Resident Aliens Christmas

Postcard from Kenya

I emptied the coffee grounds from my plunger in to the toilet turning the water a rich chocolate grainy brown, wondered what the cleaning staff would think about my health if I forgot to flush, swung to leave, clipped the Blackberry attached to my belt and I knew without question the plickplop that followed was my phone into the toilet.  Instinctively my hand in the bowl deep into the water, there it was. And I had what I imagine is a feeling similar to the onset of death, when we realize that this is actually happening to us, personally,  and that life as we know it is slipping away from us, how could this be happening to me….?  in the certain knowledge that it was.

Apparently like lives, Blackberry’s are incredibly resilient and a couple of hours in pieces on the dashboard of the Hilux in 35 degree heat dried it out a treat, and now  it works fine.  Except there is one small glitch and as hard as this is to fathom, after the dip in the toilet the “P” doesn’t work properly.   It is from such unfathomable mysteries that tribal religions arise.

I am staying in Nakuru township in Kenya’s Rift Valley, around two and a half hours north west of Nairobi. The road from Nairobi to Nakuru good now, when I first started working in this area the road  was so pockmarked and potholed that the Matatu’s that plying the route needed weekly repairs just to stay on the road. It was like a hell realm dream  in which you are riding one of those mechanical barroom bulls for an infinity of bucking …and the Africans are sleeping through with their heads lolling around like they were dead. Then it used to take over 2 hours from Naivasha and how it is half that.

Naivasha town is now bypassed by the new freeway and the main business area is developing but it still has some old British buildings with low rusty wild-west sheet iron and wooden post verandas from when it was one of the main towns of Happy Valley.  Settlers  from Britain, many the black sheep adventurers from wealthy families came, hunted game and mounted the heads of dead animals on walls, drank whisky and gin, swapped wives and  displaced the Massai and Kikuyu peoples from their lands and they raped their women and shot their men for poaching.  God is on the side of the big battalions so we don’t know much of the Mau Mau rebellion that rose up in response and terrorised many of these settlers off their land by metering the same unspeakable violence in return, and the rebellion gave Kenya Jomo Kenyatta their first president, who came from nothing and ended up a multimillionaire and still now there is trouble because of this troubled national birth. Even in Naivasha if you go to a few blocks  behind the main area, where the roads are like river beds and many people don’t have power even thought KenGen the nation’s main ‘hot rocks’ power generator is only 30 km around Lake Naivasha. The water is delivered to houses by kids from the few working town taps that are controlled by the Mungiki mafia and they  fill rusty blue 44gallon drums loaded onto small wooden carts mounted on fat car tires, pulled by a sad skinny donkey with ribs pronounced like one of those sad TV pictures of refugees  starving.  And in 2007 in the post election violence that was stirred up by politicians, who could do this because of issues still to do with land and injustice, Naivasha was one of the hot spots and people burned car tires in the streets, threw rocks and gangs of young men hacked at each other with pangas and hundreds died and hundreds more were wounded and thousands were displaced to camps and still to this day are not are resettled.

The rooms  at the Merica hotel  in Nakuru have all been done up new flat screen TVs and the carpet that used to smell like a wet dog has been replaced, the threadbare blue spidery towels gone and in their place new thick fluffy white embodied  towels with the Merica crest of a water buck, which has a head something like a deer, embodied in gold thread.  I am not sure what Merica means, something tells me it has to do with a family of snails but I think the hotel name is rough Swahili for America. For me the highlight of staying at Merica has been the evening buffet and that night at the buffet,  I learned why the hotel has a new life. It is full of Chinese tourists. The waitress Mary says these days their guests are mostly packaged  Chinese tourists,  the men packaged as baseball fans or faux camouflage  and Safari  jackets and packaged  women in Mickey Mouse and panda bear jersey pyjamas at dinner. They shout loud across the dining in Mandarin, swarming on new plates of food so that by the time I get to it there are just leftovers.  The mystery that there are Kenyan translators who somehow learned fluent Mandarin knowing Chinese would be here one day and this moment are confidently moving among the guests solving problems, conveying the next day’s arrangements.  Gone are the things I am used to and I am no longer a  special  foreigner amongst these new colonisers. My comfort was among the stuffy African business men and politicians telling stories of common things that make laughter and back slapping as they pile their plates high with Nyama choma, ugali and African bitter greens. And of the groups of boisterous young church volunteers at a tables of twenty, saving the world in earnest self confident conversation and you sense they are bottled like home made ginger beer and that some of them will eventually pop and self destruct but here they are playful brothers and sisters in whatever and shepherded by proud and happy overweight church leaders or gaunt serious pastor types who nod knowingly as thought they hold all the answers and will always know more than you, from somewhere in the middle of the United States where life revolves around pigs and corn, and guns and God and it is so flat that you can watch a dog run away for three days.

