"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, 11 September 2015

Through the bandit country: Ruko - Kiserian

Day 3 Friday, 28th August

Route: Ruko - Kiserian - Ngambo
Start: 7.45am
Finish: 6pm
Distance: 32 km

The welcome I got at Ruko was fantastic, a much needed haven after a day like mine. Joseph, the head ranger, was the one to greet me at the gate. There were six others in the compound, a pleasant place with a few green rondavels and neat paths laid out with white-painted stones. Clumps of aloe were in bloom - the little orange tubular bells so loved by sunbirds - and a few rickety acacias cast a pleasant shade. I let my rucksack slide of my shoulders and land with a heavy thud, immediately followed by a heavy sigh of relief.

I had only one question. Can I swim in here?

The place was so tantalisingly close to the lake that it seemed improbable that there would be no path leading towards it. But the reply was crushing. No, not really, it's very shallow and there are crocodiles. My heart sunk.

Unless, continued Joseph, we take a boat.

And in no time, this angel of mercy had oars in one hand and a can of petrol in the other. I changed into a swim suit and was out in minutes but in my burning desire to get into the lake I forgot my camera. I would regret this for lake in the setting sun was stunning.

Different trip, same lake
But first we had to get to it. We walked on a muddy path, through a land that was desolate and uneven, broken branches and tangled reeds everywhere, the result of lake retreating some 100 meters in the last couple of years. The original jetty was close to the camp, now the boat laid among the tree stumps in ankle deep dark mud. Black pipes run into the lake, sucking out water for the camp. A splash and a ripple betrayed the presence of a crocodile, dismayed by our intrusion. They were right, not quite Bondai Beach that.

We pushed the boat out and paddled through the mire. It was eerie but infinitely beautiful. The tree stumps in front were back against the setting sun, phantasmagorically twisted. Those behind were basking in the golden light, contrasting sharply with the dark blue skies and waters. Birds were everywhere: perched on the branches,  fleeting between them, bobbing on water or diving into it. Cormorants, pelicans, darters, egrets, king fishers, weavers, water hens, herons and others which I could not name.

A rock in the lake
The engine, finally free of the flotsam, revved and we were off into the open lake. Far enough from any crocodiles now, I jumped out and swam. No words can describe the joy of it. I have also never before (and hopefully after) swam while drinking at the same time. I didn't care, it was water and it was sweet and lots of it. I must have drunk a gallon.

We returned by nightfall and I made my camp. We sat and talked with rangers for a while, wrapped in a shuka they kindly gave me, drunk tea and ate some soup with rice I had leftover from lunch. I was tired but now clean and relaxed. I slept like a stone.

Some really annoying birds woke me up the next morning, with their blasted joyful song. The rangers were already up. They were very excited - today was their shopping day. They would take the boat and drive for forty minutes to Kampi ya Samaki to get their provisions for the month, also see some friends, maybe drink a beer. They were trying to decide who gets to go on this fun trip and who gets to accompany the silly mzungu on her silly trip.

The previous night it was decided that someone has to. The area I was about to cross was no-man's-land, a cattle raiding country inhabited, occasionally, by moran and their herds only. They - according to my guides - were a lawless and bored bunch, far away from their mothers and they could hurt me if I stumbled into them.

Cattle raiding in the north of Kenya is an unresolved issue. Cattle keeping communities, like the Pokot, Turkana, Rendille, Desanach, Samburu and Borana regularly organise raids to steal each other's cattle or revenge the cattle that had been stolen. It's been going on for ever, but now guns are involved. People die but the police is powerless. The communities deplore that but with the same breath declare boastfully that it's because the police is scared of their warriors and cannot match their skill in the bush. As a result, whole swathes of land between communities, like the one I was about to cross, are abandoned and dangerous.

The communities in question here are the Pokot and Njemps. The do not see eye to eye. Pokot are purely cattle keepers and the Njemps have uniquely among all pastoralists adapted to a semi-sedentary lifestyle around the lake. They grow crops and fish. They used to do it in the area but some 15 years ago they were chased out. Joseph, my guide, was one of those displaced. The raiders came in the morning, shooting everywhere. All his father's goats, hundreds of them, were taken. Only the little ones were left but they died without their mother's milk. His father was left destitute and there was no more money to send his brothers to school. They moved to Kiserian, on the southern shore, the place where we were now headed.

In one of those comical twists of fate that gods love so much, this area was called Nosuguro. Seeing it on google maps I was concerned thinking that some helpful Spanish person, maybe a 19th century missionary, has branded it so, knowing it is unsafe (no seguro). The origin of the name, however, is Njemps and much more banal. It means 'an aloe'.

