28 January 2011

Tales of the Doglet: School Lane

Ollie the Doglet needs to go for a walk every day. He’d happily go for several walks, but has to have at least one. Otherwise he’ll sit on the sofa next to me (i.e. almost at eye level) and stare at me persistently with an expression that is both eager and a bit anxious. It wears you down.

These were from my old neighbourhood, on School Lane:

‘Is it a dog?’ (10-year old girl)
‘What do you think it is?’

On Matundu Lane, an older man walks towards us in a calm and composed manner. As he comes closer, he raises an eyebrow, ever so slightly, and then glances at Ollie, without breaking his stride, without really turning his head:

‘Cat?’ he says
‘No’, I say. ‘Rabbit in a dog costume’.

We both walk on.

There are always guys on bikes with crates on the back who deliver milk or bread or other goods to the small kiosks in the area. One of them – either perennially cheerful, or very proud of his knowledge of dogs, or possibly both – saw Ollie chew grass and, cycling past, called happily ‘It’s taking its medicine!’.

A few weeks later, a different corner, he threw us an exuberant ‘It’s glazing!’

Ollie was still very little when we lived on School Lane:

Find Ollie Doglet on Facebook.

26 January 2011

Tsavo in a Taxi (Dec 2005)

It had seemed a reasonably straightforward idea at the time, in October. Rather than buy four tickets to fly from Nairobi to Lamu in the peak season, hire one vehicle (because they are always ‘vehicles’ and never cars) and drive. So I had left my trusted taxi driver Samuel with such instructions when I left in October, and felt sorted about it. By the time I was back for Christmas, things had turned a little more interesting: According to Samuel, hiring a van would have been very expensive indeed and also a bit uncomfortable – who wants to do that long drive in a matatu, after all? Hiring a proper four-wheel drive would have extortionately expensive as it was, well, high season. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of why Samuel hadn’t done the booking in early November, but it was too late anyway. As we were planning to leave on Thursday, and it was Monday already, I took him up on his offer to use his car. A typical white station wagon with the yellow Nairobi taxi stripes on the side. Four women plus a guitar plus luggage.

One woman was then, with sufficient drama, taken off the passenger list: We had meant to pick up Denise from Nairobi airport on the way out to Lamu on Thursday morning, but for an afternoon, it looked like she might not be able to join us at all: Darfour airport, in eastern Sudan, had been summarily, and at very short notice, closed ‘for maintenance’, never mind the scheduled flights. Eventually, her travel agent had worked unspeakable magic and found her a flight out to Mombasa, and then managed to book the missing leg to Lamu for the next day. At the same time, I sent a text to Lorna and Mine: ‘Fancy coming to Lamu with us? Plenty of space in the house’.

It took them less than a day to agree, and they brought two new important additions: Their green-white Landrover as an additional car, and the suggestions to not follow Mombasa Road all the way to the coast, but to take the scenic route through Tsavo National Park. A bit longer to drive, but far more fun, said Mine, who should know.

On Mombasa Road
So we set off on Thursday morning, a bit later than planned, but with coffee in flasks, sandwich material, chocolate cookies, and two cars. Lorna and Mine in the Landrover, with Gillian in the back, and Kechil and myself and her guitar in Samuel’s taxi. Mombasa Road out of Nairobi goes past the turnoff for Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and is a little shabby at first – not outright potholed, but uneven, and it’s difficult to go very fast. It leads through the industrial area, dry and dirty, with rusty buildings. As the city peters out, the trucks both old and new, but all big, remain constant in both directions, a steady stream back and forth from Mombasa seaport. The landscape keeps changing slowly, dry areas, flat areas, hills at the sides, some dry-ish low vegetation. After a while, the road turns smooth and fast – thanks to EU financing, as we read from the signs. Small settlements at the roadside are often clearly geared at travellers and in particular truck drivers – and create a paint-by-numbers network of the transmission of HIV/AIDS throughout the country.

After gunning down a near perfect road for miles, the bliss reaches its end – the road hasn’t been finished all the way to Mombasa, and we need to go sideways on a much bumpier older road, with less space for the big trucks, whilst the proper road is still being extended.

