In Kenya with H.S.

A travel memoir by Ross Turnbull

Prologue

Bugs in ears have an effect. In the fall, 2010 my partner, Jennifer took up in earnest — and started to gently push for — an idea originally floated by my friend, Hubert Sauper, that I travel to east Africa with him. He was starting production on his new documentary film. His plan was to fly his ultra-light airplane (affectionately named “Sputnik” and powered by an 80-horsepower Rotax 912 engine) from his farm in France. Airstrip to airstrip, he envisioned hopping as far south as Kenya, by way of the coast of Italy, as short a transverse of the Mediterranean as possible, and then Libya and Sudan in turn. The trip was to take several months. He invited a number of his friends to work with him, with each in succession travelling for a few weeks. Hubert started his trip in November. I was scheduled to go in January ’11, but my arrival was delayed until early March. Hubert said our base was Nairobi, capital of Kenya. He speculated that we would travel from there to unspecified parts in Southern Sudan, and also, possibly, to the Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC or Congo-Kinshasa, as distinguished from the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Brazzaville).

The working title for Hubert’s new film is We Come in Peace.* It will follow-up his acclaimed work, Darwin’s Nightmare. Hubert sees Sputnik as a character in the film, which is, broadly speaking, an enquiry into modern-day neo-colonialism. I think he conceives of the film as a series of unusual images and encounters with workers, on-lookers, pooh-bahs, missionaries, n.g.o.-types, bosses and, probably as little as possible, so-called experts. Colonialism’s persistent presence, poetically depicted. Perhaps, if it’s like Darwin’s Nightmare, it’ll be a velvet-gloved fist; punching artfully hard. Hubert described what we would be doing together as an adventure. He explained that my role would be to shoot video, and talk through what the film might address. I was to be fairly remunerated, as the film has all the financing it needs.

Before this trip I’d never been to Africa. I know little about its rich and tragic history, except what I’ve learned from Hubert himself, and through sporadic reading. I’m a stay-at-home type. I have lived for 3 decades with my lovely wife, and with our two (now adult) children and our son’s partner; it’s a happy arrangement. I have been to many places throughout Canada, and visited Europe and the U.S.A., but I’m not an inveterate traveller, as I know Hubert to be. I have a different film practise than his, focused on fictional and experimental works about perception, memory and autobiography. Hubert asked me to accompany him simply because I have professional expertise as a film and video-maker, and I am his friend, not because I bring any particularly developed knowledge of Africa or colonialism.

This is a subjective record of my trip, with reflections on what I learned and observed, and on relevant reading I did at the time. The trip didn’t unfold as any of us envisioned, and so the memoir touches on many things other than the film. I came away from Africa fascinated, exhilarated and troubled by the many problems that persist in a great number of African countries. Hardly least among these is the continued, imbalanced relationship with the west. To paraphrase a remark from the introduction to George Orwell’s collected essays, our lifestyle is to a great extent predicated on the exploitation of people whose skin colour is not white.

I noted my observations daily while I was away, in a Moleskin booklet customized by my daughter, Lulu. The cover is pictured above. I’ve edited the material for clarity and added details as I remembered them. I’ve tried to remain faithful to my impressions on the scene. I’ve backdated the entries in this blog to March (ignore the September posting dates), and running contrary to blogging standard, the format is chronological. Rather than having the most recent entries first, I wanted to give readers a sense of the days unfolding as I experienced them, so the thing reads in proper temporal order; this also means that if you’re navigating through the blog post-by-post, the next one, chronologically speaking, is the “Previous Post”. Any mistakes you may find, in fact or in grammar, are obviously mine. I’ve taken most of the photos, and regret that some are a bit softly-focused, a function of the inexpensive point-and-shoot digital camera I used. (Clicking on any of the images will enlarge them for a better look.) The images that aren’t mine I’ve tried where possible to assign credit. I hope I’ve not infringed anyone’s copyrighted material, but it’s certainly easy to lift pictures from the internet, and if I’ve used something about which someone feels proprietary, get in touch.

*In January, 2014, the film was launched in the world as “We Come As Friends“.

Toronto – CDG – Nairobi

The first text entry proper in the journal was written by Jennifer: “March 7th For Ross with all our love”.

March 8 / 9

Leaving Toronto, and driving the Gardiner Expressway through late afternoon rush hour traffic to catch my night-time flight to Kenya, by way of Paris. Nairobi is 20 hours from Toronto. I’ve brought two bags, which I plan to carry on, rather than having to check luggage. I’ve dressed lightly. Hubert assured me that it’s hot where we’re going.

Our leave-taking is emotional. In our years together, Jennifer and I have not been apart for more than a few days at a time. A month, and particularly a month in what is for us an unknown and possibly hazardous* part of the world, seems like a long time.

On the flight I continue to read Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a history of the early colonization of the DRC and the resulting genocide of the native Congolese. Hubert suggested the book as a bit of homework. It is terrific; at once understated, remarkably well-researched and soberly written, it is also harrowing, horrifying and truly eye-opening. It’s a shock to the system to learn of Leopold’s crimes (see March 17, below). It should be required reading in secondary school history classes.

Charles de Gaulle airport. It’s after 2 a.m., Toronto-time, and 8:00 here in Paris. My connecting flight is a little after 11:00 a.m. CDG airport is enormous (I learn later that it covers over 32 square kilometres) and indeed, it’s a 15-minute bus ride to get to the proper terminal. On previous trips to Paris, I’ve flown to Orly, which is intimate by comparison.

There’s another security-check station at the connecting terminal. I’m asked to remove my cameras and e-book from my bag, for separate assessment. I voluntarily remove my prosthetic arm. Partially made of steel, it invariably sets off the detector. I remove my belt and am asked also to take off my boots. I pass through the metal detector and although it doesn’t sound, I’m still searched closely. Particular attention is paid, believe it or not, to my stump, over which I’m still wearing a prosthetic sock. The young guard seems unsure and, two-handed, gingerly feels my arm from my shoulder to its abrupt end, just below my elbow. Could I really be the first arm amputee to have crossed his security threshold? He glances at his colleagues. They finally decide that I’m okay. The queue behind me waiting to go through the security checkpoint has grown considerably.

At the entrance to the men’s bathroom, a tiny Indian girl stands alone before a floor-to-ceiling mirror and carefully examines the inner part of her lower lip, pulled out and grasped between finger and thumb. She is dressed smartly in bright yellow and appears to be no older than 4. I assume Dad must be close by.

On the flight to Nairobi, my seat-mate is a stocky, grizzled, 58-year-old Quebecer. He tells me he is working at a copper mine in Zambia. He recounts a mildly pejorative joke about Africans, and says to me more than once that “you will see…” He otherwise seems like a kind-hearted man. He misses his family and has a daughter who has overcome a bout with cancer. He says that he is soon quitting Africa, as it’s just too far from home. He describes with some affection various African men he works with, and the difficulties they face. He doesn’t go into any detail about the mine. I fail to ask him the questions which later spring to my mind, about the amount the company pays its local workers, and how much of the revenue it generates does it leave in Zambia? Clearly, Hochschild’s book is teaching me questions that remain relevant in Africa today, more than 100 years after most of the events he describes in King Leopold’s Ghost.

We are flying 37,000 feet above the Sudanese desert. I can see grey and black rock, tan and red sand, and little else. The dunes snaking through the landscape must be huge, as even from this great height they stand out in considerable relief.

*For example, read the on-line Government of Canada travel advisory for Kenya (at the time I was travelling, it counselled to “Avoid all travel” to border areas with Sudan, for example). On one hand I think it’s a cover-your-ass statement against potential liability claims from travellers, and on the other, it’s a well-considered assessment of all kinds of occasionally real dangers. 

