EAST AFRICAN SAFARI 2017

    DAY 1. FRIDAY DECEMBER 9th. UTRECHT, NETHERLANDS

I went to sleep last night; effectively day one of this safari (a Swahili word meaning ‘journey’, not exclusively an animal tour), with the thought: ‘how lucky I am’, even though I firmly believe you make your own luck.

Now I am ten kilometres high once again, apparently rather a common feature of my life these past ten years. At present I am far above the deserts of Sudan, after a magnificent flight south over the clear-etched mountains of what used, linguistically conveniently, to be called Yugoslavia and out over the scattered Greek Isles, adrift on a sparklingly blue winter sea, mountaintops dusted here and there with thin snow, small villages scattered as if thrown across semi-vertical rocky slopes bathed by lustrous, low-angled December light. Then came Africa and my spirits soared yet again. This has all become so much part of my life that I have approached this journey as just another chapter, with as little real emotion or anticipation as just turning another page. Sometimes I feel I cheat myself (let alone those around me who imagine these trips as ‘adventures’ tinged with the ‘romance’ and ‘excitement’ of travel) by my calm acceptance that… well, I’m off again… This is my 28th time of being on this utterly fascinating continent.

The reason for my optimistic thoughts before sleep is that perhaps the major delight and gift of all my travelling life has been to make so many friends in so many places. My address book has always read more like an atlas than is common. I have been good at keeping in touch with many people, in some way my family. So it was that I was pondering my fortune at 1.30am in bed beside a canal (“If you need to pee, just open the window”!) in central Holland. Liesbeth is one of the most delightful women I ever met. Just being in her cheerful, warm presence brings a smile to my face. It always has, although we meet quite infrequently. I’ve often written that were I offered three weeks of my life to live again, I would choose the last three weeks of January 1987, for those were the most enjoyable, astonishing, fulfilling weeks of my now almost eleven years of footloose travelling. It was at a dusty, cheap ‘hotel’, the last in Morocco, that I pulled up on my old African Elephant, then only a five year old motorbike, one evening as the sun sank into the desert sand. “Would you like some soup?” asked a pretty, fresh-faced 23 year old Dutch nurse, tending a camping stove on the wing of an ancient cream-painted Land Rover. I needed company that night; I’d spoken with no one for a couple of days. That cup of packet soup was my introduction to Liesbeth, the start of three of my most valued friendships, and the moment at which began the best three weeks I have lived.

From Figiug Liesbeth, Marti, her then boyfriend, and Rico, an older Dutchman about my age, travelled for several unforgettable weeks across the spectacular Sahara Desert to West Africa, they in their much restored old Land Rover and me on my old friend, The Elephant. We slept on the sand beneath the glittering, countless stars of the desert for magical days on end – and that WAS ‘romance’ and ‘adventure’! Because of what we shared on that journey we have, all four, remained fond friends for almost thirty years. Any trip through Holland I try to make into an excuse to see Marti or Liesbeth – both married to others now, with delightful families of their own. And, of course, tomorrow I shall be with Rico once again, my White African Brother, as we always sign ourselves in letters and emails, for Rico and I were fundamentally changed by that first trip on African soil. I discovered an obsession and found influences that have directed my life and thought for thirty years – an extended family in Ghana, a ‘son’ and ‘brothers’ – and Rico has lived and worked in Africa almost since that day. For us both, January 1987 was a turning point.

Liesbeth is now married a second time to Bert and they have bought a wonderfully quirky home, floating on a wide Dutch canal on the northern outskirts of Utrecht. Beside the canal there’s a yard with various outbuildings forming bedrooms, studios, workshops and a big living room. The boat/ pontoon itself supports a charming 4X20 metre home filled with windows looking over what appears to be a rather timeless Dutch canal town scene, but is actually a well designed modern village development (British architects could take many lessons from modern Dutch town planning…). I met Bert two years ago at Marti’s 50th birthday party – for Lies and Marti remain close friends – but we didn’t get much chance to do more than chat smalltalk. This evening, arriving by train from Schipol airport, half an hour up the line, we talked and drank beer at the table, the lights of Utrecht mirrored, winking in the waters of the canal outside, lovely Liesbeth still making me smile! Oh, what a joy to have delightful friends – and the added prize of like-minded folk who relish the eccentricities of life – and choose to live on a canal (as, of course, I did myself for several years!).

Marti and his wife Marthe are having a weekend on one of the Dutch islands or I know we’d have all got together somehow, with the 30th anniversary of that evening in Figiug only a month away. Then Lies was 23, Marti 24, Rico 38 and I was 37. Now two of us are approaching 70, the other two in their 50s! Yet I can remember the atmosphere, if not all the details, of those weeks as if they were yesterday and, wonderfully, we all remember different things when we meet!

A joyful reunion!

