Friday 1 June 2012

Mombasa; and The End!

There are no lights on the Nairobi-Mombasa highway, and a thousand stars, and bumps. 2am coach stop: the confusion of an African ‘service station’, all hung with gaudy fairy lights, maybe I’m tired but it really is surreal. Stumble off coach in a daze, deafened by un-popped ears (we are travelling downhill all the way from Nairobi) to use the drop toilets, nice. It is a total hotpotch of people; there are strange corked bottles for sale in dark corners, enormous plates of greasy chicken, mandazi, ‘bisquits’; the pink flickering lights of the ‘pimped up’ coaches and matatus blur your eyes…I don’t want to get left behind.

Arrive 5am in Mombasa, feeling very tired indeed! And in great need of a shower. A tuktuk carries us through the dark and dusty streets – all rather dreamlike, and so hot and humid! Welcome to the ‘New Palm Tree Hotel’!, complete with white balcony, and roof top all hung with bed sheets (gosh, socks dry quickly here), air-conditioning and hot showers.

We visit the Old Town and Fort Jesus (built by the Portuguese following their invasion of this coastline in the 15th Century – eventually an Omani 33-month siege ended their two-century rule, and today Mombasa, although predominantly Swahili, still has massive Arabic influences (actually the neat green parks and whitewashed streets have a definite European feel; despite the hanging creepers and somewhat un-European trees!)). There are beautiful old winding streets to be explored (all seem to have their own resident crowd of kittens), with carved wooden balconies and Zanzibari doors, fascinating (inlaid with heavy spikes as protection against the war elephants which were deployed here so many years ago) – leading all the way down to the old harbour and the blue Indian Ocean. It is so hot! A tropical storm is coming…

Mackinnon market spills out onto the surrounding streets, and is a chaos of an incredible variety of tropical produce (all weighed on copper scales, you bargain hard for ‘good price’…) – baobab seeds (‘vimto’ flavour), dried mango, sugar cane, dark and sticky tamarind roots, green coconuts (the unripe cousin of the brown and hairy; lovely to drink, like water), black cumin and a hundred other spices – cinnamon and cloves from Zanzibar, red coffee, green and pink peppercorns, teas, masalas, bright pink paprika, vanilla pods; also piles of macadamia nuts and the speckled beetle nut (a mild stimulant when crushed and eaten); beautiful chillies laid out in the sun to dry, symmetrical rows of passion fruits, tomatoes, lemons and limes, papayas, wafting coriander, women carrying great bundles of lemongrass on their heads, coconut cakes, bizarre long green ‘dhudi’, and other fruits that I don’t even know the name of. There is an inside market hung with swinging beef carcasses; outside you can buy fried lobster tails, tilapia, fried taro roots, chappatis, weaved sisal baskets; another room is full of chicken cages and clucking (a new load have just arrived, packed and cowered in the boot of a tuktuk – they are carried in in bundles by the feet, passive as usual…); men are making the traditional leather sandals worn here (inlaid with beads and tiny cowrie shells). The cloth market street is famous throughout Kenya for its kitenges (waxed versions similar to Kangas) and kikoys (bright woven cotton scarves worn by the men as skirts). All mad and bustling; women in their veiled black ‘bui-bui’, stall holders shouting and selling hard; all complicated by the presence of honking, brightly coloured tuktuks driving all over the place…

Next day: make our (tuktuk) way to the busy bustle that is the Likoni ferry (the only way to the South Coast; as Mombasa itself is an island – we queue up with the rest of the crowd – women balancing ridiculously big loads on their heads, men pulling ridiculously over-full banana carts. In the confusion on the other side we manage to locate a matatus which is travelling to Tiwi beach – the road passes through the market which looks as impressively confusing as Mackinnon’s (all a mass of bamboo-roofed stalls) - there are many mango trees along the way, too, quite odd, actually, with their tear-drop shaped deep-pink loads . I’m still rather flu-y, despite the heat!

