EAST AFRICA. WINTER 2018/ 2019
DAY 1. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 12th 2018. NAIROBI, KENYA
AFRICA!! What a lazy, vague way of writing that really is. I am once again on this continent, which holds 54 countries, uncountable tribes (estimated around 3000) and at least two thousand languages. In our cultural idleness and, it must be said, arrogance, we club together this astonishing diversity in six lifeless letters. From Arabs in the north, through all the variously dark-skinned tribes of Sub-Saharan Africa down to that odd white tribe of the Afrikaans, this continent explodes with life almost irrespective of where you touch down on its red earth. It’s one of the greatest wonders of this extraordinary world. I feel so privileged to know so much of it and to feel so utterly comfortable and content to have spent well over four years exploring its backroads – and above all, smiling with its people in 22 of those spellbinding countries.
Instantly a sense of warmth enfolds me. Of course, that’s a physical sensation; but it’s also something that reaches deep into my soul. It manifests itself in the universal welcome that I feel, the smiles that greet me, the cheerful greetings that return the smile so often spread across MY face; the casual, honest interaction with complete strangers; the compassion and curiosity that engulfs my every action. I may as well say it on page one, because if you’ve read my journals before, you’ll know well that my two most admired human qualities are just those: compassion and curiosity. If you are curious about your fellow and neighbour you show care and compassion for their motivations, you take an interest outside yourself, you share what makes life valuable.
In all my search this year for a longterm solution to loss of many teeth (and no, I’m NOT going to regale you with THAT life story here, about my huge dental works in Poland since that fateful day in Kampala back in March when it all started 9with a (rather good!) chicken pie); in all that uncomfortable experience what has driven me forward was the restoration of my smile. For if there is one thing that generally IS a standard amongst so many peoples on this continent is the ability to look one another in the eye and smile. It’s the most fundamental form of human contact, the simplest of languages, but one we have lost so much to our cost in our ‘sophistication’ in the North. We are the poorer for our default sense of mistrust and doubt. Believe me, on page one, 99.99% of the people of this world are good and trustworthy. Instinct, if followed, will usually quite accurately introduce the other .01%. Something my travels have taught me is that an open, trusting approach is seldom abused. My default is trust.
So here I was, weary but smiling broadly with my new teeth, sitting drinking coffee in a smart arcade cafe in downtown Nairobi, watching a rotund “Hoho-ing” Father Christmas sweating in red velour and cotton wool, a large cushion strapped beneath his red cloak. With him was a very pretty elf. Without the costume, you’d immediately put him down as drunk! Haha! or maybe, Hoho.
A slight digression here on the Father Christmas theme: did you know that the cheery red Santa was an invention of a New York illustrator called Thomas Nast, in the 1870s, cemented in public imagination by the nasty Coca Cola Corporation in the 1920s and 30s? Of such are our ‘old traditions’: dreamed up and invented in the overriding interests of Mammon, soon accepted and imbued with ‘cultural heritage’ status by a compliant public. Santa Claus is in fact a resident of strongly Dutch New York, invented around 1804 by an antiquarian who adopted St Nicholas, a fourth century saint, patron of children and gift-giving, as a benevolent symbol for the new young city. Now it’s worldwide, even in a Nairobi shopping centre.
Nairobi, a few years ago, was anarchic and shambolic. Today it is a modern African city, clean, tidy and with disciplined traffic – although crowded almost to extinction. A ride from the airport with pleasant Moses, was calm and quiet. No car horns, no pushing, no racing, one very nasty accident that had collected a vast crowd of onlookers who blocked the road (that’s another continent-wide habit); a lot of cooperation and some evident consideration. It is a holiday, it’s true, – something to do with independence I think – so traffic is much quieter than on weekdays, but I recollect this city just a decade and a half ago, and it has changed very much.
But what’s so wonderful… everyone meets my eye and greets me: perfect strangers, passers by, street sellers, security guards, everyone. And I can smile back – (widely now)!!
So here I go again. “Aren’t you afraid,” all those fearful white people ask – presumably because ‘different’ is threatening. The ‘Black Continent’ – and we associate black with the devil, evil, bad things. Well, long may that perception last, as it keeps away the hordes – who infest Krakow (where I was last week in search of my smile); who vomit amongst the history of European cities between the ‘Bull Pub’, the ‘British Football Club’ bar and the burgers and fish and chips that have become the new culture of mass tourism. I’m so happy to be back amongst smiles. It was restoration of my smile that concerned me this year, much more than eating or vanity. In Africa a smile is a necessity. It is universal communication.
My ticket for the small plane up to Kitale definitely reads: ‘Flight 071. Nairobi/Wilson to Kitale. 10.45 departure. 13.12.2018. Trouble is, there isn’t a plane at 10.45, just the one flight a day – at 07.15! It seems they informed Rico, whom I was due to meet at Wilson airfield this morning, sometime while I was still flying from Europe. Well, I am travelling, and one thing all these years have taught me is that sometimes things go awry, and just the wrong response is to get stressed and angry. Moses, who usually meets Rico and family to transport them about the capital when needed, had already taken Rico from the guest house to Wilson for the early flight. But I decided to go there anyway. ”My ticket DOES say 10.45!”
