BACK TO KITALE, KESSUP AND DOWN TO THE HOT INDIAN OCEAN COAST. WINDING UP MY SAFARI – FOR NOW..!
It’s been a different sort of journey this year, mainly restricted to just three locations: Kitale, Kessup and Sipi, and the families I come to see: my families in East Africa. Partly, this was caused by pandemic restrictions, although those are now easing almost to the point of invisibility: just face masks required by law – until three days before I fly out. In Uganda they’re almost unseen and no one cares about any restrictions any more. Their criminal president announced that the third wave of coronavirus was over – doubtless he listens to scientists with the same regard as do the British Cabinet… In fact, the virus has impinged less and less on the public mind as I have watched, these past twelve weeks; no one much cares any more. And now, the increasingly crazed Putin and his war in Ukraine have finally wiped the pandemic hysteria off the front page of newspapers everywhere.
Kenya has suffered a mere 323,025 confirmed cases of Covid and there have been only 5640 related deaths (half the number of people in hospital in UK as I write). Maybe testing here is inefficient and many cases in rural areas were not reported: people just suffered illness as Africans do, but even if I multiply by three (a recent report reckons that there were three times more excess deaths worldwide than officially reported), it shows statistics that pale in scale beside the UK’s.
Little JBC – Jonathanbean Cheptai – left me with an unfortunate souvenir of Sipi: a thick head cold courtesy of his coughing all over my iPad while viewing photos of himself and his sister with great excitement. I lost a few days’ energy and activity to blocked sinuses, a chesty cough and general malaise.
With just two weeks of my 2022 safari remaining, I ride back to Kessup, where William is excited by the gift of an Ayrshire milk cow. I’ve been appreciating my general wealth, and the prospect of a well paid project in USA, by trying to make my African families independent. That’s been the motivation for Rock Gardens, for various help towards Adelight’s chicken business, that now seems to be coasting onto an even keel after initial frustrations and problems, and for William, with his successful cultivation of tomatoes last year – which he’ll repeat this season – and now with a cow that may produce up to ten litres of milk every day. That could potentially make him £2 a day, a sum way beyond his expenditure. He claims that the £50 investment I made in tomato seeds and fertiliser last year kept him solvent all year, even for hospital bills when he caught pneumonia. It also gave him physical work and mental activity. An Ayrshire cow, about two years old, from a breeder in Ziwa, thirty or forty miles away, costs about £375. I’ve explained that Ayrshire is in Scotland and suggested he calls the cow Morag; it seems a good name for the brown and white cow that will live on his shamba beside the tomato beds! It’s also caused him to get another part of his shamba ploughed for planting maize that he’ll use to feed the cow. He’s a good companion, is William, undemanding and, as he constantly reminds me: “The goodness is, we both like the same things!”
We wander the red tracks between his neighbours’ compounds, greeting and meeting. “It’s a pity about your cold,” he says. “We could have walked down and spent a night…” He waves at the yawning valley beside us. He’s enjoyed those longer trips into the hot valley. I did too, but I’m not sure I want to do it every time I come to Kessup: it’s bloody hard work! So this time we stay on the plateau and greet the neighbours as we explore a track that William doesn’t know; one we’ve seen from the top of the escarpment, that disappears over the edge of the plateau a mile or two from the guest house.
En route, way along the plateau, we visit Naomi. We met Naomi by chance three years ago, when we called to ask if she could give us some water to drink, one very hot, scorching-sun afternoon. It must have been a Sunday I think, as her compound was full of people, all of whom wanted their photos taken by the mzungu. My photos provide me with a pass into almost every household on the Kessup plateau: many have heard how I bring back prints. Even today, we have prints to hand out at this end of the plateau, Naomi’s included. Naomi is very pretty and, as William would say with approval, “Disciplined!” On that Sunday, three years back, I took a nice portrait of Naomi with her new baby. The next year, last year, we met and I asked after little Precious, the babe in arms. Quietly, she told me Precious had died before her first birthday. I had on my camera the only photo that had been taken of her baby child, so I had prints made in Kitale, found a frame and brought them back.
So now we visit again, with last year’s pictures this time, especially of her beautiful, cheerful five year old, Brian, and his appealing mates, Innocent and Dylan – a picture that still makes me smile. She’s delighted to see me again. It’s such warmth these people express when I return. Genuine welcome given freely. You see, as I’ve often noted, coming back confers so much respect in Africa, where most mzungus are either too grand or ‘just visiting’, passing through. Building a equal relationship isn’t easy, given our histories of conquest, colonialism and superiority inherent in aid-giving. But returning, sharing the warmth and being thankful for what people here have to give: a mug of tea, a few bananas, a glass of fresh milk, a few beans – what they have – is considered high respect.
