The primary thing that I try to keep in mind while traveling in Africa is that there is no system. Which is why – in a backwards sort of way – it makes sense that in Nakuru there is. The matatu stage is a sprawling, living space; its dimensions and supports measured and built out of the crowds of people that compose it. Throngs of hawkers, food stalls, vans and trucks, cobblers, beggars and touts fill it to overflowing. It engulfs the major indoor vegetable market and bleeds over into the used clothing and housewares market. Located north of Nairobi, Nakuru is a hub for embarking east towards Meru and Mt. Kenya, north to Lake Baringo and the Upper Rift, and west – over what is arguably the worst road I have ever traveled – to Kisumu and Lake Victoria. You can also head southwest, to tea country, which is where I am headed today.
I try to enter a matatu bound for Kericho and am rebuffed. It seems in Nakuru, tucked between shallow storefronts selling plastic basins and overprinted 50 Cent T-shirts, there are actually ticket windows. I am even more shocked to be informed that my ticket is not for this current matatu; I’m on the next one.
I have read that, in the aggregate, humans are getting taller, a result of improved nutrition. This leads me to believe that the Nissan and Toyota minibuses that compose the informal transportation sector here in Kenya were designed at some point in the 1880’s when the largest people were five feet tall and had perfectly symmetrical shoulders and waists. No doubt someone of my freakish 6’1’’ stature, carrying broad shoulders and large flat feet would have been forced to ride in a separate transport away from respectable, normal folk.
As my matatu pulls up I am shooed towards the front seat. Quite often on the road, matatus pass in segregated symmetry: whites in the front, Africans in the back. I am typically shown the front seat, even at the expense of Africans already seated there. You can argue it’s a hold-over from colonial era racism, but it probably has more to do with the learned habit of ferrying a generation of Westerners who grew up yelling: “Shotgun!” It works out fine regardless. Typically tourists in matatus are there because they want a chance to try out their Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook; they want to “mix with locals!” For every white person actually needing to go somewhere, there are two out ‘slumming’; the matatu as another taste of ‘authentic’ African culture. Riding in the front also means they can watch their bags and avoid having a baby or a sack of maize shoved on their lap. They can “mix with the locals!” with the certainty of reasonable limits.
Those of us in the back don’t particularly mind because: a) they are guests and b) they have just volunteered to be our crumple zone. No doubt when Nissan Minibuses were first designed back in the 19th century, they were pulled by horses and the risk of a high-speed head-on collision was minimal. But at some point, someone decided to install an engine behind the front row of seats making the first serious barrier to the powerful crushing force of an impact the bodies of those in the first row. You only have to pass so many matatus, rolled over and burned out in the median - their front ends exploded like a kernel of popcorn - to start to really enjoy the claustrophobic squeeze as you make your way to the back. In general, I try to sit as much in the middle as possible. When I travel alone this involves timing similar to double-dutch as I try to jump in after the person taking the window seat.
My matatu today, in compliance with Kenyan law, has a seatbelt. Moreover, someone has taken the additional step of jamming it in the closed position, helpfully ensuring that it cannot be tampered with or removed. I consider pulling up my legs and sliding under it, like slipping under the covers of a freshly made bed, but then imagine attempting the reverse of this maneuver as the matatu lies upside down in the median and the Aussies in the front seat scream: “ME LEGS!” I switch seats.
At home in Kabarnet, there is a police checkpoint on the way out of town to ensure that everyone has a seatbelt and that the bus is only carrying fourteen souls. Typically everyone sighs collective relief as we pull away, unclicking their belts just as we pull up to the police free pickup point (within visible distance of the officer we have just departed) and pack in eight extra people.
The sky today has the thick and clustered clouds that only reveal their beauty freed from the tunnel vision of building lined streets. Seen all at once, they are a heard of grey, fleecy buffalo calmly moving towards the horizon. We pass slow moving petrol tankers, each with a bicyclist or two - leaned over their handlebars - gripping the back of the trailer, like lampreys on sharks. Ahead, the clouds periodically part, momentarily releasing a golden shaft of light the size of a house enveloping this shamba or that intersection with a seemingly divine glow.
I’m dropped off on the side of the road outside Kericho. Marcus works at the Walter Reed Project Office there. They are doing clinical trials of an AIDS vaccine among other things. His house is a twenty minute walk from the Kericho-town center. Marcus and James greet me on the road, drinks already in hand. As it will turn out these are the only two cups in Marcus’ house. The options presented to me are a shallow bowl or an old Coke bottle. Preferring to make a tremendous mess each time I make a drink, as opposed to each time I drink one, I choose the bottle.