And there were plenty of them along the way, and I was cutting them to sooth the burning on my shoulders. We walked at an insane pace, the three rangers travelling light, with only camelbaks as luggage. At first we, or should I say they, picked a path through the dried up moorland, trying to hug the lakeshore as much as possible on our way south. It was a flat country - with the beautiful rift valley escarpment towering to east - but overgrown and therefore hard to navigate accurately. Even the rangers were hesitant, every now and again running into a swamp and turning further east - I would have stood no chance of making it though it on my own in any decent time.

We saw impalas and warthogs, with their little ones following the mother's antenna-like tail through the long grass. They rangers were on patrol so they keenly counted all that we saw and monitored the tracks. They pointed ones I had never seen before - a crocodile dragging his heavy belly through the mud, a long furrow not unlike a tread of a tyre but with funny little feet on the side.

There were other tracks too that they pointed out, ones that got them worried. Men. About 20 of them. Coming south in the night. Cattle raiders.

A road and some rocks. Gives you an idea.
We reached a dirt road and - I didn't think it was possible but - they sped up. I didn't want to complain but the look on my face must have said it all. "Tired?" They inquired politely. "We could walk like this without stopping all day and all night, all the way to Kampi", they boasted. I wanted to hit them but I didn't.

As a result I do not remember much from the bit that must have been the most beautiful to walk through. The road was flat and open, with bush of medium thickness on both sides, and formidable red cliffs - walls of the rift valley - not too far away on my left. Little streams, dry obviously, crossed our path. one of them was called 'the Lion' - if you follow it upstream you will reach a cliff and in it a cave so big, 20 men can comfortably live there. That's where cattle raiders like to hang.

We started meeting Joseph's fellow Njemps and they would join us for a walk and a chat and then peel off back into the bush. He was warning them of the cattle raiding party and they in turn would warn the others. We rounded a bend and walked into a group of four men, barefoot and wrapped in kikoys - all armed with AK47s. The welcome party for the raiders. The word in the bush really does travel fast. They have already heard and they were ready, searching for the Pokot and devising the best place to lay and ambush. What will they do if they find them, I asked. They will 'chase' them, was Joseph's circumspect answer.

After three hours of this we reached a building site - Kiserian secondary school built on the lakeshore by the Youth League - where two of our rangers left. We were now safely in Njemps land so there was no need for a Pokot ranger. We still had an hour to go till Kiserian proper and it was almost midday so we did not waste much time and set off.

We were now on a heavily used path running among tall green reeds and grasses. Women and children busied themselves fetching water from the lake, cutting grass or burning little charcoal fires. The area was treeless. But the cows were abundant and Joseph would make sure I knew which varieties they all belonged to. I can't remember a word of it.

A shadow of her former self.
A hill loomed in the distance, right by the lake, looking like a Saxon fort, with a clump of trees at the top and neat looking buildings among them. A missionary dispensary run by the African Inland Church. One of the nuns who run it just died and people of Kisarian are trying to find money to got to her funeral in South Africa. She was well-loved, apparently.

We reached Kiserian - which translates as the place of peace - just as I thought I was not going to make a step further. It kind of sprung on me, from behind a little grove of acacias. And suddenly we were in an oasis of wide-canopied thorn-trees and neat little plots, all separated by straight rows of impenetrable 'living fence', cacti with mean-looking thorns. It was shaded and quiet and I liked it on the spot.

I liked it even more when we reached the inevitable tin-shack shop and I was given my customary Sprite. We rested a little as Joseph pointed out the local attractions: a chief's hut, the secondary school (boys only), the GSU compound. There was even an airstrip, a little neglected perhaps, but looking usable all the same.

Joseph was getting restless, he was so close to his mother's homestead and it was almost time for lunch. Reluctantly I got up and we went through the village, saying 'serian' (peace) to all and sundry as was the custom. There is a bridge over the Embossos river at the end of the village and when you cross it you're no longer in Kiserian but in a place which has the same name as a twig with which you can clean your teeth.

Joseph's boma.
The parents were out tending cattle so it was Joseph young and shy bride that greeted us. She still lived with his parents. Only when the first child is about to be born will Joseph negotiate with his father and uncles for the livestock he will need to start his own homestead. He will need to brew a lot of honey beer for them first though. That sounded delicious and I have a weak spot for home brews so I made him promise he'll invite me when that happens.

Lunch was served and it consisted of rice and potatoes mixed together. I still had a packet of my Polish gravy so I offered it as my contribution. They were polite about it but I don't think it will catch on.

After lunch it was time for a nap. The goats have taken all the best spots of deep shade so I was left with a movable patch under a tree. I tried to read a bit but dozed off immediately, desperately tired as I was after the latest 20 kilometre stretch. There was still over 10km ahead of me if I wanted to make sure I can reach Kampi ya Samaki the next day. Should I attempt it or stay in Kiserian taking it easy?


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