Shortly, I’ll be in Nairobi at the start of another journey. I have no plans but to go as the will and whim direct me for the next 90 days. I wondered about buying a guide book, but decided not to break with tradition! I will just meet whom I meet, find out as I go along and see what happens.

    DAY 2. SATURDAY DECEMBER 10th. NAIROBI, KENYA

Karibu Africa!

Karibu, the word for welcome in Swahili. And here I am in Africa just nine months after I last left, flying, coincidentally, through Nairobi where I am tonight. Instantly I am back in the warmth – literal and metaphoric – of Africa. Filled with smiling welcomes and gentle-voiced people, this is Kenya, a country I have visited on two previous occasions; a country of relatively good infrastructure, many and various scenic beauties and generally kindly, friendly people. My memories of Kenyan travels are pretty good, having motorbiked a lot of the country in 2001 on a borrowed bike and again in 2002 with my own Elephant at the end of a trip from the southernmost bits of the continent to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

I’d arranged a pick up at the airport and inexpensive lodgings for tonight. Thus has my travelling style changed. Three weeks ago I applied for my East African visa, one that covers Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, allowing me to come and go between those countries. But the visa is valid from the date of issue and Charles at the High Commission in London was good enough to note that it would run out during my trip and told me I must apply at the airport. Surprisingly, this was quite an efficient process, taking not much more than twenty minutes, about half the time it took to wait for my bag at the baggage belt, reminding me just why I always travel so light… But this time I am carrying helmet, waterproofs, motocross boots, new pannier bags and all that I am likely to need for my forthcoming journey.

Of course you know, I travel to meet people. Enock, was the first of those on this journey, a charming, slim, neat man of forty who has risen, he told me bluntly, from the slums to own a pleasant apartment on the second floor of a new high rise block not far from the Jomo Kenyatta airport and now rents rooms to relatively impecunious tourists through the internet. His wife, upon whom he settles all the gifts of his ‘rise from the slums’ has a scholarship to do a PhD in Germany in biosciences, specialising in water conservation in the Rift Valley. Enock grew up in Kitale in western Kenya, went to secondary school in Kakumega, a few miles away, and migrated, as do so many, to look for construction work in Nairobi.

“There I ended up in the slums; there was no work. I’m 40 years old and have never been able to find work. I travelled to the Gulf but even there they wanted so much corruption money that I had to come back to the slums, where I couldn’t even pay my rent. In the slums!” It’s a story the like of which could be repeated by a large percentage of the people around me or indeed anywhere in Africa.

“But I was very fortunate,” continued Enock, standing in his somewhat untidy kitchen area surrounded by unwashed dishes – which may be, as much as anything, an economy measure, hot water using energy. Or it might, of course, have been no more than laziness! “I met my wife at church. Most of the young women, they wouldn’t consider me because I couldn’t offer them any support; I was unemployed. But I was lucky! Now,” he said with a small wave of his hand at the simple apartment around us; just a couple of rentable rooms with tidy, mosquito-netted double beds, a locally made wardrobe each, a couple of mats, the like of which I have seen in every cheap African furniture store, and two simple tiled bathrooms, “now I can support us with letting out rooms. I meet nice people from all over the world. There are two Australians in the other room tonight. They will leave at 3.00am; they are on a bicycle tour.”

So Enock is now self-supporting in this difficult economy in our so unequal world. He has pride and self respect again, an educated wife and a place to live – and diverse people with whom to converse. “You must ride your motorbike to Mfangano Island! My father and my grandmother live there. Not many people go there. You must take your motorbike. You will like it! They only put a road around it a couple of years ago.” Enock’s voice was soft, his manner polite and gentle; a good man to be welcoming guests for their first night in his country.

And once again, I get the best information by talking to local people, not by reading a guide book that will send me where all the other tourists go.

DAY 3. SUNDAY DECEMBER 11th. KITALE, KENYA

    The night was too short and it seemed I was soon up again, eating a simple breakfast of toast and scrambled egg with Enock as my old pal Rico rang for directions to the “tall cream-coloured ‘storey building’,” as all African high rises are called. By soon after eight we were on the road in Rico’s old Land Cruiser towards Kitale, high in western Kenya.

    We haven’t met for quite some years, Rico and I. But as with all true friendships, we take up where we left off. Riding along with us was Cor, Rico’s friend and colleague, a fellow Dutchman who has lived all over the world (even not far from Navrongo) and is building a home on the plot next to Rico and Adelight’s in Kitale.

