“Kuishi kwingi, ni kuona mengi” a famous saying in Kenya that warns young people to wait their turn for wisdom to be bestowed on them accompanied with grey hair and wrinkled skin. The lady seated next to Amani in a matatu could not agree with this statement, she fumbled with the little English words she knew, to communicate with her five year old granddaughter. From the look of things, she had been visiting her daughter in the big city of Nairobi from a humble rural home, and was shocked to be dealing with a child her greying hair could not save her from.
Amani finally got to Mbale the unknown destination at the end of the long nine hours of gathered tales and endless eating. Amani who was in the company of three other friends could not help but nib on popcorn, fried peas and biscuits that her friends provided, with her eyes still stuck on her novel. Among her friends was one guy with a demeanour of a bad boy who spent all his time picking on every passenger in the matatu which was mostly followed by a series of thunderous laughter.
She regretted having taken a friend’s advice of taking at least three litres of water every day to heal her cracked skin. The skin sure is supple but she had to make-do with filthy and used toilets at random stopovers.
During breaks, she was glad to stretch her legs and study the culture of the people she would meet in Mbale. Luckily a matatu that belonged to the same Sacco as the one she had boarded pulled into the parking. The passengers were mostly “big boned”, with butts and bellies extending on either sides of the body. Women were pleased to have conformed to the standards of their new destination, Nairobi. They wore wigs that seemed misplaced on their heads and high heeled shoes they could hardly walk in and for this they rewarded themselves with a soda as they surveyed the level of attention they had brought upon themselves.
She buried her head into her novel as soon as they left and only lifted it when they got to an unfamiliar place. The break from her novel was not disappointing. She was glad to encounter the confusion wrapped in the crops that were either cane or napier grass, millet or sorghum, sisal or the ornamental cousin. She sank into her seat to have a better view of the pairs of rollers, sparrows, sterling and weavers perched on the electricity lines with occasional dives at flies and crops for their feed.
In less than one kilometre, she had crossed three bridges, each with different activities. The first one harboured throngs of naked kids who intently covered their groins with one hand as they washed with the other free hand. The soapy kids took alternating dives in the river and went straight to hang on guava trees with bare butts. The second bridge is where the driver amid crunching sounds of gravel, almost exchanged jabs with a careless driver who wanted to overtake them yet the laws of traffic in Kenya forbids overtaking on a bridge. The third bridge was under construction, and so they were forced to take a diversion.
The three bridges may belong to a meandering river, because the scattered shrubs and the euphorbia species that stood untamed gave the town away to semi-arid, that three whole rivers cannot allow. She had for a long time thought, the condition was only prevalent in the east, north and coastal parts of Kenya, she was seeing the threats of famine and drought, if water land and food were not utilized carefully.
“Whine your waist” played in the background leading Amani to a siesta that put an end to the story recording.
Amani together with her three friends were received and taken to their home for the next three adventurous days. Day one saw the four friends interact with jolly women who required that they speak the local language. The scene of the granny in the matatu came rushing to Amani’s confused mind. She could not use the languages she was accustomed to, because the eager women did not make a word of it. It was their turn to mumble foreign words that left the bad boy bemused as he in turn threw a few Luo words to the ladies. His muscular body fit closely to his casual shirt which made him even more popular with the old women.
Later on, Amani and her friends visited the next village and were surprised to see scores of children pounding rocks. Western Kenya is well known for its gigantic rocks including one that produces water earning it the name “crying stone”. The tale of the “crying stone” somewhat resembles that of Moses in the Bible. It is said, the locals were suffering from a long drought, and it took a very powerful prayer to get the water to ooze out of the rock to quench the thirst of the villagers. Another tale was that of Luanda Magere, the Luo legend who turned into a rock when his enemy pieced his shadow. The Western part of Kenya is therefore well endowed with rocks, the rocks that are giving the road construction contractors the hardest time.
Although the rocks that stand erect even in shambas give the area unique scenery, they pose a major challenge to the locals. The rocks however earn revenue for the locals who break them into small pieces that are used to construct houses. In return some space is freed for mrere, managu and saga which are the famous traditional vegetables consumed in this region. The people of western are mostly farmers, who farm maize, potatoes, beans and even tea leaves. This is the area stereotypically known for its love of Ugali, chicken and tea. Visitors look forward to the well prepared ugali, and chicken that is keenly dissected to fit every aspiring eater. Tea is served after every meal; they currently have a tea factory to support their lifestyle.
Matatu and motorcycle rides are filled with drama, Amani discovered. Matatus exceed passenger limits but the unwilling seated passengers harden the wrinkles on their foreheads to let the unsuspecting Amani know that she was not welcome to squeeze. However this was not applicable to the bad boy, who insisted on sitting wherever he could, noting wryly that “the conductor was not stupid to stop for us.” He went on to push and pull and create space for Amani together with the other friends. He seemed to truly believe in the matatu adage that ‘there is always space for one more.’ This motto also applied to the boda bodas (public motorbikes), which bundled three happy riders at the back and roared on at breath neck speed.
Amani was glad to be in the company of her friends when night won the battle against sunshine. Her butterfly filled stomach, could not stop rumbling when, a night runner was reported to be taking rounds in the compound. She fell asleep immediately after the night runner was literally turned into the hunted. The unknown person was left with no option but to allow Amani and her hosts to have a goodnight rest when bad boy came of the house with a machete and pretended to sharpen it in order to use of the culprit. She was ready to leave for her home early the next morning to avoid a repeat of the night runner incident.
The tranquillity the rural area awed Amani. Despite the presence of a few polythene bags whirling on her feet, plant and animal waste were out of sight. Not even the overflowing sewers made an attempt to appear with a foul stench in the middle of the decent environment. Amani regretted that her visit had come to an end and that Nairobi full of blocked drainage systems awaited her. The robin chats in the bush that had confidence in their wings and hardly flew away on the sight of intruders would be replaced with marabou stocks and crows in Nairobi. The situation made her wonder if she preferred the green pastures in the city or the actual vegetation in the rural areas she visited.
