Africa is a wild ride

Oct 06 2012

Milamani backpackers was where we stayed the first four nights we were in Africa. It Is in Nairobi but down a fairly quiet street. There is a 24 hr security guard at the metal gate who lets people and cars in and out and a dog named Scooby do who assists in guard duty. Scooby has the run of the place and is not above snapping at someone who might be sitting in his spot. Most of the travelers stay in a dorm that consists of 5 bunk beds. The first few nights Sequoyah and I had our own smaller dorm room to ourselves which was conducive to my acclamation process. The beds are $10 US a night. There is an open air restaurant with a bar and fire area in the center. This is where everyone mostly hangs out when not in their room or on the computer. It is has a rustic charm. It did take me a day or two to get used to the dorm style bathrooms that you share with all the hostels residents male and female alike.

The food is different here and I am getting used to it. I really like the chapatis which remind me of a very thick and greasy tortilla. It is relatively expensive to eat at the hostel and so for breakfast we walk to a small very “local” open air café. We eat chiptatis, beans, cooked cabbage and very sweet chai. We are the only white people and this is a source of many stares. But the owners always seem happy to see us. The breakfast costs less than $ 2 US. Every one mostly eats with their hands. There are sinks or containers of water in most eating places to wash before and after eating. No towels of course.

I have learned to carry toilet paper with me always and am prepared for squatting over a hole, which actually is preferable to most of the toilets I have encountered. There is a large barrel of water in the bathrooms with buckets to dip the water out to “flush.”

We are constantly meeting the most interesting people here. Kevin, an older white Kenyan seems to be a fixture at Milimani. He owns a home in Uganda near the border of Congo and as best as I can understand it , his job is to facilitate the transfer of aid into the Congo. I imagine this is could be a sketchy business at time.

Ali is 42 yrs old and also a native Kenyan with Pakistani parents. He also lives in Uganda but works as an IT guy in Nairobi. Milimani is his home base while working. Ali went with us one day to the Kibera slum. I could tell that he was impressed with Sequoyah’s relationship to the people there and also somewhat surprised at the conditions despite having lived here for so long. It is always different to see things first hand. He had some very good ideas regarding the establishment of a web page and how, if the means were ever there, teaching the children how to become comfortable learning the computer.

Both Ali and Kevin are open and friendly and seem happy to meet new people but they suffer no fools and do not hesitate to express their strong minded opinions. They are vastly independent individualists that remind me of the men I met on a trip in Alaska years ago. I speculate that a white man born in Africa must fight their own particular battles to survive here. (I have yet to meet any white African women)

Then we meet Paul and Bill. Sequoyah brought a suitcase full of books for Paul from a friend in the US. Paul is in his senior year of high school. He is a voracious reader and has not limited his education to the school curriculum. He is well versed in the politics of Africa and the world. He said he would like to make a change in the world and I believe he will. He lives in Tanzania and took the bus to Nairobi from his home in Dar. He arrived at night and was almost immediately robbed at knife point.
Paul’s friend Bill, who he is staying with while here, lives in Nairobi. He is quiet and thoughtful, watching and listening all the time. Both young men are very intelligent and will certainly be an asset to Africa as they grow up.

THEN there is Jennifer. Jennifer is from Northern Ireland. She is petite, has red hair, green eyes and freckles. A classic Irish beauty. She is 22 yrs old and came to Africa months ago with an NGO. They started their work in Gana. The last few weeks she has spent living in a hut with a Masai woman and her children. No electricity, no running water, a 20 minute walk to the next hut. She told me how at one point one of the children tipped over the lamp oil container and after that they had no light after dark as something like that is not readily replaced.

Jennifer is understated in her quiet humble way. In truth she is spunky and brave. She travels confidently through the streets on her own, which I very much admire. Her next project in Tanzania was not inspiring to her and after talking to Sequoyah decided to visit the Kibera slum with us. When we left Nairobi she was established as a volunteer teacher with them for the remainder of her time in Africa.