Then we lose the Landrover. We’re in the wrong place and wait too long and they have passed us by, so once we’ve figured out where everyone is, we race off to catch up with them at the gate. The landscape is emptier and wider as we turn off the road to the left to Tsavo National Park gate. The guys at the gate have a look at Samuel’s car and tell us it should be ok: it has been dry for a long time. We have a picnic as we won’t be allowed to get out of the car once inside the park. We shouldn’t, in any case. Sometimes it can’t be avoided. As, for example, when Samuel’s tire goes flat just a few kilometres into the park. Brilliant, I think – we’ve only just started. With Lorna’s help, the tyre is exchanged quickly for an even more fragile one, with its profile nearly run down smoothly. I try not to worry because there’s really no point now, and on top of that, I can’t even change a tyre to save my life. But what do we do when the next one goes? There’s very little traffic in the park, and after a while, we’re out of mobile phone network coverage, too.

Through Tsavo
I soon stop thinking about this, though. Tsavo is spacious, and the earth changes from deep amber to white and yellow sand. A range of hills (large hills? small mountains?) to our left, all seemingly cut off straight at the top. Before it a river snakes its way through the park, and on its banks, despite the low water levels, vegetation is green and lush, with large palm trees swaying.

The roads are graded, but well maintained and relatively easy to drive. What grows on both sides is dry and thin. When entering the park, Mine had warned us that Tsavo elephants were notoriously bad-tempered – according to her, they charge without warning, at the drop of a hat (an elephant hat, presumably). And they mean it: they *will* follow you. I believe that it might take a few moments for an elephant to get going, given their huge mass, but don’t know how fast they can get, and certainly am not keen to test this in a Nairobi taxi. On a graded road. With the spare tyre on.

It’s in the middle of the day and scorching hot, so most animals must have decided to hide away and wait it out. A few of the usual jumpy things around – dik dik, tiny antelopes, lovely chunky larger waterbuck – and a few elephants. When we were coming down a road to a bend, we see three elephants ahead of us crossing the roads from the bush on the left into the bush on the right. We stop the car to figure out whether more were going to follow, and as the bushes on the left have stopped moving, decide to move forward carefully – just to stare a buffalo in the face. Now elephants may be bad-tempered and have a short fuse in Tsavo, but buffaloes are knows as stupid and aggressive pretty much everywhere. We pull the car back a few metres, take a deep breath, and then decide to give it a go again. All wildlife has duly disappeared into the bushes and leaves us to pass through. Bit giddy, though!

The entire drive through Tsavo is nearly 100km to Sala Gate – through the heat and dust, on rattling graded roads. The landscape opens up as the mountain ranges eases off, and the river, snaking away irregularly at some distance from the road, remains the guiding green thread through the park. We stop occasionally to catch a better glimpse of the few animals, and apparently I missed out on a group of giraffes right at the end of the road, when I was getting sleepy – but saw a family of bush pigs, tails up straight like antennae in a very un-pig-like fashion, scoot across the road.

Outside Sala Gate, we turn left after three kilometres for the Crocodile Camp where Samuel hopes to have the whole in his tyre sealed. This takes its time and is done while the rest of us sit on the Landrover in the staff quarters, watching chicken roam around, and the camp staff sitting on their doorstep watch us sit on the Landrover.

It’s late in the afternoon, and everyone is a little too mellow to expend much energy, but we know that we really should get going – even now, it is already unlikely that we’ll reach Malindi in daylight, and we have not even made any bookings for accommodation, a concern, as the coast is booked solid over the holidays. Another headache is that we initially planned to do the drive – without Tsavo – in one day, but haven’t been able to get in touch with Wildebeest, the place we have booked in Lamu. I am a bit freaked out that they will give the two ‘penthouses’ away if we don’t turn up as announced. I had earlier sent several texts back and forth with Mwangi, asking him to get us a different phone number for Wildebeest. But for now, there isn’t even any mobile phone network, so I can’t check whether he had any luck.

