EPISODE ONE. DECEMBER 2022. KENYA
I have been very fortunate in my family-making. I’ve chosen instinctively those that form the oddest extended families – and I have at least five around the world. A great joy is to bring them together, which I do partly through these words. My dearest friends across the world have bonded through my descriptions and have come to know one another without ever meeting in person. To connect the families across this continent; to form friendships between my families in Kenya and in Uganda and Ghana with friends of fellow feeling from England, America and Europe is a great pleasure. I’ve formed links between people who may never meet, but now feel they know a little more about one another’s lives.
The families I’ve made in Africa give me so much joy and purpose in life, a focus I’d never have known without these footloose travels: perhaps as much pleasure and happiness as if they were my own family – but that, of course, I can never prove.
To East Africa, I now carry greetings from my friends and ‘families’ far afield, to friends and ‘families’ across Africa, bringing understanding and empathy, connection and friendship. I bring gifts from half way round the world, creating bridges and links that give us all satisfaction, small presents, cheerful words, greetings, messages, gifts. I am privileged to be the conduit for this goodwill.
Listening to Alex in Uganda on the phone, excited that his father figure – and benefactor of course – was nearby, just around the big-shouldered mountain, was delightful. Hearing him laughing with Rico from Holland, Adelight from Kenya; listening to five year old Keilah in Uganda sharing shy greetings with five year old Maria in Kitale – they remember one another from our 2019 visit – I’m making bridges and smiling inside. Family is about mutual respect, love, companionship, and generosity, trust and honesty of emotion. This is the best thing life has brought me.
Being on this continent always makes me reflect on this concept of FAMILY, a much wider entity here than that we think of in the west. The most rewarding lessons of my now 36 visits to various parts of Africa have been about family. The ‘extended family’ is the most admirable social grouping, something I began to understand as I grew to know a bit of African life in Ghana over three decades ago.
Looking up ‘extended family’ on the internet, I find the customary lack of consideration of this continent, with most entries describing narrower North American and European notions: ‘a family that extends beyond the nuclear family of parents and their children to include uncles, aunts, grandparents, cousins and other relatives, all living nearby or in the same household’. Even Wikipedia acknowledges ‘Africa’ only as a passing reference. Add the word ‘images’ to your search and you will be presented with page upon page of wealthy, white-skinned formal family group photos. Yet Africa encapsulates the notion of ‘extended family’ so powerfully. It goes far beyond consanguinity to include outsiders who have formed links by more organic social means, even by chance. Here in Kitale, the ‘family’ includes various children of no blood ties whatsoever, and then extends to include roaming ‘uncles’ from far away. It’s the same in Uganda, where, as a member Alex and Precious’s ‘family’, I was included last year at that giant funeral for his grandmother. An aunt welcomed me, in front of 600 people, as a ‘member of the family’ with the right to stand as a ‘grandchild’ among them. In Ghana, Wechiga is my closest ‘brother’ and so many who know me as brother or uncle, even dad.
Extended families share resources, especially in societies where poverty restricts most activity. It’s a generous concept in which everyone brings what they have to the deal. Naturally, the resource I tend to bring is frequently financial and practical; it’s the most rare and restrictive resource, after all. And its distribution is so dreadfully unequal in our selfish world, with Africa always bottom of the divvying out… But I get back generosity, warmth, love and respect in unlimited measure.
So, that’s why I’m here again.
That and the sunshine!
I’ve been rather too mobile these past five or six weeks and arrive weary, ready to relax into the warmth of equatorial sun and easy-going travels. After most of a month’s hard work in Boston, USA, I was home for just six days, to recover from another red-eye flight and prepare the seemingly endless bureaucratic nonsense that these days surrounds international travel – to which is no longer attached any vestige of romance.
Two nights in Nairobi, and up to the highlands by battered matatu minibus, an eight hour ordeal, crumpled into a small seat like a deckchair, into which I slid deeply every time the crazy driver braked, but accompanied by my ‘sister’ Adelight, who’d been in the city for a national Scrabble tournament. She’s addicted! And, considering English is her second language, often beats me now. Six Christmases ago, she manipulated me to the games shelf in a supermarket in Eldoret, the big city 50 miles away, and said, all innocence, “Oh, Scrabble would be a nice Christmas present for the family!” Little did I know of her fixation or the pressure to become her opponent most evenings in Kitale.
