Star Date: August 2009
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"Letter from Africa", Karen Blixen - 1914, I am reinvigorated...tanned by the sun, full of the spectacle of it's savage splendor, free, powerful along days of dazzling heat and nights of intense moonlight...nature in the raw. Life worthy of the beginning of time, the same today as it was a thousand years ago.
Indescribable. Words don't do justice to the dusty frontier town of Lodwar, in northwestern Kenya. Out of the swirling dust emerge mirage-like images produced by the intense, rippling sun. Tribes people of every description walk slowly by on their way to market. Everything from goats to beads to chickens to wrist knives to baskets to boiled eggs are passed in front of you, hoping to sell their wares and make a few bob to spend while in the 'big town'. Turkana tribes people browse the sparse but fascinating market or meet under the heavenly shade of a tree. Turkana women with shaved heads or short mow hawks, ceremonial scars cut on their faces, arms and trunks, colorful cloths partially covering their breasts, and distinctive heavy bead collars wrapped around their necks are a sight to behold. Tall elegant Ethiopians with fair skin walk beside Sudanese and Somali Muslim women with heads covered. Out in the marketplace Joseph met Andrew, of the Turkana tribe. He was raised at Elles Spring, our next destination, a small village along the shores of mighty Lake Turkana. No public transportation exists down the desert track, but he knew of Reverend James who was heading back home later in the afternoon. Piling into his old land rover we headed out into the desert, driving through desolate stretches towards, it seemed, the end of the earth. There was a stark, silent beauty as we slowly made our way through the surreal surroundings. Occasionally we would come across a lone goat herder taking his flock on their daily 20 km trek for water. Isolated villages, like someone's favorite basket collection, were huddled together for safety and companionship.
While the beating sun gave way to the golden
rays of sunset we watched as bare breasted women adorned with
colorful collars of beads carried babies on their backs,
balancing heavy containers of water on their heads. Sometimes
the nearest source of water is 5-10km. Cows and
goats were rounded up into enclosures and the welcoming glow of
cooking fires signaled the completion of another day
battling the elements of this harsh climate. Rev James, from a
tribe in eastern Kenya,
basically drove 4x4 overland, avoiding extreme areas and pits of
deep sand. Only 8 kms. from Elles Spring, just as the spectacular orange
ball set on the horizon behind the acacia trees, we bogged down up to the rims in a deep
pocket of blowing sand. Not wanting to spend the night
in the truck everyone kicked into gear and with the help of pushing
and the 'old land rover that never dies', we escaped and drove quickly
through the rest of the sand lying in wait to swallow up unwary
vehicles. We made it! But where were we? As
darkness descended we saw that we were surrounded by grass huts
and tribal compounds. Villagers stopped by to stare and wave.
Pastor James explained that there isn't a town, or even a small market
this is the original site where missionaries collected water from Elles Spring and built a
small church and school. We just wish these well intentioned
community services scattered across the country didn't come with
high religious price tags attached. The villagers, desperate for water in the
ongoing drought have relocated their nomadic village around this
water source, now an elaborate system of solar pumps and holding
tanks to keep the dirt out.
Life among the Turkana tribes was an experience we shall never forget. Kind, gentle, smiling people we soon realized that they are the antithesis (opposite) of modern western culture. They live out here over 100 kms from the nearest town, and are totally self sufficient. There is nothing they need, and without electricity or TV and the bombardment of advertising, there is nothing they are told they want! Just think of it - nothing to buy! They represent the opposite of the consumerism that is ruling our culture. Nomadic pastoralists, they build a village out of native brush and grasses, rebuilding every 2 years due to voracious termites, like the ones living in 40 ft. high clay chimney-like mounds that dot the landscape. Unique upside down bushel basket huts are scattered around small compounds, enclosed by fragile fences woven from thorny branches off the only trees tough enough to survive here. Smaller sleeping huts and open topped cooking enclosures complete the design. Like the Masai, they traditionally don't pierce Mother Earth and live entirely off their domesticated animals and the occasional gathered herb or plant. Total sustenance is comprised of cow, goat or camel milk and blood for breakfast. Warm milk is squirted into a decorated gourd, a small dart pierces the vein in the neck of an animal and small spurts of blood are caught in the milk. A quick blending and this strawberry blood/milk shake is ready. The first version of a 'Slimfast shake'. I would get real slim, real fast if that was my only choice. Fascinated nonetheless, we passed on our chance for a taste. A second meal, in the evening would be meat if available or possibly chapatti type flat bread or grains, if someone has sold a goat in town and traded for staples. Otherwise an instant replay of the old standby blood shake satisfies them as they talk and joke around the cooking fire. This bleak diet, hard work, and endless walking serves them well as many elders live into their nineties, while those having moved into town have a life expectancy of the national average of around 48 to 56. Polygamists, it is common for a man to gather up his resources of goats, camels or cows and start looking for yet another wife. He can often be sighted with a white feather in his hair or hat, like a peacock looking for a peahen. If the price is right young brides of 10-16 years are married off to older men in elaborate ceremonies of singing and dancing. Brides (sometimes with their approval nowadays) are purchased for 25-50 head of livestock. We were told you can 'rent' a wife for only 20 goats. Maybe it's a lay away or pay as you lay plan. Wonder how many goats and camels a western woman would go for? The problem is that the women here are expected to simply say "Yes" to their men so it wouldn't be long and any self respecting western bride would be sent packing. Villagers change partners as the need arises, usually after a tribal council is held. We witnessed a heated debate complete with shouting and sticks waving, between a husband accused of beating his wife and the wife and her family. After over 4 hours everyone finally sat down and waited for the wise words of the elders.
