First blog post

Welcome Reader to the ianandmerle.wordpress.com blog site in which Merle and I plan to record our progress during a sabbatical to Kenya.  Beginning the first week of February 2017 we will be based in Nairobi volunteering with a legal charity, CLEAR, and working alongside lawyers, staff and students at the Kenyan Christian Lawyers Fellowship (KCLF).

CLEAR operates throughout much of East Africa in partnership with the local Christian lawyers to provide free legal advice, education and representation to the poor and marginalised.  I first became aware of the work of CLEAR during a two week mission trip to Uganda and Kenya in early 2015 organised by the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship in the UK (LCF) which helps to fund CLEAR and encourages British lawyers and students to serve on placement overseas as we are.

For those used to browsing the various celebrity blogs our offering will come as a severe disappointment; no health and fitness tips, no product endorsements, no recipes, no penetrating insight into American politics and most assuredly no “running commentary”(to coin a phrase currently in vogue) on the mundane.  Instead we plan to publish, in effect, a fortnightly newsletter with some illustrative photographs (if I can ever work out how to import a photograph to my WordPress account) which we hope will help family, friends, colleagues and well-wishers to follow our adventures over the next six months.

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CLIMB EVERY MOUNTAIN…

It would have been remiss of us to spend half a year in Kenya and not visit the mountain after which the nation is named; that said both the derivation and the pronunciation of the name are a matter of some dispute. As to derivation, it seems likely that the name means something akin to “the place where god rests” in several of the local languages; as to pronunciation, much to our amusement, there is a respectable argument for saying that “Keen-yah” is not a mere white colonial affectation but may well be the original and correct form. The mountain itself has a series of peaks topping out at 5199m. However, the two highest peaks are really only accessible to mountaineers proper, trekkers having to content themselves with the walk to Point Lenana at 4985m. Even this more modest goal was beyond Merle and me as we lacked the equipment, time and general fitness to make the ascent (the ascent is normally staggered over three days to reduce the likelihood of altitude sickness) . Happily, the walking group with which we had trekked the ridge of the Ngong Hills a couple of months ago planned a walk in the forested foothills of Mount Kenya.

The original plan was to stay overnight at Castle Forest Lodge Campsite just inside Mount Kenya Naional Park (with the option of B&B at the lodge itself for super-wealthy English lawyers) so as to avoid making the round trip from Nairobi in a day. In the event, this plan was scuppered by a freak snowstorm in the Central Highlands the week prior to the walk which rather put people off the idea of camping, so a day trip it was.

Our walk described a steady, if long, climb from the lodge to a mountain hut which would be one’s first overnight stopping point if making the full ascent of the mountain. The route took us through sharply contrasting woodland, partly managed pine woods barely distinguishable from half of Scotland (an impression strongly reinforced by the lodge building from colonial times), and partly equatorial forest with a bewildering variety of trees dripping in mosses and lichen. The summits of Mount Kenya were shrouded in low cloud throughout the day and we never did obtain a view, but by way of more than ample compensation our guides took us through the forest to a hidden valley with a waterfall at its head. It was Plato who conceived of existence as containing two realms, that of the material world and that of transcendent Forms of reality, the material merely mimicking to ideal Forms-but at the waterfall we had both realms combined, for the clear free-falling waters, the grotto behind the falls, the wall of vines and ferns watered by the spray all combined to make the scene one of idealised perfection. We took a late lunch at a mountain hut. Our Kenyan companions, all of whom were students or young professionals, insisted that Merle and I sat on the wicker seats on the hut’s veranda; in so doing, Merle was referred to as “Ma-ma”, a respectful term for an elderly lady!

By the time we had descended to our starting point it was late afternoon and time for a Kenyan tea at the lodge. Needless to say, the threatened snowstorms had not materialised; Merle and I gazed wistfully at the lodge, dreaming of what might have been before climbing back into our matatu for the three-hour journey back to Nairobi.

Delightful as our walk in the foothills of Mount Kenya had been, Merle and I stirred with the restless feeling that we had not got to the top of anything. Luckily, within easy striking distance of Nairobi is Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano in the Great Rift Valley. The peak hits 2776m, but the climb to it is only 1000m from the valley floor taking into account the jagged nature of the volcano rim (I say “only”, but for those of us who think in imperial measures this is over 3000ft i.e. just less than Mount Snowdon). The walk to the peak falls into two sections, an ascent to the rim of the volcano and a ridge walk around the rim taking in the peak, a total distance of a little under ten miles.

An early start from our flat in Nairobi, three matatu rides and a boda-boda trip to the park gate took us to the starting point of our walk. Much to our consternation, half the secondary schools in Kenya had chosen precisely the same day as us to achieve the mountain leading to a rather crowded beginning to the walk. All of this brought out my inner cub-scout and I was tempted to read our young companions a lesson on hill walking-walk steadily don’t run or stop and start, don’t lean in to the slope when going uphill, if you slip don’t grab other people… However, I bridled my tongue and had the immense satisfaction of soon overtaking scores of children who had fallen by the wayside-the fable of the Hare and the Tortoise came to mind.

Reaching the rim alone is a moderately difficult walk but one that is infinitely rewarding-one has the views to the north east of the eastern escarpment of the Rift Valley and to the north of Lake Naivasha. However, these views are as nothing to the panorama of the interior of the volcano’s cauldron (over a mile across), a rim of jagged peaks with precipitous cliffs descending to a demi-Eden, a hidden forest on the crater floor, with only an occasional jet of steam to remind you that the volcano is not yet extinct. As we struck out along the ridge we left the last of the surviving schoolchildren behind and enjoyed almost uninterrupted silence for the next couple of hours save for the cooing and hooting of a dozen alien species of bird rising from the hidden forest below us. The summit of Longonot was in cloud when we finally staggered to the peak, but it was hard to feel deprived as the rim as a whole gives the most magnificent of views along its entire circumference-these views extended to Hell’s Gate National Park (see our earlier blog “To Hell and Back”) though from this point the massive cliffs of the Lower Gorge were as mere folds in the ground.

From the summit we descended to a lunch spot on a nearby peak at which point the cloud cleared and the sun began to beat down-it was a mercy that we had started the walk early enough in the day to avoid the heat as even the equatorial winter is as summer to us. The final rapid descent from the rim to the park gate was something of an ordeal for our knees and calves but we had taken the precaution of keeping the telephone number of our boda-boda rider who was able to meet us at the park gate and give us a lift back to the nearest tarmacked road for our first matatu ride of the afternoon back to Nairobi.

Sadly, Mount Longonot will likely be the last of our hikes during our present stay in Kenya which is due to end in a couple of weeks. Kenya is perhaps best known for the grasslands of the Maasai Mara and the wildlife of the savannah but, as we have discovered, rolling highlands, spectacular mountains, deep forests, warm tropical sea and ruined coastal cities make up a greater whole, the sum of many beautiful parts.

TO (THE GATES OF) HELL AND BACK

Our guide book reassuringly asserts that “…not all of Kenya is like Nairobi”! This was never more true than of the Lake Naivasha area, a mere 40 miles from the capital but (to quote our trusty guide again) “…a world away”.

We caught our matatu to Naivasha Town from central Nairobi, having taken the decision to go to the stops in the badlands East of Moi Avenue without a chaperone from the office. We had hoped to take a shuttle (i.e. a seven seater direct service) for the sake of comfort but only managed to find a bog standard matatu; luckily our driver and conductor for this particular journey ran a “one person, one seat” policy provided you were willing to carry your luggage on your lap, so the first leg of our journey was remarkably sane and comfortable. The local matatu from Naivasha Town to our hotel was more in the classic mould with the maximum capacity of 14 passengers being treated as a bare minimum target and some of our fellow travellers being a little on the Rubenesque side. However, we had been whisked from our office in Nairobi to the door of our hotel in less than four hours and for less than seven pounds between us, a triumph of Kenyan private enterprise and an opportunity to come to know our fellow man a little better.