Nairobi by Day

March 10

Seen in a half-hour spent on my hotel-room balcony, after rising groggy-eyed from a restless sleep:

  • a crow-sized bird with a broad white band wrapped around its body. It caws crow-like too; there are many of them in the trees in the hotel garden. Some soar high overhead.
  • a tiny finch-like bird. Its body is lemon yellow below and black above, with a black head. It sips from the broad trough of a palm leaf.
  • a large, all-brown bird, hawk-like and bigger than the crows. The hawk sails in, wordless, and the crows keep a sharp eye on him.
  • two smaller, greyish white birds, starling-sized.
  • in the distance, a swallow-tailed bird of indeterminate colour.

The staff at the hotel are all more or less kind and all more or less reserved. The chambermaid has a large, open smile but between us, we have few mutually understood words. She strips the bed of its coverings while I’m in the room and returns later to re-sheet. She is small and thin and like the other Kenyans I’ve so far met, vaguely diffident. The hotel room is adequate, while the balcony overlooks a lovely pool and garden. Palm trees abound, as does much other obviously tropical flora incapable of growing in a Canadian climate. The temperature feels like Toronto in late June, T-shirt weather; the equatorial sun shines brightly in a cloudless sky. (For some reason, I hadn’t properly registered until the flight here that Nairobi is just below the equator. I’ve always had a mental image of Kenya sitting higher in the horn of Africa.)

The desk clerk is a small-boned man in a green suit. He has perfect skin and a round, symmetrical face. His smile is not warm. He sells me a minute on his cell phone for 50 Kenyan shillings, (hereafter KES) which that day was converting at about $1.40 CDN per 100 KES. The rate dropped to roughly $1.11 within days of my arrival.

I spend the day with Christine, Hubert’s Kenyan production co-ordinator and fixer. She picked me up last night at the airport. Christine is open and thoughtful and she laughs easily. Her affable manner makes her good company. She is informed about the current Kenyan political situation, which is troubled; the “Ocampo Six”, Kenyan political leaders indicted at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, are making headlines. Thankfully, Kenya is free of the post-election violence it experienced in 2007 and 2008. Events from that period led to the indictments. Christine alludes to the tribal relations that make up Kenyan society, with over 40 different tribes and languages. She talks about Nairobi itself, where she was born and raised. She has travelled through various countries in Africa: the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and west, to Burkina Faso. In Europe, she has visited London, Amsterdam and Naples. Her first language is Kikuyo, which she still speaks at home with her mother. Her father, she tells me, prefers to speak English. She also of course speaks Swahili, the national language in Kenya.

A “somewhat notorious” nightclub, according to Christine.

Christine seems to relish her role as tour guide. We walk by the university, then visit the National Theatre to have a beer on its balcony; a Tusker Malt Liquor, which one orders by saying “…malt, cold.” When ordering drinks in a bar or restaurant, cold must be specified. The beer is excellent and crisp.

Two very pretty women sit across the way from us and groove to music playing on a TV mounted on the wall. One of them eyes me with what I interpret as the slightest hint of suspicion. I remark to Christine about the beaded bracelet worn by the second woman. Christine tells me that it is a traditional Maasai design.

Hours later, a woman approaches me as I’m finishing my supper at a table in the hotel garden. She asks to sit. Her name is Jane, she says, and asks me mine. She has trouble with the “r”-sound in Ross, which she pronounces as “Loss”. And to her I am, alas, as I decline as politely as possible her request to buy her a drink and perhaps whatever other services she may have been trying to sell. She told me she earns her living as a hairdresser, and by “giving massage”, etc.

Closing news for the day: I am to take a 4 to 5-hour bus ride west, to the Homa Bay district near Lake Victoria. I will be meeting with Hubert there, and staying with his friend, Rafael and his family. His daughter sends me a text: “Mzuri sana mzee!”

High Stress Day Redeemed By Night

March 11

Starts off well enough. We buzz around in Christine’s little red car. We apply for my visa at the south Sudanese embassy (which since the January, 2011 referendum-decision for the south to secede, functions separately from the north Sudanese). All goes swimmingly. We can return the following Monday to pick up the visa.

Then we set off to arrange for my transportation to meet Hubert near a town in the western Kenyan highlands. We try what we have been told is the best bus company. It dispatches matatus, small mini-vans that are the most common form of public transportation in Kenya, to points west. They’ve none leaving until night-time. A second company is no better. I remain optimistic. Cloudless and hot, the day is akin to one in July at Grippen Lake, our eastern Ontario cottage spot.

We proceed to the ‘main’ station, a huge, dirt-ridden area full of carts and goods and haphazardly parked vehicles, not to mention teeming with people. The place is chaotic, loud, aggressive, and confusing. The bus operators, each one independent, wait until their bus is full before leaving. Departure times are therefore flexible. With a mob of men crowding around and various among them trying to sell us one thing or another (“White man, white man…”, they implore), we find a spot on a coach—much larger than a matatu—heading in the right direction. It is jammed with people and luggage and the baggage overflow is strapped to the roof. The considerable stress that attends merely finding a place on a bus sets the tone for the trip.

My seat is beside a young woman’s. She has a year-old baby in her lap. The bus has five seats across, where Canadian coaches generally have four. The problem is, the average size of adults is the same in Africa as in Canada, so the five seats are tightly packed. The trip west to my destination, I’m assured, will take 4½ to 5 hours. It is just before noon when I climb on the bus. Hubert has told me it’s better to arrive before nightfall. Come night, he said, “it’s not so much fun.”

Not the bus I took, but very similar.

Needless to say, I am a freak on this bus; a white man with a prosthetic arm that ends in an indiscreet hook. As I proceed to my seat, closer to the rear of the bus than the front, I meet hard stares, looks of puzzlement and very little sympathy; there’s not a smile in the group. (I know, I know, what did I expect? Huzzahs?) Anxiety announces itself, bubbling at a low level.

Eventually the bus lurches off and a long-faced, rail-thin preacher, who’d loitered seatless near the front, turns toward the rear and starts to sermonize in Swahili. I know he’s a preacher because his speech is punctuated with English: “…Hallelujah…amen…Jesus Christ…” I wonder how long he’ll last. Behind me, a radio is switched on. It will play constantly for the next 8 hours. That, it turns out, is to be the duration of my trip on this bus. And despite that 8 hours, I will still be more than an hour from my destination. But I get ahead of myself.

The seating arrangement, to reiterate, is deeply uncomfortable; cramped, hot and hedged in with luggage. To my left across the aisle, a young woman looks at me with a cool, assessing stare. I smile at her several times during the trip, to no avail. Yet she yells and laughs appreciatively at the jokes of those around her. In fact she’s loud and brash and perhaps, for all I know, crass. But for me, the mzungu (“white person”), nothing but the hard stare.

The bus slowly quits Nairobi. We stop under a spreading suburban tree, thankfully to let off the preacher, who’s been whispering, shouting and burbling his message for a half-hour. Before exiting he collects a few shillings from some of the passengers.

It’s soon apparent that the bus is overladen. It crawls up the long sloping way out of the city at no more than 15 or 20 k.p.h. Straining big trucks pass us. My anxiety comes back into play; the time estimate I’ve been given might well be wonky.

An hour and better later, we round a curve and the land beside the road disappears. A vast plain extends, starting at the foot of a steep cliff several hundred metres, if not over a kilometre below. Full-grown acacia trees at the bottom look from here like tiny bushes. The Rift Valley. It is stunning to look out over, but frankly terrifying to be a helpless passenger in a shitty Kenyan bus on this narrow 2-lane road. There is no guard rail, the shoulder is nominal, and the drop, at points, is vertigo-inducing. In Kenya, one drives on the left, which puts this west-bound bus on the outer, precipice side of the road. We brake on the descent but the bus sways frightfully down the steep grade and particularly around the corners. There is an air of nervous tension among the passengers; the murmur on the bus has quieted and everyone is quite likely sitting on the edge of their seat.

