"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,

Friday, 25 February 2011

Exiting Kenya, or How the Wealth of Nations is Built on Cabbage

I was very hopeful I would be able to get out of Loralang the very same day. After all, I reckoned, I smelled so badly of no-longer-so-dry fish that the villagers should be all too happy to set me off on my way ASAP. Loralang on the western shore of Lake Turkana is incomparably bigger and more advanced than Solicho. The main street boasts some fifteen brick buildings, including a number of little shops and a restaurant owned by Mama Habiba’s daughter, Sarah. Trucks bringing in supplies and carrying away the delicious, yet stinky, Tilapia fish (all the way to Rwanda apparently) are much more frequent. I was not disappointed and after a relatively short, four hour wait we set off in the direction of Lodwar, a big town on the Nairobi-Sudan road.

After an uneventful, eight hour journey through the arid wastelands (the road runs parallel to the lake shore for a while but, unfortunately, a little distance from it so the views are not as spectacular as they could be) we arrived in Lodwar after midnight. The sight of a sure signs of civilisation that greeted me in this sizable crossroad town, i.e. tarmac and a petrol station, would have brought tears of joy into my eyes if I had not been so tired, sleepy and confused as to what to do next.

Arriving on your own to a new town at night is never a pleasant experience and one of the few things in travelling I dread. Streets are usually abandoned or full of, what seems like, shady characters. If they are quiet it’s spooky, and if they are full of noises, these usually sound threatening. Distances seem longer and topography is unclear. To ask for directions is to betray your confusion, manifest your vulnerability and invite trouble. With that wisdom in mind and without the faintest clue as to where any lodgings might be, I walked decisively and purposefully in a random direction, away from the few boda-boda drivers, touts and soldiers loitering in the dark around the trucks.

As I describe here (no. 5) a stroke of luck and the kindness of a boda driver got me to a hotel, where I could for the first time in over a week be alone, enjoy a shower and electricity. If it wasn’t for that all-pervasive smell of fish, I would have been very happy indeed.

The next day brought further luxuries such as coke, internet and even a bookshop where I bought the only book on Sudan they had in hope it would contain even the sketchiest map of the country I was about to venture into. It didn’t and it was quite unreadable.

Lodwar, in addition to the two petrol stations and the bookshop, also boasts a supermarket and a very popular juice shop. These kept me entertained while I waited in vain for a matatu to Kakuma, a UN refugee camp at the boarder with Sudan, to fill up. After two hours of waiting I got fed up and decided to try my luck with the lorries which I saw passing every now and again.

In bigger places, such as Lodwar there is usually a place where lorry touts gather and hail down passing vehicles to arrange passage for anyone who wants it. They get a percentage of the fare the passenger pays to the lorry driver. In theory it is an efficient system but the negotiations and shouting before the departure always takes a while and it is never entirely clear how much and to whom you need to pay, if at all. But if the driver waves the fee, as it happened to me on a number of occasions, he has to face the touts who often still demand a fee either from the passenger or the driver, as they had, after all, helped one to find a transport. These situations require quite a lot of patience, negotiating skills and tact – luckily almost invariably fellow passengers guide you as to what the appropriate response to the demands is.

I was lucky again and in no time at all secured a place in the cabin of a cabbage truck. In London, I have attended a number of lectures at the LSE, but it was on board of that truck that I have had my most informative and fun lesson in micro-economics. During the four hour drive I was being entertained by the owner of the truck with stories about his budding cabbage and charcoal business. As my only experience with supply-demand chain, logistics, price differentials and fright routes had up to that point come from sending virtual goods caravans in Civilisation II games, I listened enchanted as he explained that there he can sell his cabbage in the barren Kakuma camp for 60Ksh per head, while in his native Eldoret, the capital of cabbage commerce, only for 30Ksh, making a profit of over 50 000Ksh per trip on cabbage only. We would discuss the fuel costs, frequency of cargo shipments and the fluctuations of the cabbage prices. It was fascinating.

I would see the business in action as we stopped in the tiny nomadic villages of the famously fierce Toposa people and my cabbage cicerone would negotiate prices – ever increasing as we approached Kakuma. Conversely, the price of charcoal, the tall sacks of which line the road in most villages, would drop with the diminishing distance but my mercantile mentor was adamant it would be foolish to buy it en route while the real charcoal Eldorado waited in Kakuma.

We passed camel and goat shepherds who would eye us suspiciously from the sides of the road. Toposa women would walk go God knows where to and where from along the road carrying loads of charcoal on their heads. They would stop to let us pass and sometimes they would raise their tiny water jerry-jugs in pleading gesture. They were asking for water to ease their long journeys but the lorry never stopped. We stopped briefly at the only crossroads where the C47 from Lokitaung near the Turkana lake joins the Lodwar-Loki road. This place, with three brick buildings and absolutely nothing else, exists only because tiny amounts of gold are found in the creeks nearby. The locals sieve its sands for the precious metal which then they exchange for, presumably cabbage, at the crossroads.

The landscapes would grow more interesting as we made our way North. It is a land of harsh but stunning beauty. The road winds among the scrubby, yet green acacia-like trees, which my guides described as Mrumbaini, and the ubiquitous , three-meter tall termite mounds. The land is vast and flat, timeless and primordial. After all, the Lokitipi Plain, which we were passing, is the cradle of mankind - and it is without the slightest effort that one can imagine oneself transported through time when gazing upon these limitless spaces under the ever-blue sky.

The vistas get progressively more mountainous as the road approaches the rocky ranges which flank it on both sides. The hills are superbly picturesque: with sharp, lofty pinnacles; hollow, winding gorges or inaccessible, flat table-tops. Their sides are cut with scars of dry river beds - the sites of flush floods in rainly season, now just a mocking promise of moisture in the arid air. In the distance, far away in the direction of the Ugandan boarder one can see even taller ranges, both menacing and mysteriously alluring. The remotness, serenity and vastness of this beutiful landscape is without doubt worth returning to one day.

We arrived at Kakuma in good time. Kakuma, a refuggee camp for the Sudanese affected by the civil war, is a vibrant, yet depressing place. It's very name, meaning 'nowhere' in Swahili is depressing and life in this camp was famously harsh. In its hayday the camp hosted 70,000 refugees; now thanks to the CPA substantially fewer. I was tempted to stay with my cabbage truck and observe the trade in the camp the next day. It might have made for a very interesting reportage. But as it was Sunday and the next day was Kenyan holiday I would have had to wait two days without a guarantee the camp commander will grant me access when he gets back on Tuesday. So I bid my cabbage companions farewell and good luck and went to get a transport further on to Lokkichoggio, the last Kenyan town on the Sudan boarder.

It took nine hours to cover the 200kms from Lodwar to Loki and I was tired after a comfortable, yet lengthy journey. We approached the ‘suburbs’ of Loki as the last rays of sun disappeared on the horizon. Once again I found myself in an unknown town, tired, alone and after dark. But once again I was lucky – one of my fellow passengers was a softly spoken Methodist missionary. He offered my lodgings free of charge in their teaching compound, now abandoned for holidays. I accepted graciously and found myself in what certainly must have been the cleanest and most comfortable abode in the whole of Loki. Not only I had a huge room with en-suite warm shower at my disposal, not only was I treated to delicious meal in the company of talkative Sudanese Dinka missionaries, but joy of joys of the modern man, I had internet access in my room throughout the night.

I was clean, safe and finally, after a week of craziest adventures of my life, on the boarder with Sudan, which I was about to enter the next day.

No comments:

Post a Comment