‘Prehistoric art of world-class standards, from the stone age and iron age, etched in granite rocks and now a World Heritage Site’. Sounds good, no?” Lawrence nodded his head at me, looking up from his sweet, milky tea to see how keen I was to discover these ancient artistic artefacts, and going along with my enthusiasm whilst biting down into a piece of bread and butter, our new favourite Malawian delicacy in the mountain town of Dedza. To call it a ‘town’ was to stretch the meaning of the word, but there was at least a bus station, and one place to get a decently filling breakfast.
According to the guidebook the best way to get there was by taxi, but having failed to find a single one around the town we went in search of the ubiquitous bicycle taxis which were dotted around the central stretch, by the bus stop, with their drivers leaning on their handlebars and chatting away in Chichewa. When we approached they assumed Lawrence spoke the same language as them and answered in Chichewa, only to be shot down when he carried on in English:
“Sorry, I’m Kenyan, I don’t speak Chichewa. Can you take us to Chongoni?” The small gaggle of men, each with their bikes, haggled for our business, but no one would go below a certain fee, which we assumed was really the minimum, so we chose two men who seemed particularly good at vying for business, and settled on a price a little higher than we’d managed to get it down to.
As we went off to buy bananas, bread and other snacks for the road, we left the two men to decide on the best route, and to prepare their bikes for the journey ahead, or so we thought. We climbed onto the small, lightly cushioned platform behind each saddle and perched our feet on the little spokes on the wheel built for the purpose, added onto the cheap Chinese bicycle frames which were never beyond repair.
The beginning of the journey was a flat, open stretch of road, the one leading northwards up the elongated lakeside country, We trundled along at a reasonable pace, Lawrence in front with the younger of the two bicycle taxi drivers, and me behind with the slightly older, leaner one, wearing rubber boots in the sweltering heat, for a reason I hadn’t yet ascertained.
It was about four minutes before the terrain became too hilly and rough to stay on the bikes, so we all got off and walked. At this early stage in the journey there were a few children walking along with goats, women with children on their backs looking at us from the corners of their eyes, wondering what we were planning on doing down this narrow dirt road leading to small community after even smaller community, framed by the rocky promontories and grassy expanses of central Malawi.
Lawrence and I discussed, as we normally did, the ups and downs of life, the future, funny stories from our respective childhoods and shared any knowledge we each had about nature, history and politics. The bicycle drivers, whose names we never found out, were becoming more and more sweaty and silent, despite no longer being able to ride their bikes, and instead pushing them in front of them, avoiding punctures and potential falls.
Lawrence and I looked at each other and I pointed to the bikes with my eyes and curled the side of my mouth up a little bit, and he assented, knowing it was futile to resist my idea.
“How about we take the bikes for a bit, and give you two a break?” I offered, raising the pitch of my voice to a slightly pathetic girly whine. Though at first a little reticent to let go of their livelihoods for even a short ride, they gave in, realising how welcome the break would be, to walk unburdened and standing up straight even just for a few metres.
We took our respective bikes and pedalled along for a bit, the earth sliding away beneath us in a refreshing change from the jolting, uneven steps we’d been taking for the past 3 kilometres.
Once the ground began to rise in front of us my feet pressed more intently down on the pedals to press forward up the hill, and I felt a sharp cutting on the soles of my feet, as if the force of my weight were fighting against me in pointed retaliation. Looking back at the original driver, I realised now why he was wearing thick-soled, knee-high boots. The pedals were just thin metal bars, and after only a few metres my feet were in agony, the thin soles of my flip-flops offering no protection.
We returned the vehicles to their owners and continued on our way.
“How much further to the rock art?” Lawrence dared to ask, knowing that the answer probably wouldn’t be to our liking. It was already midday, and the day was evaporating fast, the sun reaching its highest point and stubbornly making it obvious that it wouldn’t stick around all day.
“To the turn in the road, maybe 5km. Then we’re not sure how to get to Chongoni. We’ll ask”. At this point we had seen no one on the road for the past kilometre or so, and we weren’t likely to see many. Asking for directions from a local would be like trying to talk to a deceased relative one last time to check they didn’t blame you for that terrible argument just before their passing; impossible, unless you believed in miracles.
We resigned ourselves to a difficult journey, and were relieved when a flat expanse of road unfurled in front of us, and our drivers signalled to us to board the bikes again. It didn’t last as long as we’d hoped, but our drivers decided to hazard a go at the downhill stretch which then in front of us, with the brakes lightly pressed to control speed. Lawrence’s extra 20cm of height compared to me, and his physical bulk meant the bike he was being pulled by careered in front of us, unable to make such efficient use of the brakes faced with the substantial weight of a tall, healthy man perched on its back wheel. The taxi driver was unable to control the movement as he almost caught his wheel in ours, overtaking us at an awkward angle, veering to the side whilst gaining speed, and crashing into the dusty slope of the road in an inevitable tangle of man, machine and twisted metal.
No one was hurt, thankfully, except for the bike, which anthropomorphised in front of our eyes into a wounded soldier, having lost the battle, and unable to keep charging forward and with very little hope of ever returning to the fight.
There was little option for us but to accept that driver number one had to return to Dedza town and see to his bike. We were then left to coordinate the logistics of getting three people back and forth from the Chongoni World Heritage site with one bike, and with dark storm clouds looming overhead. We agreed to organise ourselves like a courier service, delivering each one of us in turn to our destination (which we still weren’t sure the remaining driver had any geographical awareness of).
I was dropped, alone, by a fork in the road which we guessed was walking distance to the art we were trying to get to. I carried on walking, slowly, until the rain started. And when it started, it gained such force that I thought the hills would turn into puddles and the rock art would be wiped out forever, making our journey a wasted one, a prospect which I couldn’t bear to fathom.
