Thursday, 12 February 2009


Here is an extract from my as-yet-unpublished travel memoir, The Honorary Mzungu:

But the holidays beckoned and while the girls headed home for cheese, Eastenders Christmas specials and tinsel, Katie and I boarded an early morning flight to Nairobi. From River Road, one of the most dangerous roads in Nairobi, we took an incredibly bumpy bus west towards Lake Victoria and a town called Kisumu. The bus was over 8 hours long, through all manners of terrain, from mountainous to rural to shanty. The roads were all back-breakingly shaky and uneven. The bus driver, sick of trying to avoid the alarming array of pot-holes, took to driving straight through them rather than concentrate on avoiding them. It shook our spines out of alignment. Above us in the luggage racks, chickens tied into boxes bounced about and squawked when it got too much, their beaks poking through holes in the boxes. We couldn’t read as our eyes couldn’t focus through the jolts. We couldn’t play cards as they flew off our unstable laps. Eventually we gave up, tried talking and eventually fell into a silent admiration of the countryside flying past us. We stopped in Naivasha for samosas and toilets. We passed through long stretches of expanse. We neared Kisumu as darkness encroached.

We arrived in Kisumu, tired and worn and unused to being still. I retrieved our backpack from the boot of the bus. Katie and I looked around for a taxi. The bus driver glared at me and screamed at me in Swahili, like I had done something wrong. I shrugged at him dumbly and smiled. I couldn’t help him. He continued to shout. We tried to understand each other but he wouldn’t lower his voice and I couldn’t pick out any of his words as I had shamefully not made much attempt to learn Swahili. I felt so Brit-abroad. We walked out of the bus station towards the main road assuming we would find a taxi to our hotel. On the main road, I stepped forward to hail tuk-tuks screaming past us.

“OI! STOP IT! YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” I heard a scream behind me and whirled round to find a young boy trying to rip Katie’s handbag from around her head. The bag was around her neck so every time he yanked it fiercely, he only pulled her towards him, so savagely that she bit him on the nose at one point. I ran to her aide, grabbed the bag, containing her passport and half our funds for the week and wrestled it from his hands. He grunted and looked fiercely at me, flaring his bit nostrils and pulling the bag to his chest. Katie started to acquiesce and tried to take it off from around her neck as he was getting nowhere yanking it off her. He continued to pull though. I continued to wrench it back, on autopilot. A crowd gathered and stared at our violent stalemate. The boy dropped the bag into my hand, punched me square in my beautiful nose and ran off. A security guard blew his whistle and ran off after him.

Katie and I walked off quickly trying to find a taxi. The gathering crowd looked shocked. One asked if we are okay. We screamed that we are fine and that they should have helped us. My nose was bleeding freely all over my face and the back of my throat was tinged with blood. I coughed and cleared my throat on to the ground in bloody sputum. Katie and I walked off. We stomped out of the gathered crowd, our faces screwed at any other tryers. Katie tripped on the steep sharp curb, twisting her ankle as she fell off it. She burst into tears. I pushed people back away from us. I helped her up. She limped on. I could see car lights. People swarmed around us, a protective useless shield. In our states, we glared at them, too little too late. A man asked if we needed help finding a tuk-tuk. He led us in the direction we were walking in, down the deserted main road. We eventually found a tuk-tuk. My face was covered in blood. My beautiful nose throbbed. The tuk-tuk driver drove us two streets to our hotel and overcharged us in our hour of need. Opportunism. Thanks.

In our hotel, the apologetic hotel clerk found me some ice and some bandages for Katie. He apologised profusely for such an event, imploring us to not think Kisumu was dangerous.

In our room, we addressed my nose and dressed Katie’s ankle with some ice and we ate cold sandwiches and marvelled at our luck that the would-be mugger didn’t have a knife or worse and also that he didn’t get the bag, which contained all Katie’s money and passport and other useful bits like make-up and a reading book I hadn’t had the chance to consume yet.