Taxi from the road – coconut, baobab trees, and vervet Monkeys swinging in-between. Twiga Lodge borders the white sands of Tiwi beach, which is littered with empty coconut husks and tiny hermit crabs, and lapped by the balmy warm blue-clear waters of the Indian Ocean – wow!- completely picture perfect. I ride Armet the camel (dressed in a gaudy orange saddle, each handlebars decorated with a brightly perched bunch of pink bougainvillea) –  saggy knees and beautiful, sorrowful eyelashes – perhaps he’s just hot. It’s a gentle life, on the coast….

The following day we make a small hop along the coast so as to ‘cover’ the whole area. There are 26 ‘colobridges’ along the road – for the benefit of the colobus monkeys which live here and don’t know how to check both ways. Diani beach is absolutely stunning, with pure white fine sand - it is still windy and lying on the beach, this is blown deep into my ear. Hair-like-straw. The beach boys here are nothing if not persistent, ‘sisterrrrs…’, selling everything and anything! The campsite cook makes us a delicious ‘Zanzibar’ soup, made from ‘eddy’ fish, coconut milk and saffron.

‘Shoppin, shoppin’ – I buy a wooden giraffe keyring from a man who is carving them on the spot from a solid log of ebony, black and polished, and as heavy as an iron bar.

We are punted out to the coral reef in a hollowed-out mango tree (it has ‘stabilizer’ wings on each side – a good thing as it doesn’t look particularly seaworthy…) – it is hard work against the wind and we are buffeted by the salty waves – they are pure turquoise and warm. The bigger deep blue surf far out marks the start of the reef (which blocks shark access to the beach…oh good! … there are fishermen here hauling in huge nets of white snapper. Snorkel, mask and flippers on: putting your head under for the first moment reveals an utterly magical underwater world, familiar from the TV….the water is literally ‘hung’ with Zebra and Spiro; Angel and Nemo fish; shoals of tiny electric blue flashes moving in unison; and hundreds of other colours and species, all going about their daily business. Our guide dives down to pick up a sea urchin and cracks it open with a stick on the sea bottom – I hold it as they all flock to snatch mouthfuls of the caviar-like yellow intestine spilling out – it is empty in  seconds. There is a patched-yellow sea snake carving its way along the sea floor, and a red pure plastic star fish; another star fish is about 2 inches thick – orange plastic on the bottom and red velvet on the top with black sticky circles. Care must be taken not to tread on the black spiky sea urchin (which would cause a nasty sting – luckily we ‘needn’t worry’ as the antidote, papaya milk, is ‘available’). Huge, fluorescent blue-rimmed clam shells clamp ruthlessly and tightly down on a piece of coral placed inside; there are giant other-worldly orange puffballs of coral; shimmering pink barnacled shells with a surprise disgruntled resident who reaches out to pinch your finger… Patches of clear sand are littered with the debris of dusty shells carcasses, bunches of green sea spaghetti and pink ribbons of weed. A definite highlight of my trip.

I buy an octopus for 700ksh from a man on a bike (caught fresh from the deep sea, along with lobsters, using a snorkel and spear). They are hung in a great inky bunch by a string through their bulbous hippo heads - the man removes the brain and ?intestines (more black ink spills out). Then we have to go to the beach to ‘tenderise’ it by flogging it against the sand – what a pitiful limp sandy specimen. A good washing in the sea reveals its original pearly-white star shape, large tentacles with suckers in symmetrical neat rows thinning to a fine grey point (complete with mini suckers). The campsite cook is very obliging and cooks it up as a delicious salty coconut curry – it is very meaty and chewy.

Up at dawn to see the early beach – there are hundreds of tiny almost-transparent crabs, perfectly invisible against the sand – they disappear down their round crab holes before you tread on them.

Freshly baked bread and a pint of avocado juice for breakfast- just what I need (fair wipes me out though!). Another fisherman arrives to sell some freshly-caught calamari to the cook – these are even stranger beasts than the octopus – blue-rimmed, golf-ball sized eye balls and a glittery-pink-white latex body. Today we sit by the pool at the hotel (feels very luxurious) – all very relaxing until the monkeys arrive to cause trouble… budget lunch is my bag of left-over rice from dinner – at least, until I let my guard down – furry paw swipes and the robber scarpers up the tree. Just to rub it in, he sits on a branch in eye line, stolen bag balanced in front, and champs away most unattractively…small grains of rice rain down on me – how annoying!