Our hotel, the Fish Eagle Inn, was not strictly speaking either an hotel or an inn but rather a camp designed with people with different pockets in mind. At the top end of the range one could rent a cottage, mid-range one could take a hut and then there was the campsite proper to pitch your tent. Rather curiously to our eyes, the campers were given the lower end of the site on the shores of the lake and we wondered why the cottages could not have been built by the waterside to obtain the best views for the highest paying guests. The reason for this apparent peculiarity soon became clear-if you pay the cheapest rates you have to take your chances with the mosquitoes, monkeys and hippos by the lakeside. Merle and I had booked a hut and soon realised we had gone up in the world as the bathroom had reliable hot water and a plug in the sink. The on-site restaurant served splendid African breakfasts but, irritatingly, the dinner menu was more stilted towards European and American fare including, so the menu announced, a large selection of “Buggers” (burgers!). That, however, is a a minor criticism as the main selling point of the hotel was the view of Lake Naivasha from the grounds.

That said, the lake itself was not our main destination for the weekend. Hell’s Gate, one of Kenya’s many national parks, lies just south of Lake Naivasha with its main entrance only a mile or two from our hotel. Hell’s Gate is mainly known for two things; firstly, for its spectacular gorges, the Lower Gorge (travelling southwards) acting as a funnel focusing one to the Upper Gorge where the hot springs which give rise to the name are to be found, and, secondly, it is one of the few national parks where one can cycle or hike among the animals, carnivores being “rare” (only rare!?). To the Western mind (with the local Maasai gently demurring) the gorges were “discovered” in the late nineteenth century by a German explorer called Fischer who was on the look out for a route for the Mombasa to Uganda railway-there was no suitable route to be found but instead the area yielded mines for volcanic glass, obsidian.

Fischer’ mark has been left on the land by the naming of a rock tower at the entrance to the Lower Gorge. Fischer’s Tower was our first port of call within the park after hiring our (surprisingly well maintained) cycles. At the base of the tower we found a local rock climber supervising ascents of the first twenty metres or so of the twenty four metre tower, and having watched a group of German students make light work of the climb I decided to give it a go myself. Merle disguised her spousal admiration of my manliness by muttering something about being a “damned fool”. In truth, I entertained my own doubts having abseiled down many cliffs in my youth but never having climbed up in the first place, these misgivings being heightened when I was fitted out with a pair of climbing shoes sized for a petite ballerina that made walking to the base of the climb an achievement in itself. The climb was an interesting experience; one’s natural instinct is to find handholds that will allow you to haul yourself up by your arms, a speedy route to exhaustion; instead, one has to concentrate on finding footholds that will allow you to push up using your stronger leg muscles. However, to trust to the footholds, one has to overcome the psychological hurdle of believing that a three inch ledge is as good as a three foot ledge. My ascent was less than elegant and was at the cost of many grazes to my knees, elbows and chest; there may well have been a good view from the top but it was slightly lost on me as I was catching my breath for the descent. Happily the descent was by way of an abseil, the technique of which I was familiar with-the trick is to trust the rope and lean right back rather than to try and stay upright. By the time I had reached ground level I was not a good advert for the joys of rock climbing being evidently exhausted and nursing various bruises and crushed toes. Our expert host, James, was good enough to compliment me on my abseiling but was noticeably more circumspect about my climbing-indeed, when he learned that we intended to cycle to the Upper Gorge via the Buffalo Trail over the hills he advised us to take the more gradual ascent through the Lower Gorge.

Needless to say, being English, we were not going to allow anything as commonplace as local knowledge to change our plans. The Buffalo Trail was short on buffalo and long on trail; trail is of course a simple anagram of trial, and so it proved to be. The gradual but long uphill incline soon had us pushing our bikes in the heat of the midday sun (the weather forecast from the Kenyan Meteorological Service for an overcast, cool day being unerringly inaccurate) and we soon discovered why there were no other cyclists on this route. In distinction to most trails in Kenyan parks, this one was marked by regular way-posts which had the depressive effect of telling you how little progress was being made; we began to despair of ever making it to the Upper Gorge before it was time to turn for home. The Buffalo Trail did grant some excellent views of Mount Longonot, a nearby volcano, but for the most part yielded little as the ascent was through rough scrub land which contained nothing observable by way of wildlife if one excluded the birds circling overhead (which we came to suspect were vultures rather than kites). It took us a little over two hours to reach the summit of the trail, just in time to collapse and take late elevensies at a designated viewpoint. And a strange view it was too, the vista of the western end of the park being dotted with industrial sites belching steam (from miniature geothermal power stations). The descent to the Upper Gorge was scarcely less punishing given the need to hold the speed of the bicycles down and to avoid the rocks and soft sand that made up much of the trail at this point, but by the quirk that is human nature our spirits soared as it felt as if we were making progress at last.

There is a ranger station and a picnic area at the entrance to the Upper Gorge, the Gate of Hell that gives the park its name. Hell, so Satre said, is other people, but for Merle it is monkeys, so we paid a small “appreciation” to a local to drive away our nearest relatives so that we could take lunch unhindered. Having negotiated for a Maasai guide to the Upper Gorge (the shenanigans surrounding the negotiations being fit for a blog post in themselves), we descended to the hot springs. The Upper Gorge, as well as boasting springs where the sulphurous water emerging from the rocks is too hot to handle (as Merle rather tartly observed, especially so if you are not used to washing up) was also the setting for several of the scenes in the film Tomb Raider-though if memory serves, it was the figure of the lead actress rather than the scenery that drew admiring glances during the film. Our guide, Joseph, took great care of us on the walk through the gorge and did so in an unhurried way having noticed our state after the morning’s exertions. In common with many Maasai we have met, Joseph was in traditional dress-this is by no means entirely for the tourists and many members of Kenya’s other 42 tribes are admiringly envious of how well the Maasai have resisted many of the trappings of modern life. At the end of the tour of the Upper Gorge we shared our water and dates with Joseph before bracing ourselves for the last leg of our circuit, along the track through the main gorge and out of the Mouth of Hell to land at the main gate to the park-we comforted ourself with the thought of a milky Kenyan tea at the gate itself having noted a roadside cafe on entering the park.

In the event, little bracing was needed as the track through the main gorge was on the level and the long awaited cloud cover had arrived. The cool of the late afternoon brought the animals out from their shade, and the miles down the gorge passed swiftly as we passed by herds of water buffalo, zebra and gazelle, and the odd family of warthogs. The only down side to the main track was that it was used by the occasional car or safari bus, the passage of which generated billows of dust. Yet this minor irritation could do nothing to distract from the grandeur of our surroundings-Britain has many fine gorges many of which have are easily accessible, tame even, given our Victorian forbears’ love of the picturesque-Kenya doesn’t do picturesque or tame, merely monumentalism. Sooner though than we had expected, Fischer Tower and then the main gate hove into view. The cafe upon which we had pinned our hopes of a restorative Kenyan tea was closed (after all, why would you open a cafe at tea time?) and the tables and chairs outside had been taken over by the local troupe of monkeys one of whom, in strange imitation of the Maasai, had put the chequered tablecloth around its shoulders.

Nothing daunted, we left the park for the last mile and a half to the cycle hire shop but no pedalling was required as now we were going with the grain of the slope towards Lake Naivasha. Within sight of the end Merle took a little tumble having been pushed onto a sandy verge by a passing bus. We returned our bikes, every pore devoid of sweat and filled with the dust of Africa, with aches in every extremity but utterly contented. The evening meal back in our hotel demanded nothing less than a Kenyan feast; grilled meats and fish, ugali and skuma-wiki.

Before travelling back to Nairobi the next day we turned our attention to Lake Naivasha itself , taking an early morning boat ride from the hotel jetty. For a dedicated twitcher, Kenya has an embarrassment of riches in its bird life-the sheer variety and volume of the species as well as the colour and beauty of many of the individual birds would likely make birdwatchers of us all given time. Within moments of leaving the landing stage we had seen several species of heron and kingfisher and the whole trip continued in like vein with cormorant, pelican and fish eagles to the fore. The lake itself is a thing of beauty being set in the middle of the Rift Valley, and being slightly too large to descry the opposite shore especially when the morning mists or the hazes of midday conspire to blur the view. The periphery of the lake is shallow making it the home to innumerable pods of hippos as well as the local fishermen who wade out to makeshift platforms (some little more than a stake with a triangular seat atop). Merle is yet to be persuaded that hippos are herbivores and our boatman took evident delight in taking us as close to the pods as possible.

