EAST AFRICA 2021-2022 – EPISODE FOUR

MY UGANDAN FAMILY

The Aunties’ visit

The loosely called ‘road’ that connects my two East African families was one of my favourites in all Africa, with its dramatic trail riding and views into half northern Uganda from its mountain shoulders, the hot, hazy northern lowlands reaching to infinity, punctuated by the pimples of ancient volcanoes. It was friendly too: an avenue of excited children calling, “Mzungu! Mzungu!” and ripples of waving hands. Not many mzungus go this way – for many years, not many vehicles at all. It was only passable with tenacity and suitable off-road machines, or local vehicles battered beyond caring.

Soon it’ll be boring tarmac. Difficult terrain…

But for two years now, the Chinese have been busy building a debt-sodden highway across the fabulous scenery. Most of the excitement’s not there any more, and the old rocky trail is a mess of red dust, broken rocks, huge bulldozers and a livid red scars across the mountainsides. Now I must slither and drift through red dust, inches thick, for 40 kilometres and then cruise on wide flat featureless tarmac for the other 100. Villages have been ripped apart to push through the new expanses of tar. The rough, rugged trail riding pitches and features are gone – with the sense of satisfaction and thrill. Soon there’ll be a six metre high bridge and new international one-stop border offices at little, remote Suam border, where the ragged colonial bridge for now still rattles over the trickle below, the date 1956 stamped on its remaining concrete post. In a month or two even that will be gone. Only one small satisfaction remains: I am still the only mzungu through the post this year.

One thought occurs, however: maybe this is a good thing for this old African biker? ‘At my age’ I’m not really supposed to be doing this sort of adventure riding – not that I care a jot how I am ‘supposed’ to behave – but the road should be complete and smooth easy tarmac by the time the 75 year old Mosquito rider requires it… That could be an advantage, I suppose – although the 75 year old would probably find MUCH more satisfaction in the 90 mile rugged trail ride it used to be!

*

So now I arrive in Sipi reasonably fresh, ready for the onslaught of welcome at Rock Gardens, the idiosyncratic guest house/ beer garden and restaurant I am helping Alex and Precious to develop, its name inspired by Rock Cottage in far off Harberton. I ride the last kilometre down red earth tracks, knowing that they are waiting. The gardens are now fenced by bamboo and a new thatched gate has been erected. It’s beginning to look professional: I’ve seen a lot of these gates in South Africa, where tourism is big business and usually white-owned. Here it’s a bit more homespun: the quality of timber and tradesmen limits what’s possible.

Alex, grinning widely, swings the crooked gate open: Precious comes running, ululating with delight (she thinks I am so old, that every time she says goodbye, she’s convinced I’ll never make it back!) and throws her not inconsiderable bulk at me, such that I almost fall. Little Keilah, who has now grown to a delightful, pretty five year old, launches herself like a torpedo at me. Jonathan, nicknamed JB, who calls himself Jonathanbean Cheptai, hangs back, reluctant; the mzungu still a bit frightening – but that changes over the next three or four days. I am welcome home.

‘Jonathan’s House’, round and thatched, is decorated with blooms from the slowly developing gardens, towel folded into fans by Precious, decorated with nasturtiums and marigolds, from seeds I brought from Devon, as if in a big Kampala hotel, where this young couple trained and met. It’s basic but charming: the bathroom just a rough cement extension with a plastic bowl, jerrycan of water and an old curtain. The bed is locally made from tree trunks; the sheets once very expensive – wonderful linen sheets long ago loved and laundered in Europe.

In the evening Alex makes a fire and we chat and catch up. I’m so fond of these two, and now their cheerful children too. Keilah has gained confidence since last year, and is now chattering like any five year old. She’s bright, despite the long school closures. Little JB repeats everything she says; they are close companions. JB slowly warms to his mzungu grandfather, after we kick a bottle about together and run races across the garden.

The weather is poor: there’s rain around. It shouldn’t be here at this time of year, but the whole planet is in disorder now. On the second night we have torrential rain. Recently, Alex had Jonathan’s House rethatched. It looks fine.

At 3.00am I’m awoken by splashes on my face… I quickly see that my room is like a shower bath. Drips cascade everywhere. The thatch just doesn’t work! With my head torch, I scurry about, showered by cold drips, packing my belongings into my pannier bags and shoving them beneath the plastic table. Water’s running down the walls and puddling the floor. Only in the very centre of the room does the shower leave a dry patch into which I can pull the big bed and continue the night sleeping wrong way round on a dry quarter of it. Poor Alex, such disappointment that the new thatch is useless. So many set backs. So much hope and ambition. His only support a mzungu who respects his integrity, tenacity and determination.

*

In January I come to Sipi expecting sunshine and brightness. I travel light and wash as I go. In this climatologically crazy year, I am confounded. In four days all my clothes are either grubby or still wet, festooned about the garden awaiting some drying sun. My fastidious nature hates all the mud. No one else appears to notice: they’ve always lived with this red mire. The children are filthy, our feet are red; it gets on the bedsheets. It spreads across the bedroom floor, however hard I try to avoid it. Cooking and washing up are done on the floor, on the mud. It gets wetter and wetter, and then comes the unseasonal rain again. I slip and slide with distaste.

After the rain, Alex takes the washing to the water

I move to the other round room: only the middle of the bed has suffered from a leak in the thatch. We dry the mattress and bedding in some brief sunshine, move the bed and I hope for the best. We’ll have to get the thatcher back to sort Jonathan’s House. Pity to waste (my) money thus when there’s so much more needing investment at Rock Gardens.

