If you ever find yourself in a tour van marked Magical Kenya, piercing through the Northern part of the Chalbi Desert like I did, then stand advised that you will probably be the only one awake at some point. The rest of the guys in the car will be asleep, though out of no choice of their own. I was in a similar position myself a couple of weeks ago. You see, when you know that you are going for a road trip, you try and prepare; you pack enough underwear, carry sunscreen, you remember to throw your phone charger and a power bank into your bag, you carry medicine just in case and you probably will buy some snacks to keep you charged. But let me tell you something, my friend, none of those things will ever prepare you enough to visit Northern Kenya. Marsabit, to be particular.
Marsabit is large and vast. It goes on for miles and miles. You can fit Nairobi, Nyanza, and Western counties into Marsabit County. But it is not the endlessness of Marsabit that will defeat you. It is the weather. The sun over there burns with the fury of seven hells. A few months back, Safaricom flew us to North Horr to examine some of its education projects. As visitors, we were served soda. But that was no soda. It was something else. Soda that has been beaten by the North Horr sun tastes like a broken promise. It is so hot that it cannot pass through your mouth without you closing your eyes and forcing it down. It leaves you thirstier than it found you, making you wonder what was the point – if at all any existed.
However, I would be remiss if I say that the whole of Marsabit County is like that. There are regions like Marsabit Town where rains intervene in sheets and the hills and lands are green – complete with a Lake inside the Marsabit National Park aptly called Paradise, because of its unquenchable poetic charm. But let us be honest, regions like those are very few. Northern Kenya is not exactly the kind of tourist destination where you go to relax. You go there to test your limits, if you were in doubt. That is why you will never hear a typical Kenyan saying, “This Easter, I will drive North with the family for the long weekend.” No. It is always shagz or coasto.
A fortnight or so ago, I found myself in Marsabit, yet again. This time on the relatively cooler side of it. Not that there is much of a difference really. Kenya Tourism Board decided that it was about time Kenyans visited the North. And as usual, I can never turn down an invitation to travel, especially when I am not the one footing the bill. That is how I found myself in a tour van with Morris Kiruga (Owaahh), Thorn Muli (Thorn Travels), Rayhab (Potentash) and Hanna Wakisha (Kish Is Wakisha), tearing through the upper part of Chalbi Desert, where it is not all sand, where a little vegetation here and there jewels an otherwise salted earth.
It is usually when you are on the road that you find out certain things about people. You will know them by the music they play, how they dominate conversations, how they laugh – in spurts, silently, or in huge bursts – and how they sleep. It was easy to know that Kish, however young she may seem, has a soul as old as time just from the music she plays. Rayhab will never allow you to cut her story short, however long it may be. She has to finish it, and you have to pay attention. Thorn has the laugh of tickled hyenas – the kind of laugh that makes you laugh also. If it is true that laughter adds years, as old wives insist, then Thorn will die when he is old and grey. Owaahh, on the other hand, is a reckless sleeper. He is also most vulnerable when he dozes off. Granted, dozing off is a lot like eating a large Texas burger; there is no glamorous way of doing it. Lakini kusema ukweli Owaahh is a different kettle of fish. He dozes off with his shades on; perhaps that is meant to give him tinted dreams? And then when he sleeps, his head dangles in the air like he has been hung by an invisible rope; then he sways, hitting the sides of the van, and even then he still he does not wake up. Yaani, the moment the lights go dark in his head, so do the ones in his system. Completely.
Then there is this clown;
When I said nothing prepares you for a North, I meant that not even the teachings you grew up with will help you. When you are in the desert, rules change. The canons by which you were raised evaporate in the presence of the Northern sun. Such ideals like seeing is believing hold no water. Nothing Is to be taken at face value here. You can never trust the wilderness. It is treacherous. It wears you down bit by bit – first with the deathly heat and then with the thirst; your lips dry up, you find yourself licking them, the chicks you are traveling with in the car keep on applying their lip gloss and the water bottles in the tour van run empty.
