Afternoons in Kitale, I try to walk for an hour, sometimes two. In the fields of the wide valley below the house I can wander on peaceful tracks away from traffic. A small wood has become a favourite, 600 yards long, a calm place of wavering tall eucalyptus and heavy underbrush, a single footpath snaking through it with secret turns and meanders. It’s cool from the hot sun, a relief from the sticky humidity that can build as the ground gives back the gentle showers that have sometimes fallen in the night. There are monkeys and flitting birds, singing amongst the gyrating leaves of the spindly grey eucalyptus.
In the smallholdings around, a heron flies low and languid to a zinc rooftop; a giant crested crane, a metre high, too big to bother to fly away, stomps away offendedly on its angular, gangly robot legs, golden topknot flickering; a hare runs across the red dust track into undergrowth where a large hole with vicious slashes in the earth walls and a mound of newly mined soil perhaps houses a big porcupine; bees and insects set up a hum of static and birds flute and warble musically everywhere about me. Flames trees, an accent of brilliant crimson, flash their blossoms on bare, gnarled, black leafless branches, adding a lustre to the many hues of green after the rains. The sky arches bright blue above, the shoulders of Mount Elgon ethereal on the western horizon. A woman passes quietly, giving a gentle greeting, a heavy bundle of firewood tied with local fibres on her head; cattle graze placidly – abundant food for now – and an unseen child amongst the bushes around a simple mud-walled house, calls, “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are yuoooo?” I have been spotted. Two small boys appear suddenly around a corner in the track. One greets shyly, the other runs away, terrified. Suddenly, I realise that I feel fit and content to be here in Africa, close to the Equator. I DID make the right decision in my precipitate escape. A gamble that is paying back handsomely. Soon I’ll wander back up the hill to a Tusker mixed with a Guinness on the porch with my comfortable friend and we’ll listen to the cheerful chatter and jesting of the pretty young women of the house as rich aromas drift from the kitchen.
I planned to return to Kessup on Wednesday, but decided I had to see the odious Trump out of office, and in Kessup I am off piste for the internet and TV, so I delayed until Thursday. Sitting in front of the TV to eat supper was a serious break in formality in the Kitale house, where we always sit around the table as family to eat our meals. But Rico and I wanted to watch some sanity and decency return to America having followed the shocking events of the past couple of weeks as the Leader of the Free World (Huh) lost all semblance of rational adult behaviour and encouraged a hideous mob of far right fantasists to attack the seat of his own democracy.
On Thursday, then, William’s Mzungu was back. A fine seventy mile ride over the mountains from Kitale to the Rift Valley. William is waiting for the sound of my engine. He comes grinning down his dry shamba to the rutted track to the guesthouse. A spare, rangy sort of fellow, now 55, with white curls to his beard. Within moments he is instructing the guesthouse staff in everything ‘his mzungu’ requires. How irritated they must be! Or perhaps they are just grateful, especially this year when I am probably the only tourist within 100 mile radius, that his friendship and guidance brings me here frequently. He frets and demands: there must be cold beer in the fridge, Jonathan likes his Tusker cold! Supper must be at seven sharp; there must be a reduction in the room rate. William, retired policeman, is a stickler for timekeeping. If the meal is two minutes late, he will be on his feet heading for the sooty zinc shack that is the kitchen. I must have just the room I want, and Jonathan likes a blanket, not the unbearably heavy duvet that locals seem to prefer. It’s funny to watch, but he’s kindly with the girls who work here, always inviting them to share the leftovers of our supper. Of course, I pay the bills – William has no money at all. But in return I have a willing, friendly companionable guide and a fine introduction to this community that I have come to know, and who’ve come to accept me. William eats the meat at supper; I eat the vegetables that he hahas procured from his neighbours’ shambas. “Why should I eat veggy-tables?” he asks. “I live on veggy-tables! When you are here, I can eat meat!” It’s a good deal for us both and not much goes wasted, between his relish for the meat, my liking of local vegetables and the girls’ delight at something beyond ugali maize flour and scraps from the kitchen.