Of course, the flight was long departed, but delightful Vincent, a true gentleman working for the small but busy internal airline, changed my ticket free of charge for tomorrow morning’s early flight. It all took time. Moses waited patiently and at last drove me to the guest house. I did suggest that the small airline should pay for my hotel and taxi expenses, but it was somewhat tongue in cheek. I must have thought I was still in Europe! In Africa, it’s completely counter-productive to get irritated and fight for what you see as your rights. Better to smile, make a joke, tread lightly – and doors swing assuredly open in all circumstances. The angry white man gets nowhere at all. They screwed up, but rather than blaming the operative behind the counter, enlist his support, tell a few stories, relax. And you get a reprinted ticket, despite the fact that these planes are often full. “You could always go by matatu!” joked Vincent with a wide, bright, ironic smile. Matatus being the crumbling, disintegrating and sometimes deathly minibuses.
It’s 4153 miles from Amsterdam to Nairobi, just seven and a half hours. But my main reaction is boredom and discomfort (in an insultingly small seat on the Kenya Airways plane). My first international flight, in 1965, was SUCH an event! None of my friends had ever flown, let alone as far as America. Now..? The joy and wonder has gone from international travel, and I’ve done a lot of it this year: five trips across the Atlantic, four journeys to Poland and two more across the Sahara, this one about the 60th time. I’ve made 41 flight in nine months. The remarkable fact is that I can fly four thousand miles, into a completely different culture on a different continent in a third of a day – and I am underwhelmed…
Nairobi’s at 5300 feet. At eight o’clock it is just pleasantly cool enough for a thin jersey. I’ve just eaten a Ethiopian plate as a taster for what I hope will be a fascinating ride in that country in a few weeks: a huge 18 inch platter covered in injera, a thin, soggy savoury pancake, on which sit various very tasty vegetarian concoctions of spiced beans, cabbage, kale, beetroot and salads; eaten with the fingers, it was filling and delicious.
Now it’s time for bed; I’m rubbing my eyes. Day one of a new trip and I’m already intrigued and anticipatory. I LOVE not to know what the morrow will bring! Here I go again!
DAY 2. THURSDAY DECEMBER 13th 2018. KITALE, KENYA
Day two of another trip in East Africa. It takes time and energy to move about the world like this and tonight, four thousand miles from home, I am exhausted. But I am here, and now I can stop moving for a day or two. A week ago I was stressed in Poland awaiting serious dentistry, and now I am a few minutes of angle above the Equator. All that travelling, combined with a before-dawn start today has been hard. But now I am welcomed warmly amongst one of my extended families, comfortably at home. I can relax once more.
Despite delightful staff, the guest house in Nairobi is a £12 African guest house masquerading as a £47 hotel. The city is expensive: one of the most over-priced towns I know in Africa. Even in Cape Town I could find better, more economic hotels, but Nairobi hasn’t those places. However, it’s only a bed for the night and I could quickly move on in the dawn, collected again by Moses, back to the Wilson airfield, where small planes roared and shuddered into the dismal cold rain clouds of dawn. This, as everywhere around the globe this year, is unseasonal weather and, indeed, Kitale tonight is cold.
It’s less than an hour in a noisy 36 seater plane, sadly not one of the fun 13 seater Cessnas, up to Kitale on the far western highlands, where Adelight, Rico and baby Maria, now a delightful, cheerful one and a half, waited to meet me at the airstrip. Lovely Scovia has repainted ‘my’ house in the garden and prepared it comfortably for my stays here over the next three months, for I expect I will be back and forth, welcomed to use their home as my African base once again.
It’s not only happy little Maria, with a head of extravagantly wild black curls, that has grown. In Africa, given some rain – and there’s been plenty recently – the sun assures that things grow fast. The garden and shamba are green and lush, the nasturtiums vibrant amongst the tropical greens once again. We are a small family at home just now; with only Scovia and Bo of the Rico Girls at home. But Maria fills the space as any happy toddler does. She is so fortunate to grow up amongst so many sisters and aunties. She’s a bright child; you can see her observing and working things out already. Economically, life is always hard in this household. There are many school fees to pay and mouths to feed. Rico has taken in and cared for a multitude of young girls over the years, providing a real home to many who would have lacked that supportive love and family atmosphere. Like all such family groups, the dynamics vary. Just now, Marion and Shamilla are away with their mothers, Maureen is studying in Mombassa and Rose has a job in a shop in Nairobi. They grow and leave the nest and the range of ‘grandchildren’ increases. Despite their often disparate backgrounds, all these girls have become a close family, one of the warmest I know, largely content with their lot, which in material terms isn’t much at all.
DAY 3. FRIDAY DECEMBER 14th 2018. KITALE, KENYA
These first few days are well and contentedly spent just relaxing back into the rhythms of equatorial life. Everything runs at different speeds here and I must forget my European insistence on minute by minute achievement and gratification of every passing whim. In Africa you have to learn to operate at a different pace. Things take the time they take. It’s not laziness and lack of drive; more a change of perspective. Social interaction is paramount, niceties of greeting and meeting, polite exchanges all take time. Time is not money here, sociability is the currency. The often intense heat in these climes forces a slower amble; energy is expended in every movement so you do things more languidly to conserve precious power. There’s so much less mechanisation, less computers (or slower, older ones connected sporadically to a shaky internet); there’s no wealth to invest in slow moving stock, so items are frequently unavailable; there’s poor transport and infrastructure. You just slow down and accept that everything will take longer, you won’t find the beer you want in the first supermarket; you may have to visit three; your card won’t work in the first ATM, you must walk to another that may be connected. Such is the pace and the visual stimulation, the people watching, the passing but cheerful interactions, the effort of moving through sun drenched, crowded streets, that I have often forgotten why I was there in the first place and leave the supermarket without the only item (toothpaste) for which I went in… But the reward is the manner in which everyone meets my eye and returns a smile or greeting.