I read the Lonely Planet’s dangers and annoyances section about Kisumu as we huddled together in our room, united against the outside world. It warns us against steep curbs and glue-sniffing purse-snatchers. Why oh why did I gloss over that bit in the shaky coach?

Our night was fraught with fear and paranoia. The drip-drip of taps and the tap-tap of shoes and the coo-coo of birds and the creak-creak of rooms and beds surrounded us. We whispered to each other frightened. Should we go home? Were we safe? Was everyone under suspicion? All those friendly warnings our paranoid Asian friends gave us, were they all true? Was Africa safe? Did we need to return to England? Would we be safer on the streets of fashionable Brixton, where we used to live? Of course, walking out of a bus station lamenting your disorientation and the lack of taxis and wearing a big Western tourist backpack did scream vulnerable but still, why us? We felt like victims.

The next day we got up feeling miserable. Both of us had dreamt about being attacked by unknown forces in various guises and scenarios. I went downstairs to enquire about buses back to Nairobi as we were considering just going home to the sunny safety of Mombasa. Ahh, the beach, the sea breeze, the dodgy cops, and Cinemax… lovely lovely Cinemax. It felt so far away.

As I related our tale to the worried receptionist, an American lady who overheard me approached us and told me she was a relief nurse and would look at Katie’s ankle and my nose. My nose was fine, she told me, just emotionally scarred. Katie had twisted her ankle. The nurse dressed the ankle tightly and gave her some tiger balm to ease the swelling. We decided we needed to regain our adventurous mojo so took a stumbling walk around the town in the daylight in an attempt to demystify the air of dark forces by facing them in the daylight. Unfortunately, it was foggy and cold and everyone stared at us menacingly. Kids followed us, sucking on bottles of booze, their eyes glazed and fiercely red. There was a menacing air around us. Everything seemed shut. We did not like this place. We contemplated going home the next day. Katie suggested a field trip out of the town to a fishing village on Lake Victoria to raise our spirits, as we could go back that day. We hopped in a hotel-sanctioned taxi and headed to Dunga, by Hippo Point, on Lake Victoria.

Dunga was tiny and thin, on a long stretch of road. People were surprised to see Western faces pass through and all stopped to look at us. The kids were fascinated and smiled at us, shouting ‘how are you?’ as we hobbled past. We cut up the coast of the Lake towards a beach resort where we were spotted by a bunch of playing kids. Two of them stopped, fixated by Katie and they ran up to her. They stopped in front of her and she greeted them with a smile. They touched her skin, fascinated by its whiteness. One of them rubbed a mole on her arm. One kid was playful, funny and full of giggles. The other had a distended stomach, bites all over his face and legs and an unhappy grimace. He was extremely clingy. He took to Katie and grabbed her little finger with his entire small hand, melting our hearts. The other kid did the same with her other hand and they walked silently with us as we walked to the beach resort. Everyone we passed laughed at them, obviously knowing who the children belonged to. There was no fear here, like in Britain where we fear the paedos and the crack so we lock our children up in front of Playstations and Sky Plus boxes. Here, children were free and if they wanted to escort two fearful Westerners to a hotel on the Lake, then that’s what they would do. No one tried to sell us anything, no one hassled us, everyone just smiled and laughed. Mostly because we were walking, Katie was hobbling in a comedic way and there was no barrier of a car.

The unhappy kid eventually grabbed my little finger as well and we became a huge walking family. Our fears started to dissipate. These children were melting our hearts. I considered doing a Madonna and adopting one. When we arrived at our destination, it took some effort to disconnect ourselves from the kids. We considered taking them inside for a snack but disapproving looks from the doorman made them scarper before we could challenge the social taboos. We had a drink of tea inside and marvelled at this oasis of luxury in the middle of a poor fishing village.