Matatu back to the island where we have a lovely evening with Sakeena ( a friend from Birmingham) at a really  nice North-Indian restaurant – I am recommended to try the biriyani (famous on the coast line – flavoured with the beautiful spices – saffron, cloves, cinnamon, and sprinkled with almonds, served in a traditional ‘Handi’).

Back in Nairobi, I am renamed ‘Mwamboi’ (a Kikuyu name) by the AA staff, owing to my love of githeri… (Or, ‘Mama Bean’ for short). There is a new advertisement on the main road outside publicizing a company of ‘sign writters’ (talk about shooting yourself in the foot). Tomorrow I fly home – the staff are packing for ‘Rhino Charge’ at Samburu (a big annual event where vehicles ‘charge’, Rhino-style, in a straight line  for 3 days across whatever terrain is planned for them) and  I am sorry to be missing it!

May 31st; Oti drives me to Jomo Kenyatta, early early. The end; to what has been surely the trip of a lifetime. So much to remember. Kenya, asante sana!!!

Lake Naivasha and the Masai Mara

We leave early for the Masai Mara, stopping on the way in the flat plains of the Aberdare National Park – here lies ‘Solio’, a series of seven villages of ‘displaced’ people (mostly squatters from the woods and roadsides of Mt Kenya National Park) who have officially been given land here by the government.  Luckily today it is dry, as the road quickly becomes impassable with rain (although it is extremely dusty now instead). Moving Mountains has set up a school in the second village, and we pass the group of teachers making the long journey on foot– it is 9km each way from Naro Moru. Each village has a borehole, and each homestead is allocated half an acre of land - lots of potato seeds are planted - a staple of the Kikuyu diet. There are 400 children in the school, built by the charity using a cheap technique of chicken wire and plaster, to replace the tented classrooms (the very first lessons were taught under the shade of an acacia tree, which has been ‘preserved’ as a reminder). There are also 4 new shelters for the teachers (to save them the long walk each day), and a kitchen with a smokeless stove (which would otherwise need parents to supply firewood to ensure a daily meal for the children – difficult as trees are pretty sparse round here). Wilfred the deputy greets us. Oti fixes the generator (it promptly blows up again, though).

What a bumpy road, and dusty!! Lots to see, as the road is still bordering the edge of the Aberdare Park – gazelles, monkeys and the magnificent Grey Crowned African Crane; grazing Kikuyu flocks and the endless whistling thorn trees. We take the Aberdare ‘Road of a Thousand Potholes’ (my name; not official or nufin…) through the park and into the Rift Valley – on to GilGil and the Nairobi Highway to Naivasha. Quick pause at the Thompson Falls, a 74m waterfall draining the Ewaso Ng’iro River – big tourist scene here and the usual pleasantries by the hawkers (there is even a ‘hold your own chameleon’ man (and pay for the privilege…) – it has strong clamping feet like pegs, ingenious), ‘sisterrr…. looking is free’ – all very charming, but unfortunately even a flicker of the eyes towards said ‘special offer’ comes with obligation. We set up camp at Fish Eagle site on the shores of Lake Naivasha – Eva has brought mangoes and cabbages for lunch, and there are blue Starlings, weavers, speckled mousebirds, and a peacock. Oti buys a string of fresh tilapia from the shore fishermen.

