EPISODE FIVE. KESSUP AND THE RIFT VALLEY. HOME LIFE AND RURAL PEACE. January 19th to 29th



I treasure this picture, taken by Alex, of Precious and I just before I left them in Uganda ten days ago. It expresses so much about ‘family’ in Africa.

Afternoons in Kitale, I try to walk for an hour, sometimes two. In the fields of the wide valley below the house I can wander on peaceful tracks away from traffic. A small wood has become a favourite, 600 yards long, a calm place of wavering tall eucalyptus and heavy underbrush, a single footpath snaking through it with secret turns and meanders. It’s cool from the hot sun, a relief from the sticky humidity that can build as the ground gives back the gentle showers that have sometimes fallen in the night. There are monkeys and flitting birds, singing amongst the gyrating leaves of the spindly grey eucalyptus. 

In the smallholdings around, a heron flies low and languid to a zinc rooftop; a giant crested crane, a metre high, too big to bother to fly away, stomps away offendedly on its angular, gangly robot legs, golden topknot flickering; a hare runs across the red dust track into undergrowth where a large hole with vicious slashes in the earth walls and a mound of newly mined soil perhaps houses a big porcupine; bees and insects set up a hum of static and birds flute and warble musically everywhere about me. Flames trees, an accent of brilliant crimson, flash their blossoms on bare, gnarled, black leafless branches, adding a lustre to the many hues of green after the rains. The sky arches bright blue above, the shoulders of Mount Elgon ethereal on the western horizon. A woman passes quietly, giving a gentle greeting, a heavy bundle of firewood tied with local fibres on her head; cattle graze placidly – abundant food for now – and an unseen child amongst the bushes around a simple mud-walled house, calls, “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are yuoooo?” I have been spotted. Two small boys appear suddenly around a corner in the track. One greets shyly, the other runs away, terrified. Suddenly, I realise that I feel fit and content to be here in Africa, close to the Equator. I DID make the right decision in my precipitate escape. A gamble that is paying back handsomely. Soon I’ll wander back up the hill to a Tusker mixed with a Guinness on the porch with my comfortable friend and we’ll listen to the cheerful chatter and jesting of the pretty young women of the house as rich aromas drift from the kitchen. 

*

William watches Joy and Rachel bunch up black nightshade, a very nutritious vegetable. It will fetch 10 Kenya bob a bunch (About 15 pence), so this represents a considerable profit.

I planned to return to Kessup on Wednesday, but decided I had to see the odious Trump out of office, and in Kessup I am off piste for the internet and TV, so I delayed until Thursday. Sitting in front of the TV to eat supper was a serious break in formality in the Kitale house, where we always sit around the table as family to eat our meals. But Rico and I wanted to watch some sanity and decency return to America having followed the shocking events of the past couple of weeks as the Leader of the Free World (Huh) lost all semblance of rational adult behaviour and encouraged a hideous mob of far right fantasists to attack the seat of his own democracy.  

On Thursday, then, William’s Mzungu was back. A fine seventy mile ride over the mountains from Kitale to the Rift Valley. William is waiting for the sound of my engine. He comes grinning down his dry shamba to the rutted track to the guesthouse. A spare, rangy sort of fellow, now 55, with white curls to his beard. Within moments he is instructing the guesthouse staff in everything ‘his mzungu’ requires. How irritated they must be! Or perhaps they are just grateful, especially this year when I am probably the only tourist within 100 mile radius, that his friendship and guidance brings me here frequently. He frets and demands: there must be cold beer in the fridge, Jonathan likes his Tusker cold! Supper must be at seven sharp; there must be a reduction in the room rate. William, retired policeman, is a stickler for timekeeping. If the meal is two minutes late, he will be on his feet heading for the sooty zinc shack that is the kitchen. I must have just the room I want, and Jonathan likes a blanket, not the unbearably heavy duvet that locals seem to prefer. It’s funny to watch, but he’s kindly with the girls who work here, always inviting them to share the leftovers of our supper. Of course, I pay the bills – William has no money at all. But in return I have a willing, friendly companionable guide and a fine introduction to this community that I have come to know, and who’ve come to accept me. William eats the meat at supper; I eat the vegetables that he hahas procured from his neighbours’ shambas. “Why should I eat veggy-tables?” he asks. “I live on veggy-tables! When you are here, I can eat meat!” It’s a good deal for us both and not much goes wasted, between his relish for the meat, my liking of local vegetables and the girls’ delight at something beyond ugali maize flour and scraps from the kitchen. 

