EAST AFRICA 2021-2022. EPISODE THREE

‘FOOTING’ IT… A SAFARI INTO THE KERIO VALLEY

The magnificent Kerio Valley, 4000 feet deep – and HOT

“Eh, poverty level in this area is very high,” says William as we pass a crude earth shack on the sloping dusty scrubland below Kessup. “You get a lot of children. They don’t go to school. What can you eat here? Poverty!” A bit further down the broken slopes to the fiery furnace that shimmers far below, William says, “Now this is my land. Useless! Look at it; it can produce NOTHING without water. Investing in pipes is exPENSive! Then if you have crops here, you must pay dearly to transport them to market. USELESS!” We stumble and slip down through his inherited land, dry grasses crunching, thorny twigs whipping at us as we head for the yawning drop just ahead through the trees, where Kerio Valley is laid to infinity like a brown bush map. “Useless…” Yet, oddly enough, the parched valley below is known for the best mangoes in East Africa. They’re only just coming in season, these sweetest, juiciest, least fibrous mangoes I ate. Elixir indeed. “Eh, life in Kerio Valley..!”

“Poverty!”

We are heading for the valley floor; the expedition we planned a couple of weeks ago. As we slither down the scree-like rocky slopes amongst desiccated trees and scrub, the heat rises from the huge chasm below. A hot wind gusts up, scant shade helps me to survive the ordeal. Why am I doing this, I wonder? Well, because it’s there, it’s a challenge and because I know that to understand this burning landscape and the people who scratch a living here, I have to walk its hot paths, one foot in front of the other. There’s so much to see when you walk: things I miss on my motorbike; things I can’t share unless I live the life – thankfully, only for a day or two.

William surveys the valley

A few days ago, When Marion was going to town to search for mtumba wear, I gave her money to find me a large white cotton shirt as a sun barrier for this journey. I’m wearing it now, 70 penn’orth of Mr Currter’s shirt. His name is written four times on the corner of the tail. I suspect it’s the late Mr Currter, and he died in an old people’s home or hospital in America, or perhaps Germany. This is the real ‘dead white men’s’ clothes, as our rejects are called in Ghana. After all, why wouldMr Currter, or anyone, throw away serviceable clothes – in which everyone here is dressed – if they were not dead? The concept of Western waste just isn’t conceived here. Mr Currter was a large man, and his shirt has become a bit of a joke for William and I. “Eh, put on Mr Currter! It’s HOT!”

Mr Currter gets an outing. What a landscape to discover on foot!

William showed me his ‘ceremonial safari’ shoes yesterday: today he’s wearing an aged pair of secondhand canvas deck shoes, and his socks, I notice, have no heels whatsoever. When he showed me his ‘ceremonial shoes’ at our beer time above the sweeping valley, he was laughing. “Eh, when I bought them from Iten, the mtumba seller did not notice that they are different sizes! But they look exactly the same!” Someone, somewhere in Africa, has a similar mismatched pair of shoes. But people here don’t really worry about such things: they are shoes…

As we stumble downwards, slithering on the gravelly scratch of track, William phones his friend whom he has taxed with finding us a place to sleep in the valley. With his love of ‘British discipline’ and order (I try not to disillusion him by telling him how things have changed since he was trained as a police officer), he likes to organise things for ‘his mzungu’. And how things have changed here too these past few years. Here, slipping down the broken sides of the Great Rift Valley, we have not just phone signals but 4G internet.

I fall to thinking how different were my world travels when I started roaming, forty eight years (!) ago. William enjoys my stories of places he’s never been: most here have intense interest in how people live elsewhere. One quality most Africans enjoy is curiosity – which, if you’ve read these journals, you’ll know is my most admired human quality, along with compassion. The two are prevalent here, one of the reasons Africa weaves such power over my life.