Our return trip to Nairobi included two matatu rides that were classics of their kind. The first leg to Naivasha Town involved resisting the conductors valiant attempt to charge “Mzungu Prices” while at the same time sharing our seats with the world and his brother-we were sitting with our luggage on our laps on a row of three seats but with two other adults and two children in competition for buttock room-a competition that I lost without even the consolation prize of a wooden plank to extend the width of the seats. On the second leg to Nairobi we paid a slightly increased price for a place on a shuttle only to discover that the driver and conductor were intent on stopping for more passengers on the way rather than travelling direct with no stops. At one point it occurred to me to ask for the difference between the shuttle fare and a matatu ride (which is what we got) to be returned to me. Naturally, I dismissed the thought as soon as it had occurred; at points in the journey the van was near empty allowing Merle and I to stretch our legs and place our luggage on a seat of its own so, from the Kenyan point of view, we had actually received a better service than we had paid for!

Back home at our apartment block we ended the weekend with a swim (did I mention we have a pool?) and a cup of Milo (a cross between hot chocolate and Ovaltine), both feeling every one of our fifty one years.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES

To observe that Nairobi and Mombasa are very different cities is to risk making a statement of the obvious. Nairobi is a creature of the British colonial era, founded just over a hundred years ago to serve as a way station on the Mombasa to Uganda Railway within the (then) British East Africa Protectorate; it accidentally became capital of Kenya when the original planned site in Machakos found itself a little too far north of the railway and a little to short of water to serve (Nairobi in Maasai means “place of cool waters”). Modern Nairobi has retained but few of its colonial buildings beyond a handful of bungalows set in their own grounds in the suburbs which give a glimpse of the attractive simplicity, ease and greenness of ex-pat life in those days. The Central Business District of the capital and the Eastern suburbs in particular are full of high rise offices and sprawling apartment blocks dating from the post-independence period.

Mombasa, by contrast, is pregnant with history being founded (it is thought) somewhere between the 9th to 11th Centuries AD. Originally the city was confined to “Mombasa Island”, a plug of land in the mouth of a river estuary, connected to the mainland by a tidal causeway and forming two easily defensible and deep natural harbours; nowadays, in addition the city stretches inland to the west and sprawls along the coast to the north and south alike in an unending strip of white sand beaches. Given its strategic position on the Indian Ocean, Mombasa is marked by the passing tides of traders, invaders and colonists alike from Africa, Arabia, India, Britain and Portugal. Happily for the history buff, Mombasa has modernised by building out from its historic heart rather than by building over it.

Merle and I travelled to Mombasa in early June to visit one of the branch offices of CLEAR and to meet with the local branch of KCLF. Much of the work undertaken by the branch office is in the field of family law, particularly child maintenance (remember, in Kenya there is no social security system to speak of and even state schools are fee paying, making the position of separated mothers with young children somewhat precarious). As well as giving free legal advice and drafting documents for court in the case of contested matters, CLEAR attempts wherever possible to avoid proceedings by hosting mediation sessions in which the staff were, to our observation, highly experienced. The Mombasa office is quite the busiest we have visited, typically holding two or three mediations per day together with seeing 20 to 30 “walk in” clients, all with three permanent staff and a small band of part-time volunteers. We shared a time of fellowship and prayer with the Mombasa branch of KCLF, and, inevitably, ended up comparing notes on legal practice in England and Kenya-Merle stunned the meeting by opining that Mombasa “felt like a different country” to the rest of Kenya, a particularly tactful comment in light of an active separatist movement in Kenya’s coastal strip!

Naturally, it would have been pure folly to travel all the way to Mombasa and not see the sights. Fort Jesus is rightly deserving of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being a complete early renaissance fort guarding the mouth of Mombasa Old Harbour, built by the Portuguese as a sanctuary on the long trip to Goa, their colony in India. The fort was eventually wrested from the Portuguese by the Omanis after a two-year siege in the 1600s. As a exercise in historical re-enactment, western visitors will be treated to the experience of being besieged by the local unofficial guides as they approach the fort (one informed us in all seriousness that there was “nothing to see” in the fort and that we would be better taking his tour of the exterior). However, a small payment of fifty bob and a polite insistence that we intended to show ourselves around was sufficient to raise the siege (the best thirty five pence I have ever spent). Contrary to earlier advice, Merle and I discovered that there was plenty to see inside the fort, which would be worth visiting even if only for the peace and quite as one takes in the views across the harbour to the open sea.

The fort nestles at the eastern end of Mombasa Old Town, a place of particular interest to the visiting Englishman as much of the extant architecture dates from the time of the British protectorate and colony-sight of the Old Port, Post Office, Government Offices and Police Station leave little to the imagination, and the old town also contains the remains of an early Royal Navy victualling station, the first CMS rest house in the region and the first hotel in East Africa. From a previous era, a 15th century mosque remains at the heart of the town though, sadly, the Portuguese church from the period of Fort Jesus has been built over. The Old Town is not particularly safe for unaccompanied tourists but our taxi driver was able to find us an official (Muslim) guide to smooth our transit with the local population-our guide was also remarkably informative as well as having the good grace to make light of the British Empire as was.

Lastly, no trip to Mombasa would be complete without a visit to the Spice Markets, though this appellation is a slight misnomer given that the spices of the Orient are by no means the only things for sale and that the subtle form of coercion employed by the sellers can only loosely be described as marketing. An informal guide to the market attached himself to us as soon as we entered, stressing that his services and the taking of photographs were free-needless to say, our “free” guide happened to have a particular friend within the market who was keen to show us all the spices he had in stock. We thought it both politic and fun to buy a few spices, but the stall holder we were dealing with seemed to have difficulty getting the decimal point in his pricing in the right place; after initially asking for enough money to feed a family of four for a week in exchange for three modest scoops of our favourite spices, we eventually beat the stall holder down to a figure that was just the right side of daylight robbery, a figure that we happily paid given the crowd of traders and beggars gathering round us. We took consolation in the fact that we had at least been fleeced buying something we actually needed!

From Mombasa we travelled northwards along the coast to take a few days of rest in Malindi, a town often mentioned for the influence of the Italian ex-pat community. That said, the Italian influence was somewhat muted, amounting to little more than a handful of Osteria and the habit of the local children greeting us with cries of “Ciao!” rather than “Jambo!”. Our hotel was modelled after the fashion of a Swahili village, a village that we practically had to ourselves given that it is low season. Low season or not, we struggled in the heat, sightseeing in the early morning, taking ourselves to the beach to cool off in the Indian Ocean mid afternoon and retiring to a day-bed on our balcony as the evening drew in prior to taking a long evening meal. The hotel advertised itself as having a private beach, which turned out to be a cordoned off section of the public beach with a security guard to keep the local hawkers from crossing the cordon sanitaire and approaching the guests. However, the hawkers, being the most law abiding of individuals, took note of the fact that the rules of the game prohibited crossing the line but said nothing on the topic of shouting to you or pursuing you as you journeyed between your sun lounger and the sea. Although the Italian mark on the history of Malindi is limited to Mussolini’s air force having bombed it at the outset of WW II, there is much history besides. Vasco da Gama entered in to a treaty with the Emir of Malindi in the late 1400s to allow the Portuguese to use the territory for refitting on his voyage of discovery and subsequent trips to Goa, as evidence of which Malindi sports a pillar erected by the explorer as a waymarker and a small Catholic church (at which St Frances Xavier stopped during his own missionary voyage to India half a century later). There are also two small museums on the waterfront; the first, The House of Columns” being better known as an example of 19th Century Swahili architecture than for its contents, and the second, the British consul’s residence during the East Africa Protectorate containing a collection of displays explaining the history and customs of the coastal tribes.