Rael makes me chai in her kitchen.

But how do I spend my days in Kessup? It’s a relaxing time, wandering the red tracks and mountainous footpaths; drinking milky tea on green hillsides with hardworking, friendly people – the most vigorous always women. I am suffered to investigate and ask questions, and respond to many more about how we do things at ‘my place’. We sit high above the dramatic valley, gazing into the misted depths, over small fields hacked relentlessly by generations of hard graft from the rocky slopes. But it’s fertile here, and plastic water pipes snake the lanes and hillsides, a fizzing leak here and there, powering small locally-made sprinklers. Shambas are green just now with young crops and elsewhere men and women hack new brown soil into beds. Large raptors circle ceaselessly above and hedge-birds flit and whistle. 

In Rael’s round, thatched kitchen hut, I sit on a stool polished by decades of backsides and kitchen spills. It’s about six inches high. She’s a fine cooking stove fashioned from clay, just eighteen inches high but sculpted into a piece of domestic sculpture, all rounded edges and decorative rings. She’s preparing disgustingly sweet milky tea for her mzungu guest. She knows me well by now; I am recognised all over this rural plateau from my many visits with William, patient to introduce me to his neighbours. He claims that my repeated visits have given him enhanced status here. I am constantly sorry that it takes the endorsement of a white skin for him to gain respect, for he is an honest man of integrity. Returning to revisit people in Africa is one of the most important social things I can do. It confers respect and friendship. I appreciate how many people accept me here. It’s taken time to be seen as a fellow human, rather than a representative of a race aloof, proud and rich – as we are seen so often in Africa as we race past, a dim, ‘different’ blur behind the tightly wound window-glass of air conditioned, zebra-striped vehicles between insulated game parks, segregated from the wonder that is the people of this generously welcoming continent. 

Rael’s kitchen hut has no chimney. This is the standard across the whole continent. It is full of thick grey woodsmoke, sweet-smelling but lung-clogging and eye-watering. The underside of the thatch, supported on a web of sticks, is black and tarry. The post that holds aloft her firewood in the ceiling space is polished like lacquer, Japanned by thirty years’ of hand grease and soot. The hut was built in the late 80s when Rael came to this compound on the hillside. She’s a smart woman, diligent, intelligent and very hard working. Her compound is always well kept and she is house-proud, although her wooden dwelling is simple. She’s put blue-squared vinyl on the floor of her living room, which is decorated with sentimental religious posters and a lurid Manchester United broadsheet. She’s very proud of her new TV. It represents considerable work and business acumen. Her husband, whom I’ve never met, drives a matatu and is away from dawn. So the household and farm work, as well as caring for the children, fall on her – capable – shoulders. An African woman… I note that some of the lovely row of eucalyptus that made a fine background for my portraits when I first came to Rael’s shamba, almost five years ago, are gone. “I planted them when I first moved here. Now I have been selling them. They pay for school fees for my children.” She gets about £25 for a large fast-growing eucalyptus. “But I replace them when I sell them!” She waves behind her to a grove of young eucalyptus – the weed-tree of Africa. The young ones are, Rael says, five years old. 