I would suggest that Marcus lacks a nesting instinct. Granted he has a very real and structured job that takes up time that a typical volunteer would use to obsess about their domestic state, but there is something distinctly Spartan about his home. It has the feeling of a very large closet: a place where Marcus stores his things (along with himself) when he’s not at work.
As it turns out, this is not entirely his influence. Prior to his occupation it was, in fact, a storeroom. A ¾ height plywood wall has been installed creating a bedroom that lies, awkwardly, directly in from the front door. Marcus is one of those few and fortunate volunteers who have a working indoor choo: a porcelain bowl installed in the slab. Moreover, the fact that the shower is installed directly over it means that cleaning up accidents is a breeze. You just have to be careful not to step down while soaping up. It is a shower of the kind that you elect to stand adjacent to and splash yourself with in order to avoid hypothermia. The water knob has been cleverly placed so that opening the door carelessly bangs it and provides a punitive spray of the vividly frigid water. The house is concrete construction with high ceilings and powerful looking steel bars and shutters over long windows. Essentially, Marcus lives in an armoire with blast doors.
I am glad to see my friends. Marcus is here as the final component of his Masters. He’s a stoic, or pretends to be. He wants to work in development and his time here is not for cultural exchange or character growth. He has little patience for people who whine about their comfort. At least within his work and his reasons for being here, he is quietly self assured and relaxed. I tend to think there are other parts of him that sit farther beneath the surface; emotions and aspirations that he shares with a limited number of people.
James, on the other hand, seems to keep everything on the surface. This is not to say that he lacks depth, only that what he has to give is immediately and continuously present. He is one of those rare, effortlessly social beings; constructing relationships, being likeable and affable is second nature to him. He’s so good at it, in fact, that he resorts to pushing people’s buttons for fun: enraging them until they scream at him and then patching things up. This is in fact precisely the process by which he and I became friends. I believe I told him to stop acting like a child.
We walk to dinner at the nearby Continental Hotel. The hotel was actually built expressly for President Moi to stay at when he visited Kericho. The road we walk is muddy and riddled with holes. The joke is that driving in Kenya nowadays consists of trying to avoid the leftover chunks of road. Across from the covered drive and landscaped lawns of the hotel are a line of sheet-metal dukas with houses and small gardens behind them. The dim glow of gas lamps in their windows contrasts the electric lights that pile six stories above us as we pass through the glass doors. I am once again astonished that in a country where I’ve seen someone stripped and beaten in the streets for stealing an orange, and edifice like this could be built for one man without any feeling of inconsistency.
We order nyama choma and millet ugali. We drink beers. Getting together with volunteers is like comparing trading cards. It’s visceral and vital and cathartic, but it’s mostly derivative. Everyone tells the same stories from dimly contrasted perspectives. I got asked for this or I thought I could do that. I didn’t understand and went here or there or any of the innumerable smaller events that occur in tandem for strangers in a strange land. We tell stories to each other, but to ourselves most of all. We justify our judgements or decisions by narrating to eachother and searching for confirmation of the wisdom of this lesson, the rationality of that choice. After that we drop back to the things we miss. Giving ourselves a chance to re-experience foods or routines that weigh heavy - though infrequent - on our unconscious recollection. I never remember things half as well as when I recollect them for other people. A dynamic that makes the private things I miss all the more poignant.
Two times over the course of dinner I encounter men at the urinal who are not peeing but rather counting money. Fairly intoxicated on my final bathroom trip before facing the bill, I wash my hands and step back up to the urinal to count out cash. I extend this gesture in the hopes someone will enter and see me. No one does.
I seldom walk in the dark here. The first reason is the often over-imagined danger of crime. The second is that here – when it is dark – it is very dark. There are no streetlights or porch lights, garden lamps or lit billboards. Aside from the brilliant headlights of passing cars -which succeed in destroying any night vision you can build up in the intervening time – it is simply pitch black. We stagger home in and out of puddles through cow shit and mud to Marcus’ front door.
In the morning we begin the first of our numerous trips to the overpriced, second rate tourists traps that Marcus has neglected to visit because he wanted to share them with guests. The Kericho Tea Hotel is an excellent example of a common sight in Kenya: the colonial era institution not quite successful enough to update but not dead enough to close. Everything from the black and white TV to the pleather armchairs looks much the way it did when colonialism ended. This may be a cunning bit of marketing on the part of the owners since a chance to imagine what life was like during colonialism is the only reason you would come and pay eighty shillings for a pot of tea (which, I might add, is weak and luke-warm). This is particularly irksome because, as we sit on the cracked and faded veranda in plastic 60s bubble chairs, all we can see is tea, stretching in tidily bordered fields to the horizon.
