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

ESCAPE TO THE NINTH WINTER IN AFRICA 2021 – EPISODE ONE

Bo, Shamilla, Marion, some old mzungu, Scovia and Maria

DAYS 1 TO 8. DECEMBER 18TH to CHRISTMAS DAY 2020 

The elation at getting under the wire, out of the tunnel, over the wall – maybe I feel the sensations of an escaping prisoner as I sit in Kenyan sunshine with happy people around me? I’ve a sense of extreme relief to be out of a country ruled by hysteria, political incompetence and populism, manipulation of right-wing mean-spiritedness, impending national suicide and grim darkness. Not to mention the endless rain and relentless media excitement. I tell you, Africa – for all ignorant Trump’s ‘Shithole Countries’ – gives impressions of stability, rationality and common sense now lacking in my embarrassing homeland. 

There, I’ve said it. Now I’ll try to put it behind me and tell a story of hope, cheer and optimism. I promise. I’m back on my favourite continent, that has so obsessed my life these past three decades. Back in Africa!

Three weeks ago, I assessed the choices: winter in doom-laden UK as we head for disaster, or winter in the warmth – emotionally and physically – amongst my East Africa families and friends. It was really no choice at all.

*

Fortunately, it was Wednesday the 16th of December. Escape was still relatively simple and even without much frustration in those halcyon days, less than a week ago… Train to Heathrow and a faceless hotel at the edge of the A4, the lights of the terminals gleaming across the wet tarmac and a hotel take away – one of the worst meals of my life (a life with considerable occurrences of culinary tragedy). I’d walked to a distant petrol station through the drizzly, chill evening, along the wide A4. There, I considered the sandwiches as I bought a couple of bottles of beer, but dismissed them in favour of a hot meal. The ‘hot meal’ came slopped into a shiny brown cardboard box, was greasy, unappetising and unrecognisable as the item on the menu. A bendy plastic spoon to scrape out the £12 filth. Fuel, of sorts, to eat in disgust in the horror of a purple and grey room as traffic splashed along the Westway outside. Hindsight is so unhelpful.

*

There were a few formalities and extra forms to fill in to facilitate escape. I had to self-administer an expensive virus test (£120) on Monday last to allow me to board the plane on Thursday morning.  

THAT brought me some ironic laughter… I’d taken the test: poking the swab around my tonsils until I gagged, and then far up my nostrils until my eyes watered and I sniffed for the next hour. Following the instructions, I placed the swab into its small sterile tube and screwed it shut. That was inserted into a well made plastic envelope with a tight self-adhesive seal. The envelope went into a small cardboard box, which was itself sealed into a heavy plastic envelope with another tight seal. It was self-addressed, by the private clinic making a fortune on this adversity, to a laboratory. ‘Take this envelope to a post office. Record the tracking number’. The instructions were clear; the process well organised.

I took the envelope to the post office.

“I can’t touch THAT!” exclaimed the counter clerk in horror. “I’m not allowed to handle it! You must put it in the box outside.”

“But the instructions say, ‘Do not put in a post box’.”

“It’s a priority mail box. You have to use that.”

Don’t get irritated, turn it into a story, I told myself. “Oh, and I need to post this as well.” I had a large envelope to send to Scotland. It’d been on my table at home for days, I’d handled it many times, licked closed the seal, breathed on it and mauled it about. The clerk picked it up unconcerned, weighed it, stuck a stamp on it and threw it into the waiting sack. I took my small package, in its three clinical seals, to the box outside… Ho hum, logic evaporated sometime in March.

*

So there I was, equipped with test result, face mask slowly and resolutely carving my ears off, on my way. Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, also quiet. A wait of six hours – fortunately, KLM extended their loyalty levels for another year and I still have the perk of lounge access, that makes air travel almost pleasant. An overnight flight to Nairobi. Entry was the simplest in years and I was soon in the early morning sapphire blue sky sunlight at Nairobi’s 5000 feet. Here, five more hours to wait, and a mile to lug my bag to the smaller terminal for a short internal flight upcountry to Eldoret, where I touched down mid-afternoon on the 19th.

Rico and Adelight, with bright three year old Maria, were waiting with a hired driver to bring us back to Kitale up the congested East African Highway, that carries so much of the traffic from far off Mombasa on the coast to the interior in Uganda and Rwanda. Sometime after six, I finally achieved my goal of a Tusker on the porch with my old friend of many years, surrounded by the smiles and cheer of the family of girls. I’d made it. 

I decided years ago never to listen to the doubts of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’, words that limit a million dreams and so many lives. I’ll let the future take care of its unknown self. I’m in Africa until March. Maybe longer… 

Four days later and I would have been imprisoned in Little Britain with everyone else.

How things have grown in nine months

*

It’s easy to settle in, in Africa. That’s an inevitable  generalisation on a continent of 54 countries and one point two billion people, but there’s an honest warmth and expression of emotions almost everywhere that is one of the aspects that attracts me back to this continent time and again. I first ‘discovered’ the attractions of Africa in 1987, with my first Sahara crossing on my motorbike. Since that time, this numbers my 34th journey I think, thirteen of them with a motorbike, free to roam. 

Back in 1987, in the last cheap hotel in Morocco, I met three Dutch adventurers. “Would you like some soup?” asked Liesbeth, as she brewed up a meal on a gas stove on the wing of their old Land Rover. What I wanted that evening was company, more than soup, after a week riding alone through southern Morocco. We three became immediate friends and travelled together across the world’s largest desert to West Africa, me on my African Elephant, my old motorbike, and them in their aged vehicle. The best days of my life. Three friendships that remain strong, because of the time we shared. 

Especially warm is my brotherhood with Rico, for that early trip changed both our lives fundamentally. I stopped my footloose world travels and hardly journeyed again beyond Africa. Rico committed the rest of his life to live in Africa. He hardly returned to Holland, working as a mechanic with various aid organisations, based in war zones, famines and strife – a hard introduction. He eventually based himself in East Africa, moved to live in the northern deserts of Kenya, married a Turkana woman and adopted numerous children. Some of those children, almost all girls, are now producing grandchildren. After the death of his wife, Anna, he remarried lovely Adelight, now my ‘sister’ and Scrabble competitor, moved to Kitale, and took into the house more young women, some of them Adelight’s junior sisters, others unrelated. Rico and Adelight have their own small African, delightful three year old Maria, the apple of everyone’s eyes. Together, this makes the happiest family it’s my privilege to know – and join. I’m with them now. Totally accepted into the extended family, an uncle, brother and friend. 

*

With Adelight, I have become a fond friend. Of an evening, we play Scrabble, frequently a close competition, despite English being her second language. On my first Christmas here, we were in a big supermarket in Eldoret for me to buy some gifts for the family, that I hardly knew then. Without my knowledge Adelight had steered me to a shelf of board games. “Oh, I think the family would enjoy Scrabble,” she declared guilelessly. Little did I know that I now had an occupation for every evening in the house. She was the enthusiast. No one else plays!

We also enjoy our trips to town together. I have infinite patience with her shopping trips, a quality I’ve never possessed at home. There’s so much activity to watch and people to interact with, a raised eyebrow here, a wriggle of the hand, a wide smile; fruit sellers to exchange a joke; a child to talk to; boda-boda boys to laugh with. People in Africa meet my eye and give just whatever cheek or cheer they receive. It’s lively and fun, warm-hearted exchanges, laughter and human contact. No one looks away and a mzungu attracts attention everywhere. I travel as a celebrity. It is infinite fun. I found myself smiling to myself, beneath an unhappy virus face covering…

It’s mandatory to wear face covering in all public places, in the street, on the roads and even in cars. “Watch out,” says Rico, “a mzungu is attractive for the police to stop and fine!” It’s Christmas time too, a time when the police gather money for their holidays. The smiles, partially what brings me so much back to Africa, are sadly hidden today. Out in the rural areas, the face coverings are more relaxed, as indeed they often are in town, where many seem to wear them as a chin-strap decoration. Beyond that, restrictions are few and neighbouring borders open (more than can be said for Little Britain today). I believe there’s still a curfew in place from 10 to 4 at night, which will affect me not at all, for in Africa I sleep well and long. It appeared to me, on evidence of a morning in town, that track and trace is more efficient than that imposed at a cost of many millions by Boris the Bodger. We were expected to sign in to the post office and our temperatures are taken at supermarkets and offices. 