I stood cowering under a rickety wooden structure where two small children and their 20 or so goats also realised they could avoid the worst of the deluge. Almost an hour later, two cowering men, all their machismo and pride stripped away by the pelting rain, trudged up to the shelter, the one in front holding my camera under his arm, wrapped in his t shirt, and the other bent forward, pushing a bike through the red mud.
We were stuck in an unknown location, with no road signs or map, no one who could speak any English, and a steadily growing group of small children who were staring at us from every corner of the wooden structure.
It was as good a time as any to polish off our banana sandwiches and jar of peanut butter, which ended up being split 10 ways, between the bicycle man, the two of us and the children who snatched it from our hands as we held it out, and then fought violently over each crumb. Soon, we were on our own again, the crowd dispelled and the bicycle driver insisting that we would find a different way back.
It was time to find the art we’d come in search of, and connect to the living memory of the agricultural communities of ancient Malawi. After a lengthy walk in a random direction we found a single, rusty, barely decipherable sign, confirming that we were indeed in the middle of a UNESCO World heritage site.
However, no matter how intently we searched and how many rocks we pored over, our hair still dripping rainwater onto the ground, Lawrence’s jeans still weighing more than the legs they surrounded, we saw nothing but natural formations. No art, no scribbles, not even a modern ‘Chris woz ‘ere’ for us to set eyes on.
This World Heritage site, with no budget to welcome visitors in style or signpost the site which was sold in the guidebook as a fascinating place of discovery, had stumbled upon the best way to protect its artefacts: make them undiscoverable, so that no one can attempt to corrupt or damage them.
As Lawrence and I rode back to Dedza on the back of a potato truck, clinging to mounds of rough, filed sacks as the bumpy road and bends tried to fling us off, we’d rarely been happier after a day spent exploring. We’d seen nothing of the history we’d set out to discover but we’d made our own little personal (hi)story in the hills of Malawi, and we lay back on our potato beds and enjoyed the ride.
Fancy trying to visit Chongoni yourself?
The Chongoni rock art UNESCO World Heritage site is within driving distance of Dedza, in Malawi, a few miles from the border with Mozambique. The best way to get around is by private car, as the site is around 12km from the edge of the town. You can rent vehicles from Lilongwe, or use your own if you’re on a road trip.
There are plenty of guesthouses in Dedza, with no need to book, and one or two eateries. The pottery centre is also well worth a visit, to see how they cook and glaze items which they sell on site and supply to national distributors. You can browse the pottery items afterwards or make the most of the manicured gardens and restaurant.
All Nicolette knew about this city mega-city of Dubai was that it personified world-class tourism and business. She had dreamt about it and soon, her dreams would come true. In the Rwandair airplane that carried them to Dubai, Nicolette felt soothed by the thought that the company was a property of her country. Her heart billowed with pride, as if her father held shares in the business. But this just meant that Nicolette felt secure with people from her homeland. They belonged to the same motherland and spoke the same mother tongue.
At Dubai International airport, the pilot landed more smoothly than on the Mombasa touchdown a few hours earlier. They descended and entered the airport hall. A humid air and Arabic words everywhere received them. Inside a police or military guy in a greenish uniform showed newly arrived travelers the way to the passport control desk.
Nicolette took a couple of long seconds to admire him, he was very elegant in his uniform, and he embodied kingdom class. She couldn’t explain why that conclusion crossed her mind. Perhaps because his uniform was ornamented with golden decoration and he wore a tight belt of similar color to his uniform and a claret head-cover.
She queued in front of a blue metal sign displaying 'All passengers' in huge blue English and Arabic characters. While the young woman was waiting, she discreetly stretched her shoulders and observed other passengers who were mainly Asians although she couldn’t tell their nationalities. She also saw many black Africans. They were mostly Nigerians and Congolese. She recognized them thanks to their English and French accents. They looked like business people and were making unnecessary noises that attracted the attention of other passengers.
Nigerians wore a lot of golden chains around their necks and arms while some Congolese had their skins lightened by unsuccessful bleaching products.
There were many control desks and everyone was waiting in front of whichever desks seemed to have the shortest queues. Passengers were separated by several crowd control barrier tapes that looked rather helpless to Nicollette. She took time to observe the security guards, they were incredibly elegant in their traditional clothing, which were composed of a kandura, an ankle length, loose-fitting white robe. Their heads and soft hairs were covered with a headscarf called ghutrah that was kept in place with agal, a black tight band.
They looked like those Arabic princes that she read in Harlequin books. She was traveling from a small, low-income country massively Christian and was heading to a rich Muslim nation. As much as she tried, she just couldn’t stop thinking about those Hollywood movies that link Arabs with terrorism.
The Rwandan tourist was wondering if a gunman would drop from the sky any moment and start spraying bullets at hapless travelers.
Nicolette was also watching those men wearing light kanduras and wondered whether such attire made it easy to hide a bomb. But she urged her mind to move away from such diabolic thoughts and focus on the delights that awaited her in the megacity of Dubai.
Two security guards were seated in one box separated by a low compartment. They were laughing merrily as they chatted in Arabic. Nicolette felt guilty at not speaking Arabic and laughing with them. When it was her turn to present her passport, she stepped forward and waited for the veiled man to scrutinize her face and her passport photo.
She felt shy as he scrutinized her face three times. She instantly wondered what deence to use if he decided the photo in the passport did not match her face. But although she had gained weight, she knew that her rabbit ears remained the same. He finally reached the same conclusion and asked her to look at a wall camera.
“Should I smile at the camera?” Nicolette enquired jokingly. She just wanted to hear how is English accent would sound like.
“It’s up to you!” He replied with the indifference of a person who has gazed at thousands of unknown faces.