But how do I spend my days in Kessup? It’s a relaxing time, wandering the red tracks and mountainous footpaths; drinking milky tea on green hillsides with hardworking, friendly people – the most vigorous always women. I am suffered to investigate and ask questions, and respond to many more about how we do things at ‘my place’. We sit high above the dramatic valley, gazing into the misted depths, over small fields hacked relentlessly by generations of hard graft from the rocky slopes. But it’s fertile here, and plastic water pipes snake the lanes and hillsides, a fizzing leak here and there, powering small locally-made sprinklers. Shambas are green just now with young crops and elsewhere men and women hack new brown soil into beds. Large raptors circle ceaselessly above and hedge-birds flit and whistle.
In Rael’s round, thatched kitchen hut, I sit on a stool polished by decades of backsides and kitchen spills. It’s about six inches high. She’s a fine cooking stove fashioned from clay, just eighteen inches high but sculpted into a piece of domestic sculpture, all rounded edges and decorative rings. She’s preparing disgustingly sweet milky tea for her mzungu guest. She knows me well by now; I am recognised all over this rural plateau from my many visits with William, patient to introduce me to his neighbours. He claims that my repeated visits have given him enhanced status here. I am constantly sorry that it takes the endorsement of a white skin for him to gain respect, for he is an honest man of integrity. Returning to revisit people in Africa is one of the most important social things I can do. It confers respect and friendship. I appreciate how many people accept me here. It’s taken time to be seen as a fellow human, rather than a representative of a race aloof, proud and rich – as we are seen so often in Africa as we race past, a dim, ‘different’ blur behind the tightly wound window-glass of air conditioned, zebra-striped vehicles between insulated game parks, segregated from the wonder that is the people of this generously welcoming continent.
Rael’s kitchen hut has no chimney. This is the standard across the whole continent. It is full of thick grey woodsmoke, sweet-smelling but lung-clogging and eye-watering. The underside of the thatch, supported on a web of sticks, is black and tarry. The post that holds aloft her firewood in the ceiling space is polished like lacquer, Japanned by thirty years’ of hand grease and soot. The hut was built in the late 80s when Rael came to this compound on the hillside. She’s a smart woman, diligent, intelligent and very hard working. Her compound is always well kept and she is house-proud, although her wooden dwelling is simple. She’s put blue-squared vinyl on the floor of her living room, which is decorated with sentimental religious posters and a lurid Manchester United broadsheet. She’s very proud of her new TV. It represents considerable work and business acumen. Her husband, whom I’ve never met, drives a matatu and is away from dawn. So the household and farm work, as well as caring for the children, fall on her – capable – shoulders. An African woman… I note that some of the lovely row of eucalyptus that made a fine background for my portraits when I first came to Rael’s shamba, almost five years ago, are gone. “I planted them when I first moved here. Now I have been selling them. They pay for school fees for my children.” She gets about £25 for a large fast-growing eucalyptus. “But I replace them when I sell them!” She waves behind her to a grove of young eucalyptus – the weed-tree of Africa. The young ones are, Rael says, five years old.
It’s been decades of work to create the terrace on which we sit, me puckering my mouth at the syrupy tea from the big pink Chinese thermos. The hillside has literally been moved ten metres forward to form a level space big enough for her kitchen hut and the black, vertically boarded house, neat with a red zinc roof. Curtains bluster brightly in the metal-framed windows. There are even some flowers blowing in a bed against the wall. It’s breezy today, the wind worrying up from the depths of the Rift Valley. Pleasantly cool. William is on his phone – as are many people we pass. He just begged a pound’s worth of airtime from me so he can call his cattleman, Atanas, far below in the shimmering valley. William hasn’t a penny in his pocket, his normal economic state. He’s arranging for us to walk down into the valley on Sunday. His mzungu needs a welcoming committee if he is to make such Herculean efforts, William thinks. Or maybe it’s just that he knows Atanas would be deeply disappointed to miss the event by coming up to the plateau to see his family?