This morning we drove about 2 hours out of Nakuru and are visiting the farms of some of the members of an economic empowerment group that I have known and love for five years.  We have helped the group over the years and they are wanting to show us the farms of some of their members. When we help it is mainly by discussions that end up with  people believing more in themselves than in us. And I am standing in on the edge of a corn plot in the hot sun, and I am feeling that hot sun nausea in spite of my hat, it is a kind of a daze and i don’t know if it is jet-lag from the plane or dizziness from knowing that I don’t have real answers but am supposed to, and the courage to shut up and trust that there will be an unfolding process that i can contribute to. Then Enoc from the committee, a guy of about fifty with only one giant tooth in his upper gum when he smiles, tugs the shirt on my arm and points to the ants running over my shoe. “fire ants, move!” and I look and they are brown and small and I nod and  move unhurriedly, like I knw more than he does about ants.

We gather in a nearby the farmers stick and mud walled store where there is dried maze stored and conversations about prices and middlemen.  And I get a sharp bee sting pain on my calf. Yahhhhh, I jump and to my leg and to the ant hanging on to my flesh as though its life depended on it, which it didnt. Wow fire ants are a wakeup call to clear the head like a blast ammonia. Jim our business facilitator says matter of factly, “fire ant bite, there will be more”.  No sooner had he said that then  like a gunshot to breast another bite and I pulled the ant off and squeezed the life out of  it. We are still in the dusky half light of the store and I am now wired and awake like there is a snake in the room and then a third bite just under my testicles and truly I saw a flash of lightening then fireworks went off somewhere in my head and I lurched out of the door my gammy leg trying to keep up,  behind the mud hut but in view of giggling kids and chickens and who knows what else so that I could drop my pants and pinched the ant free of me, and its still smarting like a burn and I have tears in my eyes.

There is a lesson here somewhere about size and of foreign interventions and impact and the arrogance of foreigners when they are given a sign, and I think I will think about this later when I am not so hot and dizzy but I don’t.

That day on our way back we  travel through undulating scrub land, parched hard rocky red volcanic earth , along tracks so narrow that the thorn bushes scratch the paintwork of the Land Cruiser  like high pitched nails on a backboard.

“Whats that?” I ask and point

“Where?” asks one of the staff

“There on the hill”

“Oh that’s an IDP camp.”

“How many? “I ask

“Around four thousand, you will see.. we are driving through very soon.”

And the road we are on goes through the camp and on the side of the hill amongst the thorn bushes and stunted trees of land so dry and hard it yields little and when the hard rain falls this ground is as hard a clay pot and the water runs of in destructive torrents that sweep away he the little top soil that may have been there  to leave just clean clay and rocks. The displaced people have been there a year and are living in make do tents that have UNDP tarpaulins as the cover, some supported by arches that turn them into a dome, I guess they came with the covers, and many others held up by branches and saplings so that there are no standard looking dwellings and none much bigger than the space of a double bed. There are no stores, no readily available water, no amenities, no gathering place. There is nothing except the shared humanity and the proximity of other little dwellings none stronger than a piece of cloth. I work out there are at least 800 of these dwellings on this stony hillside.

What work are we doing here?  I ask

“We can’t do much right now, it is complicated, you see the government resettled the IDP’s without having a proper agreement with the owners of the land and now there is a dispute, and if we provide some services we are likely to be upsetting the people of the area that we have been working so hard to gain trust with over the last six years. “

I know this is an area that has been very prone to tribal violence. I know this is not simple and fraught with dangers, I know we have a thought through plan and that this influx of unexpected arrivals is not part of it and if we change the plan in a reactionary way we risk undoing so much of what we have gained.  And I know also that I know nothing. I know I look with western eyes but still I am thinking “no room at the Inn”…. again.

( Nakuru Kenya December 2012)

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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