We chat a bit and arrange to drop back for tea on our way back up the hill, for William and I are exploring again: the road we saw from far above. We don’t know where it goes. Does it descend to the burning valley or not? Actually, no it doesn’t, we find; well, it would eventually, but it’s not an expedient route for another trip down there, people tell us as we ask directions. So we go back and take tea and bananas from the tree with Naomi, and the cheerful children now coming home from school. And Naomi insists that she must give me the best cockerel, a large young one with fine speckled black and white feathers. So we return to the guest house with supper dangling from William’s hand. There’s an axiom in Navrongo, Ghana – that has a saying for just about everything – that ‘when a visitor comes to the house, the cockerel gets worried’. We will know that our supper is fresh. It weighs about two kilos, William reckons, weighing the flapping bird from his hand. “Supper for two nights!” he says with glee. He hates me ‘wasting’ my money on our supper any more than necessary! This man exists usually on maize flour ugali, a few local vegetables and black tea. “Eh, when my mzungu brother comes, I can eat meat!” he says, echoing Precious in Sipi. Ironic that I dream of returning to my usual home state of vegetarianism soon…
William gives the kitchen strict instructions about the cockerel: he’ll probably count the bones to make sure we aren’t cheated, so careful is he of how ‘his mzungu’ is treated! I go to rest for a bit; I’m still coughing and spluttering, sniffing and croaking; my energy is at low ebb. There’s a meeting going on in the gardens, that I must pass to get to my room. It’s about fifty quite large schoolchildren; probably in their last year before senior school, preparing for their exams, for schools break for the long holiday next week. “Would you like to address these pupils?” asks Francis, who owns the guest house and appears to be talking to them himself. It’s so funny how a stray passing mzungu is always invited thus for a few words of wisdom – that it’s assumed I have. It’s happened so often, in so many situations, that I hardly blink but give them a short homily about education being the handle that opens so many doors in Africa. I sound to myself like a some old speech day duffer lying about ‘schooldays being the best of your life’, hollow words indeed. But I get a round of applause and one of the teachers takes my photo as I stand before the class, and the line of teachers nod sagely at my advice. I slope away to my room to rest until beer time, when William will arrive on the dot of five, fretting about whether my supper will be served on time. I am looked after so well here in Africa.
Soon after eight o’clock and I am in bed. One of the things I like about William is that he stands on no ceremony. “JB,” he says immediately his four beers and supper are finished, “I beg to leave. We meet tomorrow!” My deep cold is troubling me, and I have no desire to sit and ruminate and chat trivia. Bed is much preferable. Maybe twelve hours will alleviate the symptoms a bit for tomorrow’s walk…
For our last walk this year, we choose the forest on top of the escarpment again, a 1000 foot scramble above our breakfast table in the peaceful gardens on the edge of the great view into the valley below. The weather’s cooling a bit now, with light showers in the evenings sometimes. “The rains will start by the 15th,” says William with confidence borne of long experience. But Africa’s weather patterns are changing with climate damage; soon such certainty will be impossible. It already is really, for this has been another unusual year: dry as dust, with increasing problems in the hot valley below, extremes everywhere.
The forest is ancient, protected now from the depredations of the growing and encroaching population. There are old trees here but, oddly, no animals at all that we can see, not even monkeys today. There are precious few birds too, a few golden-winged, blackly iridescent birds sweeping on the up-currents when we sit on the dramatic clifftops gazing down across Kessup plateau and into the huge rift beyond. Then, once again, we get lost for a couple of hours, but we know the great drop is always to our east somewhere; it’s just difficult to know which is south with the sun almost overhead, so much so that our shadows at noon are just an inch or two long. Here, the Equator is close by to the south, probably about 25 miles. Eventually, we scramble back down the cliff sides on a steep gravelly path. “One hour and twenty four minutes to rest… We meet at five,” says William, but tonight he calls as he approaches my room where I’ve been dozing, full of head cold, “Hah! Tonight I am three minutes late!” with a laugh. He is too. Punctuality is a rare gift in Africa. “I like discipline. I was trained by British!” We sit with our beers and contemplate the giant valley below, colourful birds enjoying the red-tufted tree above us. “The goodness is…”
I bring mangoes back from Kessup, and honey. Adelight enjoys the honey that I buy from one of William’s neighbours who deals in local honey, from the split tree trunk hives that we see suspended high in trees as we walk. It comes in various secondhand containers, thick with comb and dead bees that must be strained with a little hot water when I get home. It has an intense flavour I associate with our walks in the oven of Kerio Valley. The small bees relish some of the trees that somehow survive in the desert conditions of the sun-burned valley and its escarpment.
I bring several giant, fleshy mangoes too. If you haven’t drunk buna, Ethiopian coffee, in Ethiopia, the home of coffee, you’ve never really experienced the wonder of coffee. Similarly, if you haven’t eaten a Kerio Valley mango direct from the tree, you haven’t tasted the real wonder of mango. Oddly, this parched, scorched region produces the world’s sweetest mangoes, intensely fully flavoured, soft and without those irritating fibres. They dribble copious mouth-watering richness and grow in such contrast to the dusty harshness of the deep, superheated valley. Pineapples and passion fruits are the delicacies of Uganda in this season too. I eat so much fruit here in East Africa, almost overdosing on pineapples, mangoes, passion fruit, avocados and all the lesser known tropical delights that abound. My leaving gift for Adelight is a blender! Alex has one too now, a useful attribute for his guest house.
