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South to Nairobi

November 10, 2009

Determined not to make the same mistake as before, Nick and I make sure we have two water bottles as we head off on the perilous journey south to Nairobi. As we wait to leave, Fabio carrying outlast-minute checks on the vehicle, the car is mobbed as it always is when we are stationary, by dozens of kids, who clamber an and around us, fire questions at us, gasp at Nick’s tattoos and generally regard us as the travelling circus come to town. Their favourite part of the car by a long way is the wing mirrors, which hold bizarre fascination for children and adults alike, who grab at the mirrors, almost yanking them off and peer at themselves pulling various faces and expressions until they are shoved out of the way by another’s face. Nick spends much of the journey readjusting wing mirrors after every stop so that Fabio can use them while he’s driving.

We head off, after much negotiating, with a cargo of Turkana women and their filled-up water cans to save them the 35 km walk back to their village. They are delighted with this rare ride and entertain us by belting out songs for the journey. But Fabio is sombre. He checks the mirrors continually, worried about the white smoke gusting out of the exhaust. We’re burning oil.

We arrive at the village, where the women and their water are unloaded and we are greeted warmly like returning friends. This is the village we passed yesterday and bought incense from, and where the goats had been stolen by a neighbouring tribe. We ask about the goats, but the warriors have not yet returned. The schoolteacher shows me the three small bags of grain he has to feed all the children, donated by the mission. It’s not much.

Fabio is anxious to get going – we have a long journey ahead and it’s already afternoon. We say our goodbyes and head on. After a few hundred kilometres, the road forks and we take the smaller track. Fabio explains that the main track is plagued by banditry. “Men with guns shoot at the cars and steal everything,” he says. Besides, the small track is shorter. I wonder why everyone else doesn’t take the smaller track – although, by ‘everyone else’, I’m not sure to whom I’m referring; we’ve only passed one other vehicle and it was an army jeep. “Most cars can’t come this way because of the hill,” Fabio says.

Within 50 kilometres, I see what he means. Our LandRover has crossed two creeks – one of which seemed scarily deep – with no problem at all, and is trundling across boulders of rock, when the track seems to disappear. Fabio shifts to first gear and we quite literally climb a near-vertical, sheer rock face. The engine revs and the chassis creaks in complaint, but for at least one kilometre we climb the mountain of rock, while I hold my breath and wonder if we’ll crash backwards and down. Even donkeys would balk at this route, so I have no idea how we manage to seemingly overcome the laws of physics, but eventually we are at the top and the only way is down.

The white smoke and the smell of burning oil has become stronger during the journey and Fabio is anxious that it is a sign that the piston rings have worn down, causing oil to leak and the bore to rub against the piston. Nick reckons it’s a broken valve seal. I have no idea, but I can tell from everybody’s expressions that it’s not good. There are no mechanics out here. Fabio knows an Indian LandRover enthusiast who lives in a village on the other route, but it is unlikely he’d have the part we need. It’s about this time that a problem develops with the brakes, which nobody can fathom.

For the moment, we carry on driving. Night is falling and Fabio tries in vain to call the mission at Barseloi to ask if we can stay the night. In the end, we just turn up.

It’s a beautiful house built by Italian missionaries 15 years ago, with a huge veranda that runs right the way around it, and in a lovely position on the top of a hill overlooking the village with a small path leading to the nunnery. The two fathers, one Columbian, one from Bolivia, greet us warmly and welcome us inside for dinner. They hastily rearrange what was clearly intended to be a modest dinner for two into a meal for all five of us, generously sharing their little among us all. It’s a lovely dinner and the priests are all great friends, I see, all young and drawn closer together in solidarity over the harsh lives they lead. All have been shot at, faced angry tribal groups and the frustration of seeing their labours destroyed, from the schools they build being burned down, to children they have helped nurture and educate being killed by conflict, disease or malnutrition. They chat to us, laughing good-naturedly at the mistakes I make in my rusty Spanish. I accidentally say rude words, which produces guffaws. Fabio explains how he, when invited by a friendly Muslim man for dinner, a couple of years ago, spent the whole evening complimenting his wife on her lovely vagina until, during an after-dinner stroll in the garden, the husband explained that although the Swahili for ‘dinner’ and ‘vagina’ are similar, there is a crucial difference that he was missing. Mortified, Fabio now skirts around the word ‘dinner’ in Swahili conversation.