 

From our base in Malindi we spent one morning exploring the Gede Ruins, the remains of a Swahili coastal city. Contrary to the western prejudice that all Africans lived in mud huts prior to the arrival of European colonists, Gede was a stone built city of some considerable size, defended by two curtain walls also of stone. Among the extant buildings are the Emir’s palace containing the city courts, half a dozen mosques and a number of private houses from which the recovered artefacts speak of Gede being connected in its heyday to a global trading network. The city also boasted a sophisticated water system which as well as supplying the bathrooms of the rich provided an early form of air conditioning-the rock of which the city was built is semi-porous meaning that when doused the water soaks in to the wall itself and, evaporating, cools the walls down. The town was inexplicably abandoned in the 18th Century and the coast has since retreated to the east leaving the ruins surrounded by jungle through which its modern custodians have driven a nature trail. I made the mistake of pointing out to Merle that the highlights of the nature trail included three local species of monkey and the tree snakes-our subsequent walk was rather more brisk than I would have liked in the heat.

We broke our return journey to Mombasa at Kilifi. Aside from the natural beauty of the cliff-top walks alongside Kilifi Creek (in reality an inlet of the Indian Ocean several times the size of Lake Windermere) what drew us to the town was Merle’s desire as a bell-ringer to visit the parish of St Thomas, the only church within a thousand miles with a full set of bells suitable for change ringing. Needless to say, Merle’s fellow campanologists were not found wanting in their hospitality, giving us a tour of the tower and belfry, insisting that we stay for lunch (spiced pilau rice and steaming Kenyan tea-both excellent sustenance in the dripping heat) and accompanying us to our hotel to ensure our safe arrival.

The hotel itself was a modern ecolodge/backpackers retreat; seeing how old and un-hip Merle and I were (not a beard, a pigtail, a tattoo or a pair of sandals between us!), the staff took pity and upgraded us for free to an en-suite room, meaning that we avoided the communal, unisex bathroom set in a clump of living bamboo (a thing so barbarian in its conception that it is practically as appalling as the thought of an East German naturist camp). Our room was a thatched hut without glass in the windows, and the en-suite was outside boasting a palisade of palm fronds for modesty and a composting toilet with a basket of wood chippings. The grounds of the lodge were an education, with sign boards explaining how the lodge strove to minimise its use of energy and raw materials alike-however, advertising that the vegetables in the restaurant were home grown and had been fertilised with the contents of last season’s composting toilets was not an appealing thought (I suspect that the marketing gurus who advised on this strategy were the same pair who recently advised Theresa May on how to win an election). Saving my sarcasms, our brief stay was thoroughly enjoyable; windows without glass gave the impression of sleeping outside, bathing under the canopy of the trees was uniquely refreshing and our evening meal was enlivened by meeting with a fellow Brit, a water engineer on furlough from her work in South Sudan.

We travelled from Mombasa to Nairobi by air, a journey of an hour and five minutes compared to eight to twelve hours by coach. We flew in a small twin-prop aircraft belonging to one of the local airlines specialising in internal flights. I know that many travellers in the jet age have an aversion to the older technology of a propeller airliner-for my own part I feel rather safer in a propeller aircraft, seeing the technology not as outdated but “tried and tested” (propellers could get the RAF to the Bremerhaven Ball-bearing Works and back again reliably half a century ago and the technology has only improved since).

Our visit to the Mombasa office and the local KCLF fellowship has concluded our peregrinations for work purposes within Kenya, leaving us with a mere six weeks to begin to draw the threads of our work together.

P.S. I thought that the lawyers among my readers would be amused by the following public information board outside a police station in Mombasa.WP_20170607_10_34_17_Pro

 

MORE FLUFFY THINGS…

Mid-May brought a visit from a team of Australian and UK lawyers to the CLEAR office; two of their number being known to me from my earlier visit to Kenya in 2015. The team was good enough to invite Merle and me to join them on a long-weekend safari to the Maasai Mara, (one of Kenya’s many national parks, in the south-west of the country hard against the border with Tanzania), an opportunity that we jumped at once the transport situation was resolved. In 2015 I had traveled to the Mara by road from Nairobi, a journey that took twelve hours, the last two of which were at night on dirt tracks-all in all more of a demented fairground ride than part of a relaxing break. With the mental scars of this earlier experience in mind, I proposed that we fly to the Mara, a suggestion that was mercifully adopted.

Flights to the Mara depart from Wilson Airport, the original airport of Nairobi. Wilson still has the feel of a 1950s airstrip about it-there is no terminal building as such, merely the separate offices of the airlines and their hangers spread around the perimeter of the field. After booking in (which scarcely takes five minutes) you walk to your aircraft, a single prop, and meet your pilots. In contrast to the road trip, the flight takes forty five minutes, and being in a light aircraft allows views of the countryside on the way. The only disconcerting aspect of the flight was the decision of the airport managers to make a graveyard of elderly and crashed aircraft at one end of the runway.

After landing at the Mara Airstrip we were whisked away to our lodge, the Serena, a mile or so distant. The photographs will speak for themselves-suffice it to say that the Serena must be one of the most beautifully situated hotels in the world with views in all directions over the Great Rift Valley.

Over the succeeding days we took a series of safari trips from the lodge for the most part of a couple of hours duration as there are few opportunities for a bathroom break in the park itself. The Mara is known for its high density of animals, though we were too early in the season for the “Great Migration” that crosses the Mara River just below the hotel. Between times the swimming pool, terraces and viewpoints at the lodge provide places of relaxation after the rigours of the safari drives.

Rather than test my poor descriptive skills I will conclude this posting with a larger selection of photos than usual.

 

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I should add as a postscript that the photograph of the elephants at sunset and those in the block immediately above it were taken by Mary Walsh, a member of the visiting team, with a better camera and a better eye than I possess; Mary’s photographs are copyright to her and are used here with her kind permission.

“LATENESS HAS COME UPON ME!”

Before going up to university, my youngest daughter, Alexandra, served for some months with CMS as a teaching assistant to a mission school in Kathmandu. Having a facility with languages, Alex tried her hand at a little basic Nepalese and was amused to discover that what she had taken to be a standard apology for running late did in fact translate literally as a fatalistic lament, “Lateness has come upon me!”. The affliction of lateness having come upon one is by no means confined to Nepal but is also alive and well in Kenya.

Lateness, is one of the few remaining sins acknowledged as such by the secular Western mind (together with hypocrisy and “not being true to yourself”); to be kept waiting for more than, say, five minutes or so is taken as being a considerable rudeness. On our way to a meeting a few weeks ago, Merle and I found ourselves stuck in traffic (Nairobi traffic is a blog post in itself) and sent a text to our host to apologise for running a few minutes late. Having arrived at the venue we discovered that our text apology was the cause of some perplexity, especially so as the meeting we were to join was running an hour late; so, on a certain (African) way of looking at things, we were 55 minutes early rather than five minutes late.

The first thing to note about timekeeping in Kenya is that there really is something called “Swahili Time” under which (our) noon and midnight are six o’clock, with no distinction between am and pm. Most Kenyans know to avoid using Swahili Time with westerners but some forget themselves; we were once told that the restaurant in our hotel opened at ten in the evening (long past our bedtime in these parts) when, in reality, we could have eaten any time after 4pm. Mercifully, encounters with Swahili Time are rare, but it pays to be on one’s guard.

The second observation I would venture about Kenyan timekeeping is that even if everyone hereabouts were to be converted to punctuality overnight they would find their best intentions thwarted at every turn. Failures in the electricity, water, internet, transport and, on occasion, mobile phone systems all conspire to obstruct the best laid plans. Needless to say that any plan which relies on more than one of these systems functioning fully is particularly vulnerable-there is doubtless a sophisticated mathematical or statistical term for this phenomenon, but idiomatic Anglo-Saxon phrases tend to come more readily to mind.

