"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,

Thursday, 6 January 2011

African Christmas Carol III

The list of selfless, kind acts bestowed upon me by Africans and Mzungus alike continues to continue:

29. Assaska, a friend of Jedrek and Kate’s immediately took me under her wing. Not only did she take care of me in Nairobi, showing me nice places, introducing to her friends and helping out when I could not find the PIN to my card, but also invited to a fascinating event, the Rendille traditional wedding. She organised the whole trip to her home village and, together with her mum, hosted us royally making sure we notice, understand and appreciate all the local customs and traditions. Her boyfriend, Jeff, an anthropologist by training, was especially helpful in the latter task.

30. I was very much impressed with the amount of time and effort Albert, a local Ngo worker, with whom I sat trembling from cold and fright during an incredibly fast and rough ride on the back of a pick-up truck with no number plates driven by a Sudanese soldier on the way between Gulu and Pakwach, put into helping me get into the Murchinson Falls park and then, when the attempts failed, to organise me a lodgings for the night and transport for the next day. He spent over two hours just sitting with me and calling his various friends and relatives in the vain hope that someone knows someone who might let me into the park after nightfall. We talked to a dozen people but none of them were able to help and Albert was as inconsolable as if it was him that wanted to get to the park, and very apologetic that I had to spend the night in a local hotel, which he also organised.

31. In Malindi, a sea-side “Italian” resort, a friendly girl working at my campsite offered to show me the way to the beach, which was surprisingly difficult to find. She did not want to swim so she just sat at the shore watching over my things as I negotiated my way through the disgusting brown weeds to take a quick dip in the sea.

32. Politicians are rarely credited with selflessness and altruism, and in this case too the motives of Ugandan politicians I met in Gulu might have not been entirely pure. No matter why they did it, the contacts they provided and the rides they gave me during my chase after Museveni were very helpful.

33. One afternoon I was walking back to Bros Camp in Juba, when a motorcyclist pulled up, said he works at Bros and saw me there and can take me back with him if I want to save myself the 10 minute walk. And why not?
Joy, also from Bros, is a singer at a local band. I met her at a birthday party and pronounced my admiration for her African dress. She immediately offered to take me to the market the next day so that we can choose the material and find a tailor to make me one. We did that the next day and she was very patient with my fussiness over the colours and prices, as well as very helpful with some pattern tips.

34. In Lokkichoggio a friendly Methodist missionary met on the bus offered me shelter for the night in their surprisingly fancy teaching compound. He left me his room, spick and span, with shower and internet, while he slept in the dorm. Did not expect such comforts in the friendless North. I was fed, entertained with conversation and then transported to the bus stage from where I could cross over to Sudan.

35. Although I have already covered “transport kindness”, these guys need a special mention, as they have not only provided a vehicle, but also lunch and a hassle-free border transport. I am talking of the ‘governor’s men’ a group of constructors and businessmen who were leaving Lokichoggio for Torrit. There is not much transport from Loki, so their decision to take me to their already nearly full car was much appreciated. Thanks to the fact we were travelling in the car of the governor of the Eastern Equatoria province I had no problems at the border – as a matter of fact I did not even have to see a border-clark but gave my passport to our driver who arranged a stamp for me. Once on the other side, we stopped in Kapoeta, where they were building a hotel, for lunch which they kindly shared with me and then proceeded to Torrit, to report at the Governor’s residence.

36. The Governor turned out to be a very nice man, who was only a little surprised to see me roll in onto his yard with his men, but who did not let his astonishment affect his hospitality. We all sat at a table in the garden, just as if I was also one of his men returning from fieldwork. We were treated to cold drinks and later to buffet dinner, also in the garden, during which the governor kept insisting I take one helping after another. The food was delicious, so after a couple of hours and shaking the Gov’s hand goodbye, I rolled out on my fat belly into the night.

37. Tea and cattle break.

38. Again, this is but a transport rescue but it came just in time to save me from being eaten alive by tsetse flies. I was walking back from Murchinson Falls NP in the early hours of the morning. There is but one road out so the idea was that I walk until someone comes and picks me up. The air was cool, my luggage not too heavy so for the first half an hour I thoroughly enjoyed my walk. But as the sun warmed the air those little bastards appeared out of nowhere and started feasting on me. Mind you, they no longer carry sleeping sickness (I think) so there was no immediate risk of death. But had I not covered every inch of my skin, I swear, I would have died from thousands of painful bites. I found myself practically running, with a 18kg backpack, not to outrun the swarms but to make the bites that little bit less frequent. The appearance of a jeep with two American girls who decided to stop at pick me up was a saving grace and I owe them if not my life, then certainly my sanity (such as it is).

