ESCAPE FROM THE GOLDEN CAGE – RETURN VISIT TO KENYA
by Naginder Sehmi
Eleven happy days with the family; I could have stayed indefinitely. One desire was to see the real Kenya; not that for tourists. I wanted to see rural families and the way they lived. Central Province around Neyri and Mount Kenya seemed a good choice. That way I could continue my training (running) at high altitude, and perhaps find a colleague last heard of many years ago around there. You know,mise en scène for “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”
‘Twiga Travels’ could propose only touristy lodges and safaris at exorbitant prices. Nobody recommended the use of public transport that a million people take every day. When for comparison I asked about prices on the coast, my nephew Rajinder was carried away with enthusiasm and in no time I had been booked into the ultra-expensive Serena Beach Hotel on Shanzu beach. I had had no real desire to go there, but I take things as they come.
At 11.30am on Saturday 16 December in the arrivals hall of Mombasa airport, I saw a man holding a SEHMI placard. A slight sign from me and he grabbed my bag and loaded me into a van driven by Faud, accompanied by Twiga’s Simon. Alone in the back, I felt like a convict being driven to jail or worse. Assuming that would quickly pass, I chatted to my escorts about life in Mombasa.
But, on reaching our destination the feeling of dread was reinforced, even though the hotel seemed a very good one. I thought it might be the heat, but in fact it was quite cool all the time. The atmosphere was suffocating. Already when checking in I asked the Twiga man and the hotel to find me a place on the bus next morning to go to Lamu. I also requested Twiga to advance my return flight to Nairobi from Thursday to Tuesday. I would have gone earlier, but they do not work at week-ends. I wanted out of that golden cage.
The two daily buses to Lamu were fully booked. Yesterday (Tuesday) I landed back in Nairobi at 11.30 with a new-found lightness and relief. Then, as is usual with me, chance took over. At one of the information offices run by girls, I booked at the Garden Hotel, the only good one in Machakos. They were very surprised because no tourists go there; they thought something was wrong with me. The previous night the waitress who served me beer at the hotel bar was a Mkamba from Machakos, and she had kindly briefed me on everything. I was ready to take a taxi to Mombasa Road and wait for a matatu (the local name for a 14-seater-van). To take me to Machakos, the girls asked for 5000 Ksh, but when they heard that I had an offer of 3000 Ksh they got a car ready in less than two minutes. It had to happen that way: I was on the right track.
The driver William, a 22-year old fourth-year university student, is doing a degree in physical training. Even before we were out of the airport he said “You look very fit”. “What makes you say that?” I asked. “I can tell from your skin and the veins in your hands; they are not those of an old person”. There was not enough time to finish the conversation before we reached the Garden Hotel, over 60 km away.
William’s mother is a Mkamba and his father a Luo from the Lake Victoria region. William organizes meetings of the younger wing of the Nairobi Rotary club, and wanted me to give a talk specially for Asian members, encouraging them go out and breathe fresh air and do exercise, using myself as role model. He also takes groups to climb Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, and might have taken me to Mt. Kenya next week, but alas I do not have enough days left.
So far my trip has been wonderful, thought-provoking, with unusual encounters and unbelievable adventures in this rather neglected region from the point of view of modernisation. I have yet to see a tourist. If there were any, I should have met them in this hotel that dates from colonial times. Even the hotel staff were surprised to see me. They all go out of their way to make suggestions. “I should like to go to the top of that hill, please show me the way”.
“Well, take the road to Kathiani, but it is a long way and the road is very steep; nobody knows the exact distance”.
To get there, two people indicated diametrically opposite directions. It was hilarious. Yesterday in town I could not find a map of the area in any bookshop. In fact, there was no need for a map. Chance had arranged a perfect companion waiting for me half an hour’s walk away at the beginning of the climb.
After showering, I descended to the bar where I met a hotel guest, Jan Bloemhof, a consultant to the technical school projects of the Dutch Reformed Church. He had lived at Eldoret, my home town in western Kenya, and remembered everyone there, in particular the Sultan Juma Haji family whom I had met in Canada earlier this year. Two drinks later he was greeted by the local MP Mwanzia, to whom I was introduced, followed by the usual chatter about local politics.
Yesterday I set off fairly early with a small backpack holding my jacket and a bottle of water. People on their way to work looked at me curiously, and almost every one greeted me with a smiling jambo! orgood morning! Obviously the sight of a non-black person on foot in this region is a rare event. Bicycle taxis plied in both directions. A 15-minute walk brought me to the start of the climb up the hill where a number of taxi-bikes were waiting for people coming from the hills. There was no question of me being transported uphill! A short friendly chat confirmed that I was on the right track. The gentleness of these people made me feel completely at ease. It confirmed what William had told me: there is no problem in the countryside. Most people spoke English, but my Kiswahili resurged amongst them. Walking in the cool mountain breeze I felt amazingly light in body and mind after the oppression of Mombasa’s heat and humidity.