We move on to visit Sally, another determined woman, who has moved here from a village beyond Iten, some kilometres up the winding road on top of the escarpment that towers above us. She bought the land on which she has built her tidy wooden home, with a smart brick latrine and quaint henhouse. She’s a farmer. The fathers of her children seem to be absent but she seems self-reliant – as so many African women have to be, even if a husband is around… She’s forged, in just a year, small rough terraces on which she is growing a lot of vegetables. Her tomatoes are superb. I took a bag home to Kitale last time I was here and we enjoyed tasty salad. She’s planted what looks like chard, and pumpkins too, and one of her family is sorting the most wonderfully coloured dry beans from amongst dust and debris on an old nylon sack. One small field is to provide tomato seeds for her next crop. There are velvety brown cows and dreadlocked sheep to tend, babies to care for, washing and cooking to be done, and the house to be kept tidy amongst various energetic children. But what impresses is the exhausting work that these women accept as their normal life, hacking and hoeing, digging, watering and cultivating and harvesting on a hillside that must be at 30 degrees, above one of the hottest valleys in Africa.
Still Sally finds time to light a fire of sticks and boil more milky tea for her guests. By now I am brimming with the stuff, perhaps a litre of it. My stomach’s distended and we are able to use this as an excuse not to eat her kitere – beans and indigestible maize. We promise we’ll come tomorrow instead. She gathers a carrier of lush red tomatoes as a gift for me to bring back to the cook at the guesthouse to make salad for our supper. William will instruct the cook just how his mzungu wants them! We begin our slow walk home, meeting and greeting, entertaining children coming from school, jesting with neighbours. Life in Kessup.
Awash with tea, we sit and pick sticky seeds from our socks. On our way home, we must stop at a kiosk to purchase superglue for William to mend his shoe. He’s shown me that he has a hole the size of a playing card in the sole. I can see his bare foot – odd, since at the ankle he’s wearing some thin, coloured socks. “If we walk down on Sunday, I must mend my shoe. For now, I can glue something over the hole! When I have money, I can go to Iten and find a fundi to put a new sole.” I tell William of the labourer I saw in Sipi last week. Pushing a heavy wheelbarrow of earth up an embankment, I was impressed that he was wearing substantial boots. But as he turned away from me, I saw that they had no soles whatsoever, just laced tops. Bare skin made the bottom of his footwear!
We stop at a kiosk to buy the glue. Shops here in rural Kenya are simple affairs, a dark tin shack with a wire and timber grille that protects the merchandise. The seller ducks beneath the counter and waits expectantly. Yes, she has superglue from China at 20 pence. There’s not much to buy – the seller doesn’t have the capital to keep much stock: some tired-looking dry cakes in cellophane; three small bottles of warm Coke; two dusty, rather dreary cabbages; some pots of milking jelly, whatever that may be – cow orientated, I assume; a festoon of ever-popular plastic sachets of cooking spice mixes; eleven rolls of toilet paper; seven plastic tubs of Tilly cooking fat; lurid packs of bubble gum and a bag of slightly melting sticky sugar lollies; eight tiny tins of black shoe polish; six packets of stale biscuits that look well past their sell-by date and the inevitable selection of washing soaps in bright sachets. A few items to turn a minimal profit that may make the difference between supper and going without, medicine or suffering, school fees or illiteracy. Life in Africa.
Another day. Neighbour Kimtai and his son Evans are tossing a thousand rocks across their shamba, clearing a tiny field to plant vegetables. It’s hard graft, making these patchwork fields. The ground is rocky. Kimtai takes me around the small beds he has made already, edged by high walls and heaps of piled rocks, surrounding just a few square metres each of red soil. But there’s water in Kessup, draining down all the snaking plastic pipes from the escarpment. Kimtai’s handkerchiefs of fertile soil will pay well. But it’s rocky ground.
William says, “He’s a Christian! A pastor.”
“So are you a Christian?” asks Kimtai of me. “Are you a believer?”
Sometimes I dissemble. But a look at Kimtai suggests he can accept truth. “Er… no!” I reply.
“You don’t believe in Him?” he asks in wonder.
“No, not at all!” I proclaim. Evans, standing on a pile of rocks bursts into such loud laughter that he falls over. His face splits with the biggest grin. He almost clutches his sides at my straightforward answer. We all fall about laughing. I enjoy these exchanges so much.
“But what about Heaven? And Hell? Don’t you think you will go there?”