Many kilometres away, hills line the far side. The valley is awe-inspiring and tremendous. I wonder how the Leakeys found where to dig for the early human remains they excavated in the Rift Valley? Where would one start looking in a space so incredibly large? It’s a paradox, that impression of vastness; sometimes boundaries, such as the far hillside, make things look huger than if they are unlimited.

At the valley bottom, we pass a large transport truck quite recently tipped on its side, if the moiling activity around it is anything to judge by. I imagine the driver is thankful the tipping didn’t happen higher up the cliff. We drive across the dusty valley bed, which is dry but inhabited. I see a few isolated settlements and some livestock. (The East Africa Rift, by the way, of which this particular valley is a part, runs several thousand kilometres from Ethiopia in the north, through Kenya and into Tanzania in the south.) The climb up the west side is not so precipitous as our eastern entrance was.

Perhaps 2½ or 3 hours in, my bearings scrambled and with no landmarks or villages whose names I recognize, I definitely start to worry that the arrival time will be delayed. My seat companion, whose name I learn is Ann, suddenly starts engaging me in conversation. She says it’s going to be 7 hours at the rate we’re travelling. My thought is, oh great, sunset is at 7:00. Overheated, hungry, wedged in, and concerned about finding my way to a rural, unmarked and most likely unlit destination, my anxiety meter keeps spiking. I’m forced to calm myself with conscious effort.

Travelling with her infant, Kate, Ann is soft-spoken, and now smiles readily. In fractured English, she tells me in a voice not too much above a whisper her story of travelling from the south, and trying to find the means to study, and of her disgust at people who know how to make babies but not how to raise them. Hers is a model of infant-decorum-on-a-bus; quiet, watchful, occasionally napping and otherwise intent on staring at the strange mzungu next to her.

And then, calamity. A heavy suitcase falls from the rack above and whacks me hard on the front part of my head. Of all the passengers to hit… Someone mutters, “Sorry, sorry…” The suitcase is quickly stowed elsewhere. I’m made dizzy by the blow. There’s a pause and then some jokester gets down to business. The people around me shortly crack up with laughter; mzungu getting bashed equals comedy. Under the circumstances, and from the point of view of narrative satisfaction, I recognize something fitting about it, if also cruel. Would I join the laughter, if the roles were reversed? Some time later, Ann tells me I was bleeding but that it’s dry now.

Later, we stop at Narok. It’s after 4:00. I’ve not a clue how far it is to my destination, but assume we’re not close. A young man exiting the bus mutters as he passes me: “Time for a break…” The remark must be for my benefit, as it is said in good English.

Standing outside the bus, passing school kids in their dusty uniforms stop and stare at me and then simply start to laugh. What kind of creature am I? I’m unwilling to go inside the bar/ restaurant to piss, much as I need to; I don’t know how long the break is and I anticipate that stepping into the bar would be like stepping onto the bus, with the sudden silence and all eyes on me. Nothing like an entire room stopping what they’re doing to stare at you for inducing self-consciousness. There’s more hilarity pulling out, as we have to halt to wait for a straggler, who is made the object of fun as I was. I gather from this that the passengers have to pass the time somehow.

The rural scenery in this middle part of the country is new to me and reveals people’s rural livelihoods; there are many shepherds, goat-herds and donkey-keepers. In fact, the bus has to slow more than once, else strike a donkey. (This on the equivalent of the Trans-Canada highway.) Tiny huts sporadically dot the terrain, including one that’s no more than a lean-to roofed with a sheet of plastic. Long rolling hills and dry and dusty fields define a wide vista that stretches into greyish-maroon uplands in the distance. Another hour passes.

I venture to ask the young man who’d remarked about the break how far it is to Kisii, the town Hubert has told me to look out for. At least an hour and a half, the man says. And the place I’m going is more than an hour beyond that. I manage to make a connection with this young man. His English is much better than Ann’s, so I’m confident of being understood. I ask him two or three times about where we are and what’s going on. For instance, at one point we arrive at a T and turn left, only to hear the driver abused by a group of people who had expected he would turn right. I learn that often the ride-sellers will tell people what they want to hear; at the bus’s final stop, some unfortunates do not find themselves having arrived where they’d hoped. This presages my own fate, as it turns out.

In any case it’s clear that I will arrive late. Kisii is even further than an hour, it’s more like three at our travel rate. Hubert and I frequently speak on our cell phones to each other. He’s as surprised at the duration of the trip as I am and can sense my anxiety. He asks me what the ride is like; it’s its own, special kind of hell, I tell him. We decide, after a rumour sweeps through the bus that it won’t proceed beyond Kisii, that I should grab a taxi. The cost should be fixed ahead of time at around 2,000 KES (roughly $28, as of 03/11/11), plus gas. Through all of this I have to admit that I feel terribly vulnerable and even somewhat panicked. Hubert urges me not to worry.

Finally, a little after 8:00 and of course, well past sunset, we arrive in Kisii. The bus enters a yard filled with matatus and other vehicles. It’s as chaotic as the main station at Nairobi, which is to say that a swirling confusion of human and vehicular traffic greets us. My young friend, who has taken me in hand, suggests I wait on the bus while he finds out what’s going on. Anxious uncertain moments pass, with some people, according to Ann, saying that the bus will be travelling further, but perhaps elsewhere than where I want to go. Finally, my friend pounds on the bus window and says to get out, he’s learned it’s not going anywhere. I make my way off and the driver takes me aside.

For you my young friend,” he says, “we will do something…” And he hands me a 100 KES bill as compensation for not getting me to where I’m going. “There. Are you comfortable?”

No,” I tell him, “not in the least.” But, as Beckett reminds us, there’s nothing to be done.

Now I cling to my young friend as my lifeline. He knows Kisii. His wife works here. He calls her and she in turn calls a reliable driver who, for 2,500 KES, gas included, will take me the further 70 or so kilometres down the road I need to go. ‘Charles’ turns up shortly, a squat, smiling man who appears to speak only a half-dozen or so words of English. It’s later revealed that he apparently doesn’t even speak much Swahili. His language is likely Kisii, which yes is the name of the town, but first names the area’s tribe and its language.

The drive with Charles is fast and hairy. Oncoming traffic, chassis-wrecking pot holes, women walking on the roadside with market goods piled high on their heads, slow-moving motorbikes…all in the pitch dark and apart from vehicles, looming up last minute in the car headlights. We drop off my friend, whose name I’ve asked: Tomas. He keys my phone number into his phone and his into mine. He’ll check in with me in an hour or so, to see if I’m okay (and faithfully, he does). He’s studying public health in Kisii, every weekend, and commuting to Nairobi to work. He says it’s the first time he’s ever taken such a bus, and that it will be his last. I thank the mystery that we took it together, as he is the Samaritan I needed in this situation; he could discern that my anxiety meter was spiking in the red.

Charles, who apparently assured Tomas that he knows where I’m going, doesn’t, or not quite. After an hour’s drive there are ten minutes of frantic phone calls between Hubert and I as we try to find each other along the dark road. Finally Rafael, sitting as a passenger on a boda-boda (one of the small motorbikes), pulls alongside the slow-moving taxi. “Mr. Ross!” he exclaims, and directs us to where I meet Hubert, his brother Lois (pronounced Lewis) and Rafael’s teenaged children, Beati, John and Sunday. I receive great hugs from all. I have rarely felt as relieved in my life.

