‘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.