“It was so exciting to go travelling back then…” I tell William as he lifts a vicious thorn branch with a stick he’s broken from a young tree. The stick will accompany him for the next two days; it’s a tradition to carry one, arising originally I suspect from a fear of reptiles and bush animals. We are unlikely to see either these days: that’s changed too…

Forty eight years ago, I could fly to distant places in long cigar-tube aeroplanes and it WAS exciting, not the tedious transition it’s become. You felt you were leaving home far behind. I had no contact with home on most of my journeys, except slow mail, or in emergency – if there was a general post office available, I suppose by telegram – almost no international phones, such that it wasn’t an option. Letters took two or three weeks from that first South American journey and the Asian ones, and the replies about the same. Any news was old news. Mostly, my letters came (grudgingly) by the British Embassies or unreliable poste restante, where they might be filed under any letter of the alphabet, especially in places that didn’t use our alphabet. I could very occasionally buy an old English newspaper or visit the British Council in big cities. Money transfer was almost impossible and very expensive, facilitated reluctantly by banks. I was on my own. And that was much of the attraction: adventure and dealing with things myself, living on my wits. I couldn’t ‘share’ my every trivial thought and post ‘selfies’ of where I was. I couldn’t read my Guardian Online; check my bank balance from remote places; be in constant – immediate – touch with people; carry on an intercontinental design business from far away places; talk to my friends on video – in colour and real time. It’s easy to forget that as late as my second Sahara crossing in 1989, we still used letters for communication. When did I last write a letter – or a postcard? Who sells postcards these days?

Despite its trials and complications, I enjoyed using my own wits. I learned so much about myself then. When I had that accident (first, of four, I think), rolling 360 degrees in a big bus, (THAT’S happened twice!) and broke minor bones and suffered from confidence-shaking shock, the process of coping with it was important for the rest of my life. Most of the misadventures turned into the stories I’ve continued to tell all my life. So did the fantastic opportunities, the times that really felt like discovery – without Wikipedia and the internet in every last corner. There’s no doubt that those times made me extraordinarily self-sufficient and gave me a wealth of experience – and self confidence – to deal with everything else. And I SAW all those places for myself! I’ve a vast compendium of memories, stories, influences, and been witness to so many different opinions, events and lifestyles. And I made many friends, with an address book (an old fashioned indexed one) with friends made on the road, with whom I shared a few hours, a day or two, a week or two, from the world over. I sometimes wonder what happened to them, but I know they will remember the times strongly, as I do.

“Eh, you have travelled!” says William, without envy. He knows that my wealth has created opportunities his life could never produce. Wechiga’s the same: no jealousy but a huge curiosity about other ways of life. It’s something very African, that there is scant envy and great generosity, and an acceptance that life is the way it is – usually attributed to how God creates things, with no question of why that god would allow such devastating inequality… Usually my FIRST question.

A view of Kerio Valley. We’re on our way down…

The steady chop of panga on wood across the precipitous escarpment makes me wonder how there are any trees left in Africa at all. We can’t see the wood cutter, but the sound of women’s voices floats on the incredible silence of this immense emptiness. Of course, if you travel the desert regions here, there are very few trees in sight. Just big sacks of charcoal for sale at the roadsides, brought from far, far away across the barren landscapes of sand and rock.

“It’s not for their own use,” says William, always quick to explain life here for me. “They will sell it at the top.” The ‘top’ is now about 2500 scree-rolling, semi-vertical feet above. The women will lug the heavy bales of wood on their backs, held on woven straps across their foreheads.

“How much do they get?”

“Just 150 bob! It’s food for their families.”

150 Kenya shillings is one sterling pound…

“Eh, but this season is very BAad! DRY! I don’t think even bush animals will survive now. How do people exist here?”

We are nearing the bottom of the escarpment now. We’ve been scrambling down for about three hours. The app on my phone – the only thing I like about said iPhone – indicates that we have descended 2650 feet. We stop in the shade of a scraggy tree, perhaps another 50 feet to go to till the earth levels out again and we can walk with straight legs. A woman lives here; William says that she looks after his mother’s goats. His family has a good deal of inherited land on these final slopes into the valley. “What do you eat here?” William calls down to the woman. She’s burned almost black by the harsh sun and pared to the bone: a thin black shadow of a woman. “Especially veggytable?” She points upwards, such that I need no translation, and replies that all fresh produce, if she can afford it, comes from climbing to the top of the escarpment, back to the Kessup plateau from which we’ve just slithered. All that way for 50 bob of green local vegetables and a bag of maize flour for the inevitable starchy ughali.