My Dutch pal, Rico, now an African brother for 35 years – since those heady days when we crossed the Sahara together in early 1987, me on my motorbike, he in an aged Land Rover – awaited us. A few weeks ago, Adelight bought a bottle of cream liqueur from an Indian Kitale supermarket. She’s partial to a glass of Bailey’s now and again and spotted a cheaper, Indian version. After two small glasses, she spent the next hour rushing back and forth to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Rico tried a glass, the imbibing of which almost killed him. He ended up for several days less than conscious, on oxygen, in intensive care in Eldoret. The symptoms appeared to be entirely consistent with methanol poisoning: wood alcohol poisoning, but his underlying health and age added to the effects. Without hasty presence of mind from Adelight, his junior by many years, he’d not be with us now. It was touch and go – expensive touch and go – for several days, followed by a long slow recovery. He’s improving by the day now, and perhaps having a companion with whom to drink (no more than two cans of lager) on the porch of an evening, has been the best medicine. He’d taken no alcohol for weeks, but now we can all see his return to near-normal health in the few days since I arrived.
On Sunday – a good day to ride the winding roads of the Cheringani Hills – I set off for Kessup, my favourite scenery in East Africa, to see my friend William. William and I are sociable folk and enjoy meandering the paths and red laterite lanes of his rural community, meeting people and chatting. I’m known not just as ‘William’s’ mzungu, but ‘Kessup’s mzungu’.
Anywhere else, as Rico says, the Cheringani Hills would be called mountains. Maybe because they are already perched on top of these equatorial highlands they only get to qualify as ‘hills’. Maybe, too, that’s why I always forget just how cold it gets riding my motorbike on the curling roads through this lovely scenery. At times I am riding at 10,000 feet above sea level. As the chill settled through my riding jacket and I stopped to don a fleece jerkin, I pondered a question I was asked recently to which I had no answer: how is it that at altitude it gets colder, but we are nearer the sun? It’s a subject to wonder as I ride beneath a deep blue space scattered with Omo-white flounces of cloud. My road turns and twists as a biker likes and I gaze down into the rolling hills quartered by conifer woodland and small farmers’ shambas, neatly divided by fences and palisades of split timbers. Zinc rooftops wink and flash and I am surrounded by white smiles and waving hands. There are a few small dusty villages of timber and corrugated iron; it must be chilly to live up here. It’s rare to see a mzungu, especially an ‘old’ one on a motorbike. On Sunday, there’s little traffic, so I can daydream and gaze about at the green landscape as Sunday-dressed people wave.
This year there’s been a lot of rain: I can see that in the high undergrowth and the fertile fields. Last year at this time all was brown and dry – that’s the gamble of life in sub-Saharan Africa, getting more acute as climate change affects this delicate balance. But this year, instead, everyone has high inflation, so there’s still no money around. Times are even tougher now. When I left in March, petrol was 79p a litre, now it’s £1.18. When transport costs rise, so does everything else. Oddly, for me, even with the pathetic crumbling Brexit pound and crazed Tory party ideologues ostensibly ‘in charge’, I am slightly better off. A ten per cent increase in the exchange rate between the equal-worst economy of the G20 nations and Kenya indicates how bad things must be here. But Kenya has a new president, whom everyone seems to applaud for his efforts to try to rebalance the economy to help his poor people. He was raised in humble surroundings and appears to have some fellow-feeling for much of his nation. So far, he’s generally respected and liked by foreign leaders. So long as he knows when to retire to elder-statesmanship, there may be a little hope for this country, unlike the neighbour – Uganda – whose president is now going to his 37th year of uncontested utter corruption.
Kessup basks in the bright sunlight on its plateau part way down the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. My usual guest house cum campsite (where I’ve seldom seen campers) enjoys a view worth maybe not a million, but many dollars, across the huge Kerio Valley, 2700 feet below, backed by steep cliffs and wooded semi-vertical rock faces, that rise another 1000 feet on my right as I curl down one of the most dramatic roads in all Africa. My room, with its expansive view across the huge valley, costs me just £13.50.