He stamped a printed copy of her visa. Now she could walk through and have her first ever taste of the Dubai that lay beyond the airport.
It was still early morning on a Friday, the humidity of the city covered Nicolette’s entire body. Strangely, she felt welcomed by that warmth. A friend of a friend who was also Rwandan had come to pick her up. She couldn’t describe the nice feeling of meeting a fellow citizen in a foreign country.
He was driving a Mercedes Benz, a far cry from the old carina that she drove back in her country.He explained to her that Friday was a day of prayers. All businesses and offices were closed. Roads were almost empty expect for a few cars that were cruising along perfectly paved roads. Lining these roads were big buildings interspersed with giant advertisement signs that evoked images of New York. The only thing that was missing that Friday morning was the multicultural crowds that would normally fill New York streets.
In the afternoon, some shops started to open as people, mostly male, slowly filled the streets. Nicolette’s female eyes were searching for Dubai women. Where were they? Were they all in their homes cooking and taking care of their children and husbands?
Her stomach started rumbling with hunger and she entered the first fast food cafe that her eyes saw. Nicolette took a thick mango smoothie that had a miraculous effect on her hunger.
The rest of the day, she strolled around the city and met people from over the world, probably searching for a better life. She could feel money in the city. She met many African eyes scrutinizing her in order put her in tourist or businesswoman category.
Dubai looked like America to her, but things were newer in this golden metropolis. Although Dubai was a fancy city, it had simplicity in its extravagance that made her feel at home.
Shops were incredible; they were full of affordable things that she could buy for her family and friends. There was:
Shoes for her sisters perhaps they will find good husbands
Wallets for her brothers so they would save their meager income
Lamps for the house her father had never been able to finish
Creams to keep her mother’s skin smooth like a baby’s
Clothes for her cousins so they could stop being jealous of each other
There were many nice things to bring home from Dubai
That whole evening, she took a train to the Dubai mall, one of the biggest in the world and the most expensive. She had no money to spend but she had eyes to contemplate the marvels of Dubai.
She loved the luxury of the mall.
She loved seeing people from everywhere with different pocket sizes.
She loved watching the crocodile in the mall aquarium.
She loved getting lost in a false galaxy above the aquarium.
She loved observing the water falls in the same building.
She loved touching the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa.
She loved hearing random people speaking her language and others speaking totally strange languages.
She loved her first taste of Dubai
It was one of my favourite late afternoon pleasures of a lazy weekend, and it was a rare moment of solitude and observational possibilities that I treasured. Though I was too fussy to put my feet in the water, I would more often than not purchase an ice cream from the man with the pedal cart.
I found out on my third trip that he was called Joseph and during the week he carried heavy loads for a national building material supplier. Sat on his bicycle ice cream vending cart he looked cool and collected and he usually enjoyed the sunset, like me, and all the other carefree weekend wanderers.
The sun was starting to dip at a steady, reassuring speed, and the skies were clear, announcing a perfect, complete sunset to melt even the sternest of nature skeptics’ hearts. Couples around me embraced, or licked each other’s ice creams in gestures of trust and love, a ritual of the courting process which they were in the middle of, so publicly.
I smiled at a young lady whose gentleman friend had laid down his jacket for her, even though the grass was clean and dry. She smiled back, aware of how soppy and romantic it seemed, but also of how perfect it felt. I turned back to face the sun, enjoying the experience of being able to stare at it square in the eyes without squinting or turning away in searing pain, as would happen during the day.
As much as I wanted to focus on mother nature’s bedtime unfolding in front of me, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the black-grey hulks of rocks beside me. I grew up partly in the mountains and so I’m more accustomed to stones and slopes than water and reflections, but these were something else, something other-worldly which I’d never come across anywhere else. I stared at them every time I walked past them and tried to crack the mystery of them without success.
“Do you want to know the story, lady?”
Slapped out of my daydreaming daze by the small child’s words, I didn’t immediately smile and respond positively. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that the young boy who’d come and sat himself beside me was gazing up at me expectantly and was clearly eager to tell me his story. I slowly gave him the smile he so wanted, and nodded, only saying “Yes please, tell me the story” after I’d acquiesced and he’d taken a deep breath to start his tale.
“But what’s your name?”
“I’ll tell you afterwards, lady, first the story”.
He knew he was being cheeky and tilted his head a little to show me he was aware of it but that he was going to carry on anyway.
“Before my parents were born, and before their parents, and their parents’ parents were born, there was a very strong, very brave but very crazy Sukuma man”.
The tribe inhabiting the areas in and around Mwanza is called the Sukuma, one of Tanzania’s largest tribes, and from my subtle nod he knew that I was following, despite clearly not hailing from Sukuma lands myself.
“He longed for a wife but because he was so crazy no woman would marry him. He was the best farmer in the land because he was so strong, but he was so, so unhappy that he went even more crazy. Then one day there was a dance for all the Sukuma. The women danced, the man danced, everybody was happy and making moves like Elvis.”
At this the young boy laughed at his own cultural reference, which he was sure I’d appreciate, and I did indeed laugh with him, as it seemed so incongruous for a 12 or 13 year old Tanzanian boy to be talking about his ancestor dancing like The King.
“Nobody wanted to dance with the man, so he went up on the rock and went dancing with one of the big blocks that he detached from the pile, swaying, rocking, like in a music video. He was swinging all around like a mad man, pretending this rock was a lady. He looked happier than all the other men, as in this crazy man’s head the rock was the most beautiful woman. He become so…”
At this point, my storyteller paused in his narration for a moment and waved his arms about manically, thrusting his legs into the air in exuberant and frantic kicks, so that he didn’t even need to use a word to describe how the man became.
“Mad! He became madder than anything, and he let go of his rock and fell off into the water. The water was far below, so all of the Sukuma heard him fall and cheered. The crazy man would no longer be unhappy because he had no wife. He was with the fish and the nature. And the rock, well the rock stayed exactly how he left it, standing up still.”
