Homa Bay, Rongo and lots of communication errors

Lake Victoria and beyond

This is part 4 of my Kenyan travel diary, here are part 1part 2 and part 3

All those letters, don’t you have a video, so I don’t have to read them all? Sure we have:

Suicide by shower avoided, I decided to explore my surroundings a bit. The hotel had a sizable garden situated almost directly on the shores of Lake Victoria, separated only by a fence and 30m of shrubs. Within the shrubbery you could find the majestic Marabous storks exhibiting their full glory upon the setting of the evening sun. Most people despise these huge carrion eaters, supposedly among the filthiest creatures on the planet, but somehow I relate to them – to their loud screeching in the mornings and the way they seem almost motionless sometimes. On the other hand, I might just have a soft spot for the underdogs.

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Since I’m quite certain the staff wouldn’t have approved of me climbing their carefully erected barrier to the outside world, I headed out on foot, resulting in some disbelieving stares. Homa Bay is a typical small Kenyan town with a main street bustling with life and many small shops and maybe even more motorbike taxis than usual. Just a short walk away is an old pier with a guesthouse at its end, apparently unused for a long time. To get to the end I would have to climb a little on the outside of the pier. But I felt seriously self-conscious and as though I was being watched, something I didn’t witness whilst travelling with George; it seems he was shielding me somehow. So I just sat down on the pier looking at birds and people, some of them actually asking if they could get a picture with me.

kenya-homa-bay-3674Back in the hotel, I tend to my fragile stomach and order a little rice with vegetables. Instead my request for just one piece of shallow-fried chicken breast is met with another full meal consisting of half a chicken with fries, all of it deep fried of course. Yes, they do that up-country! They just throw the whole damned thing into a frying pot. I can’t really sleep that night, first because it takes three calls to the reception until they turn the ever-present rumba-afro-whatever-beats down, and then because I’m just too excited to relax easily. I’m starting to feel exhaustion set in; it feels as though I haven’t slept properly in weeks, which is probably true, and I’ve spent so much time in buses and cars.,I can’t possibly keep my current pace for much longer.

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The next day I head out to Rongo to meet a field mechanic for world bicycle relief. This is one of many NGOs that tries to employ bikes as a tool for development. In the last decade they shipped nearly a quarter of a million purpose-built bikes to “third world” countries. Mobility is one of the key factors for widespread development, allowing kids to go to schools which would otherwise be unreachable, dairy farmers to haul their produce to the factory or just enabling people to stay in contact with their families. On top of that, wherever they deliver bikes, they train mechanics in maintenance, which directly creates secure jobs in the community. To get there I once again rely on a Boda-Boda. People at the reception tell me it will cost around 600 ksh (~5,50€) which sounds totally fair for a 20km overland ride. So once again I go into town. I pick a rider who tells me its only 150 and feeling slightly confused, I hop on the back of the bike. After maybe 5 minutes the guy stops at a micro-village. This can’t be it. We ask some guys gossiping on the roadside and they tell my rider that he has to go another 20 km. He is not happy, and is starting to explain to me that it is too far. I try to explain to him that of course I will pay more than 150 shilling, but that he has agreed to take me and that it is not my problem that he doesn’t know shit about the place he’s working. Suddenly the guys I’d asked if they knew the bike-mechanic, Moses start rapid firing in Swahili to my driver. One of them takes me aside to ask what the deal was and tells me not to worry. In the end we agree that I will pay 1.400 to go there and back again and that he’ll just wait till I finish my interview.

My rider for the day and his boxer-bike

My rider for the day and his boxer-bike

After about 30 exhilarating minutes on the bike, all the way riding through this lush countryside we arrive in Rongo, which – though considerably smaller than Homa Bay – is a veritable town in its own right. I really love this way of transport; I get to see everything and even have my hands free to do shit with my camera. After a while my driver/rider notices when I start fiddling with my camera controls and he slows down so I can get a better shot. The landscape is more or less flat. There are some hills that loom in the distance. From afar everything looks so lush and green, orderly even. If not for the red dust visible between the foliage, you could think you were in Europe. But the closer you look the more you realise that everything seems drier, more rugged, craggy even. People on the streets and the settlements look distinctly African, so much so that in retrospect, looking at the photos, I get the feeling that I have fallen into the stereotype trap- you know, women with heavy loads on their heads, bikes laden with canisters, a guy leading a baby goat on a leash, kids playing with sticks, cows on the road. But it’s all really there and you don’t even have to look that hard. Nonetheless I’m left with the feeling that I’m somehow missing something important, something I should be able to see, but something that evades my eye and the camera.