“No, chum! This is all we have! If you don’t do good here and now, it’s too late! Once you’re gone, you’re gone. Just dead. Too late if you haven’t done it here.”
Evans is laughing with delight. I wonder what is his attitude to his father’s elevation to self-proclaimed pastor in some crazed offshoot of commercialised religion amongst the millions of fake tub-thumping pastors in East Africa? Laughing widely, we all agree to differ. “One day you will walk with me to my church. It’s five kilometres.” Kimtai points along the plateau to the north, the high cliffs rising above us to the left.
“Well, I might enjoy the walk, but you can leave me out of the preaching!” We all laugh and part friends, waving as William and I walk away to meet more neighbours.
Francisca spots me through the trees and comes running to greet. “Eh, Mr Jonathan, you are back!” I’ve sat with her and her friends a few times; taken her picture several times; brought back the prints. Her husband, Silas, once worked in the Kenya Embassy in London, but he misbehaved (booze) and wasted the opportunity. He was sent home – to this mud and stick compound in rural Kessup. Francisca’s friends, Evaline and Elizabeth, perhaps a bit inebriated by mid-morning on too-cheap local spirit, josh and joke with me, middle-aged women full of goodwill. They all want photos taken and of course I’m happy to do this. I am Kessup’s official photographer by now. I’ve literally hundreds of portraits from these communities on the plateau above the huge valley. Francisca is animated and confident. She poses with a fine polished gourd with decorations of cowrie shells and beads. It’s from the Pokot tribe, she says. To get to their rather troubled homelands – they are an aggressive bunch – you go down into the deep valley and head fifty miles north. It’s usually off limits to me: too much tribal strife there; difficult people to police, often shooting first, and enthusiastic cattle rustlers. Seems I missed the only chance in years last year – when my riding in such a tough region was limited by my Achille’s tendon. There was a brief respite from the warring and killing, but I didn’t go. Pity, as there’s a pass I still want to ride, said to be very serious trail riding in magnificent scenery on the edge of the Great Rift Valley.
Now Francisca brings her fresh yoghurt in another of these gourds. The inside surface is lined with aromatic soot from a special wood. Local yoghurt is made this way; the soot flakes imparting some sort of beneficial flavour. She pours me a glass of the lumpy yoghurt, flecked with sooty spots. It’s delicious, almost like cheese in taste. “Oh, you won’t want bulsa now!” William exclaims. We are due to drink the fibrous, sour local maize beer later. This sounds like the ideal excuse for me to make no more than a gesture! It’s not a beverage I like very much. I drink it to show willing, and everyone is very impressed that the mzungu will slurp down the filthy liquid from an old Tilly cooking fat container with them. William knows I am not enthusiastic, and has just given me a great get out.
We take the bulsa with my ‘age mate’, Joel. Frankly, he looks a decade older than me, with his stoop and stick. People age so much quicker in Africa – as indeed we Westerners did 100 years ago. It’s easy to forget that this privilege of long healthy old ages is something we’ve enjoyed quite recently. Some of us at least. Joel had English teachers in his childhood – a Miss Cunningham and Miss Armstrong, missionaries, I assume. But Joel mumbles and his accent is difficult to understand. It’s a long time since the Misses Cunningham and Armstrong were major influences in Joel’s life. His wife joins us, big silver coloured beads around her neck. I am content that the five litres of sour soupy liquid is being shared wider. I can get away with just one small plastic container of the rather unattractive beverage.
Moses had an accident in a truck that went out of control on the winding road down into the other side of the huge valley from the town of Kabarnet, perched on the lip, visible by its twinkling lights at night from the guesthouse gardens. It must be fifteen or twenty miles away as the soaring raptors fly. Moses spends his life on a wheelchair now, sitting patiently on the grassy terrace in front of his iron-sheet house, marooned the best part of a kilometre down red rocky tracks. He’s a wide smile and seems to make the most of the hard chance life threw at him. Of course, he will have had no insurance to help him make life more comfortable, and is probably grateful for whoever supplied the wheelchair. He greets me warmly like an old friend. It’s good to be recognised in this rural community.