But, oh, I do look forward to getting away from salt and Royco, a cooking additive to which East Africans appear addicted. Its two main ingredients are corn starch and salt, with several additional E number chemicals and monosodium glutamate. It is used in quantity, and then large amounts of salt are added too. One night, Precious’ cooking found me with a headache, gulping from my bathhouse jerrycan in desperation. I’ve never liked salt: I don’t like the sour taste of it. Precious couldn’t believe that I moved from Yorkshire eleven years ago with the same two 500 gram canisters of salt that I have in the cupboard today; she buys at least a kilo of salt every couple of weeks. All I ever buy it for is deicing doorsteps, probably why it’s lasted unused for the ten winters I’ve spent in Africa… I also joked that I bought a five litre canister of rapeseed oil before the pandemic and still have two inches left in the pot. People here use that much oil in a couple of weeks. Every shopping list I undertake for Adelight has ‘cooking oil’ prominently requested, usually along with ‘Royco’. Everything is cooked in oil, even my green vegetables; no one’s heard of steaming with water, they kind of fry/ steam in quantities of oil, always adding tomato and onion to greens. How I look forward to some unadulterated vegetables, and to not eating meat until next time I am in Africa, where it’s invariably tough anyway, even though I know it’s fresh, as it walked past my table a few hours ago! For my last night in Kitale, I asked Adelight for a repeat of the best meal she made: handmade crispy chips with a fired egg on top! Of such is the comfort of familiarity…
I find another new murram (gravel) road home over the mountains from the heights of the Cheringani Hills, ten thousand feet above the distant seas. It’s cold: the wind chill causes me to put on my waterproof jacket, although the equatorial sun is high and hot. I pause for tea – my head-cold is still troubling me – at a shack ‘hotel’ in a remote village. It’s middle-aged owner, Milka, gives me a generous welcome and chats as I drink her sweet tea under the overhang of rusty tin that forms a verandah outside. “My house is along the road, where you see trees by the gate. I wish you could come home to my house! Next time, I will prepare you a meal!” People pass, watching the rare mzungu, greeting. Children peek from corners. Milka must have my ‘contact’ on her phone. She tries to refuse the 20 bob for my tea: I am her guest, but I insist: it’s her business. I promise to stop next time I am on this high, magnificent road. She gives me directions to find the new way to join the two tar roads over the mountainsides. Later, she phones to check I got home to Kitale safely.
Back in Kitale for the last time for now, I have little to occupy me for three or four days. I’m leaving the country in less than ten days. I’ve nothing much to do but enjoy the sun and recover from my head cold and take my afternoon walks. One day I go to town with Adelight and Maria, now school’s finished. We do some errands and I buy them lunch at the restaurant above the street again. But then Adelight’s going to the hair salon, and I know how long THAT can take, so I opt to walk home, shocking the ‘Pick-Me-There’ generation in her. She’s never walked the three and a half miles home. If she’s not driving, she’ll get a boda-boda… I walk by a longer route, using perhaps five miles; it’s humid and the sun’s strong, but I won’t stoop to a boda!
Adelight and I are comfortable friends, ‘brother’, she calls me, as William does, in the open African fashion of adoption. An intelligent woman, our victories are about equal at our Scrabble games in the evenings – in her second language, “Do you have such a word..?” My only criticism is the commonest one: ‘On the way coming…’ is the expression that sums up many – (I have to say this as it’s a fact) – African women’s attitude to time keeping. It adds so much stress to all appointments. It irritates Alex – and Rico – and William keeps himself free of the stress, living separately from his wife, “Eh, I want peace..!” I guess the attack by a criminal with a machete, when he was a senior police officer in Nairobi, that resulted in three months in hospital and the slight crookedness of his features, had a lasting influence on his attitude to the rest of his life, now spent quietly, and somewhat aimlessly in rural Kessup. Tomato and dairy farming will now supplement his obsession with following Manchester City on his pay TV, the only luxury in his simple lifestyle. William and Alex are now in contact by phone; they haven’t met yet, but they will appreciate the inherent ‘discipline’ in one another. It’d be fun to get all my three ‘families’ together sometime: maybe a project for another visit.
Then, fondly goodbye-ing Adelight early one morning, a week before I am due to leave Africa once again, I’m rolling south east, towards Nairobi. Well, ‘rolling’ implies a smooth, easy journey, while the reality is nine and a half hours in a battered old coach bumping and lurching over speed humps and broken main roads, the narrow carriageway shared by all manner of decrepit tractors and trailers, tuk-tuks, ancient lumbering trucks and donkey carts. But this is the way the majority of the world travels, and however bad it is, I can usually say I’ve known worse in my footloose, impecunious world travels. And I have nothing to do but sit and wait.