He pointed to the rock I had been distracted by when trying to catch every last ray of sun, and it did indeed look like a lady caught mid-dance, frozen in time forever and abandoned by her unstable one-night stand.
“Did you like the story? And it’s true, I promise.”
Still looking at the rock I nodded, satisfied with the magic and myth of the story, and I told him gently, “It’s a great story, do all children in Mwanza know it? Did your grandparents or your parents tell it to you?”
“Oh, I just made it up. I can do another one if you want. But first, buy me an ice cream?”
To this day I’ve never found a satisfying explanation of how these unfathomable rock formations sprang up around the lake, and I’d quite like to believe that the only reasonable explanations are the ones that come from my young yarn-spinning friend, who I later found out went by the name ‘Mwongo,’ Swahili for liar.
Visiting Mwanza and its famous rocks
Mwanza's Bismarck Rock, as pictured, is located on the edges of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Mwanza, a short walk from downtown. Just head for the Kamanga ferry, and you'll see the rocks to your left, with the dancing lady of our story clearly visible from afar. This rock has been used in local advertising campaigns, and is a well-recognised symbol of the city. You can lounge on the grass, by Yun Long Chinese restaurant and take in the rock, the lake and the sunset any day of the week, and enjoy an ice cream on weekends.
Mwanza is a great city to discover, and is in the North-West of Tanzania, a 12 hour bus journey from Nairobi, or 16 hours from Dar Es Salaam. You can also fly to Mwanza with several national and international companies. It can serve as a base to visit Serengeti National Park, head on to Rwanda, or simply discover the lakes region of this most fascinating country.
When my Kenya Airways plane touched down in Lagos Nigeria at 3.30 in the afternoon, I peeped out of the tiny windows and smiled at the airport workers who were busy driving up and down the airport, ferrying luggage and all manner of things.
Finally, I had landed in Africa’s most populous Nation. I could finally put a tick next to Nigeria in my rumpled ‘Countries to Visit’ paper that I had written in December 1999 when the imminent arrival of a brand new millennium prompted unprecedented ambition in most humans.
DAVID BWAKALI. My name was scribbled on a blue sheet of cardboard paper that a stocky man was holding up. I saw it as soon as I emerged from the international arrivals section of the airport. It felt nice seeing my very own name. It was as if the name had preceded the person into Lagos and it was now welcoming the person to rejoin it.
‘How are you sir?!’ The man said enthusiastically, as if he was an old friend and not just a driver for Elo, sister to Akpezi, my UNEP boss’s husband.
I was in Nigeria for the sweetest assignment ever. Akpezi had requested me to write two biographies for her father and mother-in-law. So I was there to conduct a series of interviews that would give me sufficient raw material to work with. Imagine being paid to do two of your favourite things – travelling and writing. I couldn’t thank Akpezi enough for the opportunity.
Ekwe, the driver was wearing a spotless white shirt and well-pressed black trousers. He was clean shaven with grey patches peppering his well-trimmed hair. He could have been a bank manager on a Saturday evening. He was as eager to know more about Kenya as I was eager to know about the sights that were speeding by me as we drove to Elo’s house.
‘Are you a Yoruba?’ I asked him, thanks to that Kenyan habit of seeking to know people’s tribes.
‘How did you know?’ The furrows on his forehead signified surprise.
‘I am a prophet’ I answered with a serious face, belying the fact that I was joking.
The car slowed down slightly as Ekwe looked at me with a mixture of curiosity and reverence.
‘Just kidding,’ I said, triggering boisterous laughter from both of us before I explained to him that Yoruba and Igbo were the two most famous tribes in my part of the world, so I had just guessed.
‘Our President Olusegun Obasanjo is a Yoruba’ Ekwe said proudly.
He paused and let go a rather loud sneeze before continuing, ‘he is a good man.’
It was 2005 and President Obasanjo had been president since 1999. He ruled until 2007 when he made way for President Yar’Adua, a northerner who later died in office.
I was amused by the yellow color of public mini-buses that seemed to be all over the roads. Back home in Kenya, the larger public mini-buses don’t have a uniform colour and often compete to see which one will be the most colorful and outrageous.
After one hour of maneuvering through the honks, twists and turns of Lagos, Ekwe finally drove through the guarded gates of a lush neighborhood and into a large corner house whose gates opened as we approached.
‘You are welcome David!’ a jovial middle-aged woman said as soon as I alighted from the Toyota land-cruiser. As we embraced like old friends, she repeatedly told me to feel at home and asked me how Akpezi, her sister-in-law was fairing on back in Kenya.
This is what I like about Africa, I thought as I reveled in the warmth of instant friendship.
There is such a sense of family. A joie de vivre that can be felt in warm embraces like the one that Elo had just given me or the boisterous laughter that Ekwe had kept unleashing on the way from the airport, or the playful honks of public mini-bus drivers as they cajole customers, or the handshake of business deals in pubs, or the humming of a mother as she cooks pounded yam and fish for her family or even in the tears of a hungry and poor little boy who has been through the hell of Boko Haram and emerged on the other side traumatized yet energized to face another day.
When Roger Federer the tennis icon set foot in Mauritius for holiday several years ago, he was just following the tradition of millions who had dreamt of holiday in this idyllic Indian Ocean Island. They dream of those silky beaches and the waving palm trees. But very few ever realize their dreams because holiday in exotic destinations is a preserve for the few who can afford it.
However, there is much more to Mauritius than the rolling waves, whispering palm trees and charming beaches.
The people of Mauritius represent a modern day miracle. They are a melting pot in every sense of the word. Their ancestors came from different parts of the world and only arrived in Mauritius after 1507. They came from as close as Madagascar and from as far as India, Indonesia and other parts of the Far East. These early Mauritians even came from France, Netherlands and England. Mauritians are the beautiful result of this ancestral mix.
