EPISODE ONE. CHRISTMAS 2021.THE DOOR HANDLE’S STILL ON MY SIDE

ANOTHER JOURNAL OF TRAVEL IN EAST AFRICA DECEMBER 15th 2021 to (at this point, I hope) 14th MARCH 2022

Despite all the naysayers, prophets of doom and pessimists, I am in Africa again. Only eight and a half months after I left last. It’s funny how the anticipation of travelling has been made so negative, encouraged by our hysterical media, while the actuality, although more bureaucratic than before, is just rather tedious but fairly logical.

The only unknown, of course, is what hurdles will be erected to hinder my eventual return – but that can wait. As I told the pessimists, “I’m not speculating. I’m an optimist and it’ll all turn out right; and if not, I’ll deal with it at the time.” Soon, I’m to be involved in a new project at the military museum on which I worked last in USA. One of the veterans of the appalling prison conditions and torture meted out to downed flyers in Vietnam described his fellow prisoners thus: “The pessimists said, ‘We’re never going to get out’. They were wrong every day except one. The optimists said, ‘One day we’ll be released.’ They were right – every day.” One of those long-term prisoners also said, “Any day the door handle is on your side is a good day.”

It’s a good motto for travellers: the door handle has always been on my side.

And it still is.

*

My journey was the usual compound of misery and elation that is every safari by long haul flight, enhanced by the sense of escape but frustrated by the current restrictions. Now I must have all the papers, QR codes, application numbers, negative test results, phone numbers and personal information in the correct order. It all makes ‘1984’ seem very innocently naive. But all that online stuff, done at home, can add efficiency too. With all those papers I was soon past the formalities and free to bargain my taxi fare to town with Anthony, a cheerful driver on an easy journey at 11.15 at night. Anthony’s jaunty merriment in the face of the realities of scratching a living for his family in overcrowded Nairobi was the customary tonic of arrival on this wonderful continent, to the happy secrets of which I have been privy for half my life.

*

Nairobi is an unlovely place full of humanity and Chinese roadworks. To wander the streets of downtown Nairobi is thought-provoking. Its broken pavements, elephant trap craters, mud pools and miscellaneous mounds of dirt separate hawkers’ stalls (laid out, inevitably, where the pavement is occasionally in good order), newsstands, and bales of secondhand clothes – cast out from the rich world from which I have just come. Its sauntering crowds, congested boda-boda taxi motorbikes, inflated killer 4X4s, driven by the proud men: made-it-and-determined-to-show-the-lowly, customarily overweight and haughty by demeanour, make my European pace impossible. I’ve just arrived: I must slow down. It’s warm: the sun’s blazing from almost overhead, here 1 degree and 16 minutes south of the Equator. My shadow’s about a foot long. I’m walking on it.

Men yell and beckon beside rattletrap buses bound for suburbs and slums; boys push trolleys, pushcarts and hand barrows between rusty buses and the bully-boy cars. Mostly, people drive on the left, which makes my adaptation simple, but it’s dangerous to assume ALL the traffic will follow the code. Security guards catch my eye from every store door; they had some terrorist troubles a few years ago, and now ‘security’ provides a lot of employment. They smile behind their ubiquitous face masks – mandatory everywhere in Kenya just now, even in private cars – and call, “Welcome mzee! Welcome mzungu!” ‘Mzee’ is ‘old man’: vanity is useless here in sub-Saharan Africa, where average life expectancy is only 61.4. I have to emphasise my smile so they can see the lift of my cheeks and the smile in my eyes above my – inevitably slipping in the warmth – snood mask. Women peddling vegetables and highly polished used shoes, slightly tattered clothing and bananas unlike any I ever ate in the North, catch my eye and greet. Bollards are dressed in secondhand dresses and jackets, impromptu tailors’ dummies. Food is sold from grimy barrows; homeless women, with toddlers, sleep on heaps of dirty blankets and cardboard; street children beg; city women totter in unsuitable heels; mad, sci-fi and worse, hair styles make me laugh. It’s fun to be a relaxed mzee mzungu here in Africa, an object of respect and sometimes celebrity. My smile is widening already. I love to be here. Again. At last.