William is waiting, waving from his shamba, where he’s heard my approach down the rocky track to the guest house. In March I left him money to buy a cow; he can become independent from selling the milk. Morag, the Ayrshire cow that he bought, failed to become pregnant after five attempts, so he’s swapped her for a full-bred Friesian from the same breeder. Now ‘Dutch’ actually comes to greet me, sniffing my outstretched hand much to our amusement. “In our culture, we would say that it’s a blessing. She greeted you!” laughs William, who guides me so well, through the habits and intricacies of his culture, an understanding that’s enabled me to become ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’ these past six years.
William, you will remember, was a Nairobi Flying Squad policeman until he was attacked by a criminal with a machete, and decided, during three months in hospital, to resign his post and return to his humble shamba and wooden house, with very basic amenities, on the Kessup hillside, where he seems to live largely on fresh air, ugali maize meal and local vegetables. Now, I see that he is very thin but looks athletic and younger than his 56 years. “Oh, I had the flu three weeks ago. I was ILL, and I couldn’t eat!” But this looks more like lack of nutrition than the result of a brief illness. He’ll be pleased I am here and will visit at various times over the three months of my safari. “I am happy when you come; I get to eat meat!” he always jokes, while, ironically, I prefer to eat the local vegetables. Oh well, dinner is a deal that suits us both well, and the £4.50 I pay to feed us both is reasonable for me.
“The goodness is, we both like to walk!” William tells me often, as we wander the paths and greet his neighbours. He’s well respected, a disciplined man of considerable integrity. Now, for two days, we saunter amongst his neighbours’ smallholdings, drink tea and tasty mountain-top water from the twisting pipes and converse in the fields – and I relish being the focus of so much goodwill. After six years, much of the population recognises me. Some of the children have grown up knowing me as their only white man, but there’s still a charming and plentiful supply of excited youngsters fascinated to touch and greet their first mzungu. I submit cheerfully to their investigation and tell them we are all the same beneath my pale exterior. “It’s like there are brown cows and white cows,” is my explanation, “but we are all cows!”
Of course, when you get a bit under the skin of any community you find that the romantic exterior it presents to me, a rosy-eyed visitor, is seldom the truth. Through William I often hear some of the less palatable side of life in a rural community: the lack of moral discipline; jealousies between neighbours; dereliction of responsibilities by so many useless African men who father children and leave; abandonment of families to alcohol addiction – one of this continent’s greatest problems; the personal effects of poverty and the harshness of life in a culturally and religiously repressed community in which eccentricity or individual behaviour is unacceptable.
But amongst the harsh truths I often find hope. Glory is a confident, pretty young woman who has become a GP, now working in a major hospital in Nairobi; Gideon, a brightly intelligent young man I met three years ago, who asked searching questions of me, is now at university, his proud but little-educated mother tells me as she weeds a big field of local vegetables; Doris, niece of a simple subsistence family in a rough rural compound on the slopes of the great valley, is teaching computer skills in a high school in central Kenya. These are inspiring stories of individual determination and family sacrifice and not untypical of the new generation that seizes opportunity so readily, and sometimes barely literate parents who understand the values of education unavailable to them. Education – and teachers – are well respected in all of Africa: for most, it’s the only route out of the uncertainties of subsistence life.
Another day, we clamber up the steep mountainside – it’s 280 metres or more to the top (920 feet), a stiff climb up a broken path to the preserved scrap of forest on the very edge of the Rift Valley.
I guess it’s just two or three miles long and perhaps not much over half a mile deep, but it’s a wonderful piece of indigenous forest, towering trees, an interesting lower canopy and thick shrubs, including the lovely bright blue/purple acanthus that grows here above 2000 metres. From the rocky brim we look down on the Kessup plateau and the gigantic… well, ‘rift’, of the valley that cuts Africa from top to almost bottom.