We take a boat ride onto the lake (the biggest freshwater lake in East Africa) – the shoreline is covered with water hyacinths (shrek-y pipe ear leaves and purple flowers) and giant papyrus, which act as a water purifier. Mt Longonot (my fav!-from Hells Gate) is in front; Hippo Island (named because of its resemblance to a hippo backside) behind. Incredible Pied Kingfisher (detailed black & white markings); cormorants, and the African Fisheagle. Then I spy the hippos – pinky-red brown, Labrador faces and cute stumpy bear ears (placed high on skull to facilitate huffin and puffin, wallow-friendly breathing), an impressive jaw span and MASSIVE corpulent , barrel-like bodies. They can hold their breath for up to 6 minutes under water – lovely to see, err, from a distance… (They are still the most dangerous animals known to man. I don’t believe it…)

Visit Crater Lake, the site of the flamingo migration from Lake Nakuru –an incredible sight: a solid MASS of pink and white - interestingly they become more pink, the more blue-green algae they consume (through a filter system in their down-turned bills). Ridiculously long legs – all well and good for wading, but a problematic undercarriage when coming in to land!

Tilapia choma and ugali for dinner (and sour uji. Oti and Eva take any beverage, regardless, with 3 tbsp sugar…).

Next morning we journey on through the foggy Rift Valley to the busy Masai town of Narok – lots of curio shop treasure troves and cow traffic. It is a further 3 hours from here to the Masai Mara, along a jaw-shatteringly bumpy track the ENTIRE way (the rains had caused the track to collapse and we are fortunate that it was repaired just this morning- still, the crevasses seem fairly substantial…). It is hot and dusty and EVERYTHING rumbles, loudly (I’m seriously surprised the axel remains attached; suspension definitely went some time ago – my vertebra are becoming increasingly well acquainted with each other…) – all somewhat tiring, but the landscape is fantastic to see. The Mara has no fence, so the flat plains are well-populated with zebras, gazelles and wildebeest; interspersed with herds of Masai cattle – each with a lone, tall Masai striding out in a with a spear and red shuka, tied and thrown  over the shoulder ( stands out brilliantly against the green), or resting crouched in  the shade of an acacia.

We pass many manyattas – the circular Masai villages – each has an outer fence of thorn branches for defence, hung with drying shukas; entry points are guarded by the ilmoran (warrior – moran means they have not yet killed a lion - all moran must spend 5 months outside the manyatta in the wilderness, fending for themselves, and living on meat, milk, and cow blood taken from the jugular vein, perhaps with a bit of ugali mixed in- all veggies are shunned though...). Initiation into the ilmoran takes place in the Eunoto ceremony, signaled by the blowing of a spiraled horn of a Greater Kudu antelope – this sound serves to bring the dispersed families together from great distances – much beer is brewed and consumed, sweetened with honey and sugar… ). A Masai man is polygamous and takes as many wives as possible (girls are promised at birth and married young) – the nuclear family live in a number of huts constructed from bent sticks slathered in mud, grass and cow dung; and the precious cattle are enclosed in the centre of all (a keen hyena has been known to jump even this final frontier, though!) - the Masai believe that when the earth and sky split, Ngai gave them the cattle to safeguard. Grazing close to the manyattas are smaller groups of pretty white goats, which are entrusted to the younger boys (cattle for teenagers, only…) – each one is swinging their own ‘grown-up’ stick. Waving girls have red-ochre dyed hair, and are wearing beautiful traditional beaded necklaces (glass beads were first brought over by the Arab traders  and are used by the Masai simply for their ‘beauty’- red is the favourite colour (as for the shukas – apparently it scares off the simbas); white is for milk; blue, the sky; and green, grass.

At the gate we fend off Linda, the masai lady selling her wares. Open that sunroof! From now on, there is no leaving the vehicle, and we stand up and hang on for our first game drive! - fantastic – it is dusk and we are extremely lucky to come across a pair of lionesses deciding on their evening takeaway (a tricky decision as it is a large buffet of buffalo – could be  out of their price range - a group of buffalo are a fearsome thing) - we watch for a long time as they slink forward and hang back. A hyena has obviously heard the news and trots over hopefully for the pickings, but he may not be lucky:  us too, as we must leave before the gate closes… Driving home in the dusk there are long lines of cattle, bells clopping – the Masai are driving them home.
Bed for the night is in the Mura Chui campsite - massive leopard print beds in a thatched hut (and evening electricity from a generator) = very luxurious after the past week (although promise of a hot shower falls flat, unfortunately). The Masai use this campsite for water - they run away if we see them, though, earlobes swinging (the huge pierced holes take only 3 months to make, apparently), and empty bottles dangling by the forehead strap… Oti disappears to dust off the van each night, a ritual, although perhaps unnecessary given the next few days; still, he likes things shipshape…