*

Poor Uganda, it’s such an appalling mess. One of the most corrupt countries on the African continent, an absolute basket case politically, that begins to show cracks in the social attitudes of its very friendly people, now troubled by so much. The cause of this social disquiet works down from the top. With no example of leadership, except the disastrous selfishness of leaders determined, above all else, to stay in power for their own egotistical vanity – and wealth, the people begin to follow the current. They are lost and rudderless; they see greedy men looking out for themselves and the social fabric begins to unravel. Museveni, the notorious president of Uganda, leads a deeply corrupt government, and has done for over thirty five years – so far, having ousted the previous president in a coup ‘because he had been in power too long for the good of the country’. The problem with these people is their overwhelming narcissism that leads them to think they become saviours. Elections here are an unhappy farce; I watched the last one myself, a year ago and saw with my own eyes (even with my camera) agents handing money to voters as lie upon lie was told.

Now I see this unhappiness surfacing amongst some of the friendliest people on the continent. There is jealousy for those who try to get on, even be it by their own hard graft: the assumption is that they are progressing by dirty means, as so many at the top are seen to do. Envy erupts and mutual support ebbs away. Neighbours begin to report neighbours, to hassle one another, to steal, argue, spread gossip, to undermine.

It’s a warning of where narcissistic leaders, mendacity, misinformation and one-rule-for-us can take a nation…

So I feel so sorry for Alex, a young man of integrity and principle, struggling to make a go of his life and provide for his – small – family; and sorry for so many other Ugandans with similar modest desires and ambitions, ‘hampered’ by, and in the current climate often despised for their honesty… “I lie awake sometimes and think, without you, what would we be?” For I have supported this family through the past two even more than usually troubled years.

*

Some days back, Alex’s maternal grandmother was hit by one of the millions of dangerously ridden boda-boda motorbikes, a blow by the mirror that toppled her. She was taken to hospital but didn’t speak again, and died a day or two later, aged 85. No police get involved and the family pays the hospital fees. There’s discussion, Alex tells me, about the retribution the rider should pay, but as he’s of a similar clan, he may get away with his recklessness.

Alex’s grandmother’s funeral

So on Sunday, there’s a vast funeral. I attend as a sort of surrogate grandchild – even encouraged by all around me to stand when the grandchildren are mentioned, and at one point welcomed by a daughter of the deceased in her speech, and thanked for ‘loving us’. I join a crowd of perhaps five or six hundred. It’s interminable, and all in languages I don’t comprehend, but it’s interesting culturally too of course. We sit beneath pointed gazebos ranged around a lumpy field on hundreds of hired white plastic Chinese chairs. A raucous PA system with a DJ relays awful pop music so loudly that the huge speakers distort. Preparations for feeding this enormous crowd with rice, potatoes, beans and scraggy beef continue behind the coffin. Boys relay the food in plastic dustbins, stainless buckets, washing up bowls and a few fancy serving dishes. We eat from plastic plates and some of the lucky ones get a bottle of plastic water or a bottle of pop. The food is surprisingly good. There’s an MC to introduce all the speeches, and Africans given a microphone love the sound of their own voices. I must sit through 24 various speeches, all unintelligible, plus addresses by various priests and politicians – THEY never miss out on these gatherings. “This will cost MILLIONS!” says Alex. “Millions.” Later, he estimates about £2000 – a king’s ransom in Uganda. “A waste! All pride, when the family needs the money, but you must put on a show like this!” There are so many noughts in Ugandan currency that I get utterly confused, but it’s also an economy where pennies matter to all but politicians.

Alex’s sister, Helen, greets Aunt Khalifa at the funeral

Meanwhile, the corpse lies in a mauve coffin festooned with golden plastic furbelows under a tent amongst the family mourners. We must all come and open the jack-in-a-box lid to look at the poor deceased beneath her glazed window, like a specimen. The lid pops up and down – I think she’s been made to look too young – the chatter continues around, the music blares. People are dressed in mismatched clothes: a few in finery, but most in their ill-fitting secondhand clothes, unpressed and a bit ragged. Very few can afford new items; they rely on our waste. I count five face masks, and ‘social’ distancing is impossible in this throng, and against all Ugandan social norms.

‘Social distancing’, Uganda style. Or just the prospect of a free meal at the funeral!

*

Uganda, to compound all its problems, is hugely overpopulated. That’s not what most Ugandans believe: they exist to make babies, it seems. The country has the second lowest median age in the world at 15.7 (beaten only by Mali at 15.4). In my lifetime the population has ballooned from 5 million to 50 million – and growing fast, estimated to be 100 million by 2050. Shocking statistics. The average Ugandan woman gives birth seven times, and even educated women have multiple births. There are babies and children everywhere. Few people reach my age – less than 2%. Only a few educated young people understand how this affects their economy. Alex and some of his friends, many of whom I have met over my visits, work tirelessly, and voluntarily, to expound the messages of smaller families, healthier families and better educated families, but it’s a seriously uphill task in a land of downtrodden women and largely amoral men.

The late Yamangwa Jane, Alex’s grandmother, whom I met a couple of times, had 11 children. She had 81 grandchildren (81!), 136 great grandchildren and 23 great great grandchildren! She was only 85 years old. For me to go back to my great grandfather, I must reverse just short of 200 years…

The great view to the west from Sipi hill

“Come, let’s go to the back, on the hill,” suggests Alex after almost two hours of speeches. “The church service will begin now.” Alex is no fan of organised religion and the money collecting antics of the church officials. I remind him of what happened when Precious and I attended another funeral in a distant village. A self-proclaimed pastor ranted endlessly and neither of us understood the language (Precious hales from the other side of Uganda, a country with many languages). “Let’s go, we are bored!” she whispered. As the only mzungu amongst several hundred people it was impossible to make a discreet exit. We slid off our benches and sidled away… and caused an exodus of other attendees! At least 40 more people followed our lead, just waiting for the excuse. The pastor was livid, furiously condemning ‘infidels and non-believers’ for their behaviour. I didn’t understand that either until Precious told me later, laughing.