Later, we went up to Hippo Point on Lake Victoria, which was the best place to see hippos in this part of the lake. We got on a rickety wooden boat with some other Kenyan tourists and a man I swear to this day was Sir David Attenborough, and we paddled out on to the Lake. Katie and I were careful to try not get too splashed by the water as it was notorious for being full of snail-parasites. We saw hippos and monkeys and fishermen. A hippo reared its head not far from the boat and started to give it chase, giving us a momentary panic. Everyone, it seemed, was out to get us. Through conversation with one of the guides on the boat, we discovered that Kisumu was changing. It used to be a thriving port town, but now there was nothing, no industry, no work and children, with no hope of future employment, were turning more and more to robbery and drink. He said that all the kids in the street had the dead red-eyes of glue-sniffing and they were ruthless. He told us we were lucky. He told us of two incidents of vigilante justice in the last year: One, where a would-be mugger was shot by the guy he was trying to mug. Another, where a would-be mugger tried to mug a Japanese tourist. The Japanese tourist broke his arm first and then gave him the money anyway. Pure badass. The guide marvelled at our luck that the would-be mugger didn’t have a knife or worse. The sun shone off Lake Victoria as we sailed, the water itself was brown with mud and contained potentially violent hippos or parasites, but it was so beautiful. We watched monkeys swing from sausage trees to scoop up handfuls of water. We watched the far-off glimmer of Tanzania. We saw ghosts of a former industry left to ruin in favour of road-destroying lorries. We soon returned to land.

After a restorative trip around Hippo Point and an encounter with police asking our boat for money to let us hit land, we felt like we were getting that spirit back, that adventurous fire. So we checked out of our hotel and drove up with a taxi driver to Kitale in the north. We were too chicken to take a matatu north. We passed members of Luo tribes, with white painted faces, headed to towns for initiation ceremonies. Our taxi driver for the day yesterday, it turned out, was planning to drive up to Kitale anyway to take his son there for Christmas. Our temporary fear of buses and matatus meant that we offered to pay his petrol and a little extra to go with him. He agreed. As we drove out of Kisumu, we drove past an incident of mob rule. A would-be mugger was being beaten by a huge crowd of people. It was a horrible sight, one of real violence and contempt. We wondered whether to call the police, until we saw them idly standing by. Mob rule was more disturbing than actual mugging. Although, it did make me wonder whether petty theft ought to be the crime of choice for Kisumu residents. None of them seem very successful at it.

The drive to Kitale was slow and bordering on boring. The roads were smoother and Chacha, our driver had better suspension than the cross-country bus. We were rising up and up into the Western Highlands and it was getting colder and colder. Along the way, we drove through 10 separate police check-points. We were stopped at 3 different ones, so the police could walk around the car and spot something wrong. Only once did a policeman manage to spot something wrong, which was the licence plates. Our driver had all the correct official paperwork showing why there was a problem with the licence plates and that it was in the process of getting sorted. The policeman caused a fuss though, and in the end, for the sake of ease, the driver gave him some money to not be difficult and we pressed on. The driver noted to us that even when you are in the right, if they want to cause a problem they will, the easiest option was to always just give them money and move on. They could cause a fuss about anything, and they would. Who would you rather? The cops or the robbers, I wondered? Police and thieves, the age-old reggae question…