So not much gets done on these first days. I am very fortunate for a calm base from which to settle back to my travels, ripped out, as I was two days ago, from another culture and deposited into this. In a day or two I will summon the energy to get myself to Brooke, about 150 miles away, to collect my little blue motorbike, my ‘Mosquito’, from Nashon the mechanic. Two trips ago, I turned into a dazzling tea estate near Kericho, tea capital of Kenya, to photograph the closely cropped brilliant shoots, spread like expensive fitted carpets over the rounded hills. Thereupon, my Mosquito died. With considerable effort, I pushed it up the hill back to the road, where I flagged down a pick-up and negotiated for a ride back to the nearest town. My driver, a decent, educated man, deposited me outside a market shack, with an apron of oily mud and filled with bits of decaying and decayed motorbikes, piled apparently randomly – but this being an economy of necessity, in which spare parts are valuable, I later realised, as Nashon delved into the mound of rusting metal, that he had a mental inventory of all its contents.
Nashon seemed a man of integrity. A little older than many of the local bike butchers, it appears that my driver did me a huge favour in introducing me to this decent, kindly, polite man. He quickly diagnosed the problem – a broken starter gear mechanism – and warned me that if it was the case (it was), he would have to strip the entire engine to its component parts, wash them all to rid the motor of any metal flakes, and rebuild it again. I moved back to the hotel I had vacated a few hours earlier and spent the next two and a half days nervously watching Nashon and his workmate cousins strip my little bike, gear by gear, nut and bolt and seal, screws and miscellaneous bits and pieces, onto pieces of tattered cardboard on the hard packed, greasy mud of his lock-up shop front. Nashon even spent almost an entire day driving to the nearest big city to search, unsuccessfully, for parts. I imagined my ride was over, until he told me that the little bike would still work, but with the kick start alone. In a couple of days he had my now fully serviced bike up and running, better than before.
Last safari I rode the bike a further 8000 kilometres. Towards the end of my ride, I rode back to Brooke to visit Nashon, to his obvious delight. This politeness is so important – and so valued. I had honoured Nashon with my visit. He was proud, there in front of his workshop, amongst his peers and friends, that the mzungu had returned to pay respects. I met his family and neighbours and cemented another African friendship. I also had the idea to ask Nashon if he would thoroughly maintain the bike, and put in new (well, second hand actually) parts before my journey begins this year. He was pleased to oblige; it enhanced his credibility – and proved our relation had gone beyond a passing mzungu in trouble. In October we communicated back and forth; he estimated the parts he’d need, and Rico was to arrange to send the bike by road to Brooke. Nashon and Adelight were in touch… and Nashon announced that he would fetch the bike from Kitale – about150 miles – and ride it back to Brooke. This he did. I was interested that Adelight and Rico had no reservations about handing over my bike, the papers, the money and even lending him a helmet for the ride home. I was pleased to have my instinctive trust ratified by those who know the culture so much better.
Next day, I was eating breakfast in Harberton thinking, ‘I must email Nashon to check he got home without trouble…’ As I sat there, an email pinged in: a picture of my bike already stripped into pieces at his workshop! It was before 10am, my time – then 9am in Kenya.
Now I must travel to Brooke to fetch my Mosquito. Maybe I’ll do that on Sunday. By then maybe I’ll be on Africa Time and able to sit patiently in derelict matatus for the journey.
DAY 4/5. SATURDAY/ SUNDAY DECEMBER 15/16th 2018. KITALE and BROOKE, KENYA
Saturday passed in such a whirl of inactivity – relaxing happily amongst the family, and opening up my panniers and wondering at the aged jumble of decrepit clothes that constitute my African wardrobe: the ancient riding jacket that’d have been pensioned off several years ago at home; motocross trousers SO worn, restitched and faded that even I – even I – have bought (embarrassingly bright) new ones this year; mis-shapen tee shirts, faded by just too much African sun – but perfectly fine for another trip or two, here where dressing down is pretty much the normal sartorial state, since almost everyone wears their clothes second-hand at their newest. Maybe that’s why I fit in so well! Those new trousers, garish and psychedelic in their red, white and black youth need some strong doses of equatorial sun so that they fade back and blend in like the patched and tattered ones I wear from 2002!
“How long will you be gone to Brooke?” asked Adelight.