This time, no such disgust, and I was able to retreat to the big hill with its fine view of northern Uganda stretching below the escarpment into the lowering sun. At last, another hour later, we could slip away behind the trees, hopefully forgotten but having given respect by my attendance. Enough was enough: cultural interest has its limits.

*

On day four, we set off on a long hike, along the steep curling edges of the red rock escarpment that drops away towards the vast plains and lakes of central Uganda. There’s mist wreathing up from the valley. There’s a cool dampness still around on the breeze, but it’s humid too, difficult to get my body temperature regulated by outer clothes: I am backwards and forwards between a chill short-sleeved shirt and damp sweaty thin jumper. Shortly after we set off, we are joined by Del, a young fellow who decides he wants to accompany us. He walks the fifteen or more miles in tee shirt and flip-flops. Alex thinks perhaps he wants to improve his English, but if so he’s pretty tongue-tied most of the eight or nine hours we are walking. A nice enough lad, he doesn’t say much but appears to enjoy his day.

We wind our way through matoke (savoury banana trees) and coffee bushes. Tall eucalyptus shimmer in the cool damp breeze that’s rising from the valleys below. I pant up some steep red earth hills; we’re over 2000 metres high, the air is thin. Villages are scattered and remote. In the largest we take to mud footpaths, still mired by yesterday’s heavy rains. It’s slippery going. We divert to visit an elderly couple, some clan relation to Alex. They live in a comfortless earth and stick home with some plank sheds around. The old man, says Alex, is a veteran of WW2, in the Middle East. He’s 87, he says, born in 1935, so he’d have been 12 at the end of that war. I work it out that he must have served in the Suez conflict. “Yes, Suez Canal” he agrees proudly. He’s astonished to have a mzungu visit and his wife, bent almost double with age, immediately starts to prepare tea for her visitors, but Alex demurs: we have a long walk and will come back another day. The old man points our way through the matoke. We walk on.

Alex and Del walk ahead, but I feel we are going wrong: we shouldn’t be walking downhill…

Soon we find we are walking into the valley. We’ve gone wrong. Alex asks some boys with cows, and they point directly up to the red cliffs 300 feet above us. We clamber and slip up a trail through small shambas, farmed at acute angles. It’s a hard life, scraping a living from land like this. Near the top there’s a roughly made ladder, fifty or sixty feet straight up the cliffside. It’s a metre wide and made of sticks held with four inch nails. We climb up and weave through tiny fields over the final curve of the steepness to the rim of the cliffs. For some miles now, we follow the rim of the impressive cliffs and look back to where we started at Sipi, a distinctive hill several miles away across the contortions of the cliff faces. We must have walked about eight or nine miles by now, it’s the best walk I’ve taken here. Alex dreams of bringing guests here for exploration. I warn him to check they are athletic and not afraid of heights. We’re close to the edge, and it’s a long drop; water sprays up on the stiff wind from a delicate fall that we cross. It’s magnificent. I don’t get to these places by motorbike: I have to work for these thrills.

You don’t get this on a motorbike!
Alex follows up the ladder

We ask our way from a farmer. “Hah! I don’t speak this language,” says Alex, who speaks many Ugandan tongues. We are no more than ten miles from Sipi and the farmer is almost unintelligible to him. At last we can look down on our destination, 500 feet below. We’re visiting Doreen again, one of Alex’s sisters. He has eight siblings. “…By my mother,” he expands. “There are three more by other women.” Alex has determined that Keilah and Jonathan will be all his family. “I want to educate them well, not at government schools. I don’t want them to have the life I have led. Two children is enough! Enough!”

We’ve walked from Sipi hill, the peak on the far horizon, and we aren’t half way

We’ve walked to Doreen’s shamba once before in the valley and motorbiked here too, along the curling earth roads at the escarpment base. But this is the best way we’ve approached. Our winding clifftop trail brings us to the top of two steeply angled ladders, down the cliffs, about 110 feet high, I estimate as I count the steps. They’re well maintained, professional jobs, obviously by the local council, but I can’t imagine lugging 30 or 40 kilos of vegetables or firewood up these ladders, as local people do – mainly women…

The ‘down’ ladder
Locals carry huge loads up and down these ladders!

We scramble down the final earthy slopes to a welcome from Doreen. A neighbour calls out, “Eh, Jonathan! You are back!” No mzungus come to these remote villages – except mad ones who enjoy a challenge. Neighbours come quickly to greet and offer us food.

We are just in time. It’s been cloudy all morning and we’ve watched the mist wreathes and rainfall in the valley, curtains of wetness emptying the clouds below us; but now they are drifting upwards on a stiff – cold – wind. It drizzles on Doreen’s zinc roof as we sit in the earth-built room and drink sweet coffee grown on her own shamba by Leonard, her pleasant husband. We don’t stay, promising to return sometime. It’s already “going to four” and we’ve still a very long walk back, at least seven or eight miles, including that awful clamber straight up the mountain right at the end. The rain catches us along the road and we run for shelter under the corrugated awning of a house. Rain thunders on the roof and drops in mini explosions in the soon-flooded muddy puddles. It’s cold: Alex and I have thin jumpers, but Del’s forearms are goose-pimpling in just a tee shirt. “We’d better find him some mtumba clothing,” I suggest to Alex, but the trading centre is a mile or two ahead. “I’ll go and buy umbrellas!” Alex says, and slips and slides off into the rain. “You’ll get soaked!” I call after him. “Oh, I am an African! I’m used to it.” Fifteen minutes later the torrents abate and Del and I can follow him down the now very slippery road. I’m happy I’m not on my Mosquito, yet still boda-bodas go past at speeds I wouldn’t consider – and I wouldn’t be freewheeling down hills as is their universal habit (to save a few pennies of fuel at the cost of no engine braking or lubrication), relying on weak, badly maintained brakes and bald tyres on this ice-rink of muck. They are awful riders and many accidents happen.