But it’s the streets that supply my entertainment. Crowded and colourful, all African life is here. As Adelight shops, I watch. There’s chaos in the Transmatt Supermarket, trolleys and people everywhere in the before-Christmas rush. Transmatt is an Indian business, common here in East Africa where many businessmen are Asians, often of many generations’ standing, but usually not much integrated with their Black countrymen. Asians often remain aloof. The name’s a diminutive of Trans Mattress, doubtless the origins of the trade. In a corner of the store, a booth stocks the booze. That’s my department this Christmas time. I purchase a big box of red wine. The girls at home only drink alcohol on high days and holidays, birthdays if they are fortunate and only when anyone can afford it. It’s my pleasure here to provide some treats, a role I relish in this happy family. Adelight and I buy a present for little Maria. Maria is a delight, Rico and Adelight’s own contribution to the family. All the other girls, who look to Adelight as mum and Rico as father, are from various sources. Lovely Scovia, one of my all time favourite Africans – pretty, endlessly cheerful, cheeky with her old uncle, positive and a pleasure for the eyes in her short, wide skirt, just turned 22 last week. She’s actually Adelight’s junior sister, adopted, with younger sister Marion, into the family as a sort of replacement for dowry – and because Rico has over his years in Africa adopted a variety girls and educated them and brought them up. Now some of them are producing his grandchildren, spread across the country, and even the world. There’ve been at least a dozen young women who call Rico dad – many of them unrelated to one another, but more ‘family’ than any other I know. Bo, now about fifteen, is a child of one of the original Rico Girls, a sort of granddaughter. Totally unrelated to Scovia and Marion – or to Rose, now in Nairobi but originally rescued from the Kitale streets after running away from an abusive auntie, or to Maureen, now down in Mombasa, another ‘original’ that I first knew aged about two or three back in 2002 – Bo is sister to the older girls, daughter to Rico and Adelight, just as much as if she were their blood relation. In Africa, the extended family is such a flexible unit, such that I also become uncle to these girls, father-figure to my Ugandan family, and now granddad to small, happy, muddy Ugandan children. 

For Maria’s Christmas present I buy a pink schoolbag. She’s an intelligent, bright three years old and will go to school in January. She’s excited about that and will probably spend Christmas wearing Uncle Jonathan’s lurid soap-pink backpack. We’ll put some pencils and notebooks in it for her. 

I pay with my credit card. We’re in the modern, consumer world now. A smiling young man helps pack our purchases and jokes that my backpack, now full of no less than £56 worth of booze, will be too heavy for me to carry. I’m impossibly ‘old’ to his 20 year old eyes. In Africa, where average life expectancy is 61.4. I’m already a decade beyond that. Riding my motorbike about his continent. Not surprising I have gained celebrity status now. I laugh him off and shoulder my bag. A good looking, open-faced young man, he carries the big box of groceries to the car with us, cheerful, helpful, smiling brightly. Outside the supermarket, noise fills the sun-dazzled street. There are traders with barrows of fruit and tomatoes, bags of potatoes, succulent pineapples, small red onions, mangoes, huge avocados. A pickup is piled high with enormous cabbages, giant ballooning cartoon vegetables. It’s astonishing how things grow in Africa, given rain and sunshine. There’s been plenty of rain this year, too much. Climate change is affecting the weather systems of Africa even more than the northern world. And it’s more crucial here, where subsistence farming keeps many families alive. A small change in the times of the rains can bring untold suffering – and often does. Too much or too little, and people have no spare resources to tide them over. It’s a hand to mouth economy. Too much rain; too little rain and hunger is an opportunistic enemy. Since I left in March, it has rained a great deal. The trees outside ‘Jonathan’s House’, my simple room here in the family shamba, beneath an avocado tree, have grown by maybe ten feet in height in nine months. Many of the trees and plants are double the size they were when I left. 

But there are plenty of vegetables this year, piled high at the roadside as we weave between knackered boda-boda motorbikes like insects. These are the employment opportunity in all Africa now: 100cc Chinese irritants ridden by maniacs for whom time is money. A passenger here, a load of crates, sheets of plywood balanced across the seat and rack, settees, iron rods, cement, vegetables, schoolchildren, teetering boxes heaped high, a passenger with his leg in plaster stuck dangerously sideways, a crutch across his legs. Sometimes a boda-boda carries another motorbike to repair, strapped on its side behind the rider. Frequently, with heavy loads or multiple passengers, the rider sits with his balls on the tank, the bike wobbling on the broken roads. The hospitals fill up and accidents are common. But in a subsistence economy, you do what you can to earn the school fees and put food on the family table. 

From a woman at a picnic table under a bright sunshade advertising inevitable phone companies, we buy a new sim card for my cheap phone. We register it to Adelight’s Kenyan ID. It’s too complicated in these money-laundering days for me to get one in my name. My motorbike ‘belongs’ to Adelight for the same reason. A pretty little girl, about four, gazes fascinated into my blue eyes, coyly smiling at the mzungu from amongst her mother’s skirts. I love these little encounters, but I can’t hear her whispered name. Around us whirls Kitale street life. 

We take my pannier bag, that needs a repair, to look for a ‘fundi’, or repairman. These clever fellows own a sewing machine for their livelihood and sit beside the street under shady arcades outside small lock-up shop booths, most of them garishly painted in the livery of the various mobile phone companies. Africa has adopted the mobile with alacrity. It jumped the whole landline generation and went straight to cell phones. There are more mobiles in Africa than either Europe or  America, they say. Fingers twitch everywhere, even amongst the boda-boda riders, pressing through the crowds, the cars and smoke-belching trucks and pick ups, carelessly texting as they ride, or with phone tucked in beneath the regulatory, but usually ignored yellow helmet, yelling into their phones as they ride. The fundi we need isn’t at his machine. We sit on a convenient bench nearby to wait, but he doesn’t come back. I watch the activity swirl around me. An elderly gent has old leather shoes, once fashionable in another existence, with long pointed toes that curl upwards like bananas. Everyone wears mtumba clothes, the secondhand rejects from our European and American charity shops. I wear it too, and often reimport my wardrobe! Adelight’s a star at finding what I need in the mountainous piles of clothing on street-side stalls. She delights in an order from me for some more shorts as she flings aside festoons of clothes, bought in great bales by traders from middlemen in the cities. It’s all the stuff we don’t want in our profligate Western lives where consumption is a thing of fashion rather than necessity. But it’s wonderful to see the creative uses to which the girls at home can mix and match their fashions – and look terrific. Probably I’ll get some mtumba wear under the winking Christmas tree. Christmas presents here are refreshingly unmaterial. No one counts the cost as we do in the West. They are happy for any small gift. We accept from the heart in Africa, the way gifts are given. The most difficult lesson for visitors to learn. But one of the happiest.

Scovia. Who wouldn’t smile when they see this lovely young woman – always cheerful?

*

So, what about the Coronavirus crisis that is rocking the world? What about poor Africa, on which the rich world dumps so many problems, seldom of the continent’s making?

There are various theories as to why this pandemic has affected Africa least of all except Oceania – which, let’s face it, is a random collection of far separated islands. According to a Guardian article – and it’s rare to even see Africa mentioned in Western news, unless it’s disaster, unrest, famine or mayhem – a mere 57,000 people have been reported to have died in from Coronavirus. That’s 57,000 out of about one point two BILLION people. Pretty insignificant. Less, so far, than Britain with our mere 67 million population. Yes, there will be a certain under-reporting of death here, where there are few checks on causes of death and doctors few and far between (many of them working in the NHS and similar institutions in the West). One of the few countries in Africa to have suffered more seriously in the pandemic is South Africa. I note that it’s also the only one, in my experience of 23 African nations, in which I have seen old people’s homes, largely populated by elderly women of European, white origin; where junk food chains are popular and where the Afrikaans nation tends to obesity. I just comment, for I don’t know the significance of these observations…  

There’s a totally different attitude to death in Africa. More fatalistic. No one demands eternal life, frequently supported by drugs, as we seem to do now in the West. You get old – if you’re lucky – you die. You get ill, you die. It’s a sad fact of African life. So very many people I knew during my African travels have died – young and old, children, teenagers, chiefs, farmers, male and female. I have witnessed the demise of many more acquaintances in my African circle than in my European circle, by a factor of tens of times. There’s scarcity of treatment for common diseases, almost no surgical intervention for complex conditions. Just a fact of life here. Life is short and risky. 

