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3 January, 2002 -- For people in the Southern Hemisphere, it is normal to spend Christmas under sunny skies, basking in the warmth. For those of us from farther north, it is always hard to believe that Christmas is around the corner when itís 40C (over 100F). Here there is little evidence of Christmas until the twenty-third. Then some decorations appear, the roads become busy and the banks close (the latter was a presidential edict, but the banks didnít know about it beforehand). The churches hold numerous services and all-night vigils over Christmas and at the New Year.
We booked our driver to take us to the swamp area on Christmas Eve morning. He told us to count on two hours and he was spot on. The countryside was beautiful on the journey. Rolling, green hills spreading in the distance up to the slopes of Mount Elgon, the third highest peak in Kenya. The mountain creates its own microclimate and is often shrouded in cloud and mist. An extinct volcano, it rises steeply above the surroundings. It is possible to climb to the crater, the far side of which is in Uganda.
We passed many shambas with their banana trees and palms shading the compound. Each consists of a few huts, all with steep, thatched roofs that look almost round. The larger huts are for living and sleeping while the smaller are for cooking. The roadside vendors and the market areas were very busy.
We had been warned of the dangers of travelling over the holidays, with drunkenness and people in a hurry to reach their destination. Matatu and boda boda fares doubled. There were indeed reports of terrible accidents. We watched in awe as matatus careened towards us with goods on the roof piled higher than the height of the vehicle itself, and only the rear ends of people visible through the open doors as they stood on the sills, hanging on over the bumps and curves of the road.
We arrived in Kitale at lunchtime, having passed through Webuye, a pulp-and-paper town, with the usual smells that go with the processing. The area immediately around the plant is deserted because people had to move away since the acid in the air was destroying the mud brick of the houses, not to mention the skin and lung problems. The company provides some prosperity and has a show place of a secondary school on the main highway.
Christmas news was marred by two tragic events. The President took it into his head to say that those living in Kibera, a dreadful slum area of Nairobi, should only pay half the rent asked for their hovels. This area has an interesting history. It was given to Nubian soldiers, who had served in the British Army after the First World War, but parts of it had been taken for other uses over the years and there are no real title deeds to show possession. It has shrunk in area and the population has increased. The descendants of the Nubians are still regarded as outsiders. For most of the present landlords, the income from the huts they rent out are their only income. The result of the presidential announcement was a riot, which lasted several days, caused many deaths and much loss of property. The tenants refused to pay rent; the landlords retaliated. Special Forces settled it violently as usual.
The mayor of Mombasa triggered the other upsetting event. He decided his town needed to be cleaned up and that he should get rid of all the "kiosks". These are rickety wooden stalls from which people sell vegetables, beans, or whatever they can. Ironically they also pay a daily fee to the city. The askaris (a municipal armed police force) were called in at night and proceeded to overturn and burn the kiosks. Many stallholders had property locked inside and had no chance to retrieve their goods. Again, riots, bloodshed and general mayhem. The mayor has not had good press, but that doesnít help the very poor who were scratching a living with their kiosks. This country functions by edict of someone in power and the people are left to scramble to pick up the pieces.
To return to our Christmas trip. The place where we booked is twenty-five kilometres north of Kitale. The property is perched on a hill overlooking the green valleys and woods on all sides. A very English-looking house is set in magnificent gardens with a large, grassy area for camping, the eagerly awaited "furnished tents" and a banda: a room with open sides and a thatched roof. The owners are remnants of the colonial settlers, of whom at one time there were four hundred families. There are now four. Unlike some areas, the settlersí farms here were not divided and sold in small lots, so the present farms are still quite large and viable.
The first owner of the house, Jane, was born in Egypt and married a white Kenyan born in Nairobi. They built the house fifty-four years ago and raised three children, all of whom still live here. After independence, they sold first the farm, and then the house, and Jane retreated to the UK, where she had never lived. She returned after a short while and repurchased the house and surrounding property. Both she and her daughter, Julia, are magnificent cooks and we were treated to bountiful meals on both days.
Yes, we did go to the swamp and what a wonderful experience it was. We had spent a long evening at dinner with the family, so we had a later start than expected the next morning. Hence it was already too warm to see the famous aquatic antelope. But we had a very good guide, Gabriel, who gave up his Christmas morning to take us around for some three hours (and would have done more, but the heat was growing by then.) All this for 200KES (about $1.50US). Needless to say, we gave him a Christmas tip.
There is a narrow ribbon of a river that has created a swamp area, probably no more than a half-mile to a mile wide. There are no trees in the wet area, so there is a direct view all the way across. A ridge with thick tropical forest and hundred of birds borders the swamp. The sharp eyes of our guide allowed us to see many tiny birds in the trees as well as magnificent yellow-billed storks, crested cranes, a woodland kingfisher with turquoise wings, the sacred (white) ibis and many more in the swamp. We climbed the hides, braving the rickety railings and rotten boards to look out over the green of the swamp and to get a good view of the monkeys. The colobus monkey is large, black and white, and looks like a displaced skunk swinging from the trees. Dad sends the family on ahead across the branches and follows when the wife and kids have arrived safely. The other monkey (name escapes me) is smaller and grayish and much harder to spot. They move fast and then freeze, so that their legs and tail look like branches of a tree.
I bought a book while there, written and illustrated by a Scotswoman who has lived on a ranch north of Nairobi since the seventies. The delightful account of her life is illustrated by her pen and ink drawings and watercolours. She is extremely talented and the illustrations remind me very much of "An Edwardian ladyís Journal" that has proved so popular. The difference is that this book shows people and animals as well as plants. It truly is wonderful, so if anyone knows how to draw it to the attention of a publisher to be treated like the "Edwardian Lady" please let me know.
We are now back in the swing of interviewing candidates for scholarships. Such heartrending stories from these girls, that it is sometimes hard to deal with. As I have said before, but make no excuse for repeating, their courage, sense of humour and resilience in the face of such adversity, truly amaze me. We so easily forget how blessed we are.
Last night was New Yearís Eve. The drumming and singing started just before dusk. A procession went by the house, making noise to drive out all the ills and sorrows of the old year. It went on all night, but mercifully moved away to cover the whole town. It came back about five-thirty this morning.
May the ills and sorrows of the old year have vanished for all of you.
©2002 Patricia Crossley