Sala Gate to Malindi
The road outside Sala Gate towards Malindi is really no better than the road inside the park and I feel a little uneasy when I realise that we will have to drive a major bit in the dark – is that a good idea? But there’s no choice. Lorna and Mine are speeding away, in what I take as an effort to get through the dark as quickly as possible, which does not make me feel any easier. Even though Samuel pushes his taxi to the limit to keep up with them, sometimes we can only just see their taillights disappear over yet another hilly top. Kechil and I frantically, tensely concentrate with him, and flinch every time a particularly big piece of rock hits the bottom of the car. We flinch a lot. There are a great many big stones on this road. And this is not a car particularly suited for this road, with ridges that makes it look like a giant washboard, and breakneck speed doesn’t help matters. Sometimes, the car literally surfs and glides on the raised sandy ridge in the middle of the road. I take a quick look at my phone, but we are still out of network coverage, and so I can’t tell the girls to slow down. But eventually, I get the chance to ask them myself: After more than an hour of a mad, tense race, we see the Landrover waiting for us at the roadside. In the dark, at a roadside in the middle of absolutely nowhere, that is. We may have passed the odd sign of a settlement off the road, but this still clearly qualifies as the middle of nowhere. Mine looks at us: ‘We’re finished’. It turns out that they’ve run out of petrol, and that was the reason for their speeding – trying to get as far as possible with the last drops.

So this is a bit of a crisis situation. We’re trapped in the embodiment of Africa’s ‘infrastructure constraints’: rudimentary road, no power, no street lights, no telecommunications. Well, a tiny bar on my phone display, on and off. Five women, one sturdy taxi driver, two cars full with things, darkness falling rapidly. This doesn’t look good at all. Gillian, first time ever in Kenya, in Africa, has no sense of fear, but the rest of us are getting very uneasy.

In the middle of nowhere does have a connection to the world: a matatu passes us by, but they can’t offer any help – what we are looking for is a pipe to suck some petrol out of Samuel’s taxi and put it into the Landrover, which, unsurprisingly, they don’t carry. And then, our guardian angel arrives. And he looked like Osama bin Laden – slight, bearded, skull cap, friendly eyes. More specifically, he came with this father, his two sons, and some farm workers in a pick-up truck. As soon as they had heard about our problem, they made it their own and did not relent until they had practically tucked us into our overnight accommodation: Mahadi – the Osama-bin-Laden lookalike – decides to take his car and Lorna (and Gillian, who bounces along like a puppy in search of an adventure) to the next village to see if they can buy some fuel from generators, and he leaves his father, the two boys and one of his staff with the rest of us. Samuel, in the meantime, shoots off in the other direction to see if he can find a pipe.

The rest of us just have to wait. Mine chats with mzee, Mahadi’s father, about his farm and the drought, and I decide to feed the kids with chocolate cookies. They only speak Swahili, but chocolate cookies are universal. And so we wait and wait and wait. When three slightly drunk young guys turn up and start eyeing the Landrover and the luggage, we are again reminded how easily this could have gone wrong, and are grateful that mzee engages them in a conversation and distracts them for long enough until Mahadi, Lorna and Gillian reappear – with fuel! According to Lorna, Mahadi had walked from house to house, and negotiated with everyone, and then even refused to be reimbursed for the money he spent. We’re amazed, and speechless with gratitude and relief. Just as we’re filling the fuel into the Landrover, Samuel reappears with a piece of pipe so that we can top the Landrover up some more.

Then Mahadi tells us to follow him – he’d guide us to the nearest petrol station on edge of Malindi. This is still quite a bit of a drive, but never has a petrol station looked so beautiful and welcoming to me! Of course we also still don’t have any idea where we could sleep, so he recommends Ozzie’s, furnishing us with directions, and then we waive his little group off with cheers and intense gratitude. However, that was not yet the end of it: Malindi is not very big, but of course we can’t find Ozzie’s, and stop at a small food place to ask for directions – just to run straight into Mahadi again who was buying fries for his sons. In the end, they lead us all the way to Ozzie’s where we are welcomed by a tall Muslim gentleman with a long robe, a skullcap – and a distinctly camp demeanour. Had he swooshed a feather boa over his shoulder, I would not have blinked. He hands us the keys for two rooms with flourish and tell us to use the bathrooms and showers on all floors. ‘If anyone complains, tell them I told you to!’.

Last activity that night? Shower and a stroll to a beachfront restaurant to wash out the adrenaline with a big double vodka and some food. It’s the title of Kate Adie’s (most excellent) book, but I’ll borrow it here: the kindness of strangers. It’s been an amazing gift at the end of an amazing drive.

And we did make it to Lamu eventually.