There is a gift shop, for tourists who have come this far and – for some inexplicable reason – wish to go no further. Like most gift shops here it saves you the trouble of bargaining by simply charging a price higher than any roadside vendor or craftmaker would dream of asking. There is a selection of English books by Western authors on African subjects. Assumedly for people who, prior to coming to Africa, hadn’t heard of Nelson Mandela or feel that – now that they have been here – they should learn what folks back home think of here.
There is a knobbed stick the length of my arm covered from top to bottom with beads, tassels, small hanging masks, cut pieces of a bronze looking metal. As though a half dozen tribal craftsmen were locked in a room and told to bedazzle this object until there was no more space to bedazzle. I confirm with the cashier that this Manhattan Project of souvenirs is in fact what it appears to be: a stick for beating cattle. It is.
I suppose there is something profound and ironic here: the object made symbol. Sold and bought as an embodiment of an entire culture because of its resemblance to a tool used for a job that its spangles and ornament would prevent it from doing. So that when people pick it up off your front hall table you can say “Ah yes. Picked that up in Tea Country. Used in cattle rituals. Fantastic tea there. Hot and cheap.”
I try to imagine my neighbors going about their daily tasks in a Western constructed image of traditional dress. Doing laundry in an ornate beaded chestplate. Carrying water in giant copper earrings and neck loops. Checking your spear at the Stagematt. As we leave I see that years of overweight tourists have slowly bent the diving board down until its end sits just under the surface of the swimming pool.
Walking in Nakuru with friends I saw a man fall into a five foot deep, six foot long trench the width of the sidewalk: he hadn’t been paying attention to where he was going. From this, I guessed that there were much fewer accidents on African sidewalks and streets. Since, I reasoned, you couldn’t take for granted the presence of pavement or steps or that you wouldn’t encounter an open grave in the middle of the thoroughfare, people had to be more conscientious travelers. This is, of course, wrong. There are many more accidents and they are typically much worse. Still I fantasize about filling a town like Kericho with native New Yorkers and watching them trip into light poles, fall down uneven stairs, and catch their hand bags on barbed-wire park fences. All of this as barefoot Kenyans step agilely over them.
As we walk into town taxis, drunks and hawkers hiss at us. This is normal. It’s a socially neutral way to attract attention in Kenya. Regardless, we ignore it, knowing full well that protesting that you are not interested, don’t want anything, were looking at something else, have a lazy eye, are all considered the first step of a shrewd negotiating ploy. Foreigners who know the sound ignore it for this reason. Ironically, foreigners who don’t know it also ignore it (though they wonder whose tyres are leaking) which means that it principally attracts innocent bypassing Kenyans. This pleases neither them, nor the hawkers.
Entering the Stagematt is always calming. The Kenyan equivalent of Walmart, the wide aisles and quietly overflowing order of its shelves is a sharp contrast from the disorder of the streets outside. Everything I know to buy in Kenya is in the Stagematt. The low cost of labor and high occurrence of theft mean each aisle has one or two employees quietly surveying. As so often occurs when faced with so many things you hadn’t realized you wanted all along, we immediately split up and wander off alone. I come to staring at a battery powered bug killer you swing like a tennis racket. I see Marcus an aisle over comparing five gallon buckets of cooking fat. James alone has kept his focus (or at least stuck with his instincts). We find him in the liquor section a pack of cigarettes in his hand. We gather ingredients for a Mexican dinner of guacamole, spicy lime beef and chapatti. I buy Marcus a special gift glass so I can stop pouring vodka on the floor. Having observed a troupe of scavenging monkeys on the way in, James buys a loaf of bread.
On the way back James and I cross the garbage trench that borders the road and he begins tossing out bread. James has a bit of a preoccupation with monkeys; a few years ago a visit to the Lomburi monkey temples - two hours north of Bangkok - enflamed an enthusiasm into something a bit more. The experience ended badly; suffice to say that there comes a point where there are simply too many monkeys on you and you want all of them off you, now. It is perhaps the memory of this - as well as the increasing numbers of monkeys dropping around us like a gang of ambushing thieves - that inspires in James a degree of moderation and restraint I have seldom seen in him. “That’s enough,” he announces in a voice that clearly does not believe this is to be true.
Dinner is excellent, though protracted owning to the presence of only two spoons. James and Marcus share the bed, and I take the couch.
