"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,

Monday, 13 December 2010

Northern Exposure IVa - Lake Turkana at Last

It’s time to lead myself and my readers out the desert. But not before I have recounted the journey to, and sojourn at, Soricho, a little village on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana. Abdrizak, Hakim’s friend and envoy, secured me a place on a truck that was headed there the very same afternoon. That was a real stroke of luck as transports go there once a week on average. So I did not complain when I was herded with some thirty other passengers onto the open back of a massive truck and seated on the sacks of sugar and maize flour. From that position on the bottom of the load I would have not been able to see anything so as soon as we took off I climbed onto the metal grid frame that spun over the back. Some of the men also chose that position, which was neither the most comfortable nor safe one (try half perching-half hanging on a cross-section of metal bars some four meters from the ground while the truck is being tossed and shaken on potholes and bumps for three hours) but offered a chance of delightful breeze and great views.

My fellow passengers spoke little English but even so tried to point out interesting landscape features and animals to me. The road led through stunning, if inhospitable, terrain. After the initial desert flatland, the truck started climbing through grey dunes and stony hills, only to reach another flat plateau, this time covered in dry grasses and shrubs. There were mountains in the distance. As for animals, we did not see many, but there were camel and goat herds, ostriches, gazelles, hyenas and my favourite, tiny dikidiki antelopes, which always come in pairs and are reputed to be so attached to their life-long mate that if one of them dies the other withers away in the matter of days. Very romantic.

When it got dark, we fell silent and observed the many white hares (actually, I don’t think they were white at all but they looked white in our blinding long head-lights) which would spring out from the sides of the road and run madly alongside the truck for a while. The darkness was all-engulfing, save the triangle of light in front which, as we turned directions, would hit and bring out to view single trees and lone-standing rocks on our path – the effect was magical, as if these things were being instantly created out of the void. I was mesmerized and only after a while realised that the men around me all started chanting unisono; then one of the men would pick up the lead and melodically recite, what I now know was, the story of a Dassanech warrior’s life: the names of his camels, the women he loved, the enemies he vanquished and the wells he visited. His voice would rise above the others boisterously for a while but then fall again into the chorus and another man would pick up the song. It all felt unreal: the men chanted, the lorry rolled, the hares fled and I tried not let all this hypnotise me into life-threatening slumber. As I felt I cannot resist anymore, I climbed down onto the cosy maize sacks, made myself a lair in a nook, and let the song of the warriors lull me to sleep.

We arrived in Iloret well before sunrise. Abdrizak, who accompanied me on the lorry, arranged for us to stay in one of the bomas so that we could still get some sleep. He and Abdoud, the brother of the lorry driver, slept on a mattress outside, and I decided to pitch my tent among the huts and stacks of dried fish. The next morning we spent doing what I like best, i.e. waiting for seemingly nothing. Abdrizak informed me that to get the boat we have to go some 8kms north of Iloret, to Soricho, but as the truck was not ready (it was unloading supplies) we needed to wait. I was anxious to get going but it was impossible to convince my guide that maybe we should just walk the distance. After all, the heat was stifling and the truck would be ready any minute now. Three hours later we finally set off.

Soricho was very much like Horr in terms of architecture and topography. It was sprawled out north There were larger and smaller igloo-like huts, some of them behind kraals, others just scattered on the main tract that run through the village. There were a few mud houses, with either thatched or corrugated iron roofs as well as one stone structure that apparently used to be a church once upon a time. There was a shop and even a restaurant but you would never know them from other houses and it took me a while to discover their presence. The Dassanech people among whom I have found myself were mostly dressed traditionally, the women with bare breasts and layers upon layers of beads. My arrival caused a major stir and commotion; a faithful throng of women and children followed me wherever I went during my stay there but kept at bay when I was seated at the boma of Mama Habiba, who was my hostess and obviously a rich and influential member of the community. She knew Abdrizak and extended the warmest of welcomes to me as his friend. She sheltered and fed me, as well as helped to organise onward transport – and refused my money when I tried to pay at the end.

Unfortunately, it turned out that there was a boat going the very same day but it had already left. It would take to long to describe the whole process of securing the transport. It suffices to say I would have never done it without Abdrizak who, while infuriating me with his slowness and indecisiveness, managed in the end to find out if there is a boat going. He took time and would never give me answers I craved; but he understood the Dassanech much better and realised that what they said was rarely precise or very certain. So while I was jumping at every mention of boats and rushed to secure the passage with the individual that promised it, Abdrizak just cautioned me to wait patiently until one of the many boats that might be coming materialises.

As I might have mentioned waiting is not something I do very well. There were times during the two day wait that I was at my wits’ end. I could venture far out of the village because at any given time one of those phantom boats might have been coming. Besides, during the day it was just far too hot to even think of moving and when I tried to move about Abdrizak would nervously bid me not to wander aimlessly on account of the scorpions and snakes. So for most of the day I would just lie on the mattress that Mama Habiba thoughtfully put in one her mud-huts for me (I slept in my tent at night), try to read or write but end up snoozing restlessly instead. I talked to the members of Mama Habiba’s house-hold and went to swim in the Lake. The latter sounds like could have been a great past-time but unfortunately the lake was quite far from the village and very shallow for a long time and venturing very far into the middle to find properly deep place was not advisable on account of the crocodiles. So after the initial novelty splashing in the Lake Turkana I was not very tempted to try often. Despite lovely company of Abdrizak and Abdoud and the warmth of Mama Habiba I did feel that this certainly was the furthest (in all possible senses: cultural, logistical, psychological and symbolical) away from home that I have ever been. I was the one lone mzungu amid the arid vastness.

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