tonic. I’m delighted by his endless cheerfulness and engaging smile. For the next three hours, I have only to look at him for a smile to spread over my face too. What a gift he has! Now the two young men lead us through a lovely forest. There are mature hardwoods towering above us, and thick spiky equatorial growth around us. It’s an insignificant path through the thick growth. I’m glad these two fellows are here to guide us, at least until we reach a red dust footpath. The sun is shaded here, light dappling through the dense greenery above. Old trees. It’s a magical place, uncommon even in rural Kenya, where the population invades every natural space. This is an old government forest, so I suppose there’s some protection. I didn’t expect it, and after the rigorous exercise I just went through, I’m a bit shocked I still have more than a couple of miles to battle through the forest. But it’s terrific: cool, calm and very beautiful.
Then we reach the edge of the forest, a red dust road and a rickety bridge of tree trunks over a grey river. Two boys are fishing off the bridge with plastic bottles on blue plastic string lines. One of them reels in hisJ informal fishing rod and shows me a fish, about the size of a goldfish, rather confined in the plastic water bottle. Did they bait the bottle, I wonder? Did he put the fish in the bottle? Did the fish swim in of its own volition? Who knows? He’s very proud to show his ‘catch’ – if that’s what it is – to the mzungu.
We climb again, on a red earth road, to a village of compounds and green shambas and newly ploughed small fields. We reach Leonard’s home, neighbours excited to see a mzungu climbing the rural paths. They all call out and greet. We enter a compound fenced with split logs: there’s plenty of wood up here on the highlands.
We’ve come by appointment, to try Leonard’s muratina. It’s a sort of wine made from fermented honey, some dried tree seedpods, water and a local leaf. It’s not really mead, although that’s what William and I have called it, because I didn’t know quite what he was describing. In a few moments I will. Men sit about the sloping, grassy compound on wooden plank benches, each with a Fanta bottle filled with bright sunflower yellow liquid. It’s attractive, with the bright high sun glinting through the mixture. We greet the assembled group and Leonard, a smartly dressed, quietly spoken man, insists on bringing me an armchair from the house. Everyone else is sitting on planks or rustic stools, but a mzungu guest is not just special but probably unique in this village. After the very hard walk – which has taken us well over two and a half gruelling hours – I don’t object to celebrity status.
Leonard brings my Fanta bottle. I sniff the neck a little suspiciously. It doesn’t smell too good: a bit of a fermenting aroma, slightly fruity but sour. He brings a tin mug; I pour the liquid, and discover it’s really rather good, it’s got a sort of mango and orange flavour but is like a very sweet wine. William has been telling me for days that he will only allow me to drink, “ONE glass!” I think he’s afraid I’ll fall off the mountain if I imbibe any more. But it’s not as strong as he’s been warning me. I guess it’s a bit like wine, about 12% alcohol. I suppose it’s not wise to drink two Fanta bottles of sweet wine, especially with a thousand foot cliff to descend, if I think about it. But I don’t think about it: I like the stuff!
I sit, very contentedly, amongst a small group of respectful men, surrounded by ten or more delightful children, so excited that a real mzungu – for some of them the first they ever saw – has arrived. After the exertions, it’s lovely to sit here: the temperature is perfect, I have a comfy seat, plenty to look at and I’m enjoying the booze. And Elias makes me grin every time I look at his big smile. It strikes me that it’s a bit like sitting outside the Church House Inn on a wonderful, balmy Sunday afternoon – rare though those may be. But the big difference is that I can entertain four friends to three litres of this local wine – and get change from £3.50, less than the cost of my own pint of beer at home.
Then Phyllis, Leonard’s wife, insists we must eat rice and lentils in the house. A mzungu visitor makes this a very special occasion. It’s very charming. Children gather to watch; Leonard and Elias and William and I eat and chat. I feel completely at home, welcome and content. 600 centilitres of local wine may be helping that mood. It’s occasions like this that make travelling so addictive for me. Surrounded by friendly people who give me celebrity status and entertain me, and share with me what they have: it’s humbling in a way, but also expresses the most natural emotions possible.