It’s been decades of work to create the terrace on which we sit, me puckering my mouth at the syrupy tea from the big pink Chinese thermos. The hillside has literally been moved ten metres forward to form a level space big enough for her kitchen hut and the black, vertically boarded house, neat with a red zinc roof. Curtains bluster brightly in the metal-framed windows. There are even some flowers blowing in a bed against the wall. It’s breezy today, the wind worrying up from the depths of the Rift Valley. Pleasantly cool. William is on his phone – as are many people we pass. He just begged a pound’s worth of airtime from me so he can call his cattleman, Atanas, far below in the shimmering valley. William hasn’t a penny in his pocket, his normal economic state. He’s arranging for us to walk down into the valley on Sunday. His mzungu needs a welcoming committee if he is to make such Herculean efforts, William thinks. Or maybe it’s just that he knows Atanas would be deeply disappointed to miss the event by coming up to the plateau to see his family? 

*

Very colourful beans.

We move on to visit Sally, another determined woman, who has moved here from a village beyond Iten, some kilometres up the winding road on top of the escarpment that towers above us. She bought the land on which she has built her tidy wooden home, with a smart brick latrine and quaint henhouse. She’s a farmer. The fathers of her children seem to be absent but she seems self-reliant – as so many African women have to be, even if a husband is around… She’s forged, in just a year, small rough terraces on which she is growing a lot of vegetables. Her tomatoes are superb. I took a bag home to Kitale last time I was here and we enjoyed tasty salad. She’s planted what looks like chard, and pumpkins too, and one of her family is sorting the most wonderfully coloured dry beans from amongst dust and debris on an old nylon sack. One small field is to provide tomato seeds for her next crop. There are velvety brown cows and dreadlocked sheep to tend, babies to care for, washing and cooking to be done, and the house to be kept tidy amongst various energetic children.  But what  impresses is the exhausting work that these women accept as their normal life, hacking and hoeing, digging, watering and cultivating and harvesting on a hillside that must be at 30 degrees, above one of the hottest valleys in Africa. 

Still Sally finds time to light a fire of sticks and boil more milky tea for her guests. By now I am brimming with the stuff, perhaps a litre of it. My stomach’s distended and we are able to use this as an excuse not to eat her kitere – beans and indigestible maize. We promise we’ll come tomorrow instead. She gathers a carrier of lush red tomatoes as a gift for me to bring back to the cook at the guesthouse to make salad for our supper. William will instruct the cook just how his mzungu wants them! We begin our slow walk home, meeting and greeting, entertaining children coming from school, jesting with neighbours. Life in Kessup. 

*

Awash with tea, we sit and pick sticky seeds from our socks. On our way home, we must stop at a kiosk to purchase superglue for William to mend his shoe. He’s shown me that he has a hole the size of a playing card in the sole. I can see his bare foot – odd, since at the ankle he’s wearing some thin, coloured socks. “If we walk down on Sunday, I must mend my shoe. For now, I can glue something over the hole! When I have money, I can go to Iten and find a fundi to put a new sole.” I tell William of the labourer I saw in Sipi last week. Pushing a heavy wheelbarrow of earth up an embankment, I was impressed that he was wearing substantial boots. But as he turned away from me, I saw that they had no soles whatsoever, just laced tops. Bare skin made the bottom of his footwear!

We stop at a kiosk to buy the glue. Shops here in rural Kenya are simple affairs, a dark tin shack with a wire and timber grille that protects the merchandise. The seller ducks beneath the counter and waits expectantly. Yes, she has superglue from China at 20 pence. There’s not much to buy – the seller doesn’t have the capital to keep much stock: some tired-looking dry cakes in cellophane; three small bottles of warm Coke; two dusty, rather dreary cabbages; some pots of milking jelly, whatever that may be – cow orientated, I assume; a festoon of ever-popular plastic sachets of cooking spice mixes; eleven rolls of toilet paper; seven plastic tubs of Tilly cooking fat; lurid packs of bubble gum and a bag of slightly melting sticky sugar lollies; eight tiny tins of black shoe polish; six packets of stale biscuits that look well past their sell-by date and the inevitable selection of washing soaps in bright sachets. A few items to turn a minimal profit that may make the difference between supper and going without, medicine or suffering, school fees or illiteracy. Life in Africa. 