Sheltering from the downpour

Alex comes the other way, swinging Chinese floral umbrellas. He’s bought three for £6. “I made the seller reduce because I was buying three!” We twirl our way down the muddy slopes through the local village, idlers calling cheek about the old white mzungu, only some of which Alex translates, but most that make him laugh. Who cares? I’m such a celebrity ‘footing’ my way through these rural areas. For many, I am the first mzungu they’ve been close to. We are often told that I am the first mzungu visitor when we go to people’s homes.

One cheerful insult Alex translates: “Eh, these mzungus! So much money they have nothing better to do than go walking!” Of course, no mzungu has to work for his money, he just picks it from the mythical money trees up there in the global north. Not one African really understands that there’s an appalling distribution of wealth in my country too: four million unemployed, homelessness, lack of rights and gig economies. We’re all wealthy and living in luxury. It’s what they see on ridiculous TV soaps and ‘reality’ TV. And we make the stuff we sell them – few make the difference between Chinese mzungus and European, and now there’s even an influx of dreadful Chinese soap TV to add to the Brazilian, Mexican and other low quality dramas. The better stuff – even the dire American productions – are more expensive for the broadcasters, who want to fill the minutes between the adverts and propaganda as cheaply as possible.

“Oh, take me to your country. I want to make money,” is the most common demand made of me in Africa. How can anyone wonder about the desperation of immigrants taking to leaky boats and risking their lives, when all we show them is this profligate wealth and wonder? We peddle lies to sell Stuff but don’t have the honesty to respond with any sympathy to the resultant ambitions to reach our gold-fringed borders.

Sorry for my tirade, but you see, I am here, and I somehow understand the visions Africans have of life in our privileged lands. I am such a rich mzungu: no one understands that my apparent wealth involves choices.

The walk home is more or less dry, but those last heights make me flag at the end of a fifteen or sixteen mile hike. With the ragged footpaths greasy after heavy rain, there’s always another hill above. “We are almost there!” exclaims Alex, as another steep rocky clamber comes into view. At this time of year, we should have been walking in hot equatorial sun: it shouldn’t be wet at all, even here on the high slopes of Mount Elgon. What’s happening to our fragile planet?

*

Uganda’s schools have been closed for 83 weeks. Almost two years. The longest school closures in the world. By a government who just don’t care. Education levels were low in this country before the pandemic, they are now set back again. Many schools will never reopen as they have been sold by their landlords for trucking depots, accommodation blocks, warehouses, housing development. All non-teaching staff resigned when their pay stopped, and found other ways to scrape a living. Many parents will not send their children back to school because when schools opened last year, and they paid fees, the government summarily closed them again within less than a week. Parents had no compensation – and their children no education. Alex lost Keilah’s school fees. And no one has money in Uganda, except a few. Multi-billionaire Museveni doesn’t care. It’s a fiefdom run for his and his cronies’ benefit. Many suspect that he inflated the coronavirus statistics to get more support from Western governments, but none of that support trickled down to vaccinating the people…

“Some of us have been vaccinated,” said Milton, an erudite friend of Alex’s brother Cedric at the big funeral. “We’ve had two shots, and when they offer a booster, we’ll be there. But many people resist. They’ve been influenced by the myths and stories and they think the vaccination will bring the antichrist to their bodies!” He laughs ironically. “The antichrist, in a vaccination!” It’s so easy to manipulate the uneducated. Most of those vaccinated are the educated.

We laugh at the idea of the antichrist in a vaccination. “And look around,” I say, surveying the 500 or 600 funeral crowds. “Almost every person is clutching a phone! If the antichrist is coming, it’s already in those devices!”

“Yes, data-mining, algorithms, your fingerprints, ID, facial recognition, propaganda, marketing – all stored in some ‘Cloud’ available for any use or abuse…” Milton and Cedric are both employed for their IT skills. “And I think in total our vaccination rate is about 3%…” No one cares. There’re no role models. And everyone is more influenced and manipulated by the phones in their hands than sensible argument.

*

JB in his first school uniform. Room to grow

Now schools are open again at last, and we all take little Jonathan to register for his first day at school. The teacher asks his name. “Jonathan Bean Cheptai,” says Alex. “Is that B-E-N?” asks the teacher in some confusion. It’s a private school; Alex has no faith in the government schools, and the Shalom Nursery and Primary School is more than ten miles off, in Kapchorwa, the local rather scruffy town. There are two school minivans, packed with toddlers and small children. One travels as far as Sipi, and Keilah is collected shortly after five in the morning! School actually begins at eight and ends at three thirty. Keilah is five years old. Little JB, at three years, will have the same day, returning in the late afternoon. They eat basic food during the school day and Jonathan will join the ‘Baby Class’, along with about 60 or 70 (very appealing) toddlers. Having a mzungu visit is exciting and I must shake 100 small hands. A considerable part of the smaller children’s school day will be spent in play and activities, watched over by three very patient teachers, cheerful women: they’d need to be. The school buildings are somewhat shanty-like; poorly constructed timber walls under zinc sheets. The playgrounds are the same red mud as everything else around here. Everything has the same patina of dust and mud, even the hundreds of children packed in the few classrooms. Yet this is one of the best schools in the district. Little government money or development reaches these places. They don’t care about their people, just themselves, entrenched by propaganda and lies…

Once evil men gain power they buy loyalty around them and it’s very difficult to unseat them…

Sadly, after two days at school, Jonathan was back home with a hacking cough.