Rafael and his children are so welcoming, it is like a homecoming. A kilometre’s walk through the fields brings us to their house, where they have waited dinner in my behalf; fish and hot vegetables and rice, followed by a welcome cup of sweetened instant coffee. The contrast with my feelings on the bus couldn’t be greater. I’m incorporated into the bosom of this rural, African family instantly and with unquestionable warmth. I’m able to reflect that my notions of timeliness, service, and comfort simply do not apply, and given the context, are frankly ridiculous. Thankfully, there are individuals capable of great kindness and compassion toward a completely foreign presence in their midst.


A Weekend in the Country

March 12

Rafael’s house. I sleep for perhaps 4 or 5 hours and then lie dozing for another 2 or 3. Cocks crow loudly, starting well before sun-up. I’m in a bedroom with Hubert and Lois; Rafael and his wife and three children share the other bedroom.

When I get up the day is already hot. The closest town is about 5 k away and in turn, about 30 or 40 k from Lake Victoria, one of the Great Lakes in the region. Rafael’s house sits on a slope that gently drops to a valley floor far, far below. Across the distant way, another hill rises, and more beyond. Rafael has numerous neighbours, whose places I can see both down and uphill from his place. The beautiful view is lush and green and everywhere evinces agrarian activity.

Rafael’s wife, Momma Rosie, works non-stop, primarily preparing food. One meal finished, prep for the next begins. The modest house is comfortable and cool, constructed of brick and concrete, and perhaps 70 metres square in size. There is no running water or electricity. The toilet is about 7 metres away, a small shack with a raised, rough concrete floor and a squat hole.

Today, Rafael’s house is a hive of activity. Stone workers are building the foundation for a new, larger kitchen, while carpenters are building a deck off the living room. Hubert pays the expenses. The materials to build the house have cost perhaps €1,000, while the labourmen work for roughly 100 KES each per day. This translates into an entire crew for less than $20/ day and represents in microcosm the economic power of the west in rural Africa. By evening, the deck will be finished. It is roughly, sturdily built of blue gum wood, which Hubert thinks is akin to eucalyptus. It is cedar-coloured and hard as oak; the planks have no knots and few checks. The new foundation is well on its way too. With a week’s worth of work, the family’s living conditions will be noticeably improved.

Interestingly the kitchen will have no countertops; everything is done at floor level. Kitchen-work also extends to a grove of slender trees and so the interior and exterior flow one into the other. Save perhaps for a few short weeks of rain, the outdoor kitchen can be used year-round. In the sheltered bower, Momma Rosie and Beati sift dried peas and grain, and cook using a low brazier.

Kitchen bower: note the brazier, upper left.

From this simple arrangement, they make delicious food. Beati’s kale dish is as good as anything I’ve eaten and with fried bananas and a freshly killed and cooked chicken, makes an excellent lunch.

Beati walks me around Rafael’s garden. As the family has planted only a short while ago, the lemon, orange, mango and avocado trees are as yet immature. In time, they will give prodigious fruit. At the moment, banana—two varieties, one for cooking and another, smaller type for eating raw—and papaya trees are yielding, as are numerous pineapple plants. To eat this freshly picked fruit is divine.

The garden is beyond the stone fence.

The garden is at least ½ hectare, so once the crops are all fruiting the family may well grow enough produce to have a surplus to sell.

For me the day proceeds languidly. I am a guest, to whom hospitality is most graciously extended. The workers are diligent and make visible progress, despite the heat. I make small and more or less useless efforts to help but there is no expectation on anyone’s part that I should do so. Rafael’s children all work steadily, carrying rocks to solidify the floor of the outdoor kitchen, doing the mountain of dishes each meal generates, pitching in wherever they can. Rafael is gone for about 3 hours, fetching more building materials from town. Eventually he arrives with a truck, which backs down the severely rock-ridden, torturous trail to his property.

Lois, John and I decide to catch a lift with the trucker back to town. We are after shoes for all 3 adolescents, nails for the carpenters, bottled water for the mzungus and, to fulfill my and Lois’s hankering, some cold beer.

Town is a pleasant adventure. The road runs through what appears to be the main merchant area. There are no concrete sidewalks and the tarmac is separated from the numerous storefronts by broad ditches on either side, which no doubt in the rainy season run thick with muddy water, sewage and garbage. Small bridges span the gap. Perpendicular to the main road are many sidestreets, none of which are paved and so appear provisional, although I know that is deceptive. The town is crowded. I’ve quickly come to learn that this main street is typical of Kenya outside downtown Nairobi. Its variety of animal life (usually goats, sheep, donkeys and/ or cattle, with the odd stray dog and occasionally, a cat) and a lot of people jostling with the slow moving boda-bodas, bicycles, cars, trucks, human- and donkey-powered carts, erratic matatus and larger buses, all contribute to a busy, frenetic atmosphere. Many people are curious about us and stare at me with intensity; my prosthesis must seem very strange. I am stopped for conversation more than once. People are friendly, interested to know where I come from and whether I’m staying in their town, etc.

At the Bata store, one of the young clerks, a slight, pretty woman, perhaps 22 or 23, with gaps in her teeth, is fascinated by my arm. She wants to know what happened and tells me she’s never seen anything like it. She chats easily and smiles readily and eventually asks for my phone number. I tell her in all honesty that I’ve not memorized it. I was given the phone by Christine the day after I arrived, we prepaid for time on it and I really haven’t had to memorize the number. So the young clerk takes my phone and keys in her name, Eunice, and her number. She says she hopes I’ll call her. She turns away, suddenly shy, and perhaps is recuperating her status with her young male colleague, who’s been watching our exchange. I didn’t ever phone Eunice, in case you’re wondering.

Outside, our shopping done, we wait to get a taxi back to Rafael’s. I see an elderly, white nun waiting in a shiny new S.U.V. I approach her to say hello and she smiles broadly and shakes my hand warmly, but she speaks only Italian and Swahili. My English and French are useless to talk with her.

The 5k cab ride to Rafael’s costs 350 KES. Lois says we’re being overcharged and tells the driver that he’s making us pay the “mzungu price”. The cabby laughs at this and repeats, “mzungu price, hah!”

Our ‘quick’ trip to town has taken roughly 2½ hours. Time and space, maintains Hubert, are among the great challenges when the west meets Africa. Time can’t be counted on to mean the same thing, as I learned on my bus ride, while space measurements are often difficult to trust. Hubert says an African may tell you that where you’re going is “not far,” and perhaps it isn’t, but you can’t know for sure that his notion of far is the same as yours.

Once home, the beer is most welcome. The Kenyans make excellent beer (did I mention that?) The rest of the afternoon I spend sitting, chatting, watching the carpenters put the finishing touches on the deck and drinking the ‘malt’ while it’s cold (without power, there’s of course no refrigerator). When the deck has its last nail in place, Hubert promptly puts some of the living room furniture outside.

Some children from the neighbourhood have gathered to stare at us, the strangers among them. (This part of Kenya apparently is off the beaten tourist track, so locals don’t necessarily have a lot of contact with whites.) I ask the children if it’s okay to photograph them. They grant their permission and I show them the stills I take, then have Beati take one of me among them. A local woman has approached and signals that she wants me to take a picture of her with her child, who is perhaps 18 months old. The child howls in terror of me. Mom laughs. I take their photo and show her; she laughs again. The child clings to her leg, looking up at me with fright.

The children eventually, timidly, come up on to the new deck. We sit among them and have them give us their names, which are long and musical-sounding to my ear, but which each announces in a whisper that I can barely hear, they’re so shy. Hubert expertly puts them at their ease. He clowns about and we even manage to persuade a couple of them to shake hands with my prosthetic arm, to show I won’t hurt them.

Hubert then gets out his laptop and shows us his space montage: NASA documentary footage, mixed with excerpts from Star Trek (the original, ‘James T. Kirk’ version) and Star Wars. These seem laughable and ridiculous; perhaps it’s the setting we’re in. Next up is a Buster Keaton short that, despite its age, seems much more human, real and genuinely funny. Lois fires up the internet (with a USB data stick) and we show the children an ice hockey training video. This is as far removed from Kenyan experience as it’s possible to be, yet still amazes for the speed and sharp turns the skater makes.