In Kitale, we were dropped off in the middle of town where we wondered about for an hour taking in this bustling tiny little place. After consuming a plate of chips, we found reasonably-priced transportation to 20 km out of Kitale, a farmhouse near an equatorial swamp we wanted to visit. The farmhouse was owned by Mad Jo’s mum. Mad Jo’s mum was away so we were dealing with Mad Jo. An eccentric 50 year old ex-pat spinster with a growth defect on her arm, a shrill voice and a career in meddling, she was constantly making and changing plans for us. She was short with wild stringy mousy blonde hair, which her short arm would sometimes get caught in and she would flounder to free herself. Her constant flicks of her stringy hair usually caused the clasping. She was bossy and confusing and commanding and irritating all at once. She greeted us with a barrage of confusion about where we would be sleeping. She had so far neglected to email us a current tariff for staying with her, so when we arrived and found out how expensive the rooms were, we immediately downgraded ourselves to a tent at the back of the farmhouse. We also found out that the farmhouse was not walking distance from the swamp, as inferred in our guidebook, but a good 6km away. The tariff also hinted at hidden costs. She offered us tea and cake, which we accepted, weary from a day’s travelling and haggling with local law enforcements. She was gracious and we were thirsty. She told us she would only accept cash as cheques were useless in Kenya. This was without us engaging her in any conversations about payment. On seeing the tariffs, we started to worry about how much cash we had left. During a relaxing tea and cake, she started hustling us to take a walk of the surrounding area. She coerced us into paying one of her guides -but paying him through our final bill, so she could take her cut obviously- on taking us for this walk. She was colonial in the extreme. She had communicated with me through a dozen phone calls triple-confirming we were coming. She had earned the moniker Mad Jo. She was a master of the guilt-trip. We were a bit annoyed at her subtle coercion but it ended up being an entertaining walk.

We walked. The guide tried to flirt awkwardly with Katie, asking her if he could come visit her in the UK. He told me about his love for Wayne Rooney. We met all the local children, who ran up to us to say ‘how are you?’ and begged us to take their photo, which we did and showed them the results immediately on the camera screen. They were amazed and shrieked that they were now inside a camera. We saw fields of tea plants and fields of guava and avocado trees and coffee plant orchards and found it outside our frame of reference that this stuff was just there, growing. It had seemed in the realms of the exotic before. This was stuff you saw over-packaged in supermarkets. Here, it grew wildly and here it was farmed and here it was a normal sight. The kids kept coming, thick and fast, fascinated with Katie’s skin. When she replied to their ‘how are yous’ we found that they couldn’t reply, so we switched to our pidgin Swahili and they were amazed that we could speak their Daviduage. Later Mad Jo chided the guide for not shooing the children away and we defended him, saying it was the best part of the whole experience. We had our first hot showers in months and went up to her colonial farmhouse for our expensive half-board dinners. She put on a huge three course meal with options for meat-, fish- and vegetable eaters. There was an abundance of food. She had three smiley Kenyan servants who she commanded through the use of a bell on the table that she rang abruptly when things came to mind. We found it embarrassing, as did the other guests, an amiable Dutch family, staying there. We all smiled at the servants and tried to communicate to them with our eyes and our ‘thank yous’ and ‘pleases’ that we were sorry Mad Jo was so bossy, and a bit Victorian England in her treatment of them. No one should be summoned by bell. There was no upstairs and no downstairs here. Status remained important here.

We went to sleep that night, in an outside tent, freezing, with hot water bottles, creepy crawlies dropping by, strange moonlit sounds echoing around us. We huddled in one of the tent’s single beds, shivering and trying to fall asleep in the pitch black surroundings.

The next day in the farmhouse, we were bombarded with a full English breakfast to set us up for the day. Over breakfast, we agreed with the Dutch family to all go to the swamp together the next day. That way, they could drive us and we could split the charge of the expensive swamp guide, much to Mad Jo’s annoyance. She was haemorrhaging money here. She attempted to convince us that the Dutch family’s car was too small and we were imposing on them, but we ignored her. She repeatedly checked with them whether they minded us tagging along. They told her it was fine. She told us we were being rude. We said it was fine. She saw the money she was losing set aflame in her mind’s eye and sloped off to assert some power over someone. Minutes later, we heard shouting from the kitchen.

Saiwa Swamp is famous for being the home of evolved antelope that are now semi-aquatic and spend their time submerged in water, so we were anxious to see this natural anomaly.