The long dusty road arrows along the valley

We reach the dusty white road that we have seen so often from our beer perch outside my rented room high above on the edge of the escarpment. It runs seemingly straight as a line along the foot of the mountains, disappearing each way into the heat haze of distance. It’s extremely hot now. ‘Mr Currter’ is becoming unbearable, but I keep it on to stop the beetroot sunburn that erupts so quickly here. Invisible radar-equipped children shrill, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” from amongst the brush. We take over-sweet tea in enamel mugs in an informal tea house by the road. This is where it’s so good to have my cheerful companion with me. He knows the culture so well. He knows quite a lot of the people too. We bump into several of his old classmates over these three days; men he’s long lost touch with. Now we sit on split planks on logs and chew a chapati with our tea. Most of the homes here are built from sticks and mud – local resources – with rusty zinc roofs. It’s a few moments before the women of the house and other customers become comfortable with the sudden, shocking, arrival of a mzungu. I don’t think many come, unless in vehicles to the national reserve in the valley centre. A white man ‘footing’ it through their valley is a rarity indeed, and everyone’s tongue-tied at first. But these curious folk can’t keep the reservation for long and soon the questions begin, as always.

With friendly goodbyes and good wishes for our stay, we continue on the white dust road, joined now by a ‘nephew’ of William’s. His family relationships are complex: his recently deceased father had two wives. It makes for difficult explanations (I’m the only one who seems to need to know) of how this young man, a local baker making oily fried bread cakes, is William’s uncle’s wife’s son by a half sister – or something! He sells his slimy dough balls at kiosks and local hotels along the valley. He’ll come with us to the place William thinks we will stay tonight.

But when we reach the Valley Joy Hotel, it’s pretty grim, badly maintained and scruffy. Not good enough for William’s mzungu – at least by William’s reckoning. I can see by his face that he disapproves of the people and their lax manners. No discipline. I leave him to negotiate. “Come, we go,” he says eventually. “We take a boda-boda. My nephew knows a better place.” He’s dismissive of the hotel. “Plenty of Valley; no Joy!” I quip, as we ride away to the Kipioywo Guest House five miles up the dust road.

*

It’s difficult to express the satisfaction that comes from experiences like our stay at Kipioywo – to which we are determined to return in the blast furnace of the Kerio Valley.

The guest house is little more than a series of empty concrete rooms, with clean tiled floors, tidily painted and equipped with no more than a bed and two sheets and a plastic washing bowl. It’s hot and silent. William and I sat with our beers under thin trees in the dust of the valley floor as the dusk quickly drew darkness over the harsh surroundings. And then… And then, the stars began to shimmer: a glittering vault above the dry valley air.

All around us moved friendly, respectful people, scratching a living despite the horror conditions, apparently adapted to their hardy lot, full of warmth and responsive to my smiles, even when culture separates us. I am a celebrity amongst the children, sitting in the gathering dark watching in wonder their first ever mzungu. In the starlight I smile at the inexpressible delight of a small boy when I tear off half my chapati and surreptitiously slip it to him in the dark, manna indeed: a gift from a mzungu. Their warmth is all these people have to give. They give it generously.

There’s no power here except a few solar panels and the torches that spray about the dry dusty scrub as neighbours gather their goats and herd them home for the night, quietly greeting as they pass. We wait in – unrewarded – anticipation for the possibility of elephants, that several passers-by have assured us may come to the nearby borehole. William, now with his four bottles of Tusker inside him, is ecstatic about the experience of our calm evening in the heat of Kerio Valley. The elephants might not perform for us, either on Saturday or Sunday, but the chance is there, always the tantalising aspect of wild animals following their own instincts.

*

Next day, we find a couple more of William’s relatives, his direct maternal uncle and another cousin’s nephew, related by another uncle’s father, and we walk the hot lands to find moratina, difficult to find, but Edward, the ‘cousin’, knows a village some kilometres off where it’s brewed on Sunday. Moratina, I discover, is made by boiling honey and water and introducing split oak acorns that cause fermentation over four days. It’s sweet and alcoholic, and very tasty. “Oh, you’ll be drunk!” exclaims William as we walk on our shadows northwards.

It seems we join a gathering of most of the remote village, idling about on logs, bricks and old sacks behind a pointy hill covered in scrub and dry vegetation, this balmy Sunday lunchtime. Many are on the way to inebriety already. The scourge of Africa: drunkenness. “But you people, you make these spirits: whisky, vodka, gin!” says Elizabeth, seated on a sack nearby. She’s intelligent and becomes the spokeswoman for the villagers. “Yes,” I agree, “we do. But when I buy a bottle of spirits, it lasts me for many weeks, and I take a tot at a time, mixed with juice or water or soda. When you buy a quarter bottle of KK (Kenya Kane spirit) or wirigi (local distillation from maize) you drink it all at once. Neat!” On empty stomachs… Many die in these countries from sclerosis.

