In April 1996 I made my first trip to Africa. To Kenya, and the Swahili Coast, to be precise. I went to visit my cousinSylvia who had been there for almost two years as a Peace Corps volunteer (known as 'PCV's in the trade). We had discussed visiting during a telephone conversation the previous fall but the press of Union duties prevented my scheduling a vacation until April.
The flight across the Sahara during daylight was incredible. I was bouncing around the plane trying to see out of both sides. It seemed that I was the only passenger so enthralled. From 30,000 feet the Sahara seemed a bright marscape, with erosion patterns from long ago water movements. No sign of life was apparent, no greenery, no roads except for one small settlement in an hour.
The Nile finally came into view. It was not what I expected at all, a ribbon of dark blue cutting through the continuous desert brown. No vegetation graced the banks of the river. Lake Nasser filled up some large valleys but there was no sign of irrigation. I imagine that water for irrigation is piped downstream. This area of upper Egypt was settled and an integral part of the Nile culture 4,000 years ago. The climate has obviously changed.
Suddenly rapids and a small dam interrupt the flow of the river. The river meets a bit of highland and cuts through the rock. The sixth cataract. Just upstream of this escarpment the confluence of the Blue and White Niles creates Khartoum. It is a large city on an extensive flood plain with extensive agriculture. This has obviously been a civilized area for many thousands of years. One small river heads off to the East, to the Ethiopian highlands, while the other continues meandering up country.
The Nile is not a large river really. It is slow and rather shallow according to my informant on the plane, a Kikuyu from Nyeri (close by Mount Kenya). He works for Caritas, a Catholic relief organization and we talked quite a bit about Africa, Kenya, the wars of Sudan and all. I was unfortunately unable to safari to Nyeri to visit him, but I sent him a Santa Cruz postcard upon returning home.
South of Khartoum the modern world virtually abandons the country, and the people, for more than a thousand kilometers. With the setting sun we flew over the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands. Rain clouds were ensconsed there, looking down upon the plains of the Sudan. No sign of human activity was evident at all, though many millions of people live in the Ethiopian highlands. In a vast stretch encompassing the area between Khartoum, Uganda and Addis Abbaba in Ethiopia there is no electricity, a triangle of darkness.
Finally, through a break in the clouds,I see a ring of fire on a hillside! Farmers are burning off the fields with the coming of the southern monsoon. Later more fire circles can be seen, then an occasional electric light from generators in the bush.
The Kenyan highlands bring the lights of the late 20th century into view. Small cities glow around the countryside. Nairobi, the commercial capital of East Africa is at hand.
An extensive knowlege of public transportation is an essential part of the core knowledge of a PCV. We rode hiway busses, city busses and minibusses (called Matatu). Public transit vehicles of all classes have a PSV sticker on the back. PSV = (Public Service Vehicle)
The Matatu will stop virtually anywhere along it's route for boarding or alighting.
All PSV's have a big 80 KPH sticker painted on the back of them. The japanese built Nissans have a buzzer which comes on around 95 KPH and the music of that buzzer is a constant companion to any passenger of these rigs. A one and a half hour trip from Nairobi to Machacos was done at about 110 KPH when the road was clear (or not). The main highway from Nairobi SouthEast to Mombasa is two lanes only, with no shoulder. Daredevil passing manuevers are constant, as the income of the driver and tout depend upon moving as many bodies per day as possible.
Local busses are run by a government agency called (I think) Ken Bus. They are locally built, using large truck chassis by Isuzu or Nissan. Every one that I saw or rode on was very neglected, real rattle traps.
We took a highway bus to Mombasa, as the train was sold out over Easter weekend. This bus was new, with a front engined Benz chassis and was quite comfortable. My hostess said that it was the best bus she had seen in two years in Kenya. The driver was quite sane as well. I assume that Coast Bus (the particular owner of this coach) pays wages instead of commission, tho I did not ask the driver.
The second class cars (which I rode) are sleeping cars with four berths per room. There are separate cars for men and women. I shared my room with a Hindi (from India) and a Black Kenyan. The Kenyan was of the Luo tribe (a Nilotic group) and the Hindi was in Kenya on a computer programming contract. The Kenyan gentleman was returning home to his village on Lake Victoria from the teachers college in Mombasa. The College has no computers, we talked about that. Money for the educational system is in short supply.
Motor vehicles are very expensive in Kenya. I estimate that the price of a new vehicle is at least twice as much as in the US. Used vehicles command a very large percentage of the new price, regardless of the cosmetic condition. As noted above, the African built Peugeot is the most highly regarded. The 504, out of production in Europe for at least 15 years, is the workhorse. An africanized front-drive 405 is available, and considerably more expensive.