The tea fields in Kericho run from the paved road to the horizon in ordered terraced plots, interspersed with copses of slender, high trees. In one of those pieces of local wisdom repeated so many times that its irrationality is overwhelmed by its repetition, we have accepted that the trees actually create the rain that arrives with clockwork-like regularity every afternoon. The constant moisture leaves the ground muddy and wears deeper the pitted holes in the road. It also leaves the landscape a perennially verdant and vibrant green.
Entering the fields shortly after 10am – as the majority of people are on their way to church – we walk down paths that part the lush green sea of thick hedge-like tea plants. The flat and even tops of the bushes rise and fall from our waists to our shoulders like passing waves as the rut of the muddy path deepens and shallows. Our goal, unsurprisingly, is monkeys. We had planned to walk through the fields anyhow and with most of a loaf of bread still remaining, we have a half baked hope that the thicker trees that top the hillsides of the visible horizon are packed with playful primates.
There is something peaceful and fulfilling about encountering such neatly ordered nature: the arrow straight paths T-boning into one another, the trees planted in geometric rows so that a perfect transect of vertical trunks is visible from each and every angle: they are calming and quiet in the damp morning air. It seems to me a space out of Abbott’s Flatland, every line continuing in unerring straightness until its perspectival terminus at the horizon. Only the river, flushed from the constant rains, refuses to submit to ordering; its rushing din hidden by dense, wild undergrowth.
We cross an old bridge constructed and reconstructed, strengthened and patched with decades of leftover wood and come to plantation housing for the pickers. We see clothes drying and smoke from cooking fires, but there are no people. The sense of seamless order begins to feel slightly eery, like wandering through an abandoned house and finding a fire still burning, cups of tea steaming on the table. The forest at the top of the fields is older, but just as ordered. The covering canopy creates a dim greenish light. The forest floor is almost bare.
We reach a fallen tree; an element of disorder novel enough for pause. We sit and listen to the slow creak of the thin trunks swaying together in the wind. The narrow trunks and thick leaf cover leave the space contained but bare, like an immense empty warehouse. There are no monkeys. James scatters the remains of the bread around us on the forest floor. I imagine that we probably appear like terribly ineffective poachers: lacking proper equipment for catching or subduing our prey and clearly possessing only the barest knowledge of where our quarry is to be found.
We tramp back to Marcus’ and throw our mud splattered pants into a bucket to soak. I also throw in my cell phone, forgotten in a side pocket. Another dinner, another movie. In the morning, Marcus prepares to go to work and James and I pack up. We split off to different stages. Marcus goes to work. I buy some vegetables so I won’t have to rush to the market when I get home.
In Kericho there are no ticket windows and I find a seat in the back corner of a matatu. It’s stifling inside but I close my window to avoid having objects shoved between my face and my newspaper; pens clicked, flashlights flashed, candies rolled in their crinkly wrappers between dark fingers. Hawkers of every age and tribe swarm like a school of fish around each arriving and departing bus. There is tea, peanuts, bottled water, orange drink, milk, yogurt, perfume, newspapers, magazines, spelling charts, prayer books, coloring books, school work books, musical greeting cards, wood spoons, metal spoons, pocket knives, kitchen knives, butter knives, sufuriahs, CDs, DVDs, sunglasses, cell phone points and cases, calculators, tape measures, belts, wallets, bandanas, dish towels, curtain lace, watches, socks, undershirts, ties, hats, mechanical springs, rope, string, cookies, lollipops, bubble gum, hard candy, and steaming hot chai, served in the same cups over and over. All of it hoisted up on shoulders, draped over arms and around necks, held to sheets of plywood with rubber straps; it is Capitalism at its simplest and least gratifying level. On their feet, breathing engine fumes, carrying basins and boards over-loaded with sundries, the hawkers scramble in the morning sun. Ten tries for every sale. I get tired just watching them.
In the two seats next to me sit a husband and wife, each with a preschool age daughter on their lap. The one closest to me stares with that mouth open wonder bordering on fear. Throughout the ride she attempts to covertly stroke the hair on my arm. It’s between four and seven hours back to Kabarnet depending on traffic, road conditions, cattle movement. My knees already hurt from pressing against the tubular steel of the seat ahead of me.
As we drive out of Kericho the air in the window is moist and cool and the driver has a “Learn English” tape playing. The pickers are out in the fields. They ignore the precut paths, moving in tandem lines across the broad flat green, their bags floating atop the bushes beside them. Behind them, the thick vegetation retains the space of their passing, like wakes behind boats.