The average age of people dying from the virus in Britain is 82.5 years. Average life expectancy is 81.5 years. So the majority of those dying are the very old. Average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is a shocking 61.4. Shocking that is, until you remember that it’s not so long ago that we in the West had similar life expectancy. Our perceptions of age and expectancy of long life have changed hugely in the last century. 100 years ago, I’d have been amongst the aged and revered already. Here I am still riding my motorbike about a foreign continent. Occasionally I meet very old Africans, in their 80s and 90s, one or two even make it to the century. But they are a rarity. An old man whom I have photographed a couple of times in nearby Kessup, died three weeks ago at the extreme age of 93. In Navrongo I met an old man who was perhaps as old as 110, gauging from his memories, for of course no one kept records back then. His wife was over 100. These people are celebrities in their communities and very rare. 

So Africa has a generally young population. The median age of Africans is a mere 19.4 years – Uganda, a bit over 15 years, and in Britain it’s 40.6 years. Factor number one in the light footprint of the pandemic. 

Other factors are proposed. Africans have a far higher natural immunity to so many other diseases. We’ve lost that immunity with our medicines and ‘safety’ measures, let alone the way we treat our foodstuffs and agriculture. Africans live largely out of doors, particularly in rural areas. This, we know, limits transmission. All life is in the streets and fields, and even at home much of everyday life takes place in the open air, cooking over charcoal or sticks in the compound, eating outside, in some places even sleeping outside in the heat of African seasons. I ascribe a good deal of my own strength and health to staying a quarter if the past decade in Africa, with pretty casual regard to hygiene and cleanliness – if the locals drink the water and eat the food, so do I. My immunity is a great pride on my journeys; I seldom succumb to even the trots. It’s been acquired the hard way as I drink local brews from old calabashes and recycled drugs containers and eat roadside snacks.

Obesity, hypertension and diabetes are rarities in Africa, many of these conditions caused or exacerbated by our wealthy lifestyles, lack of exercise and industrial food. Ironically, you may live a shorter life here, but it’s probably healthier for most. Many of those suffering most from the virus in the sick West have these underlying health problems. 

Then there’s the possibility that vitamin D is a useful deterrent in Coronavirus infection rates. Scientists have put forward this theory. Vitamin D is synthesised from natural food products in mammals by exposure to sunlight – actually, it’s considered a hormone, rather than a vitamin, but let’s not go that deep! There’s infrequently any lack of sunlight over most of this continent. 

When I left – in a hurry – in March, it was supposed that the virus would spread rapidly here as the weather cooled, but it seems that this did not materialise. So it’s probably the relative youth of the population that is keeping the virus more at bay than anywhere else but Oceania.

Shamefully, with the richest 14% of the world’s nations snapping up or reserving 53% of the available vaccines (in Canada, enough to vaccinate everyone five times, in Britain three times…) it’s just as well that cash-strapped Africa is less exposed to the disaster. For once in its history, Africa is benefitting from some of its demographic and economic problems. 

*

We’re running up to Christmas, not a rabid commercial festival here. We will eat some treats and the girls will enjoy the wine I bought. For fun, I’ll wrap it under the little winking tree in the corner of the living room – just as in poorer days, my mother would include new school shoes amongst my presents. Expectations are modest, a few small gifts and plenty of family fun. The Ghost of Christmas Past, in fact. I’ve a pile of small gifts in glittery Chinese wrapping in the corner of my room, visited in anticipation by chirpy little Maria, the family’s joy. 

Maria, Rico and Adelight – and a Christmas cake given to me by my 93 year od neighbour, Betty

All day long, the girls accept their duties without rancour, cleaning the house, preparing meals, mountains of washing up, cleaning the compound, watering the chickens, hand-washing piles of clothes in their unwritten rota. Later, Scovia attempts her first pizza – but who’s looking at the oddly shaped pizza when Scovia is holding it, this most attractive of all Africans? I catch Marion gazing intently into the microwave, giggling when I snap her picture. Bo washes saucepans – and there’s no hot tap. Everyone just gets on with what needs to be done. Uncomplaining. There’s never discord in this happy house and no one is addicted to devices.

Scovia’s pizza. Who cares..?

The sun’s shining warmly. Adelight’s twin sister’s charming daughter, Shamilla, eight years and a great favourite with us all, has arrived. Not surprisingly, she loves to be in this family, where the young women pamper the two small girls – their nieces I suppose, but in an African family no one much bothers to assess the relationship. Scovia, lovely Scovia who never fails to bring a wide smile to my face, is in the kitchen. Soon we will open the presents that she has arranged on a table behind me on the porch. She’s hung some twinkling lights in the blazing sunset. She went to town this morning. Shamilla being a recent announcement, I needed some extra small gifts, so I commissioned Scovia. Brilliantly, she found a small cardboard suitcase on the market filled with beads and jewellery-making items, thrown out by some rich child but now to have a wonderful new life in Africa. I spent an hour wrapping Maria’s new schoolbag in many layers of brown paper and string, a treat I always enjoyed as a child. This is the spirit of Christmas.

Marion

*

CHRISTMAS DAY, MORNING. Christmas music plays from someone’s phone. Adelight and Scovia pluck our supper, chickens from their own farm here in the shamba. Bo and Marion have yet to appear. Shamilla is playing with the beads and threads that Scovia so cleverly found. Who cares that they’re secondhand? They don’t.

Family gathering

Last evening we enjoyed the best of Christmases Past, with a cheerful party on the porch, during which the smile never left my face. This is how Christmas was meant to be; not extravagance, cost-counting in exchange of gifts with guilt or pride. No expensive ‘devices’, new phones, ‘designer labels’ – materialist insignificance. To see the delight expressed at a new pair of sandals, a small box of lipsticks or nail varnishes, a bottle of something called ‘body splash’, a box of crayons, is humbling. A few glasses of sweet red wine is a treat for the older girls. There’s laughter and jokes, cheek and cheer, heartfelt love and generosity, sharing – of emotion, not Stuff. 

Maria sits beside me at the table, with paintbrush and colouring book, new gifts. The sun is bright in the garden. Rico flattens and recycles the wrapping paper. Nothing is discarded unnecessarily in this economy. 

Christmas Day is ahead. Tonight we’ll barbecue chickens on a spit in the garden around a cheerful fire. More family will visit: Halima, a girl that Rico took in years ago, when her guardians had to move away, and her small family who now live here in Kitale. Others will come and go, greet and chatter.

Shamilla, lit by the TV

*

The presents I received last night, were so thoughtful. More valuable than all the Stuff you could think of. Not the mtumba tee shorts I expected. From Rico, wrapped in many layers, as I had done with Maria’s bright pink schoolbag, was a tiny tin of fine Sahara sand from one of the first days we met in January 1987. Kept for almost three and a half decades, since that journey that so changed our lives. 

From the three young women, I found a water bottle for my journey – but it wasn’t that simple gift that gave me a knot of emotion. It was the letter, written on a sheet of exercise book paper decorated with florescent felt-tip hearts and the words ‘lots of love’. 

Their words contained the REAL Christmas spirit. That Ghost of Christmases Past, before it became a commercial festival for so many of us:

Dear Uncle Jonathan

We are glad that you became part of our big happy family. At first when you came to Kitale for the first time, we received you warmly because the minute you stepped out of the car, you kept on a nice warm smile that assured us you were a nice sweet person.

As time went by, we kept on knowing you more and loving you more because you showed us gratitude and love in return and that made us to keep on those smiles that we keep on showing you and in return it has also helped you in writing journals, hahahaha! 

To make it clear and short, WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH UNCLE JONATHAN!!!

Lots of love from Marion, Scovia and Bo

This, from warm young women, young enough to be grandchildren, expressed with love and equality. My escape is complete. I am with family. 