*

For five hard hot days I pitched into the development of Rock Gardens. After all, it’s my investment too. I’d like Rock Gardens to have the finest gardens in Sipi – which won’t be difficult, as no one here bothers with gardens. Alex was stuck on the fact that he had to have exotic plants (expensive) until I pointed out that local plants and trees are exotic to me. So why not fill the garden with avocado trees, mango trees, matoke trees, bananas, coffee bushes (which have a delicious aroma when in flower), camellias, acanthus, orange trees, lemon trees? They all grow locally, and if we plant them as a garden, not a plantation, they can give shade and colour, and fruit – and many of them cost nothing, or not very much. Add a few more exotic palms and he will have a veritable botanical garden! So we’ve been planting like fury, while I have undertaken huge earthworks to make vehicle ramps, raised stone flower beds, pathways, a fire pit and a flight of stone steps. Alex is full of dreams but gets diverted easily by his enthusiasms. I have been focussing him: on things that make him money or make a good first impression. I am a scenery designer after all. A beer garden, washing lines dismissed to the back of the roughly half acre plot, shade for mzungus, flowers, tidiness. Litter burned.

Rock Gardens, soon to be Sipi’s botanical gardens!

Most Sipi workmen are terrible. Quality of workmanship is abysmal. Commitment to work is poor. Turn your back and workers sit down and drink. No one cleans up after themselves. There is no pride, just take the money – for a bad job – and go. The norm appears to be two working to four watching. Tools are old, basic and blunt, if there are tools at all. Screws don’t exist: you hammer in a nail, without drilling first. Timber is curling and twisted, almost fresh off the tree. Everything is done with a panga (machete), hammers and hoes with loose heads. A nail suffices as a chisel. I can see that what Alex – not a particularly practical man – needs is an old mzungu workman! I can do in a day, even with the heat, what Ugandan ‘workers’ do in three. And do it a lot better.

I’ve been fortunate to have a quiet young man as helper, Fred. He works hard and even thinks for himself. We have literally moved part of the mountain and Rock Gardens WILL be the best beer garden in Sipi, with a homespun, ethnic feel. Things grow fast in Africa if we keep away the goats – and one of the projects Alex completed successfully last year was to fence and enclose his complete compound from wandering animals and short-cutting locals, to improve security and protect his garden.

The Bean ziggurat at Sipi. A day’s work for an old mzungu, three or four for local ‘masons’…

Two young men passed telling comments: “Huh! This place started as a joke!” But their implication was that now it’s a serious venture and they could see something of the vision Alex has nursed for so long. Sadly, anyone who works for a dream is seen as somehow deluded and vainglorious here in Sipi. There’s a deep cynicism and pessimism amongst the neighbours that work is not worthwhile. After all, the ‘Big Men’ don’t work much. Poor Alex.

*

Unfortunately, three days before I leave Sipi a villager about 300 yards further down the red earth road, is inconsiderate enough to die. He’s been a thorn in Alex’s flesh for years, spreading jealous suspicions of cheating and petty corruption impossible to Alex’s open honesty. Yet still he must attend the funeral house. And no one will work in the area on the burial day, so work will stop at Rock Gardens.

So, the man died. Bad news for me! Death equals disco in Africa nowadays. As in Navrongo, Ghana, where 30 years ago I remember drumming and whistling through the nights after a death, that has now regressed to a rented pounding PA system relaying thumping pop ‘music’ for four endless nights as the corpse lies, presumably quietly decomposing, in a painted coffin with pop-up lid until burial. It’s a ghastly travesty of cultural tradition that probably began as a belief in warding off evil spirits or something similar.

Nights in the Discos of Death. Such a cheapening of culture.

*

Precious, Jonathan and Keilah and nasturtiums from Devon

Precious and Alex and the children wave until I turn the corner of their red earth track and start down the hill on my way home to Kitale. I’ve been 12 days at Rock Gardens and we have transformed its landscape. The burial that has disturbed my sleep so efficiently for three nights will take place today. Many people will pass Rock Gardens.

Alex emails later: ‘am very happy of the great work you shortly did during your stay. Oh yes, much pictures taken by rich men and just wondering. The place looks beautiful. Yes, a joke is turning into reality and we will keep focussed’. We’ve discussed often that his customers should be the ‘rich men’: professionals and business people who want a quiet, peaceful place to drink in a nice beer garden, eat a few snacks, have meetings or office parties, weddings and events, with the added option of a few paying guests in what he plans will one day be five rooms.

The ride back round the mountain to Sipi is exhilarating and fun, trail riding at its best for the 40km of still rough road. Leaping and dancing about with a smile on my face, I am once again thrilled to be here, gazing down into the expanses of northern Uganda. Maybe in two years, I will be able to fly along on smooth tar, but for now the dusty enjoyment is exciting. I am at one with my little trail bike, behaving as if I were 30 again, people waving and exclaiming as I pass their shambas, earth houses and trees blathered in dust from the roadworks.

I wish Alex so much success. If he becomes independent, can educate his charming children to a positive future, and keep his small family content, I shall have achieved and left something very good in Uganda.

Jonathanbean Cheptai and Keilah
The shoulder puffs are a traditional dress for older women
Mama Shifra with Surea, complete with charcoal eyebrows
The finest chameleon I’ve seen in Africa
Precious joins the Aunties for a photo

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

EAST AFRICA 2021 – 2022. EPISODE TWO

NEW YEAR 2022

Love it or loathe it: this was a popular Christmas gift from England!

Despite the numerous times I have seen it, and the relative intimacy with which I now know the area, this first dramatic reveal of the great African Rift Valley never fails to catch my breath and bring a frisson of excitement at its immensity – and my presence, here gazing into its blue depths. This giant cleft in our planet’s crust is a wonder of the world. Stretching all the way from Mozambique to Jordan, plunging up to 6000 feet deep, it is truly vast.