*

Kenya, with a mere fraction of cases of coronavirus that we have allowed to breed in England, handled the whole pandemic quickly and decisively. They required negative tests from incoming travellers a whole ten months before the UK. My temperature is taken in every office and shop – I won’t be admitted if it’s over 37.5 degrees (even on a hot day!). Disgusting sanitiser is sprayed on my hands everywhere. There’s no complaint of ‘Stalinist procedures’, ‘lack of free will’ – cries of the Tory back-benchers and the privileged thoughtless; no antivaxxers. Here, people would love the opportunity of vaccination, to get on with trying to earn a living apart from disruption, to bring back the all-important tourist economy – decimated now. There’s no furlough or assistance here, and access to all government services is restricted to the vaccinated, no shilly-shallying and bowing to mad theories of lack of free will: here everyone’s in this pandemic together and ready – if the vaccines are available – to get on with life as best possible. Infection statistics are low here: it’s a young population; most people are fit and don’t suffer from the often self-induced maladies of the West: obesity, hypertension, heart disease. It’s a cruel African fact that if you get seriously ill, you probably die – without any subsidised health provision. So far, Kenya has recorded 255,000 cases of Covid (to our ten million and soaring). There are more people in hospital in UK today than have died in the whole pandemic here. I have 40 times less chance of infection here in Kenya. And yet, and yet… The chances of getting vaccinated here are minimal as well. The G20 countries snaffled up 89% of the vaccines. There is only ONE G20 member in the whole of Africa, a continent with 54 countries and a population of 1.2 billion: South Africa. The rest of the continent provides, and will until our despicable greed abates, an ideal breeding ground for variants; and viruses are clever than us. They have only one ambition: reproduction by any means. Sometimes I wonder, if Gordon Brown and I can see this, why can’t our ‘leaders’, supposedly intelligent beings (with notable current exceptions), see that until we share resources and intellectual rights, we’ll never beat this thing by pulling up drawbridges and looking after ourselves. Face the causes rather than fiddle with the symptoms! Africa’s average vaccination coverage is a pitiful: a mere 5% continent-wide have received two doses, and about 10% a first dose. Almost half African countries have rates below 2%. Many rich countries are discarding the excess doses they bought, some enough to vaccinate their populations NINE times. Variants will continue to emerge in Africa.

And there the lights went out. This is Africa.

*

With Christmas approaching, I discovered that all the better buses, and all flights up-country were fully sold out until the 26th, so my choice was limited to the regular African transport option of matatus: minibuses that ply the roads everywhere, short and long rides to all corners. The last time I took the long-distance matatu from Nairobi to Kitale, a distance of about 240 miles, was 20 years ago. My memories are not comfortable; but in the intervening two decades, Kenya has made many advances in infrastructure: the minibuses are now controlled and under national legislation, and a lot more comfortable and roadworthy too. It’s still a long ride – three minutes short of ten hours on Friday – but those hours are no longer spent with my knees round my ears, packed in with 17 other passengers, their bags, livestock and babies, plus the miscellaneous boxes, crates, sacks, tractor tyres, goats and all the stuff that people have to carry from one place to another. Now I have a seat to myself amongst only 11 passengers, in a reasonably well-maintained vehicle behind a driver who is as safe as can be expected on this busy road, frustrated by lumbering lorries struggling on the hills up to over 9000 feet. Mid-afternoon we cross the Equator, that criss-crosses the roads of Kenya. All around are tall conifers and grassy banks; it’s fine up here, a landscape that seems unexpectedly like parts of Europe rather than the equatorial regions of East Africa. It’s easy to understand why the colonialists wanted to settle here and exploit this richness, sometimes in landscapes not unlike Scotland or the heights of Europe. It’s cool at these altitudes too, the heat of the sun calmed to a balmy warmth.

But today the road is busy. Well, it’s busy every day: it’s the main and only road from the Indian Ocean coast to the interior of Africa at this point. It carries all the goods and fuel from the ports to Uganda and even Rwanda. It carries the containers of imports to those countries, rumbling slowly over these heights towards Lake Victoria and the shops and businesses of several countries. It wasn’t made for so much traffic: there was a railway, one of the wonders of Africa, 100 years ago. Parts of it are now being restored – by the Chinese of course – and Kenya is investing eye-watering portions of their economy into road building. Actually, in fact, into crippling debts to a country that gives not a fig for the interests of Africa. I hear that, in the inability of Uganda to begin to repay their VAST debts, China is fighting to seize Entebbe International Airport in reparation, Uganda’s only international airport. I’ve prophesied it for years past, that this is how that country operates: it ‘generously’ gives huge loans at attractive rates, that it knows full well the poor countries cannot repay. Then it bides its time, letting the debts accrue, before pouncing on the weakened states and demanding payment in their minerals, resources and land. It’s alarming, not just for African countries, but for the planet: that this nation that cares naught for ecological crises or human rights is gaining so much control over the minerals and resources of the world. China does nothing except in its own interest. As I’ve often observed: I have yet to see a Chinese charity on this continent. It’s just not in their vocabulary as they work towards world domination.