Before supper, Rafael gets out the video camera Hubert gave to him and takes footage of us, introducing Lois, Mr. Hubert and “Baba Max”, that is, me. By that epithet I am identified as the father of Max, my firstborn, and so as not to call me by name, Mr. Ross. Once married with children, men and women become Baba and Momma, and use of their given names is thereafter limited, out of respect. So Rafael is properly known as Baba Rosie, Rosie being his firstborn daughter’s name, despite that she died in infancy. I realize I don’t actually know Momma Rosie’s given name. Sometimes this naming convention appears to be inconsistent, as when Rafael refers to my wife, Jennifer, as Momma Lulu (Lulu is our daughter), rather than Momma Max.

Rafael and Hubert tell me a little of the story that brought Rafael here to Kenya, as a political refugee from Tanzania. The government there denounced him for participating in Hubert’s previous documentary film, which was interpreted as critical of Tanzania. The authorities claimed that Rafael was merely acting in the film, was given lines of dialogue to recite, and that the whole thing is a pack of lies. He was interviewed on state-controlled radio and told to say that Hubert should properly be executed, hung, in fact. Then, absurdly, the interviewer stops and says no, repeat that, and say rather that Hubert should be executed by electric chair, it being more modern than hanging. The irony of being given lines to read calling for murder, ostensibly for appearing in a film in which he was purportedly given lines to read, was I guess lost on the Tanzanian officials. All of this, tin pot dictator-comedy notwithstanding, of course exerted enormous pressure on Rafael. Indeed the government eventually destroyed his house. (The following day, Rafael shows me a picture of the wrecked dwelling.)

Eventually, with the help of Hubert and others, Rafael was able to find refuge in Kenya and set up a new life here, although his status remains somewhat unsettled and he cannot yet legally work. At the very least he has a good house, a big land plot to grow food, his family around him and thanks to a monthly stipend arranged from among (Hubert’s) European friends and family, enough money to educate his children. Hence the complex, continuing relationship of friendship, obligation, mutual fascination and, in fairness, love between the two men; one a prominent, privileged, European artist and the other an aging ex-soldier from Tanzania, who is gentle, generous, knowledgeable and hardworking.

We eat outside, sitting at table on the deck. It is another excellent meal, with potatoes and creamed dried peas and the leftover chicken.

I make a long phone call home, wandering the dark garden (cell phone rates from Kenya to anywhere presently amount to 3 KES/ minute, or a half-hour conversation for under $1; are you listening Bell? Rogers?). Jennifer and Max and Lulu are ever-present in my thoughts and so it is emotional and sustaining to hear their voices. The stars are myriad overhead and the constellations unfamiliar, but the fine warm night is like many we have at Grippen Lake, except in July, rather than March.

I bid Rafael grateful thanks for sharing his home and meals with me and tell him, “I’ll see you in the morning.”

If God is willing,” he says.

March 13

Sunday didn’t improve on Saturday but it was certainly no worse, which is to say it was perfect. A heat haze hovers above the hills to the east, facing the front of the house. Eventually the temperature will reach 28o or 29o C. Beati makes morning “tea”, i.e. more heavily-sugared instant coffee. To eat, we have garden-grown bananas and papaya, accompanied by small, unsweetened donuts.

Labourers arrive to continue the work on the kitchen foundation. Rafael and the ‘fundi’, or craftsman, in this case a mason, consult periodically with Hubert about design. Everything during construction is more or less done by eye; level, or straight, or 90o, are all roughly approximated, although a tape measure is one of the available tools.

Among the first tasks in the morning is to kill the small, brown and white goat that is tethered to a tree by the deck. While eating, it bleats plaintively. Both Lois and I find the resulting sound comical: “baa-munch-ahh-munch”. Sunday and two younger boys lead it deeper into the garden, next to a low stone fence. They stretch the goat out on its back, securing the stick-like limbs and tilting its head back to expose its neck. Rafael carefully and quickly draws a knife 3 or 4 times across the goat’s throat, so that the head remains just barely attached. Blood sprays and the boy holding the head receives a red mist on his arm. Forgive my saying that the crimson shows pleasingly against his loam-dark skin. The goat squirms a little but obviously can’t put up much of a fight. It’s a minute or so before the boys are able to relax their grip.

I wander over to talk with Rafael about the slaughter. He says that not to have killed an animal to eat while he was hosting guests would be disrespectful. He will feed his neighbours too, some of whom are crewmen working on his house. I imagine there won’t be a scrap of the goat left uneaten, or in the case of its hide, unused. One of the day labourers takes over from Rafael and sets about skinning and gutting the goat. The next I know of it, 2 or 3 people are carrying pots to the kitchen full of the freshly killed meat, which is immediately set cooking.

Women arrive periodically throughout the day, signalling the party that will happen later. One large Momma, who is direct and forthright, brings a baby and a toddler. He appears to have a problem with his back; his chest thrusts out inordinately, making his tiny shoulders sit oddly beneath his head. He is perhaps developmentally delayed too. He stares agape at Hubert and I, with a vacant look and rheumy eyes. He plays with his younger brother however, so is somewhat engaged with his surroundings, and hopefully will overcome his early problems.

His Momma takes a bit of a maternal shine to me and of course wants to know what’s doing with my arm. Her English is good, so our exchange isn’t quite so stuttering and superficial as many conversations have been due to the language barrier.

I decide to remove my prosthesis and show her my arm. She reaches over and grasps my stump and closely examines it (I have a tiny, incipient bud with what would have been fingers, had they developed). She is gentle and firm. “Mmmnn…” she says, a characteristic sound Swahili-speakers make. She is interested to learn what happened and surprised that it is congenital. She wants to know the price of my prosthetic arm. At roughly $4,000 CDN, or, say, 350,000 KES, it represents an amount beyond the reach of all but well-off Kenyans (it’s worth remembering here that the estimated average per capita income in 2008 was under 400 KES/ day). There is no government program available in the average Kenyan family’s life, as there is in Ontario, to pay for such a contingency as I experienced.

Kenya has recently introduced a national health insurance plan, payments for which are to be taken in deductions from employment cheques. The major impediment to ensuring this is a universal health program is the enormous army of unemployed in the country, plus the millions of off-the-book farmers, small-time hustlers and vendors, goat-herds, under-the-table taxi drivers, etc. The plan is perhaps a start, but it is far from ready to assist those who are arguably most in need.

Momma laments none of this to me. She is a rural Kenyan, doing the best she can to feed her family and lead a decent life. At least she has the benefit of living on land where she can grow some of her own food, with a large and supportive community around her. And her people arguably enjoy one of the better climates in the world. My thought drifts back to her older child, wandering in his curious, staggering way around Rafael’s deck. He faces significant challenges; with virtually no access to health care, who knows if his physical and developmental problems won’t be permanent?

Hubert has an ambitious plan to use some of Rafael’s unused bricks from the house construction to build a ‘shower’ beyond the outdoor kitchen. I actually do pitch in on this project. I fetch bricks and set a stone or two in the cement, ferried to us in a wheelbarrow by a couple of men seconded from the kitchen foundation work. They are impressed that Hubert seems to know as much as he does about creating a cement floor and starting to erect the brick enclosure, although I think that he’s improvising, just as I do when I work on our cottage. We set the foundation stones for a snail shell-like entrance that curls around, to provide privacy within. Naturally, in the absence of running water, it won’t actually be a shower so much as a bath house, where you will bring your own water.

