"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi", quoth Pliny the Elder. There is some debate about what he really meant, but most likely he meant trouble. In this sense has the phrase been used most often since but I hope to reverse the trend and on these pages bring you the exciting, novel and curious out of Africa.

And wherever I am I hope to remain,
Ex Africa Semper Yours,

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Northern Exposure III: North Horr a.k.a the North Hole

To pick up the Northern Trail where we left it by the broken truck. As I have already mentioned, for the night, I made myself a cosy nook among the logs and planks which made for the lorry’s cargo. It offered a fantastic view of the night sky while protecting me from the chilling wind but it was bloody uncomfortable with all those hard wooden edges. I didn’t have to endure it for long though, as at around 7am the next day our driver came back on another lorry – he found help in the village and they came to our assistance. We unloaded some of the cargo, put it on the other lorry and with the added manpower managed to push our vehicle out of the ditch. At first I was trying to record the whole operation but they have obviously never heard of the journalistic principle of non-involvement here for now I have a lovely footage of men pushing the truck and yelling at me for not helping.

During the day Chalabi desert looked even more like a desert should, that is flat, barren, deserted, vast and blazingly white. It’s important to make these things clear, for I remember my disappointment at seeing the Kalahari Desert in Botswana for the first time a few years back. It featured shrubs, trees, grass and huts – nothing a REAL desert should have. This one kept these things respectably at the fringes, which we reached within the next hour.

We arrived in North Horr where I knew I should look for Abdrizak who on Hakim’s bidding was to take care of me and put me on the next truck. Abdrizak was there alright, and so was a ‘room’, i.e. a mud hut where I was to rest. It was still before noon and the next truck would not go until 4pm. As I heard there is a German mission in town I decided to go and speak some Deutsch. I had a quick splash in half a bucket of water that was delivered to my ‘door’, i.e. cloth curtain and a refreshing, properly cold Coke and went out in search of Padre.

The town, for I guess North Horr, qualifies to be called a town, was striking. I guess I imagined an even poorer version of Gulu with a few dusty streets of brick houses baking in the equatorial sun.
The baking was correct but other than that North Horr defied expectation. It is even more forlorn, undeveloped and scorched that I had imagined. There is just a couple of brick houses right at the main ‘square’, other than buildings of the mission. The rest of the town is just a denser concentration of seemingly randomly placed circular mud-huts and even more randomly placed rectangular privies. The mud huts in the South are quite tall and have walls; these are more dome shaped lean-tos, or if you prefer igloos that have been hit on the top and squashed a bit. They look very squalid and temporary, with frames made of dry twigs and covered with cardboard and USAID food-sack cloth or skins. In Uganda, and southern Kenya, each hut has a few trees around it, a vegetable garden or a pen for the animals’ the outside is swept clean of dust and forms a fairly spacious ‘living room’. Not so in North Horr. The only tree is acacia and these are few and far between, giving little shade. The huts sit desolately in the open sun, close to each other and the loos, the ground is covered with sticks, animal bones and thorns and there is not a planted shrub to be seen. It’s not even very dusty – the heat is so oppressive that even the dust refuses to fly up. Just one glance at North Horr gives you an idea how harsh life in the North must be.

In stark contrast, the mission and its buildings – school, church, carpentry and priests’ quarters – were all built solidly, laid out sens
ibly and kept immaculate. The church looked really out of place with its modernistic design but was in fact very pleasant to behold and visit – not least because of the divine coolness inside and intriguing Ethiopian Coptic-like paintings on dried skins. Father Hubert welcomed me very cordially, offered chilling cold juice but was not very talkative and obviously his mind was on something else. I got little information out of him but I did get an invitation to come and lunch with them in a few hours. At the mention of pasta, I did not hesitate.

I went back to the hotel where I met Nikos, a half-English/half-Ethiopian tour guide. He was a much better source of local and transport info than the padre, and he promised to arrange a transport on the other side of Lake Turkana should I get stuck. He was sceptical about the chances of getting a boat in Iloret but wished me luck and went off to tend to his mini-group of elderly Belgians on a ‘hard-core outback’ tour. I went to see the local mosque, which, despite Padre’s talk of slowly siphoning in Saudi money, looked quite poor and desolate. The sight of a well outside it brought to mind the half-forgotten Biblical stories: Rebecca, Rachel – back in the day life seemed to have revolved around wells. This one was quite empty but I decided to sit by it and see who I meet. It didn’t take long a
nd soon I was surrounded by ten or so local men who were very chatty and friendly but also very insistent, on learning that I am Catholic, that I should renounce my heathen religion and convert to Islam pronto. Not before my lunch at the sacristy, I would have joked, but I somehow did not have the feeling my joke would be appreciated. I backtracked politely.

After a delightfully European lunch I went back to the hotel for a siesta. My room was pleasantly cool and I dreamt of nothing else but a nap. That was not to be however. As I might have mentioned somewhere else, the concept of privacy is somewhat lost on Africans. Mud huts rarely have doors and even if they do knocking is optional. Technically, one is supposed to say ‘hodi!’ and wait for a reply of ‘karibu’ before one enters: I am yet to see that practiced. In any case, when I was having my shower, changing and now trying to sleep I had a constant stream of children and women coming in, standing in the doorwa
y and staring. I would greet them and then try to ignore them politely. Usually, it worked and after a few minutes they would get bored and leave. Not so with Halima. She came in and sat on the other bed in silence. She did not even smile shyly as the other girls did. She just sat there. I was quite perplexed. And as Europeans do I attempted to cover the uncertainty with talking. She replied to all my questions politely but asked few of her own. I ended up upholding the conversation I did not want to have in the first place. I told her I was very tired. She said I should definitely try to get some sleep. She did not move. I closed my eyes but opened them after a longish while realising that she will sit there and look at me anyway. It was a long couple of hours; but I do know she was just being a good-hostess (she was a daughter of the hotel owner) making sure her guest is not left alone. Africans just don’t do ‘alone’; alone you’d just not survive in North Horr and its hostile environs. I appreciated her effort. Yet, she must have also liked me in her own way, for when I was boarding the truck she run out of the hotel and pressed something into my hand. As I opened my palm I saw it was a lovely string of beads that she had been wearing. I only had time to smile and wave goodbye in return, as the truck disappeared around the bend making for an even wilder North.

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