As I ride through the scruffy town of Iten, at about 2000 metres, where international runners like to train at altitude, there’s no indication that the chasm is nearby: it all just looks like more and more of the rolling mountains and occasional coniferous woodlands through which I’ve passed for the previous couple of hours. Then, as I leave the mess of the small town, with its boda-boda butchers, its market traders, petrol stations, unappealing hotels, scrap metals, infestation of small motorbikes and its battered cars, comes a gateway over the road that thanks me for visiting the ‘Home of Champions’ and a couple of tight sweeping bends to left and right. It’s that right hander that suddenly reveals the valley, behind a crowded viewpoint at this holiday time. Instantly, the Rift drops away, the vast African sky – a wonder itself – arching endlessly above, filled with white clouds.

After this explosive reveal, this road will wind itself down the escarpment, falling away for the next twenty kilometres, the astonishing view always there to the left and ahead as the rocky red cliffs rise higher on the right. Here, I’m descending into the Kerio Valley, a branch of the Great Rift that is perhaps 50 miles long, leaving its mother valley to the north and ending in tall steep faces that I have ridden many times, around and up and down, to the south, for this is one of my favourite regions of East Africa. Across the immediate valley rises the barrier of the brown Tugen Hills, that divide the Kerio Valley from the Rift itself. Just here it’s something like four and a half thousand feet deep and maybe five miles across, but at my familiar destination, Kessup, I am about one and a half thousand feet down the escarpment on a wide plateau, about half a mile across and two or three long. It’s one of the parts of Africa that I’ve come to know – and understand – most fully, thanks to William.

William is a feature of these journals past, since we met five years back here at the Lelin Campsite – a bit of a misnomer, as it’s actually pleasant gardens with a number of small cabins and bandas, ranged along the very lip of the valley – and I’ve seldom seen a tent. It enjoys views worth hundreds of dollars for just £11 a night. I found the place by accident. I was desperately tired that evening, after a 70 mile rough ride on trails along the depths of the valley below. Once I saw the view, there was no other choice. I stayed. The then manager, Chesoli, offered me a guide for a walk next day: William. It’s funny, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of guides I have hired on my travels, unless they are mandatory in parks and monuments. I like to explore for myself, not be shown the local ‘sights’ by rote. So this time, what made me accept, such that I made a good friend, whom I have returned to visit so many times? We bonded quickly by instinct. I recognised a man of integrity, good to find in an African ex-policeman, not know for their probity…

“The goodness is, we both like to walk!” exclaims William frequently. And we both like people too, wandering amongst the homes and shambas of the plateau and occasionally further afield to the valley bottom or the clifftop heights. He’s dead honest and respected amongst his neighbours, speaks English very easily – and understands my accent well too. Over the years, he’s come to appreciate the stories and explanations I like to hear of his culture, and the facts and everyday things we pass on our long-ranging walks. It’s a two way exchange, for he questions life and attitudes in Europe too. Our companionable walks are extending, even down to oppressive heat of the valley bottom. Last trip, we did it down and back in a day and it was almost a killer: 2600 feet down and 2600 feet back up! “But you were determined!” says William, not realising that I was faint from effort and seeing strange starry lights much of the time! “…Determined!”

“This time,” I suggest, “let’s go down and stay a couple of nights.” And already, William is planning our ‘tour’. Of course, I don’t ‘hire’ him as a guide any more. He’s become a good friend now, and we wander cheerfully. My support these days is for his tomato farming, a new pair of (secondhand) shoes now and again, a gift of some banknotes here and there, and the confidence of a friend who’s here in need.

We make friends everywhere, William and I. I’m making a brief hello visit this time, just a couple of nights. It was going to be three, but somehow my new phone picked up an email from Boston asking me to join an online meeting on Wednesday evening at 5.00, so I must return to Kitale where I know I have internet. So we’ve only a day to ramble the red dirt paths and tracks. Oddly enough, we’ve both had the same thought: we’d like to investigate a tempting zigzag trail we spotted from afar last year on one of our longer walks. It careers wildly down the escarpment a mile and a half or so to the north of Kessup. We could make out vertiginous corkscrew turns that looked impossibly contorted and steep for anything but feet and cows. I doubt a car – even an African one – would be able to negotiate the turns and precipitous angles (although a Suzuki DR 200 motorbike might!).

We drop steeply down from the guest house through patchwork fields of villagers’ shamba to the red track that I see from my room, winding along the plateau below. I’m like the Pied Piper: everywhere I go I am followed by the voices of excited children calling, “MZUNGU! MZUNGU!” Sometimes they are far away, obscured amongst vegetation or amongst small village homes built of corrugated zinc, mud and sticks or stone and cob. It’s often impossible to make out from where the shouts are coming. I am as visible to them as if they had radar.

“How are you for shoes this year?” I ask William, looking at his footwear that has seen a great deal of use, even before he bought them from a secondhand stall in Iten. Maybe, if we are going to take the long walk we are planning – down into the valley and across to the other side, ten miles and two and half thousand feet or more below, maybe I should buy him some other ‘new’ shoes from the mtumba market.

“Oh, I am very OK! The ones from last year are still strong. But I am keeping them for our ceremonial safaris!” I love the quaint usage that the English language sometimes finds here.

*

On our way down into the valley, to investigate the dramatic road we spotted last year, we pick up a young boy, Rogers, and a rather smelly drunk. “Oh, he smells very badly!” says William, “I think he took bad booze!” It takes a long time to shake off the drunk, such is the insensitivity of the inebriated, but Rogers we are happy to have along, with his smiles and chirpiness.