During his two month visit to a mission in London to learn English, Fabio slipped up in English too. He delivered a Christmas speech on the behest of his hosts, about the Three Wise Men and their treasures. “Joseph cried: ‘Open your trousers and reveal your gift…’,” he announced, not expecting the sudden laughter. Even in the telling, Fabio pronounces treasures and trousers almost indistinguishably. These are funny little trompes of the tongue, not at all like the misunderstandings that lead one tribe to feel that the mission is favouring another tribe when it builds a school, and so burns it down.

We are shown to our room – “careful of scorpions in the bathroom” – and warned to use the mosquito nets. A couple of years ago, an Italian priest staying here alone, contracted cerebral malaria and, with his car broken-down and no way of calling for help, died horribly. Fabio sleeps with his ghost – just one more of the many casualties of life out here that we hear about.

Next morning, Fabio is checking the car, which seems to have righted itself of the white smoke problem over night – although not the brake one. We stroll over to the Sisters’ building and are greeted with two young Columbian and one Ecuadorian sister, broad smiles and neatly pressed habits. They produce freshly baked bread and jostle and tease Fabio till he blushes. We have coffee and hear more extraordinary tales of life out here before we head back to the Brothers, where our breakfast waits. The priests are getting ready to head to their distant communities to deliver cholera medication – there is quite an epidemic around here at the moment, killing babies and old people mainly.

We have a bowl of the most delicious creamy acacia honey I’ve tasted. There’s a small bird here known as the honey bird, which drinks the honey. But it can’t get past the fierce bees to get its tipple, so it’s developed a relationship with the honey badger, a small mammal that also likes honey but which doesn’t know where it is. The bird shows the badger where to find the honey, flying a little way ahead of it to guide it. The badger then raids the hive, driving off the scary bees, so that both bird and badger can drink their fill. Some local people have learned to watch the badger and the honey bird to find the honey. And the bird has realised that people are faster and smarter than the badger, driving the bees off with smoke, and so the bird now calls to these people and takes them directly to the honey, bypassing the poor badger. The mission priests here are working with the locals to encourage honey collecting so the villagers can trade it in Nairobi for what is becoming a growing livelihood, helping families whose animals have died.

Before 8, it’s already time to leave and bid goodbye to these lovely priests and nuns – we’re going to try to make it down to Nairobi by tonight. We head off, full-bellied, watered and well-slept. The car appears to be behaving itself and all is good. We drive for a few hours, spotting giraffes and zebras, ostriches and baboons. Before long, though, we’re back to scanning the road for would-be assassins. This is a stretch where the Borana tribespeople often attack, Fabio says. Soon after, we get a puncture. It’s too risky to stop here, Fabio tells us, so we judder along a kilometre or so to the entrance gates of the national park, where a couple of armed guards stand duty. While we change the tyre under the watchful gaze of the guards, Fabio repeatedly tells us how lucky we are that the tyre burst here and not a few hundred metres further up the track, where there would have been nothing we could have done. The tribes are no longer a problem further up, but the reason for this, it transpires, is that their patch of violent activity has been taken by a bigger menace: banditry.

As we continue on our nervous way, Fabio driving faster than usual, he says that the bandits on this raod are so bad, that when the government minister came from Nairobi in a convoy with the chief of police to assess the problem a few months ago, the entire cavalcade was held by bandits that took everything and left the minister standing in the road with only his clothes. Priests’ cars are often attacked, he says, as I try to focus on the lesser problem of the brake fault. When we stopped, Nick tied a shoelace to secure the wobbly brake line in place, which we hope has helped.

Every few kilometres along the road, a newly erected camp of army tents stands like a welcome totem of law and order. They were not here a few weeks ago, Fabio says. I hope that this very visible army presence is enough to thwart our would-be attackers, but as Nick and I filter shapes out of the landscape in a now familiar way, searching for gun-carrying men and boys, and of these, trying to pick out the ones who mean us harm, nothing is certain. After a few long hours, Fabio announces that the danger is now over, we are unlikely to get attacked from here on, he says, at a point indiscernible from the road before.