About 25 village people have gathered. They are all intrigued. I am the first mzungu ever to join their Sunday communal throng. They are full of welcome; laughter abounds, and then the questions start. I love this interaction: it’s why I’m here. Elizabeth says that all their problems in this burned-up place stem from lack of water. There’s plenty of water up on the valley top, 4000 feet above us, but no management, no money to buy pipes and construct a tank. The government doesn’t care about these rural people and they have meagre resources of their own. They’ve little influence, forgotten down here eking a living on the dust.

Kemboi

An old man hobbles into the village circle: lined face and cheeky, boyish grin with wispy white whiskers. There’s amusement that this man is my ‘age-mate’ so I leap up to shake his hand. Everyone laughs. It’s difficult not to behave with some exaggeration in this situation. I am their celebrity this morning. The old man lowers himself gingerly onto a log. He looks about 100. Life expectancy is low here; we’re probably a decade beyond it already. No one bears any fat; lean bodies pared by poor nutrition, heat and gruelling hard work, dressed in faded rags. But I never hear complaints, they just adapt their expectations and ambitions to what’s affordable: not much.

There was an article in the Guardian the other day: ‘Can we think ourselves young?’, a catchy headline that disguised an intriguing article. It seems that a great deal of scientific research has gone into how our attitudes of positivity or negativity affect old age, and the overwhelming evidence is that those with positive attitudes to their ageing process live considerably longer, are less likely to suffer Alzheimers, heart disease and other ailments. I’ve said for a long time that it’s far more fun travelling as an older person than a youth!

*

Later, we walk on with William’s uncle, also William, and Edward. They want to show me the landscape of the valley interior. Edward lives deep into the valley, “Amongst the elephants!” he says with a chuckle. “But they don’t trouble me. I light a fire and they know humans are there and they walk by. They came last night; maybe you’ll see them tonight!” But again we don’t: the elephants have their own agenda.

A ravine cut by the power of rainstorms on the escarpment above, and a rickety bridge

It’s desiccated and thorny, the goats have eaten anything that provides nourishment. We come to a ravine; it’s 15 feet deep and eight foot across, sliced by powerful water when it rains up on the mountains above. We teeter across a sort of bridge of sticks. William’s not keen: he’s no head for heights. It’s quite dramatic. Nearby, a household deep in the bush introduces me to their illicit wirigi still, a nasty looking contraption of old pipes and an earthen pot boiling the maize, a half-tub of water to cool the alcohol as it drips into a grubby container. 100 bob buys a small, oft-used plastic bottle of the poison. It’s Sunday: everyone’s steadily losing focus. Within half an hour the elder William is talking nonsense and wobbly on his feet. Today he’s probably taken tea and a few kernels of dry maize and a handful of black beans – and 330cls of hard spirit, perhaps 40% alcohol. We leave him to weave his way to his home that is little more than a hut of mud and zinc with a small fire smoking in the corner and a bed of branches with some rather unsavoury looking blankets. He raises goats, burns charcoal and in the rainy season I suppose he grows some crops on this arid ground. And imbibes his neighbour’s wirigi… He’s seven years younger than me and looks seven years older: I’d hazard that wirigi causes a good deal of the difference.

“Eh, I am glad I left behind the wirigi! And the bulsa… And the cigarettes. Now, just a few beers with my mzungu brother!” William looks so much healthier for his abstinence than when we first met five years ago.

Kerio Valley children get to study their first mzungu

By the time we get back to our simple guest house, it’s almost our own beer time. We sit again in the dusk and await the stars. It’s wonderfully warm at this time: balmy. William has become a comfortable companion. Ann, the pretty cook, fries up a slightly scraggy chicken William has managed to procure from somewhere. Will the elephants come tonight to the bore hole nearby? (No). It’s a magical night. And deeply quiet.

Anne, a good cook

*

What goes down the mountain must go back up. We’ve decided to take the new road – little more than a track hacked from the escarpment, and as yet unfinished. Somewhere we must take to a steep dusty path and scramble through thorn trees and prickly pear cactus where the improbable road ends, three or four hundred feet to where it begins again above. I reckon that by the time we get back to the guest house at the top, where I’ve left the Mosquito and my bags, we’ll have clambered perhaps 15 miles, mostly uphill today. It’s a long winding dusty road. We stop now and again where we can get shade. Mr Currter is getting pretty grubby round the edges. We’ve got a couple of litres of water, until we find a rare spring bubbling over rocks half way up, by a shallow pool where dragonflies flit, electric blue.