*

To my readers, I wish everyone as happy a Christmas as you can manage with all the antisocial restrictions. I know just how fortunate I am to be with my families – FAMILY as much as if we were blood related. It’s the wonder of this continent for me, the strength and flexibility of the extended family, in which even I, from another culture, generation and economy, am adopted from the heart. The most difficult lesson for a non-African to learn is to accept from the heart, the manner in which friendship, love and support are given here.

EAST & SOUTH AFRICA 2020 – TEN

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Lesotho. A magnificent land!

STOP PRESS! Jonathan is on his way home. With the current situation with the flu virus pandemic, it seems to me that the tail of the politicians’ is now being wagged by the dog of the media and governments are reacting chaotically. Things change hour by hour. South Africa is changing transport options hourly. I do not want to get stuck in South Africa with hotels and restaurants closed and transport cancelled. I could have managed in Kenya with my African family and Mosquito, but to be marooned here with many restrictions isn’t a pleasant option. I have bought an eye-wateringly expensive ticket home at short notice…

Back to the journal…

DAY 75. WEDNESDAY MARCH 11th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN. FREE STATE. SOUTH AFRICA

A day in Bloemfontein reinforces the impression of a country with an economy on its last legs. It’s good for my budget that the Rand has dwindled away to over 20 to the pound – in days gone by it was about 14 or 15. A walk through the city centre shows plenty of evidence that things are bad. Every public fountain and pool is a turgid puddle filled with floating plastic bottles and packaging; a hundred empty office blocks are tired and shuttered, their lower windows plastered with posters for cheap abortions and penis enlargement; many traffic lights don’t work; the water supply goes off for days at a time – it’s been off these past two days, we flush the lavatories from the fortunately underused swimming pool. There’s rubbish and potholes, I’m the sole customer in a coffee house in the centre of the big, plush shopping centre, where most appear to be window shopping as sales staff stand about chatting. A coffee and snack (oh, I’d forgotten that I am in Afrikaner Land and portions match girth!) at £5 is more than most can afford.

The past government, Zuma’s, and doubtless the present one is no better, robbed the country bare, stole any money there was. Steven tells me that the water authority used to be first rate. They built systems and then leased them back to themselves, prompting a regular income and spare cash for repairs. Says Steven, “Then the new managers arrived and saw there was money in the bank! They bought cars and gave themselves raises. Now there’s no money left and the system is getting old. This current stoppage is caused because the pumps are old.” Of course, pumps only work when there’s power, and most of South Africa is now ‘power sharing’ – periods when the power is switched from area to area to share what’s still available. All this impacts on business and trade. It’s a downward spiral. A mess, in a word. Much of it from the greed and lack of control of the people at the top, filtering money away to their own pockets. The African problem. Lack of accountability from a largely uneducated and often coerced electorate. Sadly, gone are the exciting days of Mandela’s truth and honesty, his integrity and respect. We’re back to corrupt officials fleecing everyone for what they can get personally, not public service in the image of their great hero.

My walk through the crumbling, faded city centre wasn’t helped by rain. Gutters blocked by rubbish, puddles in the potholes, stains on concrete. Tonight the heaviest rain is coursing down noisily on the roof of Isabel’s bungalow out here on a northern hill. We are in a white Afrikaans estate of large homes in tree-filled gardens and driveways full of large bakkies and SUVs. No one’s about on the streets. It’s a South African life enclosed behind high walls and electric gates. How I miss places like Sipi! Where the village people wander the narrow mud lanes to look at and greet the mzungu. Where we can wander the shambas and chat to people, be invited for chai, investigate life and gossip readily. There’s none of that in white South Africa, with its fences and gates, security and surveillance.

The morning I spent at Isabel’s business, where Steven told me it was his honour to make me a new belt! It appears to be a thriving business and Steven is so happy, working between helping to manage the business, creating leather goods with considerable skill, and making his own engineering shop at the back of the property, where he has made his own computer-controlled cutter and is inventing a chipper for foam rubber, based on an old lawnmower, to use and sell the scraps for upholstery and manufacture. He’s a good engineer, with knowledge of electronics from his work in telecommunications, and of heavier invention from his love of machines. He’s in his element and the relationship with Isabel – both of them have a girl and boy, growing through teens to young adults – is warm and affectionate. I’m happy to see such a kind man content. His pleasure at my visit is fulsome. Like most Afrikaners, their horizons are somewhat limited by circumstances and the insularity of a minority amidst a huge majority. He’s worked in neighbouring countries, but he wants stories of my wider travels. Going back, remembering people, keeping in touch every now and again, is so important in life. I’ve discovered on my African travels just how much respect is shown by going back. I’ve been lucky to meet such kind, warm people on my journeys. Most days now I field a short text message from young Alex, back in Sipi.

Gdmorning jb. Lovely day in j’berg. Nice to know how your doing and because we love you. Yours alex.

Greetings from home. Gdnite and take gd care of yourself

Hi jb, hope your enjoying your stay in south. Am happy texting you. Love to you and enjoy urself sir jb:-)

Good afternoon, jb, are you okay? You make me believe that I can fulfil my dreams. P asked me to greet you. Loving family of sipi.’

This has been a journey of consolidating friendships. Not a bad alternative caused by a game of rounders on a beach and the subsequent incapacity!

My rondavel  at Roma

DAY 76. THURSDAY MARCH 12th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO

What a pleasure it is to write ‘Lesotho’ at the top of my entry tonight. I am SO content to be here again. I just poured my first Maluti beer in four years: ‘barley malt, maize, hops and crisp pure water from the Maluti Mountains’. And you can bet, up here, that it is crisp and pure too. It’s such a delight to be back. It’s the antithesis of South Africa with its friendly smiles, sense of equality and cheeriness. Within moments of crossing the border – a simple formality in which no one even asked for papers for The Box, despite paying an extra £35 for that sheet of paper – my face had relaxed into a gentle smile. I can’t help it here. Children waved from the back window of a school bus, even to me in my box. On a motorbike this is one of the friendliest countries on the continent – rivalled by Uganda. These people are good looking, with their oval heads and light brown skin tones. A smile is their default and welcome the normal expression. Smartly dressed schoolchildren walked home in gaggles by the roadside. Within miles I was spotting herdsmen wrapped in colourful blankets, with their long woolly hats and white Wellies – the national costume. There’s a very strongly individual culture here in little Lesotho and it’s a scenically magnificent land, high, clear skies, few trees but that sensation of altitude and the clear, almost tangible light that goes with the soaring heights beneath a sparkling sky.

Mind you, I am writing more from memory than fact, when I talk of the blue brilliance, for today is heavily overcast and sadly grey. Autumn is approaching and these mountains experience deep snow in July. The South Africans – the few who deign to visit – come skiing here and have built what I think is the only ski resort in Africa. I might pass that way later in the week. I wonder if I will be remembered? Of course, I am now disguised as a mundane car driver…

I’ve spent many days and nights in Roma. It’s the university town of Lesotho, a small place, really not much bigger than a village. The Catholics brought their churches here, I suppose early last century, and the schools and university followed. It’s now the centre of intellectual culture within the small country. I have walked the region and ridden all the roads. I always stay at the Trading Post, a very long established place. It was originally developed by an English settler family, the Thorns, as just that: a trading post. It was also a farm and developed a guest house on the property, with simple rondavels and some smarter rooms in the old house. There’s still a supermarket and trading centre, machine shops and trades. The guest house operation has been leased out since I was last here, but that appears to be causing some renovation as well as something of a price rise. The rondavel that for a while became ‘nthate Jonathan’s’ (nthate means uncle or daddy) is now £24, so I’ve happily taken a charming rondavel called a ‘backpackers’ room’ – exactly the same but with the bathroom 30 yards away. Who needs to pay an extra £10 to be able to pee next door? I can pee outside after dark! Not a bad £10 economic strategy! Haha.