Where else in the world do you have such multi-ethnic ancestral mix? Not many places.
The first French settlers arrived in Mauritius in 1715.
‘Icroyable!’ Amazing! They must have said when their small ship arrived in Isle de France, as Mauritius was known back then. The Island was still part of the French Empire and was being managed by the French East India Company. Today, there are Mauritians with a French ancestry but a Mauritian heartbeat. This Island is their beloved home.
Long before the French came calling and baptized Mauritius as ‘Isle de France’ it was known as Dina Arobi, named thus by the Arab sailors. These Arabs are the first known tourists to Mauritius. A couple of years after their arrival, Domingo Fernandez Pereira, the Portuguese sailor, set foot on the island.
‘Maravilhoso!’ Marvellous! Domingo must have shouted when his ship approached the lone island at around 1511. What was so marvelous about an inhabited lonely island? The pristine marine ecosystem was undoubtedly even more marvelous than it is today. (J Vividly describe the marine ecosystem)
The early Portuguese voyagers are said to have named Mauritius Cirne, after dodo, the legendary flightless birds that swarmed Mauritius back then. In these maiden days, terrestrial biodiversity seems to have had a bigger impression on the Portuguese tourists! Yet more evidence that Mauritius has always been more than the beaches and palm trees.
When Don Pedro Mascarenhas, another Portuguese tourist arrived a few years down the road, he decided to name Mauritius, Rodrigues and Reunion after himself. So the three islands became Mascarenhas. What interesting days those were! You just arrive in a pristine land and name it after yourself!
A decade or two after Mascarenhas left Mascarenhas, essentially abandoning himself, the Dutch arrived. They too named the island after someone – their prince back home. He was known as Prince Maurice Van Nassau. Dutch settlements followed but didn’t stay put. Although the Dutch left in 1710, they left behind a lasting legacy – sugarcane. Their sweet remnants have outlived them and become a central part of Mauritius.
The French arrived in 1715 after the Dutch departure and made Mauritius a French colony, even name it, Isle de France, Island of France.
The result of this mix of ancestors are Mauritians who share the same country but diverse cultures. However, their harmonious co-existence is a study of harmony in diversity.
I stood quietly in the soft grass on the edge of the beach and watched quietly as the sun crept along the blue waters of the Indian Ocean. Blue was everywhere. Above was the soft blue of the sky. In front of me was the dark blue of the ocean. Far away on the horizon, I could see gentle waves dancing in silent rustles towards me. I breathed in deeply and opened my arms wide as I pretended that the waves were eager to race towards me and jump into my embrace.
I heard a sound. It was like a bird but quite soft. It filtered into my ears from above me, causing me to glance upwards. Apart from the vast, blue sky, I couldn’t see anything else up there. So where was that sound coming from? Soft like a bird’s chirp and calm like a… ‘Breeze!’ I whispered. It was a breeze. I closed my eyes and moved my head slowly, from side to side. It felt as if the morning breeze was gently pushing and pulling my head from right to left.
After a few blissful moments, the gentle push and pull became stronger as the breeze began transitioning into a serene wind. As if on cue, my eyes fluttered open and cast a long gaze at the waves. Their jog had become a sprint leaving rough waters in their wake. At that moment, I heed the call of the ocean and began a slow stride from the edge of the beach towards the ocean.
Although still on dry sand, I could already feel the wet water encircling my ankles. As the salty wind enveloped my face, I closed my eyes gain but continued walking. One step at a time, one breath at a time, I approached the Indian Ocean.
My bare feet were gently pressing into the soft beach of Lamu Island, in the Zanzibar archipelago, leaving behind a zig-zag pattern of my footsteps. Like continuous rows of the letter Z, the footsteps pattern descended along the gentle incline that I was walking on. Another gust of wind blew onto my face, swinging them open.
My eye pupils, brown like some of the bigger sand particles beneath me, registered a gigantic wave that had begun forming on the horizon. It had the outlines of a great racing horse and dazzling beauty of a zebra. I could almost feel its watery gallop as it leapt back into the depths and emerged a few metres ahead. Hot on its heels was another even bigger wave whose roar whose roar mingled with the wind to form an ocean orchestra of divine music.
I don’t remember how I ended up on my knees. But I do recall stretching out my arms again and diving into the ocean to give the ocean a hug. As I swam towards the embrace of the galloping waves, smile on my face was wider than the sky above me.
The embrace when it came left me with deep sighs of joy.
The Indian Ocean looked like blue ink that had spilt across the table forming an irregular map. Funny how everything looks so small from above. I thought to myself. We had just taken off from Malindi airport and were now flying above the Indian Ocean, on our way to Lamu.
I was seated in the window seat of the first row, feasting at the natural sights beneath me. Although the blue waters of the ocean appeared calm, I knew that the waves were probably roaring and soaring. Every time a wave reaches its destination, huffing and puffing, it’s easy to imagine that it is always that feeble. But go deeper into the ocean for just a mile and you will find the same wave hissing and dancing in full force.
When the plane took off from Nairobi, I had hoped that we would be given hot sandwiches followed with that gentle question, ‘which drink will you be having sir?’ I always get confused by all food-related questions that give me the power to choose whatever I want. This is because I would actually like to have everything being presented.
But in this particular flight, the gentleman who was the sole steward posed a lesser question, ‘Coke or Fanta?’ I loved Coke but had recently seen a video on Facebook showing how coke can clean a dirty toilet. So I settled for Fanta, served in plastic cans so tiny that I gulped it in exactly 2.5 seconds and was left wondering what to do with the two cookies that had also been offered.