    It’s a long road up from Nairobi, itself sitting at almost 5000 feet above sea level. But on the road to the west, the congested ONLY main road through Kenya to Uganda and Rwanda; reckoned one of the most dangerous in the world, we drive up as high as 9100 feet, where the Equator sits amongst pines and eucalyptus in a green world that doesn’t look like Africa, apart from the ubiquitous red African soil. There are wonderful vistas from this road west, when you are able to take your eyes off congested, crawling traffic, extraordinarily laden small motorbikes creeping past on the inside, one carrying a full, padded settee; another a three piece suite; another a six foot high pile of sacks and crates; another four men squeezed together, the hind one balanced atop a bulging sack of potatoes; and yet another with seven or eight 4X4 timbers dangerously balanced, projecting six feet either side of his small motorbike on that crowded, jostling road.

    It’s about 250 miles from Nairobi up to Kitale, a journey that takes a little under nine hours, less than 30mph. Kenya is the land of speed bumps, completely unmarked sharp humps that probably cause more accidents than they prevent. Only yesterday, near Naivasha, a petrol tanker – with which this main road from the ports of Mombasa to the land-locked countries to the west is crowded – ran out of control, probably from hitting a sharp speed bump too fast. The tanker ran head-on into traffic-jammed cars and exploded. So far – ‘so far’ – almost fifty people have been killed by the conflagration, most of them at the site, now crowded with a thousand spectators, parked cars and motorbikes, along with policemen, TV cameras and the grey, stripped skeletons of cars and minibuses. Africans love a drama. It’s a road to avoid if possible, although the choices are limited. I remember riding for days to avoid that main road fifteen years ago.

    We made a brief stop at the Equator, one of those obligatory things we do as tourists, well, one of those obligatory things I do as a tourist, for Rico and Cor have to pass reluctantly this way often.

    We reached home in Kitale about five in the afternoon. Kitale too is a high town, about 6200 feet above sea level, with pines and conifers. To the north stretch the huge deserts and to the south is bush country down to Lake Victoria – some of which I hope to ride in coming weeks when the little problem of finding me a motorbike has been achieved. For now, I am invited to stay here for Christmas and even New Year, with Rico and his wife Adelight and the numerous pretty girls who make up the household.

    I will describe Rico’s homestead over the next days; for now, I will restrict myself to the events of this cheerful day, on which, after brief introductions and dropping bags, we drove to the Kitale Club where many of the daughters of this house were involved in sports and partying for delightful Scovia, who celebrated her eighteenth birthday today.

    It’ll take me a while to remember the names of all these lovely young women and children, ranging from about five to twenty five. Rico’s house has been, for years, filled with girl-children, none of them biologically his own but all of them ‘adopted’ from various extended family members (some of his first wife, a Turkana woman called Anna, now deceased) and cared for and loved by Rico and his second Kenyan wife, Adelight with as much care and love as if they had been their own children. Two of the girls are Adelight’s direct junior sisters. It’s a typical facet if African life that I have come to admire so much in the last thirty years, this openness and generous love given to non-blood relatives. Perhaps I value more than anything that I have learned in Africa this spirit of the ‘extended family’. By this tolerant allegiance I found myself part of the Navrongo family, ‘adopted’ as genuinely as if it was a formal arrangement, into the family group as a son, brother and relative, despite my white skin, blue eyes and all the social and cultural barriers that would seem insuperable. Rico has taken in, educated and cared for at least a dozen girls in his African years, some of them now mothers themselves. Some of them have taken his name as their family name and all look to him as father and guardian. Adelight came into this family originally as a helper and carer for all the children while Rico was travelling and working. Later this capable, warm-hearted woman became his wife and is now accepted by all these delightful youngsters as their mother figure. There’s so much evident warmth and love in the family group. Blood relation doesn’t signify in this generous situation. Here is care and love enough, even if ‘real’ parents have died, deserted their offspring or merely disappeared. Responsibility for children is frequently taken very lightly in Africa, especially from irresponsible fathers who have their fun and leave. Women bear the brunt of most work, prejudice and poor treatment in Africa. If women were given status on this continent it would quickly change and improve socially and economically. But it’s taken many decades, even generations, for that situation to even change as little as it has in our well educated Western societies. How long will liberation and a voice for women take in Africa? Will it ever happen..?

    The Kitale Club is an anachronistic hangover from colonial days when, of course, it came into being, doubtless occupied by exclusive white settlers and land owners. Now it has probably 90% African membership, but some of the old mores and conventions persist in a bizarre ritual of white-coated barmen, members’ registers, dress etiquette and behaviour on the golf greens. Unchangeable, however, is the magnificent view across the eighteenth green and lush trees to Mount Elgon on the western Kenyan border twenty or thirty miles into the extravagant sunsets. With the incredible sloth and indifference of the servers, there’s plenty of time to gaze at the vividly arresting sunsets! Fifteen years ago, with Rico living a couple of hundred miles to the desert north, I was able to talk my way in as a guest a few times and enjoy the old colonial chalets with their aromatic wood fires and antique African furnishings – and the comforts of the quaintly old fashioned bars – for which I am still expected to don long trousers!