Every day in Harberton I am reminded of Roma, Lesotho. Ntsilane is one of the staff here. Her portrait appears three times on my walls, including a fine laughing portrait that is one of the first things I see at the end of my bed when I wake. I’ve partly come back to see Ntsilane. When I asked a new member of staff as I checked in, “Is Ntsilane here?” he gave a whoop of delight and literally ran down the corridor to the kitchen, where fat Ntsilane was preparing food. Soon all the staff were laughing as Ntsilane gave me a hug like a large mattress. “Oh, we have heard so much about Daddy Jonathan!” exclaimed the receptionist. You see? Fun to go back in Africa! Ntsilane is a large woman, round and well padded, quite young I think – no more than early 30s, with the best smile I know. Despite her bulk, she is dainty and light-footed. Infrequently I receive a brief email from Ntsilane. Last year, when this business went through the upheaval of new owners, she lost her job for a while. I’m glad they had the wisdom to reemploy this delightful woman. She told me in one email that her daddy had died. Asking her this evening, it seems he was a mere 55, but had worked in the South African gold mines, as do so many Basotho. “Eh, he was sick!” she exclaimed, doubtless describing the respiratory disorders from which so very many miners die in these countries. Probably with little or no compensation, working for mining companies probably owned by European conglomerates. (I haven’t checked that fact, but I reckon it’s probably the case…).

Steven wanted me to visit a small museum in Bloemfontein before I left town. It’s the house of a British settler, an architect, from the late 19th century. To me it was just an old late Victorian house dressed with many items I recognised. I mean, I’ve dressed just such historic houses during my career! Still, it was fun to be shown round by Shani, half English, half Afrikaans. She had such enthusiasm for the house and her job as guide, that she must bring it alive for many of her visitors (of whom I don’t think there are many). Steven and Isabel had done the tour a few weeks ago, and he had told her extravagant stories of his famous friend who designs museums all over the world! I came with a pretty powerful pedigree. However, the fame was actually borne out once again, when it turned out that Shani had strong, impressed memories of visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre way back in the mid 80s. Funny, forty years on, it still impresses people to meet the set designer of the original Viking Centre in far away York. It’s worked so frequently in America too. A one-stop CV for all these years.

It was 2.30 before I reached the border at Van Rooyens Gate. An effortless crossing, with no one showing much interest in the bureaucracy, more intrigued to hear that I was a returning visitor with so many memorable impressions of their country. I was soon in Lesotho. Smiling Lesotho. One thing I am enjoying about The Box is that I can pick people up and give them lifts. A couple of young men thumbed a ride to Mafeteng, the first town. They spoke little English, just enough to tell me they wanted to go to town but had no money for a fare. “God bless you, Daddy!” was a heartfelt greeting as they parted to go about whatever they had come to town for. Looking for girls, I imagine.

So back to Roma. Tomorrow I think I’ll leave The Box parked up and take to my feet to meet the Basotho folk in town and the villages around. That, after all, is the fun of this little country: warm, curious inhabitants who love to share their lovely land.

It’s just started to pour with rain again as I settle down to sleep. Somehow, rain on my thatched rondavel is comforting, more so than in a bungalow in Bloemfontein with a steel roof. And thanks to The Box, no prospect of drying wet boots, gloves and waterproofs. I’m trying to see the positive.

Homes in the Roma arena

DAY 77. FRIDAY MARCH 13th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO

Four years. What a difference. An interesting day… Many of the reasons wrong ones.

Tonight I am exhausted from six hours’ walking in the Roma valley. I sauntered many miles, at least eight, I guess. And I didn’t sit down and rest once. I have to push this bloody ankle and try to rebuild the calf muscles in my right leg. Rough walking seems to be the best medicine, and reduces the swelling better than rest. I walked to town, a mile away, because I had no local money, although the Rand and the Loti are interchangeable and linked in value. Then I headed out into the arena of the Roma valley on dirt tracks amongst green fields of maize and vegetables and small homes and the bungalows of the upwardly mobile – probably those who have jobs in Maseru or the South African mines. Four years ago I took similar walks amongst the rural areas.

Four years is all it’s taken. I’ve just been rereading my enthusiasm and delight at walking in those villages in 2016: the calling children, the greeting matrons, the schoolteachers who welcomed me to a small village school where the children rushed about in excitement to have a foreign visitor, the children who ran to hold my hand as I walked, youths and herdsmen giving me happy “Dumella!”, the Sesotho greeting, the old man who raised his hat, the respect from youngsters. I came away with countless cheerful, smiling portraits, everyone happy to pose for me.

It’s gone! The excitement, the calling children, the happy greetings, the wonder of Lesotho. It’s died in four short years. If I measure in smiling portraits, I took one today, a pretty schoolgirl. I had to persuade her not to make silly faces and gestures – the sort everyone now makes for their ubiquitous selfies.

Mapaseka

I’ve come to trust my instincts pretty well after all these years and years of travelling. They’re well honed to atmosphere and the reactions of people I meet. On occasions it’s been a safety net, but it’s also become a measure of places I visit. For a few hours I began to doubt my instinct. Perhaps it was me? Had I expected too much? Had I held onto a romanticised memory of my visits to Lesotho, imbued them with a sort of magical glow? But the further I walked, the more I realised that people just weren’t showing much interest. Now I was making all the eye contact, the first greetings. And in reply I was getting a disinterested wriggle of a hand, a thumb up from children, a response of, “Hi…”

And children were responding with that vague, “Hi…” and sometimes laughing behind my back. Where was the legendary Basotho respect for elders? Where was the fascination? A few herders waved back with a shy smile of welcome, some older men reacted with sincere respect, some elderly ladies were polite and smiling. But youth and children..? The university students, who four short years ago showed interest, respectfully discussed their ideas for the future with me in a bar opposite the university gates? Made me comfortable with the only chair with four active legs. Now they just looked past me, or at their phones. It just wasn’t the Lesotho I have idealised for so many years – since my first revelation in 2002. A few children were actively rude, others insolent and disrespectful. A few even asked for money. This was not my fond memory of this perfect little kingdom.

The Roma valley

But why should I be surprised? I saw exactly this degradation in Ghana, the country in Africa I came to know best. It took less than a generation to lose all that I valued on my early visits: social warmth, mutual support, honesty, respect and generosity. As soon as electric power came, the first purchase was not a fridge or light, but TV. It overwhelmed households without the experience or media sophistication to question the fiction. What they saw must be reality. Soon everyone was hooked on the tawdry, lowbrow, populist, vulgarity of cheap soaps from around the world – and most countries make this exploitative crap. Or the inconsequential glitz and glamour and lewd international scandals of self made celebrities. Untruthfully named ‘Reality’ TV… 24 hour ‘news’. Then came phones. The internet. Finally, so called social media. Suddenly, youth knew more than the wisdom of their elders. Google became more valuable than long lived, hard won experience. Generally poorly educated youth had all the knowledge but none of the context or accumulation of skills and social interaction, none of the tact and sensitivity gained by time or deeper education. And with the flood of information came materialist ambition. After all, the media was just there to cynically disseminate desire and expose those without to all the ‘stuff’ they were missing. A godsend to capitalists: creating expensive tastes and ambitions. There was the ‘generosity’ of CNN, who ‘broadcast free as a service to the nation’ in Ghana. So they could sell people stuff they didn’t need for money they didn’t have. And it worked! Many Ghanaians began to judge people by what they had, or hadn’t, not what they were. People became acquisitive, greedier, counted the cost, kept things for themselves, retrenched to nuclear families and weakened the ties of the old extended families. Lost the old ways. They’d become old fashioned and valueless. Crime soared and we had to lock our doors. Communities split up as people became more mobile. Strangers lived around our compound. Shame, for centuries a harsh deterrent, was weakened. Why be ashamed when even your neighbours don’t know you, and mean little to you?

Even the meanest thatched rondavel out in the villages here in the Roma valley has its white satellite dish beaming in cheap TV from South Africa and the greedy world. Then there’s the stuff on their phone screens day and night. Lesotho hasn’t a chance.

In 2016, I wrote this, when walking with charming Thato, who had attached herself to me to show me her home:

We visited the primary school that she attended in a village in the midst of the valley. Four very basic classrooms ranged together down the hillside, each room only small and rock built. The teachers welcomed me and polite, excited children pressed to get to look at the white man. There are 70 pupils, lovely kids full of fun, smiles and vitality.’