Ceremonies are held as the
boys and girls come of age. Circumcision of boys or
girls is not practiced by the Turkanas, but 2 bottom front teeth are
pulled from the girls mouth, and patterns are cut into their faces,
arms and trunks, leaving behind intriguing decorative scars.
Men become warriors after training and as things are quiet here now
battles with neighboring tribes are rare occasions. If during
battle they kill an enemy certain cuts are made on their trunks to
record the event. Other scars are from practices by the
tribe's healers of making a cut and packing herbs in the incision, healing
Death is a way of life out here. Livestock are dying from lack of water and without this spring of fresh water so would the villagers. The proud old guy with 4 wives and 'plenty cattle' lost his 30 year old daughter, mother of 4 children, the day we left. Suffering from asthma she was sick in bed for a couple of days, not eating or even drinking much. Someone brought her some new fangled cure all medicine from town. She sat up, took a couple of pills and laid back down. They found her dead 2 hours later. Asthma is related to dehydration. Who knows? Hopefully this will serve to warn others from just taking pharmaceutical medicine without knowing the side effects. She was to be buried the next day, with scripture reading by the graveside. So sad for her family. Pastor James and wife Monica have served here for 6 years and help the people greatly. Not a hell fire and damnation type he is careful not to push his ideas on others. His service to the community speaks loudly and owning the only vehicle for 60 kms. (a gift from a friend) he provides rides to town twice a week, with everyone pitching in for gas. We beat every bush in search of a fishing boat to hitch a ride across the lake to Loyangalana, but they were all far away catching the big Nile perch, famous in the lakes of Kenya. Even though we had to backtrack to Lodwar, for another couple of days of people watching, our trip out here was one of those rare astonishing experiences that just happened. 'Asanti sana'. Thank you.
With only night buses available back down to Kitale we hitched a ride south with the first truck going our way. George, our driver and a gentle soul, had just spent a week fumigating weevils from bags of grain at nearby Kukuma Refugee Camp. With over 40,000 plus displaced persons it is a massive project by Oxfam, World Vision, USAide, etc. to simply feed these desperate folks, as more stream in across the desert. Many die of hunger or exhaustion en route over the hundreds of miles from their war torn lands of Somalia, Angola & Ethiopia. Many brave, gallant workers struggle against all odds towards the survival of these refugees. Just like the hopelessness of the glue sniffing street kids lurking in the shadows of Kenyan cities, it all seems as overwhelming and futile as shoveling sand in a windstorm. With pain in our hearts at the suffering we see around us we decide once again that donating toward educating the young people of these developing countries may provide light in a seemingly dark future. Ironically this so-called 'Dark Continent' enjoys 52% of Earth's sunlight. Perhaps it should be renamed the Continent of Light as this mysterious land holds great unrealized potential.