    Still, odd as it may be, the beer is cool, the views fine and the children happy and lively to enjoy bright, smart and very comely Scovia’s eighteenth birthday and their successes in the afternoon sports. A cheery family time. A fine time for me to meet the family in which I will stay for the forthcoming holiday season and, with Rico and Cor’s help, procure some wheels.

      DAY 4. MONDAY DECEMBER 12th to DAY 11 MONDAY DECEMBER 19th KITALE, KENYA

    This is a happy family and I am their house guest for a couple of weeks or even more. Rico recommences a three month contract for Medicine Sans Frontieres, Spain, in South Sudan on the 2nd or 3rd of January and I want to be on my way by then, with perhaps a few side trips before. For now though, I shall settle into the welcome of these kind people and all the smiling girls of the household.

    Rico and Adelight’s house is a mile or so from town, down a bumpy lane a hundred peaceful yards back from the main road. Here Adelight has overseen and project managed the construction of a decent bungalow and planted a trim, tidy green garden around it. Rico has a large, well equipped garage, bigger than the house itself, in the compound. He has always earned his sometimes precarious living by being an inventive mechanic. There’s a sizeable vegetable patch and a large run for chickens – with the inevitable bloody African cockerel!

    It’s not easy to feed and look after so many children and young women. Food is not cheap in Kenya, by my brief observation at the supermarket with Adelight. However, I am impressed by the lack of competition, indeed the strong sense of cooperation, that exists amongst all the girls; the way they care for one another and older girls care for the youngsters. As I so often observe in Africa, they are grateful for what they have rather than regretting what they cannot have. It’s this unique positivity that keeps me returning to the continent, aspirations so unlike ours in the – so called – ‘developed’ world. Desires are generally kept simple, within range; diet is as good as can be achieved with what’s available; fashion dictated by affordability and access. Here in the house is a great sense of mutual respect and help. The girls share responsibilities and cook and clean apparently happily, glad for the situation in which they live and prepared for hardship and privation when required. Life for Africans is a hand to mouth existence, made more bearable by mutual support, fostered by the extended family system.

    While Rico and Cor were away in Nairobi, capable Adelight and some of the girls prepared a sleeping place for me. They cleaned up Rico’s garage office, put in ceiling panels, tiled the floor and painted the room for me. Then they put in a large spare bedstead and made it very comfortable for such an adaptable traveller. It’s more peaceful than a house filled with youngsters, and anyway, Cor has the spare room already. I am happy with my independent accommodation!

    On Tuesday Cor and Rico showed me pictures of a possibly suitable motorbike they had seen in Nairobi, and while it may not be my ultimate choice, I too am African enough to be pragmatic. It’s within budget, even if it’s about four or five times what I might expect to pay in Europe for the same machine. We phoned the seller, who promises a bit of work done before he sends the bike to us – for I have no desire to travel all the way back to Nairobi by bus, spend a couple of nights there and return by bike when we can have it sent by truck for about £45. Yuri, the owner and small dealer, reckons he may be ready to send it up by the beginning of next week. Cor is a biker and mechanic, so’s Rico, so we can fettle it up over the holiday ready for me to start off in three weeks time. It’s a Suzuki 200cc trail bike, common enough in these countries for getting spares, and sufficient for me to ride several thousand miles, and light enough for me to lift when required. It seems like a good choice, even if it will cost the best part of £2000. But it will also be sensible for resale in a year or two…

    *
    My days here pass quite effortlessly and I find myself considerably less restless than I used to be on my journeys. Africa and increasing age do that to you perhaps! It’s warm and sunny; the company is excellent and the welcome fulsome; time is elastic – and anyway, until I have my motorbike there’s not much to do but relax, join trips with Rico and Adelight to do errands in the busy, traffic-congested town a mile away and contemplate the weeks to come and read the various books and maps on Rico’s shelves to get ideas. Kitale sits at about 6200 feet and the climate is fresh and sunny, cool nights and basking warm days at this time of year, the daytime temperatures a lovely 23 to 26 degrees. Rain sometimes comes for an hour in the afternoon, keeping the landscape freshly green and conifers prick the horizons. Away to the north Kenya drops to vast, scorching deserts that extend up to the sprawling Sahara. Southwards is Lake Victoria, the big inland sea that I hope to circle over the next few weeks. I’ve been rereading my journal from 2001 to remind myself of my short Kenyan bike journey and will repeat the highlights before I leave for Uganda. Kenya is a country full of landscape beauty and intriguing African cultures, straddling the astonishing Rift Valley, the ‘cradle of civilisation’, where the earliest evidence of mankind is found, the extraordinary rise from earliest hominids to modern man (and even Donald Trump)…