The sight of the vast ocean reminded me of a recent wise comment by Kenya’s renowned writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He was debating with a host panellist on CitizenTV’s Cheche show on the merits of African languages. In his calm and convincing manner, the distinguished writer argued that languages were like rivers flowing into an ocean; hence Africa needed to ensure that its linguistic rivers kept flowing.
Back to the literal ocean, I noticed that we were now flying over a section that had brown, as opposed to blue water. That must be the Kipini area, I thought. The River Tana flows into the Indian Ocean at Ugwana Beach in Kipini and maintains its brown water for a section of the ocean that is a few metres wide. It’s as if Kenya’s longest river is saying to the ocean that, ‘you may be a big blue giant but I will keep my brown for as long as I can.’
This mixture of fresh river water and salty sea water is known is brackish water. It is ideal for certain species like shrimps. This gives Kipini the potential of being the shrimp capital of Africa, if not the world. But it still has a long way to go before it can match the 24,000 tonnes monthly shrimp exports of Ecuador and India last year. The two countries are the leading shrimp exporters globally.
I first visited Kipini in the company of Carol Hunsberger, my Canadian friend and former UNEP colleague. She was conducting a research on jatropha, the biodiesel plant. I tagged along and was stunned when I stood at the Kipini beach and watched River Tana gushing into the Indian Ocean.
After travelling for one thousand kilometres from the Mt Kenya region, the river finally arrives at the Indian Ocean. Watching its arrival is a humbling and joyous experience. The brown waters just keep coming and gushing into the blue waters. They never tire. Minute after minute, hour after hour, the river becomes one with the ocean.
Kipini’s shrimp and prawn fishers have legendary abilities and are said to dive underwater to fish for prawns for periods that can extend up to ten minutes.
‘Please fasten your seatbelts as will be landing...’ the steward’s baritone voice yanked me from my Kipini thoughts and I realised that my 25 minutes above the Indian Ocean were about to conclude and I would soon be on a boat on my way to Lamu Island, my second home.
‘Sagalla is Kenya’s garden of Eden,’ says Godrick Mwachofi, Sagalla Health Centre’s public health officer of. As he talks on cheerfully, I throw covert glances towards my left.
The source of my distraction is a silver stream that is trickling down one of Sagalla’s succulent hills near Mwachofi’s house.
As my gaze continues to caress the stream, I hear Mwachofi’s booming voice, ‘after lunch, we will go hiking at Goe hills’.
This invitation brings instant smiles on the faces of Margo Rowe, a Michigan nurse and Clay Birke, an electrical engineer from lowa. The three of us have just arrived for a five day visit and though it’s my tenth time in Sagalla, I’m just as excited.
Three years earlier, during my maiden visit to this hilly region in Kenya’s Coastal Province, I had fallen in love with the zigzag hills, thick forests, crystal clear streams, cool climate and warm culture of the Sagalla people (wasagalla).
Hiking Sagalla’s chubby hills is never tedious as it involves piercing through a tropical forest, sunbathing on gigantic rocks, sapping pure stream water and beholding the ever scenic views before you.
Sagalla is twenty kilometress from Voi, the largest town in Taita Taveta County. Despite this proximity, it is as cold as Voi is hot.
At 2,000 feet above sea level, it is 1,500 feet higher than Voi, which is home to the world famous Tsavo East National Park. About 150 kilometres away in the South is the Indian Ocean. Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city sweats out its days, right next door to this salty Ocean.
‘When wasagalla go to Mombasa to look for work, they often find nothing but heat and ocean tides’ Mwachofi quips as we near Goe hills.
Occupying an area of approximately seventy thousand square kilometers, Sagalla’s thirty thousand people have plenty of fertile land to farm. However many opt for the ‘hotter pastures’ of Mombasa, forgetting that they have left behind greener pastures.
Indeed, Sagalla’s pastures are teeming with rich biodiversity and an even richer culture.
Plenteous chattering monkeys, cawing rooks, whistling indigenous trees and distant elephant trumpets from Tsavo are some of the sights and sounds of Sagalla.
We are finally there. Goe hills are twin hills that ooze with myth and mystery. Standing on one summit of Goe, we felt like we were on top of the world. I followed the gaze of a lone sparrow that was descending into the narrow fifty-foot valley that is between the hills. I didn’t see the dozens of human skulls and skeletons that are said to be down there. Legend has it that in the nineteenth century, people suffering from contagious diseases like small pox would be thrown into this valley of death to avoid spreading the diseases.
2,200 feet above sea level, the Goe summit gives one a picturesque, albeit hazy view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. The regal mountain sits silently in the expansive plains that surround it.
Both Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks are also clearly visible. Bigger than Swaziland, these two parks are amongst the largest Parks in the world and have an overflow of elephants. The parks also have a tragic history – years earlier, lions devoured hapless Indian railway workers in the area around Voi town, earning Tsavo lions the infamous tag of, ‘the man eaters of Tsavo’.
Speaking about the famous Tsavo wildlife, Bibi Mwacharo, an octogenarian who lives near the ancient church says nostalgically, ‘in days gone by, we co-existed harmoniously with wild animals, especially elephants and gazelles’. Her dim eyes light up as she scoops some soil from the wet ground and says with wistfully, ‘elephants were just like this soil - many, many, many.’
Sagalla’s yester years can still be seen in the Wray Memorial Museum. This is a historic church building that was built one century earlier by Rev. Wray of the Church Missionary Society. The church is wrinkled but still standing strong. Locals like to tell visitors with very serious faces that, ‘angels still live in this church.’
Sagalla’s appeal extends into its language (kisagalla). Like Spanish, it flows melodically, like Hebrew, it has an occasional throaty thrust and like English, it is plain yet deep.
Kisagalla has a lot of similarities with Swahili, Kenya’s national language. This is because Swahili, a fusion of Arabic and Bantu dialects, was born in the coastal region of Kenya which Sagalla is a part of.
Cheery good mornings (waukamana), always usher in the bright, cool days. As for the cold, warm nights, lala mana is the goodnight that welcomes them.