However, thirdly, most Africans simply have a different way of prioritising tasks from their English counterparts. A psychologist might say that Africans are “event orientated” rather than “task orientated” i.e they tend to concentrate on the demands and needs of the persons immediately in view rather than on the more abstract idea of completing a task. Before my readers leap to their feet to denounce such a state of affairs in sympathy with Merle and me, I would ask one and all to reflect upon the positive side of this. Merle and I as mere sojourners in Kenya are often in need of help with some problem or other; the last response on earth you would ever hear from a Kenyan friend or colleague (or for that matter the average stranger) to a request for aid is, “I’m sorry, I’m too busy”. If anything, in seeking assistance one has to beware of the opposite problem as your African interlocutor will feel such a pressing duty to help and please you that giving an answer will be a greater priority than giving an accurate answer-this latter problem is frequently overcome by a little patience and light conversation giving your helper time for further reflection and to consult his own circle of acquaintance, and an entirely sensible answer to your difficulty will eventually emerge from this lingering process of discussion. Clearly, though, this all takes time.

A classic example of “lateness coming upon us” occurred a couple of weeks back when Merle and I spent a day walking in the Ngong Hills south-west of Nairobi. Ngong is the Maasai word for knuckles, the seven peaks of the ridge of hills, some twelve and a half miles long, being reminiscent from a distance of the undulations of the back of a clenched fist (assuming you came from a Norfolk coastal village and had seven fingers). We did not walk alone but with a hiking group of twenty-something young professionals to which an intern in our office belonged, and an armed guard from the Kenyan Wildlife Service (the hills are known for the occasional marauding wild animal and a little light banditry).

The walk itself was a delight. For the first half the ridge was covered in hill fog obscuring the views and leaving one with the feeling of a walk on the fells in the Lake District until one was jolted back to reality in turning a corner to see a Maasai cowherd and his charges; for the second half the fog obligingly cleared allowing the Great Rift Valley to be seen in all its glory-even the opposite view back to Nairobi had its attractions. The walk over, we took a Nissan (a 14 seater matatu) to a nearby restaurant, arranging with the driver to pick us up at six thirty sharp so as to arrive in the local town for transport back to Nairobi before nightfall.

Come six thirty the organiser of the trip telephoned the driver who confirmed that he was in the restaurant car park as arranged. Upon going to the car park we discovered that the driver was with us in spirit rather than bodily present with his matatu-for the next hour our organiser held a number of conversations with the driver all of which concluded with the driver assuring us that he was on the restaurant driveway-surely we could see his headlights? The headlights too turned out to be of the figurative rather than the literal sort. Over an hour later than arranged, our driver turned up, but now the night was black as pitch, slowing even the usually reckless matatu to a crawl (country roads having no markings or even a defined edge). Lateness piled upon lateness; our second matatu to Nairobi got caught in a jam caused by an accident, a situation hardly helped by our driver’s habit of thinking it his duty to correct every other driver on their road-craft rather than in making progress with the journey.

Eventually we were dropped at a particularly frantic corner of central Nairobi (aka “The New Babylon”) gone nine thirty-no place for a westerner after dark. So, as Merle and I waited for our taxi, our African walking companions touchingly delayed their own onward journeys to form a corral around us so that “ne’er do wells” would see that we had company. Needless to say, the taxi was delayed in coming to us and only fixed our location when we passed on to the driver that we were standing by “Bomb Blast”, the former site of the American Embassy! By the time Merle and I were whisked away to our bed, lateness had come upon all our companions, but for the best and most African of reasons-it simply would not have occurred to them to leave visitors unaccompanied in unsafe surroundings.

SIMILAR-BUT NOT IN THE MATHEMATICAL SENSE

To an English lawyer there is much at first glance in the Kenyan legal system that will seem wholly familiar; given that Kenya was a British colony for much of the first half of the twentieth century (and before that a British protectorate from the end of the eighteen eighties) this is hardly surprising. Thus, as as result of possessing a common law system after the English model, the structure of the courts, the names of the office holders and the practice of law in Kenya all sit easily with English legal sensibilities at first blush.

Since the promulgation of the “New Constitution” of 2010, Kenya has a Supreme Court rather than looking to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council as its final court of appeal, below which (in descending order of seniority), it has the Court of Appeal, High Court (in effect the equivalent of the Crown and County Courts in the UK-Kenya has no equivalent of our own High Court) and various grades of Magistrates’ Court which, in common with the High Court, possess both criminal and civil jurisdiction. Cases are heard by a wholly professional judiciary-no lay magistrates and no jury trials. Added to this structure are Sharia, or Kahdis’, Courts to serve Kenya’s Muslim minority (amounting to a little over 10% of the population); these courts enjoy jurisdiction over civil matters where both of the parties are Muslim and consent to the use of Sharia Law to resolve their dispute, though ultimately the parties do have a route of appeal from the Kahdis’ Court to the regular court structure.

After the curiosity of the Kahdis’ Court, the sources of Kenyan law continue to reveal some of the differences between Kenyan and English law. In addition to the constitution (a written constitution in contrast to the position in the UK) the principle sources of Kenyan law are statute and case law; however, imitation being the highest form of flattery, many Kenyan statutes are effectively copies of their UK equivalent. As well as looking to their own bodies of statutory and case law, Kenyan courts recognise some English statutes and areas of case law as being binding (and see much of English law as being of persuasive value even where it does not strictly need to be followed). Strange though to the English eye is the preservation in the 2010 constitution of “customary law”, that is, tribal law. Given that Kenya had 43 recognised tribal groups (an additional tribe has been recognised during our time here) customary law should not by any means be thought of as a single, homogeneous collection of laws outside of the other sources mentioned above. That said, customary law is not given the same status as other sources of law-firstly, the constitution contains a “repugnancy clause” by which customary law will only be adhered to to the extent that it does not contradict the constitution, existing statute law or outrage public morals or decency, and, secondly, the existence of a claimed customary law must always be proved by evidence called by the party seeking to rely on it.

Having noted that many Kenyan statutes are almost direct copies of the English law on the same topics, I should add that Kenyan legislators are not above making innovations. Indeed the very familiarity of much Kenyan law to the English lawyer makes the exceptions stand out all the more. A single example from criminal law will serve to make my point; in the UK, the general rule is that a confession by a defendant will be admissible against him as proof of the matters acknowledged-in Kenya the general rule is that a confession is inadmissible unless made to a police officer of the rank of inspector and above or in a sworn statement before a magistrate. It would seem that there was a time when the police in Kenya suffered from the same habit that some of the UK’s now defunct Regional Crime Squads once displayed i.e. like the pupils of Michaelangelo they would confect a piece of art but attribute it to another! Whatever the policy reasons are behind the Kenyan approach to confessions, the effect in practice is almost as bad as the problem being avoided; given that any confession resulting from an ordinary interview would be inadmissible, most Kenyan police officers don’t bother to interview their suspects at all, denying themselves (among other things) the possibility of obtaining an early account of events that might inform their continuing investigation.

However familiar much of Kenyan law is on paper to the law in the UK this is by no means the same as saying that it operates in the same way in both countries. For example, in both countries in a criminal trial the prosecution is required to prove its case “beyond reasonable doubt” but this phrase seems to bear wildly differing interpretations in the two jurisdictions if the case papers I have read are anything to go by. Thus although the legal systems of Kenya and the UK are similar in the colloquial sense i.e. they bear a resemblance to each other, that resemblance is by no means an exact one (as suggested by the mathematical use of the word similar).

Beyond the question of whether the laws of Kenya and the courts are good, bad or indifferent are the questions of who can access the courts if they wish to and who can have representation before the courts if needed, say, because of being placed under arrest. For some years there has been free representation for those accused of capital offences but in practice the funding only stretched to those accused of murder*. However, in 2016 the Legal Aid Act passed into law, establishing Kenya’s first National Legal Aid Service to administer a legal aid fund which, in high theory, should provide free representation for all “indigent persons” (i.e. those too poor to pay for legal representation privately) across criminal, civil, childcare and constitutional cases/public interest cases. That said, a quick glance at the eligibility criteria shows that the legislators did not envisage a sea change in legal aid provision overnight-“availability of resources” is one such criterion i.e. the Service can refuse to grant a legal aid application if the government has not put enough money in the pot to fund the grant (the Act goes on to specify that a lack of legal representation on the part of a party to proceedings is no bar to the proceedings continuing). To date, the announced funding of the NLAS is modest and the intention seems to be that the state will begin by funding child maintenance cases in the Family Court; accordingly, many of those on remand awaiting their criminal trials will doubtless continue to go unrepresented for some time despite the provision for legal aid now on the statute books.

