Friday, 15 April 2011

The Arrival

After an easy flight from Heathrow, I touched down at Jomo Kenyatta airport, queued for an eternity to check a visa I had already acquired, and exited into Africa.  I was not sure whether I was going to be met by my friend Sam Duby and his wife, Elin, so I formulated a backup plan to stay overnight and meet them the following day (for that was the last incorrect rendezvous correspondence I had heard about).  Despite having no guidebook and effectively having no clue, I was armed with the confidence of coping with the unfamiliar and having a relatively hardened attitude and look about myself for a freshly untanned Mzungu.  I had decided that whilst observing the many young missionaries on the plane, and I had always believed my scruffy cheap green sports bag (aka the Tardis) was a better tool for establishing this look than an expensive strappy backpack.

Nevertheless, my contingency plan was unnecessary as I was jumped upon in the arrivals crowd by Sam, and I was escorted to his old ex Camel Trophy Mitsubishi.  We drove through the chaos of late night Nairobi traffic, past dark silhouettes of skyscrapers and up into Karen, a forest of upmarket compounds.  This was going to be our home for the weekend, staying with Leslie and Michael, an american missionary couple, their 7 month old baby Finch, and their enormous Rhodesian Ridgeback, Simon.  The night guard opened the big iron gates and we drove in, said hello, chatted and slept.  The following day we had a very un-African breakfast in an upmarket restaurant and strolled around Karen's market.  It was clear that my acclimatisation into Africa was going to be gradual, not just culturally but climate wise we were cool up in the forested hills.  We spent the time in Karen visiting different compounds to meet various people involved with projects developing appropriate sustainable technologies for Africa.  Each was heavily guarded, perimeter fences surrounded with razor wire or electric fence, often with pens of savage looking pet dogs. Sasha, a big Russian owned a beautiful plot with an organic farm where we purchased some milk.  Then on to Dominic, a half-Kenyan who showed us his affordable and simple bio-gas system, effectively a big bag which is filled with excrement and methane is tapped off straight to a cooker. Finally we went to see another more substantial concrete biogas system on a large dairy farm.  The swill from the cows fed the gas supply for all twenty of the residents of that compound.
The Rift Valley

From what little I had seen of Nairobi, it was pretty clear that it's possible to live very comfortably here, but the razor wire around the compounds was a reminder of the massive gap between have and have not.  Monday noon we set off towards the have not, though I'm sure we'll still be a long way form its centre.  The drive took us a few hours into the real dusty Africa up to the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley.  We stopped to have a moment in a lay-by on the edge.  For as far as the horizon would let us see, this vast flat land was the birthplace of mankind.  We sat and thought about that, how we'd ventured out from here, discovering all sorts along the way.  Here we were, returned so easily having shrunk the world with aircraft, appreciating the moment with a Coca Cola sold to us by a kid on the roadside.
We descended the snaking road past prudent old beasts of trucks steadying themselves with a trail of the smell of hot brakes, and we levelled out onto a long straight, shimmering on the dusty hot horizon. The journey continued for six hours, stopping just once for mutton and ugali- the staple dish of many here.  It is effectively polenta, although when cooked in an Italian way it may be considered fancy.  Here it is a pale corn block of stodge, mixed with the salty juices of spinach and greengrams.
We climbed the other side of the valley hours later and Beryl (that is the name of the jeep) gave us a blast of hot air in the cab to stop her overheating.  We turned off the superior A104 onto the Kisumu road, the surface deteriorated significantly and Beryl's 4x4 capabilities proved her worth.  Dusk fell on the dusty track with a beautiful sky, and eventually we got to our home in the black of the night.
Our compound is noticeably more modest than the Karen ones, but also less guarded.  We got home tired, said hello to Josh, our fellow Access wind coordinator, and went to bed. 

 So after a day of rest, acclimatising to the massive environmental change my body faced, I have been working the last three days in Jua Kali, the feral and dusty 'industrial estate' of Kisumu. The place has to be seen to be believed.  The weaver birds, who have been engineering beautiful nests in the trees for many millennia look down upon quite a different mess of engineering.  The most part of the work carried out here is motor mechanics, though almost anything can be fabricated or repaired here.  Parts are salvaged from donor vehicles until they are rendered useless, then the metal carcasses are cut up by hand and sold as scrap metal to local smelters.  Teams of entrepreneurial Kenyans operate small businesses amongst derelict wasteland, donated to them by the government in an attempt to reduce unemployment.  The earth mixed with rubble, rubbish and engine oil paves a labyrinth of corrugated iron plots, populated with scores of young men, lounging in the shade.   I can only assume a lot of them are trainees.  We are located in a shell of an old fish market, or space next to an evangelical church.  We share our plot with a communal old black Singer sewing machine used to upholster car seats, a couple of old vehicle shells and a very dark and dingy space at the back where some of the kids skive and smoke weed. Our core operation is currently myself, Sam Duby, Joseph - a self taught local  who has a business installing electric fences, and Calib - an elderly widower who is delighted to help in 'his retirement.'  Alan, a jovial educated car mechanic joins us occasionally, chatting away in a happy manner about allsorts.  He has a fascination with Airbus, and wanted to know all about what I knew about it. 
Calib has been helping me make a wind activated switch and I have been coordinating his every move, too much so in my opinion. 

 He is the sweetest loveliest person I have ever met, he has a heart anyone would warm to and a slightly old fashioned colonial subservience about him.  For many years he worked as a trade unionist on the coast, and then a social educator, supporting villagers to help demand their basic needs.  Last night we were invited to his modest little tin roofed house for dinner.  He had killed one of his hens to cook, head to feet and everything in between in a pan, while the other hens and chicks clucked away around our feet as we ate one of their sisters.  It was almost tear jerkingly moving, this humble old man's humanity.
Joseph and Alan


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