Many Japanese vehicles are currently in use in Kenya. I am uncertain as to which of them have a local assembly operation. The Subaru may be locally assembled. Indian and Chinese Jeep copies are available, and Land Rover has an assembly and rebuilding plant in country. Many imported autos (Japanese included) are reputed to not be very durable, due to the smog controls and the condition of the local petrol.
Motorcycles and scooters are surprisingly not much in evidence, but Mombasa has a goodly representation of Vespas, Italian as well as an Indian Version. Japanese 100 CC motorcycle's make up the bulk of the rest. The bicycle is a serious purchase for the bush resident. Indian and Chinese versions of the english style bush bike are everywhere. One speed, 28 inch wheels, rod operated hand brakes. Actual Birmingham built Ralieghs with a 3 speed hub are also available, but most of the bush residents are not aware that the 3 speed exists. On the Coast, the Chinese Phoenix costs 5,500 Ksh, about $100 usd. The Indian version is about 1000 Ksh less.
I rode both the African bush bike and a US made Trek mountain bike back and forth from Takaungu to Kilifi, about 5 klicks. The Trek, with 21 speeds, and weighing less than half as much as the bush bike, was not my preferred ride. Comfort is the advantage of the bush bike, as the roads are so bad that speed is not a consideration. A 3 speed Sturmey Archer hub would have been real nice tho.
The traditional American cruiser bike would actually be a better bush bike than the english style, in my opinion. A Schwinn frame, with the low seat post, buckhorn handlebars, 26 inch balloon tires and a coaster brake would be my choice as a bush bike. A little known two speed hub with coaster brake (from Bendix) would make this the perfect personal transport.
The village where I spent most of the time is called Takaungu. It is 6 kilometers off the main coast road. That is 6 klicks of bad road. The population of the town is about 5 thousand I was told. This must include all the bush camps, squatters, etc.
There are fewer than 10 motor vehicles in town. Two Matatu trips go into Mombasa in the morning, once at 6am and again at 8:30am. It is the same vehicle, must do an early morning return trip. 55 klicks is the distance into Mombasa. The dirt road portion of the trip is to Kiboni (the highway intersection) and there is no load limit on that portion of the trip. The scraping of the tires on the underbody is the music of the poor little Isuzu rapidly destroying itself doing this service. Why are the tires scraping? Because there are about 60 people inside, on the roof, and hanging from the ladder on the side. Takaungu needs more Matatu service bad. On the paved road all the passengers must be inside the body. Mostly inside, that is. Hanging out the door opening is usual for the tout and friends. There is no door per se. Nothing to close the opening, that is.
Arriving on the Coast was a wonderful relief after my initial impressions of Nairobi. (See below, unpleasant observations) Swahili culture seems an amalgam of an older Islamic ethic and the Africans present when the original Muslim traders came. The WaSwahili are very tolerant and calm.
The modesty became very attractive to me. When I landed in Frankfurt on the way home I was shocked at the sex in all the magazines and the skimpy clothing that people wore in public.
A wonderful ritual before eating is to pour water over your hands. In a private setting the host will bring a bowl and pitcher of water and pour the water for you to wash. So polite and pleasing. In every restaurant there is a sink in the corner where one can wash before eating.
The picture at the top of this page is of me (the Mzungu) and some of the young men of Taka. Not so young really, they were all in their 30's. Regular jobs are rather scarce and none of these men had them; they are the hangers-out in the village. They fish in the creek, carry sand for construction jobs, etc. I had a good time there with KiBwana, Islam, Nabhan, and all the others. They are all Swahili, which means they are Muslim town dwellers. Some of the business people of the Village are giriama, which is the local Bantu tribe.
The man named Islam (in the picture above) is actually known as a Yemeni as his grandfather came from Yemen during one of their numerous civil wars. Islam bin Awadz al Yemeni would thus be his usual full name, being the son of Awadz and of the tribe Yemeni.
Nabhan (known as 'controller' by all the citizens of the town for some unknown reason) invited me to lunch one day. We went to his parents house and actually ate in the house of his aunt, also called his mother. (Blood relationships are much less defined than in the west. Cousins are called brother or sister, aunts are called mother.) We had rice pilaf and fried fish. We washed our hands in the way described above, with water poured from a pitcher over the hands into a plastic bowl. The picture below is of the house in which we ate in Takaungu, owned by the councillor of the village, a KANU man.