We headed out with flirty Benson, the guide from yesterday to a nearby waterfall. We took a matatu to the next village where we caught a taxi up to the hills looking up towards Mount Elgon on the Ugandan border. There, we trekked down towards a waterfall. Benson was more subdued today. He mentioned something about a telling off from Mad Jo about letting us near the locals. We said we would put in a good word for him. Katie reassured him. He said it was better to not say anything at all. She was good at twisting words, he thought. As we started to descend towards the edge of the waterfall, my vertigo kicked in. I started to feel like the wind was pushing me towards the edge, calling me to jump or fall into the expanse before me. I was being dragged down and to the side. My legs were shaky and my mind was all over the place. Katie and Benson continued down to the edge, while I sat in a field of grazing cows and tried to calm down a little. I breathed in and out; I slow my breath down to a regular beat and wrote some quick thoughts down in a notebook braving the elements. They soon returned and we walked back to where we left the taxi, to find that the taxi was no longer there. There was a trail of tyre scrapes and nothingness into the distance.

Our guide lost his cool and started cursing the taxi driver. He was supposed to be a friend of Benson’s, but he had driven off, leaving us stranded in the hills, next to a scenically colourful Pentecostal church where they were singing in a multitude of Daviduages from English to Swahili to Latin, and a red soiled dirt track. Plus, the driver had driven off with Benson’s only waterproof jacket. He was not happy. His cool flirty façade slipped. He seemed a lot more real in that moment. His genuine annoyance was in stark contrast to the polished jovial flirty guide that Mad Jo had been training up since he was 13.. We trekked 2 miles back up to the main road and waited for passing cars to stop and assist us.

Some kids came out to play with us. Their mad dad soon joined them, wild dreads under his beret, slightly insane tone to his English accent, he was a wonderfully colourful character. He laughed at our predicament when Benson explained it to him. He laughed at us and offered to take us to his home, which was behind us, women peering out of windows at these strange strangers. The surprise always came when we weren’t in cars. Used to walking, tubing and cycling everywhere, it was normal for us to walk five/ten/fifteen minutes down the road. Going to the internet café every morning, I found everyone smiling at me, actually walking, actually outside. We declined as we were waiting for the possibility of cars on this remote road. Pigs squeaked, long grass swayed, shacks surrounded, there was nothing else for miles around. This was a gloriously beautiful spot, away from anything that offered Western comfort. I felt that fleeting pang of being in Africa. This is realer than Nyali, I kept thinking. T-I-A… This Is Africa. The mad dad kept us company. He asked where I was from. I replied, ‘England’ and he told me he didn’t believe me. I didn’t look white. I ran him through the condensed history of me, through the gamut of my parent’s origins in India, Kenya and Aden and he laughed and said that I could not say I was an international person because it was obvious my heart is in England, so I must be English. He said, it’s important to know where your heart feels most at home. He winked at me and let this sage advice sit with me. He looked at Benson and told him he could help us with our stranded predicament.

He called his brother-in-law who owned a taxi, and half an hour later, he arrived to pick us up and drive us back to the village where we got the original taxi from.

In the village, Benson seethed and said he needed to wait for the taxi driver to re-emerge so he could get his jacket back. Katie and I decided to go back to the farmhouse and told Benson to point us to the right matatu and leave us to it, as he lived near this village and it made no sense to us for him to drop us off and come back again on a pointless round-trip. We had taken matatus before. We could cope. He explained that he couldn’t let us go back alone, and he certainly couldn’t bring us back early as Mad Jo would be angry. We told him that either way it was our choice what we wanted to do as it was our holiday. We said that we would go back but he should just go home. He protested, saying that Mad Jo would tell him off for allowing us to go home unaccompanied. We noted aloud that she sounded like a difficult boss. We could do what we wanted. If we felt comfortable going back, surely we could. It would be a 90 minute round-trip for him. It was pointless. She sounded crazy. His knowing smile spoke volumes. We decided to wait with him for the taxi driver who had stranded us, so Benson could get his jacket back. We waited an hour, walking through the narrow rural markets, picking through charity shop clothes from the UK and US, marvelling at the New York chic second-hand shop dream t-shirts in front of us, wondering if we could make a killing on Brick Lane with T-shirts advertising the Alabama Hawkwinds and Joe’s Diner and Bob’s Repair Shop and every generic profession and small-town football town that ever existed.