20 January 2011

Probably Still my Favouritest-Ever 419 Letter

Subject: Nigerian Astronaut Wants To Come Home

Dr. Bakare Tunde
Astronautics Project Manager
National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA)
Plot 555 Misau Street
PMB 437 Garki, Abuja, FCT

Dear Sir,


I am Dr. Bakare Tunde, the cousin of Nigerian Astronaut, Air Force Major Abacha Tunde. He was the first African in space when he made a secret flight to the Salyut 6 space station in 1979. He was on a later Soviet spaceflight, Soyuz T-16Z to the secret Soviet military space station Salyut 8T in 1989. He was stranded there in 1990 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. His other Soviet crew members returned to
earth on the Soyuz T-16Z, but his place was taken up by return cargo. There have been occasional Progrez supply flights to keep him going since that time. He is in good humor, but wants to come home.

In the 14-years since he has been on the station, he has accumulated flight pay and interest amounting to almost $15,000,000 American Dollars. This is held in a trust at the Lagos National Savings and Trust Association. If we can obtain access to this money, we can place a down payment with the Russian Space Authorities for a Soyuz return flight to bring him back to Earth. I am told this will cost $ 3,000,000 American Dollars. In order to access the his trust fund we need your assistance.

Consequently, my colleagues and I are willing to transfer the total amount to your account for subsequent disbursement, since we as civil servants are prohibited by the Code of Conduct Bureau (Civil Service Laws) from opening and/ or operating foreign accounts in our names.

Needless to say, the trust reposed on you at this juncture is enormous. In return, we have agreed to offer you 20 percent of the transferred sum, while 10 percent shall be set aside for incidental expenses (internal and external) between the parties in the course of the transaction. You will be mandated to remit the balance 70 percent to other accounts in due course.

Kindly expedite action as we are behind schedule to enable us include downpayment in this financial quarter.

Please acknowledge the receipt of this message via my direct number 234 (0) 9-234-2220 only.

Yours Sincerely,

Dr. Bakare Tunde
Astronautics Project Manager

A Jolly Good Read: Today’s Star

I had a great time with the Star this morning:

Smirk-making: '"Such action is arbitrary, autocratic and smirks of an attitude by a government that does not care about private investment", the business people said.'

I also really enjoyed the details about Ruto's attempt to shake off the ICC. His lawyer, Katwa, said: 'The court failed to rule on the substance and merits of the case and just casually dismissed it'. Possibly, I wonder, because it has no substance and merit?

And more: ICC registrar Sylvana Arbia received Ruto's application, dated 1 Dec, on 18 Dec. 'In transmitting the application to the judges, Arbia complained that it was communicated with "considerable difficulty" by Katwa.'

And then the cute story of Kalonzo Musyoka's photo gift to Hillary Clinton. Not, as I initially thought, a pic of him in a casual shirt, with his phone number and ‘call me xxx’ scrawled over it, but of Mr Musyoka with Bill and Hillary Clinton. The US administration had this to say: "Permission to retain for official use only because 'non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and US government".

Intriguing: '20 Kirinyaga pupils expelled over "immoral" tae kwondo'. Hmm!

And finally, a beautiful Imelda Marcos quote: 'When they opened Imelda's cupboards, they did not find skeletons. They only found beautifully made shoes.' Bless her.

A Year of Win!

It’s only January and the year is proving incredibly promising already on all levels, personal and professional:

'I would like we create a working relation to built each other capacity and enhance more opportunity as we increase client base.’ From the director of a modelling and casting agency. A natural fit with country risk analysis!

And possibly also romance?

‘Hows the going buddy, it gives me pleasure on my part to write to you since i happen to working in the company that you frequently contribute business annalysis on; The star newspaper. Thats quit impressive.I should commend you on how you do your annalysis and the way you present your views. Am writing to you too on purposes since am in interested in getting to know you ,This is due to the fact that am a media practioner with a biased towards business related stories.’

Yes, I'm feeling optimistic.

16 January 2011

Mobile Phones Everywhere: Horses

Today, my friend Eline came along to go horse riding in Karen. She’s ridden before, so after about half an hour on the field, Ernest sent us off with Francis, one of the stable guys. We meandered around Karen and every once in a while, I spotted Francis chatting on his mobile, whether his horse was walking or trotting. No pictures, because I always leave my phone behind when I ride.