The long and winding road back up the mountianside

I guess the temperature is in the high 30s and the sun’s relentless. But the feeling of satisfaction, as the valley expands below, and we look back over the dusty pink scribble of our road, is great. Over the final ridge, and we stop for tea with Caroline, who entertained us generously two weeks ago. She’s thrilled to see us, clambering up the mountain to her compound. Tea’s quickly brewed and energy flows back – but we still have at least four kilometres to walk before I can wash down and enjoy my Tusker, looking back into the huge abyss of the Great Rift Valley. We did it! And now we sit and plan an even longer trek next time I come to Kessup. “I like to be active!” says William. “Without this, what will I be doing? Nothing!”

*

I ride back to Kitale on the high roads, a route I love. I’ve another ‘meeting’ with my American colleagues from my computer in the garden. The family’s smaller now: just Adelight, Rico and Maria and Marion, but she goes back to college, far the other side of Nairobi, on the 13th. Soon too, Rico will leave for a month or more work in Congo, and I want to plan my safari to Sipi in Uganda. Alex and Precious are very anxious to see me: I’m getting messages or calls every day. For this I need another PCR corona test. I’ve asked Adelight to find how I do this in Kitale, and she says it can be done at the district hospital. Last year I had to go to Eldoret, 40 miles downcountry, or to the border and back, waiting three days while the sample was sent across Uganda to Entebbe on Lake Victoria. Adelight says she’s been troubling her nurse friend at the hospital with a lot of calls to organise Rico’s various vaccinations for Congo, so it’s better I ring Euni, her friend myself.

I call and explain to Euni what I want. But we are talking different Englishes. In the end Adelight has to take over and bursts into laughter when Euni complains that, “Your friend’s English is TOOOO strong” for her to understand. Her African intonations made my comprehension impossible too! So Adelight gets my information. When the call’s over, she says, “You must go on Thasaday!”

“No,” I say, “Saturday’s the day I want to leave for Uganda.”

“Yes! So you go on Thasaday! Tomorrow!” Oh, sometimes we all use our English to complete cross purposes.

On Thasaday, the hospital says, “Come on Monday.” But I hold my ground, smile and wait. Ten minutes and a young lab assistant, Seth, comes, talking softly through a mask, that adds layers of confusion to the accent problems. Seems he’s the only one who can operate the lab machine and he has a backlog of work. We discuss options for another fifteen minutes: Eldoret… “Yes, I did that last year, but the only man who could do the test had ‘travelled’ and that road is so dangerous on my motorbike. I suppose I’ll just have to ride to Suam border and pay the Uganda medical officer and come back and wait while the sample goes to Entebbe and back.”

Seth is shocked that I might consider riding so far (it’s about 30 miles away). “How much did they charge you there?”

“I forget… About 5500 bob, I think.” (£40). Seth is open mouthed (behind his blue mask) in horror. I know from long African experience that patience and talk gets most things done my way. Now he is so aghast at the expense, and the ‘long’ ride I must undertake, that he’ll, “talk to his colleague.”

He leaves me in a dingy office full of piles of forms for another fifteen minutes. He comes back and proposes that he will do the test so I don’t have to ride to Suam. The government price is 1100 shillings – just £7.60. I don’t mention that the private health company (Nuffield Money Printing Partners) at Bristol Airport changed me £120! Seth says he’ll have to work late and take private transport home tonight, but he’ll do it for the £7.60. The way Africa works… It’s not a bribe this time, just that it would be appreciated if I help a bit. So I give him 2000 bob and suggest he keeps the balance. We are both happy! It’s just the way it works. And who knows, next time I leave for Uganda, I’ll have Seth’s goodwill to facilitate the test, maybe even when I leave Africa in March.

*

The test result arrived from Seth on Thursday evening as he’d promised. So now, after already a month in Africa, I am ready to leave for Uganda, where Alex, Precious and the children anxiously await my arrival. I should arrive on Saturday afternoon. There will be much happiness in Sipi.

Cynthia, half Ugandan, half Kenyan, wants to work for the Uganda Prison Service

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