Chirpy Rogers

As we pass one shamba, William calls to the owner to ask if she will prepare us tea for 50 bob for when we return up the winding red track. It’s lovely that we can just ask like this, and people are happy to oblige with that generosity that opens hearts here in the rural landscape. So as we clamber back up, we stop at Caroline’s house. A group of children are excited, sitting about on a giant rock inside her ragged hedge, behind which the view expands into the blue haze. It’s quite cloudy today, great for my walk, but I will still end up like a beetroot by evening. Caroline finds us stools in the shade of her zinc house. She finally drives away the drunkard and we are left in peace to converse with her and her bright niece, Doris. Doris graduated from Eldoret University this year and is now teaching computer skills and mathematics down-country in Limuru, on the main highway to Nairobi. She’s bright and intelligent, yet a product of this deeply rural area where opportunities are few – but grabbed enthusiastically and respected by hard work. It’s the only way out of this trap of a near-poverty life in the heat on the dry slopes of this huge valley. The land here is good; water generally enough to raise some fairly lucrative vegetable crops, but this year it’s dry, so dry. Everyone complains that the rains have been bad and the crops are failing. In Kitale it’s been a wet year, just 100 miles away, with mosquitoes to suit. Doris is 26 and says she’s enjoying her work, even if it’s far away. It’s her first post and she’ll have little choice as a new graduate, but she’s making the most of it. She knows she’s on her way to better things in life than if she had stayed here on the edge of the Kerio Valley with inevitable marriage to a farmer and a life on the land, scratching a living at the vagaries of this harsh climate. Caroline makes us a flask of tea and brings small bags of groundnuts from her kiosk at the gate, from which she supplies local people with a few necessities. I share my peanuts with Rogers, and in the kindly way that I respect so much, Caroline thanks me for my gesture on his behalf.

We stay forty minutes or so and promise to phone ahead when we are going to take our long walk into the valley, when we’ll take this steep path again. William takes her number. Phones are ubiquitous: in most hands, from goatherds to businessmen. I’ve hardly seen anyone in East Africa read a book – it’s completely gone from the vocabulary. There are few books available anywhere outside the cities – except Bibles of course, and they’re everywhere. Now thumbs flick and everyone finds some form of pastime from the ether. Sad that so much of it is exploitative and trivial, but it’s just the new way.

*

A couple of months ago, even I finally accepted that life was getting difficult without a smartphone myself. There’s so much you are just expected and assumed to be able to download, upload and show to authorities: PCR test results, QR codes for Kenyan health authorities, vaccination certificates, visa details, security codes from banks and so forth. The one application I am enjoying on my secondhand iPhone is the compass and altimeter. Here and there on my journeys I stop to check the height, often an impressive feature of travelling in East Africa. My English phone roams for connections to local networks and just one of those allows me to receive emails out in the sticks. Sadly, it’s not the service the phone usually finds, but at a height along my way to Kessup, I got an email from USA. Could I join a ‘meeting’ with my colleagues for the new project on Wednesday? ‘I’d be grateful if you could remember I am now eight hours ahead of you in Boston’, I replied, ‘ but I’ll do my very best. Should be able to get to an internet connection by then’. It meant this trip would be cut short; just a quick hello to William for a day’s wandering, and then back to Kitale.

*

At noon on Wednesday I wave goodbye to William and set off back across the fine high Cherengani Hills, which, as Rico says, would be called mountains anywhere else. I forget every time, just how chilly I can get on my little bike at these altitudes. Thanks to the new app, I know that at one point on my ride I reach 3060 metres above sea level – just over 10,000 feet; not surprising there’s a chill in the air despite the searing African sun. I love to ride up here, on quiet roads now tarred by the Chinese, although I enjoyed it more when I had to ride the broken trails a couple of years ago: somehow, it felt a bit more adventurous and intrepid. The views are magnificent; the air clear and fresh; the dark fir trees shadows on the bright patchwork of small fields that clamber the slopes, testimony to centuries of hard graft. Zinc corrugated houses, that must be chilly at night, glint where they aren’t rusted; narrow orange dusty paths meander across the hillsides; fences are frequently of grained split timbers from those same ancient firs and cedars, the ones that survive the need for firewood that I see carried in heavy bundles on backs everywhere, often by teenage girls. Teenagers in the global north have little concept of how privileged they are to avoid such duties: not to be lugging firewood in heaps I can hardly lift off the floor up the sides of the Great Rift Valley and from distant forests. Life is hard here for all ages…

I KNOW there’s a way to connect the road I am on now to the one I used on my way here. There are big hills between, but I just know that dusty gravel roads web across these fine hills. On my way to Kessup two days ago, I stopped for tea in a small village, mainly so I’d fall into conversation with local people. Of course, I did: my smile assures that. A young tea-server by the rather unlikely name of Ian, recited a list of villages I must look for to find the connecting trails. “A few kilometres from here, before the bridge at Kabomoi you turn left…”

“I know that bridge! There’s a small petrol station place there.”

“Turn by the petrol pumps. Then you will go to Sugut, Kapnasu and Karandili.”

Looking for new roads to travel…

Well, I found Sugut and Kapnasu, but I’ve no idea how I missed Karandili – and ended up on the road from which I’d started 15 miles before. All I’d made was a big loop through some pretty hills on a rugged rock track. It’s often like that here. There’s no useful large scale map available, and the online versions don’t help much as they don’t differentiate between the main tracks and the goat tracks, and few of the small hamlets get a name, not even most of the towns.

On my way home, I finally find a connecting trail that bumps me through magnificent high forests with views down into distant valleys and distant soaring slopes. I see now it’s a track I once used: I recognise a scruffy, back-of-beyond village where I stopped for chai, sinecure of all village eyes, as I swung down to the small hilltop town of Kapcherop, and on down in great loops and twirls to the plains below, themselves at 6000 feet or so. I love to discover new routes. I never feel any danger, however remote the places I ride – except in some of the VERY extensive deserts, which can be a bit alarming. People everywhere along these distant trails are friendly and helpful, amazed by the old mzungu bucketing his way along on his ‘big’ motorbike (all 200ccs of it – the smallest bike I ever owned!). I’m an exotic species, timidly welcomed when I stop, my smile a passport to social riches.

