Words from Kenya

Seasons on a Parched Equator

It is wrong to say there are no seasons here so close to the equator. The hours of daylight may not change more than a few minutes throughout the year and the temperature is always hot or a bit hotter but the environment changes every bit as dramatically as it does in higher latitudes.

The changes that come with the transition from wet to dry season make such utter transformations to the landscape, the colours, smells and sense of the place. From lush verdant land of plenty to bleached out semi desert. In a place where people still live off the land it completely changes the mode and pace of life.

During the wet season some people, till, plant and weed small patches of ground. Livestock live at home and people have enough food, they hold ceremonies and raid livestock from other communities for pride. In the dry season the livestock is herded far from home, many days or weeks distant, in a search for pasture. Only the old and very young are left behind, with the women that tend to them.

Those who move with the livestock live on reducing amounts of milk, and blood tapped from the veins of the cows or camels. Those left behind have nothing to speak of, some have a little they managed to dry and save from the brief growing season, others are reduced to searching for small bitter tasting wild berries that cling to drying plants. Eat too many and they give you stomach ache, don’t eat enough and you’ll get stomach pains anyway.

For those that cannot follow the livestock the dry season can be deadly. If they make it through the six long months the rain will break upon them again in October or November. Sometimes, increasingly these days, the rain comes in overwhelming torrents. Washing away weak livestock and people alike, sweeping away homes and belongings. Every year the rains bring death as well as life and the cycle begins again.

A Day in Northern Kenya

It is early evening, there is a chorus of frog sounds coming from the nearby marsh and goats and sheep bleat in the surrounding homesteads as they sort themselves out for the night. The sky is still slightly lighter in the west and the hills that form the beginning of the Laikipia Plateau are silhouetted against it. To the east the sky is already full of sharp stars in the clear unpolluted air.

My brother-in-law is trying to choose a sheep from amongst my husband’s herd. He is very particular, he wants a fat one. This means a big healthy sheep but it seems to mean something else as well that I don’t quite understand, even after 8 years of this kind of thing.

A little over a week ago my brother-in-law’s first wife (wife number one of two) came back to the homestead from collecting firewood with the addition of a new baby. She had felt labour come on while out in the bush and was too far from home to return or call for help. So she, and the child that had accompanied her, delivered the baby where she was. The umbilical cord was cut with the machete used for cutting wood.

It is traditional to slaughter a ‘fat’ sheep when a woman gives birth. The sheep fat is rubbed onto the baby’s skin and the mother eats the meat. It is supposed to make them both healthy. My brother-in-law didn’t have a suitably ‘fat’ sheep in his herd hence he is searching amongst my husband’s sheep for just the right one.

Waiting with us in the pickup outside the livestock boma are two ‘fundies’, builders. They have been measuring out the foundations for a teacher’s house we are going to build at the small school we run nearby. The school is a labour of love for my husband through which he wants to bring some good, caring, thoughtful education to his community. I was reluctant to get involved with a school project at first, I have been so depressed by almost all expressions of schooling here, but I have been completely disarmed but the charm of this project and the people engaging in it. The school is small and poorly funded but the food is nutritious and the children are happy, encouraged to question and never beaten. The adult literacy classes are full of smiles and laughter. It’s hard not to feel all warm and fuzzy after a day there.

Still the school’s magic has not managed to completely eradicate the fears of a volunteer who we brought out to the school today. A British teacher who has volunteered for us before on other projects, but has never lived in a traditional pastoralist village before. The plan is for him to work at the school for the next two weeks, helping develop the skills of our two young and inexperienced teachers. The school is remote so to do this he must stay in the nearby village, more specifically in a hut made of cow dung. To use his own words he is ‘freaking out’. I have spent part of the afternoon trying to calm his fears, real or imaginary, and help him to settle in. As I look across the tops of the darkened acacia trees towards the school I wonder how he is getting on.

The day didn’t start too well. On Saturday my UK bank card was swallowed by a greedy ATM in town, apparently it had quite an appetite all weekend and there was a queue of us at the bank first thing on Monday hoping to reclaim our cards. The bank has a policy not to return cards that have been swallowed, because of the risk of fraud, but this is northern Kenya and they give me back my card anyway.

Then we took our volunteer shopping for the things he is likely to need during his stay in the bush. As we were waiting in the market a young man we know well approached us. He is a former street boy and a few years ago we ran a project with the street boys here. Dirty and wild, charming, loyal, entrepreneurial and extremely resourceful, we came to know and really care about the crop of abandoned youth living on the streets at that time. This young man had got himself off glue and into school, a bright boy, but ultimately not suited to a restrictive regime he now works as a labourer and fixer based in the market area. He is well liked and seems to make decent money. Today though he didn’t look his normal confident, exuberant self. He silently handed me a photograph of his younger brother, a boy we had also worked with back then but had seen less of since, another bright kid. He told us his brother had died a few days ago. His brother, around 18 years old, had died in the local butchery (oops sorry, I meant to say hospital) of ‘stomach’ problems. That was all he could tell us. They are former (only just former) street boys and they are from the wrong tribe. To be honest I am surprised his brother had even been admitted, but having been even if all he had was a headache he probably would have ended up dead. Our local hospital is not one anybody speaks well of even if you are from the ‘right’ tribe.

I was deeply disturbed by the news and frustrated that they hadn’t come to me before, when his brother was only sick, not dead, when perhaps I could have spent the money I now gave them for funeral bills on getting his brother to a better hospital. To perhaps help him not to die. I was so sad it felt like there was a heavy weight compressing my chest but this was just the start of a long day and after speaking with our young friend for a while we carried on. There were so many more problems to be dealt with this day, some expected, other not, and for a time I put the young man’s death to the back of my mind. But now, standing here in the almost dark, waiting for my brother-in-law to choose his ‘fat’ sheep it slips back into me, the full feeling of sadness and futility.

I see torches coming towards me and three men are soon lifting a ‘fat’ sheep into the back of the pickup. We all climb in and on. My 7 year old son squashes up against me in the front seat smelling of dust and animals and bush, falling asleep despite the bumping and jolting of the dirt track. We still have several hours to go before we will finally come to our home and collapse exhausted from another long day. This is not ‘work’ or at least nobody has paid us for what we did today. It is a mixture of family, passion and friendship that drives this kind of day. At the end, tired and perhaps emotional, I wonder why we do it, but tomorrow the sun will rise and energy and life will burst forth again and I will have my answer.