"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, 20 September 2015

On the long finals: Kiserian - Kampi

Leaving the friendly homestead was certainly not easy. It was hot, I felt weary and my feet were blistered raw - it turned out my trustworthy hiking boots of ten years had holes in the soles; sand and water were by now pouring in unrestrained. Interestingly, the pretty red nail polish on my toenail held. But there were still over 30 kilometres to Kampi ya Samaki and I knew that I had to cover a bit of that if I were to have any chance of finishing the trip the next day. Furthermore, welcoming as Joseph and his wife had been I had the feeling I was imposing ever so slightly on their long-awaited moments of conjugal reunion. I left them with most of my remaining food supplies and accompanied by Joseph's younger brother, Eugene, set off across the delta.

One of the main rivers which feed lake Baringo, Perkeera, discharges its waters on the southern shore, forming a formidable delta, flat and marshy. When the lake was high, this place must have been impenetrable, a crocodile infested bog. The road would have led much more southerly, all the way south of a small lake, curiously named Lake 92, which once upon a time was but a part of the main aquifer. Now the waters have retreated and there is a way between the two lakes - for those who know it.

For the first few kilometres west of Kiserian the land is criss-crossed with living fences, surrounding little shambas. They are generously irrigated through a maze of little open canals, through which water flows merrily. The place is green, with groves of thin-twigged acacias casting latticework shadows. It was late afternoon and everyone was out, strolling or lolling about near shamba gates. There even were flowers. The whole place seemed a little like a small town suburb, comfortable, relaxed and peaceful. Eugene, with a sweaty, heavily encumbered mzungu in tow was certainly in the centre of attention and we were stopped quite often to exchange greetings.

It would be impossible for me to retrace my steps on the road that Eugene took. He zigged and zagged, picking ever smaller pathways between fences; sometimes he would walk right across a field ignoring the fences altogether. We'd hop over the canals, duck under branches and still he'd lead on unwaveringly. According to my useless google maps print out it was possible to go due west from Kiserian but Eugene pushed steadily south-south-west. After an hour of this I had to stop and slump, while Eugene looked on with a mixture of concern and disdain in his eyes. Three men overtook us and stopped, waiting for me to get up.

Due West
They were from the Youth League and the very same men that I met in the morning, constructing the secondary school, some 15 kilometres away. Did they commute to work on that stretch every day, twice? I hoped not, for this would make my effort look even more feeble that it actually was. In any case that day they were going home to the same village that was to be my destination, Ngambo.

We now turned due west. There was no mistaking about it because a massive, bright red sun was right there in front of me, blinding me completely. It was so bright that I could look nowhere but down at my feet. Which actually was not that much of an inconvenience - I had been looking down at my feet for most of my trip anyway. But this area was stunning and well worth an occasional tortured peek.

A bridge. Sort of.
The land was flat and limitless. Green but devoid of trees. Just ankle-high shrubs as far as the eye can see. It was curiously uneven, with cracks and mounds spread willy-nilly. I realised it was the old lake bottom that we were walking on, the earth dried up and convulsed by the sudden disappearance of waters. It was bloody uncomfortable to walk on. I kept stumbling and cursing under my breath.

We would cross rivers, obviously the spidery distributaries of the main river, most of them jumpable but some requiring bridges. Sort of.

The beauty of the place, and the sense of the surreal, was enhanced by the smokes rising lazily from the ground. Charcoal burners. The place was littered with little heaps of piled up earth. What were they making their charcoal from was hard to tell as there hardly was a tree left, if there ever had been any.

Right in the middle of all that we stumbled upon a hole. It was no ordinary hole. It was a well. One of those shallow wells, dug out by hand in the seemingly waterless spot. I have read about them in desert adventure books. Finding things in real life that I had read about as a kid in books always makes me happy and this well was no exception. Besides, it contained water. A woman was standing waist deep in the cool cavern, her plastic sandals cast aside. She was scooping the water from the little puddle that formed at the bottom of the hole and filling the cups and barrels of the people around. We had our cups filled too and we drank greedily. There was something biblical about this encounter, a woman quenching the traveller's thirst from her well, the infinite hospitality of the bush. 