William’s watching the clock all the time. He likes his programmes, but even he seems to relax in this generously friendly atmosphere and we overstay by 45 minutes. I photograph all the children: they are excited and calling to William not to take their new mzungu away. But we still have to descend that huge mountainside. I think William is relieved that I’m not falling about with the DTs. He’s been warning me for days that I mustn’t over-drink Leonard’s honey concoction. I’m merely smilingly content and in rather a good mood. It was worth the hard work to climb up here – in fact, the effort enhances my satisfaction: I feel I earned my inner glow.
I’m happy Elias volunteers to show us the way to the other path down the mountainside. I’ve rather vetoed the idea of going back down that slippery dust and rock chute. There’s another path that’ll bring us back a bit farther north; a better established trail down beside the waterfalls. It was those waterfalls that introduced me to William. The campsite manager that year – 2017 – suggested I take William as a guide for the morning. I was persuaded, although I seldom hire guides. “Do you want to go to the waterfalls?” William asked, these apparently being the local sight. “No, not much…” I replied. “Waterfalls are just water falling over a rock, unless they’re the Victoria Falls, of course! No, I’d rather walk in your village and meet your neighbours.” We compromised, and walked up to the waterfalls – which I don’t remember at all – and then met a lot of neighbours on the way back to a beer bar, many of whom I remember.
“I’ve not see you so tired on our walks!” says William as I pant and snuffle back through the lovely forest to the top of the cliffs. My exhaustion is compounded by the heaviest of head colds that suddenly appeared two days ago. I’m proud though that I can now claim to have walked from the bottom of the Rift Valley to the top – and back. Not all in one journey, it’s true, but still…
We’re later back than William meant, “But only 16 minutes!” He goes to water his cows and I take a shower. I feel sticky and dirty from our hike. Soon it’s time to sit with our beers under the flame tree, gazing into the great valley. The tree is popular with many birds. The gardens here, and the agricultural landscape around us, attracts a lot of birds. They suck at the flowers and peck at the dry, leafless branches. They are colourful and a bit exotic: small shapely birds with long curved beaks for the nectar; woodpeckers, smaller than European but still some with the red head and others the spotted bodies, all with that oddly spherical head like cartoon birds. Sometimes a whole flock of yellow weaver birds descends on the bright, flashy tree. Doves and pigeons and small birds with russet underbellies, birds with electric blue flashes, magenta gleams, white-ringed eyes and stiff-shirted fronts. And above them all, out over the vast valley, giant raptors hover almost stationary on the up-currents like 747s of the avian world.
“Hey, the rain is still very far. Very far. It will not rain very soon…” says William as we walk on Monday. And today, the 15th of March, is coincidentally the day I should be flying home on the original booking. It’s stinking hot, somewhere north of 30 degrees. I’m flagging a bit; I slept badly with this intense head cold, spluttering and sniffing through a congested night. Now, as we walk, everyone’s concerned, ‘Kessup’s mzungu’ is suffering. Vicky presents me with half a bulb of garlic and some ginger, and Naomi boils three tiny green lemons, skin and all, in water. It’s acidic, but not as much as if it was only the juice. Local remedies. Vitamin C. Later, I drink a whole flask of it.
We’re walking south along the plateau to visit Naomi this morning. We’re bringing my iPad to show her the only existing picture of her dead daughter. Last year we walked along here and asked at her house for water. The family gathered and I took photos: one of them of Naomi and her four month old daughter, Prudence. In September, Prudence took ill. A visit to the local hospital referred the baby to Eldoret hospital, but even a costly CT scan failed to show the problem, and Prudence died in October. Mine’s the only photo Naomi, a quietly spoken, very charming young woman, has of her daughter. My African portraits have been used at the funerals of many people, and now this one represents the only visual memory Naomi will ever have. It’s moving. Happily, Prudence is awake and looking alertly at the camera in my photo. I’ve promised I’ll find a way to get a print from my iPad and get it to her.
We sit in the decreasing shade as the sun soars to virtually overhead: there’s little escape. We move in her compound on the hillside from under a tree to a small overhanging roof to a larger one. The sun chases me relentlessly, almost vertical above. Shadows reduce to black patches. It’s furnace hot. The rains should have started a week or so ago. Now William reckons they’ll not come until next month. “The cows will suffer. There’s nothing left for them to eat.”