*

Kimtai in his hard-won shamba

Another day. Neighbour Kimtai and his son Evans are tossing a thousand rocks across their shamba, clearing a tiny field to plant vegetables. It’s hard graft, making these patchwork fields. The ground is rocky. Kimtai takes me around the small beds he has made already, edged by high walls and heaps of piled rocks, surrounding just a few square metres each of red soil. But there’s water in Kessup, draining down all the snaking plastic pipes from the escarpment. Kimtai’s handkerchiefs of fertile soil will pay well. But it’s rocky ground.

William says, “He’s a Christian! A pastor.”

“So are you a Christian?” asks Kimtai of me. “Are you a believer?”

Sometimes I dissemble. But a look at Kimtai suggests he can accept truth. “Er… no!” I reply. 

“You don’t believe in Him?” he asks in wonder.

“No, not at all!” I proclaim. Evans, standing on a pile of rocks bursts into such loud laughter that he falls over. His face splits with the biggest grin. He almost clutches his sides at my straightforward answer. We all fall about laughing. I enjoy these exchanges so much. 

“But what about Heaven? And Hell? Don’t you think you will go there?”

“No, chum! This is all we have! If you don’t do good here and now, it’s too late! Once you’re gone, you’re gone. Just dead. Too late if you haven’t done it here.”

Evans is laughing with delight. I wonder what is his attitude to his father’s elevation to self-proclaimed pastor in some crazed offshoot of commercialised religion amongst the millions of fake tub-thumping pastors in East Africa? Laughing widely, we all agree to differ. “One day you will walk with me to my church. It’s five kilometres.” Kimtai points along the plateau to the north, the high cliffs rising above us to the left. 

“Well, I might enjoy the walk, but you can leave me out of the preaching!” We all laugh and part friends, waving as William and I walk away to meet more neighbours.

*

Francisca shakes the gourd of yoghurt.

Francisca spots me through the trees and comes running to greet. “Eh, Mr Jonathan, you are back!” I’ve sat with her and her friends a few times; taken her picture several times; brought back the prints. Her husband, Silas, once worked in the Kenya Embassy in London, but he misbehaved (booze) and wasted the opportunity. He was sent home – to this mud and stick compound in rural Kessup. Francisca’s friends, Evaline and Elizabeth, perhaps a bit inebriated by mid-morning on too-cheap local spirit, josh and joke with me, middle-aged women full of goodwill. They all want photos taken and of course I’m happy to do this. I am Kessup’s official photographer by now. I’ve literally hundreds of portraits from these communities on the plateau above the huge valley. Francisca is animated and confident. She poses with a fine polished gourd with decorations of cowrie shells and beads. It’s from the Pokot tribe, she says. To get to their rather troubled homelands – they are an aggressive bunch – you go down into the deep valley and head fifty miles north. It’s usually off limits to me: too much tribal strife there; difficult people to police, often shooting first, and enthusiastic cattle rustlers. Seems I missed the only chance in years last year – when my riding in such a tough region was limited by my Achille’s tendon. There was a brief respite from the warring and killing, but I didn’t go. Pity, as there’s a pass I still want to ride, said to be very serious trail riding in magnificent scenery on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. 

Now Francisca brings her fresh yoghurt in another of these gourds. The inside surface is lined with aromatic soot from a special wood. Local yoghurt is made this way; the soot flakes imparting some sort of beneficial flavour. She pours me a glass of the lumpy yoghurt, flecked with sooty spots. It’s delicious, almost like cheese in taste. “Oh, you won’t want bulsa now!” William exclaims. We are due to drink the fibrous, sour local maize beer later. This sounds like the ideal excuse for me to make no more than a gesture! It’s not a beverage I like very much. I drink it to show willing, and everyone is very impressed that the mzungu will slurp down the filthy liquid from an old Tilly cooking fat container with them. William knows I am not enthusiastic, and has just given me a great get out.