*

And so home to Kitale in time for my ‘meeting’ with my American colleagues. I set myself up in the garden, not too far from the internet router on the porch. Happily, there have been no power cuts for 24 hours at least. I take two chairs and a stool and make myself a makeshift desk for my computer. Then I pour a Tusker and click to join the meeting. How amused are my colleagues to see me, a few miles from the Equator, in Africa, eight hours in the direction of dawn. How astonishing, this thing we already take so much for granted: to be able to not just talk to people a third of the world away, but to SEE them too – in colour! In my childhood, telephones with pictures, probably still rooted in the hallway by a twisted flex, were the things of science fiction. And they were in black and white.

Now, I can sit on any mountaintop on the planet and converse across the globe. In an hour and a quarter, my three colleagues and I accomplished as much as if we’d been sitting round the studio table in Boston, a place that it would have taken me a day and a half to travel to – 100 years ago, weeks! Rico, passing on his way to a can of beer on the porch, took a photo of this Intercontinental designer (no longer international, as I’ve now worked on four continents!) at his ‘office’. Meeting over, I emailed the picture to USA, where it was forwarded to the clients! What they might make of their designer, beetroot red, in shorts, with a glass of beer, amongst African vegetation, computer balanced on chairs and stools – well, who knows?!

The Intercontinental designer in his Africa Office

*

Last year, I remember suggesting that we celebrate New Year at 10.30, to avoid that tedious wait for midnight. It seemed a remarkably sensible idea, we all concurred. “After all, it’s midnight for lots of people already!” said Adelight. This year, by tacit agreement, we all decided the year had ended at 9.25. Quietly, we all left the glowing ashes of an aromatic log fire and crept away to sleep amongst unseen nocturnal animals high on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

Mount Elgon National Park forms the western horizon from Kitale, a low-shouldered volcanic caldera, reckoned to be the oldest extinct volcano in East Africa and with the biggest area in the world. It rises to 4321metres, something over 14,000 feet, making it the eighth highest African mountain. But facts don’t explain the beauty of the park at this time of year, with abundant growth and ancient forests through which wind and climb orange laterite tracks.

High in the Mt Elgon Park the late sun makes a staircase of the trees

In cliff faces are caves that attract the many – largely invisible – elephants to mine and lick the salt rocks. In touring the red tracks and walking narrow paths through thick undergrowth, we saw enough elephant shit to fill a large lorry, but even huge pachyderms could be fifty metres away in such growth and remain disappointingly unseen. The memory for me will be the startling blue/ purple of the flowers of a profuse spiky-leaved shrub that grew along the red laterite trails amid numerous shades of green, the Equatorial sunoverhead. There’s the excitement too of scouring the thick growth for animals: the retiring elephants, buffaloes, bush bucks and many variety of deer, warthogs, baboons, plentiful zebras – even giraffes and jackals, one of which ranged our camp as we ate our barbecued goat meat in the firelight.

Kitkum Cave, Mt Elgon Park. Enlarged by elephants mining for salt
I’ve searched the internet to identify this wonderful shrub, to no avail. Anyone any idea?

We’d rented three basic bandas for the night. There are scarce tourists and few Kenyans have money these days for fripperies such as holiday tours. These are hard economic times everywhere, and its only the disproportionate wealth that my Western currency enjoys, that makes a family trip like this possible. For residents these things are unaffordable luxury just now. The park was quiet, even on this holiday. Tourism, currently defunct, is Kenya’s largest foreign earner. And no government subsidies to help businesses, let alone individuals, weather the pandemic storm.

A drink to start the year, with Scovia and Adelight in the National Park

Rico’s old Pajero makes reasonably light work of the pitted trails, with six adults and two children aboard, as we meandered through thick forest, between ancient gnarled cedars and finally up to higher moorland climes. Being a rounded mountain, it’s usually impossible to see any impressive peaks but the views downward over the north of Kenya and the Karimajong region of northern Uganda are apparently endless, pimpled by small extinct volcanic cones.

Mount Elgon, a beautiful park
Zebras at breakfast time
Ancient trees on Mount Elgon

*

The girls: Scovia, Marion, Bo, Shamilla and little Maria enjoy one another’s company so much; it’s delightful to watch and share with them. Their acceptance of family duties and chores; their cheerfulness together and their happiness to embrace any opportunity that comes their way is inspiring. They have none of the material advantages of Western young women, perhaps less of the social and peer pressures too. They love such fashion as is within their reach, endlessly creating new hair weaves for one another, sharing clothes and dressing stylishly in items that they search and find in the bales of secondhand fabrics in the dusty market places: clothes already discarded by their privileged age-mates in the ‘rich’ world. Rich? Africa causes me to question that definition constantly when I compare the increase in anxiety, depression and behavioural problems in our materially rich countries to the evidence of my eyes here in ‘poor’ Africa. It’s easy – for me, who has so much – to idealise and romanticise, for I know these girls have fewer opportunities than those around me in England and must accept many struggles to realise ambitions and wishes. But those very efforts enhance the rewards when, or if, they DO achieve their aims.

On the mountain, Scovia asked, “Uncle Jonathan, can you take our picture together? We will lie in a circle…” I was happy to oblige, even if it did seem that the gods of the camera had been well propitiated with multiple ‘selfies’ in the previous 24 hours! If it’s true a picture speaks 1000 words, I’ll stop writing and offer the picture instead.

Smiles for 2022:

Happy family. January 1st 2022