Naomi is very charming, and very attractive too. She’s quiet, tidy and cheerful. She has William’s most admired virtue: ‘discipline!’ It’s a word he often utters, his time as a policeman, “Trained by British!” important in his personal history. How this honest man ever survived in the Nairobi flying squad, a policeman of integrity in Kenya, is a constant mystery, but he admires ‘discipline’ in behaviour and demeanour. Naomi makes us a big flask of tea and boils us four miniature eggs, delicious from local chickens. She’s thoughtful and undemanding, chatting happily to William, and occasionally very softly spoken to me too. She’s so happy that I am the guardian of her only visual record of her second child. Her husband is cook in a school on top of the escarpment. We must wait until her firstborn, Brian, comes from his primary school. She’s had to promise him she’ll keep the mzungu in her compound. Brian is five and quiet like his mother; a good looking little boy with his mother’s wide-spaced eyes and shapely mouth. He’s very excited to have a real white man at home. More pictures.
We make only the one visit today, although of course we greet many on our way. Children call; schoolchildren follow us along the red dust roads, giggling, and William knows most we pass. “Oh, you have given me a good name in Kessup!” he constantly insists. “It’s not easy for a white man to trust an African.” To me that says more about white men than Africans – to our detriment. We’ve just had a charming morning; we’ve brought comfort to a bereaved young mother and been respected and kindly regarded for our concern. People have welcomed me open-heartedly into their homes here on the edge of the Kerio Valley. They aren’t smart homes: there’s almost no material wealth – but the generosity is extreme. There are different measures here when you come to understand some of the realities of life in an African community.
The 15th should have been my last day in Kenya. About now I should be whiling away a boring day on the streets of Nairobi waiting to head for the airport in the evening for the midnight flight north. Thank goodness, I have another three weeks of this freedom. A few days ago I did a bit of research into the statistics of Coronavirus. The figures are interesting – and probably fairly accurate in Kenya, which has good infrastructure for such things.
On March 6th, Kenya had had, since the beginning, some 109,164 confirmed cases of virus, of whom, so far, 87,623 have recovered, leaving 21,541 cases still active. 1879 confirmed deaths have been recorded.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, (who reacted very slowly at the beginning, unlike Kenya) has confirmed 4,218,520 positive cases of virus, of which 3,199,565 had recovered by March 6th, leaving 1,018,958 cases active – more than ONE MILLION. UK has recorded 124,501 deaths. Sixty six TIMES as many as Kenya.
The discrepancy is marked. The countries are not markedly dissimilar in population: Kenya 54 million to UK’s 67 million. Of course, the main difference is in life expectancy. We in UK expect to live for 81 and a half years; sub-Saharan Africans hope for a mere 61 and a half… The average age of death with Coronavirus in UK was, certainly until quite recently, a year OLDER than life expectancy – at 82.5. And a vast percentage died with ‘underlying health issues’ – obesity, heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. Few Africans live long enough or extravagantly enough to develop any of these ills. They work hard for their relatively short lifespan, are seldom overweight and have immunity to most ill health. Few have the luxury of sitting about as couch potatoes – most don’t even have a couch… They live outdoors in a generally healthy climate: it’s only the likes of me that are ill-adjusted to the extremes. Few suffer stress, hypertension and diabetes. Most exercise well – they have no alternative. Most eat a natural diet low in sugar and fat and no one eats ‘convenience food’ created by industrial processes.
Makes you think – about the life WE lead… Maybe we had it coming.
Ironic that I will have to isolate for ten days on my return to UK… I feel I should isolate FROM the UK, rather than the other way around. (Like I have been for the past three easy-going months). On these statistics I am THIRTY NINE TIMES more at risk of catching Coronavirus in England than I have been in Africa. And I have to isolate for Britain’s safety! Haha.
Then, I find that the regional variations for Britain in the past week show that the places of least infection are Orkney Islands, zero cases; Shetland Isles, one case; South Hams, 5 cases; Ceredigion (far west Wales) 7 cases and the Isle of Wight, 10 cases. Per 100,000 the figures are: Orkney 0; Shetland 4.4; South Hams 5.7; IOW 7.1 and Ceredigion 9.6. Every other constituency in Britain exceeds 10 cases per 100,000. If my mathematics is correct, I reckon that (on average) Kenya has had something like 3.77 infections per 100,000 per week. A bit less than South Hams, least infectious place in mainland UK last week.
I live in South Hams.