The schoolgirl next to me watches pop videos on her phone, image the size of a postage stamp, and listens to a wheezy, tinny speaker the size of a pinhead. Kids this age don’t seem to engage with the world around them any more: the passing country, me, let alone read a book. I’ve not seen a book in any hands but my own for eleven weeks, only phones. Thumbs clicking; attention spans just above zero. It disappoints me that she’s given way to this exploitation, but I expect every generation complains thus of the younger ones; I must accept that it’s the way it is. An overweight matron in front of me manages to gossip for three and a half hours – solid – on her phone (good battery!); a three year old across the aisle has her own phone to watch cartoons – passively – imagination processed by others, endlessly manipulative, insidious materialist messages beamed in squeaky, petulant American accents by uncaring, greedy corporations to people who have so little cash to spare. The way it is… Most of the rest just doze or fall asleep, a fact I envy so much in Africans. But the ride is easy, given the bodily discomfort. I’m just glad I’m not at the wheel.
Nairobi projects its environs at last; traffic builds and at last we are shuffling forward through jams and roadworks as the debt to China spirals. Detours over unmade ground that will soon turn to mud shake us as we lurch forward, feet at a time. The final 100 yards is the slowest of the entire 240 miles: entry to a crowded, chaotic bus depot in busy downtown. How the drivers contort large buses and matatus around each other is a wonder. There are people everywhere, carrying sacks and bags, jostling and drifting aimlessly, taxi men vying for business, idlers just watching. It’s six in the evening; the city is hot, full and dusty dry. The first taxi-wallah suggests a ridiculous sum that I reduce to only half before he walks away. It should be one sixth his fare, so I can’t be bothered: I’ll walk! I’ve been sitting for over nine hours and my bags aren’t heavy – the usual light travelling. It’s a twenty minute – rather hot – walk.
It’s unbelievably crowded in the streets at this hour. Battered rainbow buses are racing to distant suburbs, slums and residential areas, packed with sweating workers and traders. Boda-boda bikes ride on the already broken pavements to get ahead. Half the population walks along, eyes on phones rather than where they are going. They bash me and look offended, as if it’s my fault. I find a quieter street, in this city that makes little or no provision for its legions of pedestrians, giving preference to the bully-boy, inflated, glossy, bull-barred, 4X4s of the ‘successful’ Big Men. It’s bedlam and anarchy, in a city mainly planned in the past sixty years since Independence, with no concept of the demands of new cities of the future. Hot and dry, I am relieved to reach the old, faded colonial green gardens of the Kenya Club once again. I’m recognised here now and my room is cool and balconied, albeit a bit old fashioned. But it’s mine for a couple of nights and I can enjoy the relative anonymity of the place, for I – who spends a good deal of time in my own company – have been in constant closeness these past eleven weeks: in the heart of the Kitale and Sipi families or with William. I’m not ungrateful for the close friendships, indeed, I revel in them, but just sometimes to be amongst strangers, even though no mzungu disappears even in the capital city, is a small relief. But even in the garden bar as I relish my evening beer in calm darkness, a gentleman must come to greet me and welcome me to this old relic of colonial history: the ‘Club’, a nostalgic comfort to his generation in the chaos of this African capital. I order an approximation of spaghetti carbonara: it’s time for comfort food again tonight…
100 years ago, trains criss-crossed Africa: they were giant feats of colonial engineering, opening up the continent from the coastal ports. The majority of lines have long since rusted to obscurity. I remember the crumbling railway museum in Harare, Zimbabwe, where Gordon, an enthusiast left from the days of white rule, was living out his pensionable years curating the heaps of rust and dust and piles of antique yellowing papers, tickets, dockets, manifests and fading artefacts. Nowadays to ride a train in Africa is exotic – or so one would think; there are so few lines left and almost none restored, bridges have fallen, lines been pulled up for ‘recycling’ by local people; there’s little evidence left. Main stations, like that of Accra, have become markets with shacks straddling what’s left of the lines, ankle-twisters in heavy steel amongst quaint, peeling architectural gems. But now we have the Chinese; and Africa has their debts to that uncaring country, but one thing the Chinese do know about is railways. My ride from Nairobi to Mombasa on the Chinese train had many overtones of my travels in China in the communist 1980s. The same militaristic uniforms, faceless staff, constant mopping of the floors by uniformed cleaners, even the same piteously uncompromising seats in which to wriggle and twist for six uncomfortable hours.
This line between the coast and Nairobi – so far: there are plans to extend it upcountry – is the first to reopen. The trouble is, it’s as inconvenient as air travel: the vast new stations are WAY outside the cities! The whole joy of railways was that they took you to the heart of places. This one starts half an hour’s taxi ride out of Nairobi, beyond even the international airport. At the Mombasa terminus, you must get transport five miles or more into the city. My before-dawn taxi from the old Club cost me twice my rail fare to Mombasa!
I’d entertained the idea of exoticism and an edifying touristic ride through African savannah as we descended from Nairobi’s heights to the Arabic-influenced white towns of the Indian Ocean coast…
It wasn’t quite like that. Babies screamed and wailed; the windows were grubby and hardly up to game-watching as the line passes through extensive national parks, as vaunted on the railway’s advertising pitch; there’s no choice of seating; the bureaucracy is stifling, militaristic and officious, with heavier security than at the international airport: out of the taxi while police lift the seats, open the pockets, check the boot; a pat down by unsmiling police at the station entrance; bags sniffed by dogs while their owners stand in a regimented line back from them watched by unfriendly police who bark commands as if we were criminals in an identification parade; bags through a scanner; a complex ticket machine (you can’t pay online or with cards or cash, only with Kenyan mobile money apps); ticket check; passport check; another baggage scanner; another pat down, and finally another ticket check. Once on board, the instructions are firm and pernickety: everyone must conform in this atmosphere of suspicion and officiousness. It could be China.