Rebecca of Kenya
I wish I have had more time to ask how the well worked, who dug it, who manned it, if they normally charged for it but we had to push on, as now the sun was really low. By now I was seriously tired and there was no end to the flats in sight. But they did finally end, with tangly bush groves surrounding a river, wide enough for us to have to take our shoes off and wade across. We followed it upstream, along an usually neat and tall anti-flood dyke, to the village, passing a primary school to our right. My destination was the secondary school, where I was hoping to find refuge for the night.

Most rivers were jumpable.
I am a little embarrassed about the next part. There was some dilly-dallying at the gate but the askari finally let me in and led me to a place he thought suitable and left me to set up my tent. It was already dark, and my spot was quite secluded, under a tall tree behind some school buildings, so I was hoping that no one will know of my presence until the morrow. It was not meant to be, of course. The students, returning to their dormitories from their evening meal, saw me and rushed to examine the curiosity. They encircled my spot and were coming ever closer giggling and whispering. I'm not sure if I even said hi. I might have nodded or waved but it was too dark for them to see anyway. I kept busying myself with the tent, hoping they would go away. I was so tired, that any idea of human interaction, small talk or any more of questions was abhorrent to me. I just wished them gone so that I could crawl into my tent and pass out. When they approached close enough to step on one of my tent pegs I finally burst out and barked at them to keep away. Immediately I felt silly. 

Some teachers emerged from the crowed and shooed the youth away. They introduced themselves, Jackson, the head teacher, and Alice, the matron. I apologised for my outburst. They asked if I needed anything. I said I didn't. They came back with a blanket, washing bowl and soap and a cup of hot and milky tea. They warned me about snakes and bid me a good night. I really felt quite bad.

I was about to go to sleep when the askari came saying the headmaster had arrived from the village and wanted to see me. He was a funny chap, a little pompous in his officiousness, friendly but obviously not quite sure what to make of my presence. To make up for my hostility towards the students and to placate his uneasiness I promised to address the students at the assembly the next morning.

That I did and it was a little surreal. They were all so eager and attentive. I spoke of who I am and of my trip, why I did it and why they should too. None of them had ever been to Ruko, only 20 kilometers away from Kiserian, where most of them lived. I tried to explain why I didn't take a car, and why I walked alone. It wasn't easy because I didn't rightly know myself. I just wanted to I guess. Because I could.  

They were sympathetic, I got a few laughs. The headmaster spoke after and thanked me for coming, for 'representing' (whatever that meant) and for staying focused. He said I was an inspiration and that the students will be having their 4th form exams this term and they should stay, what? "Focused!", replied the classroom in unison. Quite the demagogue. 

I left them at their desks and set off for the last stretch, which is a little more than a blur in my memory. I walked alone most of the time, asking the way at every junction and answering the inevitable questions. 

Where to? Where from? Really? Alone? Walking? You don't fear? Imagine!

By now I had got quite good at adopting a cheerful, nonchalant tone, polite enough but not too engaging so that I could still walk as I answered. The area was very densely populated now, so close to the main road. I got lost in a maze of lanes and fences a couple of times but there was always someone to lead me out onto a bigger path. An old men with a panga who walked really fast through a beautiful grove of thin tress. Maridadi sana, I remarked. Very Beautiful. Ah, ni bure, hakuna maana. Mkaa tu. Ah it's useless, no meaning. Only good for charcoal, he replied. A woman with swaying hips, 20 litre mtungi on her head but empty. "The water is far, we have to walk many miles to get it", she complained. But she still led me way out of her way and wanted nothing for it.

There were now fences and gates everywhere and the path led in straight angles. I walked to compass turning, left or right as I saw fit. I knew I was getting close but wasn't quite prepared for the sudden appearance of the tarmac road when I rounded a random fence. It was an abrupt end. Some kids run up to me and asked me for money. I knew I reached civilisation at last. 


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