We take a bus with Regan to a small town called Miguri. He needs to check on the land that St Catherine’s has purchased and we would like to see it. It is an 8 hour bus ride with one bathroom stop. I deliberately drink as little as possible and have no chai that morning. The driving in Kenya is really insane. I have no doubt that Sequoyah saved my life at least 3 times the first couple days walking around Nairobi. They drive on the other side of the road here and so the first thing one must get used to is looking right instead of left first. Other than having designated sides of the road to drive on, there seems to be no rules. And I think even that one is really just a suggestion. You could not drive here if you didn’t have a horn in good working order. It is standard practice to honk your intention to pass someone or to let a vehicle or pedestrian know that you have no intention of slowing down for them, so get out of the way fast. I have not seen anyone run over yet but witnessed a few close calls including involving myself. In Nairobi the streets are full of more traffic than I have ever seen in that amount of space. Buses, cars, taxis, matates rule the road. Pedestrians have no rights and must find their own way across the streets. There are no cross walks, few lights, no stop signs. Many of the people who live here are either very brave or have just lost their patience for it as they just step out in front of the cars to cross the street. It is like playing a game of “chicken” but a more deadly version than I grew up with.

On the bus I decide that it is better not to watch the driving and concentrate on the countryside instead, which is fascinating. We travel along a narrow highway, with no room to spare, thru small dusty towns. The speed bumps are the only thing that protects the people and animals from being run over. If our bus comes up behind a slower vehicle he will pass, it seems, no matter how close the oncoming vehicle happens to be, sometimes missing it by inches. The Matatus are the worse. They are mini buses that literally cram as many people and animals in as possible and then go screaming down the road at an ungodly speed. We passed one that had just run off the road. We went by too fast for me to see it there were casualties.

At one point in our journey to Uganda we took a 2 hour cab ride rather than take a matatu, our only other option. While riding with Ben, our driver, I started to get a better understanding of how it all works. For all the speed we traveled, (I noted at one point 120 Km/80 mph) Ben was a very good driver. There seems to be a whole system of signals that are apparently agreed upon here. These consist of honking, blinkers, and hand signals. East African road language. He got us safely to the bus station for another long bus ride over the boarder to Uganda.

On the bus to Uganda I sit next to Javenta and her beautiful 5 month old baby girl Faith. Javenta tells me that she is soon to join her husband in Chicago. He is a doctor and she is a teacher who have acquired Green Cards for the US. He has been there several months already looking for work. She is on the bus returning home after a short trip to finish the last of the money exchange for her Green card. She expresses how strange it was to hand over so much money (and here she holds her hands about 12 inches apart) to receive just 3 small pieces of paper in return.

Javenta asks me what it is like in Chicago. I tell her I have never been but share what I know. She has many questions about the US. Can you buy land? What are your crops? What foods are available? I tell her that you can get anything in the US for the right price.
I spend much of the journey holding Faith. She sleeps easily on my shoulder and I am grateful for the baby fix. She is a happy, smiley, lovely child. Her mother is graceful in her manner and speech. We both have to repeat everything at least once due to the difference in our accents. We laugh and take it in stride. When we reach our destination we exchange information and I tell her to call me when she gets to the US. She says she will. And I decide that riding the bus is a wonderful way to travel.
More to come, love to you all.

3 responses so far

  1. thanks for the adventure

  2. They have the same road system as India. Quite frightening indeed. Happy to hear you were saved on more than one occasion by your sweet son.
    Did you put your feet in the nile? Love, V

  3. Your traveling adventures are very much like Liberia. If you travel by money bus which is just an old Toyota truck, they cram as many people as possible in the back but you might get lucky and get front seat and still there are 4 people there. No seat belts. food is about the same. Rice with cabbage soup or palm butter or collard greens with dry bony fish, or chicken or some kind of meat that could be deer or who knows what. But I loved the food. And you are right. Carry TP where ever you go. Also a towel. It can be used for many different things.
    Marvin, who you got to meet before you left, is back at school and studying hard. He is still in cultural shock here. I think cultural shock is more coming here than going there. There you have only one choice for deodorant, toothpaste, soap. Here there are too many choices.
    You are living your dream. Enjoy every minute.

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