The woman next to me plonked her bag on the table obscuring my view, then she watched YouTube videos for four hours. The toddler opposite fought with his brother, hit his uncaring and uncontrolling mother and wailed and moaned, kicked my knees repeatedly and thankfully left after three hours: the archetypal spoiled African small boy brat.
Maybe I should have taken First Class, but I like equality and thought it’d be friendlier in Economy. No one addressed a word or look at me in six hours. It was a Ryanair experience of African train travel. Quadrophonic babies shrieked as the temperature steadily rose outside, from Nairobi’s 5000 foot pre-dawn 20C, to Mombasa’s 40 degrees Celsius at 2.00pm..! 104 Fahrenheit. Assaulted from all angles by squawking phone speakers and argumentative American cartoons in squeaky high-pitched slang, the earplugs provided welcome relief by hour three, and I retreated into my own world as far as the conditions allowed; hot, flat savannah country rolling by the cloudy windows under a huge sun-beaten sky.
The light is different in Mombasa, after the highland towns. To the east spreads a vast ocean; it’s a city of the sea and spices of the East, filled with Arabic and Asian influence; faces are thinner and paler; the buildings have an exotic eastern look; most are painted white; many have the minarets and domes of Islam and Hinduism; the scents are different; the very breeze smells of another air from the inland higher lands. People move loosely, are of different genetic stock. The streets are filled with tuk-tuks; fruit is piled at pavement stalls, coconuts and bananas. I can walk on pavements – crowded and superheated, but planned cohesively along the wide main avenues. It’s a surprisingly attractive place. I’d forgotten that. I visited briefly, 20 years ago, more concerned with my onward journey than experiencing with my senses the novelty around me.
The matatu conductor from the train terminus, way out of town, taps me on the shoulder; I’m bent into the front seat next to a crazed driver. “You must get down here, we turn at the next street…” he tells me in a friendly manner; he’s been quizzing me about that last journey of mine, all the way from Cape Town by motorbike. “You can get a tuk-tuk.” So much for telling the touts at the enormous, arrogant ‘Mombasa Terminus’ station that I wanted to head for the city centre… So I get out and start to walk. It’s 40 degrees, but there’s an odd ocean freshness to the air, despite the intensity of the light and sun. There’s that intangible sense that the sea is somewhere nearby. I’m on a small island surrounded by channels, and out there the open sea stretches half way across the world. I’ve a quiet smile that belies my extreme discomforts. I walk.
I find my way to the centre of the city, to it’s best known landmark, two pairs of sheet steel tusks that arch over one of the main avenues beside the small Uhuru (‘freedom’) gardens. The tusks were put here for the Queen’s state visit back in the early 1950s, that time she acceded to the throne while she was in Kenya. None of us had TVs for the subsequent Coronation, and I had quarantined chicken pox and a picnic the day she became Queen.
The tourist office is on a corner here, a cheerful woman but not much information and just a map of the historic part of the city that I tear from a bigger map of the country. Tourism hasn’t happened for two years. She points to a hotel two hundred yards off that she reckons will be ‘pocket friendly’. I drip into reception, take a fan room (I abhor air-con, whatever the climate) and soon strip off – well, peel off – my sweat-heavy clothes and stand under a cold shower; then I drape the room with washing under the fan. I’ve travelled very light down here (why the heck did I bring my thin jumper? The invariable habit of the British, I guess).
Then I text Maureen and lie beneath the swirling fan to get back my energy.
Next moment the peace shatters with that God-bothering moan to the skies, “aaaLLLLAAAAHHHH AKbar! AAAALLLLAAAAHHHH AKbar!” I’ve picked a hotel across the road from a mosque again! Earplugs at 5.00am… Amplification: the worst invention for Islam.
My respect for my White African Brother, Rico, grows with every ‘Rico Girl’ I get to know. He may be irascible and impatient at times (sorry, chum!) – but the legacy he is leaving behind here in Africa – one I try to emulate in my own way – is impressive indeed. In the 35 years since we discovered this wonderful continent and its human treasures, he has committed much of his life, and the comforts he could have enjoyed, to the informal adoption of waifs and strays, (almost all girls: there were a couple of boys, but that didn’t turn out very well, here where boys resent any control), the neglected or orphaned children of members of his first Turkana wife’s extended family, some orphans who just happened along, and later the two junior sisters of Adelight. Ten or twelve if them altogether, a more delightful group of young women I know not anywhere in the world. It’s my privilege to be their ‘uncle’. I’m proud of them too. And even prouder of the way they accept me as a friend.