We take the bulsa with my ‘age mate’, Joel. Frankly, he looks a decade older than me, with his stoop and stick. People age so much quicker in Africa – as indeed we Westerners did 100 years ago. It’s easy to forget that this privilege of long healthy old ages is something we’ve enjoyed quite recently. Some of us at least. Joel had English teachers in his childhood – a Miss Cunningham and Miss Armstrong, missionaries, I assume. But Joel mumbles and his accent is difficult to understand. It’s a long time since the Misses Cunningham and Armstrong were major influences in Joel’s life. His wife joins us, big silver coloured beads around her neck. I am content that the five litres of sour soupy liquid is being shared wider. I can get away with just one small plastic container of the rather unattractive beverage. 

Joel is my ‘age-mate’. Here he is with his wife, Rose.

*

Moses had an accident in a truck that went out of control on the winding road down into the other side of the huge valley from the town of Kabarnet, perched on the lip, visible by its twinkling lights at night from the guesthouse gardens. It must be fifteen or twenty miles away as the soaring raptors fly. Moses spends his life on a wheelchair now, sitting patiently on the grassy terrace in front of his iron-sheet house, marooned the best part of a kilometre down red rocky tracks. He’s a wide smile and seems to make the most of the hard chance life threw at him. Of course, he will have had no insurance to help him make life more comfortable, and is probably grateful for whoever supplied the wheelchair. He greets me warmly like an old friend. It’s good to be recognised in this rural community.

Boniface
Relaxing in a maize field with Anne and Sharon

In a maize field, we joke with Anne, Sharon and Boniface. They are harvesting corn; taking a break sitting on nylon sacking to slurp millet porridge, a spotty snotty sort of brown stuff in enamel mugs. It looks disgusting, but of course, I’ve eaten these sort of nutritious slops before. I’m happy no one insists I must try it again. I sit on the sack to have my photo taken by William. He knows how to operate my camera now, although I suggest he takes two or three shots – in the hope that one of them will include feet AND heads. He gets a good shot: happy and laughing. I love this interaction. Who needs a game park? I have cheerful Africans in a dusty field. 

*

We sit on an earthy terrace high above the valley. Sally, the tomato farmer’s daughters are delightful. It’s Saturday, they are home and have prepared tea and kitere (beans and indigestible maize kernels) for us. At the edge of the terrace, interrupting my view into the magnificent valley, hangs a line of flapping washing, ancient clothes torn and worn, faded and jaded, throwaways from the profligate world, fashions of past decades. It’s how everyone is dressed here. Me included.

William watches Abigail, Naomy, Mercy and little Allison prepare vegetables above the magnificent Kerio Valley.

I am about to pick up my spoon to eat my kitere when Abigail grabs my hand unceremoniously and turns it over with an exclamation of wonder. My palm is so white! She brushes it with her fingers as if the colour will come off. Her sisters gather and touch my hand like a delicate artefact. I wish I knew what they were saying – and what is the joke. Then they finger the hairs on my arm. “Why do you have this?” asks Naomy, a young teenager. “Because I come from a colder country and once my race was covered in hair,” I explain. The girls show me their smooth, polished black skin. Maybe I am the first mzungu with whom they could ever compare our racial differences. “Oh, we are just black monkeys!” exclaims Abigail, spokeswoman. 

“NO!” I respond. “We are the same! Just a millimetre of difference! No more.” I try to explain that the melanin in their skin is a protection; that I have much skin damage on my shoulders as my skin tries to develop the same melanin. I make Abigail put her cool hand on my red burning neck to see how the sun affects my skin. She recoils with an exclamation from the heat that my neck is giving off, amazed. It’s such fun to meet curious young people like this, unsophisticated enough to explore the differences we represent. I love curiosity above all other human attributes. 