In the late afternoon clouds crowd in and a deluge commences. We scramble to cover the fresh cement, then Rafael insists I retreat into the house, where most of the workers have already gathered. Hubert uses the rain as a chance to bathe and wash his hair. Rafael comes into our room, where he keeps a large suitcase that serves as a dresser. With his shirt off, in soaked pants, he looks to weigh about 90 lbs., a tiny sprite of a man.

We’re caught relaxing when Beati appears in our room with plates heaped with rice, cooked goat and more of the delicious kale. We go into the living area, now jammed with people, including several quite elderly women. They greet us warmly, each one wanting to shake hands. Hubert plunks himself down beside an elderly Momma and soon has her laughing her head off at his antics. Hubert’s playfulness seems to break down all barriers, even with traditional, elderly Kenyan women who have obviously seen much, but perhaps not a white man as seemingly child-like as Hubert can be.

The food, as usual, is very good. Men arrive in shifts and everyone is fed. They particularly focus on the huge platter of ugali, a bread-like, crumbly loaf made from corn flour; it is a Kenyan staple. The ugali is broken off by hand and used to scoop up food and sauce from one’s plate. Most eat with their hands, ritually washed before eating, although I admit to using a fork for my vegetables. One of the elderly women uses a spoon, I notice. But the ugali is what most are using.

Evening. The majority of guests have drifted away. One of the women has stayed on. We have seen her arrive in the morning, as each day she brings a large pail of water carried on her head, for which she is paid a few shillings. She has formulated the hope that Hubert will be able to help her. Her son has a congenital problem with his foot, which turns in at close to a 90o angle from his leg. She has been anxious to put her case to Hubert, Rafael tells us, but is shy because her English is limited and so, of course, is Hubert’s Swahili. He asks how much money will be necessary to ensure the child can receive some medical attention. About 1,000 KES is the answer, which if the child’s father is one of the labourers Rafael has hired, perhaps represents better than a week’s earnings. So it is clear that the amount of money, modest as it is, represents too large a sum to set aside from the family’s meagre budget. Hubert says of course he can help and perhaps Ross has some money he could donate too? Together we give the woman 2,000 KES and she beams widely, grateful for this arbitrary gift. Sporadic assistance from liberal-minded whites certainly can’t be counted upon, but is apparently welcome when it does come.

It’s our last night at Rafael’s. We plan to make our way either to Nairobi or Naivasha, Hubert and Lois in Sputnik, me by cab, matatu and/ or commercial plane, depending on destination.

We gather in the family room and take a series of digital stills, clambering over each other to find position. Everyone is relaxed and eager to see the resulting photos. Momma Rosie and Rafael don their Sunday hats; his is an orange fedora. To have people come from so far away and stay in their home is an event in the family’s life. It would be the same for my family, if ever Rafael and co. came to Toronto.

The children return to school tomorrow, although Beati will delay her return until the afternoon, in order to help rectify the maelstrom of our visit. She tells me the rough order of the day for students at her boarding school: starting at 7:00, they break at 10:00 for tea, then more lessons from 11:00 until 1:30 and after that, lunch for ½ hour. More lessons follow, and then physical activity for the rest of the afternoon. After the evening meal, they study from 7:00 to 10:00. Lights out. Occasionally, they have dance lessons that require them to rise at 4:00 a.m.(!)

The boys have to rise at 5:00 the next morning and Lois and Hubert are eager to be up before sunrise too. The best time to fly the ultra-light is early morning, before the day’s heat has a chance to stir the wind.

Before we retire for the night we are unexpectedly served more food, rice with goat liver. I feel guilty at not being able to finish mine. I think the proper thing in a family that lives so close to the bone is to finish all the food one is served. But I thought we’d already had supper, and this meal is more than I can handle. We retire to our beds for a few short hours of sleep, our stomachs groaning.

Nairobi Return

March 14

We awake to the sound of Momma Rosie and her family stirring. It’s still dark outside. None of us in our room has slept very soundly. Out on the deck, we watch the equatorial sun pop up over the horizon with alacrity, as if it’s being pulled upwards on a string. At dusk, it disappears with the same unseemly haste.

The boys are each dressed in their school uniform, a pair of green shorts with a pale, light green, collared shirt. I thank them for sharing their home with me. They give a quick hug to each of us, and then are away by 7:00.

Beati & John

After breakfast, I have Beati write the family’s names in my journal and then we all share the load of our many things to walk up the trail to the waiting taxi. Momma Rosie gives us each a hug and smiles widely. She has been the most receding member of the family, undoubtedly because so much of the domestic work falls on her shoulders, she understands the least English, and the social role of the African Momma is somewhat circumscribed. Beati is genuinely saddened at our departure. She is a bright, interested 17-year-old, the same age as my Lulu, yet with a completely different experience of the world. I hope that she’s able to realize some of her ambitions, whatever they may be, before she marries and has children. At that point, she may well become a “Momma” in the countryside. She told me a day earlier that “it is required of African women” that they marry and then “work very hard all day long.” If Momma Rosie is any indication, Beati sees clearly what may be in store for her. She gives me a long, warm hug and then we are off. The last image I have of her as we pull away in the taxi: she has both her arms half-raised, waving her hands at us, side-to-side.

Our goal is to meet in Naivasha, about an hour from Nairobi. Hubert and Lois will fly. Our first plan has me keeping the taxi and for 6,000 KES, the driver will take me to Kisumu, about 180 kilometres north, where I can take a commercial flight to Nairobi, and from there, a car to Naivasha. However Hubert prefers that we arrange to meet at some airstrip along the way. In that case, I’ll take the taxi as far as Kisii and from there, find an eastbound bus or matatu. I prefer the Kisumu option. The idea of another bus ride so shortly after the last one makes me queasy. And speaking of that, my stomach is misbehaving. Before we left Rafael’s, I visited the outhouse and had a touch of diarrhoea.

The local airstrip (not airport, as there are no buildings or personnel. It’s merely a runway suitable for small planes), is 8 or 10 kilometres beyond town, down a barely passable, dirt road. We find the Sputnik, still tied to a tree. The plane is truly tiny. It has been guarded for four days by two local men wielding pangas (machetes). They are alone when we arrive but within 10 minutes, as we fuel the ultralight and stow the gear, a couple of dozen men magically appear. This is a real show we’re putting on. It’s not every day that a plane can be seen close up, and then be near enough to watch it take off.

I act as ground crew. We wheel Sputnik out from its moorings under a tree, siphon in the fuel and then I ensure that the on-lookers are standing well away from the prop before Hubert starts the engine. It sparks quickly to life. After handshakes and hugs from Rafael, the wee kite-with-seats, as Hubert has called it, motors out to the runway, turns around and scoots down the pavement until it wafts up into the sky.

I pay the security detail (3,500 KES), before the taxi ferries Rafael and I back to town. We pick up another young man who will do the driving to Kisii and possibly, to Kisumu. We head to the cabbie, Silas’s place to pick up his license. He invites me inside to see his house.

I find his living room arrangement striking. There is a square of overstuffed couches and chairs, with many tightly packed tables in the floor space between. In other words there’s no walking across the room; to reach a seat on the far side, one edges around the periphery of the sea of tabletops.

Image from a Kenyan furniture dealer’s site.

As furniture configurations go, it’s not particularly welcoming. It doesn’t seem to concern Silas; he is justly proud of his well-built house. His next project, the framing for which I can see is in place, is to install a false ceiling in the living room. To me, this will further close in the rather claustrophobic space, but there is no dissuading Silas of its appeal over leaving the ceiling space open to the rafters.

Rafael’s good-bye includes an exhortation to give his best regards to Mama Lulu and my children. I’ve been so moved by his warm hospitality, this refugee who has mzungu friends and because of that, land and a house, but whose life is certainly a challenging one by our spoiled standards. He clasps my hand, and I thank him profusely. “Thank-you, thank-you,” he replies, smiling broadly.