In a maize field, we joke with Anne, Sharon and Boniface. They are harvesting corn; taking a break sitting on nylon sacking to slurp millet porridge, a spotty snotty sort of brown stuff in enamel mugs. It looks disgusting, but of course, I’ve eaten these sort of nutritious slops before. I’m happy no one insists I must try it again. I sit on the sack to have my photo taken by William. He knows how to operate my camera now, although I suggest he takes two or three shots – in the hope that one of them will include feet AND heads. He gets a good shot: happy and laughing. I love this interaction. Who needs a game park? I have cheerful Africans in a dusty field.
We sit on an earthy terrace high above the valley. Sally, the tomato farmer’s daughters are delightful. It’s Saturday, they are home and have prepared tea and kitere (beans and indigestible maize kernels) for us. At the edge of the terrace, interrupting my view into the magnificent valley, hangs a line of flapping washing, ancient clothes torn and worn, faded and jaded, throwaways from the profligate world, fashions of past decades. It’s how everyone is dressed here. Me included.
I am about to pick up my spoon to eat my kitere when Abigail grabs my hand unceremoniously and turns it over with an exclamation of wonder. My palm is so white! She brushes it with her fingers as if the colour will come off. Her sisters gather and touch my hand like a delicate artefact. I wish I knew what they were saying – and what is the joke. Then they finger the hairs on my arm. “Why do you have this?” asks Naomy, a young teenager. “Because I come from a colder country and once my race was covered in hair,” I explain. The girls show me their smooth, polished black skin. Maybe I am the first mzungu with whom they could ever compare our racial differences. “Oh, we are just black monkeys!” exclaims Abigail, spokeswoman.
“NO!” I respond. “We are the same! Just a millimetre of difference! No more.” I try to explain that the melanin in their skin is a protection; that I have much skin damage on my shoulders as my skin tries to develop the same melanin. I make Abigail put her cool hand on my red burning neck to see how the sun affects my skin. She recoils with an exclamation from the heat that my neck is giving off, amazed. It’s such fun to meet curious young people like this, unsophisticated enough to explore the differences we represent. I love curiosity above all other human attributes.
We eat our kitere, me surreptitiously picking out the beans and avoiding the cubes of dry maize as much as possible. I know they’ll come out the other end still cuboid. In fact, this meal affects my guts adversely for the next four days. The girls pour me tea, unsweetened in my honour. I gaze into the vast abyss before us, shrouded somewhat by washing. The light shimmers below, far below. It’s over two and a half thousand feet down to the green bush lands. Later, I must take thirty or more photos of these cheerful girls. They are self conscious, laughing, giggling like young girls the world over. In the hour we’ve been here, we have broken down barriers and become equals – well, as equal as an old granddad can become with teenagers – and in Africa that’s a LOT closer than we’d manage in the ‘sophisticated’ Western world.
Tomorrow, we tell the girls, William and I intend to ‘foot’ to the floor of the valley and back. They are astonished. But maybe not because we appear improbably old and decrepit to their slender years…
“Won’t you go to church then? It’s Sunday tomorrow,” asks Abigail, somewhat scandalised.
“This is the biggest and best church you’ll ever be able to worship in!” I say, waving a hand at the enormous vista of the Rift Valley at our feet. “Just look at this! THIS should be your church! This is your God’s work!” But my attitude is unconventional and I’ll never challenge the strength of African religious convention and dogma. But I know that had I ever an inclination of worshipping or prayer, I’d choose the Great African Rift Valley for my cathedral, not a tin shack filled with the noise of self-promoting ‘pastors’.
The Kerio Valley, a major spur from the Great Rift Valley that splits the globe from Mozambique to Jordan, burns more than 2600 feet below my perch at the guesthouse with its green gardens, itself below the tall red cliffs that continue the wall of the Rift Valley up to the highlands six or seven hundred feet above. On Sunday (instead of Abigail’s church) I slip and slither down a dusty, rocky path that leads into the world below. Hours later, I puff and stagger back up! Both ways in one day, in high equatorial sunshine and about 30 degree heat. It’s the most arduous exercise imaginable. The last hour of the ascent will go down in the annals of my African journeys. By the time I am clambering up the steepest part of the climb, I’m stopping to regulate my heartbeat every few minutes. Of course, local people regularly undertake the journey, moving their cattle up and down with the seasons. William tells me, as I puff, even slightly faint at the effort, that the cattle often make the journey by themselves, taking three or four days to clamber up or down, knowing instinctively that the nutritious seasonal vegetation is above or below. William has a large tract of bush land just before the big drop, down at the lower edge of the Kessup plateau. And at the bottom, in the baking valley inferno, his family and clan have extensive lands too, where their goats and cows are tended by hired herdsmen. William comes of a long-established local family. Everywhere down there, we meet brothers, cousins, nephews of his family, in which William’s father’s polygamy makes for complex relations.