I happened to find myself in the same small, poor village this morning. One room of the school has collapsed. I turned down the track to visit again. A number of small children crowded to the wire fence to watch me, shyly smiling. A teacher stood in the first doorway, thumbs scrolling her phone. She looked up briefly, and ignored me. Carried on with her phone. This is not Lesotho. The children were diverted just then by two elderly ladies bringing buckets containing their lunchtime porridge. At last, I had to direct a question right at the teacher to get her attention. Somewhat reluctantly, she palmed her device and came to talk, briefly. There are now only 50 pupils in primary one to three, three teachers, and the government ‘has promised’ help for the ruined room. I could tell she didn’t really want to engage with me.

I was thinking, as I walked, that I mustn’t judge on one day’s wanderings in a specific valley – in the vicinity of a popular guest house. I should hold my opinion until I have given it further testing this week. Then I met Motena…

Approaching the Trading Post guest house a boy rudely demanded money. I turned and blasted him angrily for his lack of respect and manners.

A group of women were passing nearby. One of them called to enquire what was the trouble? I apologised and told her this was an act I put on, a show of anger, in the hope that it might save other visitors from the same treatment.

“I’m sorry! We’ll deal with it. We will deal with it… Where are you from?”

And I found that Motena runs a community project nearby. Her mother was ambassador to USA and a representative of her country in London. Motena has lived in USA for twenty years, is educated and aware, and committed to her community. “I needed to come back to my country,” she explained. “I felt I needed to come home. I lived in a high rise, on the 37th floor! I didn’t even know my neighbours, just “Hi!” Not even, ‘Hi, how are you’, or ‘Hi, how can I make your day better?’ So I came home. I was pulled into this project, helping children and young people, providing support for child-headed families, a homework place, a safe place for young people here in the valley. I was sucked in deeper and deeper.” She spoke with conviction and warmth. Then her voice changed and she said, “Now I just want to leave…”

Motena was fascinated by my story of my day, and my growing disillusion from my earlier love of the valley. “Just now, twenty minutes ago, a young man came in to the centre,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “He was completely drunk. He started removing his shirt and misbehaving. This boy was one we sponsored and schooled. And he came back like this! Making an example to the younger children. Shameless! We gave that boy a future and he just came back like that. What will he get from it? I will have to ban him from the project for a year. No, I just want to leave now. But my colleagues and the sponsors – we get money from Rotary International in USA and others – they want me to stay. One day I will just have to walk out. I want to go to my house in Leribe (in the north of Lesotho) and be calm. I don’t think you are wrong in your instincts. My country has changed. I think it’s the exposure to social media…” And, of course, social media is virtually unregulated and exposes these previously rather innocent children to ideas that are utterly alien to the Basotho culture. Or were.

“One local problem we have is when the Roof of Africa rally comes to Roma.” The Roof of Africa is a big off road motorbike competition, based here in the valley. It brings many South African riders and their entourages. It’s big business. And the riders aren’t very interested in Basotho people, the landscape or culture. They’ve come for the competition and thrill. “When they leave, they just give stuff away to local people. Expensive boots, equipment they don’t want to carry home. Money too. To them it’s not much, but it creates a sense that visitors are just to be seen to bring money. We teach the children not to ask, to respect our visitors, but…”

Motena’s phone rang. She apologised and answered. It was her friends, with whom she had been walking when we met. “Oh, my friends are asking where I am! I must continue. I hope you’ll come and visit the project tomorrow? I’d like to talk more. You know, I dread going to work now. This morning at 8.30 I was still in my bed! I start work at nine… I want to leave…” She smiled wryly, a bit angry and upset. “I felt I needed to come home. Now I am tired and I wonder what I am doing here. Sorry, I must go!”

How sad. This intelligent, driven woman disillusioned so deeply by the uncontrolled behaviour she now sees around her. Conduct that even I can see has changed. In four years.

Motena hurried away to meet her friends. I hobbled on, stopping wasn’t helpful to my joints after eight or nine miles of rocky paths and high sunshine.

In the next hundred yards three boys asked me for money. That’s not the Lesotho I knew four years ago. They’d have wanted to shake my hand.

Another big storm flashes and pours as I get ready to sleep. Thunder drums stereophonically about the mountain arena amongst the steep rock faces. I don’t mind rain at night. It’s atmospheric as it hisses on the thatch. I do like to sleep in round thatched rondavels.

Perhaps tomorrow, away from the environs of the guest house, I’ll find the Lesotho I loved. If it’s still there…

Walking above Roma

DAY 78. SATURDAY MARCH 14th 2020. ROMA, LESOTHO

Drunk driving in boom-box cars seems to be the Saturday evening entertainment in Roma. Walking back from town earlier this evening I saw appallingly unsafe driving on the narrow road with its broken edges. As I write noise pounds from a car on the dirt road outside, not even the tar road below the guest house. The beer bars in town were crowded and noisy. It looked like a good night to stay home with a couple of cans of milk stout.

I’ve always maintained that one of the reasons I keep travelling is that I love not to know what tomorrow will bring. Today brought a lunch invitation from Motena and her close friend, Jenny, an eccentric white South African-born woman about my age, who escaped to Lesotho in the evil days of apartheid as persona non grata from the regime, against which she was fighting. She came in 1975 and stayed. She’s still got various family in South Africa but her allegiance is obviously to Lesotho, where she runs a kindergarten in Roma and has many adopted family members. Small, bustling, white haired with various piercings and some small tattoos, lots of bangles and a professed ‘sensitivity’ and witch doctor sympathies. “I was born with depression! I’m on all sorts of drugs. I’ve ADHD as well!” she declares brightly.

Motena said, as we sat in the compound of her community house, children playing around us noisily on seesaws, a slide and climbing frames, “I want you to meet Jenny! She’s my closest friend.” She pulled out her phone and dialled. “Where are you? What are you doing? I want you to come here. I want you to meet an Englishman. He’s called Jonathan. It’s no good telling you. You won’t believe it! You have to come yourself!” In minutes, Jenny appeared. “I was asleep late and I thought I’d go back to sleep. But my senses told me something was going to happen! So I got up, and then you rang me! You see,” she turned to me, “I have this ability. It’s nothing religious, it’s just there.”

Jenny, with her depression drugs and attention deficit disorder is never still or quiet. If opposites attract, that’s why she and Motena are such bosom friends. With Jenny’s arrival, Motena went quiet, as if she just couldn’t compete – which she probably couldn’t! But Jenny’s animation was good willed, if a little didactic. I’ve met others like this, eccentric expatriates who have difficulty fitting in any conventional society, but thrive where they aren’t judged by the standards of their own culture. In a foreign culture those eccentricities just become who they are, frequently exaggerated, a bit larger than life. She comes of well-heeled South African stock, originating from Latvian/ Estonians Jews, but rejected most of their values early on, rebelled politically and socially – and appears to live happily in her own world here in Lesotho, with informally adopted children and her somewhat opinionated ways. Her school takes 37 pupils. “Eighteen of them I charge for – their parents have jobs in Maseru or South Africa, they can afford it. The rest I pick from the streets. For them it’s free.”

“Well, shall we ‘Motiffer’?” It’s her word for ‘chilling’ with her friend Motena. “I want to eat meat! Jonathan, we invite you, if you’d care to come with us?” So we piled in to her ancient bakkie and drove (me reclining on a mattress and spare wheel in the back compartment) bruisingly to a smart restaurant ten miles away for a large lunch.

We bounded back to Roma, dropped Motena at home to rest and had a hectic tour of the university campus and forceful description of the town, before she delivered me home. I was bit breathless by now and needed a long rugged walk in peace! I hiked to the top of the cliffs that hang above the town and sat for a while on a rock gazing over the Lesotho landscape, rolling green valleys before me, in which I could espy people everywhere when I studied the apparently empty view. It’s a feature of the Lesotho landscape that it hides herdsmen, horsemen, women and children walking endless miles to and from their homes, standing silently, wrapped in a blanket watching their wealth – a few cattle. All day long herdsmen and boys stand and stare into the unchanging views of mountain faces, meadows and huge blue skies. Watch for long enough, and what seemed to be a dead tree moves. It’s a herdsman in blanket, dangling balaclava and wellies. The dull notes of bells hung around the necks of woolly sheep filled the landscape, reverberating into the cleanest air that I know anywhere in the world.