Maureen talks so proudly of her ‘Dad’ as she forges her own way into a world that’s difficult for young African women. She’s animated, curious, very smart and very determined. “Well, it’s what Dad taught us: independence… I want him to be proud of me.” These girls recognise the love and commitment he’s given them. She’s pretty, cheerful and exudes her confident maturity. She is delightful. We walk to a restaurant that pounds with music that would normally irritate the hell out of me, but somehow, in this lively, curious company I’m relaxed as we talk (shout) and find out about one another, for we’ve only met once, quite briefly, since she was five years old. Now she’s 26, quietly ambitious, surprisingly world-wise, very determined and admirably independently-spirited for a young African woman. I get the feeling she knows where she’s going and she won’t be cowed on the way there. There’s a toughness beneath the pretty, feminine exterior. She’s already quietly breaking convention, a Turkana woman from unprivileged roots, given a chance in life that she’s grabbed with open eyes and both hands. We talk – in that noisy outside bar and club – and eat extravagant king prawns in coconut and tamarind sauce, with a couple of drinks. She tells me of her junior brother, whom she brought from Turkana, where he was becoming wayward and rebellious, to mentor him here in Mombasa. Derek’s 18, and she is proud that yesterday he completed his school exams, something of which she has dreamed. Now he must decide on senior school or technical school. I can hear the pride in her voice on his behalf, a generous spirit that has probably changed the life of another young person with few privileges beyond a determined sister.
Next day, she has classes until two in the afternoon, then she invites me to visit her home, a rented room in a crowded part of this crowded city. I must take a matatu and instruct the conductor to drop me at Buxton. It weaves through the craziest traffic. “Buxton!” The conductor taps my shoulder, and I alight into the chaos, but good as her word, Maureen’s bright smile lights the unruly crowd. She’s waiting with her friend Ken. We hire a tuk-tuk and clatter to her district.
Maureen is studying journalism, with particular interest in video and photography, as is Ken. She has a project to complete this weekend for term exams: she must create a 20 minute discussion programme and write justifications for her choices and organisation. She has a minimal three days, no equipment beyond her phone – and the power’s off at home – has been for a week now as the landlord hasn’t paid the bill. We discuss the work. What will be her subject? She suggests talking with me about my African travels, but I point out that the test paper states ‘discussion’: it needs someone else to argue with. At last, we decide on the subject of the extended family, the thing that perhaps I admire most in Africa life. Is it a good thing? Is it being lost? Will it survive? What are its benefits? We have Ken, Derek and me to discuss and Maureen to host. We talk for half an hour to her phone camera, hoping the battery holds out. Children scream outside the 12 foot square rented room she’s made home. It’s hot, baked beneath the Mombasa sun, there’s no electricity: no fan. But it’s a good subject, we agree. Derek favours the nuclear option; I admire the old ways; Ken is a bit ambivalent: he was a late birth in a huge family and most of his brothers are older than uncles, but he appreciates the wisdom of the uncles and grandparents who were around as he grew up. Maureen of course, comes from one of the most ‘extended’ families in this part of the world: the Rico Girls, adopted for various reasons and several tribes.
We are done. I’ve suggested we have a celebratory supper at some place they’d like to enjoy. We cram into a tuk-tuk and rattle to a very fancy restaurant overlooking one of the channels around this intriguing island city.
It’s my role, and my pleasure, to be the visiting uncle this week, providing unusually rich meals in nice restaurants way beyond the budgetary dreams if these young women – to them and their charming close friends. Not the sort of places I usually choose either, so it’s enjoyable for me to be host, and here in East Africa even the smartest meals cost half those at home. Ken is another mature, wise, decent young man. It’s such fun, when you get to this ‘third age’ in life, to make young friends; one of the major joys of my African travels. They are respectful, warm-hearted and charming. “We’ll celebrate Derek’s achievement,” I say, to Maureen’s smile. The three modestly choose a cheaper pasta meal with a respect that amuses me and reminds me of my own youthful timidity. “Oh,” says Maureen, a little crestfallen, “I thought it’d be bigger for that money!” But although the dish is small, the food is much richer than that to which she is used. “Hey, I’m feeling full!” she declares half way through, with a happy smile.
Late in the evening, they put me in a tuk-tuk back to my hotel. Trouble is, I ate a whole fish in delicious sauces. It was excellent but almost as I finished eating, a fishbone sank itself into my gum behind a front tooth! By morning it’ll be agony. I can see it in the mirror with my torch, but no one has tweezers. I visit a couple of late night chemists. No tweezers. So I have to find a nearby private hospital clinic, happily open 24 hours, and it costs me £7.50 to have the laughing doctor dig about and eventually remove it. The fish was already quite expensive, now it’s reached smart European prices!
At breakfast, a text pings in from Maureen: ‘we are coming to pick you up at tusks.’ Tusks are those double arched steel tusks that span a main avenue, built for the state visit of Princess Elizabeth. Maureen, Ken and Derek want to host their uncle again to a meander around the Old City and along the shores of the sapphire ocean, where the breeze brings me relief at last. We have extravagant coffees by the waterside and suck the water from coconuts – one of the flavours of the Tropics, and eat boiled potatoes coated in fried batter and served with vinegar, a local speciality, they tell me, as we sit at a broken wooden stall by the ferry I crossed twenty years ago when I rode from Cape Town.