39. This story actually happened not during my current trip but during an equally crazy venture onto Mt Kenya with my mum, some 13 years ago. With not much preparation, inappropriate gear, no guides or porters we elected to climb this imposing mountain on the Chogoria – Naro-Moru route. We succeeded and rushed down to get some transport on the way back. On the way down, we met out first fellow-climber. A tall British guy, immaculately dressed in Bergson-wear, carrying a light day pack and a bottle of water and stepping daintily. We, on the other hand, were exhausted, sun-scorched, dehydrated, mal-nourished and, in my case, altitude-sick and were running and stumbling to get down fast. Really, in these circumstances my dry lips were the least of my problems but I still very much appreciate that, after some greetings and comments about the weather (treacherous, very treacherous), he looked at me with concern, produced a lip-balm from his pocket and would not let me go until I made sure my lips were properly re-hydrated.

40. Another generic group of helpers are those who have kindly been showing me the way. I have never been in a country with people hostile enough to refuse giving directions, but East Africans go out of their way to make sure you don’t get lost, often walking with you up to your target. Don’t try to ask boda-boda drivers about directions though – they might be best informed but, unlike the London cabbies, they will insist on taking you there even if it’s a few meters away!

41. During my ascent up the Jbel in Juba, I had the help and guidance of a little boy by the name of Monday. He nimbly climbed in front of me, waited for me to catch up and then run ahead further. I did not want a guide but his company was quite pleasant so we climbed the mountain together, then sat on the top and ate bananas, whose skins we would throw onto the rocks in frost of us and watch the falcons swoop and pick them up, only to throw them down from lofty heights with disdain once they figured what that was. Luckily, not onto our heads.

42. and 43. In Loralang I was treated to lunch, a place to nap and invaluable advice by Sarah, Mama Habiba’s daughter who runs a hotel on the other side of the lake. In the very same place I was first greeted by the chief of village himself who admitted me to his kraal, seated in the shade, treated to sodas and then escorted to my onward transport.

44. This point is less of a single act of charity but more of a charitable phenomenon which I find very touching. African obligatorily wash their hands before meals and, given the lack of running water, it is often done at the table with water, soap, bowl and towel being brought to the diners. Sometimes the waitress or hostess does it but more often the water in a jug and the utensils are left to the guests, who help each other pour the water over their hands, pass the soap and hand the towel. It is moving and humbling to see strangers render this small service onto each other. Part-taking in the ritual made me think of the biblical foot-washing and was a deep bond experience.

45. Deeply touching were those occasions when local people after a few moments of conversation offered me a piece of their jewellery as a token of remembrance. I have already described my encounter with Halima, but another memory I treasure if of a girl from Soricho who I met when I was trying to explore the local church. Or at least I was told it was a church (it was the only 2-storey structure in the village), but when I very confidently strode in opening the heavy metal door wide, it turned out it is actually someone house. Lilly, was one of the inhabitants but she unabashedly came up to me, took me by the hand and showed me around the house. Then, all the time holding hands, we went outside to find her father, who spoke a little English and told me that the girl was one of his 6 and 17 years old. We strolled around the village for a while, went back to my kraal where she was reluctant to enter. But she took a string of beads with a single white shell from her neck and hung it on mine. This time I felt both compelled and able to reciprocate so I gave her my sunglasses in return. She was overjoyed.

46. Deeply grateful to Fasel and his family for hosting me on Iddi Ahdua day. Their hospitality was overwhelming and I had an amazing time in their house.

47. I feel a little bad about this one. After 2 days of waiting I was desperate to cross lake Turkana. When a boat finally appeared I was overjoyed. I went to the owner to discuss the price of passage. He quoted me a price 5 times higher than what I had been told by other villagers is fair. I was tired (it was 6am), impatient and very anxious to go, I really did not want to haggle. But in a moment of divine inspiration I said: “Very well, I will pay whatever you say. But you look into your heart and ask yourself if this is a fair price. If it is, god will undoubtedly reward you, if not, well..”. He looked at me carefully, seemed to think about it and then…. took me for free.

48. Last but not least, I have to thank my family and Tom, even though their links with Africa are tenuous at best. Yet without their support, both emotional and material, I would never have made it to Africa in the first place.

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