Naomy laughs at the mzungu.
Allison Jepchumba. Jep is a feminine word and chumba means a white person. I couldn’t quite find why this lovely girl was described as a female white person!

We eat our kitere, me surreptitiously picking out the beans and avoiding the cubes of dry maize as much as possible. I know they’ll come out the other end still cuboid. In fact, this meal affects my guts adversely for the next four days. The girls pour me tea, unsweetened in my honour. I gaze into the vast abyss before us, shrouded somewhat by washing. The light shimmers below, far below. It’s over two and a half thousand feet down to the green bush lands. Later, I must take thirty or more photos of these cheerful girls. They are self conscious, laughing, giggling like young girls the world over. In the hour we’ve been here, we have broken down barriers and become equals – well, as equal as an old granddad can become with teenagers – and in Africa that’s a LOT closer than we’d manage in the ‘sophisticated’ Western world. 

Mercy Jerono

Tomorrow, we tell the girls, William and I intend to ‘foot’ to the floor of the valley and back. They are astonished. But maybe not because we appear improbably old and decrepit to their slender years…

“Won’t you go to church then? It’s Sunday tomorrow,” asks Abigail, somewhat scandalised. 

“This is the biggest and best church you’ll ever be able to worship in!” I say, waving a hand at the enormous vista of the Rift Valley at our feet. “Just look at this! THIS should be your church! This is your God’s work!” But my attitude is unconventional and I’ll never challenge the strength of African religious convention and dogma. But I know that had I ever an inclination of worshipping or prayer, I’d choose the Great African Rift Valley for my cathedral, not a tin shack filled with the noise of self-promoting ‘pastors’.

Naomy and her chicken!
William with Sally’s family; Abigail, Mercy, jepchumba and Naomy. Such fun!

*

The Kerio Valley, a major spur from the Great Rift Valley that splits the globe from Mozambique to Jordan, burns more than 2600 feet below my perch at the guesthouse with its green gardens, itself below the tall red cliffs that continue the wall of the Rift Valley up to the highlands six or seven hundred feet above. On Sunday (instead of Abigail’s church) I slip and slither down a dusty, rocky path that leads into the world below. Hours later, I puff and stagger back up! Both ways in one day, in high equatorial sunshine and about 30 degree heat. It’s the most arduous exercise imaginable. The last hour of the ascent will go down in the annals of my African journeys. By the time I am clambering up the steepest part of the climb, I’m stopping to regulate my heartbeat every few minutes. Of course, local people regularly undertake the journey, moving their cattle up and down with the seasons. William tells me, as I puff, even slightly faint at the effort, that the cattle often make the journey by themselves, taking three or four days to clamber up or down, knowing instinctively that the nutritious seasonal vegetation is above or below. William has a large tract of bush land just before the big drop, down at the lower edge of the Kessup plateau. And at the bottom, in the baking valley inferno, his family and clan have extensive lands too, where their goats and cows are tended by hired herdsmen. William comes of a long-established local family. Everywhere down there, we meet brothers, cousins, nephews of his family, in which William’s father’s polygamy makes for complex relations. 

This is the Kerio Valley, a branch of the Rift Valley. Imagine, this is where I walked DOWN and UP!

We climb the burning slope. The effort of not just putting one sore foot in front of the other, but one sore foot above the other as well, is ghastly. I am woozy from lack of oxygen, seeing a sort of halo of light shards created by the sheer effort I am expending. I sit on a rock, eyes closed for a few minutes, not telling William that I am feeling faint. He’s so solicitous for my wellbeing that he’d be worried. This will be a memorable hike. I’m a full decade beyond life expectancy here. William reckons that Joel, my age-mate, couldn’t make it any more. It’s so funny that William takes a sort of vicarious thrill at my accomplishment. “You were determined!” he keeps repeating later, as I drink the three beers that salvage my strength after a warm shower. “Determined..!” Yes, but once we embarked on the ascent, what choice did I have? There’s no respite or rescue on that enormous rocky slope. 