At last I drew myself away from the wonders of the Lesotho mountain landscape, stumbled back down the stony tracks to the town, now filled with the beat of loud music from bars around the university gates, bought some cans of stout and a disgusting red sausage and forced myself the last mile home. From three months of enforced sedentary life, I am determined to recoup the muscles in my calf, but my hips now suffer from all the unaccustomed exercise. I won’t let it beat me!

The Box at altitude

DAY 79. SUNDAY MARCH 15th 2020. THABA TSEKA, LESOTHO

Today Lesotho absolved itself to a fair extent. I’m now high in the centre of the small country. I never stopped in Thaba Tseka before. I always rode through on my motorbike; it’s not a particularly attractive town, sprawled across a wide valley, backed by distant mountains. It’s high though, but then so’s pretty much everywhere in Lesotho; the lowest point being 1400 metres – over 4500 feet. Someone said they’d tarred the road to Mohotlong now. They haven’t! So I’ll probably have to return by the mountainous road to the lowlands. I remember riding the A3 from here to Mohotlong a few years ago. It was an appalling rocky track. I remember wondering how the heck a minibus had made it, and took photos of the extreme conditions of that track, that in places taxed even me on my motorbike. Certainly it’s nowhere I can take something called a Ford Figo, a rental one at that. The other road out of town isn’t much better, 40 miles of dirt and dust that I rode on my last visit, corrugated and now almost certainly damaged by the rains – and then another 30 miles to a place to stay, an affordable place that is. It seems to me that the government has set new targets for accommodation prices. Prices of rooms have risen sky high. I tried all the guest houses in this pretty remote town, and all wanted £25 or more, my ‘Africa budget’ being £15. I was about to give in when I visited the Sisters of Charity guest house. I knew I might have to hold in check my religious position, and then found even they too wanted £25. A bit of charm on a sister of charity produced just that – some charity! The convent guest house was closed anyway for renovation, but she pointed down the hill to the hospital. “There’s a place behind the hospital! The nursing school. I think they charge 130 Maloti.”

“Do I have to stay with the nurses, then?” I joked. She was a broadminded sister – I guess most African sisters have to be. She chuckled and pointed down the hill to a gate by the hospital. “Just ask the guard, he’ll tell you where to go!”

I pulled up in the hospital grounds by the nursing school. A couple of young men greeted me with big Basotho smiles, found the matron for me, and I was soon the holder of keys to a basic room for the grand price of £6.50. It’s absolutely fine! Two beds, an electric heater, kettle and coffee and a bathroom just next door. A nasty purple carpet and yellow walls is the only complaint I have.

Thuso and John were my two guides. Nursing students, they are training to be auxiliary nurses. If opposite attract, as I wondered yesterday about Motena and Jenny, then it’s the same for these two young men. Thuso is 21, utterly feckless, vain, but a charmer. He proudly breaks any rules he can, smokes dope, drinks, loves dancing and has probably tried to bed half the girls in the school – so far evading the ire of the nuns in charge. I’d think it’s a matter of time… Then there’s John, more stable, more mature at 24 and also charming, but with a steady take on life. They piled into The Box to show me where I could eat later, and I bought them both a beer in a rough local bar. They insisted that I sit on a beer crate, ‘to be local’. No problem for this old nthate. Fortunately they must be in the nursing school compound by 7.00, or it’s the wrath of nuns, so I was spared their honest, ebullient company for the evening, although they both showed up at my table in the hotel restaurant that they’d shown me to check that I was looked after. So, yes, thanks to Thuso and John – two youngsters willing to engage with an old nthate, I’ve recovered some of the Lesotho I admired so much, them and many more waving children, although the youth still react rather haughtily, just about allowing an unconcerned, “Hi…” as they fiddle with their phones.

Thuso

But, oh, I miss my motorbike up here! This is one of the world’s most magnificent landscapes and the road I drove today is a feat of engineering, clambering in spaghetti twists and whirls well over 10,000 feet. It’s the most invigorating bike ride, leaning and swooping, shifting my weight from side to side, dancing on the tarmac in a sort of ballet of weight and space. It’s exciting, lively, immediate, the sense of risk – on these barrier-less heights above dramatic drops – adding thrill and danger, but controlled by skill and experience. It’s such fun! Maybe the best riding thrills there are. I’m part of the wondrous landscape, chilled by the extreme altitude and speed, dodging donkeys, dreadlocked sheep and nimble horses. The sun beats down. The hills are denuded of trees far up here, just the highest moorland, baked beneath the big blue sky. Low scrub interspersed with bright flowers that glow beneath the bright sky. A wonderful sense of freedom and space. A top of the world sensation. The air clear, the vistas unimaginably huge, the landscape curvaceous and immense. The sky filled with drifting snow white clouds against the deepest blue of high altitudes. It’s just wonderful. Utterly spectacular, a superlative I try to limit, but one of the few that does justice to this soaring landscape.

Lesotho, a high land

When I first discovered Lesotho, many of these roads were even more adventurous – gravel and stones, sweeping across enormous mountainscapes, sometimes teetering on the very ridges above vast curving valleys of moorland vegetation. It was more enlivening than sitting in a Ford Figo Box. Even with the windows open and the chill breeze rushing through the boring Box, the temperature reducing by eight degrees from lowland to summits. I can’t conjure the thrill of those rides – the first of which I took 18 years ago on my African Elephant, of which I have specially fond memories.

Adolfina

My rotund favourite, subject if three photos on my wall at home, Ntsilane, has a junior sister, Adolfina. She too is built like a large pillow and shares a wide, happy smile with her sister. Cheerfully, she submitted to a laughing photo before I drove away mid morning. Then it was a slow climb to the heights, often driving at 25mph on empty roads, curling higher and higher over the passes and into the treeless altitudes. I eventually arrived at Thaba Tseka about 3.30 and drove the first couple of kilometres of the road to Mohotlong before accepting that it had not been tarred, as have so may fine roads in this semi-vertical kingdom. Maybe it was as bad as it was when I couldn’t believe that I was riding the A3 of Lesotho. I saw that in The Box I hadn’t the freedom that I have on my motorbikes, turned around and began my search for lodgings, it now being too late to start down the serpentine highway again.

Great roads! But better on a motorbike!

After three quarters of a litre of stout, I abandoned The Box in the hospital grounds and walked to the restaurant of the hotel that had asked £30 for pretty much what I have here in the nursing school. Maybe the bedcover doesn’t have ‘Parray School of Nursing’ scrawled across it in felt pen. I just returned in pitch blackness under a deeply black sky with an array of stars such as we seldom witness in more developed places. It’s silent and infinite, the stars still ‘upside down’ to my northern sensibilities, down here in the southern hemisphere.

It’s great to be here. Great to be ‘on the road’. Great to be in Lesotho, even if some of its social mores have changed. Said Annah, receptionist at the Roma guest house this morning, when I commented on the changes I was sensing, “You see, if the head is sick, the body will certainly be ill. If the government doesn’t look after us, we become angry. I think that’s what you are seeing. People are unhappy…” Which, of course, brings me to mention the big scandal that has even brought Lesotho to the international news this year – the accusation against the prime minister and his second wife of the murder of the first wife! He has been claiming diplomatic immunity and causing huge unrest in this rather peaceful little kingdom. Not surprisingly, few Africans, of any country, have much faith in or respect for their leading politicians.

But why do I single out ‘Africans’?

Roads on ridges

DAY 80. MONDAY MARCH 16th 2020. QUTING, LESOTHO

I drove too far today, got tired and grumpy. Trouble is, there aren’t many places to stay in Lesotho. For some reason, no rural people seem to have taken the initiative to open any B&Bs – just not in the culture, I suppose. It meant I had to drive about 100 miles more than I like, and now am being ripped off in a sub-standard overpriced hotel with pretensions. I’m paying £25, having beaten the owner down from £32.50, for a small room in which there’s not even room to walk around the bed (with multiple stupid pillows!). I had to apologise to the manager for my mood just now.

But what a magnificent drive. Happily, the loops and swirls of the extraordinary landscape look completely different in the other direction, for my first 100 miles were those I covered yesterday. I’ve ridden all the roads before, but no amount of preparation can weaken the wonder of those treeless heights and the plunging valleys. Dodging flocks of curly sheep, dogged plodding donkeys, horses and meandering cows, and the rocks that have rolled down the steep hillsides onto the road needs concentration, but I drive slowly to enjoy the ride.