We climb the burning slope. The effort of not just putting one sore foot in front of the other, but one sore foot above the other as well, is ghastly. I am woozy from lack of oxygen, seeing a sort of halo of light shards created by the sheer effort I am expending. I sit on a rock, eyes closed for a few minutes, not telling William that I am feeling faint. He’s so solicitous for my wellbeing that he’d be worried. This will be a memorable hike. I’m a full decade beyond life expectancy here. William reckons that Joel, my age-mate, couldn’t make it any more. It’s so funny that William takes a sort of vicarious thrill at my accomplishment. “You were determined!” he keeps repeating later, as I drink the three beers that salvage my strength after a warm shower. “Determined..!” Yes, but once we embarked on the ascent, what choice did I have? There’s no respite or rescue on that enormous rocky slope.
Twelve hours in bed completed my recovery. Monday, I am fit to go again, wandering the red paths, meeting neighbours and drinking chai in village compounds.
The sunshine and heat of Kerio Valley produces what must be some of the best mangoes on earth, richly succulent and without those irritating fibres that bug the poor apologies we import to English supermarkets. Late January is mango season. Women sit by the roadsides in the valley with mangoes, bananas and watermelons for sale. William and I ride down the twelve miles to the foot of the curling road to buy mangoes for me to take back to Kitale. They cost 15 pence for giant fruits, my pleasure from this region that almost matches my enjoyment – and consumption – of fresh pineapples throughout January. It’s steamy-hot in the bottom of the valley. We stop off to visit the ex-chef of the campsite/ guesthouse far above, who’s working now in a new hotel that burns on the valley floor amongst attractive gardens formed by a lot of hard work and the limitless sunshine. Joseph remembers me and shows me his guesthouse. Perhaps I’ll stay a night sometime, I suggest. It’s so nice to be known. “Ah, do you remember the liver curry I made for you?” he asks. “I made it HOT. Plenty of piri-piri!” It must be three years ago. Going back. Returning to see people who befriended me before. It confers so much respect.
On Monday I texted Adelight: ‘Returning tomorrow pm sometime’. She replied: ‘Hello. Welcome back home. We love you.’
Kenya is investing heavily in new roads – and increasing debts to the Chinese government with their ulterior motives of access to resources and the control of debt-crippled African countries. From Kessup back to Kitale there are now fine new roads, empty and sweeping about the hills in ways that bring smiles to a biker’s face. One road on the way home was so new it still smelled of hot tar, and the last two kilometres hadn’t even been built; I had to negotiate a construction site. Between the two scruffy towns of Moiben and Kapcherop runs a lovely road through soaring hills, at one point with a vista over mile upon mile of highlands to a distant horizon that probably contains the Rift Valley itself. I am way above 6000 feet high. It’s not a fast ride on a 200cc motorbike, but it’s fun and scenic. Children from school wave and call as I pass.
Back home I am welcomed warmly. I feel fit and suntanned, sucking up the vitamin D, well exercised from walking sunny paths and the expedition to the depths of the Rift Valley – “Instead of church!” as Abigail was shocked to remark. A better church by far for me.
I haven’t mentioned the virus for some time. Mainly because no one here much mentions it any more. In rural areas it never made much of a mark anyway. People have so much immunity to so many diseases here: you must have to survive this life. Some of the reported cases are suspected of political corruption – in Kapchorwa, across in Uganda, the medical officers made a big fuss about two cases they ‘diagnosed’, almost certainly, it was surmised by everyone locally, to obtain financial aid for their hospital (and in Uganda, perhaps for their own bank balances). Some here have got in the habit of fist-bumps instead of the constant handshakes, although I still shake hands a hundred times a day in places like Kessup or Sipi. The fist-bump was the fashionable greeting of youth and is adopted by older people now in respect of the virus. There are those, William warned me, who believe that ALL white people carry the virus and that Europe is ‘dead’! That’s lack of education and the customarily irresponsible media.
