“It must be the chicken at Mwingi yesterday lunch.”
“No, it cannot be that. We all ate it.”
“Then it is the dinner here.”
“I think it’s all the hotel food we have been eating. Your stomachs are just missing home cooking.”
“But look at Magunga. He is fine.”
Two members of the crew are having stomach upsets. You can hear their stomachs rumbling, a sound that comes close to a tractor starting. But it is 5am, and I am generally not a morning person. I slept late banging away the previous blog post, meaning I have slept for a meager three and a half hours. That is why the tractor in Karanja and Osborne’s stomachs won’t bother me.
See, here is the thing. If you went to high school in Maranda, you are supposed to be immune to lofty illnesses like stomach upsets. Because, as Fortune puts it, ‘tumbo yako ni choo’. In Maranda you ate the weavils in your githeri gladly, and you relished the paraffin they garnished it with. You fought for, and drank a plate of fried oil, and then wiped your plate with a quarter loaf. If you were sleeping in Gor-Bonyo dormitories, you must have eaten bedbugs in your sleep. At some point in your life, you scrambled for green slimy water with village cattle and donkeys down at the pond in Nyapiedho. Hell, you cleansed that water with soapstone, added sugar and cocoa to it and used it to wash down ugali at night.
So this thing ati crew members having stomach problems at 5am, I do not get it. But it is a team. A unit. So I tell him ‘Iza boss. Lamba chumvi’ and climb into the van. I am not even sure he heard, but I said it. And it is the thought that counts, donge?
We are up this early because we need to get a shot of some kids that we promised a session last evening. You remember them from the previous post, right? We are timing the sunrise. Drive thirty kilometers outside Kitui to go get that sunrise shot. They are woken up at 6.30am, and just like Fortune had ordered, they are not washed up. These kids have made wooden cars like we have never seen before. I remember as kids we used KCC boxes and wires. But these two boys have pushed the envelope. How they bend dry wood is a trade secret that they will not share with us. We might be from GM for all they know, given that our papers do not have Safaricom stamps.
We head out of Kitui, venture into town unsuccessfully for Eno or Tumbocide. Nothing. Osborne decides that dawa ya moto ni moto. He eats a lot more at breakfast. It works for him. Not for Karanja. The chap is still sitting with one ass when we leave for Nzambani. Johnny, our driver, is having the time of his life throwing jibes at Karanja. He says those are telltale signs of Ebola.
“Wewe itabidi tumekufunga diapers.” We laugh. Karanja cannot, unless he wants to turn Johnny’s jibe into prophecies.
At Nzambani there is a rock. It is manned by an old man who will not let you climb unless you pay Ksh. 100 or take pictures without paying Ksh. 200. You ask him how come, and he points at the sign on the door. Basically, he is saying “Do not ask me, I only work here.” Fortune talks to him. He is supposed to be our model for the day.
Nzambani Rock is fabled. Legend has it that if you walk around it seven times, you will get a sex change. Now I understand why every hotel I have been to in Ukambani always has a copy of the New Testament by the bedside.
As Fortune negotiates, Karanja thinks he is fit to summit this baby. In 1999 some Kamba chap built a staircase to the top of this rock, whose top is flat like a stadium. Seeing those stairs, Karanja imagines that he can make it. This coming from a guy whose lungs is charred by cigarette smoke, a guy who is having stomach issues, and most of all, his fear of heights is only comparable to a politician’s fear of the truth.
But then I am game. Let’s do this. We start. It is a daunting climb to even get to that staircase; you have to jump over safari ants, and follow a thorny trail up to the foot of the Nzambani rock. We get there. Then begin to climb the stairs. The trick is not to look down when going up. If you are a Karanja, you might imagine your soul dropping, and then you will drop. If you are a goon, you will stop once in a while and look at Kitui County from that elevated viewpoint. You will be surprised at how the dry vastness of Ukambani plains can steal your breath away. And by Jove, you will let it.
Then some guys who are coming down have to ruin it. From below we hear them hurrying down the stairs, making the damn thing begin to sway from about twelve feet up. Shit. Then you hear them say that this thing is going to collapse anytime because its bolts are fastened by a 10 and not a 12. Shit! Karanja says “hapana morio, nina bibi na watoto.” And begins to descend.
