Friday, October 12, 2012

Injun Country

This rather long story is an account of the week I spent in Northern deserts of Kenya with my good friend Nicholas Lekalaile.

I've been on the road for two days now and apparently there's a little more to come. I decided to travel with Nicholas, our night-watch man (askari), to his home area in Rendille land far to the north of Isiolo, the alleged edge of civilisation, to see his family and this unique area.
Yesterday we left the clean organised world of Lavington, a wealthy suburb of Nairobi, and took a matatu to Eastleigh, the major Somali and generally Northern neighbourhood of Nairobi, to get a bus onwards. In the squalor of little stalls, dirt roads and Nairobi jam, we sat in the corner of a depot garage where, rather than finding a bus we seemed to gather a small concentration of Rendille who were catching up on the news of jobs or home, although I really don't know because I can't understand anything of their Cushitic tongue!
Eventually Niko prised away, mostly due to my persistence I expect, to go find a vehicle to carry us north. I felt if we didn't go soon I would loose all my nerve for the epic adventure ahead. We left Eastleigh and set out on the Thika highway, a 3-lane motorway built by the Chinese, probably as a part of their bizarre plan to link Lamu with Juba and making Isiolo a major transit town. Last time I did this route it was still being built and it took several hours on rutted side roads instead of this quick glide in the beautiful highlands beyond. The Kenyan Highlands are like the Garden of Eden. Rich dark red soil bursts forth every fruit and vegetable one could want and as you drive through the patchwork of small gardens it is a beautiful sight to behold. One can understand why some Kikuyus a superiority complex when you compare this area to their neighbours.
Three hours later we arrived at Nanyuki, at the foot of Mount Kenya, straddling the equator. This beautiful colonial town feels like the last homely house as described in the Hobbit. We drove through the final stretch of stunning farm land at the base of Mt. Kenya and then started our descent to the hot dry plains below, a drop so great my ears popped and my water bottle was crushed with the pressure change. At the bottom we reached Isiolo, a dusty dirty town full of various Northern groups complete with Arabs, Borani and Somali all shouting and spitting in a scene rather reminscent of Tattoine. In a mere 50 miles from Nanyuki to Isiolo we had passed a major boundary, leaving the green Bantu lands behind and entering the Northern realm of the nomad.
For four further hours we drove north seeing very little other than bush and a stunning sunset behind the Matthew's range as we zoomed along the pristine new tarmaced road bound for Ethiopia. Finally we arrived in the place where I now write, a dusty little wild-west trading post on the road, complete with gin bottles everywhere, but unlike the wild-west filled with beaded tribes-people. Niko is out on the road trying to find a bus to take us the on the last short stretch into the bush to his home.
Dusty travel

Actually there was no bus, we were to get a car and arrive when possible. There was a Mzungu lady arrive unexpectedly in town, who Niko said is from Korr. He had said there was a missionary couple in Korr and evidently here was one of them! I asked nicely if we could get a ride and she obliged. We piles into the back of the small pickup with dozens of other people going that way. We stripped across the desert seeing some ostrich and gazelle on the way until we reached Korr at last, dusty and hot. On the way I was chatting to a guy who told me I was lucky because I had managed to get a ride only 1 day after arriving, he had been waiting 5 days for a passage! What is Niko leading me into?
 On arrival here the missionary lady Lynn led me to the house, opened a small guest room and put my stuff inside. Am I staying here then? First thing is figure out is I can ever leave this place! Lynn said she would call around to find out when a ride was going out, so Niko and I went into town to find out where is wife is. I followed him around town for a few hours, not able to talk to most people, just sitting and looking at this little town. Sadly to my surprise it is starting to look like any other area of Kenya with little shops selling Blue-band, a couple of Piki's zooming around and lots of plastic lying on the ground. Everyone down country says this place is off the edge the world, but evidently those places are hard to find these days.

The real bush
I'm now sitting in the small house of Nicholas' mother. Yesterday we set off for his wife's house in a Gob' about 5 km from town. On the way through Korr we stopped in the general store while Nicholas greeted dozens of people from being away so long. We sat in the shop for a while and eventually he said, “wait here five minutes, I'm going to get shoes”. Half an hour later he returned with no shoes and just the explanation, “too many people!”. He sent his wife who had arrived by this point and sat a while longer. Periodically the shopkeeper grabbed a small packet of tea and sugar and handed them to people coming through the shop. Eventually I realised that Nicholas was buying them for gifts. Now that he was a big man with a job in the South, it is expected that he gives gifts. He ran up a bill of 2000 shillings and completely finished his money, poor guy!
In the shop

Niko and his beautiful wife

His wife's Gob' was only a short distance from Korr, but as soon as we left Korr it felt like the wilderness tribal experience I had built up in my mind. It was difficult to say what was so enchanting, maybe the delicate elven faces adorned with so many colours or maybe the enormity of the desert, but whatever it was it was fascinating just to sit and watch.
Almost home

Cooking tea
A typical Rendille house is a domed bivouac made by bending sticks and covering them with animal skins, cardboard boxes and anything else they can find. The roof is 4ft high so can't stand but its comfortable enough to lie or sit. The doorway makes a short recessed corridor about 4 ft long meaning the inside has a semicircle space and two alcoves, one for storage and one for cooking. Cooking inside is necessary because the harsh desert winds would blow any fire away, but it makes the homes smoky and hot.
Nicholas spent most of the time telling stories to his numerous friends and family who hadn't seen for 9 months, while I watched or read. In the evening we headed out for a little walk around the area and as we waled across a dried river bed we spotted two Moran about 100ft away. Moran are the warriors of their community from the time they are circumcised during mass circumcision events every 12 years until they marry they must walk throughout the country with livestock finding good grazing and defending their territory. They are richly adorned with beads across their ritually scarred cheasts and wear feathers above their heads. They were rather frightening to behold and a reminder that this is an untamed land.
On the road
In the morning we set off on the 25km walk to his mum's gob' near a small trading centre called Namerai in the Ndoto mountains. I mostly enjoyed the walk, except towards the last hour when temperatures were well over 30 degrees and I was desperate for water. Arriving we were greeting by the dozens of overjoyed people I was now getting used to. With no phone signal to call ahead and plan, your loved ones just wake up as normal then suddenly you've arrived back it makes for much more jubilant greetings. Nicholas, now well acquainted with my camera and guitar starts showing off his magic tricks and living up to his expectation of being an accomplished man of the world. I let him pretend. Its much more fun watching them gaze lovingly at him as he beats discordantly on my guitar than if I was showing off. Besides its all he's got now his money is finished!

There's no place like home

1 comment:

  1. Wow, looks like an amazing place. I'm sure Niko loved having you there... probably the first time his coast work life and home life have ever really mixed. I'd love to hear (see) his rendition of the trip... his stories are always so animated:) H