    Battling my now customary heavy nasal congestion and catarrh that follows every flight by air by a few days – and having made sixteen flights this year, it accounts for a pretty constant condition – I called into a pharmacy. Describing my symptoms to the young man behind the counter, he asked, “So, do you want antibiotics?” Despite the white coat, he obviously wasn’t a pharmacist yet many of the medicines on the stocked shelves had the instruction: ‘Prescription drug only’. He listened to my lecture with a bored look, but here is much of the problem with immunity to drugs: they are being sold over the counter; courses are often incomplete and the strongest remedy is always the chosen one. For instance, in West Africa, every slight feeling of any headache or discomfort is home-diagnosed as malaria and those valuable drugs taken – in various doses, often incomplete through expense. “You can’t treat common colds with antibiotics!” I exclaimed – but to deaf ears… Mind you, I suppose the drugs companies benefit, making millions by always trying to invent new drugs to overcome the build up of immunity. And drugs companies need all the help they can get, don’t they?

    *
    Here in Kitale I am only about one degree north of the Equator and will criss-cross the invisible line again and again. For now though, a calm period to prepare for the interesting times to come – and a wait until I have my own wheels to take me on my travels.

    By now I have come to know the family. It IS a true family, despite many of the girls being unrelated by blood, so important in our Western mindset. I love to see the cheerful cooperation amongst these girls, the acceptance of one another and the care they all show amongst their group. There are eight of them currently in the house, five older girls and three younger. I’m still unsure of the age range but I know delightful little Shamilla, the youngest, with her bright face, quick smile and complete cheerfulness, is five. Her friend, Sheri, is just a small friend on an apparently unlimited extended stay. I do appreciate the flexibility of the African family unit. Bo is thirteen, tall and slender with that look of a fast-growing child turning into a teenager and young woman. She is, in effect, a grandchild of Rico, being the daughter of Dorcas, who was a high school student when I was here fifteen years ago. She ducked out of school – almost all children here are boarders – and eventually, in the African way, Bo was born, and has been brought up by Rico since babyhood. I’m not sure who comes next in the age order but there are lovely Scovia (short for her full name of Proscovia), who of course, I know to be eighteen. She is smart, confident and full of fun with a sharp sense of humour. She’s Adelight’s junior sibling, as is Marion, at sixteen, quieter and not so outgoing as her sisters but with a slow-to-appear smile that lights her face. Maurine is charming, about twenty and the only one of the original children that I knew in 2001/2 still in the family. She seems to be intelligent and questioning, quietly confident in her own way. There’s also Rose, a shy girl who came into the house as a house-girl, literally rescued from the streets by Adelight after her parents died and she subsequently ran away from an exploitative auntie. What a start in life for a young teenager, but how often you hear these stories in Africa. She has become part of the family and is back in school, attending primary despite her age and relative maturity. Rico and Adelight have committed their lives to bringing up so many apparently random ‘daughters’ in a way that forces so much admiration. They have a happy home, although resources are constantly stretched and comforts limited. But what shines through all these girls is a generous spirit and a contentment with what they have, which is so unlike the acquisitive children of my Western experience.

    The girls share the work of the house, and that means washing without machines, cleaning with hand brushes and cloths, cooking simple inventive meals for us all, caring for the two friendly dogs and their four puppies (even the canines are friendly in this household!), keeping the yards tidy, shopping, gardening and the rest. They appear to do it all with a good will. All this Adelight, herself a very capable, warm-hearted woman, a good deal younger than Rico, oversees with fairness and generosity, caring for all the children and running the house, especially while Rico is away on contract, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time. I am so pleased to have met her, having heard of her from my White African Brother so often. A happy cohesive household.

    Africa makes you look at the world in a totally different way; a healthier, more humane way. With all its terrible problems there are so many silver linings that so few of us are privileged to witness. That’s what I get from my travels in Africa – a new perspective of a cruel but sometimes more wholesome continent where wealth is measured in human warmth and contact, not by the ‘stuff’ you own. These girls, with their positive, happy attitudes are a testament to the optimism and fortitude that so many on this continent express. A real family, despite their diverse backgrounds, little competition and, in the week I have been here observing, not a cross word or mood. Where in the world except Africa could you see THAT in a group of young women from five to twenty?!

    It makes this a happy place to be, surrounded by quick, sunny smiles and great goodwill. This will be a fine place to get back into the Africa mood and come to understand a bit about Kenyan life to put my solitary travels in context.

    It’s already a week since I was flying south above the Sahara: time to post the first part of this journal. Not much has been happening, so I’ve just kept it open, as I will until I start my own journey in a couple of weeks – assuming ‘Africa Time’ allows for the arrival of the motorbike…
    *
    Whenever I undertake any manual labour in Africa I find myself in awe of all the people who till their fields, build houses, construct roads and so on, in this violent sun. Admittedly I am a relatively puny European, unused to this effort or heat, but a few hours of this exertion lays me out for the rest of the day. It certainly makes me appreciate the rigours of African life.

