Tag Archives: Africa is a country

Welcome to Samburu County – Maralal


Last weekend, I was invited to spend a few days in Maralal. The spelling is MaraLAL, and not MaraRAL, as would be kinder on the tongue. I consider visiting a place like that a once in a lifetime opportunity because even though Maralal is about 350 km from Nairobi, it’s not exactly the kind of  place that you can go for a weekend barbecue. It’s not the kind of place you go to unless you have serious business there or you are one of those die hard tourists determined to go off the beaten path. And off the beaten path it is.

Nonetheless, Maralal is beautiful. And it is a special kind of place. The kind of Kenya we hear about on the news but can hardly conceptualize. The kind of place that foreign film crews visit to make a slice of ‘Africa’ documentaries that irritate urban Africans with digital tv. The kind of place where little girls and boys don’t swat at the flies covering their eyes and noses. The kind of place where brightly dressed morans saunter into town without anyone batting an eye.

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Heading to Maralal is cutting a line right up to Kenya’s center. From Nairobi, you drive upwards to the rift valley. Past the donkeys in Limuru and the mysterious plantations in Kijabe. Past the hysteria of Soko Mjinga and past the panoramic views at the Rift Valley View Point. Mount Suswa on your left, passenger cars and trailer trucks acting out video games on the winding road before you. You bypass Naivasha town and push ahead into Nyahururu.

You go further still and slowly the fertile hills so coveted by colonial farmers ( now little patches where thousands of Kenyans were resettled after independence, payable in installments and demarcated by redwood ciders) give way to Laikipia’s ranches and acacia trees.

Rumuruti marks the end of ‘Kenya Kenya’ and marks the beginning of what I call ‘greater Kenya’. Even before independence, that settlement marked the spot where the road abruptly shifted from the deep greens of the Rift valley and took a sharp turn into the seemingly hostile, parched pastoral lands. Where, like the colonialists before them, the Kenya government is reluctant to venture into.

The wild.

Not much has changed because just after Rumuruti town, the tarmac gives way to what is still technically a road, but really isn’t. It’s not gravel, or murram or even plain old sand. It’s hard, jagged rocks poking out from the ground and daring you to ruin your engine’s suspension. At this point, you have covered half of the journey in 2 hours. The remainder could take 4 or 5.

Laikipia

Laikipia

Now the lushness of the Rift Valley gives way to the dryness of the scrub lands. The maize plantations become less frequent and the agroforestry approved trees give way to acacias and thorny bushes. Soon the tin roofed houses give way to thatch and then to nothing at all.

The people disappear. In front of you and behind of you, is nothing but grass and the road stretching endlessly before you.

You spot a man with a herd of white cows. Where did he come from and where is he going? Because there is nothing in sight except for the road. And in the far distance, low undulating hills.

At the back of your mind, you worry. Because the Morans are now called bandits. Because now, livestock market days means that gangs of young men slinging AK47s can jump in front of your lone vehicle and bundle you out.  Because police men dare not wander out that far. And even when they do, they go in peace to negotiate with the Samburu elders. To beg them to ask their troops of thirsty young men to leave innocent tourists alone.

But you drive on. On and on; even here, reckless matatu drivers speed by in garrish minivans – the only difference is that theirs have massive ground clearance and lorry tires.

You wonder, who’s ancestors consciously decided to settle in these wastelands?

There are only two towns between the long forgotten Rumuruti and the promise of Maralal. Suguta and Kisima. Calling them towns would be generous. Like calling Nairobi a megapolis. Both are nothing more than a few shops on each side of the road. Mpesa is here though. As is coca cola and plastic bags.

Kisima is 38 kilometers from Maralal. But it will take another hour and a half. By now the scrubland ceases to be exciting. Sure you spotted a few antelope, maybe some giraffes and possibly the dark outlines of elephant herds in the far distance. At this point all you want is food and rest. And for the moment of when you will be finally be released from the rattling vehicle. Your back hurts and your legs are stiff. There hasn’t been a single petrol station or kiosk in sight for the last hundreds of kilometers.

The road that doesn't end

The road that doesn’t end

How do people survive here?

Subtly, the landscape shifts around you. The odd maize field and fenced yard appears. The first stone houses since Nyahururu begin to materialize. Buildings, too. A girls’ high school. A church. A dispensary. All brand new and presumably courtesy of the Samburu County Government.

Maralal is a typical rural town. There is evidence that the colonial government had a plan for the town. Uniform police houses surround the Maralal Police station. They are now in disrepair, the windows are boarded up and the grass has grown wild. Washing lines run between homes because people still live in them.