It is against such a background that CLEAR Kenya, the charity with which Merle and I are volunteering, and other similar charities work. CLEAR, Christian Legal Education Aid and Research, was set up in 1999 by the Kenya Christian Lawyers’ Fellowship to help break the link between poverty and the denial of basic legal rights to the poor, particularly to ensure that even the poorest and most disadvantaged in Kenyan Society have access to justice. CLEAR aims to achieve this end by providing free legal advice and representation, by training prisoners how to represent themselves effectively in court, by engaging in legal education for schoolchildren in their basic legal and human rights and by supporting a select number of public interest cases to encourage law reform. This work includes, at least at the Nairobi office where we are based, the charity making regular visits to two of Nairobi’s remand prisons and two of the city’s Child Remand Centres. Increasingly, CLEAR is also helping to bring about formal mediation of family disputes as a form of Alternative Dispute Resolution. CLEAR delivers these services through a network of offices in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and Eldoret, a small permanent staff and the voluntary work of lawyers, trainee lawyers and law students.

 

*In Kenya, the list of capital offences is a long one, including all forms of aggravated robbery (which in fact includes most robberies as you would have to be an exceptionally accomplished and imaginative criminal to carry out a robbery without utilising one of the mechanisms that would make your offence an aggravated one) and many of the more serious sexual offences, notwithstanding that the death penalty was ruled upon as being “unconstitutional” some years ago. However, there have been no executions since the 1980s as, by convention, the President will commute all death sentences to life imprisonment. Perhaps needless to say, life imprisonment means exactly that unless the President can be persuaded (on the recommendation of the Prison Service) to exercise his prerogative of mercy.

Food Glorious Food!

Having promised at the outset of this blog not to trouble the reader with a flood of recipes, whether of the “Clean Eating” variety or otherwise, I hesitate to post on the subject of Kenyan cuisine. The lawyer in me though would seek to draw a distinction between posting a recipe and discussing culinary matters generally; this distinction is sufficient for my (all to easily satisfied?) conscience, and I trust that it will do for the reader too.

If from my earlier descriptions of our travels the thought of using a matatu makes you feel a little queasy you need have no fear on that score when it comes to the local diet, which is both wholesome and tasty. That said, two groups will find it particularly difficult to eat out in Kenya; firstly, anyone from the UK who is on a fashionable “low-carb” diet will find it hard to order a meal without a starchy food at its heart (the idea of picking away at a near empty plate of “nouvelle cuisine” would seem laughable in Kenya) and, secondly, vegetarians will be treated with consternation.

At first blush, the second of these two difficulties is the more perplexing as Kenya appears to have a large variety of vegetarian stews on the menu and roadside stalls a plenty bursting with locally grown vegetables. Appearances though are deceptive; even many vegetable dishes are cooked in or served with meat broth for, in truth, however much Kenyans like their vegetables, vegetarianism is treated (at best) as a quixotic folly and (at worst) as a form of self-abuse. I suspect that meat eating is a sign of prosperity-reinforcing this point is the fact that many rights of passage ceremonies centre on the slaughtering, cooking and communal division of animals, particularly goats. Added to this, African mores around the giving of hospitality must be born in mind; a host will want to give bounteously and of their best (i.e. meat if it can be afforded), and a guest will want to show their appreciation by eating heartily of whatever is set before them.

A typical Kenyan meal would have as its bulk either potato, ugali (maize porridge) or matoke (plantain), eaten with a variety of meat, bean or vegetable stews and accompanied by stir fried vegetables or a salad. There is also a strong Indian influence to the cuisine through the descendants of the the workers employed to build the Mombasa to Kampala railway in the early 20th Century, so rice, chapatis and mild curries feature as staples. Fruit is plentiful but pudding lovers will be disappointed as formal dessert (outside of an expensive restaurant) is a novelty. Dairy products are expensive and rarely used in cooking save for copious amounts of milk which is often used to make “Kenyan Tea”-although making tea with warm milk rather than water is an appalling (indeed heretical) thought to most Englishmen, in the heat of the day it makes for a drink that nourishes as well as refreshes. Another drink that goes down well in the heat is Mala, fermented milk, which has the consistency of yoghurt and a faint taste of cottage cheese.

For our own part we made the decision early on to eat the local diet and have not (yet) lived to regret our choice, not least because of the cheapness of most of the staples of life. Particular favourites are, ndengu (mung bean stew), gutheri (bean and maize stew-the complementary proteins mean that one can get by without too much meat), matoke (plantain stew) and kimi (beef and ginger curry). Many of the forgoing can happily be served with mukimo, a potato, bean, maize and spinach mash. We frequently make ugali, though, much to the disapproval of our Kenyan friends, we add a little salt and butter-ugali is so bland that it can be eaten with a wide variety of foods at all times of the day, including with milk for breakfast. Many of our meals are accompanied by “sukuma wiki”, kale, spinach or unidentified and unpronounceable “greens”, stir fried with garlic and ginger, or salad, avocado and tomatoes being easy to prepare, cheap and immensely flavourful. Incidentally, sukuma wiki means “stretch the week” the implication being that the greens are so cheap it helps a householder to stretch the budget to the next weekly pay cheque. Paw-paw, mango, melon, pineapple and bananas make up for pudding proper, though we have made an occasional mango crumble. We have however stuck to our Western habits as far as breakfast is concerned; uji, fermented flour porridge with a faintly luminous purple tinge, has proved to be a bridge too far in our acculturation to Kenyan cuisine.

This brings us neatly to the subject of shopping in Kenya, which does not by any means always involve using anything as commonplace as a shop. For those determined to replicate their Western diet, Nairobi has modern supermarkets and specialist shops in secure malls a-plenty, brim full of Western branded goods. Be sure to bring a full wallet though as most branded goods would be several times more expensive in Kenya than in the UK; by way of example, a simple and relatively cheap meal in the UK might be pasta and pesto, but buy both items here and you could easily spend what we shell out on fruit and vegetables for a week-add a little Parmesan and you might as well inform your children to stop trading on their expectations of an inheritance.

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[The Yaya Centre-sorry not to have any shots of the interior but photography inside is not permitted just in case we might be on a reconnaissance mission for terrorists (I think it’s Merle that brings suspicion upon us).  The interior is of interest as some effort has been made to give it a higgledy-piggledy look more akin to a medieval shopping street than the usual mall design of a rectangular box with rectangular shops in rows.  Note the high-rise to the left; it is in fact an apartment block that is part of the centre so that particularly pampered or delicate souls can go shopping without having to set foot on the streets of Nairobi.]

Next in the pecking order of shops are the older supermarkets and specialist shops such as butchers, bakers and grocers, often congregated in small shopping centres such as our own local Kasuku Centre. Such centres have a feel vaguely reminiscent of village and market town shopping in England in the 1970’s (and are none the worse for that) save for the presence of armed guards at the entrance! Some Western branded goods are available but local and regional products will be to the fore. Beware of assuming that Kenyan equivalents to your favourite foods in the UK will have the same taste and texture that you are used to; Kenyan jam, for example, is essentially sugar pulp tinged with the merest sensation of fruit, and from the startling colours of many of the fizzy drinks on offer I can only assume that the makers of Sunny Delight in the UK moved their operations to East Africa after turning children orange in the 1990s.

Kiosks of many descriptions are also a common sight; typically they are free-standing metal boxes or built into the curtain walls of apartment or office blocks. As with an old-fashioned British newsagent, the kiosks sell an eclectic selection of goods (albeit through the narrow aperture at the bottom of a set of iron bars) at prices a little higher than the supermarkets.