The return drive to Kisii allows me to see the countryside and road that I last drove at night. The latter is narrow and often steep, broken with fissures and ubiquitous pot-holes. The hills rise all around us. There are many small-holdings in the area, modest homes on sloping land planted with banana and papaya, mango and avocado trees. The rural Kenyan scene is a crowded one. This is a populous country and where there is arable land, there is no shortage of people.

Silas is interested to talk with me and describes the hardships of the small farmers, particularly those who try to move up from a subsistence level through engaging in the tobacco or sugarcane economies. Large companies control the markets for these goods and in the end, small landowners are squeezed enormously by the poor price they are paid for their crops. One story about an independent cane grower was told to me early in the weekend by Beati. The crop takes 2 years to mature, she said. The cane company supplies fertilizer and some equipment, the cost for which is deducted from the payment to the farmer. He must then grease the palm of every man in the production chain, from the point where the cane is standing in the field through its shipment and offloading at the processing plant. In return, he may net about 60,000 KES (under $700 CDN, as of 03/14/11) for his two year’s work, depending on how much cane he manages to grow.

Now goods and services in Kenya are often seemingly inexpensive—I bought fine leather sandals from the Bata store for 1,500 KES (say, $17 CDN on this date) —but consider that many things, like gasoline, are priced comparably to Canada and it’s easy to see that 60,000 KES for 2 year’s work is inadequate compensation. Gas in Kenya, to further the example, has risen in price 4 times between the time new regulations were adopted in 2010 and March, 2011. It now stands at more than 100 KES per litre, which converts to roughly the same price I paid in Toronto in February, 2011. We purchased Imodium at a pharmacy to help with symptoms associated with diarrhoea: it was 1,000 KES for a package of six pills. Prices obviously have a direct bearing on quality of life and health. No one Rafael knew of in his area or the town has recently died of starvation, but because of their cost, protein and vitamins are often out of reach for the poor. As a consequence, malnutrition arguably remains endemic.

We arrive at Kisii. Hubert asks me via cell phone to stop there while he investigates the possibility of meeting in Naivasha, without my first having to fly to Nairobi. We wait 40 minutes on the roadside. Hubert finally calls and asks that we try to find a matatu that might drop me close to Naivasha. I suggest that perhaps Silas could drive me; I’m angling to avoid bus transportation of any sort. Silas quotes 20,000 KES to travel as far as Naivasha, then quickly drops it to 12,000. All things considered, that’s not a bad price, I think, as the drive to Kisumu is already pegged at 6,000 and a plane ticket to Nairobi will be an additional 5,000. But the first thing, I decide, is to find a map, as Silas contends that Naivasha is so much further than Kisumu.

We find a bookstore along Kisii’s main drag. It’s not what bookstores are supposed to be, in my estimation. The inventory is inaccessible to store patrons, safely secured behind a metal grate that separates the clerk and the books from customers. No road map is to be had there. We try a second, larger store: it’s the same set-up with bars, and similar inventory. There are plenty of text books, instructional manuals, and religious tracts, so far as I can tell by reading the spines from a distance. The closest the clerk has to a map is a grade-school atlas, but it contains no road information. (Hubert contended in our time/ space conversation that maps are still somewhat foreign to many Africans, that determining amounts, distances, volume, etc., remain characteristically European/ North American obsessions.)

Map-hunting a bust, we return to the car and Hubert phones again; the plan for me to fly from Kisumu is back on, as they can’t locate an airstrip close to where I might be dropped off in any matatu. I tell the driver and Silas: “Let’s go!” Once on our way, I joke that I’ll not answer my phone for a half-hour or so, in case Hubert changes his mind again. Silas laughs.

The drive to Kisumu, now about 2 1/2 hours down the road, is hair-raising. Picture the Trans Canada Highway at its narrowest, two lanes only but with soft red dirt shoulders that are settled at times a foot below the asphalt. Now add considerable foot traffic on those shoulders, including many, many pedestrians (I saw, for example, an entire school of uniformed children), goats, bicyclists, cattle and turning traffic. Factor in car-wrecking pot holes that must be slowed for and driven around, plus speed humps and harder speed bumps through the built-up areas. Finally, my driver is an earnest young man who insists on going 120 k.p.h. whenever he can get enough way ahead to tramp on the accelerator. I tell him that we have plenty of time, there’s no hurry, but to no avail.

And I haven’t spoken of the car. It’s an ancient, tiny, banged-up Toyota station wagon with 300,000k on the odometer and no seat belts: a rattletrap. I have acceded to Rafael’s earlier imploring that I take the front seat beside the driver, “to have the view,” Rafael said. It’s frankly amazing that I was able to take in as much of the stunning landscape as I did, given the white-knuckled state I was in for much of the drive.

As it is, the hills are tremendous. I likened them in a later phone call with Max to the Northumberland hills northeast of Toronto, except three times as big and dotted with modest homesteads and tropical flora. Long vistas when high up give way to descents into valleys a kilometre or two below. The countryside is gradually drier the further north we travel. I was told that the highlands around Rafael’s were suffering from drought but they appeared to me not nearly as arid as many areas, including along this road to Kisumu.

A bare-assed goat-herd walks on the roadside. He wears a hide draped across his shoulders and dropping far enough in front to cover his genitals. The driver stomps hard on the brakes at one point to avoid a pair of goats nosing into the road. Swerving at the last possible moment, we just miss clipping them with the front corner of the car. Cattle can be oblivious too and will occasionally and unexpectedly step out onto the asphalt, with the traffic bearing down. Hazard: slow-moving bovines. (Hubert later told a story of a Maasai cattle herdsman losing an animal in a traffic accident; his fellow herdsman quickly gathered and reportedly killed the bus driver, then set about trying to tip the bus over the road embankment. A passenger rescued the situation by jumping into the driver’s seat and speeding off.)

Through villages, it’s not so much a matter of driving as it is of weaving. The shoulder traffic spills out onto the road. Putt-putting boda-bodas have to be manoeuvred around, on-coming cars, transports, coaches and matatus accounted for, and people constantly honked at to clear the way. I decide that the favourite part of the car for the Kenyan driver is the horn, brought frequently into play.

Finally, Kisumu. From the looks of it, it is a smallish city (although, perhaps as it’s one of those measuring things we anal westerners go in for, it is occasionally futile to ask how big a city is, i.e. its population. Christine was uncertain about the number of people in Nairobi. And in Kisii, I asked Silas, how many people live here? He said, “Oh, my friend, it is many, many people, a very big number.”).

We stop to ask a man the directions to the airport. He answers and gestures and then simply invites himself into our car and from there, steers us in the right direction. This gentleman is tall and well-dressed in slacks and a crisp dress shirt. He has perhaps the deepest speaking voice I have ever heard, a great rumbling, sonorous bass. When he exits, I remark to Silas on this quality of the man’s voice. Silas says, “oh, he’s a teacher,” as if that answers why the man has such an instrument.

The 4:30 flight to Nairobi is uneventful, preceded by another visit to the bathroom, where my guts are runny. We climb up over Lake Victoria and start our descent within a half hour. My conversationless seat-mate is a middle-aged, heavyset African woman dressed in a business suit. She pulls out a religious studies textbook and proceeds to pencil-in answers to the questions: “Why did God punish the Phoenicians…?”

At Nairobi airport, I’m to meet ‘Tim’, a driver who’s been commissioned to take me to Naivasha. My stomach is still complaining however, so before I leave the terminal I have to retreat to a toilet where, to be disgustingly frank, my guts empty out in a fierce, liquid torrent. Yuck is right.

