The car used us to Ugunja from Nairobi for the beautiful 9 hour journey, would have been resting in a scrap yard if it was in any developed country, but here in Kenya, it was in prime condition. There were many cars in a worst state passing by us, but this didn’t really make me feel much better, as it really did seem that it was only the rust holding the car together. Add this to the condition of Kenya’s roads, which sadly through one corrupt minister after another, have been left to fall into a sad state of repair, and my nerves increased dramatically.
As we left Kenya’s capital, for some strange reason, the driver took a turn off the main tarmac road and started heading through local streets straight into the middle of a shanty town. It all be came apparent as the driver pulled up next to a dilapidated looking 3 story building, as our car was surrounded by 6 or so burly looking characters. Under normal circumstance I would have guessed they were mechanics, but after the amount of dirt and filth I had seen already that day, it could have been their Sunday best for all I knew.
The driver, having obviously planned this rendezvous earlier in the day, thought it would be the perfect time to let us know that the price originally quoted had now doubled. Not only this, but he wanted half of it up front before we moved an inch further. We had no choice to agree. The director of the organisation I was volunteering with started to argue, but as he did so the ‘mechanics’ took a step closer to the car. Knowing that there was no other choice the extra money was handed over, and after a few worried glances amongst my fellow volunteers, we were on our way again.
I later learnt that this shanty town was rife with members of the Mungiki sect, an outlawed terrorist group according to the Kenyan government. Only a week earlier the police had fought running gun battles with such members on the same streets, with several people losing their life. From this, I think we escaped pretty lightly losing only the equivalent of $20 per person. To be honest, I don’t know what I’m moaning about!
After such a high octane opening few hours in Kenya, I was happy to finally relax and take everything in at a slower pace. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to do this for too long as scaling the slopes of the Rift Valley (the so called birthplace of mankind), we passed a set of wheels at the side of the road, and about 30 worried faces looking down the side of the steep cliff. From the looks on their faces, very recently there had been some sort of vehicle attached to them. I remember thinking as we sped on past, that I hoped it wasn’t a bus, as I doubt many of the passengers would have survived such a fall.
Luckily, other than this, the 9 hour journey went by without incidence. We passed town after town, all of which blurred together, their identical set-up matching the previous and next towns, each centring on the hustle and bustle of the day’s market, with wooden shacks selling a vast array of fruits and vegetables, and enough spices to satisfy any Indian food lover. Street vendors fought running battles to try and sell anything from fake musical phones to Bibles to those people interested on the passing buses.
As we reached the lush Western Highlands of Kenya I was left to reflect on a journey highlighting some of the positives and negatives that seem to pull Kenya apart at the seems. The obvious negative is the huge amount of poverty, viewable through the car windows. As children walked towards their destination, their swollen bellies were viewable for all to see. Not trying to overlook this fact at all, but Kenya is a country of unbelievable beauty. The people themselves, although living at times in absolute poverty, their eyes were filled not of pain, hurt and rejection, but instead of hope and belief. This I put down to the religious nature of Kenya’s population. Having faith seems to divert fears away from the possible tragedies hiding around the corner.
We past numerous lakes, glistening in the hot afternoon sun, the most spectacular being Lake Nakuru, with a third of the worlds flamingo population nestled around the edges of the lake. So much so, that from a distance all you can see is a sea of pink. Another highlight of the journey were the tea plantations of Kericho, where Kenya’s colonial past is more than evident with fine stately homes on show set back just off the main road. As we reached Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, we were able to witness sunset over Lake Victoria. It really is true what they say about sunsets in Africa, and especially in Kenya. It was heavenly; the depth of colours that the sun and the surrounded sky and clouds radiated would have looked outrageous in a painting, let alone in real life. You could lose yourself for hours looking into it, very similar to a warm fire on a cold winter’s night.
The following morning after arriving in Ugunja I awoke to view my new surroundings. My home was a traditional mud hut, complete with thatch roof, typical of the predominant inhabitants of the area, the Luo tribe. Although it sounds idyllic, living in a mud hut in Kenya, waking up every morning to the sound of cockerels, and monkeys swinging in the nearby trees, for me it was a little too much to take in. I am sure now after more experience travelling, I would welcome such a life with open arms. Unfortunately though, going from a developed country like England with every amenity at your fingertips, to a country like Kenya, with no shower, electricity and a nice 3km walk each way to fetch your day’s water supply. Not to mention the lovely variety of insects falling on you in the night, and the termites that had made my new home their home. If this wasn’t enough, I was totally unprepared for the harsh night time temperatures and didn’t even both coming with a sleeping bag and only one pair of trousers. What should have been a dream experience was quickly becoming a bit of a nightmare.
I have to admit that all of this culture shock (and poor planning on my part!) was too much for me to handle and after three sleepless nights of listening to termites slowly eating their way through the thatch roof and a couple of lizards running over my shivering legs, covered by a makeshift blanket of towels and all of my unworn clothes, I decided enough was enough and admitted defeat, moving to brick built lodgings nearer to the town centre. This was luxury compared to the mud huts, coming complete with running water, shower and electricity. I really felt like this was a palace fit for a king, even if my room was no bigger than a shoe box.
Looking back, although I sometimes regret moving out of my mud hut to more comfortable surroundings, I know at the time it was the best decision to make and led to a much more enjoyable experience that if I was to have roughed it out in my original abode, getting more and more depressed and homesick by the hour!
This story continues in A Rude Awakening – Part 3.