ALL the way down – and then up!

Twelve hours in bed completed my recovery. Monday, I am fit to go again, wandering the red paths, meeting neighbours and drinking chai in village compounds. 

*

The sunshine and heat of Kerio Valley produces what must be some of the best mangoes on earth, richly succulent and without those irritating fibres that bug the poor apologies we import to English supermarkets. Late January is mango season. Women sit by the roadsides in the valley with mangoes, bananas and watermelons for sale. William and I ride down the twelve miles to the foot of the curling road to buy mangoes for me to take back to Kitale. They cost 15 pence for giant fruits, my pleasure from this region that almost matches my enjoyment – and consumption – of fresh pineapples throughout January. It’s steamy-hot in the bottom of the valley. We stop off to visit the ex-chef of the campsite/ guesthouse far above, who’s working now in a new hotel that burns on the valley floor amongst attractive gardens formed by a lot of hard work and the limitless sunshine. Joseph remembers me and shows me his guesthouse. Perhaps I’ll stay a night sometime, I suggest. It’s so nice to be known. “Ah, do you remember the liver curry I made for you?” he asks. “I made it HOT. Plenty of piri-piri!” It must be three years ago. Going back. Returning to see people who befriended me before. It confers so much respect. 

*

On Monday I texted Adelight: ‘Returning tomorrow pm sometime’. She replied: ‘Hello. Welcome back home. We love you.’

*

Kenya is investing heavily in new roads – and increasing debts to the Chinese government with their ulterior motives of access to resources and the control of debt-crippled African countries. From Kessup back to Kitale there are now fine new roads, empty and sweeping about the hills in ways that bring smiles to a biker’s face. One road on the way home was so new it still smelled of hot tar, and the last two kilometres hadn’t even been built; I had to negotiate a construction site. Between the two scruffy towns of Moiben and Kapcherop runs a lovely road through soaring hills, at one point with a vista over mile upon mile of highlands to a distant horizon that probably contains the Rift Valley itself. I am way above 6000 feet high. It’s not a fast ride on a 200cc motorbike, but it’s fun and scenic. Children from school wave and call as I pass. 

Back home I am welcomed warmly. I feel fit and suntanned, sucking up the vitamin D, well exercised from walking sunny paths and the expedition to the depths of the Rift Valley – “Instead of church!” as Abigail was shocked to remark. A better church by far for me.

*

I haven’t mentioned the virus for some time. Mainly because no one here much mentions it any more. In rural areas it never made much of a mark anyway. People have so much immunity to so many diseases here: you must have to survive this life. Some of the reported cases are suspected of political corruption – in Kapchorwa, across in Uganda, the medical officers made a big fuss about two cases they ‘diagnosed’, almost certainly, it was surmised by everyone locally, to obtain financial aid for their hospital (and in Uganda, perhaps for their own bank balances). Some here have got in the habit of fist-bumps instead of the constant handshakes, although I still shake hands a hundred times a day in places like Kessup or Sipi. The fist-bump was the fashionable greeting of youth and is adopted by older people now in respect of the virus. There are those, William warned me, who believe that ALL white people carry the virus and that Europe is ‘dead’! That’s lack of education and the customarily irresponsible media. 

In town, people sport a sort of decorative chin strap in the form of a face covering that frequently doesn’t, but some wear a face mask, others, even in deep countryside as they walk rural paths and roads completely alone. I have my temperature taken at the entrance to all larger shops, and frequently have to suffer having a squirt of something cheap and nasty on my hands. People, usually unmasked, sell face masks at the roadside for 10 bob each (7 pence each. I bought a pack of a dozen in Boots for £6 before leaving England…). I wear my neck tube; it’s convenient to keep the sunburn from the back of my neck and can be pulled up in town or if I see police checkpoints – who might enjoy politely harassing a mzungu in the hope of a small fine. Otherwise, life goes on pretty much as normal. Few seem to judge others or to be scared by the hysteria-inducing media. I guess few watch the BBC or CNN. It’s about page three in the national papers. 