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A bit of asking around and quite some phone calls finally lead me to Moses’ roadside bike-repair shop, basically just a tiny hut to store some tools and spare parts. He is in the middle of fixing a flat tire off one the Bufallo Bikes that world bicycle relief is giving away. I probably need to work on my interview technique – maybe giving people more time to connect, but with Moses and his customer both, the dialogue is stumbling along.  Maybe our experiences and our views on cycling are just too different.  There is none of the conviction you usually see in 1st world cyclists-For the people I met in Kenya bikes really are just a cheap way to provide transportation and work – nothing more, nothing less.. Moses doesn’t really understandmy questions what the biggest problems are, that he faces in terms of wear and tear, he keeps saysing “spares” but can’t actually tell me which parts that means. Most problems seem to arise from the bearings though. Since the whole situation is a bit awkward I bail after about an hour of filming.
Getting on the motorbike again, I rip a huge tear in my crotch. Since I left my second pair of pants with George’s friend Eddie in Nairobi I locate a seamstress once back in Homa Bay. Thankfully she is able to provide me with a huge cloth meaning that I don’t have to stand exposed in the street in my underwear while she fixes my trousers. I awkwardly undress under the cover of said piece of drapery, very much to both her amusement, and anybody else who happens to notice (just about everyone on busy main street). As far as ice-breakers go, you can’t do much better than to undress in front of somebody! So when I returned a couple of hours of later to ask if it would be alright to photograph my seamstress, she is more than willing to indulge me- the tip I gave her probably helped as well, but I really felt that saving me from disgrace was worth more than just 30 cents.

Roadside seamstress with her nun-customer

Roadside seamstress with her nun-customer

Two days later I am scheduled for a meeting with a guy from world bicycle relief in Nairobi (or so I thought), so after a couple of beers I call it an early night in order to get to Kisumu airport about two hours north the next day. At breakfast the next morning I sense that something is different, a little odd even. First I can’t put my finger on it, but after a couple of instant coffees it dawns on me; there is another white person in the room! I then realise that the elderly white lady is the first I have seen in two and half days. It’s strange how quickly you can get used to being different to everyone else. Personally, I am more or less aware of the fact all of the time; it’s difficult to just sit in a corner and pretend you’re not there as a white guy in the Kenyan countryside. You stick out like a sore thumb- it’s just not possible to inconspicuously sit in a corner observing everything around you and pretending you’re not there. But after a while that’s just how it is.

Moses bike-shop in Rongo

Moses bike-shop in Rongo

 

A fact that is driven home once again at the bus station the next morning, where I am imediately surrounded by at least 4 guys offering me help with transport. There are no buses until the afternoon, one of them tells me, but there is car going to Kisumu. He puts me into the passenger seat of a Toyota parked at the curb before a guy in the driver’s seat gets up and tells me he is going to get the owner of the car. This all reminds me of that hairy business in Nairobi, and I clutch my bag, ready to bolt at short notice. A well-dressed man in his early 30s appears and gives the guy who talked to me first 100Ksh (~ 1€). Still quite anxious about the situation, I ask him what exactly is happening, playing even dumber than I really feel. It turns out that he is a salesman for pharmaceuticals and just wants some company and someone to share fuel costs. He tells me this is quite normal in Kenya; you just tell one of the local “facilitators” you have a seat offer and sit down for a drink until he finds you a passenger and you give him a small commission. I start to relax, and we actually have a very pleasant ride in which I learn a lot about religion, family values and tribal rivalries. Much to my own annoyance I can’t shed my doubts entirely. Ever since the failed attempt at the ‘Nairobbery’ I can’t bring myself to entirely trust strangers and there is always something nagging at me, asking “what if he just drives to some forsaken forest to help me unpack my bag and stab me?”. Maybe that’s not a bad thing in a country with such widespread crime, corruption and regular outbreaks of violence, but nonetheless it really goes against my nature. I’d much prefer to trust people and being on my toes constantly is exhausting in a way. In the end he even drives me to the airport, we exchange business cards and I feel deeply ashamed by my fears.

Kisumu International Airport

Kisumu International Airport

Next up: part 5; No butterflies and lots of booze in Nairobi, a boiled egg and a roadtrip cut short.

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