First the plan was Oloitoktok, or so I thought. Then it was changed to Garissa. Then logistics guys took too long to get their ducks in line, and we left Nairobi at 4.30pm. So the Garissa plot is put on ice. The locations guy and the driver agree that we drive to Mwingi and sleep over there, then rise early for Garissa before the sun finished wearing her make up for the day. Osborne, Fortune and I said ‘what the hell, just get us out of Nairobi.’
Darkness had other plans for us though. It crept in on us sooner than we expected. Plan Mwingi doesn’t work out. We have to find a place to spend the night. It is a lonely drive. Nothing on the road other than the illumination of our headlights. On both sides of the road, ominous bushes wear a distant hill like a cap. Little dots of lights begin to show in the bushes. Civilization. I wonder what these people are like, what they do, why lights are still on at this time of the night. Are they watching news? Or does he like it with the lights on?
In Matuu we drive around for a sleeping place. Then we see this hotel. Ndallas Hotel. They had a lovely roadside sign professing their hospitality, hot water, bed and breakfast, and free Wi-Fi. Our producer, Fortune says this is the place, that she has heard about it in some Kamba song singing its praises. We take her word as faith. We check in.
The room is fine for a hotel named Ndallas, which I presume to a Kamba twang’ for Dallas. My room has a Samsung TV, the old ones with a hunchback and rectangle buttons. It reminded me of our first TV, a black Sanyo. Karua grieves that Sanyo to date because dad bought it for her when their love had not been diluted by four kids. On the side of the bed is a stool with a Holy Bible to remind me of where I stand with God.
Then there is the shower. It is an okay bathroom. Until I stand under the shower, fooled that the red and blue knobs dispense different temperatures for water. The icy water hits spine and jerks my heart to 100 beats per second. No warning. Then the soap. A small white circular thing that just won’t lather. Now who told Ndallas Hotel people that soapstone is sabuni ya kuoga yawa.
I want to listen to that song Fortune was talking about. I want to do a remix.
Call time; 7.00 am.
The morning drive unveils all that the night hid. The yellowish sand almost taking an orange hue. Nests hanging on thorny leafless trees whoosh past in the opposite direction, chasing after electricity poles. Oxen drawn carts become prominent. On this road, network comes and goes, sometimes it leaves for what seems like hours, as if it got drunk and fell into a ditch. When a bar appears, it is enough to post a picture on Instagram with links to Facebook and Twitter. The side of the hills facing the sun is charred by the heat waves performing a ritual above the withering grass and shrubs.
We are Garissa bound. But before we leave Ukambani, someone suggests that we check out Masinga Dam. It turns out lousy. Lousier than Ndallas Hotel saying they have free Wi-Fi. There is nothing but a huge mass of plain water.
As we leave I curse why we even went there. Osborne is distraught. He is hungry for a first shot. Like when you go on a blind first date with a girl you really fancy at Kaldis, and then in the middle of your steak, she asks you to loan her Mpesa ya 5k atakulipa end month.
But as we drive out this hill comes to sight. I say we should check it out. It is decorated by roads going round it, big water pipes running along the slope and a huge ass tank at the top that glistened in the sunlight. It looks like a drawing, like God hired Rich-art Machomba to design it first before putting it on earth.
“Let’s take a look,” Osborne says.
As if by chance, there is this old lady herding at the foot of the hill. It takes Fortune and our locations guy, Karanja to convince her to pose for a shot. Then when she hears that she might end up on a calendar, her face beams. Now we are talking!
Born in 1956, Alice Ndungwa takes respite under the shadow of an acacia, weaves her sisal makonge which she sells for 40 bob. She poses like she has been doing this since 1956. Her toes peep delightfully out of her black worn out rubber shoes, matching her boyfriend jacket. Click! Osborne takes his first shot.
“Unajua Project Runway?”
“Hapana. Mimi ni wa Post Bank?”
“Na This is Ess?”
“Huyo ni nani?”
“Watu wa fashion show.” She giggles. Shy Alice giggles, revealing her few yellowing teeth. In another life, she would run a fashion blog. But she says she loves weaving sisal. She embraces it, wears its humility the way Sharon Mundia wears her makeup. With confidence.
That first shot relaxes Osborne. Yet he still is not happy by it. He says it is not Unexpected Kenya enough. In the van to Garissa, he talks very little. I hand him a can of Effect. I watch him sip it, while fiddling with the camera on his lap. He stares ahead, perhaps looking forward to a Garissa that will give him the shots he has in mind. Poor guy.
As I write this, the taste of camel meat still lingers in my mouth. It is stuck on my tongue, the way Somali perfumes stick on your clothes. Room 404 at Nomad Place Hotel. A little fancy, remote controlled curtains and air conditioning. Lofty privileges that I am not used to. Takes my mind off Ndallas Hotel, the way a new prettier girlfriend makes you forget that ex who stole from you. I am sweaty. I hate the salt on my lips that water won’t take away. I will shower the third time before sleeping.
We have been driving around. We only have two shots. Alice and three girls coming from school in red buibuis. The thing is, this may seem banal to the naked eye. Three girls coming from school. Big deal. But wait until you see it through Osborne’s lens. You will wonder how he ended up in Architecture school, and why his mum never wanted him to give up that for photography.
Tomorrow we go deeper into Garissa. There is a village we have been pointed towards. We need more shots until Osborne has had his fill of Garissa, then we head out for Nairobi. Earlier in the day, a bomb went off around Garissa Ndogo area. We are not invisible, yes, but we are goons. We have to believe there is more to Garissa than just mbom! mbom! mbom! and Duale.
A camera, a pen and a Samsung S4 versus the unkind treachery of Garissa. Venturing brave, yet cautiously optimistic.
(Photo; How The Sun Sets In Garissa by Osborne Macharia)