I like Mombasa! I’ve been just the once before, briefly, two decades ago. I flew my African Elephant and myself home from here in 2002. Now, I find its calm atmosphere attractive. I like the bright white light, the sweaty heat and the calmness that seems inherent in this intriguing small island city. Its run-down decrepitude gives it an air of interesting authenticity for such a tourist city. It’s a working city, a port, a melting pot of cultural identities. The Old Town, with its history of seafaring and trade across the seas with Arabia and the East, is colourful, crowded together with no discernible plan, surprisingly quiet and astonishingly hassle-free. I’m suffered to wander with little more than a friendly “Jambo!” for my whiteness. Why, I get hassled more in Kitale than in this, one of Africa’s major tourist destinations. Mind you, I do do my best to blend in: I wear long trousers in this largely Muslim town, a short sleeved shirt instead of tee shirt, keep my camera in my shoulder bag, and carry a local newspaper prominently (tourists don’t tend to read local papers, so I let people believe I live in Kenya “Oh, I’m more used to the climate in Kitale!”). So-called ‘guides’ are easily shrugged off with a wave of my paper.
My young guides (Ken has lived here all his life, although most of his family except his mother, are still in far western Kenya) are familiar with the city and its mind-bending layout. We jump in and out of tuk-tuks: they wouldn’t usually be so profligate, but they want me to be entertained. The traffic’s remarkably disciplined and these tuk-tuks that plague other Kenyan towns with their small, smelly engines and slow speeds, are here quiet and well behaved, a sensible alternative to the irritating, badly ridden boda-bodas, a rarer vehicle here. The wail from mosques deafens, this Friday morning. Moslem women are enveloped in shrouds, many visible by no more than half an inch that contains two blank dark eyes. There are smells and flavours of Arabia, the Middle East and Asia that remind me of my impecunious early travels and lead inevitably to thoughts of the energetic young man who wanted to find out how the world worked. It was a different, unconnected world then, much bigger. It has shrunk with all our technology, there aren’t many mysteries left. But it also gets paradoxically BIGGER, because the more I SEE of it, the more I understand how much there is still to explore. Now I have to begin to accept that I won’t see a great deal more of it; I must make do with what I’ve already witnessed. My curiosity is undimmed, my energy is still pretty much there, my body willing, but time’s running out! That’s life, I guess…
Maureen and Derek cross a hectic street to find coconuts. Ken and I stand in the shade of a twisted iron market building, cages of chickens piled high, smelly, shit-filled, behind us. I’m a mzungu, visible by the special radar Africans have. Men and women try to sell me pop, nuts, fabrics, sugary sweets, endless polluting bottled water, snacks – everything they can carry and maybe sell, that makes a difference between food for the family, basic school fees for big families, medical help in emergency, booze to forget, secondhand clothes to wear – all that or poverty. Tuk-tuk drivers pester for a fare, beggars wheedle – there seem to be a lot in this Moslem city, richer pickings maybe, thanks to the Islamic belief that you are obliged to give away a small percentage of your income? I watch the colourful, crazy parade past our busy corner as we wait for the coconut water.
Then a little comedy act plays out. A woman, shrouded from head to foot in black – even her hands are gloved in black – is joking animatedly about the mzungu. Ken is laughing; I have no idea what’s going on, except that this bag of blackness, in which I can see just two lively eyes of completely indeterminate age, beauty or otherwise, character or even bulk, wants me for a husband. It’s a real performance that’s gathering a crowd of laughing spectators. If I have a wife already, she’ll turn her into a turtle to get me, she threatens! It’s extraordinary: this completely invisible woman, whom of course I see as downtrodden by a culture mainly controlled by men, has a wide humour and extrovert character. How can it be? There’s a skilled comedienne under all that hideous black cotton. She’s undoubtedly smiling and laughing, but it’s all invisible! She may be a ragged harridan for all I can tell, or an international beauty, come to that. Maybe she’s a toothless, fat, aged hag? Or a sophisticated business woman? A grandmother or middle aged? The only thing I can tell for sure is that she’s not cross-eyed. All that’s visible is two deep black eyes and the ridge of a brown nose. Nothing else! But it’s good to break my rather stereotypical prejudice of these Moslem women, downtrodden and hidden, subservient and controlled. Zinah, who writes her phone number on the top of a page in a notebook, tears it off and hands it to me, has an extravagant sense of humour that belies all My preconceptions of her lifestyle. The crowd laughs; I laugh – and at last she flounces off with big waves, into the chaos around us like a billowing flag of black fabric, anonymous but for her spirit.
Marion texts me not to arrive before four in Voi, where she’s studying tourism. ’I have classes and I can’t miss my lesson Hahahaha!!’ So we wander along the blue shoreline. I’m getting badly beetroot on my face and head; it’s sore, I didn’t bring a cap in my light-travel obsession. I thought my skin was tough after almost twelve weeks. But Mombasa sun is of a new intensity. My young friends guide me to a city centre matatu stand, negotiate with hustling conductors and wait until I pull out of Mombasa, waving me away with engaging respect and generational ease that I admire so much in educated African youth. They are charming, smart and attractive.