There is a petrol station staffed by Somalis and men from Nyeri, all chewing mogoka. Laikipia university proudly proclaims its presence with a campus housed in one building. Equity Bank, KCB, Faulu and KWFT too have laid their stakes here. Apart from World Vision, there are no visible NGOs here.

What else is in Maralal town? Where the government stopped, private developers took over. Rows and rows of tin shacks line the road, selling those brightly colored shukas and blankets so loved by the Samburus. Lots and lots of miraa. A couple of cafes selling milky tea and ‘food food’ and not nyama choma.

Boda bodas, cows and ancient cars with reckless drivers, who no longer care about the damage the brutal roads caused their shock absorbers.

The bus station, with all the accompanying seediness and chaos that bus drivers and conductors carry with them. Hidden in sight are dozens of boarding places where you can get a room for 250 bob a night. But you probably shouldn’t.

A few hundred meters out of town is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It is on 5 square kilometers of land leased from the county government. It is an animal sanctuary where guests can watch eland, zebras, impalas, bush bucks, warthogs and the odd stray cow from the comfort of the lounge.

Unlike other over the top Safari Lodges, they keep it real over there. It has recently been renovated and has shed most of it’s stiff colonial decor. Bright orange lampshades and big, comfortable couches.

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The lodge is run by a father daughter team and is host to the kind of characters you would expect to find here. KWS rangers, residents and the odd politician. The conversation too, is fitting of such a place. Nairobi is a distant memory.

Turkanas are becoming a problem, sneaking into Samburu to poach their precious wildlife. Members of parliament gave away gazetted land for private development and now the wildlife corridor is slowly disappearing.  The best way to show your wife that you love her is to give her a good beating every so often.

Kenyatta House is a little three bed roomed property managed by the National Museums of Kenya. It is remarkably well preserved and is Maralal’s long forgotten but biggest claim to fame. During the war for independence, Mzee Jommo Kenyatta spent years in jail – in Lodwar and Kapenguria, which are even more remote than Maralal.

Maralal's legacy

Maralal’s legacy

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

He spent his last year and a half under house arrest in Maralal. It must have been a big improvement because he finally had the luxury of going to town to fix his shoes. He was given a little bungalow where his wife and daughters (Jane and Christine) could live with him. He could receive groups of friends and associates. Eventually, that little house in Maralal is where the British government negotiated Kenya’s transition into an independent nation. The care taker also claims that Uhuru Kenyatta was likely conceived in that house.

Mattress ya makonge

Mattress ya makonge

Maralal represents an uncomfortable kind of truth for me. It represents the facts and the statistics that we read about but don’t understand; that Kenya is mostly arid and semi- arid, that most of Kenya is rural, that most of Kenya is barely serviced by the government. That our national symbols are less lofty than we like to imagine – miraa, mPesa and trash. And yet, where our governments fail us, we pick up.

I hated leaving Maralal. Not just because of the 8 hour drive ahead, but also because I would miss how I felt in Maralal. I would miss the lack of responsibility and obligation. The feeling of novelty and freedom. Most of all I would miss the wide open spaces. Maralal made me fantasize about living in the wild (but somehow still have access to services and convenience). It made me wish that I could own a property that I could escape to on occasion.

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How to answer annoying questions and end conversations quickly


When travelling and meeting new people, you get used to responding to a standard set of questions that come up with exhausting frequency. It usually goes something like this:

Oh so you are from Kenya? (searches brain to think of something that they know about the country.)

Nairobi, right? (blank smile on my part. I don’t help this knowledge exchange because I believe in the power of Wikipedia)

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I want to visit someday. (Great, should I call my travel agent and book you a ticket?)

Then safari, animals, language, (establishing if we speak English down there) and possibly food.

Awkward silence as I ponder on whether or not it would be appropriate to break out into a native dance.

Then I politely ask the same even though I really could not give two shits about where they come from because that’s what civilised people to to carry on the meaningless small talk and waste some time.

I’ve talked about this before, but the more I think about it, the more I realize what a terrible ambassador I am for my country. I mean, when people tell me that they want to visit, I tell them to go to the parks and to the coast.

Why?

Because tourism is an important part of our economy. So skip all the crap about wanting to know the real Kenya and just go burn some cash so that we can build ourselves some super high ways and/or buy some phantom passport making machines. Your government made this video expressly to attract people with lots of money to burn. Count how many times actual people (except for the ruggedly handsome dancing Maasais of course) feature in there:

Seriously.

When people ask me about food, I end the discussion by saying that Kenyan food places emphasis on fresh, natural ingredients cooked in an unpretentious way. And like the British, we generally eat to live and not the other way around.