Tim is tall, very polished, confident and handsome. He is immediately at ease with me and I like his quick smile and ready intelligence. We are, as I said, to drive to Naivasha, about an hour away, where Hubert has landed Sputnik at the family compound of Sir Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a famous elephant expert. Tim will then return to Nairobi with Lois, who is scheduled to fly to Vienna in the morning. This brings up an obvious question; why didn’t I fly with Hubert, and Lois come directly to Nairobi instead? The answer is; I don’t know.

As we are pulling out of the airport parking lot, Hubert calls to announce that he and Lois will both come to Nairobi, rather than having me travel to Naivasha. When they arrived there, the D-H family had urgent and disturbing news. Last night, that is, less than 24 hours ago, a group of ten or so men somehow circumvented the estate’s security systems and attacked the compound brandishing Kalashnikovs. The family scattered; the children and their nannies hid in linen closets, a pregnant daughter clambered up onto the roof, and another daughter apparently leapt into the crown of a palm tree. The gangsters fired their weapons into the ceiling of some of the rooms in the house. They were drunk and arguing among themselves about how to proceed. They briefly held Barney, a friend of Hubert and the Douglas-Hamilton family, and struck him (Barney) with the butt of a rifle. They reportedly threatened to rape one of the white women. Finally the men ran off after stealing some goods, including one of Hubert’s pricey video cameras that was in Barney’s possession, and which was earlier used on the project we’re shooting. The ordeal with the gangsters lasted about 2 hours. Fortunately no one staying at the compound was badly hurt, although all were undeniably traumatized.

The police were alerted and showed up some hours later. It’s unclear why they took as long as they did to appear (it’s not inconceivable that they were paid to be slow. Christine described the police force in Kenya as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country). Nonetheless they caught 2 of the men, shooting one dead and allegedly torturing the other. At the moment Hubert called me, this latter was dying in hospital. Hubert maintains it’s difficult to know if these men were among the actual perpetrators. The police may have just plucked a couple of luckless locals to create examples (I later learn that the men were positively identified by the Douglas-Hamiltons). All in all, it is most distressing news and of course, motivates Hubert and Lois’s decision to come immediately to Nairobi.

It turns out that Tim is Maasai, which as I’ve suggested above, is a proud, fierce, cattle-herding tribe. He tells me that his family are still cattle-herders, although he has come to Nairobi to be a tour guide and lead foreigners to many different parts of Kenya. His favourite is the Maasai Mara, a huge game preserve where the “Big 5”–lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo–can be seen. Tim’s tour guide experience comes into play when he points out to me the 2 tallest buildings in Nairobi.

He takes me to the Heron, a quite nice hotel somewhat more upscale than the Kivi Millimani, where I stayed last week. Even so, the Heron immediately pisses off Hubert when he arrives a couple of hours later, as it requires payment upfront, rather than upon checking out. Hubert confronts the clerk and says, “Do we pay before we eat at the restaurant?” The absurdity notwithstanding, there’s no fighting the bureaucratic imperative, so pay up he does.

Days at the Kivi

March 15

I’m unwell today. Yesterday’s intestinal purge has left me crampy and uninterested in food. I gamely order boiled eggs for breakfast but when I crack one open, it’s just this side of uncooked, so I leave it running on the plate.

Hubert wants to move hotels, so we walk up the road to the Kivi. Once there, we chat a while but we both feel tired and soon retreat to our rooms to rest. At lunch mid-afternoon, I’m only able to eat half a club sandwich. Again I go to my room to lie down, while Hubert heads out to see friends. When he returns, I briefly meet them: Jean-Pierre is the French cultural attaché in Nairobi, and his wife, Jacqueline, is a striking African woman who hails from Burundi.

Hubert and I sit to dinner but he has now started to feel unwell too and we each manage to eat only a bowl of soup, and drink a little ginger ale.

I phone Jennifer in Toronto and we have a long and lovely conversation. She was most concerned when she received my email about the dire events in Naivasha–had the bad guys waited 24 hours, Hubert and I would have been there–but we both feel better after speaking. We talk about being invited to Rafael’s. Unfortunately neither of us can picture our Lulu squatting to relieve herself over a rather rank hole in an outhouse. Jennifer finds it funny and says she could do it, but Lulu? No way.

When I retire for the night, I feel truly, bloody awful, extremely woozy, with vomit threatening. I collapse on the bed in a horrible sweat, my hoarse breathing loud in my ears. The worst passes and then, blessed relief, I fall into a deep sleep.

March 16

I awake at 8:00 with a briefly held and then discarded idea of rising. At 10:00, Hubert calls. I feel a little better than I did yesterday, but he feels worse. We’re a couple of comparable zombies, muddled with fatigue, but possibly on opposite trajectories. At breakfast, I’m able to eat yogurt and cereal and drink a cup of tea. Sleep, or at least rest, again seems the order of the day. Further talk of shooting and plans for the project remains that: talk. Hubert says he hopes we can head to south Sudan for two weeks. There are images and interviews at a missionary outpost he wants to capture. Christine has picked up my south Sudanese visa.

I catch up this journal for a couple of hours. A big black and white crow sits in the palm tree by the balcony, the door to which is open for the intermittent breeze. The bird’s incessant voice is grating and obnoxious. He caws his fool head off; not a word of a lie to say he lasts almost 20 minutes. I long for a water gun–or a rock–to fire at him.

At lunch, Hubert’s friend Jacqueline has arrived with another friend to dine with us. Jacqueline says that I look even more fatigued than yesterday, although I maintain that I’m feeling better. In the daylight I can see more clearly that she is, as I mentioned, strikingly beautiful. Even better, she is smart and full of warm humour. Her friend is a white French woman, although she was born and raised in Nairobi, which makes her Kenyan, according to Hubert. We are frankly not very good company for the two vivacious women. Jacqueline is very affectionate with Hubert and clearly holds him in high regard. They eat heartily, while Hubert and I, with our tender stomachs, are once again limited to the soup course. After lunch, it’s back to rest again.

Hubert takes a dimenhydrinate pill (usually administered for motion sickness) I give him. An hour later he calls me to ask that I phone Stéphanie, our production co-ordinator in France, to determine whether the travel insurance he has will cover a doctor’s visit to the hotel. Stéphanie will investigate and get back to me. Meanwhile, in Hubert’s room, I find him running a fever. He’s very concerned that he’s contracted malaria from his recent visit to the Congo. He is really out of it.

Eventually, with no news from Stéphanie, we climb in a cab to go to the hospital. It’s rush hour and that means the same thing here that it does in any big city; major roads become parking lots. When we arrive at the Nairobi Hospital, which isn’t that far away, Hubert receives a call from the French doctor assigned by SOS International, the travel insurance company. He directs us instead to the Aga Khan University Hospital, another private institution that takes a further 45 minutes to drive to.

Hubert had wrapped himself in a bulky white comforter from the hotel, as he was feeling so chilled. He is something of a spectacle as a result. Christine greets us at the hospital and helps to organize the paperwork and get Hubert registered. She is her usual phlegmatic, unflappable self and it is reassuring to have her there.

Every step of the visit means payment. First the paracetamol to reduce the fever. Then blood tests. A urine analysis. The electrolyte replacement fluid. Each requires a separate transaction as it arises during diagnosis and sorting out the course of treatment. Finally, 4 or 5 hours later, I go to the pharmacy, where I pick up painkillers and anti-biotics. The doctor has determined that Hubert has contracted a blood infection, although apparently malaria is absent. Cost of the hospital visit and drugs, to be reimbursed by SOS: 12,600 KES. Plus taxi fare.

At 10:00, we finally leave. Hubert is feeling better and even hungry. We go to an Italian restaurant and have a fine clear soup and herbed bread, with fruity olive oil and fresh tomatoes. It’s just the ticket for me, as it’s very like a meal my dear Jennifer might make.

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