“Oh, I guess I’ll probably ride back via Kessup to see William and get back by about Wednesday…”
“So three days without Scrabble..?” For Adelight is addicted to our quiet evenings at the Scrabble board. It was my Christmas present two years ago, but little did I know Adelight’s obsession when I stood in a big store in Eldoret before Christmas 2016 and asked what everyone might like as a gift from me. “Oh, Scrabble would be nice!” she declared, having perhaps carefully negotiated our route between the heavily stocked shelves to make it look like an instinctive idea – for there were the Scrabble boxes coincidentally beside us. You’d think that I would always beat her, for English is, after all, her second language and my vocabulary is pretty large. But quite often she beats me, this sharply intelligent, capable and warm woman. Sometimes she will ask, “is there such and such a word..?”, and occasionally it IS her invention, but often not. Her vocabulary is wide too. So many people on this continent are humblingly adept in several languages, unlike most of us lazy Brits…
And now, a day later – it’s a peaceful Sunday afternoon – I am sitting on the balcony of the large (and largely empty, as always) Brooke Hotel, gazing across a veritable ocean of luscious, tidy fields of tea bushes, trimmed to perfection in the harvesting of this rich crop. I’m drinking ‘mixed tea’, tea cooked with milk in it, as is often the way in tea-producing countries. Usually, I eschew tea as much as possible, but I AM in Brooke, and yes, that is Brooke as in Brooke Bond, a huge company that owns much of the land in this region and partially controls (with a somewhat mean, multinational iron hand) much of the Kenyan tea industry. Mixed tea is the caffe latte of tea; I prefer the masala tea, a brew mixed with milk, ginger and spices.
Walking through the scruffy local market streets a short time ago, I suddenly realised how content I have become in just four days. As I walked, all eyes followed me inquisitively and at least twenty or thirty people gave me a ‘good afternoon!’, a ‘hey, mzungu!’, ‘hello, Mr Mzungu!’ and wide smiles. There is no sense of threat or discomfort in all this. There is no insult or ulterior meaning in the word ‘mzungu’ (white man); it’s just a statement of fact, and as the only one around, I am rather noticeable. Drunks (it IS Sunday afternoon) want to shake my hand, but it’s harmless; children grin and run away coyly. A fat lady reclining on sacks of old clothes smiles broadly. “You look comfy!” I joke, and she throws back her head and laughs. Two small boys in church clothes scavenge old nuts and bolts in the oily mud and in the ditch beneath the rough plank bridge. These will be their playthings today. A pack of young men walk past below my balcony as I write. They are all staring at me with open curiosity. All it takes is a smile and thumbs up acknowledgement from me and they all smile and greet me. No one ever turns away.
For one accustomed to West African tro-tros, a Kenyan matatu – both of them ratty old many-seated minibuses that form the people’s transport in all of Africa – are a doddle. I’m sitting in a reasonably comfortable seat in one of the buses of the ‘Prestige Linner’ company (no Scrabble score for them, despite the fact that the spelling runs across their entire livery alongside a picture of a cruise linner). There are only eleven passenger seats in this bus, “One man, One seat!”, they’d cry out in Ghana to entice passengers, for eleven passengers is seven less than we’d be in the corresponding vehicle across the continent in Ghana, in an ’18 Condemned’. There are regulations here, and the vans are quite well maintained; there are even compulsory seat belts these days. And this being Christmas, drivers must be aware of the rules, for this is the time of many road inspections – for how else do the police get their ‘Christmas boxes’? The radio is at a calm volume, the passengers quiet, leaning back in quite decent seats. We’re travelling a road I fervently avoid if I can, the main highway across the country, on which casualty numbers often reach forty of fifty deaths per accident. Sunday may be a slightly better day to ride; there aren’t so many commercial vehicles, but old, heavy lorries toil on the hills – and we are driving on rolling hills, crossing the Equator at well over 5000 feet. Lines of cars and matatus tail out behind each belching truck, jockeying quite cooperatively to pass. I sit and wonder, as I always do in a vehicle, how I have the guts and stupidity to ride a small motorbike on these African roads? But when I am out there, attention tuned, reactions sharp, it’s a different matter and none of it seems so terrifying. The anticipation is always worse than the reality, I find. Days before I travel to Africa, I am a bundle of nerves, imagining the ‘what ifs’ by which I always say I should never live life. For ‘what ifs’ limit all your dreams. The fear dissipates the moment I get stuck in; then it’s just a matter of living on my wits, the most exhilarating way to live life.
Adelight dropped me amongst the bustling lines of matatus in town, negotiating my ride towards the city of Nakuru on the main highway. I would branch at ‘Total’, a major intersection named for its petrol station, about three hours on my route. I took my seat and waited, the high sun beating on my arm through the open door as we awaited passengers, for we leave when we have a full compliment of eleven. It’s busy around my side door; itinerant salespeople spot the mzungu and attempt to sell me all manner of items: melons, biscuits, padlocks, socks, unidentified fruits, beaded sandals, purses, torches, odd roots of mysterious use, rat poison, key-holders, belts, bananas, glittery jewellery, chargers, watches that’ll stop tomorrow, newspapers with the latest lies of the corrupt politicians – “Ah, it’s not just Nairobi news! There’s news from Engerland too!” declares the salesman. “No problem. God bless!” and a wide smile when I explain that I have come four thousand miles to avoid that news.