The road from Nairobi to Marsabit is smooth and well tarmacked, but just before you get to Marsabit, at the corner that leads to Loiyangalani, the driver turns the nose of our vehicle to the left and plunges onto a murram road. That turn marks the end of modernity as we know it, and the beginning of our odyssey into the Chalbi Desert. Internet connection becomes sketchy. Network bars drop as if they are being pulled by gravity. You do not see a human being for miles and when you do, it is a kid or two (usually a boy) herding a host of camels. The little men are thin and darker than midnight and they do not seem to mind the grilling heat. Whenever any of them sees our van, he starts chasing after it for a while until we disappear into the thick cloud of dust that the van leaves in its wake.
Then there is that thing that deserts like the Chalbi do where you look out into the distance and you see what you may think is water. But it frustrates you, because the closer you get to it, the further it goes away from you. When you have been teased so many times by mirage after mirage – those times when the earth shines like it has been sweating – then you finally see a water body, you will not believe it. You will think the earth is pulling another fast one on you. Even if that water body is Lake Turkana, aged and fine as good wine, rising with magnificence in the horizon.
You will have to stop the van and go touch it for yourself. You will only believe it when you touch it. When the lake does not move further and further away the closer you get to it. When you finally taste its waters and remember someone you used to know.
Lake Turkana is a creation that comes highly recommended. It is a sublime swathe of water that could be blue or green or something in between depending on how the sun was hitting it when you were looking. It has been called many things. The missionaries called it Lake Rudolf and then later on some other chap thought The Jade Sea was a more fitting description. It comes as no surprise that it is difficult to find just one name that can truly reflect the sensibilities of a being that is the largest desert lake in the word, host to the highest number of Nile crocodiles and is surrounded by up to 14 ethnic communities (El Molo, Rendille, Samburu, Turkana, Dassanatch, Gabra, Borana, Konso, Sakuye, Garee, Waata, Burji and Somali) and the cradleland of the earliest species of mankind called The Turkana Girl – a partly exposed skeleton of a neolithic woman approximately 3,500 years old.
A once beautiful place, this Northern region has now become infamous for infinite strife. For the longest time, the 14 communities have been at war, fighting over scarce resources. In a place like this, the pie is small and everyone wants a piece of it. They waged terror amongst themselves, a brutal conflict that turned men into ghosts who lay waste on anyone that was different from them. The result? Communities like the El Molo are now endangered – a shadow of their former glory. It is said that only 100 adults and 80 children remain – almost an entire generation eliminated. Soon, they will become the stuff of myth and legend like the proud Warda race of giants of old that once walked these lands.To define this place using War, Heat and Barren Land would not be a lie, but it would not be a complete description. It would be a single narrative that only tells half the truth. The other truth is that there is texture in the North. A certain roughness whose luster is hidden from the naked eye. It all depends on what you see when you look at the people and the place. You could see barrenness, or you could see an untapped potential of high energy wind power. You could see hopelessness in the eyes of the tribes that live here. Or you could look at the them and see a people who have adopted the character of the camels they keep – strong, resilient, unfazed by the scorching sun. People who continue to exist despite the curveballs that life throws at them. When you come to think of it, Mother Nature does not deal you a hand you can’t handle.
Lake Turkana might not be Kenya’s best kept secret, but it sure is a pleasant surprise. The communities here have a rich colourful culture whose brightness still shines to date. And that is why the Marsabit—Lake Turkana Cultural Festival is held every year. To remind everyone that these people are elegant heartbeats of Northern Kenya; a unique (and at the same time diverse) society of people who swear by the sun’s flame above their heads and the warm sand beneath their feet.
If there is anything that stood out for me, it had to be the place we stayed. Malabo Resort – the sign at the entrance read. When Mariah Kochale and her husband were pregnant, he built this hotel and named it after their little girl, Malabo which is a Rendille word for ‘honey’. Both Malabos are now four years old. It is at this resort that we would spend most of our time during the Marsabit-Lake Turkana Festival in Loiyangalani.
As is the norm with such media trips, there is never a shortage of drama. This one come with a pair.