I follow. Not because I am scared, but because you can never be sure with anything in Ukambani. What if the gods actually changed the bolts from 12 to 10? What if the gods are having a bad hair day and decide that instead of going round the rock seven times, all you need to do is make it to the stairs? Then what? I go back to Nairobi a woman?
No thank you.
Look, I have a lot of respect for women. I do not think being called a ‘pussy’ is an insult; because those things (I use this term loosely) can take a pounding (I use this one literally). But still, I am not coming back in a skirt, and I am never replacing my pants for practically long black socks. What kind of a girl would I be anyway? Girls with a gap between their teeth are fine, but girls with chipped teeth are not. Also, Magunga leaves a lot more flavor on the tongue than Maggie.
By the time we get down, the old man’s grandson has arrived. He helps us direct the shoot. He is our translator, given that my team is three okuyus and one jaruo. Osborne has this idea of him with binoculars. He is asked to stare at the distance.
“Unaweza kuona nini huko?”
Osborne clicks. He moves forward and back. You cannot even tell that supper had disagreed with his stomach earlier. Karanja however, has to sit this shoot out. I hold the lens, and cringe every time Osborne asks me to move back from the shot.
“Haiya, angalia huku!” Osborne is pointing at Fortune. “Angalia huyu msichana.” His grandson interprets. He checks Fortune out with the binoculars, up and down. I wonder what he could possibly have spotted that excited him so. He laughed.
“Hapana. Wacha binoculars. Mwangalie na macho.”
“Niangalie mimi. Hujawahi kuona smile kama hii.” I doubt he gets what he says, but he can tell from the smile from Fortune’s face that she is playing with his vanities.
“Mzee huyo asikudanganye. Hiyo ni ile smile ya kupotea na shamba Nairobi.” Jokes from a diarrhea patient are completely unexpected.
The shoot ends. I feel bad for the old man. He was a really good sport. But I am sure he has seen many like us who come around with cameras, flashing their gadgets and egos. Paying him something then being on their way. His feet tell the unspoken stories of how long he has climbed the Nzambani. He is really old, almost ancient. Like the rock. The age schism represents a fortified friendship with his mother land, instead of just wrinkles, receded hair and the propensity to doze off when listening to Habari on his radio at 4pm.
We were looking for a baobab tree on our way to Ikudha. At some point Karanja thought he saw something like it, but he has been full of shit today so people assume he is hallucinating. Turns out we had passed it by a three hour drive.
That is when we see them. These two women wearing calabashes on their heads as they crack whips at donkeys. At first, we thought it is a fashion statement. We are wrong. The Athi has dried up on this side. So they use the calabashes to draw water from boreholes and fill vibuyus. The weather this side leaves no room for any form of moisture other than sweat. It is dry. Like the place Madowo harvests his jokes.
Osborne wants them. For a shot, I mean. For a photo shot, yawa. Jeez!
As he sets up his equipment, Fortune is negotiating with them.
“Skiza mandam. Hii picha zenyu tutapiga, lakini msiambie mabwana zetu.”
Hii ni biashara kati yetu watu wawi..?
She waves two fingers.
It is a deal. No husbands. They are tickled pink by the idea of lying about their income. Women!
Osborne squats. Lights, camera, action!
They smile. They hold their donkeys and smile. They look into the dry baobabs and hold their donkeys and smile.
We are done in about fifteen minutes. Johnny says his stomach is feeling funny. Karanja is feeling a lot better. I am confused at just how much friends share, including stomach aches. He gets crankier, like death is warming up. Fortune buys him a paw paw to clean his stomach. The Ukambani diarrhea has caught on all except me and Fortune. It is either a feminist illness, or a diarrhea that is afraid of goons bred in Nyapiedho. Or both.
The van purrs awake, endures rough terrain through to Kibwezi, then on hitting the Nairobi-Mombasa road, it turns its nose to the right. Let Baba Tamms deal with that other side.
It is 2.00am. I am writing this from Tea Tot Hotel, Machakos.
Photo; Calabash Hats Under a Baobab
Taken by The Goon
Directed by Osborne Macharia