So long as I engage, smile, make a joke, am equal, I am respected. It’s embarrassingly easy to make friends and leave a good impression. It’s all oddly quiet and well behaved, calm and polite, here in Kenya, everyone going about their business of trying, against all sorts of odds, to make it until tomorrow. For these people have almost nothing materially. They eke an uncertain living selling small items to one another, each in their way helping the other to survive. A few Kenyan bob earned pushing a truck, carrying a bag, selling a handful of cheap commodities, may make the difference between supper and no supper.
People walk loosely, languid, relaxed; greeting and touching, laughing and smiling. No hurry. There’s a fluidity to movement that you don’t see in the cold, ‘Time’s Money, and I’m Important and Busy’ North. I chuckle at my memory of old Akay in Navrongo, Ghana, Wechiga and Perry’s wise mother, MY ‘African Mother’ as she liked to say, clenching her buttocks and mincing across her compound in her imitation of a white woman, laughing at her own joke. It was surprisingly well observed.
Three hours in the matatu, and I was dropped at a giant intersection, the sides of the road lined by saleswomen with potatoes, carrots, fruits and goods, where I stood a few minutes, the centre of a lot of jocularity and kindly laughter until someone flagged down a passing private car, not another matatu, and arranged me a lift for the 50 kilometres to Brooke, with Cliff, a well-spoken young man, researcher with a medical organisation in Kericho, just beyond this satellite town of Brooke. We chatted away the short journey, exchanged contacts, and I promised to ring him when I come back to Kericho. He drove me right into the yard of the Brooke Hotel, accepted the 500 shillings (£4) I knew was the custom – for petrol and sharing the ride, and drove away with cheerful waves, happy to have made a brief friend. I WILL ring him too, when I return, as I expect I will at some point on my journey. It’s a small duty that is important, this return of respect.
At seven thirty I heard my Mosquito pull up outside the hotel. I’d tried to find Nashon unsuccessfully earlier. He’s just joined me, this rather shy, quiet man, for supper of chicken fried to a mortified crisp with ughali (doughy maize meal) and vegetables like dried seaweed. An unmemorable meal. When he emailed me last, he asked me to bring him a gift, something that would make him remember his mzungu friend when he saw it or touched it. I have given him two of my photo books, the one from the first of my East African journeys, in which he features, stripping the Mosquito to its component parts, and last year’s too. He has been proudly using the little bike back to his home village some way off. I don’t mind that; he’s an honest man. I saw him off just now, and the piki-piki sounds better than it has before. I think he’s done a good, reliable job and I hope for a trouble free safari this winter! Now it’s here, I am more eager than I have been through all the planning and getting away. At last I feel I am starting my journey.
DAY 6. MONDAY DECEMBER 17th 2018. KESSUP, KENYA
‘William’s mzungu’ has returned to Kessup, the straggly village on the plateau above the huge, sun-drenched Kerio Valley, an off shoot of the great Rift Valley. It’s so funny to watch him control the guest house staff, running them this way and that to satisfy my every whim – or what he thinks will be my whim. I texted him that I would be arriving late this afternoon, and he arranged my accommodation, ordered food for us for tonight, and made sure that ‘his mzungu’ would be happy. Now he sits in the new bar house, apart from the new bar – a small round hut that we have already appropriated as ‘ours’, and calls the staff from the main bar on his phone. My visits bring him prestige, he assures me. “You wouldn’t come to Kessup if you did not come to visit your friend William!”
The highlands of Kenya are magnificent, but it’s impossible to dress correctly for riding in such landscape. Today I have ridden almost 150 miles, most of them up and down by considerable altitudes. My ride started on a delightful back road out of Brooke, which strangely I have never taken before; through agricultural hills and valleys. This way I could avoid the main road that noisily passes the front of the hotel on its way across these East African countries, one of two routes from Nairobi or the coastal ports to the interiors of Uganda and Rwanda. Unfortunately, there is a speed hump at the bottom of the long hill into town, right outside the hotel, so through the night there is the constant sound of air brakes slowing for the hump and the clatter and rattle of empty trucks. I make sure to get a room far back in the big empty hotel.
Soon I was lost, as I so often am in Kenya, where sign-posting is a thing of the future (perhaps) and directions doubtful; even two police officers, who stopped me out of curiosity at a check post, arguing as the correct road to get to the town I never found. But it seldom matters much; it’s all somehow interesting, even if, after an hour, I ended up back on the main road I was trying to avoid, bumping down a stony track from an unmade road and engaging in the intercity traffic of trucks and matatus. A short stretch of the main highway across Kenya and I was able to turn back onto quieter roads. Now I dropped into the edges of the great Rift Valley, ears popping, temperatures rising, into the depths of the desiccated valley, where cactus-like plants and aloes abound. Then the long, slow, winding climb back up into the cool, pine and eucalyptus heights, with vast views opening across what seems half Africa, lying below in the heat, thickly wooded with low trees, the large Rift bottom lakes winking far, far away in the distance. For some miles this road follows the very brink of a ridge, the huge views dropping away between the trees and thick undergrowth just metres away on either side as I climb. Then I am in scruffy Tenges, people waving and greeting the mzungu as I pass. Wide white smiles in happy black faces and waving pink palms have been the loveliest feature of my day – a special day, as I got used once again to the foibles and character of my little blue Mosquito, with its knobbly tyres, its lack of power and its way of decelerating at the slightest lack of concentration on keeping my hand tightly on the hand grip.