Those in search of cheaper goods will eventually gravitate to the stalls which have sprung up at most major road junctions and on every patch of spare verge. It is at this point that the Western bargain hunter will begin to encounter problems for many such stalls operate what might charitably be called a “flexible pricing structure”. By this I most assuredly do not mean that the prices vary according to the normal rules of supply and demand (though those of course do operate); instead, the stallholder will vary their price according to your apparent wealth. Westerners often refer to this quirk as being charged “mzungu prices” i.e. prices for whites; this though is a trifle unfair as the stall holders would charge higher prices to a non-white if they pitched up at their stall in a Mercedes and wearing a suit-however it would be fair to say that the general assumption in Kenya is that if you are white you are, ipso facto, rich. We do of course have a form of flexible pricing in the West-if you must insist on shopping in Waitrose to avoid the riff-raff in Sainsbury’s your shopping bill will be higher-but this at least is an additional expense voluntarily undertaken, if for no good reason. What sticks in the craw in Kenya is that the same outlet will charge different prices to different customers for the same product within moments of each other. There are only two viable solutions to this clash of cultures, both equally unpalatable to the Western mind; forgo the potential savings in buying from a stall or barter.

Bartering is enough to bring one out in spots; in its face-to-face form it is almost wholly alien to the English mindset (we depersonalise bargain hunting by “shopping around” particularly using the internet rather than directly asking a seller to lower their prices) and most of us lack the basic piece of information needed to barter effectively i.e. what the price would be to a local. Added to this, one powerful tool the buyer has in a bartering situation is denied to us as Westerners-usually you keep secret from the seller how much money you have or are willing to spend, but this is of little purchase on a Kenyan stall holder who will assume that because you are white money will be no object. I will not trouble the reader with tales of our own feeble attempts at bartering; needless to say they have caused much amusement to our Kenyan friends and colleagues not least because we rarely manage to pay less than twice the going price despite our best efforts. Mercifully, some stall holders, when one has built a relationship with them, take pity on us poor inept Englishmen and charge the going rate, relying on our repeat custom (out of desperate gratitude) to turn a profit in the long-run.

Finally, an honourable mention ought to go to the army of hawkers present in Nairobi most of whom walk up and down the lines of traffic jams or set up a tray of goods on a brick podium by the kerbside. The range of goods on supply from these hardy entrepreneurs defies easy categorisation; beyond sweets, snacks and more wholesome foodstuffs, we have been offered belts, shoes, suits, bathroom scales, padlocks, souvenirs, live produce, clubs (!), Monopoly sets, hatstands (seriously) indeed anything where the seller saw a chance to turn an honest shilling. I should add that buying from a hawker or a stallholder in no way necessarily implies a lack of quality compared to a kiosk or a conventional shop-the fruit and vegetables on supply on the streets is often a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach, and it is quite touching to see even the meanest hawker (whose business capitol often consists of little more that a plastic washing-up bowl to display their wares) carefully cleaning and arranging their goods before “opening for business”.

So, I trust, I have kept to my promise-no recipes merely a general discussion on matters culinary. For those tempted by any of the above a quick Google search of “Kenyan recipes with [matoke, black beans, beef, goat etc]” will find no end of websites as hosting a foodie blog in Kenya is almost as popular as churchgoing. Two words of warning; the occasional recipe will require you to source a litre or two of blood, and practically all will require more garlic than an obsessive Frenchman could get through in a month of Sundays.

Always Room for One More

The leader of our church home group has a saying that such groups are like matatus as “There is always room for one more”. We were to discover the truth of this aphorism on our tour round the KCLF fellowships and branch offices of CLEAR in the Western Highlands of Kenya in the run up to Easter. As a bonus, we were also to discover why Kenyans pray so earnestly for safety before making a journey.

The first stage of our journey, from Nairobi to Nakuru, was the most troublesome as it started in Nairobi CBD to the east of Moi Avenue i.e. in the part of central Nairobi marked on all the maps “Here be dragons”. All joking aside, most of our Kenyan friends would avoid the matatu station in town if they could; indeed the word “station” conjures up an image of order wholly at odds with the reality (you will have to imagine the scene for yourself-I would have been on the wrong side of insanity to have taken my smartphone out to take a photo). Our grand plan to have our taxi driver drop us at the correct stop for Nakuru came to little as the driver was keener to get out of the matatu station than we were (apparently, in the centre of town, snapping off the wing mirrors of taxis and selling them on to drivers who lost their mirrors the week before is big business!). Consequently, we leapt on to the first matatu going in the right direction only to discover that we had gone for the budget end of the market-the only two seats left were immediately behind the driver which, in a Nissan 15 seater, means restricted legroom as the engine casing protrudes into the front of the passenger compartment. The rest break half way into our three hour journey consisted of a dusty road junction with a couple of hawkers offering refreshments and a cactus hedge for those needing the bathroom. Happily, our legs and backsides were soon so numb that if they were aching we couldn’t tell. That said, the journey passed quickly enough as the scenery was breathtaking (our first view of the Great Rift Valley), our appreciation of which was enhanced by a friendly fellow passenger who pointed out the landmarks along the way.

Nakuru is a modestly sized industrial town on the road from Nairobi to the Ugandan border. The main selling point of the town itself (in common with all the provincial towns we visited) is that IT IS NOT NAIROBI! Nakuru has a wholly different feel to the capitol; one can happily walk the streets without being obsessed by the possibility of crime or looking out for the nearest shop or apartment block to duck into in the event of trouble. Nakuru also boasts two of Kenya’s (many) natural wonders, the Menengai Crater and Lake Nakuru; the former being an extinct volcano (the bowl of which is beginning to be tapped for geothermal energy) and the latter being a National Park previously best known for its flocks of millions of flamingos. I say “previously known” as the water levels in Lake Nakuru have risen of late, diluting the alkali salts which bred the algae on which the birds fed, leading to an exodus. Although a blow for the local tourist industry, the absence of the flamingos did nothing to diminish our delight in taking a tour of the park during our stay-I am only sorry that my poor photography does little justice to the grandeur of the Rift Valley.

Nakuru Town:

Lake Nakuru:

Fluffy animals (for those that like such things):

From Nakuru we travelled (by matatu-will we never learn!?) towards our main destination, Kisumu on Lake Victoria, breaking our journey overnight at Kericho, a delightful market town serving the tea plantations of Western Kenya. This particular journey included a vital stop to allow the driver to disable the speed limiter on the vehicle-this expedient gave him a slight edge over the oncoming vehicles in the extended game of “Chicken” that characterises most long distance matatu trips. Merle and I took in the local markets and walked in the countryside to view the tea fields-tea plantations are particularly bucolic and restful being a combination of clipped tea bushes and acres of forests.

Kericho and countryside:

Our matatu ride to Kisumu the following day was a classic of its kind. Having told the conductor that we would not ride on his matatu if he persisted in trying to tie our case to the roof with baling twine (we wanted our luggage inside the passenger compartment) he then tried to charge us for three tickets rather than two despite the fact that our case was placed on a seat already half full of freight (we eventually beat him down to Ksh100-75 pence-for the case). During the journey, despite the matatu appearing to be full, additional passengers were squeezed in by the expedient of placing planks of wood in the gaps between seats-I spent the last half of the journey sharing my seat with the conductor-I knew better than to ask for a partial refund.

Our Hosts in Kisumu:

Kisumu, like Nakuru, is troubled by ecological problems-water hyacinth often chokes the waterfront of the town, blown into the bay that forms Kenyan territorial waters by the prevailing wind from Lake Victoria. That said, however bad the hyacinth is for the local hotels and boatman it would take more than the alien weed to detract from the beauty of the lake and its surroundings. We spent an afternoon at a restaurant on a promontory a short Tuk-Tuk ride from Kisumu and managed a short boat trip to see a herd of hippos up close despite the weed closing in on the shore line. Our long weekend in Kisumu also allowed us to travel with our hosts to their ancestral lands near to the Ugandan border, the land a demi-Eden of fertility; the trip also gave us the opportunity to learn how African extended families negotiate the border between their traditional patterns of living (see my earlier post-Bomas!) and the modern world.