I drove 250 miles today, coiling and twisting up and down these most impressive roads, a low yellow shrub cloaking green mountainsides, bright against the orangey brown sandstone ridges. Here and there in lower valleys, fields of cosmos blew pink, white and maroon amidst the bright greens, beneath the endless clear skies.

Cosmos is supposed to have been introduced from Ireland in horse fodder and subsequent shit!

My plan was to come down the mountains and turn right to visit Teyateyaneng – conveniently called TY by even Basotho people. It’s from there that I have bought my several colourful mats, a distinctive craft of this country. But it meant driving right through Maseru, the small but busy capital, and on north on some tedious roads.

Gathering clouds

Then I saw that a huge storm was building in that direction, and thought to myself, ‘honestly, where can you reasonably put ANOTHER Basotho mat in tiny Rock Cottage?’ and turned left instead to drive right over the centre of Lesotho via Semonkong to the south east corner of the country. Sadly, the storm soon overwhelmed most of Lesotho and I was eventually driving in thick cloud and pouring rain.

For once, The Box felt quite welcome. I was high in the mountains in torrential rain, thick in the grey chilly clouds. The temperature dropped to 9 degrees at one point, reminding me that for all its sunny splendour Lesotho is a harsh place, one of the few places in Africa that experiences heavy snow in July. The amazing landscape is still impressive, even in scudding cloud and lashing rain. The play of light amongst the varied densities of a million swirling and dashing clouds; the shafts of light that penetrate and spotlight patches of intense green; the wind that turns grasslands into oceans of rippling waves; the flash of puddles and the fast flowing brown of rivers – it’s a visual feast, even in rain. This evening I have taken some of my best landscape photographs.

It was after sunset by the time I reached Quting. I knew from other trips that there were hotels here, but the first two were full, with conferences, and the third, that I found after dark – an activity I hate when travelling – was expensive and argumentative. But by then they had advantage of me, as I could go no further. On principle I bargained and won a concession of £7.50!

And I may need those concessions! It looks as if my 2020 journey has just been extended by an unknown amount. I’ve refrained from any comment of the hysteria and madness that is currently gripping the world about a dose of flu. It seems to me that the excitement is fuelled entirely by social media and the press (it’s selling vast amounts of advertising…) rather than rational planning. Yes, it’s a pandemic, but I am told over 11,000 people regularly die in South Africa of ordinary flu every year, and as for TB, AIDS, malaria – well, they’re all contagious one way and another, but we don’t close down the world. Even the good old Guardian had a headline one day recently that ‘Coronavirus cases surge in UK’. Read further and they’d gone from 66 to 110 in a population of 65 million. ‘Surge’. The same day the first Briton died, causing huge thrills for the media. Read on, and you found that the doctor treating her said, ‘she had been in and out of hospital with underlying health issues’. In other words, she’d probably have died quite soon of pneumonia or a urine infection… Ten Britons have died so far, I find today, all of them had ‘underlying health conditions’.

Rico has been monitoring the African news and keeping me up to date when I get an email connection. He tells me tonight that South Africa just closed all its borders with immediate effect. Whether that includes Lesotho, I will find out tomorrow. And Kenya Airways has stopped all flights to Europe and to countries with any virus cases. Since South Africa has its first few, that means I may not even get back to Kenya, let alone Europe! I am trapped. How long for, and how it will be resolved I have no idea at all. And no information. I’ll try to get to South Africa, only 10 miles away now, tomorrow morning and work from that. What I do until perspective prevails, remains to be seen, since public transport is also heavily reduced. Airlines are in difficulties and economies plunging all around the world. If it does nothing else, the flu proves how flimsy and vulnerable are the foundations of our world capitalist economy!

I’ve made the decision not to listen to the hype and hysteria but see what happens.

So my immediate future is unknown. Just as well I am so adaptable. How I spend a month, or whatever the time may be, and where, remains to be seen. It doesn’t look as though it’ll be at home however.

DAY 81. TUESDAY MARCH 17th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

One hurdle is jumped: I managed to exit Lesotho through what I think may have been the only open border post at Van Rooyens Gate, where I entered a few days ago. No one took much notice, and apart from having my temperature taken, I was through in ten brief minutes. I drove on, back to Wepener, and stopped for coffee and a look at my book of maps to decide on the next destination. I decided to head south west into the Karoo Desert area, one of my favourite bits of the country.

Two kilometres down the road, I stopped, thought for some minutes and turned about, rang Steven and headed back to Bloem. It seemed sensible to try to get information, even maybe to drive to the airport and ascertain, if I could, just what’s going on. In fact, I am little more informed, but Isabel has put a travel agent onto my case for me. My goal is to get the next hurdle out of the way as soon as I can, if it’s possible. Rumours and stories are rife, and ‘social media’ having a field day with falsity and hysteria.

The border near Quting was already closed, I found over breakfast. I’d have to drive to Mafiteng, 60 miles away. Van Rooyens, they said, was still operating. South Africa has closed 34 land border posts between all the neighbouring countries. My flights to Nairobi and on to Amsterdam both left yesterday and today. But for how long will South Africa let people out of the country?

But what so I do now? That is the big question… Normally so resourceful, I am utterly without ideas of which way to move.

There’s heavy rain again tonight. It doesn’t do much for the idea of being trapped in this country for weeks – with hotels apparently closing and travel restrictions increasing. I have to make decisions but there’s precious little information available…

I’ve discovered one advantage of The Box. I can dry my washing on the headrests with the windows open to the breeze!

DAY 82. WEDNESDAY MARCH 18th 2020. BLOEMFONTEIN, SOUTH AFRICA

It’s been an anxious day. What to do? Hysteria reigns in the international media and I am stuck in South Africa, a country going into winter, which will fuel the rapacious flu virus, causing, I suspect, ever increasing restrictions on travel. There’s no advice available for tourist in this situation, except the panic advice ‘get home NOW!’ In the end I may have joined the It’s quite possible they’ll soon prevent any travel even out of ZA, they closed 34 land borders, so I guess if I have to be trapped anywhere, it may as well be Rock Cottage! At least I can self isolate on my bike a bit. I fear I will be made to do that – being also over 70 and an incoming traveller…

So tomorrow I will drive the car to Johannesburg and leave it there instead of Bloemfontein airport on Monday. Pick up my boots from a hotel near the airport and hopefully fly out tomorrow night, unless things change again!

So, it’s a mad world. Admittedly the fears here are also fuelled by the fact that the southern hemisphere is going into winter and cooler weather, which will help the bug. More than that though is the appalling statistics on HIV/AIDS here – no one really knows, but 20% is a low estimate. And the flu will affect them unequally.

The perception around me is either, “It’s crazy, out of all proportion. It’s flu!” or “This corona, Eh, it’s killing us!” In about equal proportions. The latter from people who’ve only read the headlines (amongst whom we have to include trump, johnson and many other populist leaders controlled by social media). The young woman immigration officer at Lesotho border won’t die. She may get ill for a few days, as we do with flu, but she won’t die. But it’s on everyone’s phone 86,400 seconds a day, hysterically screaming out of context sound bites, to people who don’t rationalise the situation or read beyond the headline. I don’t want to get flu, but I’m not likely to die if I do.

Schools have been closed in South Africa, which so far has about 100 people with flu – so all the children congregate in the shopping malls instead. It’s very difficult to find out what the rational situation is, all I can find is the hysteria and thrill of the media. Where have rational commentators gone?

Well, I just received an email from KLM to check in, so, so far it’s going OK, this most expensive flight of my lifetime. £1600 – ONE WAY!!! Business class prices for cattle class. Just as well I flew out for £1.46! I should be eligible for a refund on half that ticket and maybe the Kenya Airways return half to Nairobi too. Whether South African Airways will refund my £54 from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg I don’t know.

So tense has been my day that it ended, despite a couple of beers with Steven and Isabel (she’s had the influence of him occasionally submitting to a beer in her company!), with a hammering headache. I’m not prone to headaches. In the current hysteria, you immediately look up the symptoms of the new flu!!

So, my journey is cut cruelly short, just a few days from ending it as planned. I guess I’ll always wonder if racing out was impetuous or sensible…