We are at 2300 metres just here on these rocks, and the white stripe we can see – a dusty rocky trail we have walked on our expeditions to the valley bottom – is almost 4000 feet below. The scale of the scenery is breathtaking. A few birds soar on the up-currents, whistling past our eyrie as if with joy. But oddly, in the forest we see no birds, no animals, no snakes or lizards even. The patch of woodland is preserved by law, but nowhere in Africa is beyond exploitation. Here, the populous may take wood from trees that are already dead, and graze their animals, so it’s hardly prime forest, just a beautiful stretch of peace that clings here, conserved by skimpy national edict. Its position perched on the high red cliffs makes access from below troublesome, but through the abundant trees one is soon amongst abundant people – armed with pangas and saws…
We buy an armful of fresh spinach from ladies harvesting kale in fields below the cliffs and scrump a hard sweet carrot each from their fields. William knows that the more of the fine local vegetables we find, the more goat he will eat tonight! This year the shambas, their small terraced fields bounded by walls of balanced red rocks cleared from the soil, are green and fruitful. Water is piped from the top of the escarpment and makes Kessup’s plateau fertile. “How do you know which is your water pipe?” I ask one of William’s neighbours, who’s digging by the track side in a patch of mud. “Oh, we just know. This is for William’s mother (she lives at least a kilometre away). This is for my neighbour, and this one,” pointing to a one inch plastic pipe that is dribbling from a taped joint, “this one is for me.” Pipes weave and gurgle everywhere we walk, sometimes spraying from small fractures. Large metal pipes feed community tanks, an initiative of World Vision (the American equivalent of Oxfam) but because the water was provided free – a charitable ‘gift’ – there’re no payments to ensure ongoing maintenance. It’s often the way with ‘charity’: up-front generosity with a lot of flag waving, but backed by little real long-term benefit.
Riding back to Kitale, and I get soaked to the skin up on those chilly 10,000 foot heights. The raindrops fall like marbles and bounce off the tarmac. It’s really cold until I begin to drop to lower climes, still around 6000 feet. Now I’m just soggy inside waterproofs, steaming gently around my bum. But biking’s like that – tactile to a fault, and I’ve almost never found waterproofs that actually are in rain like that.
Three days before Christmas, Adelight and I go shopping in town. It’s something I’d avoid like the plague at home. The very idea of Morrisons three days before Christmas makes me shudder. But in Kitale it’s fun, with smiles all around and comments and quips given and taken with goodwill. It’s not that awful shopping-by-duty that rich-world Christmas has become: no one here’s got much money, so the festival is more about getting together and being cheerful. I’m buying small gifts for the children – just coloured pencils, pads, some simple toys, a football for JB2, skipping rope for Keilah: parcels to wrap under the small Christmas tree, a reflection of Christmases past, before it all became a materialist competition.
The town is busy; secondary school exams finished today so children are returning home from their basic boarding schools adding to seasonal traffic. There’s a huge crawling funeral procession clogging the streets and road building everywhere leaving mounds of packed earth and clouds of dust. It’s impossible to drive at more than a crawl, with all the pushing matatus in a competition that actually slows the traffic as they jostle for road-space limited by traders, boda-boda motorbike taxis, push carts, merchandise and huge dusty road works. I don’t know how Adelight keeps patience – but she’s used to it. If we do all our errands now, we won’t have to come back until after Christmas. With a car full of groceries, sacks of chicken food and a huge bag of charcoal – from the few remaining trees up in the Turkana desert to the far north – we weave our slow way home, an hour late for beer-time. But we’ve got just about everything we need and Christmas is secure.
On Christmas eve we’ll barbecue some of Adelight’s chickens, drink a bit of wine as a treat, and enjoy family harmony. On the 27th, Alex and Precious and the children are coming to visit for three days from the other side of the mountain in Uganda. We’re all looking forward to that, it’ll be real excitement for the Ugandan children: their first ‘foreign’ visit. They don’t get many treats. I’m so happy to be the enabler of all this. On the 28th, my favourite, Scovia, Adelight’s junior sister who was brought up in this congenial household, will arrive with her new baby. It will be a family Christmas. I’m happy to be at the heart of it.
Then I must begin to plan my safari for 2023…