Nairobi is transformed in just nine months by Chinese construction. I’ve stayed the first couple of nights in the old United Kenya Club with its colonial overtones; reminders of those days in its dark-stained bar and faded elegance of its cheap ensuite rooms. From the small balcony of my room I chuckle at another colonial relic: its car park with bays marked: ‘Director, Chairman, Treasurer, 1st Vice-Chairman, 2nd Vice-Chairman, Former Chairman’ and so forth (note the misogyny of the old club, formed in 1946, probably as White-only). Now, across the gardens, the view of nearby downtown is obscured by a huge concrete flyover of a raised highway that wasn’t even intimated when I stayed last on March 29th. Roadworks are everywhere, with the attendant chaos. Leaving Nairobi, the matatu stayed in almost one place for 50 minutes, battling with seven or eight informal lines of jostling traffic to pass a blockage. Drivers are extraordinary, forcing into the lines, bouncing over broken ground amongst road-making machines and piles of earth and debris to inch forward in fume-belching queues.

At last we break loose onto the highway north-westwards to the even higher lands – for Nairobi itself is so unexpectedly high at 5512 feet. From here the road is single carriageway, crushed with all that traffic. We must go at the pace of the slowest, with occasional bursts of overtaking – often in the face of oncoming traffic – in an attempt to keep the journey to Kitale down to eight hours. On Friday we failed: ten hours minus three minutes…

*

My Kenyan ‘sister’ Adelight, waited for me at the entrance to Kitale town, for a warm welcome home. I’ll be here for Christmas. For the first day or two, Rico and I stripped the rear end of my Mosquito, my little Suzuki DR200, and fitted new bearings, bushes and all the bits that will hopefully make it less rattly. In so doing, we discovered that at some time – before my ownership I’m happy to say – the machine has had a powerful hit, sufficient to bend the central frame a few millimetres. Ever-resourceful Rico, an ideal mechanic for this continent, where you must make-do and invent, found ways to cut and weld the frame so that we could extract the swinging arm to fit the parts I brought in my luggage: expensive parts that had to be obtained from a Dutch company, with all the over-priced bureaucracy and costs brought on by Brexit importation. Good to know we achieved our ‘sovereignty’ and ‘self-determination’, eh? Our new ‘freedom’ added a £12 handling fee for Fedex to sort out the shambles of various VAT rates and delays en route. Oh, happy days in Little Britain. Good to be able to observe the mess from a distance.

*

For one who takes pride in the infrequency with which I manage to penetrate the horrors of Morrisons supermarket in Totnes, I take a perverse delight in going shopping with Adelight in Kitale. The experiences could not be more opposite. Morrisons is a bleak, miserable fact of commercialism, of comestibles ungraciously presented, an anonymously dismal and dispiriting necessity. In Kitale it’s great fun! I smile and laugh, jest with traders, chat everywhere, have my leg pulled as an ‘mzee’, break conventions for fun: carrying Adelight’s sack of charcoal (a man! White, at that!); stepping into the busy road to halt traffic so she can reverse from parking spaces – “Hah, we’ve waited long enough!” I exclaim, “They’ll all stop if a mzungu stands in the street!” And they do, with big smiles and jokes at my expense that make me chuckle again.

A gigantic hoarding brings us greetings of the season from a local politician. Funny how all politicians are well fed and fat, even the regional ones. “Oh, they feed on money!” says Adelight with dismissive irony. Another big hoarding advertises a promotion for one of the ubiquitous mobile companies, the biggest business in Africa these days. The main competition prize? ‘1000 goats to be won!’ it screams in two foot high letters.

Music thunders from yet another mobile phone promotion, a disc-jockey hired to fill the street with cacophony. Boda-bodas are everywhere like insects, loaded with multiple passengers, their riders in outlandish garb, helmets back on top of their heads. Many wait, double and triple parked, or blocking pavements, for fares. It’s a desperate business, for there are thousands of small-time riders even in this fairly small regional town. But a few pennies here and there make the difference between supper for the family, medicines in illness, school fees, or hunger and destitution. It’s a fine line…

Like Nairobi, the Chinese debt is bulldozing a four lane highway through the centre of Kitale town. It meant sudden, almost overnight, demolition of big swathes of the informal, illegal, unauthorised trading area through the town, now relocated in chaos somewhere behind the market. The old railway tracks, and the colonially toned ‘Railway Canteen’ are up for renovation; more Chinese exchange for resources and power.