Some of our fondest memories over the last 6 years of travel are of relaxing in a small bungalow along a remote tranquil lake, river or ocean side. After our rigorous trip down from the desert from Lake Turkana visions of relaxing at the shore Lake Baringo drew us on. The integral piece of the puzzle we once again forgot were crocodiles and hippopotamus. Both less than cordial in sharing their lakefront turf, we soon realized we were relegated to stay back in the village. Finding our clean, friendly Weaver Lodge was a bonus. The village although very meager was extremely welcoming and we spent hours hanging out with the locals in town, with the Kalenjin fishermen along the shore, and enjoying the views from the upstairs lounge of the Soi Safari Lodge. Our early morning boat ride was like opening an episode of the Discovery Channel. This vast lake provides habitat to every imaginable bird from great heron, egrets, plovers, cranes, kingfishers to thousands of colorful tweeting birds in the trees, to the grand finale of a fish eagle swooping down to pick up the fish thrown for his breakfast. Crocodiles are everywhere but villagers believe while there are enough fish in the lake, they can live peacefully side by side. The lone fishermen along the shore carry a line in one hand and a rock in the other to throw at any crocodile getting too close. It reminded us of the tiny little sticks the rangers carry while walking amongst the Komodo Dragons of Indonesia. Ineffective but it makes the holder feel safer. The fishermen in their lightweight hand woven balsa wood boats (that a boy can lift in one hand but sink after being in the water for 6 hours) throw lurking crocodiles occasional fish guts as offerings and even pat them on the head with sticks as they pass by. Out near the islands where there are less fish, it is not uncommon for a crocodile to kill a child venturing too close to the waters edge. Hippos are another story. Fascinating creatures to watch, these bulldozers of the shallows must always be given a wide berth. We kept a keen eye on the swirling water as two separate families and one mother with a 4 day old baby floated around grazing. One of the families had just changed location from the river and were sensitive to defending their new territory. Before we knew it the head male and 3 others were silently advancing underwater towards our boat. Surfacing about 15 feet away with a great roar, we had just been given our walking papers by these dangerous marauders of the African waterways. Only one male is in charge of a group of females and raucous, bloody battles to the death are often fought between males over deeper water or females. The males are so territorial that they will even kill their own male off springs left in the open by an unsuspecting mother. With the drought it is not uncommon for the hippos to venture further and further inland at night in search of grass for grazing. Groups of these tubby but assertive pillagers have even started chewing on the straw huts of sleeping villagers. Guaranteed visions of sugar plums weren't dancing in their dreams for a few nights after that close encounter.
Back up into the cool green hills to enjoy Thompson Falls, Kenya's highest, and the highlands of Mt. Kenya we ran into Wangombe and Mumbu. He is a Kikuyo medicine man or 'dagatari' and we had fun discussing herbal cures such as gathering leaves for malaria, healing tribal members of spells and ailments and about their God of Nature, 'Mgai'. In the end they invited us to their next ceremony in December. We were honored but our visa for Kenya expires in October. It would have been a real experience. Next time.
Tribalism rules life in Kenya. One of the highlights of visiting remote cultures are their unique traditional dress, religious customs, colorful music and dances. These outside trappings run deep into the fabric of life in Africa. Human nature allows groups of people to be born into or join a tribe, church, or organization, with the accompanying rules of conduct, conformity, and always some form of payment required. Unique costumes differentiate one tribe from another. A person either belongs or doesn't. Even though neighboring tribes have so much in common out here in the bush, they each feel that 'their way is the right way'. It is common in the public markets to hear comments such as, "Don't buy from him, he is a Kikuyo." or "We don't like Masai. They aren't honest and they dress funny", and so on. I offered a woman a pair of Turkana earrings as a gift but she told me she wouldn't wear them because she was of the Luo tribe. I replaced them with a pair of western hoops, made in China from the market, and she was thrilled. Conflicts of bordering tribes get played out in the larger scheme of politics as tribe members vote only for members of their tribe, not the best person for the job. We are often asked what tribe we are from and like to have a lot of fun with this. We explain that centuries ago everyone in the United States came from a different tribe. I alone am a wild mixture of Norwegian, Croatian, Irish, English and Scotch, but although we are proud of our heritage, we simply call ourselves American. Younger generations here are starting to open their minds to this change, seeing the strict tribalism and ensuing bias and violence as old fashioned. Only the elders are hesitant to give up their tight control on their members. Old ways are often replaced by new popular churches with members wearing strange cloaks, turbans, or even nun-like garbs. Just trading one hat for another. There is security in belonging as is shown by the majority of humanity belonging to organized religions. Cathedral bells call in millions of Christians Sunday mornings. Donations please. In the middle of Ramadan, with Muslim women covered in full burkas and call to prayer blaring 5 times a day from a dozen competing minarets, it is obvious that tribalism is alive and well throughout the planet. Is a western suburban neighborhood, with the overt theme of "keep up with the Jones'' any different?