1. Offensive journalist
So we (bloggers) are chilling at Malabo, right? The night is bright and clear. Cold Tuskers on the table. Then this lady reporting for the state broadcaster, who had joined our table earlier, decides to call it a night. You know what she says? She says, “Let me go rest. You know some of us have actual work to do in the morning.” Oh yes she did. She went there. The bloggers exchange knowing looks. In their faces, you could see their heads exploding, shouting ‘OH NO YOU DIDN’T!” Madam Reporter walks away, her salty attitude running after her, trying to catch up.
She said that because she imagines that we bloggers were there as accessories. We are useless, you know? She said that, never mind that she and her camera man were the reason we had stayed behind the previous day – out of courtesy, we allowed them to use our van to cover the festival event for their station.
I could have said something. Oh, I really wanted to tell her something smart. I wanted to tell her that it is very ironic that she insinuates we are irrelevant when she reports for a media station that was last relevant when The Turkana Girl was still in college. But I did not. I bit my tongue and sipped my Tusker. There was no need of making her look bad, because going by the state of her hair, God had already won that battle for me.
2. Something going round
Malabo was just fine until the last day. The festival was big and the human traffic was starting to get to them. So they did not clean the room and their food began to taste funny. And there is nothing as awful as your lunch disagreeing with you in Turkana. You have nobody to help you. All you can do is drink Coke and sit it out.
At this point, I should probably inform you that Thorn, Owaahh and I were staying in the same room. It is not that KTB guys were being cheapskates, no. It was just a matter of sizes. The Lake Turkana festival is big and the number of hotels around are small. So we had to share. Understandably.
First, the food poisoning started with Thorn. He said he could not join us for swimming at Oasis, that he needed to rest. We said fine. That afternoon he spent a lot of time in the bog. Then it came for me in the evening. When it did, it tied my stomach into a painful knot. Those ones for you can only sleep on one side of your belly. You go to the loo and shit is watery.
And here is the thing about having a running stomach. You never want anyone to know that you have a running stomach. You are a man. You try to hide it. To suffer alone and take it like a man. Especially when chicks are around because it is just embarrassing. But that only works when you are in the comfort of your house in Nairobi. This one, we were in Turkana. I had to seek help (not that anyone could not notice anyway). Kwanza now that I was sharing a room with two other jamaas.
So Thorn and I are in the room, right? The air conditioner is ridding the air of our shit. I tell him I need to use the bathroom. He says sawa. We are now brothers in sickness. I walk into the loo and lower my trousers, but just as soon as I sit on the bowl, Kish comes to our room.
Now, this room is a basic room. The loo does not even have a door; it is just a curtain that keeps flapping because of the air conditioner. I do not want to release anything, even though I am dying to, because now there is a girl in the room and the stink would kill her. And I feel too embarrassed to shout from the toilet “okay, you guys have to leave or else you will suffer the brunt of this shit storm that is about to erupt!”
Oh, this was dramatic. My defences were being tried from everywhere. On one hand, I am trying to hold the seat of the loo that cannot stay upright, another hand is struggling to hold the door cloth from flapping open lest Kish sees me and my arse. I am squeezing hard so that I do not empty my bowels. Because you know, with a running stomach, when you release, it does not come out silently. It revs like a Volkwagen Beetle engine that has seen better days. Since it is water shit, it I knew it was bound to make that Pppprrrrr pprrrr prrrr pata pata pata pata sound on its way out.
I think Thorn must have noticed my struggle, because after a while he tells her, “You know what, take me to your room. I want to see it.” I sat there praying that she doesn’t say no.
But I serve a living God.
She says sawa.
The first thing I let go of is the door cloth. Then the seat, because I was not tired. Then finally I break loose. And at that very instant, shit hit the fan a serious one. My entire alimentary canal came crashing down on my rectum like the walls of Jericho. Breaking its gates.
Pppprrrrr pprrrr prrrr pata pata pata pata!!! Prrrr! Prrr! Prrrrrrrrr! Pata pata pata patatatatata….it all came rushing out with so much force, so much enthusiasm, so much vigor that the toilet water splashed on my buttocks. It was like a revolution led by Sarafina, all that sick and undigested food singing “Freeeeddooom is coming tomorrow!”
The shower after that took forever.
And nobody touched that Malabo food until we left.