We leave for our second game drive at 7am, with a packed lunch. All toilet stops to be taken round back of van, with care of simbas… ‘Mara’ means spotted and refers to the changing Savannah landscape of grassland, interspersed with woodland canopy – it really is VAST  (583 square miles  - Oti says you could drive for 30 days to reach the end)  – this is the Mara Triangle, studded with lush wooded granite hills called ‘Kloppies’  (home to the Kilpspringer antelope). A HUGE sky and lone umbrella trees – it is so quiet, and it would be useful to have an Impressionist painter to record the colours of the grasses… I like the middle-sized acacias – thorns nearly 2 inches long, hence the name ‘wag-na-bie’ (the ‘wait a bit’ tree – of course, as the person in question disentangles themselves!); also the bizarre euphorbias (although the toxic sap of these doesn’t affect rhinos, apparently), and the even more strange ‘sausage’ trees, with their long monkey-nut shaped sausage gourds hanging on long creepers (used by the Masai to store their mursik and other concoctions).

It is a 4 hour drive to the Tanzania-Kenyan border, where the Mara meets the Serengeti at the Mara River. On occasion we stick in the mud, but Oti seems to manoeuvre us out each time, hakuna shida (no problem). Here is the site of the legendary Wildebeest migration (3 periods of migratory motion, with dispersal in June into the Mara from the Serengeti plain – 2 million wildebeest (accompanied by Gazelle, zebra and various antelopes), in a line stretching for up to 25 miles in length, must cross the Mara River…). 3000 of them will perish, due in part to the crocodiles which gather here for an ‘all-you-can-eat’, or often just a lack of swimming lessons – however their numbers are replenished in January each year by the 400 000 new calves.

At the river we can go for a walk, under the protection of a Ranger and his gun – it is scorching in the midday sun. We pass a group of staring giraffes, and giant 4-toed hippo footprints! – you can hear them too before you see them – huffin, puffin, snortin, growlin – impossible to tell their number in the water though as they sink below the surface and hold their breath. On the opposite bank is a lone croc, biding his time until the Wildebeest feast begins next month… We eat boiled eggs and sandwiches at the Trans-Mara gate – a fallen tree here is covered in plastic looking red/blue agamas lizards. I quietly pick a weaver bird nest off a low branch to investigate (definitely last year’s, as it’s not green – so intricately woven, and very satisfying to hold…)

We see a total of 15 simbas today, incredibly lucky (!) – including a male resting in the shade of a tree with his pumba kill (yes, Disney’s ‘Lion King’ has its facts right – Zazoo, incidentally, is a red-billed Hornbill…). They have THE cuddliest, black-tipped ears, and like so many of their colleagues, slightly comedic tails (black and tufted – apparently they have some sort of spine in it, keeps it moving nicely). The buffalo herd from yesterday’s hunt is still chomping away – maybe no luck for yesterday’s simba then? – they are such huge beasts, with feathery winged ears attached just TOO low down under their massive curved horns (which look like bunches with a strict centre parting…not cool). They stare at you – fair enough, as they suffer from chronic myopia. Many have a little cluster of oxpecker birds perched precariously on their giant backs – deal struck, to do with lice management, apparently…

Beautiful antelope – a family of 4 delicate impalas picking their way across a river (can’t help but think that their horns would make lovely handlebars); the majestic Topi with their impressive tan coats and plum-colour markings; tiny ‘Dik-diks’, which pair for life and die of heartbreak; blue duikers (like Elizabeth Huxley’s ‘Twinkle’ in ‘The Flame Trees of Thika’); and my favourite – Hartebeest (Kongoni in Kiswahili) – their name is Dutch and describes their face which really is heart-shaped…they have the most amazing eyes. Also Wildebeest (they really are strange animals, with their saggy necks and mournful faces); silver-backed Jackals; so many butterflies... My other favourite has to be the Zebras – their pattern is as unique as a fingerprint and extends right up into the mane and all the way down to the hooves (jeggings) – they are ever so fetching with their teddy-bear ears (apparently they can never been tamed though…shame). (They have the most well-rounded bottoms, too). Several matriarchal clans of elephants eat their way past us (200kg must be consumed each day) – it is now thought that they communicate via ‘subsonic’ rumblings which can be picked up by the trunk and feet…