Free thinkers, outside their 'tribe', are sometimes viewed with suspicion so sometimes we try to normalize our existence as we travel. Being teachers and having two children sets us in good standing. Our unique vegan lifestyle is simply because we want to be healthy. Fair enough. "Yes, we are travel junkies" but it was explained to us that the nickname for 'white people' here, 'muzungu', really means people who move from place to place to place. Tribes don't like that. Continually asked what religion we belong to we answer that "We know God and love him, whatever name he/she is given: Allah, Buddha, Enkoi, great Spirit". These simple answers seem to satisfy people's need to know. What a strange tribe. Maybe we belong to the tribe called 'of this Universe'!
You can even differentiate what tribe a person belongs to in Kenya by the way they carry their parcel. Some women carry loads on their head with amazing grace, others use a strap across their head, some carry their heavy parcels slung across their back and of course wealthy people just have someone else carry their bags. We explained to a very serious crowd of onlookers that we were from the "tribe of the rollalongs." When traveling we each own a rollalong case and are self sufficient. The crowd was pleased and this is something we use often when asked if we want help carrying our bags.
Thoughts of Africa conjure up images of wide open spaces, exotic, friendly tribes people, big game, spectacular sunrises and sunsets. The mountains surrounding the Great Rift Valley, such as Mt Kenya, are green and misty but as you descend in altitude down to the equatorial zone, vegetation thins out until you find yourself surrounded by dry savannah. Matatu rides from towns to remote villages are great places to spot wild life such as ostriches, dik dik Bambi size deer, monkeys, hyenas, zebras and a wide variety of grazing animals. Lone goat herders, 100 kms from home, stride by towards the horizon, sometimes wearing only a 'London Fog' designer raincoat, leather sandals and carrying a club and spear. Just imagine for a moment, a well-to-do European woman special orders a costly top of the line summer raincoat. Later it is discarded to the church bazaar. Unsold it gets bundled up and sent to a mission in Africa. Corruption allows these shipments to be intercepted and sold to venders for sale in piles along the dusty streets. This goat herder, having just sold 3 goats in town, spots a bright raincoat in the market. Shaking it out, he proudly dons his new acquisition and struts across the desert 20kms back to his village. Feeling cocky he even considers it may be time to look for yet another wife. World's apart yet we are all so alike.
And so it goes.........................................Next month from the green, cloudy slopes of Mt. Kenya to the tropical coast of Mombassa. Until then search out "Nature in the Raw" around you and explore it. Too far from Nature? Make the time to find it. Let's keep connected to our source, wherein the answers lie. Glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch! Take care!
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 80 Kenya Schillings
Guides: Andrew Ewoton (ride to Elles Spring), or John Esukuku. Just ask around. They seem to both be honest and very helpful for about 100-200s to make arrangements for you.
Took Fomoco Coach north to Lodwar from Kitale. The bus left at 12:30 instead of 10 and poor leg room (former Japanese tour bus). Reserve your seat the night before and go to their clean office to wait. Avoid the big mob scene of the bus station. Eldoret Coaches are older but fine too. A long hot ride but fascinating as you descend down to the desert then go through villages with indigenous people. 650s x 2 - 10 hours.
?? Palace Indian Food, one block over, great curries and nan, 11 am - 11pm. (350s main plate)
Lake Baringo/Kampi Ya Samaki:
Walk or take a matutu (20s) out to the entrance
of the falls. Go in through
the big arch leading to Thompson Falls Lodge. From there
you can enjoy something to eat in their beautiful shady front lawn
and have a look at the falls for free. If you step into the
public area it costs 200s per person. Turn left down the main
road, then right through a field, and walk back in a loop
towards town, asking where the hippos are? Locals will point
you to a pond with giant papyrus growing along the banks and a herd
of hungry hippos wallowing in the water. Fun. Bye a
roasted corn in the village and throw the cob to herd for a little
excitement. Continue along the dirt path back to the 'town
clock' (which is always 1:30pm).
Across the road from the stands is a little
coffee shop frequented by Mazungus, with great ambiance.
Pricey food but it looked copious and tasty. I splurged on
fresh apple pie. Yum!
The Ibus Hotel (across from the central park)
serves great mokimo (mashed potatoes) and fresh veg curry for only
120s. Many local places serve good local veg food: potatoes
and beans, even the butcheries if you can stand the smoke. Buy
your fresh veggies from the large green grocery across from the park
near the hotel. Great prices, fresh, and honest.