The taxi driver eventually returned. This lead to a tense showdown between the taxi driver and Benson. Benson climbed into his car and they had a heated argument. Benson grabbed his jacket and wrenched it in his clenched fists. Benson, looking like he may lash out at the driver, caught sight of us in the corner of his eye, remembered himself, wrenched his jacket out of the car and led us away, grinding his teeth. He told us that the driver’s excuse was nothing more than ‘I didn’t know if you would be coming back.’

Back at the farmhouse, we met a new arrival, an American called Jenny travelling on her own. Mad Jo approached Katie and ordered her to make friends with Jenny, ‘unless, of course, your boyfriend values his privacy too much’ she added snidely, referring to my argumentative ways. Jenny was travelling alone and came to the farmhouse on the same pretext that we did, that it appeared close to the swamp. We learned that since her arrival Jenny had also been subjected to some Mad Jo-isms in the last hour. She had been banned from coming to dinner tonight as this would upset the table arrangements already laid out. She could have soup as long as she was finished 30 minutes before we wanted to start. She could however sit in an armchair by the fire. The look in Mad Jo’s eyes when Jenny moved the armchair around to face the dinner table could have floored a hippopotamus in hot pursuit. She has also been forbidden from going to the swamp with the Dutch family and us the following day, or even asking permission as this would disturb the other guests. This would not be appropriate. Mad Jo sent us over some tea and cake while Jenny related all this to us.

Over dinner, we learned more about Mad Jo. She was not in Saiwa out of choice. Her mum was ill, and so she has been summoned from the coast to help with the running of the farmhouse as her mum refused to move. Mad Jo had now been here since 1997. She grew up in Kenya. Mad Jo’s family were some of the original settlers. They were now the only ones left in the area and Mad Jo’s father had helped to turn the swamp into national parkland. We started to understand, but not accept, her Victorian attitude to servitude and money a lot better now that we knew that she was not in fact an ex-pat. She was the generational remnants of a white colonialist, one of the originals and one of the last few remaining. This did not excuse the horrid attitude she carried towards her black staff, nor the rigid way she insisted those around her conducted themselves.

During dinner, the Dutch family invited Jenny to come with us all to the swamp, as it made no sense paying three different guides when we could all pay one. Mad Jo’s face turned sour, turning green with the colour of money she would not be making through the backdoor. As we all said our goodnights, Mad Jo, in an attempt to confuse Jenny, asked her what her plans were for the next day. Jenny stated that she was going to the swamp with the rest of us. Mad Jo asked her how she planned on getting there as the Dutch family had said they had no room for her. She said she would manage somehow, deciding that ignoring her is better than fighting her on her home turf.

Saturday morning and we were up at 6am to go see these mythical semi-aquatic antelope. We all squeezed into the Dutch car. Mad Jo came out to note surprise at all the tag-a-longs. She told the Dutch family she apologised for the situation and they were able to say no if they wished. The leader of the Dutch troupe told Mad Jo definitively that she personallyhad invited us all. Jo watched us as we drove away twirling her hair with her shorter arm, chewing her bottom lip.

After a trek around a park disturbing the mythical evolved creatures, we returned to the farmhouse, packed up and settled up with Mad Jo. We discovered that Mad Jo had been sneakily charging us for all those benevolent cups of tea and pieces of cake. We would have to we pay her by cheque as we did not have enough cash. The hidden costs she had added pushed us over the budget for the rest of our entire trip. We still had 4 days to go. She made us add a handling charge, and a service charge for all her staff. She tried to test my honesty by writing the wrong number of beers down on the bill, before questioning me on how many I drank, just to see what I would say. I couldn’t remember and had assumed the beers were part of the exorbitant cost. She caught me out, as I was unable to remember, it being her responsibility to keep tabs not mine.

‘I can’t remember. Three?’

‘I think it was more like four wasn’t it?’

We paid, worried about cash and head back into Kitale.

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