We shrug off some anxiety and the next half hour passes more easily and soon we are in Nyahururu, a small, unfreindly feeling town with few smiles and a dusty desolation. Fabio gets cellphone reception and he calls the mission here to ask them if we can have lunch there. It’s after 2, and the priests there have already eaten but they say they can rustle something up. This is an Italian mission, and they know how to eat! We have delicious marinated beef, real olive oil and balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, toast and parmesan. We can’t believe our luck, wolfing it down greedily. The Italian priest is a man in his 70s, the first old priest we’ve seen and the first that fits my preconceptions of what priests look like. He came out here in his 20s and has lived longer here than in Italy, where he no longer fits in – “don’t understand many of the words people use there now and how they use them Things there have changed so much”. I tell him that the north and Milan, where he comes from, has probably changed far more than the south, and he could maybe try going there. “But what would be the point?” he asks. “My life is in Kenya.”

It’s strange, this army of missionaries, who spend their lives here and yet are not Kenyan and never will be. They belong nowhere but without them, who would feed these hungry people that the government has abandoned?

We leave the Italian and continue south, passing the Equator marker with excitement. There is a bucket and funnel at the base of the marker: pour water down the funnel and it spins clockwise on one side of the marker and anticlockwise on the other. Two sides of our enormous globe, an invisible line taking us from the rich monetary wealth and developed, rich ‘ice-creams’ of the north, to the resource-rich, mineral wealth, but poorly governed human poverty of the ‘ice-cream cones’ of the south.

We journey on, past Mount Kenya (Formerly Africa’s highest mountain), past Lake Naivasha, playground of rich expats and home to the country’s vast export flower industry. Rows of polythene greenhouses fill the landscape like the worst of southern Spain’s Almeria, and the pesticides and fertilisers used, destroy life in the lake. One of the biggest ethical issues though, is that this area is one of Kenya’s most fertile, and instead of growing crops for the nation’s many hungry people, it is growing lilies for sale in supermarkets in England and elsewhere.

We pass refugee camps for displaced people, still homeless after last year’s post-election violence, which saw ordinary people, including children, murdered in the streets by the police and army. While Washington steps up diplomatic pressure and the international community begins the slow process of investigating the horrors, President Mwai Kibake protests these incursions into his sovereignty and talks up his anti-corruption measures, such as new rules saying that all presidential cars must be of the same modest model, doing away with the Hummers and other ridiculous vehicles ministers treat themselves to. It is not enough. Kenyans I talk to can’t wait to see the back of Kibake and his crew, who overstayed their welcome (in stereotypical African style) soon after his 2002 election victory. He will be forced out now, people tell us, but nothing is certain in politics, particularly here.

The brakes continue to play up, and as night falls we become aware of yet another crisis – the headlights keep turning themselves off. We drive for short sections with the road illuminated and are then plunged into darkness, Fabio shielding his eyes from the oncoming trucks’ full-beam headlights. It’s terrifying – the driving and the pot-holed roads are bad enough without this new danger. After a time, we pull into a service station on the outskirts of Nairobi, exhausted. It transpires that part of the problem with the lights’ dimness when they do illuminate is that they are covered with a thick layer of mud. We wash off the worst and continue of to Nairobi, grateful for the traffic jams that reduce everyone’s speed and light the streets.

We arrive at our guesthouse weary but full of admiration and respect for our lovely new friend Fabio – parting from him is difficult after sharing such an adventure, but he has his mission to go to. We wash and get a cab to the upmarket White suburb of Westlands, with its smart colonial houses and vast gardens, to meet an old friend from London, David Cohen (who’s holidaying out here), for dinner. The food is great, although expensive, it’s lovely to see Dave, and I even have a glass of wine – decadence! He’s visiting his brother who moved here recently, and tells us that although the houses are fantastic here, they are like prisons, armed and with people too scared to come and go without protection. The residents know that no one will visit them after dark because of car-jacking, so dinner parties are off. They have guests only for Sunday lunch – strange life.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 12:28 pm

    Another amazing journey – so interesting. Love the detail about the bees, the honey, the badger and the bird – very rough on the badger!

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