Perhaps on my next trip, I must persevere with that appalling road that so frightened me last year that I retreated defeated to the highlands. There’s only the one road I can take. It didn’t look that dangerous from the train..!
But it does from behind the mad driver of one of those matatus as I ride to Voi…
In Voi, it’s the turn of Marion. She’s Adelight’s junior sister, brought up by Rico since teenage years as a sort of dowry agreement with their mother. Now she’s away at college, here in burning Voi, a regional town surrounded by the vast Tsavo National Park, 150 kilometres back towards Nairobi. We meet at the busy matatu stage. She’s with her closest college friend, Esther, a slim, quiet young woman from Eldoret. Voi doesn’t look to have much attraction: just another hot, dusty Kenyan town like a thousand others. We walk to a nearby hotel where I check in to a tiled, hard-surfaced room and I suggest we head out for a drink and supper at some place they’d like to try but is beyond their means. That includes everywhere, of course, but they select a large ‘resort’, a sort of giant motel on the highway a few kilometres from town. We pick a couple of boda-bodas and go to sit by the swimming pool and eat more fish.
Marion’s grown up so much, these past two years. “Oh,” she says, “I wanted to go away to college, somewhere far. I know that’s important for my independence. Mum and Dad wanted to keep me near Kitale, but I needed to learn to live on my own.” She’s gained confidence and lost her timidity. She’s aware and wise to the pitfalls already. She’d like travel agency work when she completes her studies. “Maybe some personal guiding – but not big wild animals!” she laughs. She’ll be a good companion. She too has found her sense of humour and is a cheerful, engaging young person. I’ve come to really enjoy her company this year. She talks happily of our trip to Mount Elgon at New Year, and our visit to Sipi two years ago. Her entrepreneurial ambition in the short term is to trade in secondhand fashions amongst her fellow students, buying and selling mtumba clothes to support herself here in Voi. A small gift from Uncle J should kickstart that venture.
Next morning – I’ve only two more nights in East Africa this year – I take the train back to Nairobi, a four hour ride. I treat myself to 1st Class this time. It’s only £15 and it’s comfortable, peaceful and I’m not kicked by fighting toddlers or entertained by numerous tweety phone speakers. It feels very civilised. And it’s my final journey in Kenya this year.
Marion phones to check I’ve set off from Voi and I pick up an email from Maureen in Mombasa:
‘Am so thankful for the time and money you spent with us. You left us with a lot of positive emotions and energy. Personally, it’s like you have infected me with the smiling virus you impact on your journeys, I must confess, I am smiling yet again, I mean it literally. I am laughing and smiling from my heart with all I interact with. Thank you so much.’
How could anyone fail to connect with such honesty and generosity of spirit?
I meet Scovia in the hot sunshine outside the station in Nairobi. The journey back up’s been calmly comfortable in 1st Class. How my travels have changed! An unknown decadence at odds with all those rugged earlier journeys. But here I am, two days left, and it looks like I’ll be in America within two or three weeks, engaged on another museum project, so why not indulge the £15?
I stay with Scovia and her fiancee, Webb, and his bright young sister, Ivy, in their rented flat an hour – or more – from the city centre by bumping, contorting matatu and battered bus. Scovia and Ivy do this journey in and out every day of the week, sometimes over two hours in dense traffic, like most Niarobians. I’d be driven mad, but this is city life for millions on the continent. Thank god for Harberton, waiting in two days.
On Sunday, I get a PCR test at Nairobi West Hospital, the same place as last year. It’s well organised but tedious, although on Sunday it’s quiet. I’m still not certain I need the £30 test: instructions from KLM in an email this morning say I don’t need anything but vaccination for Britain; the KLM website though is ambiguous about my transfer in Schipol on Tuesday; and Kenya Airways, who handles by their partner KLM locally, say I need a test. Well, rather a £30 test than refusal to board my plane. A tax on my holiday travels.
So, effectively, as I sit here in hot sunny Nairobi, another safari in Africa is over. In total, I’ve spent almost five years touring this fascinating continent in 35 trips. It’s been a huge influence in my life, an obsession even, that has guided my opinions, beliefs and behaviour for 35 years.
This journey’s been rather slow and relaxed, less riding – only about fourteen hundred miles. I’ve consolidated ties with my families, worked on the development of Rock Gardens and walked a great deal, getting so much more depth in my understanding of the landscapes and peoples. I’ve given away considerably more money than my trip has cost this year, with the pleasure that comes with giving – and seeing recipients wisely use the gifts for their families and their futures.
A woman, about 40 in a glitzy black Sunday hat and smart dress, walks past the coffee shop where I am sitting in the shade on a low balcony, writing these paragraphs. She’s staring openly at the mzungu. I make eye contact and give her a big smile. She doesn’t look away. She smiles back, happily unembarrassed, gives me a jaunty wave and walks on.
It means nothing but ‘welcome!’. A momentary incident among millions that illustrates why I continue to love Africa so much.