Since sagalla is not a typical tourist destination, it has no big or even medium-sized hotels. ‘But our doors and arms are always open for visitors’ Mzee Kodi, a fifty year old man who lives at the foot of Goe hills says warmly.
Important Sagalla Numbers
· 327 – The distance in kilometres from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city to Voi.
· 158 – The distance in kilometres from Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city to Voi.
· 20 – The distance in kilometres from Voi to Sagalla
· 22,812 – The combined size of Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks
· $2 – Transport from Voi to Sagalla in a matatu (public minibus)
· $3.5 – Transport from Voi to Sagalla in a motorbike
· $15 -25 – Bed and breakfast at Mwamunga’s cottages near Sagalla forest. This is the only places in Sagalla that offers lodging.
How do I get to Sagalla from Nairobi or Mombasa?
Take a public bus then alight at Voi. From Voi to Sagalla, you can grab a matatu or a motor bike. The matatu is a safer bet although it can only leave Voi once it has filled all the 14 passenger seats. If you are really in a hurry, you can just pay for all the remaining empty seats.
Where do I sleep in Sagalla?
In a bed… Okay, on a more serious note, the only place that offers paid accommodation is at Mwamunga’s cottages, which is near Sagalla forest. It is cool and quiet.
Can I stay with host families?
You definitely can. Sagalla has a history and experience of hosting both short term (3 – 5 weeks) and long term (3 – 12 months) volunteers from all over the world. Peace Corps volunteers from the US have also stayed in Sagalla on different occasions over the years.
What else do I need to know about Sagalla
There have been no reported Ebola cases in Sagalla and there has never, ever been a terrorist attack there. It can get quite cold in Sagalla, so carry warm clothes.
One more thing, how are the people there?
In one word, awesome. In two words, very cordial. In three words, like other people. Just come with an open heart and open mind. People tend to reflect back the vibes that they feel from others.
I arrived in Tunis together with several other participants from East Africa. They were all from the NGO world and although I had never met them before, we networked quite well during the journey. This showed the power of the World Social Forum in connecting people.
Upon arrival in Tunis, we waited at the airport for about one hour for our visa, changed our money and left for our respective hotels. I left for my hotel together with Jackie from Tanzania. Along the way, she told me about a pre-World Social Forum meeting that she would be attending. The meeting would be discussing a debt-free world. I was also intrigued to learn that she worked with an agricultural organization in Morogoro, Tanzania. As I am a farmer myself and interested in the role of agriculture in nurturing sustainability, we had an interesting discussion about this.
Thus it was that by the time I checked into my hotel in the centre of Tunis, my networking was already in high gear.
This was my first time in Tunisia but my second time in North Africa as I had previously visited Egypt. I naturally found myself comparing the two countries and found one of the key differences to be in attire. The ladies in Tunisia were quite liberal in their dressing and I could count those who were wearing the hijab, the face veil that was common in Egypt and even in the coastal part of my own country Kenya.
The following day after arrival, I began to meet fellow delegates from RITIMO, the French network that had facilitated my participation in the Forum. Over breakfast, I had a lively discussion with Laura from Brazil. We later met the RITIMO staff and for the rest of week, they became like family. Despite the language barrier, I enjoyed their company as I found them to be easy going, or in lugha ya mtaa (Swahili for street language), they keep it real.
The following day, I got a chance to meet almost one thousand RITIMO delegates where I gave a short passionate speech on the need for Africa to forge a common African language that should be taught across the continent. I suggested Swahili or Yoruba as they are the most widely spoken languages on the continent. I would prefer Swahili because it is spoken in more African countries than Yoruba. In July 2004, Joaquim Chissano the then Mozambique President and Chairman of the African Union (AU) gave his farewell address in Swahili in order to remind the continent of the need to promote African languages and identity.
This language potential was driven home two days later when I shared a taxi with Nicole and Eric from the Democratic Republic of Congo (the land of the great Patrice Lumumba). They speak French and I speak English, so we couldn’t use these two languages. But like me, they speak Swahili so we had a great time speaking in Swahili. Unfortunately, also with us in the taxi was Makaila, my fellow RITIMO delegate from Chad. He only speaks Arabic and French so he couldn’t participate in the conversation.
Makaila is an eminent blogger who is now living in France because he became persona non grata in his country because he writes it as he sees it, without massaging the egos of authorities. Despite the language barrier between us, we became very close due to our mutual passion for Mama Africa. He became my brother from another mother and we shared a lot of our dreams and frustrations.
It was also great to finally meet Moussa Coulibally from Mali. I had corresponded with him on the Indymedia mailing list for many years. He too proved to be a passionate son of Africa who just wants to make a difference in his country and continent. I also met with Bintou another Indymedia member from Mali. I had first seen her during the RITIMO evening party and was impressed by her speech on the rights of domestic workers in Mali.
Bintou, Moussa and I together with Sphinx from Cameroon, Gretchen from Canada and Norm from the US held an Indymedia Africa meeting one rainy evening. It was a very fruitful meeting and poor Sphinx had the difficult task of switching between English and French so that we could all be on the same page. After this meeting, I joined Gretchen and Sphinx for a drink at a different location. This was a very interesting time because I learnt from them a lot about Indymedia’s early days. It was nice knowing more about those heady days in Seattle when this grassroots media network was born with a cry for freedom.
Despite its shortcomings in nurturing participation of grassroots movements, the World Social Forum remains an invaluable platform for regional and global networking. For me, this networking was particularly strong at informal levels since some formal sessions were a bit too official and rigid for me. As a bonus, I met an immensely talented young lady who has since become an ardent writer for Environmental Africa, the online platform that I founded to articulate Africa’s sustainability aspirations and overall experiences through talented African writers like Abir Farhat, the young Tunisian lady that I met at the Forum.