“This is where we threw out Corona!” William is pointing at the rocky river, where sluggish pools gurgle a bit greyly, rotting leaves spinning slowly in eddies, now there’s been no rain for weeks. “The line was LONG! Only men. The water was higher then. When was it? Oh, I think at the beginning, when Corona was first announced, before the lockdown…”
“So back last March? A year ago, this ceremony?”
“Yes, about then. Early after it all began. We all came, from the village above.” We are perhaps 400 feet below the main village area, three quarters of a mile away on the very edge of the plateau. From here the mountain plunges downwards, brush-covered into the hot valley far below. “It’s our custom… Whenever an illness is announced: ebola, typhoid, corona, anything like that, we come here, the men, to cast it away. The leader, he takes off all his clothes and enters the water and we have a special bush we throw onto the water. Yes, always here. We think this is a special place for such things… So we THREW OUT Corona!” William chuckles.
“Well, it seems to have worked!” I joke.
“Yes, we have had NO cases!”
Old superstitions die hard, even in modern Africa.
Despite William’s confident assertions, showers came on Tuesday, about the time I should have been on a train to Harberton – where it’d probably be raining anyway. Somehow, showers over the Rift Valley are more attractive than showers over the rain-sodden lanes of Devon. Funny that.
For now the rains may be light, but I must accustom myself to their onset. We are entering the rainy season in equatorial East Africa. I may actually need to put on a jersey sometimes…
Kaptagat is one of the places I need that jersey. It’s chilly up here at 8000 feet amongst the tall trees. I’m back to the old Kaptagat Hotel, but I’m disappointed the candlewick is gone from the bed. “There’s been a revolution!” I joke with Ellen, the manager who has no guests to look after. But it’s alright, she’s taken them to wash. Somehow, the showy gold satiny bedcover looks is like an inappropriate face-lift on the old, faded charm of the hotel. But at 6.30 Ellen brings logs and dry corn cobs to build my fire and I am soon sitting by the fire, content – in a power cut as a heavy shower passes noisily across this high altitude place. It makes me laugh, does the Kaptagat Hotel. It’s £10 a night, another £1.70 for a simple supper served by my log fire, £1.35 for a bottle of Tusker and £1.50 for breakfast. The cook sends a message that I forgot to pay for my breakfast last time. It’s a month ago, but I’m Kaptagat’s only mzungu – since I stayed a year ago.
From Kessup, I rode up to Iten, perched on the edge of the escarpment, to find medicine for my heavy cold. Chemists in Africa seldom have trained pharmacists, just salespeople to peddle the drugs – invariably selling oh-so-valuable antibiotics for uses for which they have no efficacy, except to increase resistance. It’s a time bomb in medical health, the way that antibiotics are abused as a wonder drug, sold for completely the wrong purposes by ignorant salespeople. Without regulation – SOON – complex surgeries and the legitimate uses will become impossible. I carefully read the labels and warnings on various boxes that were thrust across the counter, most of them little more than Paracetamol that would make me dozy on my bike. In the end I settled for an antihistamine that worked quickly and allowed me to breathe again after four uncomfortable days. By the time I was riding along the valley bottom towards my favourite trail – the 18 rocky hairpins that clamber the cliffs the 5184 feet in 12 miles up to Nyharu again, I was breathing once more, but my energy has been sapped by bad sleep and nasal discomfort. I bump and lurch upwards, stopping to help a young man right his vastly overloaded boda-boda that’s gone down – slick tyred – on a rocky bend. The views are fine, the road a feat of engineering. It’s magnificent! The cliffs above, several hundred feet high, are unstable and friable. It must take considerable maintenance to keep this trail open. Here and there rock falls have been bulldozed, often twice, where the fall has plunged down and covered two stretches of the hairpin road at the same time. Vast rocks, the size of houses, teeter above amongst the dark trees. It’s impossible not to look up at them and wonder…
At the top, the scruffy habitations of Nyharu can only be there as a junction on this road and the main road to Eldoret, and another that is being surfaced, along the edge of the Rift back to Iten. There’s really no apparent reason for this ugly extrusion of tin and timber shacks surrounded by a hundred waiting boda-bodas and matatus – unless there’s a metropolis I have missed, hidden in the trees. It’s not much more than a bus stop.