Then down again, over ten miles this time, sweeping back into the gigantic valley, down to dry rocks and termite chimneys towering amongst the same spiky, thorny acacias. Ears popping again, temperatures rising sharply, the road curling and winding, me probably the only one not freewheeling all this way to save ten ‘pennorth of fuel.
Across the valley bottom, past scattered dwellings and an occasional group of shacks and businesses at the roadside, gathered around junctions onto dirt roads that wind into the mysteries of the bush; scooting between loaded lorries, boda-boda (crazy motorbike taxi) boys, past women selling heaps of pawpaws and fruits, dusty fellows loading charcoal in huge woven plastic bundles, grey with ash; between the nothing to do onlookers that populate all of Africa; children everywhere in these countries with ballooning birthrates now that so many live to adulthood and new reproduction cycles; avoiding potholes and swearing at constant speed humps – although they do keep the speed of the shaky, fume-belching lorries and struggling matatus down, and I have better acceleration, even with my mingy two hundred cubic centimetres of ‘power’.
Finally, up, up, up again on the road that clambers out of the warm depths, most of the way back to the western rim of the Kerio Valley, to Kessup, on its plateau, 500 feet or so below the highland tops. I have dropped over two or three thousand feet on each of these dramatic sweeps from heat to cool, and chill to sweat several times today. It’s wonderful, and my smile is wide to greet the hundreds who have spotted the mzungu and waved welcomes and thumbs-upped, shouted and laughed as I pass. I cannot be anonymous; that’s what I love so much as I ride. I am an individual, not just a passing bike; an interesting human being. “Why is he here? Did you see – a mzungu! An old daddy on a big piki-piki!”
And so to the rough track to the Lelin Campsite and my usual chalet, ‘Mexico’, where I have stayed several times on these past couple of safaris here. William, waving from his hillside near the gates as he half runs past his cows on his small shamba to greet me. If you don’t remember from journals past, I met William here when, unusually, I accepted to take a guide for a walk to local features. I’m not sure why I did, but it turned out very happily. “I’m not interested in the waterfalls,” I told him, “but I am interested to meet your neighbours and walk in the villages!” Well, William, now 53, is respected and popular and introduced me, ‘William’s mzungu’ to many, many folk here. He’s a quiet, charming fellow, an ex inspector of police, who was so disillusioned by the violence and corruption he saw in Nairobi, and ultimately so shocked by the personal attack that left him hospitalised for months, with a possible brain operation looming; that slightly but not unattractively, disfigures his face, giving him a sort of half smile all the time – so unsettled was he by all this that he left the force and came home to his tiny shamba to eke a living, I know not how – just the usual African question mark – with his four cows and a patch of vegetables. Well, his needs are few, he agrees, and his treats few too. His daughter, whom he managed to get out to study in Australia – as a nurse – sends him some funds, when she can afford it from her student nurse salary. I have probably helped her by making William aware that she will be struggling, however glossy a face she puts upon her circumstances. He hoped she’d have built him a new house by this year, but that hasn’t transpired. She continues to show her generosity in thanks for the considerable work he put into getting her the visa and papers to go to Australia, though. William’s semi-derelict tin bothy up on the dry hill now boasts satellite TV on which he follows his favourite team, Manchester City.
It was about eleven before I left Brooke, collecting my motorbike, now washed, from Nashon at his lock up in the market amongst his peers. It now has electric start and appears to run well. A few adjustments and I was at last on my way, the next safari begun, new places to see, new people to meet.
My day’s been rather coloured by breaking, after all this rugged time, the screen on my valuable iPad. It’s so much part of my journey, writing it all down like this. Sometimes it seems like THE justification for it all. I’m worried that the cracks might weaken on the hard journeys it still has to take but I doubt repair is possible this side of the capital. I made the stupid mistake of strapping the bag, not my usual panniers, on the carrier of the bike for the journey with a ratchet-strap…
DAY 7. TUESDAY DECEMBER 18th 2018. KESSUP, KENYA
Little Alan, six years old, sat at my feet stroking the hair on my leg. I love the innocent curiosity of this. My companions started laughing at a question he put. They translated, “he is asking where are the others? Are you only one? He cannot understand that you are the only one. He wants to know if you are real!” Without doubt I am the first mzungu with whom most people in these villages have had intimate contact, the first to sit in their compounds, investigate their shambas, drink their bulsa, the local fibrous cornmeal beer, the first to appear equal. Maybe they see white people, but always remote, aloof, behind the windows of expensive safari vehicles or soaring above their lovely plateau on their para-gliders – the expensive adventure sports market that ignores local needs or interests. “Oh, those people are NOT friendly!” exclaimed Solomon. The para-gliders land on people’s crops and in their fields and the rich Europeans take not the slightest interest in the people around them, trample their way over their fields with their expensive equipment and return to their cliff top hotel, owned by white people, for white people – keeping Africa as an exotic background for their Facebook pages and contributing nothing whatsoever to the community. So I am something of a wonder, content to sit on a rock or a homemade stool and drink bulsa from an old drugs’ container and water from their faded field container, to enter their simple zinc and timber homes and laugh with them as an equal. There is one millimetre of difference between us, and that is just the surface coating. I am made so wonderfully welcome. “People ask me all year, where is your mzungu?” says William with some pride. “When is he coming?”
We visited homes and shambas across the plateau, meeting, greeting, shaking hands, answering questions. I said to William, “do you know, the question I am asked most often at home, is ‘aren’t you afraid?’ Imagine that anyone could be afraid of THIS!” as another group of small children call shy ‘hallooooes’ from distant houses on a hill, waving small hands excitedly. Then we meet another farmer, or an old lady whose husband I photographed last year, and William shuffles through the big envelope of photos. The lady expresses every wish you can imagine for my good health and future. Young farmers in their small fields break off from their weeding to come and greet; women tending small patches of dark green vegetables – black nightshade that I will eat for my supper – laugh and smile with us; people offer maize-dusty hands to be shaken. “How is your place? Your people, they are fine? Happy to see you!” And some even remember my name, for wazungu are rare here in the meandering village paths amongst small, simple homes and the cows and crops. This is an event: William’s mzungu has come again.
Countless are the friendly people I meet, the hands I shake, the waves I return, the smiles showered upon me. Am I afraid..? Ha! This is how life should be – sociable, kindly, curious, equal.
For an hour we sat and drank bulsa under some trees on the scenic slopes and hillocks of this plateau, the enormous view of the Rift Valley spread below, fading to blue-hazed distance in the equatorial sun; above us rose the dramatic red cliffs, dark pines clinging to crevices, the deep blue of the cloudless, searingly sun-drenched skies stretching their vast arc overhead, nothing but a few heavy leaves between me and the burning rays. Of course, today I have had too much sun, and now my head aches, my neck pulses from the red skin and I am drinking water in copious quantities in an attempt to rehydrate. It’s hard work here, even though I am doing little but wander up and down the red dust paths being friendly to a multitude of people. The sun is almost at its zenith now, just a week away from turning north again, and I am almost at the centre of the earth, passing time on the narrow paths where there is no shade. I feel a little breathless too, as we climb. I hope it’s the altitude, not my lack of fitness or, heaven forbid, my age – for of course, I am the old daddy here, way older than most I meet, where the life expectancy is perhaps two thirds of my age.
And there are those who shorten even that meagre allotment. Alcoholism is rife all over this continent, the antidote for many to their hard, confined lives. With William’s best friend (“No, William, that must be wrong! Your daughter is your BEST friend, and I am the second!” I joke); with Atanas, who cares for William’s cows down on their grazing on the valley floor far below, and is visiting home for some small business; with Atanas, we drink bulsa and later repair to the beer bar in its pleasant gardens amongst scattered boulders the size of houses. He orders KK, neat gin, 70% proof, 40% alcohol by volume. 250 centilitres of this poison. Even on the bottle it warns that this liquid may induce bad health and cirrhosis. And it does. I have seen so many die from these harsh liquors, and countless more, who die ‘unexplained’ death, succumb to KK, wirigi and apoteshi and all their home-distilled like, across the continent. While William and I drink a couple of bottles of beer in the shade, Atanas is soon drunk and, despite his politeness and behaviour previously, is talking nonsense. In the end, we have to send him home. “Perhaps he’ll sleep it off in a ditch,” I say, but William reckons he’ll make it home automatically, as he weaves away across the gardens. “He is SO excited! Taking bulsa and sitting with a white man! For him, it’s wonderful!” Atanas has eaten nothing since we met, some hours ago, and will now sleep the sleep of the very drunk, with no sustenance at all. It’s SO common. Within minutes another man approaches and troubles us to the point we have to send him away too. “He’s a teacher. A bad teacher,” William says dismissively. “He has been transferred, but he had to spend six months in rehab first, and look at him…”.
Perhaps my biggest influence on William has been that I stopped him from drinking these spirits. Now he takes only beer. Of course, it’s much cheaper to get drunk on KK and the like, at £1.60 for 250cl, while beer is £1.42 a bottle. I gave William my ‘Africa/ alcohol/ death of strong young men’ lecture soon after we met, and he acted on it. For so many take this violent alcohol on empty stomachs, choosing the effects of inebriation to forget their harsh lives – while, of course, making them harsher as well as shorter. “Atanas won’t make old bones!” I tell William, introducing him to another British aphorism. Atanas lives on maize meal, dried meat and homemade mead, down on the scorching valley floor. And KK when he has some money. KK before food…
“Oh, I am happy you told me. I followed your advice. I have left it! Left it! Now I only take beer when I have a little money; my daughter, she sends me some money, but she says it is groceries, for my satellite rental – NOT FOR BEER!” laughs William, always so proud of Lydia, working so hard in Perth.
Walking back across the road to William’s shamba and my slightly run down guest house, we look again at the glistening three storey palace, all pilasters and gables, built by a local man who became Public Procurement Officer in the local city of Eldoret. “Oh, he got caught! He was sacked! Now he has a small job as a contractor!” William says it with some relish, for he despises corruption; he’s a man of integrity and I wonder how his time in the police force squares with this. “They liked me for my organisation! If there was to be an investigation organised, they would ask, ‘where’s William?’. I like time. Like the British! They like time!” William has a strong, and today, misplaced, perception of the honesty, uprightness and decency of all things British. Happily, he doesn’t see our new mean-spirited Brexit populism… I keep quiet; perhaps he should keep his dream intact.
Back for supper and William is hassling the staff to treat his guest with respect. Up and down, always fidgeting, upset that our meal is late. “We asked for 6.30, and it is already 6.36…” Finally, it arrives at 7.30, William irritated. There’re some greens that we bought for 20 bob from a neighbour, a carrier bag of local vegetable for 16 pence. “They haven’t cooked it all! What’s this? Not even half. I shall tell them we won’t pay.” This despite the fact that he shuns vegetables when there’s chicken and potato on offer, and the large mound of greens is just for me. “The manager, she is LAZY!” The other eternal African problem: bad management. So many good ventures fail through sloppy management; no one elevated to such a position ever expects to work themselves again, only to command, not lead.
So ends another day in this small corner of Africa. It’s time to sleep it off, the sun, the sociability, the conversation, unaccustomed flavours, the novelty and investigation, all the questions. There’ll be more tomorrow. And the day after…
DAY 8. WEDNESDAY DECEMBER 19th 2018. KITALE, KENYA
There’s one of those moments of real topographical drama as you leave the scruffy town of Iten, world famous as the source of many of the world’s Olympic and competitive runners, training there at the high altitude. As you leave town by a couple of serpentine bends, the Rift Valley suddenly appears, as if by magic. It’s a showy moment; a theatrical reveal. There, spread literally as far as your eye can see, is the vastness of the African landscape. Four thousands feet below – in some places the great escarpment rises six thousand feet above the valley floor – spreads mile upon mile of hot bush land, backed by the far Tugon Hills that form the other rim, ten miles away. To the north the valley stretches fifty miles and fades into the Rift Valley, a geographical feature that cracks the continent from South Africa to the Middle East. Below, in the haze the Kerio River, a meagre trickle with crocodiles and plastic bottles, dribbles through dry brown rocky country covered in low trees. In the midst of this valley there are elephants but cattle grazing on scant greenery are more common. A long, straight, white dust road, that I once rode, streaks along the base of the hills, disappearing into the mists to the north. That was a hard ride; fifty miles along that rocky terrain. Now it’s is a twenty kilometre twisting ride down the the depths. It’s one of my favourite rides.
Part of the way down, I pass the Lelin Campsite, where I stayed the past two nights. I stop, on the way back from a bank in the town above, to give William a small ‘Christmas box’, shake his hand and continue on my journey downwards. As I ride, the mass is on my right, towering above as I drop off the plateau on which stands his home and those of so many of my new friends around Kessup. The high red cliffs rise sheer to the cloud-filled sky, the deep green of tall pines clinging to whatever thin soils they can find. It’s a huge, apparently impenetrable wall, but I know that one of my favourite roads, a rough track, will take me bouncing back to the top rim, a magnificent ride of thirty miles or more; a journey I am enjoying for my third time.
A long white dusty road winds through the dry bush lands of the valley floor to Kimwarer and its fluorspar mines, a couple of mine-operated police barriers and a ford across the Kerio River. Beside the wide ford a rusted, peeling sign warns: ‘Crocodiles have been sighted in this area. Washing of vehicles in not recommended’. In the middle of the stream a boda-boda boy washes his Chinese motorbike unconcerned. When I have ridden through this deep ford, I have done so smartly, my chin on my shoulder…
From the river and its scattered mine offices – here they actually DO mine fluoride, the stuff in toothpaste, I find after a Google search to find out what it’s for – the track begins a long, serpentine journey back up the four thousand feet to the high ground again. At one time I stopped, astonished that the rocky dust road would find a way up the vertical cliffs. But I know it does; I have been down this roller-coaster twice, but it’s impossible to see where the road makers found a route. As I ride, the air gets cooler, and after I emerge onto the high lands above, a figure of some astonishment to the traders and boda-boda boys gathered at the small habitation where the track finds its way back to the tar road, I have to stop to put on my waterproof jacket for warmth. In due course, I will need it for rain too, as the unseasonable weather drops lumps of rain from a grey sky.
Soon afterwards, in an attempt – ultimately successful – to avoid the crowded, ugly town of Eldoret on my way home, I am lost on farm tracks, greasy with the drizzle of drops. I slip and strain, trying to help two young men in a battered saloon car, polythene forming the driver’s window, behind which I can see just the driver’s huge smile and acceptance of misfortune. With the barefoot passenger, I try to get enough purchase to push the heavy car. The battery is dead, the car slithering on the muddy surface. Unsuccessful, I have to leave them to wait for four-wheeled help and they wave me away, amused that an old mzungu tried to help. It’ll be a story when, mud-covered, they get home. I follow their directions for a mile or two, the tracks dwindling to field tracks. Eventually, a boda-boda slips and splashes towards me. Robert, the rider, the customary woolly bobble hat and wellies, draws me a very efficient map in my notebook. Obviously, he knows the terrain. He includes small streams and multiple side tracks, marked with crosses, that I should ignore. Fifteen minutes later, I do emerge onto the tar road to Kitale, but I have only avoided Eldoret by a few miles and got rather muddy in the process.
So back to Kitale. Home for now. I’ll be around for Christmas now, a family holiday in this cheerful household, who have been generous enough to share their last two Christmases with me.