Lake Victoria:

CLEAR Office and Irritating Tourists:

Kisumu to Eldoret, an agricultural service town on the main road from Nairobi to Uganda, is a three hour journey. The penny having finally dropped, we splashed out on a “Peugeot”, a seven seater matatu where (for a 20% or so uplift on the standard matatu fare) you get more leg room, a swifter journey and the expectation of a seat to call your own. Our descent to Eldoret brought us back into the drought ridden part of Kenya from the lushness of the hills of the Western highlands proper. The shortness of our time in Eldoret did not permit much sightseeing in the surrounding area-our guidebook rather dismisses Eldoret itself with the comment that the only point of note for the tourist is the town’s cheese factory. Such a judgement is grossly unfair-we ourselves noted several public lavatories in the town, sightings of which in Kenya are rarer than those of leopards, one of which sported the legend “Rehabilitated in 2014” (though the crime the toilet block had committed in its previous life was not specified).

Our seven-hour journey back to Nairobi demanded the drastic step of using a coach-for less than double the cost of the equivalent matatu ride we made steady progress back down the Rift Valley to our current home. The coach was clean, spacious and airy, and also provided an excellent viewing platform for the myriad vistas presented-many parts of the scenery were reminiscent of the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands and it is easy to see how many of the white settlers came to covet the land hereabouts. The elevated seating position also insulated us from the army of hawkers that surrounded the coach on the occasions that it ground to a halt on long uphill sections or at one of the legion of speed bumps placed for no particular reason along the road-one hawker offered us a live white rabbit (I presume for the cooking pot rather than in the hope that we might be a magician and his glamorous assistant in need of a cast member to pull from a hat).

Our nine day journey around Western Kenya had allowed us to meet with the fellowships in Nakuru, Kisumu and Eldoret and to visit the offices and staff of CLEAR in the latter two towns. Aside from sharing our respective experiences as lawyers in different jurisdictions and times of prayer, the main subject matter of our conversations was to do with the day-to-day work of CLEAR and will not perhaps interest the general reader of this blog. However, it would be quite wrong of me not to record my thanks to the members of the KCLF and the staff of CLEAR who were unfailingly warm, helpful and lavishly generous in their hospitality.

By way of a postscript I ought to mention that our trip to Mombasa (originally due this week) has been postponed for a fortnight or so. Those awaiting photographs of palm fringed beaches (or of us melting in the high humidity) will have to be patient-my next blog post will be on Kenyan cuisine.

BOMAS!

Bomas is neither an exotic fruit nor a local curse but Swahili for “homestead”; Bomas of Kenya is a cultural centre on the outskirts of Nairobi dedicated to preserving the music, dance and house-building traditions of the major tribal groups in Kenya. For a modest entrance fee, one can take a delightful woodland walk to visit a series of reconstructions of bomas each in a different architectural style, and follow up the walk with a two-hour floor show of dance, music and acrobatics in a splendid “in the round” theatre. Interestingly, the centre is not so much aimed at tourists as Kenyan Nationals; the floor show begins with the Kenyan national anthem and a less than subtle commentary to the effect that Kenya’s diverse tribal cultures ought to be a source of national pride rather than communal division.

Although the woods contain over twenty separtate bomas, certain trends were evident in the construction of the homesteads. Communities subsisting by farming or fishing tended to build more permanent structures (wooden framed houses with walls of clay and/or dung) whereas herders built temporary structures (lighter/transportable wooden frames with walls of dry grass or animal skins). Another trend was the decreasing size of hut for each wife after the first, and the first wife having a more prominent and splendid hut than the husband (as many of the ceremonial functions would fall upon the first wife). A third common feature was the segregation of boys from girls within the bomas, the latter usually living in grandmother’s hut to pick up the rudiments of tribal life at the fireside. I attach a few pictures for flavour-you will see that during the course of the afternoon I graciously promoted Merle from 2nd to 1st wife for good behaviour.

Merle and I cleverly had the woodland walk to ourselves by going out at midday, but them found ourselves unaccountably tired come the early afternoon. Happily, the centre had a shady restaurant with wonderful views over the neighbouring countryside to while away the time with a good book before the floor show. The floor show itself was bewitching-two hours of drum music is quite an assault on the senses and the standard dance moves (which seem to involve a lot of high-speed waggling of the hips/backside and shoulders) are bewildering to westerners. Equally bewildering was the Kenyan equivalent (I think) of a pantomime. The plot seemed to involve a young man turning to a witch-doctor to increase his ardour for his betrothed in advance of his nuptials; this required the young man in question to pull a number if items from down the front of his kilt as well as subjecting himself to a ritual involving a gourd and a grass skirt. Babes in the Wood will forever seem a little tame!

Much of our time over the last week work wise has been directed to planning our forthcoming circuit of Western Kenya to visit the branch offices of CLEAR and the branch fellowships of KCLF, this has included putting together an online survey of the members of KCLF which we hope will prompt discussions about the fellowship and its charity work as we travel around. In addition, Merle and I played a starring role as a divorcing couple at a mediation training workshop role-play session on Friday (for reasons that are beyond me, Merle found it quite easy to put some considerable venom into her role-perhaps I should have promoted her to 1st wife sooner).

Philosophical Reflections

Anyone who has ever been a participant in a sixth-form debating society will be familiar with this standard query for disputation, “Is it better to be a contented pig or a discontented Socrates?”. Merle and I have been faced with a similar dilemma now that the winter rains have arrived in Nairobi; having complained for the last seven weeks about the heat and the dust, we now have the rain and the (relative) cool that it brings, but the dust has turned to cloying mud!

In favour of the heat and the dust it should be said that this is the default setting for Nairobi and the city is set up to keep running in this state. Dust is easy to clean off skin and clothing alike; indeed, one of life’s little luxuries come the evening is to wash away the dust of the day upon returning home (though I realise in saying this I sound like the tramp who deliberately wore boots that were too small for him as taking them off at the end of the day was his only pleasure!). The rains on the other hand have not only brought a little relief from the heat (though it is still warm enough to be attired in shirt sleeve order) but also added a new sweetness to the air in Nairobi, but at a price.

Many of the pavements in parts of Nairobi are more pot-holed than the roads (quite an achievement in itself) with broken paving slabs, collapsing kerb-stones and missing man-hole covers. At the best of times this makes a walk in a working district such as Hurlingham where we are based something of an obstacle course, but the addition of puddles turns one’s journey to work into something akin to a Japanese endurance TV programme. Naturally, the major roads have storm drains, but during the dry these serve as informal rubbish bins which rather negates their usefulness come the rain; the rain also has the effect of “re-hydrating” to contents of the drains with obvious consequences. As to travel, the rains have a similar effect on Nairobi traffic as “leaves on the line” have on First Great Western trains.

However, having spent the best part of the last seven weeks praying (literally) with our Kenyan friends and fellow church members for the rains to come and break the drought in Kenya it seems a little churlish to complain now that they have arrived. So, on balance, we welcome the rain-whether this makes us contented pigs or a discontented Socrates I can hardly say!

The first stage of work in Nairobi for Merle and me is drawing to a close; we have been able to see much of the work of CLEAR Kenya through the Nairobi office at first hand, particularly the prison visiting and the educational programme for children, and to learn much of the internal workings of the charity from our meetings with the trustees and our daily time with the Director of CLEAR, Joyce. Merle, has continued her work updating the database of KCLF members, a task made all the more perplexing for someone from England by the myriad of local naming conventions which vary from tribe to tribe even within Kenya. For my part I have been helping to redesign the CLEAR website using my new found knowledge of the charity and its day-to-day work to write the content (no sniggering at the back from those acquainted with my love of IT). In between times, we help lead Friday fellowship meetings in the office and try to build up our network of acquaintances in the local KCLF fellowship. However, rather than remaining in Nairobi to assist in the ongoing work of CLEAR we have been asked to look at the present and future funding of the charity (which achieves an awful lot of good work on a skeleton staff and a slender budget), and to this end we will be visiting the branch offices of CLEAR in Kisumu (on Lake Victoria), Eldoret (in the Western Kenya) and Mombasa (on the coast) to meet with and listen to the staff and the local KCLF fellowship members over the next few weeks.

By way of a postscript I ought to add an apology for the benefit of those itching to see a few photographs illustrating the work of CLEAR-much of the work takes place in prisons, courts, children’s homes and schools, all places where photography is discouraged if not forbidden outright.