I pull up: it’s time for tea. As I manoeuvre the Mosquito to find level parking in the mud dips and holes by the road, a young man approaches. “Welcome back! How is Britain?” It’s over a year since Kipchoro and I met and chatted in the same small tea shack I’m looking for now. He remembers. I suppose there really aren’t many white haired mzungus riding motorbikes in Kenya. The owner and some of his customers remember my visit too. I drink two mugs of sweet tea that he pours from a vast polished aluminium kettle and fall into conversation again. It’s a congenial tea house, with some samosas and mandazi (sweet fried bread) in the greasy glass cupboard beneath the counter. The calendars and pictures are unchanged and years out of date. Everyone’s dressed in ancient mtumba jackets and anoraks, ski jackets with the stuffing escaping, woolly hats and ragged woollen gloves. Young boda-boda riders love to find knitted and felt hats adorned with ears, faces and tassels. For them, it’s cold. In a few miles, I’ll have to stop and add my waterproof jacket to my protection too. Down below, an hour ago, I was sweltering.
It occurs to me that these men and women have been doing the same things for the year since I was here – and probably long before that, just sitting conversing in this clean but dingy shack day in, day out, week in, week out. Places like this make me aware of my restless nature. Sometimes I think it must be comforting to be content with where you are – but maybe they’re only here because they have no choices, like most people of the world. They don’t have the opportunities I have. Not many have.
Having learned a new way to Kaptagat last visit – on that new road that follows the clifftop – I turn off the big tar road that sweeps between high shambas, with distant views to the west. On this road, still being built, with diversions through soft earth and over rolled murram, I ride slowly and enjoy the glimpses of the huge Kerio Valley out of which I just climbed. Anywhere else, there’d be viewpoints planned in the road, but here no one thinks of that. The Rift Valley is just there, seen every day, rather an inconvenience with its vast disruption in the earth’s surface and the weather systems it creates. No one else stands and stares in awe like me.
There’s also a lovely red rock road through Kaptagat forest that I discovered last time I was here. It’s a spreading forest of eucalyptus and conifers, dark and mysterious and soothing on the eyes in this part of East Africa, where the population manages to convert most rural areas to shambas and ugly dwellings of zinc and earth or crudely finished concrete, often painted in those awful brash colours of the mobile companies, emblazoned in exhortations to spend more on calls and make the international companies richer. It’s worth sponsoring painting rural lock-ups and businesses. It keeps their glittery material products in the public eye – ‘upgrades’, new devices, ‘3G, 4G, 5G’… In twenty years I have watched as Africans everywhere developed the ‘phone clutch’. The talk is all of networks and download speeds now, even out in the sticks. It’s an essential possession, even if you go hungry to pay for ‘airtime’. How this continent has changed since I first came, 34 years ago.
So to the old hotel. They all know me here. Even some of the customers. I’m ‘their’ mzungu. Almost no tourists are arriving in Africa this year, probably because the risk of getting home is too unknown. They certainly won’t get Corona here! Might get a bad cold, developing into a bit of a cough. I’m rather grateful I’m not on that flight home with this – as I’d have been on my original schedule. Sniffing and spluttering and sneezing (even ‘into you elbow’) is probably not an auspicious condition in which to fly just now! It’s taken a toll on my energy though and about all I’m good for this evening is to doze by the fire and make for an early bed, the embers glowing across the room. It’s not elegant living: limply clean bedsheets, thick old army-issue type wool blankets and no running water, but it’s fun and costs me £14.55 in all – dinner, B&B and a beer. The spreading old trees outside are dripping on the tin roof. I can breathe again. Now I just need sleep.
It’s now three months since I made my escape. On the 18th March I arrived back ‘home’ in Kitale. I’ve just three more weeks of this freedom to roam, most of the next couple up here in the northwest of Kenya, then I’ll spend the last week or ten days down in Nairobi with a trip – by train – to the coast.
When I get home to Kitale and an internet connection and emails, I find there seems to be a general impression that I am immured in a quarantine hotel near Heathrow! Let me lay that rumour to rest. Had that been the threat: a second rate hotel overlooking the A4, with pink and grey wallpaper and boxed meals, I’d have fought tooth and nail with the East African nations’ bureaucratic webs to stay here in Africa! I’d have gone through all the struggles of new visas for Uganda and Kenya, and corona tests as required to escape that fate. No, I am happy here in Africa and the journey home will, I am sure, be frustratingly officious, but no more than that.
And well worth every small inconvenience my inept government may invent to punish an escapee who had the audacity not to stay and face the music like an Englishman!