On each side of the road I noticed at least a dozen signboards indicating some church-related institution or school. Just before the right turn to Kathiani, my destination, there is the first secular Mumbani girls’ secondary school, and a little further on is the Mumbani boys’ secondary school; two different people run them. The boys’ school has about 1000 students and the fee for one term is 20 000Ksh. The guard allowed me to enter the school which is hidden behind some woods. One of the signboards in the compound pleased me a lot: SILENCE, BRAINS ARE AT WORK.
The good tarmac road steepened considerably and fewer matatus passed. I greeted a young man pushing his bike on the left side. It had a single-speed gear and is difficult to ride uphill (I saw no bike with five- or seven-speed gears). I invited him to walk on the right because it is safer. Coming over he said, “Yes, you face the danger”.
Tom is 18 and lives with his parents a short distance away at Mungala. Seeing my interest, he warmly invited me to visit his house and meet the family. Hardly ten minutes later we crossed the road and took a narrow path through young maize interspersed with coffee plants. His father came out and shook my hand. Gideon M Muthaka, 48 years old, is Forest Officer in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. When I left Kenya in 1970 (before the Ministry of Water was created) I had worked in the same ministry. So we had some things in common to talk about. In its one-acre farm the family runs a plant nursery as well. Tom showed me around. I saw gravillias, pepper trees, jacarandas, pines and many others.
The Wakamba, people of this region live on numerous hills that they have terraced to grow coffee, maize, beans, and vegetables. Farmers sell their coffee beans to the factory for 23Ksh. per kg. The hills are subject to serious erosion; how long they will still have good soil is a serious question, population pressure is enormous.
Gideon is on year-end leave supervising replacement of the roof of his home. He apologized for the disorder. He took me to the small enclosed compound beside the house and three smaller habitations. A coffee table and chair were placed for me and I met the family, all very attentive and affectionate. Of the four daughters, two work in Machakos.
Next day Tom took me to meet Irene who ran a neat one-metre-square kiosk within another shop, fitted with a computer and a printer and charging 30 Ksh per print. Of the three sons, the eldest is married, has two children, and lives with his parents. The grandchildren were not shy of me, and I signed the visitor’s book. The previous visitor had signed in September.
Machakos town has not grown much compared with other Kenyan towns. Fifty years earlier, in 1956, I had walked with three others the 70km from Nairobi to see Machakos. It has not attracted any industry; families are growing but employment is hard to come by. After the short rains the hills looked beautifully green as if it were a land of plenty, like the Swiss valleys. But in another two months most will be tawny brown and dry signalling the onset of dire, dusty and lean conditions.
In front of Gideon’s house on the hillside is 15-foot (5 m) well, source of fresh water; a lucky strike because the steep catchment above is very small. At the far end of the house is a small lawn with a few benches where they entertain relatives and friends. Gideon saw me off and offered his son as company to the top. I accepted with some reluctance.
“There isn’t enough room for the family, but we are happy”, said Tom. He could not believe that at his age I lived in Eldoret with my father and younger brother in a tinier room with fewer facilities. As I stood by the well, a thought struck me. “Why do we always point to the sky and say that God is up there, when in fact He is under our feet? Our entire livelihood comes from down below, but we never picture God there”.
Tom showed me short cuts, usually quite steep, and gullied by recent rains. In a small niche in the embankment, a pretty little girl of seven or eight was selling small green apricots arranged in small piles. Tom said they were ripe; so I bought a pile for 10 Ksh. They were actually unripe. After walking for an hour, I felt the breeze was cooler and the vegetation had changed from tropical to temperate and wetter: a forest of pines and cypress trees called the Ngulini (baboon) Forest; but there are no baboons any more. We came across six or seven children carrying bundles of firewood. On seeing us, the younger two put down their loads and started running towards the older ones. When I greeted them with a jambothey lost their shyness. Tom gave them the bag of apricots which they playfully squabbled over.
One is struck by a total absence of Asians and Europeans in Machakos and the villages around. The former inter-racial relationship has been replaced by a more open predominantly black society that will soon forget terms like Kalasinga for Sikhs, Banyanis for merchants and Musungus for Europeans.
We cut across another series of bends in the road. “These are Ngai dethina’ (God help me) bends”, said Tom. Since the road was almost always empty, I asked why such a nice road had been built. “General Mulinge lives not far from here, and he had it built to reach his house in the centre of his huge farm”.