Admit it, it’s true.

How about language?

Please download a copy of the Lion King. Memorize the words ‘hakuna matata‘.

Voila, you speak Swahili.

Some of the more masochistic ones will keep probing. How is the situation there? (this means, are you one of those countries busy hacking each other to death?)

Yeah, we lost our minds in 2008, I’m not sure if we will go in for round two next year.

I also generalize a lot. I say, ‘in Africa, we do this…In Africa….’ Why? It’s true that Africa is not a country. But it’s also true that we have a lot more in common than we would like to admit. Our problems are almost uniform in nature: pick a little old lady living in a village in the Gambia. Chances are, she has plenty in common with my grandmother living in Nyeri. It’s not an insult. It’s a fact.

That is what it means to belong to a race of people. Y’all have shit in common.

(And besides, were we not in love with Gaddaffi because he wanted a united Africa? Just saying…)

And please don’t talk about North Africa- they only become Africans when they are unemployed, roaming the streets causing trouble and feeling rejected by society.

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Why do I do this? Because it is very, very rare to meet someone with a genuine interest in my continent. Blame it on the media if you want to. Blame it on us for being woefully unprepared to join a global community with incomprehensible and incompatible structures with our own.

Blame it on our predecessors who do not remember enough about our culture and passed down to us a crippled understanding of ourselves, poisoned with self loathing. Blame them for unwittingly sharing their inferiority complex.

I do not encourage these kinds of meaningless conversations because, like anyone with a decent bullshit radar, I can tell when someone is making an attempt at ‘talking to the African’ and possibly going through the confusing process of trying to -sift through stereotypes and not putting their foot in their mouth while trying to find common ground maybe with this person but not really sure if it is worth it talking to them oh God what to do this is really weird-

It’s not too much to ask to be seen as an individual you know. And those that do are often well rewarded.

By the way, this video by His Awesomeness Hugh Masekela is what put me in this dark mood. Watch it if you have 15 minutes to spare.

Do you speak English? The politics of Language


This post has been incredibly difficult to write. So I will just drop all the gimmicks and get straight to the point.

You see, when I first arrived in France, many people were surprised that I spoke flawless (albeit heavily accented)  English. I remember one Spanish guy in my French class tried to break the ice by asking if we speak French in Kenya. After a long pause, I asked him ‘if we speak French in Kenya, then why am I studying beginners French with you?’

I guess the sarcasm was too complicated for his Catalan brain, because he asked me the same question three times. I ignored him and our relationship never really took off.

Quel Surprise

Much later on, when I got used to dealing all kinds of stupid questions and situations, I bumped into two adorable Japanese boys, who were amazed that I learnt  English so fast and were quite chuffed by my ‘ American ‘ accent.

I let them have their day because at this point I cannot be bothered to explain to people that most Africans and other formerly colonized people (I’m looking at you, South Asian people) speak several languages simultaneously.

The Guardian published a mildly interesting piece on the benefits of being bilingual. But come to think of it, did you ever think of yourself as bilingual? I never did, mostly because I imagine that being bilingual means that you speak a language that is recognized internationally.  But according to that article then, we, the urban citizens of our great continent shall never have to worry about Alhzeimer’s, as we continue to navigate between our native ‘dialects’ and the languages of the developed world.

So what exactly is my point? Language is strongly linked to identity. But unlike your average Estonian or Japanese, who’s first language is clearly named after their country (or the other way round) we don’t have that luxury. (Unless you are  as bullheaded as Ngugi, who insists on writing all his books in Kikuyu and then having them translated…)

Of course, it all goes back to our extreme touchiness at any perceived slight or racist attitude or remark. Because, once our basic needs were met, (unlike waaaay too many people who’s lives hang on a balance everyday) we are now obsessed with convincing people that we too are civilized like them. And I really wish we could stop. Because we end up looking like stupid imitations of the real thing.

Africa is huge. And we have lots of animals and untamed jungles. We are piss poor. And all the other poor and miserable people in the world can point at us and feel better about their own shitty lives. Deal with it.

And that is why I don’t immediately start defending my country by pointing out that we also have cities with tall buildings and roads.

I just say that English is the language of business in my country. And then I hang out with people who don’t imagine that I am the sole representative of my continent. And with people who Google phrases in Swahili to impress me. (insert giant wink wink here)

Feels good to get that off my chest.

Coming soon…hilarious adventures in India.

Meanwhile, enjoy this totally unrelated video on how to fake speaking French (and yes, I have used some of those tricks!)