A security guard walks round the car as we enter the fenced supermarket car park. He languidly carries a mirror on a shaft to check for bombs under our car, but he doesn’t look at the reflection, his attention is on a pretty young woman passing by.

A dusty plastic Santa and his reindeer romp across the portico of the shopping centre and plastic elves and bespectacled Santa effigies jingle in grottos beneath snowy scenes unlike any that anyone here has seen for real. The only snow in this country is a few melting hand-sized glaciers on Mount Kenya, half way up the sky. An unconvincing fake Christmas tree appears to be oddly sporting oak leaves. In the supermarket the staff wear Father Christmas hats and the old schmaltzy Christmas horrors, ‘White Christmas…’, ‘Jingle bells…’, ‘Mary’s boy child…’ tinkle above the shelves, above family groups gathered to chat and greet – and block the aisles. Everything goes slower here in Africa, but I have to smile, as I squeeze between the congenial people. I wouldn’t be smiling in Morrisons…

In a roadside workshop, a young man jiggles to inner music as he nails dried and twisting timber into a simple coffin that looks like it’ll rot long before the body that will be buried in it. Beside the potholed town road enormous bulbous settees are formed on ragged frames amongst shavings from already curling bedsteads. Heavy skeletons of cheap wood are covered in blue foam and lurid fabrics. Dust billows from the wheels of vehicles lurching through the roadworks. One huge over-stuffed sofa is tied to the carrier of a 100cc Chinese motorbike boda-boda for delivery. It’ll wobble over the potholes and through the crowded streets to some new owner for Christmas.

A flock of pale blue shrouded chickens, disguised as small girls, flutter out of a mosque, anonymous beneath obscuring veils, destined for a life of servitude after their medieval Koranic schooling in their male-dominated world order. About 11% of Kenya is Moslem, mostly far away down on the coast. Up here in the highlands every variety of deranged Christianity flourishes amongst businessmen ‘pastors’ and self-promoted ‘priests’, often subsidised by evangelical right-wing lunatic Americans. It’s big business, is religion here, fleecing poverty-stricken adherents in the name of God. The other well fed Africans, the continent over in my experience, are Catholic priests. Forgive my cynicism if you’re otherwise inclined…

On a dirty waste ground, two women cook chips in sooty pans over fires of sticks beside rickety stalls shaded by worn nylon woven sacking. The aroma of frying oil drifts on the warm, suffocating air. An altercation ensues; one young man chucks his chips at another in temper. It’s diffused in moments by the women’s laugher. I guess he’s drunk. Nearby, a street boy, perhaps 15 or 16, clutches a plastic bottle under his nose. It contains a broken tube of spirit glue and a dash of diesel fuel. Half his short life probably already behind him, he has the glazed look of the heavily drugged as he stands amidst peelings and debris on a dumping ground behind small lock-up shops. A shapely young woman taps and totters past in a tight skirt on shiny gold high heels, rising to a distinctly athletic challenge on these broken streets. A slave to fashion. A middle aged man saunters through the rabble: cream trilby, maroon blazer and cricket whites.

The streets and waste grounds are workshop, kitchen, sales-place, meeting ground, dining room and even sometimes bedroom of these busy, chaotic, noisy, frenetic, aromatic, extraordinary African towns.

*

I treat Adelight and the two small girls to lunch on the balcony of the Iroko Hotel in town. Even here there’s dust, and noise rises from the busy street below, where vehicles fight through the traders, boda-bodas and stalls in the madness caused by the major roadworks. Adelight choses smoked beef with a stodgy ball of pap made from brown millet and a very tasty soured milk sauce; I select simple vegetable curry with a chapati; the two girls – Maria’s four now, and Shamilla 11- take ketchup and chips like children the world over.

A day or two ago I bought a fruit new to me from a roadside trader. “What are they?” I asked, indicating small yellow globes not unlike very small cherry tomatoes, only more golden. “Gooseberries,” he told me. “Not like any gooseberry I’ve seen in Europe,” I replied, and bought a box for 70 pence. They proved to be delicious, a sharp citrus flavour that was approved by the whole family. I looked them up in the inevitable Wikipedia to find they are Cape gooseberries. Now I go back and the boy recognises me, greets me with a wide happy smile. This time I purchase three boxes. He’s happy. So am I. It’s such fun: I’m a figure of curiosity and celebrity, sometimes a figure of fun, always a figure of cheerfully genuine welcome. Everywhere, my wide smile is mirrored; there’s candid eye to eye contact, merry quips, greetings for the mzungu stranger.

I’m surrounded by cheer and warmth – from people who have so little in material terms and so much in social ones. A lesson in life.