    However, I needed some physical effort after this first rather sedentary week. The compound chicken run was made for many more chickens than the half dozen it now accommodates so Rico wants to reduce its size and we will use some of the posts thus freed up to make a swing for all the children – a Christmas special. Digging into this parched soil is like breaking rocks. To get through the top 25 centimetres took me a hard half hour, each drop of the crowbar breaking a thimbleful of earth. But it’s good exercise, stopped in the end more through the feeling of the burning sun than lack of energy. I am also conscious that I am at over six thousand feet, only a few miles from the Equator.
    *
    There’s a holiday feeling amongst the cheery household. All the girls are on their long break from school, over two months at home. I’m constantly noticing how they entertain themselves and one another – without electronic games, computers and online entertainment. They do quite like to watch some of the appallingly facile American TV, but the set is often dark. As I write I can hear the two smaller girls singing and calling outside, running about the compound. Of course, the chores take a lot of time in an African household. Doubtless a couple of the older girls are washing clothes in bowls beside the water tank and the washing line is usually draped in colourful, if worn, clothes. I wonder how European children would exist with these ‘privations’?

    Rico and I are long time friends – mostly at a distance, but we do have a good understanding that makes my stay quite easy. His sister, staying together with us in Kenya fifteen years ago, said she could see many similarities in us! In a household as flexible as this one, the addition of one more makes little difference and my welcome is warm and simple. So this somewhat extended stay at home is not difficult, although I do look forward now to my forthcoming explorations. I gaze at the maps of these countries and make plans, none of which I can really achieve until I have transport…

    Today, Monday, Day Eleven, Yuri, the current owner of the small blue Suzuki down in Nairobi, rang to tell us it is now ready for transport to Kitale, insisting that first he must send pictures for our inspection. He appears trustworthy and has worked on the machine, getting it prepared. We have agreed on the monstrous expense of £1840 – this for a bike I could probably buy in England for not more than £400, but that’s the way it is here where useful machines, especially relatively well maintained ones, are rare. It’s a bullet I have to bite and try to send the money when we get internet connection, which we haven’t had since Friday.

    Africa teaches you patience above all else! Things here just don’t happen the way they do in Europe. Things just take the time they take and can seldom be hurried. But my journey is on the way!

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EAST AFRICA SAFARI 2017 – TWO

DAY 12 TUESDAY DECEMBER 20th KITALE, KENYA to DAY 15, FRIDAY DECEMBER 23rd.

Despite all the endless internet frustrations here at home, it looks as if my motorbike may soon be on its way up from Nairobi. I HOPE that I have transferred the money to Yuri and that tomorrow morning, Wednesday, he will drop it off at the transporter for carriage up to Kitale over the next couple of days. Let’s hope it went smoothly… It’s all a bit of a leap of faith. Using the internet in Africa is seldom straightforward which, considering how modern life now relies on the convenience, means patience. A few days ago I punched in the wrong PIN number on my credit card (I have two with similar but transposed numbers) and the card was blocked. It takes a few minutes to unblock it – if you have a convenient phone line to the Bank of Ireland, in this case. Try that from rural Kenya! The only phone I have available is to Skype on my iPad, for which I need a strong signal. Huh! The internet cafe manager kindly lent me his office for the business, where it then took me forty minutes to reestablish my summarily discontinued Skype account! “Just take your card to any ATM and select ‘card services’,” said an Irish voice eventually. Of course, the ATM I found had no such selection – but it did pay out £240 in Kenya shillings..! Ho hum.

Today also, we have had a break in the water pipes in Kitale, leading to no running water and later to cloudy water unwise to drink. Then in the evening an hour-long power cut. Infrastructure in Africa is so stretched by poor maintenance, overuse and bad workmanship and, not infrequently, corruption. The power cut created a lovely atmosphere, happening after ‘beer o’clock’ as Rico, Cor and I sat after sunset on the verandah, the stars spreading into the dark night sky and an occasional firefly sparkling across the garden. Behind us in the kitchen Adelight fried banana chips for supper by candlelight, the aroma wafting out to us. The children and girls played and talked and there was no intrusion from the media world. Sometimes I wish there were more power cuts in Africa! (I shouldn’t have written that! See later…).

Digging a hole to support the seesaw that Rico intends to build for the girls took all my energy – a hole a couple of feet by two and a half, and only ten inches deep. By the end, hefting a sharp hoe, I was exhausted for much of the rest of the day – here at 6200 feet on the sunny Equator. Still, I sleep well in my garage bedroom, much as I did in 2001 when I slept in a battered old brown tent in Rico’s garden up in desert Lodwar, until flooded out one night by extraordinary and rare torrents of brown water that inundated the yard and made rivers flow fast enough to wash uprooted trees and trucks down the previously parched riverbeds. When nature takes over in Africa, things don’t happen by halves.