One day Sylvia and I rode the 8:30am Matatu into Mombasa. It was going to be very crowded of course, so we struggled to get on early so both of us could get seats. I'm too tall to stand up inside a Matatu so I shamelessly grab a seat. I ended up sitting next to a young woman who was wearing full head covering with only an opening for her eyes. This is rather unusual, a buibui and white scarve being the regular public clothing of a Swahili woman. We talked and she told me that she was Islam's sister. Later I discovered that she meant cousin. It was so crowded that I had my arm on the back of the seat (around this woman)to lean against the wall of the Matatu. This young woman was wearing mascara and heavy perfume, but her eyes and hands were all that could be seen. She had henna patterns on the palms of her hands from a marriage ceremony that day. We talked about her husband away in Saudi at a job (very lucrative) , whether cousins married in the west, etc.
That experience of sitting on the bus with my arm around a young woman with beautiful eyes, completely covered except for her hands and eyes, and talking about her family was quite interesting.
The Coast has an indegenous architecture, derived from an 800 year old culture. This is relaxing and private at the same time. Swahili buildings are designed so as to allow heat to escape. Kitchens are separated from the living quarters and in large buildings open spaces are created to allow the heat to rise away from the residents. The traditional entry way has a recess with concrete benches for lounging around the doorway. This encourages lounging, which I appreciate very much.
In Lamu, one hotele had Michael Jackson and Bob Marley
flanking the requisite Moi portrait.
Another had a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini
just a little bit higher on the wall.
Those mahotele were a pleasing contrast.
The locals don't like wild animals much at all. Every snake is killed on instinct, and there are many snakes. Quite a few are poisonous I imagine, but all of them couldn't be.
I did hear about, and see, Siafu. Ants. A very well organized tribe of ants. They are not large, but are exceedingly determined ants. When they commence an organized march, the course of wisdom is to move out of their way. Kerosene poured around the doorways is a useful deterrent. Sylvia told of coming back to her house, after an absence of a few days, and finding a small pile of bones and fur in the corner of the yard. These were the earthly remains of three newly born kittens who had been discovered by Siafu.
Mera' or Qat is a twig from a bush grown in the highlands. The Kenyan mera is grown up country, much of it is apparently exported to Somalia. I was told that the best mera comes from Ethiopia. The twig is chewed with bubble gum (Big G, apparently used exclusively for mera chewing) to keep the strings of the bark in one place. It is a very mild stimulant containing ephedrine.
A finished pan will be a betel leaf folded over some chopped up betel nut, perhaps some coconut flavoring, a tiny touch of lime to release the alkaloid, and flavored tobacco. A pan will fill up half of your mouth and is to be slowly sucked and gradually chewed. I never noticed any narcotic effect from the betel myself.
Manazi was a delightful discovery. Otherwise known to me as Palm wine, it was exclusively a creature of liturature (The Palm Wine Drinkard) until a visit to a Giriama boma where Sylvia was working on a water project.
The Grandfather of the boma mentioned that the manazi was being harvested and a delicate show of interest in the subject on my part brought two whiskey bottles of frothy Palm Wine fresh from the tree.
Manazi is tapped from a palm tree overnight (similar to maple syrup I gather) and is sweet and mildly alcoholic in the morning. As it ages during the day it becomes sour and more alcoholic. My understanding is that in the evening it is quite strong.
Five of us were seated under the shade tree and the manazi poured into a small gourd shaped like half of a banana. A wooden straw with a filter of cheesecloth on the bottom is used to drink the manazi from the gourd. The gourd is filled and passed to one of the companions, whose first gesture is to pour a small amount of the nectar on the ground. I didn't inquire as to the meaning of this offering. The juice is leisurely consumed, then the gourd refilled and passed on to the next congregant.
On this visit I had a good time walking about the city, met and talked with the Duka people, bought lunch of chips and soda and ate with Doris and Betty (small merchants) sitting in an alleyway.
Later some of the young men of the street merchant class and I had beers and talked in a bar close by. We talked about business in the city, growing up in back country Masaai land, rent, the Mosque, etc. Had a good time.
Everyone was amazed that I am a Bus Operator in the US. Driving is quite a prestigous job in Kenya, at least among my type of people. Also, I imagine that most Americans that they meet are business people or aid workers.
Friday is the big day for attending the Mosque and a good place for beggars to seek alms. One friday at the Jamia Mosque I walked down the row and gave alms to the lepers, the legless and the homeless mothers. I was being a good muslim.
This demonstration by a Mzungu was perhaps unwise, although necessary, as it attracted the attention of some street boys who followed me down the street, plaintively asking for money.
I asked the staff at the Parkside hotel (my home for a day) whether there were soup kitchens, places for free food for the poor. They said no, and seemed mystified at the concept of people giving away food for free. I explained that in almost every American city there were organizations that collected food that would ordinarily go to waste and prepared it for the homeless to survive on. This was a novel idea to them, it appeared.
created: June 1996