Every person we passed, or found sitting in front of his or her home, greeted us. Occasionally, when talking to Tom or lost in thought, I failed to greet them. Tom would alert me: “They are asking if you do not know how to greet”. So each time I turned round and promptly rectified my negligence, the gesture ending in laughter and smiles. The journey to my destination, Kathiani, took three and half hours. It is a small town whose population has difficulty making ends meet. I did not want to miss the chance of meeting General Mulinge, a gentleman of note who had been the first head of Kenya’s armed forces. It was after mid-day and few matatus plied at that hour. So we marched on the few more kilometres to reach his residence. Everyone was surprised to learn that we had walked all the way from Machakos. Two guards directed me to a young lady who appeared to be one of the family. I assured her that I was not a journalist. However, one of the guards said that the General was sleeping and could not be disturbed. So we turned back disappointed. At least we had tried. I learned later that he was actually very old and sick. We returned to Machakos in a matatu meant to carry 14 passengers. We were 22.
Next morning, Tom turned up at the hotel half an hour earlier than expected. On the advice of his father, he decided that we should take a matatu and head for Wote, shown as Makueni on the map, 75 km to the southeast. Passing through Mumadu (which means abusing people) we got off at Kivani and walked on the newly-constructed road to see the “White stone” (quartz) used for making pottery and construction material. Perched above the road cutting on the right is a forest of Mukonge wood used for the carvings for which the Wakamba are famous. We walked for about four kilometres, mostly downhill, to Makutanu, appreciating the greenery of the terraced hills. We boarded a full bus, and after a few stops I found a seat that I shared with a garrulous and jovial woman. She was carrying part of her load bundled in a cloth, the rest being in the luggage compartment. It took a moment to break the ice, and then we conversed in Swahili mixed with English. She was 39 years old and taking her farm produce to the nearby market town. Her day’s earnings varied from a meagre 100Ksh (less than $1.50) to 6000Ksh, depending on the time of the year. She complained that this was not enough to feed and educate her seven children, the eldest being 19 years old.
“I’m very intelligent: I wanted to study beyond primary school”, she mused. I suggested that perhaps seven children were too many. “Yes, I realise that now, but it was shauri a Mungu (God’s wish)”. “How do you manage to pay their school fees?”“My husband earns a little from a small business in Nairobi”.
Suddenly the bus slowed down and a policeman peeped in to see if anyone was standing, then let us go on. About ten passengers who had smartly crouched down in the aisle stood up again!
Wote is a biggish town with signboards announcing a World Bank project to improve its roads. It is difficult to tell when the boards were put up, but the roads are still bad. The midday sun dissuaded us from embarking on our climb to the top of the hill. Anyway we took the punda (donkey) track that led us to a shallow river, a tributary of Athi River. We decided against wading across, and turned back. Along the 300m long track reeking of donkey droppings, I counted 30 donkeys loaded with plastic containers filled from the river for household use because the town water supply is inadequate.
On the way back Tom announced “This village is Mukunyuni. It’s the name of a fruit that Jesus ate when he came here”. “Do you really believe in that story?” I inquired as we sat in the front of the matatu. The driver laughed. “Don’t laugh”, I said, “He is still here, even with us”. Just then the driver happened to tell me that his name was Issa. “There, you see; he is driving us home, we are safe”. We all had a good laugh.
A little way further on Issa pointed out his village at the roadside. A certain distance beyond, he suddenly stopped the van and ran across the road to a building which looked half-finished. He came back within a minute and said “This is my church, and I stop here at least once each day”.
Well, Jesus brought us back safely to Machakos, and Tom insisted that I meet his sister Irena in her kiosk. Early next day, Friday 22 December, I boarded a Peugeot station-wagon that carries a maximum of seven passengers who pay 130 Ksh for the 70km journey to Nairobi. I was given the front seat because I was first to check in. My fellow passengers looked quite refined, some reading newspapers. Nobody talked. After reading the headlines I started a conversation with the driver. The car belonged to him, and he does three trips daily. I quickly estimated his earnings. His total fares amounted to 910 Ksh, taking into account one hour’s traffic delay entering the city and the price of petrol at 80 Ksh per litre, his fuel cost was 560 Ksh. That left him with a margin of 350Ksh. Not much!
Near the airport we got stuck in the traffic. To reach Harrambe Avenue terminal (not more than four kilometers away) it took us more than an hour, even using side roads through a residential area. During that hour I managed to stimulate conversation among the other passengers; we discussed Kenya, its politics, poverty, water resources as a limiting factor for development, unemployment, foreign aid and, of course, corruption. When we got out of the car we shook hands and wished each other a merry Christmas. “You never said a word; how come?” I asked the young woman. “I was listening: I found it all most interesting”.
I was glad to be back in Nairobi. The rest of the week was going to be very busy indeed: Many marriages and other social functions, which invariably end with a delicious multi-dish meal and plenty to drink.