On Thursday Rico, Adelight and I drove down to Eldoret, the ugly, bustling, traffic-clogged town fifty miles back along the main road towards Nairobi. “I’ve seen enough of Eldoret for this trip!” I exclaimed as we finally shook loose of the traffic jams later in the afternoon. I recollect that feeling fifteen years ago on a brief visit. I shall do my best to avoid the place. But even in the chaos, one of the things I like best in Africa is the way in which people return a look. Catch their eye and everyone reacts, a smile, a wave, an ironic shrug. No on ever looks away embarrassed.

A stiff wind blew all day, whisking dust and plastic bags, the ‘Flowers of Africa’ into whirling clouds; the most persistent wind Rico could remember here in western Kenya, where wind usually only comes with rain or in brief episodes. Chaos ruled in the town, traffic congested and filthy, people everywhere. The big supermarket was full of families Christmas shopping, flocking the aisles, dithering with trollies. We went there so I could buy presents for the girls back home for Christmas; Rico and Adelight’s suggestions being a large Scrabble set for the older girls and a plastic bowling set for the younger ones – (and perfume for Adelight)! Life isn’t cheap in Kenya, much more than in South Africa and its surrounding states. Those items and a few groceries came to about £70, with VAT here at 16%. Food is quite expensive, especially when you have ten or so young stomachs to fill.

We drove to Eldoret to collect Faith, another of the ‘original’ Rico Girls that I remember from 2002. Faith is now married to Felix, a young German who has worked a good deal in Africa – mainly Tanzania, and is something of an expert on alternative energies. Faith and Felix have a five month old baby, Liam, and have come for Christmas here in Kitale from their home base in Berlin. Faith is the daughter of Rico’s first wife Anna’s sister, who died in the first months of Faith’s life, her father having died in a traffic accident even before she was born. A grandmother took her in until Rico and Anna took her into their family aged three. These are stories so common in Africa, well, the former part of the story is common, finding a new family and being brought up as generously as Faith was is far from common of course. Rico deserves so much admiration for his total involvement in Africa, his astonishing support of so many waifs who, without him, would have had hard, difficult lives – the lives so common to so many that fall by the wayside in these hand to mouth economies in Africa.

Adelight, of whom I have become increasingly fond and respectful, must now also be mentioned in despatches for her complete commitment to the family of girls. Happily, she is now pregnant with her own child, so Rico will have one blood relative in Africa after all. Between them, Rico and Adelight have created a delightful family, seldom more in evidence than with the excitement of the return of their sister Faith, and especially, of course, her baby! We arrived to great elation and animation.

At home the power had been off since the morning; now on Friday morning it is still off. It makes for peaceful times, only a couple of solar bulbs and candles, the TV quiet, the night star-filled and silent. Adelight and the older girls cooked up a big saucepan of pilau rice and small cubes of meat and I went to bed happy, with a couple of litres of thin, gassy beer inside me and stinking, no doubt, of Adelight’s chopped garlic with mayonnaise.

No internet; no news therefore of the bike or money transfers. It’s so frustrating… “Oh, this is Africa!” says everyone with a shrug, an acceptance that perpetuates the inefficiency endlessly. It’s always the excuse and it never solves the problems, never improves the situation, never provokes activity; just this ceaseless inability to take initiative and do something about it! THAT is Africa!

But one must adapt, for I myself can change little. My dear friend Leslie paid me a fine compliment in a recent email: ‘I know you appreciate your surroundings and situations more than most people I know. One of the things I love about you. You bloom where you are planted.’ It’s not a struggle to bloom when surrounded by warmth and generous friendship.

DAY 16. SATURDAY, CHRISTMAS EVE 2016. KITALE, KENYA

I’ve come to the conclusion that to achieve one thing in a day here in Kenya is good progress. This sort of resigned acceptance makes life so much easier. Yesterday I finally made the money transfer to Yuri the bike mechanic in Nairobi – but we have yet to find out the status of quite where the motorbike actually IS! Maybe it is at this minute on the road north? Maybe… I’ve been here two weeks and at least I know there’s a bike on the way. I have to be satisfied with that.

The power has been off for 48 hours as I write. It is on next door to the east, but off for the whole block towards the Ugandan sunsets. We fear that if it doesn’t get repaired today we will have no power until after the holiday. Well, ‘this is Africa’, comes the usual excuse for lack of initiative. Meanwhile, everyone copes and rearranges their lives, adapts and compromises. It’s a lesson in fortitude for Europeans so used to light at the flick of a switch and water at the turn of a tap. We had no water for some hours, followed by cloudy stuff flowing from a broken pipe somewhere. And Kenya prides itself on more advanced infrastructure! Haha.