In town, people sport a sort of decorative chin strap in the form of a face covering that frequently doesn’t, but some wear a face mask, others, even in deep countryside as they walk rural paths and roads completely alone. I have my temperature taken at the entrance to all larger shops, and frequently have to suffer having a squirt of something cheap and nasty on my hands. People, usually unmasked, sell face masks at the roadside for 10 bob each (7 pence each. I bought a pack of a dozen in Boots for £6 before leaving England…). I wear my neck tube; it’s convenient to keep the sunburn from the back of my neck and can be pulled up in town or if I see police checkpoints – who might enjoy politely harassing a mzungu in the hope of a small fine. Otherwise, life goes on pretty much as normal. Few seem to judge others or to be scared by the hysteria-inducing media. I guess few watch the BBC or CNN. It’s about page three in the national papers.
I’m now almost half way through my trip – as planned. As regulations change and change again for return to UK, I shall keep an open mind about the booked flights. Kenya is not a high risk country and I know I am welcome here. “Oh, you can stay a YEAR!” as Adelight said on my arrival. Well, maybe not a year, but my return may remain flexible.
Adelight and I go to town. I enjoy sitting in the car watching life around me. We are warm friends, content together. She’s some errands to make, ground up maize from the posho mill for chicken feed, chicken medicine from the agricultural supplier. For her chicken rearing business.
I buy beer at the supermarket. Everyone meets my eye and smiles greetings. One woman, attracts my attention; runs into the street. “I need to marry you, Mzungu! Look, I even have my own business!” She points to her fruit stall, a table on the supermarket steps. A mzungu is seen as the answer to everyone’s problems and many women see marriage as not much more than a business agreement, it seems to me. I laugh. “You’d have to ask my wife!” Boda-boda boys watching laugh too.
Adelight needs charcoal for baking bread tonight. We walk together to the charcoal sellers and buy a bucket of charcoal decanted into a recycled woven plastic sack. “Here, I’ll take it,” I say, lifting it from her hand.
“Hah! African men don’t do that! If people see you, they will say, ‘eh, this mzungu is a poor man!’”
“Well, I’ll lead by example then. African women, they do ALL the work!” Stallholders selling secondhand mtumba wear watch us pass, bemused. I laugh and carry the charcoal.
I sit and drink my beer with Rico on the porch. We’ve known one another for half our lives now, and share this strange obsession with Africa. His African family move around us, Adelight making the bread in the skilfully designed oven that Rico made from an old car jack, scrap steel sheets and bits and pieces scavenged around his garage, where nothing is thrown away. Charcoal glows above and below the bread box. The aroma of fresh baking fills the porch. Maria watches a cartoon on TV behind us in the house – the power is back on after another series of outages.
Scovia makes me laugh: she comes out of the house door, dressed in a glamorous narrow black skirt that she’s worn to town. She’s one of my very favourite Africans. One look and I smile. She’s shapely and always cheerful, with a quip or two for the old mzungus. She always has the last word, does Scovia. She slips off her smart blue-green town shoes and pulls on gumboots – with the chic slit skirt and fitting white blouse, hair in elaborate braids – and heads out of the porch gate with a flounce, the big serrated bread knife in her hand as she goes to the chicken house to slaughter our supper.
I jest with her about her attire. “Oh, it’s fine as long as you put your foot squarely on the chicken’s legs and hold the wings before you cut the head off. If you don’t hold the wings, then you get blood splashing!” she laughs happily. I guffaw at the idea of any smart young woman of my acquaintance at home even going into a henhouse dressed so smartly, let alone to sever the head of her supper! But this is Africa. You learn the facts of life and death of animals at an early age. You understand where food comes from. You can’t hide from inconvenient truths here. You consider yourself fortunate to have the luxury of chicken for supper, when most have ugali maize and a splash of stew…