*

My favourite, Scovia, came home on Thursday. I smile just to look at her, this cheerful, pretty young woman. Since I left in March, she met the love of her life, a Kenyan chef, son of an old colleague of Rico’s from his time in Lokichoggio, a parched town at the far northern ends of the Turkana deserts. She’s now engaged to Webb, a very fortunate young man. Scovia is a prize indeed. She’s Adelight’s junior sister and has a character full of fun, cheek and charm. It’s such fun to see her.

*

Meanwhile, I rode the Mosquito on a settle-down ride, with its new parts in the suspension, out to Suam River border post, the remote border I like so much to use on my safaris to Uganda. Not many tourists, and even fewer old mzungus go that way. Immediately, as I put the Mosquito onto the stand, I am recognised. “How did you get on with that visa extension?” asks the immigration officer, for he tried to help me back in March. I am remembered. I’ve come to discover the regulations this year for my journey across the border. We walk down through the mud of yet another new road – soon there’ll be a four lane, six metre high bridge across this creek. The adventure will be gone for me, on this, my most loved of African trails round the base of Mount Elgon. But it’s selfish of me to resent the trade that a new road will bring to this remote region of the two countries. I’ll have to find another adventure route. There are plenty left, maybe not quite so beautiful as this one with its vistas into northern Uganda. For now, we walk over the tumbledown colonial era bridge and up the dirt track to the Ugandan medical officer’s dusty tent. “Eh! Mr Bean! Jonathan!” exclaims Harison, the MOH, back on duty, he says, these past two weeks. We greet and exchange fist-punch greetings. I note that no one’s bothering too much about their face coverings, hanging below chins. It’s fine that way, we can express so much pleasure with our smiles. From Harison I find that the regulations haven’t changed since the beginning of the year, when I last came this way: I still need a negative PCR test result within 96 hours of travelling, and it stays valid for 14 days for return to Kenya. There doesn’t seem much logic in this, but then, logic has been a primary casualty of the pandemic. If I can’t find a place to take the test in Kitale, Harison assures me he’ll do it at the border and I can ride home and await the result from the labs at Entebbe Airport, far away across country on Lake Victoria, that airport notoriously being wrangled over as a debt repayment to China. I’d rather ride to Suam than to Eldoret, the ugly, dirty, noisy city down the Nairobi road, a dangerous ride on packed roads clogged by slow lorries. And here at Suam, I’ll be a personality recognised by everyone and treated with fun and respect.

At least it appears that my travels to Uganda will be no more complicated than last year. I’ll get to see the Sipi family again. We’ll all be happy for that.

*

And so along comes Christmas Eve. We’ll be at home in the verdant compound; incredible how things grow here in the sun. Tonight, Adelight will use the charcoal in the novel bread oven that Rico designed last year, to grill half chickens from her chicken-rearing business. Before that, Rico is to take the two small girls out for ice cream while the rest of us decorate the interior of the old chicken house that Rico has renovated into a play house, a fine Wendy House on stilts. The other day I bought vinyl for the floor and tablecloths for the walls, and I bought 100 balloons, with which we plan to fill the inside for when the chicken house is revealed to the small girls as, actually, a play house. Later, we’ll have a few simple presents: money from me for the older girls, with some secondhand clothes selected by Adelight in the mtumba-wear market in town – the rejected clothes from the charity shops of the North. The small girls will get sketchbooks and coloured pencils, Rico a block of cheese from Schipol Airport; a big jar of Marmite (from Morrisons!) for the family, who all relish it. Adelight had her present: 200 new chicks that suddenly came available for her rearing business.

This will be a reminder of Christmases past, when rampant materialism and cost-counting was less obnoxious.

*

On Christmas morning, as I upload this episode, the two small girls are singing in their new play house and drawing pictures with their pencils and sketchbooks. The sun’s shining and one of the older girls is washing pans from last night’s cheerful party on the porch. It feels to me that this was how Christmas used to be – and should be. I hope you, reading this, have as much fun as we’ve enjoyed in our simple celebration!

The old chicken house becomes a play house. Behind is Adelight’s chicken rearing shed.
Shamilla enters the play house for the first time
Marion, Shamilla, Bo, Maria, Scovia and Adelight
Christmas supper. Adelight, Rico, Maria, Shamilla, Scovia, Bo and Marion

One thought on “EPISODE ONE. CHRISTMAS 2021.THE DOOR HANDLE’S STILL ON MY SIDE

  1. Happy Christmas Jonathan and best wishes to your extended family. I have enjoyed reading your first episode and am looking forward to all your updates. Pat x

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