I’m now almost half way through my trip – as planned. As regulations change and change again for return to UK, I shall keep an open mind about the booked flights. Kenya is not a high risk country and I know I am welcome here. “Oh, you can stay a YEAR!” as Adelight said on my arrival. Well, maybe not a year, but my return may remain flexible.

*

Adelight and I go to town. I enjoy sitting in the car watching life around me. We are warm friends, content together. She’s some errands to make, ground up maize from the posho mill for chicken feed, chicken medicine from the agricultural supplier. For her chicken rearing business. 

I buy beer at the supermarket. Everyone meets my eye and smiles greetings. One woman, attracts my attention; runs into the street. “I need to marry you, Mzungu! Look, I even have my own business!” She points to her fruit stall, a table on the supermarket steps. A mzungu is seen as the answer to everyone’s problems and many women see marriage as not much more than a business agreement, it seems to me. I laugh. “You’d have to ask my wife!” Boda-boda boys watching laugh too. 

*

Adelight needs charcoal for baking bread tonight. We walk together to the charcoal sellers and buy a bucket of charcoal decanted into a recycled woven plastic sack. “Here, I’ll take it,” I say, lifting it from her hand.

“Hah! African men don’t do that! If people see you, they will say, ‘eh, this mzungu is a poor man!’” 

“Well, I’ll lead by example then. African women, they do ALL the work!” Stallholders selling secondhand mtumba wear watch us pass, bemused. I laugh and carry the charcoal. 

*

I sit and drink my beer with Rico on the porch. We’ve known one another for half our lives now, and share this strange obsession with Africa. His African family move around us, Adelight making the bread in the skilfully designed oven that Rico made from an old car jack, scrap steel sheets and bits and pieces scavenged around his garage, where nothing is thrown away. Charcoal glows above and below the bread box. The aroma of fresh baking fills the porch. Maria watches a cartoon on TV behind us in the house – the power is back on after another series of outages. 

Scovia makes me laugh: she comes out of the house door, dressed in a glamorous narrow black skirt that she’s worn to town. She’s one of my very favourite Africans. One look and I smile. She’s shapely and always cheerful, with a quip or two for the old mzungus. She always has the last word, does Scovia. She slips off her smart blue-green town shoes and pulls on gumboots – with the chic slit skirt and fitting white blouse, hair in elaborate braids – and heads out of the porch gate with a flounce, the big serrated bread knife in her hand as she goes to the chicken house to slaughter our supper. 

I jest with her about her attire. “Oh, it’s fine as long as you put your foot squarely on the chicken’s legs and hold the wings before you cut the head off. If you don’t hold the wings, then you get blood splashing!” she laughs happily. I guffaw at the idea of any smart young woman of my acquaintance at home even going into a henhouse dressed so smartly, let alone to sever the head of her supper! But this is Africa. You learn the facts of life and death of animals at an early age. You understand where food comes from. You can’t hide from inconvenient truths here. You consider yourself fortunate to have the luxury of chicken for supper, when most have ugali maize and a splash of stew… 

One of Alex’s Uganda pictures, with his aunt Khalifa.
Life in East Africa. Alex catches a happy moment… And I never take selfies.

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



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

Mwanaydi strips the fibres from very tasty pumpkin leaves

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

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

*

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

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

“No problem. Come today!”

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

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

*

On the wonderful trail around Mount Elgon into Uganda

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Nic starts down the ladder on the cliffside

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Keilah, Alex and Precious’s 3 year old

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary. Who could resist?

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, home to Kitale.

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“We are working on it!” Yeah…