Life continues pleasantly here in the cheery household. Scovia just spotted the roll of Christmas paper on the desk in front of me, left over from wrapping the Scrabble, bowls and perfume. She’s taken it away to wrap around the bucket that is holding the Christmas tree, made from a tall branch of some conifer from the garden. I suggested to Adelight that I should buy ice cream and fruit as a Christmas treat, to go with the goat that is currently roaming outside the gate (safe from the compound dogs!). Maybe we can keep it cold enough in the fridge in the room that Faith and Felix are fortunately renting next door – to the powered east! You see, adaptation is the key to African life… So is complete patience – 16 days in and I am still where I started!

I spent the warm afternoon restoring chairs. “I can’t mend cars but let me do some crafty odd-jobs and I’m happy!” I told Rico, as he and Cor fixed and mended vehicle electrics and discussed things technical with Felix, expert in alternative power generation. I’ve no interest, let alone aptitude, but give me a chair to reupholster and I’ll make my best efforts! Useful skills in an African household economy.

*

Some years ago, my late mother took me to a supermarket on Christmas Eve. For years afterwards she laughed at my reaction: “Don’t EVER do that to me again!”

Yet here in Africa, I can join the throng, have trolleys driven over my feet and butt me in the bum, battle my way through dithering families, struggle at heaving checkouts, watch the proliferation of another ten thousand ‘Flower of Africa’ plastic bags – and do so with a wide, contented smile on my face, watching people. Small excited children wore shaped and knotted balloons as headdresses, tied by three fellows in Father Christmas hats for charity as the warm sun beat down outside. Ghastly mechanical mannequins jiggled inside an Alpine hut surrounded by cartoon animals and jerking felt elves. A cotton-wool bearded, black-skinned young Father Christmas ho-hoed at little girls in spangly party frocks and mothers pushed over-piled trolleys to the long queues in the compact cashier area where assistants packed a million plastic bags with groceries. This was, I have to add, a middle class shopping mall, supplying the relatively well off. The market will have looked different, of course. Guards perform a pointless security check at the entrance, their scanner beeping uselessly, probably a result of the terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi a few years ago. None of the guards check bags and I doubt the scanner actually works for it makes the same beeps and the guards the same bored actions if I empty my pockets as I did the first couple of times, or just wander through as I do now!

*

This evening we all crowded round the sitting room, the branch tree blinking in the corner. The TV switched off – we eventually regained power this afternoon after more than two days, resulting in ghastly Christmas singing from the South African Broadcasting Corporation – and the girls and children gathering on the floor. I hadn’t put two and two together until I remembered this is a continental household, half Dutch in spirit, and Christmas Eve is ice cream and presents round the tree time. The next hour was warm and good humoured, a few modest gifts unwrapped with laughter and jokes, with none of the extravagance and aspirations of western Christmas. Packs of new knickers and chocolate bars instead of unreasonable electronic devices and expensive toys, greeted with hugs and warmth. It’s a privilege, especially at this material time of year, to be part of such a cheerful family gathering where people are grateful for the little they have; where the love of family counts for so much more than the acquisition of ‘stuff’; where smiles and laughter express so much of the closeness of this largely unrelated FAMILY. So many lessons to learn in Africa if you look…

DAY 17. SUNDAY, CHRISTMAS DAY 2016. KITALE, KENYA

I awoke to the sound of supper: the Christmas goat being slaughtered somewhere outside in the garden. One is usually close to the sources of nutrition in Africa!

Later, little Shamilla with a crestfallen look and a tear dribbling down her cheek, sat on Rico’s knee. “They’ve killed my goat!” and he had to explain where the meat in the house comes from, a lesson seldom learned in Europe, merely a vaguely uncomfortable concept, almost never an animal screaming in the morning.

*

It’s been a family Christmas like many around the world; unlike Europe in the fact of the goat legs protruding from a washing up bowl on the kitchen table as Adelight and Scovia hacked with a cleaver, for the dogs playing over cloven, hairy forelegs, for the total absence of material reminders and of course for the warm, bright Equatorial sun; African in the fresh goat stew and universal for games of Scrabble and bad sentimental Christmas music from the kitchen radio.

Rico and I worked in the garage, stripping a large car lift, parts of which were stolen some time past for their scrap value, leaving the robust frame – from which we are going to make a sturdy garden swing with probably an attached seesaw. It’s heavy work but another resourceful recycling of scrap materials. Little is wasted on this continent: that’s unaffordable.

So, by some grubby manual labour, goat meat – barbecued for supper – a few beers and Scrabble games, a congenial, memorable Christmas 2016 came and went, my fourth consecutive African Christmas. Where next year, I wonder?

Seventeen days and still no motorbike. Well, one just settles into the mood and waits patiently, or as patiently as possible. I admit, I AM beginning to become a bit impatient to be on my way much though I am enjoying the warmth of and apparent total acceptance by the family here in sunny Kitale on the Equator.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS