EPISODE FOUR. MY UGANDAN FAMILY, A COMPLETELY CORRUPT ‘ELECTION’ AND RIDING THE ROUGH STUFF IN RURAL UGANDA. January 7th to 18th

This is a rather long episode, I’m afraid! I was without internet for eleven days, and then, having uploaded all this, I pressed ‘publish’ at the very moment the power failed in Kitale. It’s now uploaded by Rico’s mechanical knowledge, powering the router and our devices from his car battery and an inverter. We have had no power for 24 hours – so far. Life in Africa…

Mwanaydi strips the fibres from very tasty pumpkin leaves

I could well be the ONLY foreign tourist in eastern Uganda this week. “How many tourists are coming through these days?” I asked one of the officials at the small Suam River border. 

“I came on duty one month ago, and you are the only one I have seen.”

*

“We are expecting it today. Come today!” shouts Harison, the Medical Officer of Health for Suam border, into his phone on Friday morning, in answer to my query about my £50 Covid test result. 

“But your regulation is for a test within 72 hours of entry. It’s already almost 96 hours!”

“No problem. Come today!”

It takes an hour of extreme dust to reach Suam. “You are back! Go and see first, then come back to complete the formalities,” suggests the Kenyan immigration officer sensibly, recognising me from Monday. So I walk over the tumbledown bridge with its twisted railings over the rock-filled trickle of the Suam river. The Ugandan post is a place of dust-covered tents, an ancient round prefabricated zinc hut from colonial times, some down-at-heel offices brown with dust, all set in red dust and ruts. 

Harison comes down the broken embankments waving a colourful – unsurprisingly negative – test result. “Now you will be OK! You will have no trouble.” And formalities are simple and filled with smiles. “Welcome to Uganda!” I find a certain irony in the fact that my own ‘developed’ country is today discussing imposing the requirement for this negative Covid test for incoming travellers. It’s been in place in Uganda and Kenya since March… I laugh with Harison at this discrepancy. He is astonished: “We have been doing this since the beginning…”

*

On the wonderful trail around Mount Elgon into Uganda

I ride off into remote rural Uganda. The sun is hot. The views are wonderful. Ugandans could contest for the friendliest nation in Africa. People watch me pass, amazed. Everyone reacts to a smile and a wave, when I can take my hands off the bucking bars. Children shout excitedly from the roadside and fields. Infrequent drivers lurching the other way give an ironic wave and greeting. It’s fun to be here, an apparently old ‘slebrity’ (as Alex delightfully mis-spelled in an email) on a piki-piki.

In a few years, maybe even next year on the Kenyan side, but another three or four, I reckon, on the Uganda side, where they have some difficult topography to deal with, there will be a fine tarred road. ‘Just in time for a 75 year old adventure biker to be grateful for a smooth road,’ I think, as I lurch and bump over one of the worst trails of my considerable experience. It’s about 75 or 80 miles from Kitale to Sipi, my Uganda base. At present perhaps 20 miles are tarred, another 15 reasonably graded earth and gravel as the new road reaches slowly westwards, and the remaining 40 miles some of the most serious trail riding imaginable. Fortunately, my little Mosquito can handle it and I now know the machine well enough to make most of the rough stuff fun.

Tired, I stop as often I have done, at the straggly habitation of Kabukwo for chai at the Star Hotel, a very basic tea shack beneath rusty zinc sheets. Sitting on a low bench polished by tens of thousands of backsides, I sip from the scalding tin mug of over-sweet, reviving, milky tea. Soon I am in conversation with a young boy and Pastor Christopher. They are pleased to quiz me; not many strangers come this way. Always the same questions: how many children, what religion, which football team. It’s useless to try to change their long-held traditional belief that having more and more children is the aim of every life. These people have seven each as an average. Many will have ten, fifteen, even twenty – all on the very verge of abject poverty and total illiteracy. Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with a median age of 15.9 years. (Mali is 15.4. UK is over 40). There are children everywhere and teenagers already have babies at their backs. Uganda had a population of about six million in the 1950s. Now it has over 55 million. By 2050 it will double again to over one hundred million. But no one sees my logic, that if you keep dividing your inheritance of land between so many, they will end up with about enough to stand on. “But what if you have two girls?” comes the inevitable question, when I opine that two is enough and the planet is running out of time to deal with this explosion. Girls have little value, except for the dowry they will bring, and as producer of ever more babies. 

“Soon you will reach the tar road!” Pastor Christopher assures me. “You will be in Kapchorwa in under one hour!” Obviously he hasn’t actually driven this way, for the tar is still twenty or thirty kilometres off, and between here and that anticipated delight, are many miles of gravel and earth as the Chinese build the new road, and Uganda an ever-increasing debt to the Chinese government. A debt that they will never repay, except in handing out their natural resources and land to a country with interest in profit not the planet. Where bridges are still being built, even when I eventually reach the tar, there are deep dusty and earthy diversions across cabbage fields and rocky river beds. 

By the time I reach Kapchorwa, I am exhausted. I stop to use the ATM in the bank lobby. My temperature is taken, I am expected to wash my hands and some disinfectant nastiness is sprayed on my palms before I am allowed inside. I never had my temperature taken in England yet. Today I am hot – 37.2. Not surprising where I’ve been, leaping about on my piki-piki in jacket, helmet, gloves, boots and goggles. Now, though, I am only fifteen miles or so from welcome, rest and noisy greetings from Precious and the children. I ride, hooting, down the last dusty track to Alex and Precious’s Rock Gardens guest house, named after my own house. People recognise me now. They wave cheerfully. Precious comes, arms helicoptering in excitement. My two year old namesake, Jonathan – named for me and nicknamed ‘JB’ – erupts in wails of horror. There are just two reactions to mzungus from small children – fascination or terror. Jonathan selects the latter, and stays that way for my stay. Keilah, now three, is reserved but no longer afraid. Alex is out when I arrive. Elections are in full furore at present. The crook Museveni, the president, in power for over 34 years, plans to win once more, whatever it takes. Alex is campaigning for his local candidate. The opposition is led by a pop star called Bobi Wine. He’s popular with all the younger voters. He’s getting world media attention for his campaign, and for his frequent arrests on trumped up charges (funny, I never saw the relevance of ‘trumped up’ until I typed it…), and the deaths of his supporters and aides. It’s a disgusting process, this election. Corruption will win it for the incumbent as always. There will be much drunkenness and most votes are simply bought from uneducated electors more interested in 25 ’pennorth of hard booze than their prospects for the next five years. Undoubtedly, this will be the most corrupt, unrepresentative election I will ever witness. 

*

Satya is 86, very old for Uganda. He is senior in Alex’s clan
Alex’s aunt Khalifa with her grandchildren
Bath time for Salim Ahmed with his mother Rose

Jonathan’s House awaits me, decorated with tinsel and intricately folded towels. Precious’s presentation skills are way beyond the simplicity of the nascent guest house. She is excited. She greets me in the traditional way, by going down on one knee before me. Put out of work at the beginning of the lockdown in March, Alex has not worked since. There’s no government ‘furlough’ or state assistance. All the money donated from outside to help combat the virus has been filtered away into the government officers’ bank accounts. “Let them rot in the villages,” Alex’s employer in the hotel in Kapchorwa was heard to say. And without the small help I gave him, paying his salary for nine or ten months, the family would have been in dire straights. Precious gushes and mumbles her thanks alternately, overcome by emotion. It’s humbling to be so appreciated. They’ve never asked, just blessed me constantly for my assistance. And I can see that Alex, a man of great integrity, has used his time, and my small payments, with determination and honesty. The raised bar/ restaurant of which he has dreamed for so long, has developed a lot since I left in February. He calls it ‘1818’, a suggestion of Rico and I when we were here in January and saw its altitude on Rico’s dashboard instrument. It’s 1818 metres above sea level. Alex has worked on the building, raised three metres on posts to catch the view into the valley behind the matoke trees – the savoury banana that is the staple diet through much of Uganda. 

Peasant life in rural Africa is incredibly hard. And if you are born to this state with intelligence and integrity, charm and ambition, the challenges for most of us would be overwhelming. Most cook over small open fires on the compound floor. When it rains, as it did – very hard – through Sunday night, the place turns to clayey red mud. Rivers run through the yards and mud coats everything, especially the small children. As the rain roars on the tin roof of the mud and stick-built kitchen into which Alex and Precious have retreated to make my breakfast, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. We inhabit a world of red mud. “We don’t expect rain like this at this time,” says Alex making chapatis on a charcoal burner on the the wet floor, as Precious mops out with an old skirt. The rain beats a tattoo on the unlined zinc roof and cascades make a curtain at the door, falling into the rivers of mud that are everywhere. The children are smothered in mud, their decrepit shoes and sandals filled with red glue. Precious drops big cooking pots under the brown rain tumbling from the roof. Nothing wasted. Alex rolls chapatis on the floured top of a low stool and boils milk, water and tea in a blackened, lidless kettle for my chai. Precious can pick searing hot ashy saucepans and kettles from the fire with her bare hands. I can’t even touch the burning metal. “Oh, I am an African woman!” she laughs widely, mud from the ankles down, as she juggles pans and rinses a miscellany of mismatched plates, more cold water splashing into the mud of the floor. Keilah sits with a serious face chewing chapati in a child’s plastic armchair from China and the other Jonathan screams and hides behind his mother, terrified as yet of his mzungu uncle. The cooking knife has no handle, fresh water comes in plastic containers from a tap outside that only dribbles at night, the legs of the ubiquitous plastic Chinese chairs are stained red with mud. It’s just a touch above subsistence life. But subsistence life with so much ambition and drive from determined Alex. He brings a delicate china coffee cup he has gleaned from somewhere for my milky chai. The milk is straight from a cow across the muddy track amongst the matoke trees. “I’m sure my neighbour has been putting water in the milk, so I went myself,” Alex explains, cutting pineapple and passion fruits decoratively onto a green plate as if he’s in the Kampala hotel where he was so popular, but always cheated by unscrupulous employers – the fate of those with integrity in Uganda. 

Alex’s wellies are mud blathered at the door before the wall of rain. Precious thoughtfully bought them for my visit last year, but they are three sizes too small for me. My slippery flip-flops will do in this deluge. We slide about in the mud of the compound. “This rain will make the coffee flower.” Alex knows I’m always interested in life about me. “Last year we had NO coffee at all here, the rain was TOO much. The weather, it is changing…” If the Climate Change deniers had the humility to look at Uganda – or anywhere else in Africa, they may think again. But driven by blind arrogance and greed, they’ll never see this squalor and the suffering crop failures produce here. 

*

Alex is an accomplished chef, despite his kitchen
Children everywhere, but how they love Alex’s ‘slebrity’ mzungu

At least for a day the torrents will dampen the election fervour that is overrunning the rural village with noise and drunkenness. Fighting too, when candidates come to buy their votes. The price of a vote here? About four and a half English pence… That’s approximately what candidates hand out to the villagers here in the hope of a vote. The candidate with the biggest bank balance, and the most determination to cheat his or her way into lucrative local contracts, is the one that wins. Meanwhile, small lorries weighed down by vast loudspeakers pump pop music into the matoke trees as they pass on the narrow tracks. The populous runs behind to be at the front of the handout of pennies, enough to buy a box of matches. Fighting ensues and we even had reports of a shooting in the nearby trading centre. Everything went very quiet after THAT! The President has instructed the military to ‘shoot on sight’ at any disturbances at polling stations. The iron hand of a government that doesn’t care a jot and regularly arrests the opposition candidate, Bobi Wine, and imprisons his supporters on specious excuses. “What about international observers?” I naively ask Alex. “Oh, they go to a few polling stations where the officers are warned in advance. They look and drive off in their big vehicles.” This is an election split between the youth and the traditional older generations and mass of uneducated, who don’t like change and have been bought off over the years by an astonishingly corrupt leader and his cohorts. The opposition just gets locked up. And this man, Museveni, with so many lives to his account (actually of Rwandan stock) originally came to power to stamp out the corruption of the previous incumbent – back in the early 1980s, accusing Obote for ‘staying too long’. Rich irony: Museveni has been in power for 34 years, changed the constitution by force to remain in power long beyond the 75 years age limit allowed in his own constitution. 

“Huh! Our parliament is nothing more than a casino!” someone opined in conversation. “You get there by gambling. And Museveni is there, the big owner of the casino!” 

*

Alex with a small selection of local children for the mzungu’s camera

I photographed two girls one afternoon, mainly because they were obviously hanging about the house in wait for my camera. I always like to note down the names of my subjects, but I couldn’t understand their names, so I passed over my little notebook and pen. It was then that I realised that these two girls, about fourteen years old, couldn’t even write their own names. In clumsy capitals they wrote ‘WNNE’ and ‘BRIDGT’. Soon these two girls, from a village below the escarpment that Alex says has only the most basic education, will be mothers, to another illiterate generation. “They know money better, those girls. Always wanting money… They sell tomatoes all around the area. Only money…” 

“And the churches do nothing!” I exclaim, shocked, to Alex and his friend as we sit in the dark. “And the government cares nothing for the state of the people and the overpopulation of the planet. All they want is money.”

“The churches don’t even TALK about sex,” says Alex, putting on for a moment his mentor’s hat, the voluntary work he does with the local reproductive health centre to attempt to control the rampant birthrate, FGM and bring equality for girls. His friends says disgustedly, “All the churches came out for Museveni, endorsed him. The Catholic of course, but even the protestant, all of them. And you know what sort of cars they got? V8! Very big!” This is such a corrupt country, from the billionaire president – who will shortly be elected again – to the pettiest officials. When Alex’s employer at the hotel in the next town peremptorily closed his business at the beginning of the Covid crisis, he was heard to say, “Let them rot in the villages.” That’s pretty much the attitude of all who claw their way up the greasy ladder of wealth in Uganda. The candidate probably set to win this parliamentary seat, is a crook. Leaving school before O levels, he literally printed money – counterfeit notes, many of which were laundered by government officials – and his own qualifications. So this ill-educated candidate has the most money to give out in small notes to buy votes. Mind you, the incumbent has a low attendance and record of 0.037 involvement at the parliament, and he left school at Primary 7, so maybe a money faker without O levels can’t do much worse..? Another local candidate was discovered three days before the election with two full boxes of votes already-cast in her favour. No one ventures to disqualify her. The ruling party knows she won’t win anyway, so why bother? They’ve tied this election up months ago. It’s only a form they have to go through at huge taxpayer expense. Votes are usually cast on clan, tribal and religious lines – and those who buy the most votes. 

*

The cost of a vote? Well, now I’ve seen it for myself. I have photos of villagers lining up by the hundreds in a remote village to receive a 25p handout from a prospective candidate. “Oh, I am lucky,” he exclaimed through his megaphone to the watching crowd, “I even have a white visitor to my rally!” I gave him a thumbs up from the crowd, to the delight of the village. They see very few mzungus out there in the depths of the sticks. I do stand out rather, the only white skin in two or three hundred villagers, the sinecure of all eyes. 

Why were we in the distant areas below the big escarpment? We had decided to visit Alex’s sister, Doreen. Rashly, I’d suggested we could walk. I didn’t actually know it would be a very long trek of about 25 or more kilometres on broken tracks and ending up clambering straight back up the cliff sides in the pitch dark to get home, some 500 or 600 feet up, stumbling – at the end of 16 odd miles – over big rocks on black footpaths between the matoke. “I must just tell you that this mzungu can’t see in the dark!” I had to complain to Alex and his junior brother Nic, who accompanied us on the trek. I have often noted that those who live in the dark seem able to SEE in the dark. Nic and Alex scrambled sure-footedly upwards in the vaguely starlit dark. I trailed along, just about able to make out Nic’s white trousers, thankful for the 25p torch they had sent an acquaintance to purchase from some small country shack amongst the dark fields.

Nic starts down the ladder on the cliffside

We set off in the morning, through the matoke shambas to the lip of the great cliffs, from where the vast view into the west was hidden in mists. By good fortune we’d picked a cloudy day for our expedition. Steep metal ladders descend the cliffs here and there to help in the steep ways down to a gravel road far below. Everywhere we went, I was a celebrity, an ‘old’ white man who was being punished by his young guides and should just be put on a boda-boda for the rest of the journey. I don’t exaggerate that I greeted a thousand people lining the track-side. Children called, ‘old’ folk (generally a decade younger than me) made jokes, youths just wondered. “You must think young!” I proclaimed to elderly men and women, many of them anticipating the entertainment of noisy visits by prospective candidates and their supporters. No one seemed to be working the fields; the children aren’t at school – “Maybe they’ll go back after the election…” people say doubtfully. The government doesn’t care anyway. 

This was the longest walk that I have taken in years. Even young Nic, about 20 years old, overslept next morning and Alex was hobbling by the time we reached home at 8.20. ‘No point giving in,’ my mother used to say – and I maintained my self respect with two men less than half my age! By the end I was running on determination alone. 

*

Excited villagers greet an arriving candidate
An agent hands out bribes for votes. This is why the villagers gather! They aren’t interested in the politician… 25p each.

Election fever hotted up as the days went on. A rather strikingly good looking young woman candidate came to visit us here in the rural village. It’s her clan – an all-important relation here in Uganda. Her entourage stopped next door to Rock Gardens, where she made a speech, the parts of which Alex translated, sounding pretty relevant: calling Museveni to account for his inactions, rather than voting blindly for a man who has syphoned away billions of dollars in aid and international help, sharing it with the iron-fisted cronies of his own western clan and with the military authorities. But the villagers hadn’t come for the speeches. They’d turned out, running through the matoke shambas, for the pennies that would be distributed. With great acclaim, the independent candidate’s campaign team announced that she had brought 200,000 Uganda shillings (£40) for the four local villages. Not for a useful community project of course, for tiny sums for individuals. As soon as she left, unseemly chaos ensued. Fists were shaken and women screeched. Youths fought. Men tore at one another. Shouts and angry voices erupted. A major disagreement was caused by the apparent unfairness that the four hamlets are of differing sizes. People chased one another, clutching at skirts and jackets, screaming in anger. It was a shockingly undignified squabble over a few pennies. This is certainly not an election about causes, beliefs, ideologies or manifestos. It’s about money – who has it (the politicians) and who doesn’t (the voters). Undoubtedly the most corrupt, squalid election I’ll ever witness. Later, I had Precious and her mother in law line up for a photo, showing me in their open palms, the two 100 bob coins they had won. 200 bob is about 4.5 pence, and will buy a box of matches. “Oh,” laughs Precious, “but if I collect another 300 bob from other candidates, I have enough to buy washing soap!”

Precious and Florence, Alex’s mother, show off the bribes of one of the politicians. Two 100 bob coins will buy a box of matches…

*

Precious comes from western Uganda, far across the country. It’s a beautiful region that I have enjoyed several times. Her parents live on an island in scenic Lake Bunyoni. Her mother married at 14 and began giving birth soon after. Precious’s two older siblings were born from 1992, she herself in 1995. Her father is a teacher, so he taught his children to read and write, despite the fact that most education is considered wasted on girl children in Uganda. What’s the point? They will be married while still children and their responsibilities are motherhood and serving their men. Precious’s siblings taught their mother to read and write themselves. Precious is one of 11 children…

Her mother, constantly pregnant through Precious’s childhood, is probably in her mid-forties now. After the seventh birth, Precious dared to suggest that perhaps this was enough. Her advice caused pandemonium. “Eh! They wouldn’t speak to me for TWO yeeears!” 

Precious and Alex intend to limit their family to two children. “How can I educate and feed more?” he asks. “Already it is difficult. School fees for Keilah alone are £100. Where do I get that money – without you this year?” Alex is a keen ‘Champion’, advising and mentoring – against the greatest traditional odds – against large families and encouraging the equality of girls. Subjects that bring opposition amongst rural peasants. How he keeps his spirits, I never know. 

*

Thursday 14th January was the great day in Uganda when nothing would change. I had anticipated a corrupt election, but not on the scale I witnessed. No vote was cast locally without it was bought. It is the norm. You sell your future to the richest, probably most ruthless candidate, who will ‘serve’ for the next five years, make decisions that will affect your family and life – for a few pennies. More likely he or she will merely endorse the decisions of one of Africa’s personally richest, least caring presidents. If they don’t, they lose their privileges and rewards. 

“People are ruuuunning!” laughs Precious at breakfast time. “They are giiiving out money!” 

“Candidates and agents are running door to door, handing out money!” adds Alex, somewhat ashamed. “My candidate has failed to get more money… On the last day.” (So HE won’t win.) Of course, they raise the money on promises of favours if they come to power. “The crooks are sitting in the matoke with hands full of money!” It’s rotten all the way through. “There are lines sitting at the polling station waiting to be paid!” Throughout the day, neighbours came demanding money from Alex, knowing he’d been canvassing on behalf of his local candidate – whose money was expended. The choices locally are between the crook who counterfeits money, laundered by government officials; a woman who prepared her own filled ballot boxes; a man who left school before O levels, bought his qualifications and has ‘served’ the district as MP for five years. His record of speaking in parliamentary debates is just 0.037% – (one of the two occasions was in agreeing to Museveni’s change to his own constitution that enabled him to continue in power, a mandate opposed by most local people, his constituents); and a few independents who haven’t a chance anyway as it’s not about policies but how many votes can be bought on the day for a few bob outside the polling station. 

Call it by what it is – it’s plain bribery, in full sight and sanctioned by the president and his cronies. As Trump and Johnson have proved, tell lies long enough and almost half the electorate believe you. It may be politically incorrect, but democracy without education just doesn’t work. If it did, Trump would still be a second rate TV personality, I’d still be a European, not a Little Briton, and Alex would not live in a country hijacked by crooks. “This is only pseudo democracy,” says Alex with a contemptuous shake of the head. “BULLSHIT!” he exclaims exasperatedly, summing up so well what this charade is about. 

Kampala was closed down and militarised. The government drafted in vicious troops from Somalia, an experienced war-torn land, to repress its people. “There are troop tents in all the streets and military guards on all the buildings. Nothing moving in or out of the capital. Kampala is only soldiers,” Alex’s brother Cedric tells us, arriving from the capital in the morning; with great integrity, he’s come home to vote. It was said that the opposition candidate, pop star Bobi Wine, was taking refuge in the  American embassy, his whole campaign team arrested on some pretext while campaigning on one of the islands in Lake Victoria.

In the late afternoon, I accompanied Alex to the count, on a grassy hillside in front of a school building. The views across the valley were sunny and delicate behind the gathered agents and assistants. The returning officer emptied a box of ballots onto a sheet of black plastic on the ground and assistants – including young Nic – fell on their knees to sort the papers correct way round. The returning officer then held each paper high and announced the vote thereon, passing it to the relevant agent. This is a conservative place and we all knew that most would vote for Museveni as he has had longest to buy loyalty – 34 years of bribery of the uneducated. Sure enough, 176 votes were cast for him, but there was some excitement amongst my friends that Bobi Wine totalled 31 votes from the younger voters, claimed as a victory in such a hidebound constituency. “If he can do that in this village, most of his support is in the towns and cities!” Only about 200 people bothered to vote, perhaps 40% of those eligible – the others had merely taken the various bribe monies and stayed home. 

It wasn’t an election. It was an auction. 

*

Keilah, Alex and Precious’s 3 year old

On Friday we heard that the crook had carried the day for local MP; he with the deepest pockets. He’s known for faking notes of several nations, then burning the counterfeits in collusion with high bank officials commissioned to destroy old bank notes, which then slip back into circulation. He’s also known well amongst the government mafia, working with corrupt politicians. He left school before O level and faked his own papers. One of his teachers told me himself that he dropped out of school and stole a cow to start on his career – now to Member of Parliament for the district. Few are even ashamed of his record. He’s been ‘successful’, manipulated the system. So now the Sipi district really can be sure it has criminals in charge from bottom to top.

People still wait for more handouts – now for local officials’ posts… The system is ingrained and established. Only a revolution – or universal education – can solve things now. Nothing changes. African ‘democracy’ in action. It makes me proud of Ghana, who have largely managed to reduce the tribal system to less importance than national pride, and have free and fair elections with peaceful handover of power. It’s rare on this continent.

Sure enough, on Saturday, we hear that Museveni will be president again. What a surprise. Like so many long ‘serving’ African leaders, he will have to die in office to save the ignominy of being dragged to international courts on charges against human rights, and to protect his vast personal wealth. It is suspected that the votes were consistently rigged against the pop singer, so popular with younger and urban voters. Museveni’s stronghold is western Uganda, the region from which he comes, and that has received most of his bounty over the 34 years. Voting is partisan, as is the corruption. 

*

Alex stands in front of Rock Gardens, proud of his dream: the 1818 bar/restaurant

I gave Alex money for two more lorry loads of rough stone to construct the lower levels of 1818, his new bar and restaurant. He began his project with insufficient engineering knowledge. Now he must support the raised timber bar on strong stone piers. Sadly, in his enthusiasm, he started with the decoration and twiddly bits. For safety, his heavy upper structure requires a lot of support. Once he assures that, he will fence the compound for privacy and security, construct a more pleasant latrine – “It’s OK for me,” I said, “but your visitors won’t accept it! Locals like to keep their pride intact.” Then he and Precious will open for business, a pleasant bar for meetings, small conventions, and quiet visitors. By charging more for their services they can keep out the drunks, says Alex! Since March and lockdown, he has left his job at the hotel in Kapchorwa and concentrated his efforts at Rock Gardens. He is admired by his late colleagues. “They laugh and say I am the only Ugandan to escape from that employer!” The boss regrets his exploitation now, that drove away his best, most popular manager. 

Alex watches work to strengthen 1818. Pity he started the project wrong way round! Build the roof, then the foundations…
The interior of 1818 so far. A bit wonky, but with charm and a nice view

On Saturday, a team of masons and labourers gathered to continue building the piers to strengthen the bar/ restaurant. Everything costs money, of which Alex has so very little – without my patronage. How he withholds the frustration of seeing his ambition creep forward at such a snail’s pace, I don’t know. A 50kg bag of cement at £6 is a tenth of the salary he used to bring home from a month on call 24/7 as manager at the exploitative hotel in Kapchorwa. £110 for stone is beyond his capability. My £2000 may make this lovely family independent. That’s MY ambition. He’s thrilled that I’ve shown him how to make paint from local pigments that is much cheaper than the vividly artificial colours available from the small stores in Sipi. He exclaims at the samples I have produced from earth from his own compound mixed with PVA, known here only as a wood glue: rich browns from the earth, a warm grey from wood ash and black from the bottom of the charcoal bag. 

Precious jokes with little JB and Keilah at home
Precious poses with her mzungu

The weather has been cloudy, cool and sometimes wet. On Friday night I had to scurry about my round room at 2.30am moving belongings from drips and puddles, before moving the big bed away from spray through the banana thatch. It’s not a very luxurious life, living like an African! But I am here for the human warmth and love expressed so readily on this fascinating continent, not for comfort.

*

Edissa is a keen athlete and wants to run competitively, but her chances are remote in her rural village

My virus test was valid for reentry to Kenya until the morning of Monday the 18th, so Sunday saw my journey home to Kitale on the wildly wonderful road around Mount Elgon, really one of my favourites. Fortunately, despite several heavy rains in Sipi in the past days, Sunday was bright and sunny and the difficult road dry. In rain this route is taxing indeed. I preferred to travel back through the small, friendly Suam border post, where I am known and recognised as the old mzungu on the piki-piki. They’re friendly officials, and that counts for a lot in these uncertain times. 

The beauty of the trail between Sipi and Suam. One of my favourites. Why not have a wide smile on my face?

And what a fine ride it is! I’m now in good control of my little machine. It clocked up its 100,000th kilometre at the most notorious section of the lovely road. We have ridden over 27,000km together (17,000 miles). When I first rode the bike, I dismissed it as weak, slow and too light, and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Then Rico nobly scavenged a comfortable single seat from a derelict NGO machine in Congo and nobly fought it through Customs and Excise – partly because it was carried in a large plastic bag, banned in the countries en route! My rides changed after he fashioned the steel brackets and carrier to fit the new seat. I could now ride easily for long journeys. Now, four years on, I realise that this small 200cc Suzuki is the perfect bike for my travels. It is lightweight – a serious consideration as I get older – and it is a great off-road machine. It’s a bit tedious on long highways, to be sure, at 45mph, but I am not here to hurry. On the Sipi to Kitale road I can dance about on the versatile machine and have a lot of fun. I am now confident enough to watch the vistas stretching into the blue distance and even to wave at the clamouring children as I pass, weaving over hard trails and rocky hillsides. I have a wide smile on my face to be here, close to the Equator in rural Uganda. 

Tough and energetic – and lots of fun
Rough but magnificent in the equatorial sun
The road around Mount Elgon will one day be easy, slightly disappointing tarmac, but for now there are adventures to be had by an old mzungu

*

So home to Kitale and beer on the porch with Rico, warm greetings from Adelight, Scovia, Marion and Maria and a time to reset for the next part of my journey. My charming, warmhearted Ugandan family long for me to return in February – with a new £50 virus test – to decorate the slightly wonky bar/ restaurant of crooked timbers, rough stones and mud plaster with our homemade natural colours. “Make it look traditional. Even if we have to invent the culture!” I told Alex. 

It’s not my creative scenery design ideas they want. It’s my company. Love and warmth and family are expressed so generously and fulsomely here in Africa, Precious crying as I rode away up the red dusty track and Alex waving until I disappeared round the corner between the matoke trees. Only little Jonathan, JB, named in my honour, was happy to see the white skinned figure of fear ride away at last! 

Mary. Who could resist?

EPISODE THREE. “WE ARE WORKING ON IT…” A brief update. January 1 to 7

“Oh, we are working on it! Come tomorrow.” It’s the call of all African officialdom. 

On Monday, I set out to visit the family in Uganda. Alex and Precious and the two small children live only 100 miles or so from Kitale, around Mount Elgon, the spreading mountain that raises its shoulders over the west of Kenya and the east of Uganda. My ride there is one of the finest I know in Africa – hard, rocky, incredibly dusty and endowed with magnificent scenery. The track winds about the slopes of the mountain, sometimes carved from the hillsides, with misty views into the expanses of northern Uganda. It’s rural and lined with friendly people who don’t see many mzungus going that rough way. 

At the remote border post, Suam River, marked by a muddy trickle beneath a tumbledown colonial era concrete bridge, I discovered that to enter Uganda I needed a negative Covid test within the last 72 hours. Checking the Uganda government website, the information is ambiguous at best, referring to arrivals at the international airport but not to those at the land borders. Wanyoni, the Kenya medical officer of health, was helpful. He would walk down to the broken bridge and talk to his opposite number, the MOH on the Uganda side. 

To save a ride back to Kitale and a wait of a day or three, Harison, the Uganda MOH, agreed to do the test and let me in. It would cost me £48. If it was the only way in, then so be it… I was checked out of Kenya, immigration stamp, customs for the Mosquito. I rode over the bridge and parked up before the nail-porcupine barrier dragged across the rutted track that forms the international highway. 

Harison took ages to input my details, take my money, issue receipts and exchange phone numbers. As he wrote, his colleague put on full sci-fi anti-hazard gear, from hooded white overalls to slip-over shoes and face visor. Then he poked a swab uncomfortably up my right nostril and wriggled it about, before proceeding to remove the entire anti-hazard gear as Harison bagged up the sample. 

I walked over to the immigration building in the hot sun. Lucy, overweight and quite bizarre in a hat-like wig of magenta Afro-curls, took one look at my papers and asked where were the results of my test? Well, across the track in a plastic tent so far… 

“But you can’t enter Uganda without a negative test!” I referred her to Harison, who limped over on his different-lengthed legs, poor fellow. A quite impassioned discussion ensued. Finally, I was stamped into Uganda. Then it’s a clamber up a broken two metre embankment to Customs for the motorbike. “Still no steps, then?” I called to the watching policemen.

“But where’s your test result?” By now it had all taken two hot hours. The final policeman, it seemed, had the veto and he wasn’t going to relent. “You must come back on Thursday, when you have the results; if I let you go now, you will be stopped often and people will make a lot of trouble for you, and ask for money everywhere.” Quite possibly correct…

Of course, I had to be stamped back out of Uganda and into Kenya! “That’s my shortest stay in Uganda!” I called to the officials – all of them charming and friendly. “We will let you pass quickly when you return on Thursday,” they all promised with big smiles for the old mzungu on his motorbike, who really ought to know better, in their opinion. 

‘Lay an extra place for supper!’ I texted Adelight.

So, home to Kitale.

*

Now Thursday is here. At 08.00, boots on, bags prepared, I phoned Harison. “Are my results back?”

“We expect them today or tomorrow. We are working on it! Be patient, come tomorrow!”

“But tomorrow will be 96 hours since the test and you say it must be 72 hours maximum…”

“No, we will let you go! Come tomorrow.”

Well, we’ll see, I suppose. But it’s equally likely that the final policeman will exercise his veto again. Just another day in Africa…

*

I have a quite philosophical attitude. I’m the lucky one. I have time on my side. If I have to, I can afford to take yet another test, maybe at Kitale Hospital. I am not shut in my house in Harberton in the gloom and cold. I am free to wander the roads of Kenya in the sun. I have a comfortable base here in Kitale, where I am surrounded by warm, cheerful people. “Don’t worry! You can stay in Jonathan’s House!” says Rico as we sit and drink beer on the porch in the equatorial sunset. And Adelight keeps her Scrabble opponent. I am still determined to go to Uganda for a few days somehow, if I can. “I don’t know how I will tell Precious!” exclaimed Alex when I rang to tell him I was returning to Kitale. “She has been cooking and preparing the whole day!”

In those uncertain reaches of the night in my garden house here in the compound, I have woken and worried a few times about the decision I made to escape – those hours when you ponder anxiously in the dark. Should I have stayed and waited out the dramas at home? What if things change here? How and when will I be allowed to go home? Did I compound the difficulties and uncertainties of life in these odd times?

Then I rationalise… I made my decision and must make the best of it. Nothing I hear from home convinces me that it was mistaken. On an online calculator, I checked the assessment of when I might expect a vaccination. A day or two after Christmas, this was put at between February 7th and March 12th. Checking two days ago, this had extended to the 29th March to 23rd May. Already. There are between 6,029,525 and 9,926,645 people ahead of me in the queue, despite our inept prime minister’s foolish promise that ‘all the over 70s will have been vaccinated by mid-February’. He’s not managed to organise anything else as promised yet, so this seems equally as vacuous as all other predictions. I’d like to be wrong. 

Yes, I made my choice – and so far, it’s been a grand one. This journey may be a little more circumscribed than usual; I may be less able to roam easily and I will probably have to stay within Kenyan borders except for a brief trip round the mountain to Sipi in Uganda. But Kenya is a huge country, and there’s still plenty I haven’t really explored much, and a lot of places I’ll be happy to revisit. My way of travel is much more relaxed these days and I am philosophical about the restrictions I may face. These countries seem to have a hold on the regulations and the virus has a low statistical profile. Africa in all has recorded just 66,672 deaths (out of one point two billion population) and has 2.8 million cases and 2.3 million recovered. Kenya, a land with pretty good infrastructure and statistical recording, has 96,802 cases, 1685 deaths and 79,073 recovered. My temperature is taken in every shop and business and, as I found this week, I cannot cross land borders without a recent negative test, and require one to come back if it’s after two weeks. Hotels and restaurants are open (and probably rather desperate for business) and life does not revolve around the crisis – it tends to be on about page three in the national newspapers. I do note, however, that the government just extended the nighttime curfews for a further 69 days to March 12th, and – surprise, surprise – bans all political rallies and demonstrations! A very convenient excuse for an authoritarian government… 

*

It’s been a relaxing week, with plenty of goodwill around me. Each afternoon, I try to take an hour or two walk – often in the hot, high sun. We live just far enough from town – about 6 kilometres from the centre – to have rural areas around the house. I can walk into fields and tracks, undisturbed by traffic. Small homesteads and rural shambas (smallholdings) stretch away towards the floating mountain to the west, eucalyptus trees wave and shimmer and new crops grow. The orchestra of birdsong is a joy down in the fields – natural woodwind and tympani in the trees. Hornbills, with long ugly curved beaks, break cover with a strident HAAAH! HAAAH!, a flash of viridian on each wing but shimmering with a deep indigo ripple as the fly up, alarmed. A tall heron stands on the dust road, flapping ungainly away as I approach to twenty yards. Two giant crested cranes, over a metre high, lope off across a field, their topknots flickering, their gait somehow expressing offence at my presence. Pigeons call everywhere – and unseen children chorus, “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are yoooo?” from amongst shambas and crude homes of earth, sticks and rusty zinc. 

*

Maria started school yesterday. She is a very bright three year old. We went to inspect the new school, run by Eva – Kitale born, married to a mzungu, who trained in Kenya, did a masters degree in Slough and lived for a time in USA. Her private school is impressive, neat, tidy and well cared for, with a patch of green grass and a huge sandpit too. Maria watched all the activity around us as we talked to ‘Miss Eva’. She has been excited about going to school, and not disappointed by her first day. 

It’s not cheap, at about £550 per year, which includes her tuition, uniform, three simple meals a day, books and activities. Extra options include swimming – at the Kitale Club, where we all spent an afternoon last weekend; skating in the big school hall, and chess, a popular pastime in Kenya. Rico has found these sums for many years and for many girls, now mainly young women, but Bo and Marion still needing fees. And now Maria. He’s paid for education from primary to the end of senior schools and training colleges for his clutch of a dozen or so Rico Girls, who all look to him as their father, despite no blood relations, except Maria. A selfless generosity to be much admired. 

*

Tomorrow I will phone Harison and attempt once again to get to Uganda. If I go quiet for ten days, then perhaps I got there! If nor, I shall abort the mission and replan later.

“We are working on it!” Yeah…

EPISODE TWO – CHRISTMAS 2020 TO NEW YEAR

Precious, Nora, Ivana and Mercy

I’m settling in and just adapting to African rhythms. Much of the past week’s been spent in the warm atmosphere of the Kitale family, with a short trip to Kessup, to greet my friend William and be, for a day and a half, ‘Kessup’s mzungu’. “Oh, that’s our mzungu!” William reports people say as we pass. Everyone waves and calls out. Returning to see people again confers respect in Africa. The fact that I have been to this rural area so frequently in the past five journeys allows the populous to ‘own’ me and know me. I receive great respect myself. For many, I am the only mzungu with whom they have felt some equality or even greeted close up. It’s always fun to go back to Kessup on its green plateau threaded with red trails, part way down the wall of the Great Rift Valley. I stayed just the 29th and 30th, back to Kitale in time for New Year celebrations, which said more about saying goodbye to the grim year of 2020 than greeting the uncertainties of 2021. 

On the Cheringani Highway

Every time, I forget how chilly it can be to ride a piki-piki up here at the altitudes of the Kenyan highlands. For the trip to Kessup, I decided to ride the new Cheringani Highway. It’s not the first time: I have been riding this way for several years, but never in this direction, always the other way; on one of the finest rides in the region, over high rolling hills and along the dramatic edge of the huge escarpment into the Rift Valley, sometimes five or six thousand feet below, apparently stretching implausibly far away into hazed blue infinity. I knew this road first before the Chinese highway was constructed. It was, for me, more fun, more sense of achievement, as a long rugged dirt and rock road through rural scenery. Now, as elsewhere across this continent, the Chinese footprint is heavily imposed in a new sweeping road that carves through the hills and along the high ridges. It’s fine engineering, this largely empty road to almost nowhere. Of course, it’s opened the region for the local people, mainly the Pokot tribe, a rather aggressive lot, quick to fight their disagreements bloodily. 

*

It’s still a mystery to me why such a bad mechanic should enjoy so much to ride motorbikes in rural Africa. I sit and worry almost constantly, listening for the knock and rattle of disaster, or the silence that spells trouble. Oddly though, when it happens, I am calm – and if I diagnose the problem (not that difficult on such a basic, simple machine actually) I am inordinately proud. It was the unsettling silence of complete engine failure this time. It didn’t take long to discover that I had ruptured the earth lead from the battery, leaping rather too enthusiastically over one of the thousands of speed humps. I cut some barbed wire from a nearby fence and effected a temporary repair to get me to the next town, where a boda-boda butcher stripped the cable and knotted it around the terminal. Most of the boda-boda boys would call this a permanent fix, but I shall be going back to Rico in due course. He won’t accept this bodge. 

*

It’s chilly up there, even in the searing sun beneath a vast dome of uninterrupted azure sky. I’m chilled, riding at altitudes around 2500 metres, sometimes above, where the air is cool on my chest. The valley below simmers in the heat of its depths, so far below, where the landscape spreads in endless bush lands. I am only half a degree from the Equator. Then, after the high town of Iten, where many international athletes train at its altitude, the road plunges down the side of the Rift, starting with an almost laughably theatrical reveal as I turn the corner out of the untidy commercial town. Suddenly the Rift explodes dramatically ahead and below as I start down the edge of the escarpment in a series of tight loops. I vividly remember the moment I first saw this thrilling reveal twenty years ago, on my first bike journey in East Africa. The temperature rises for every metre I descend. Down the bottom, another fifteen kilometres ahead, the warmth is dramatic. But my destination is only 500 feet or so down the escarpment, on the long narrow plateau that forms the villages of Kessup and its satellite communities. It’s like a big green step in the landscape, the vast valley as a constant backdrop, hazed by distance and heat. 

The Kessup plateau

I first stopped at the Lelin Campsite at the start of my earliest journey in Kenya with my Mosquito. Rico had recommended a road I would enjoy, the one I can gaze down on from my ‘banda’ at Lelin – my room on the edge of the world. Rico knows the rides I relish and suggested the steep track down into the Kerio Valley – an arm at the side of the Great Rift – and the white dust and rock road along its floor. I was new to my small motorbike then and unaccustomed to distances that looked so insignificant on my map of this large country. I slithered down the steep curling dust over 3000 feet into the valley, the escarpment looming above to my left. Then, at the bottom, I turned right, south, and bounced through the bush lands on a remote trail. Habitation was thin and the bush dry and hot. In the only small, remote village I stopped for refreshment – the last time I drank Coca Cola: the ONLY refreshment available there. I didn’t yet know to ask for sweet milky chai, far more energising and healthier (and so much more morally justifiable than supporting the multinational corporation that has done so much to damage the health of most of the world in pursuit of vast profit). If I’d known that I still had fifty miles to slip and bounce to the tar road, I’d perhaps have stopped at the basic hotel in that village, Arror. But I assumed that fifteen miles or so would bring me back to civilisation with a wider choice of accommodation. When at last I reached the junction I felt like giving the tar a Papal kiss. I was exhausted. I rode back up the curling road looking for a place to stay. Which is how I found the campsite at Lelin. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as I hardly ever see anyone camping there. It serves the local community as a place for outings, and relatively few guests enjoy the self contained rooms with a huge view across the valley. Next morning the then manager introduced me to William, a neighbour to the guest house, retired from the police in Nairobi after a serious attack by a criminal with a machete that shocked him so much that, lying in hospital with a possible brain operation looming, he decided to return to his humble shamba at Kessup, his home village. Sometimes he worked as a guide for the few mzungu tourists who stopped at Lelin. “So, shall we walk to the waterfalls?” he asked. “I’m not very interested in waterfalls,” I demurred, “I’d rather walk in the villages and meet your neighbours!”

And so I became, first ‘William’s Mzungu’ and then ‘Kessup’s Mzungu’. 

Ivana

“Jambo!” people call cheerfully, giving me a fist bump, the Covid greeting that has been universally adopted from the previous acknowledgement of the youth. Voices of children cry, “Eh! Mzungu!” lost amongst fields and vegetation, running to greet and follow me like the Pied Piper, laughing self-consciously as they joke and jest shyly behind us. Rills ripple and worry down from the wooded escarpment rising almost sheer above us, water that brings life and green richness to this agricultural plateau. Water gurgles and fizzes from breaks in the many snaking plastic pipes that feed homes and locally made sprinklers in small fields wrought laboriously from the hilly terrain by generations of Kessupians. This is the planting season and there are small seedbeds of brilliant green as we walk, people bending and planting expanses of young onions on terraces distorted by the rocky landscape. “We will harvest in about two and a half months,” says Robert, bending all day long over his small earthy steps of onion seedlings. 

As well as Kessup’s Mzungu, I have become Kessup’s photographer, with now hundreds of portraits of the people hereabouts. William clutches a small folder of photos that we distribute from last winter’s journey. And Robert and his handsome, happy family want to join the rolls, many of them on my walls at home. “I need some shade!” I say, for photos of black faces in this high-overhead bright sunshine make only silhouettes. So we repair to the family homestead below the red dirt track that winds through their small fields. It’s a typical home of rough boards and zinc sheets, dusty and rusty. There’s some fine stonework too, sharp-edged volcanic rocks, black and purple, with grimy (very photogenic as backgrounds) doors and metal framed windows that sport no glass. Many houses here are constructed from red mud plastered on sticks, the local vernacular. There aren’t many possessions or comforts inside, just the basics for life here – some foam-cushioned wooden settees, low tables, religious posters, simple crockery. Cooking is done outside, on charcoal or sticks and the crockery, cutlery, pots and pans drain on a stick platform in the yard. A clutch of banana trees gives a little shade. I am made very welcome and offers of chai come quickly. But we drink local water from chipped enamel mugs. It’s untreated, but clean and tasty. Later, we return here and eat some kitere – local beans and maize that serves most here as lunch. Now, the family lines up, laughing for my photos. “You have to smile for me,” I joke. They all begin to laugh, for Robert is my first subject. “Oh, he won’t smile!” says his wife Zedi. “He has no teeth!” Everyone breaks in peals of laughter at the joke, and I tell them that I have all-metal teeth, smiling widely to show my implants. “Oh, you must tell us how to do that!” says Zedi, but for the price of my teeth, I could probably purchase much of this village. My privilege… 

They’re a nice looking family, poor Robert’s teeth notwithstanding. Young Kevin, 15 years, smart and respectful but questioning, makes a lovely photo, and wants a photo with the old mzungu too. The family has wide-spaced, almond-shaped eyes and the customary bright smiles. They laugh and joke, and William is well practiced at parrying the jests and easing my way into these warm family gatherings. We’ve done this many many times on these slopes. We order 50 bobs’ worth (about 35p) of black nightshade, a rich dark green vegetable leaf that I like. We’ll call on the way back and collect a bulging bag, freshly picked from the dry fields, to take back to the cook at the campsite for our supper. 

Kevin
With Kevin

William is known everywhere about the plateau. He was born here 55 years ago. All his extended family lives hereabouts and he is related by distant convolutions to many. His father has two wives and relations are complex. A boda-boda stops and William greets the rider, his cousin, he tells me. As the motorbike with its rider and three passengers moves on along the rocky red track, I ask William his cousin’s name. “Oh, I don’t know!” he hesitates, chuckling. “He’s the son of a half sister by my father’s other wife… I can’t remember!” 

William’s unknown cousin and passengers
Mama Tabitha and family

Mama Tabitha has a new baby. The baby, Jaden, is the great granddaughter of Rongei, whom I have photographed these past couple of years. But Rongei died in late November, shortly after Jaden was born. Rongei was 92 or 93. Latterly unable to walk unaided, he lived in a small mud house, looked after by his grandchildren in shambas nearby. It’s one of my photos the family used for the funeral leaflets, something that happened many times at Navrongo funerals in Ghana over the years too. Sadly, in the photo I brought back this year of the late Rongei, I managed to elicit a small smile from the old man, who was accustomed to pose formally for his rare pictures. William encouraged him in February to smile for the mzungu, who had brought him a small twist of chewing tobacco. 

William

We walk thus for three or four hours, meandering the red tracks winding across the low hills of the plateau, the plunging valley always away to our east. Meeting and greeting. There’s a precious breeze rising up the slopes, tempering the heat of the sun, but I can feel the tips of my ears reddening and becoming sensitive again. I’m wearing an ugly cap to protect the top of my head but I need a pint of water to regain my flagging energy. It’s like magic. Suddenly all interest is renewed and the spring back in my step. For I love this activity. It’s largely what brings me to Africa so often: meeting such warmly welcoming people and investigating their lives. 

Now it’s time for William and I to repair to The Rock, a bar set in lovely gardens amongst vast boulders that have plunged down the steep mountainside, most of them back in times immemorial. But there is one, the size of a family car, embedded in one of the rental rooms at the back of the terrace, from two years ago. Bright magenta bougainvillea spreads over some of the trees, backed by the dense dark green of the conifers clinging to the cliffs above. It’s very beautiful, all this luxurious growth amongst the giant rocks and green lawns. We drink a Tusker or Guinness, and chat to William’s friend, the local vet, who rides his Chinese motorbike about the whole region. I tell him how expensive is his calling in Europe, mainly tending to pampered pets at huge expense. He laughs at the very concept of pet insurance. “Wow! It’s BIG business!” I assure him. His trade is more down to earth, keeping alive and healthy the cattle and domestic wealth of the small-time farmers everywhere. He has no permanent clinic with nurses and fancy operating theatres to treat illness in pet dogs and cats. That’s Western luxury. “Here’s the tools of my trade!” he laughs, holding up a leather holdall as he mounts his 100cc Boxer motorbike to attend to more chickens and cows. “We’ll meet again!” he promises as he rides away. 

A new hen house

We return to the guest house to rest for a couple of hours. “I will water my cows and come at 5.30.” William is a compulsive time-keeper. “In the police, they LIKED me for my time and organisation!” He was in the Nairobi flying squad. I know he will be at my door within minutes of the time he says. Later, we sit at a plastic table overlooking the enormous view into the valley. Elephants roam in a small reserve down there. There’s a green weed-filled lake that puddles in the middle of the bush-filled expanse on the flat valley floor. A range of mountains rises at the other side of this side-valley of the Great Rift; they’re perhaps fifteen miles away. As darkness falls, the valley takes on mysterious dark depths, just a few lights, probably small fires and an occasional boda-boda headlight glinting on the one dusty white road that snakes the length of the valley. It’s the one where I fell off my Mosquito, laughing as I was helped off a sandbank onto which I had reclined, my foot under the pannier bag when my rear wheel shook loose, that day I discovered Kessup. 

Now a fabulous full moon soars magnificently from behind those distant dark mountains and climbs into the enormity of the equatorial African sky, beaming brilliance onto our supper of Zedi’s black nightshade, and ughali – the dry maize flour mash that forms the basis of most East African diets – and some surprisingly tender goat meat. The young cook knows his trade this year. William, as usual, eschews the vegetables: “Why should I eat vegetable? I live on vegetable!” He gets much less chance to eat meat, so he takes the lion’s share of that while I eat a whole dish of black nightshade, the rich spinach-like chopped greens, with slivers of tomato and onion. 

William managed to raise the considerable money and papers to allow his daughter, Lydia, to study nursing in Australia. Now she is sending money from her student nurse’s salary to build William a proper house to replace the crooked timber shack in which he lives. “Next year, when you come, you won’t need to pay Lelin,” he assures me. “You will be guest in my house. We will take our beers at Lelin, or maybe on the terrace of my house. It will be complete then, God willing. I’m a Catholic, you know!” He always adds this in deference to my lack of belief – we’re both quite comfortable about that. 

*

On the morning of the last day of the grim year of 2020, I ride back to Kitale. From a pharmacist in Iten, the ragged town at the top of the escarpment – Kessup’s ‘big city’, I hear that the new road is now completed, through the village of Moiben to Kachibora on the Kitale road. I once tried to come this way before the road was built, and got comprehensively lost in muddy field tracks. I’ve tried various routes home, with varying success. Some have been wonderful bumpy rides on the old rough trails, but today’s ride is fine. It’s a sweeping Chinese road, with no traffic at all, spinning through lovely scenery, curling over hills, with bends to make a motorcyclist smile – but it’d be better with another 200ccs, I must admit. Still, it’s a memorable ride, even if I don’t really know where it’s taking me and I realise, half way along the 80-odd kilometres, that I have put my trust in a random pharmacist in Iten. I know better than to put faith in a single informant. Usually I ask a series of boda-boda riders, for they use these local routes. It’s no use in Africa to ask a non-driver for directions. People will tell you what they think you’d like to know… I’ve learned the hard way. 

But eventually I recognise Kapcherop, a small regional town through which I struggled on broken dirt roads some three years ago. I know now that I will descend to the main road back to Kitale. And I sweep down the bends that replace the rutted trail I used before, and emerge in the chaos of the small roadside mess of traffic, boda-bodas, jostling matatu minibuses, market traders’ stalls, scruffy lock-up shops with obtuse biblical names, cows, goats, and noise that is Kachibora. I’ve another forty kilometres or so back to Kitale. 

*

Adelight’s having her hair done at a salon for New Year. I’ve three missed calls on my phone. She wants to liaise on our plans for the evening. But the line is bad, a lot of background noise from the town. She says the car is opposite Best Lady, a bright pink emporium of make up, hair braids and glittery confections. I wait. And wait. I’ve parked the motorbike amongst boda-boda riders, always friendly to me, admiring my ‘big’ piki-piki (all 200ccs of it). Finally, she comes and I say I’ll head to the supermarket, agreeing what I shall contribute to the evening: a bottle of wine, a bottle of not-bad champagne (£8.50), beer for Rico and I, a block of local ‘Cheddar’ cheese – expensive here at about £10 for a half kilo, some more peanut butter and honey. My bill is about £45. It’s bedlam in the Indian supermarket. Why, on such a busy day, in aisles too narrow for comfort, does everyone indulge their small children to push their trolleys? People stop and chatter in throngs, amble the narrow ways and debate long over small purchases. Outside, it’s not much better. The steps are crowded with traders, a woman carries – or tries to – a folded double foam mattress through the mess of people conversing, selling tomatoes, greeting and chatting; begging street boys sniff plastic bottles of diesel mixed with glue, brains half-gone; security men watch the cheats and traders; women sell phone time scratch cards beneath dangerously spiked umbrellas, tannoys screeching tinny advertisements over and over; boda-bodas jostle, heavily overloaded; driver discipline is scant, everyone just wants to get ahead. 

I’m happy to get back on my Mosquito and take the back way home: a rutted dirt road that exits town avoiding traffic and police check posts, where few other vehicles bother to go. I seldom use the tar road now. I’ve ridden over 100miles today, senses alert as they must be here, for ill-disciplined traffic; wandering cows, goats and sheep; creeping, smoking antique trucks; mad matatu drivers desperate for a fare, and the ever-irritating boda-bodas that clog the roads. 

*

Adelight does a huge wash with Shamilla and Maria
…and no washing machine

So, back to the kitchen-chatter and cheer of the family. We’ve spent the past few New Years’ Eves together, but this year there are no celebrations at the Kitale Club – everyone has to party at home. I’ve promised the bottle of champagne. Adelight says she’s never tasted it, so it’s something to make the evening special. We decide over supper – pizzas with very tasty tomatoes I’ve brought from Kessup, where I sponsored William to buy the seeds earlier in the year to occupy his lockdown time usefully and make some income – to make New Year at 10.30. A sensible decision that omits that long dragging wait for midnight. “After all, it’s midnight for someone!” says Adelight logically. “Some people are already in 2021!”

I don’t think anyone’s very impressed by the champagne really, but the cork ricochetting off the ceiling and the novelty is fun for everyone. We take a family photo and make toasts to a better year than the one to which we are saying a thankful farewell. We toast the members of the family dispersed around the country, and Faith in distant Berlin. Then, happily, it’s time for bed. Let 2021 bring what it will, I suppose. It can’t be much worse for anyone than 2020. 

A toast to 2021
cynthia and Sharon
Clouds roll in, in the Kerio Valley
Cynthia