BIRDS!! Wow!! Just SO many, and they could not be more exotic – the so-called ‘superb’ starling (as beautiful as a kingfisher, and as common as muck); the malachite sunbird; the strutting secretary bird (black leggings firmly on – they ‘dance’ on their prey, snakes, to kill… - and a bunch of ‘quills’ hanging from the back of the head); the stunning African Crane (also known as the Ugandan bird because of its impressive colouring); enormous Kori bustards, lappet-faced vultures, tropical boubous, hammerkops; and my favourite, the fluorescent pink and blue-chested ‘lilac-breasted roller) – it has a golden back. Also several ostriches – coy eyes and shockingly muscly drumstick legs, in SUCH bright pink, like a drag queen wearing tights…

A bumpy 4 hours return to camp, where Sammi, a Masai who helps out at the campsite, walks us to his manyatta. SO interesting (and pleasingly un-touristy). We pass large white flowers with big circular leaves: masai looroll ; also ‘sandpaper’ trees (with very coarse leaves), used to smooth the beautiful olivewood sticks they all carry. A group of his friends is summoned to dance for us – it is quite intimidating; stamping and leaning forward towards you, jumping high in unison in their rubber tyre-sandaled feet– they grunt and hum and chant, and bare their teeth. After the dance comes the ‘pogoing’ (the higher you jump, the less dowry you pay) - one of them is wearing a tall hat strung with beads, made from the pelt of a lion.

The masai are famous for making fire by rubbing sticks together, and we are given a demonstration – one stick made from red cedar and the other taken from the sandpaper tree – scowling, heads together, 2 take it in turn to spit and rub their hands in the soil; then clap their hands at the top of the stick and spin it down – the smoking dust is collected on the blade of a sword, and the flames come quickly! (The hot sandpaper stick can now be used to make small burn tattoos in patterns on the skin).

We crouch inside his parent’s hut – it is pitch black inside, but there is a tiny porthole window to let out the cooking smoke (which can be stoppered up with a scrunched-up shuka) – there are 2 rooms, and 2 beds for the 6 members of this family, and one extra space for the baby cow… This manyatta has been here for 7 years now, and Sammi tells me they plan to move on in another 3, as termites eventually attack the wooden sticks of the houses.

There is a school not far away which the children from this manyatta attend – today we are welcomed to a singing practice being held for an end-of-term competition – a group of children stand in a square, each with a stick – the dance sways, stamps and jumps, and there are many parts to be sung – humming and chanting, with the bigger boys snarling at the back (one blows the horn of the Greater Kudu, carried spiralled over one arm),and a lead voice rises above it all – very cool.

Walking back, the cows are filing home again, and the Masai is dressed warmly in his shuka – they are rather magnificent, thrown over one shoulder and billowing out behind them, and the red can be seen for miles. The smell of the fabric is amazing – strong, of ochre (red hair dye), sweat, cow dung, mud…

The next day: our last game drive – 6 o’clock brings a wonderful morning with an early sun. In total we have seen three of ‘The Big Five’ (samba, buffalo and elephant – no leopard or rhino, or cheetah – but I am well satisfied!).

All the way back to Narok (along the same road, unfortunately….doesn’t make for restful snoozing AT ALL; plus me and Eva are nursing a cold) – from Narok, it’s the highway climbing high out of the Rift Valley to Nairobi, and a quick turnaround for the Mombasa nightbus!!

Monday 28 May 2012

'Facing Mount Kenya'

Meet Majel at Jom Kenyatta airport!! We drive out towards Naro Moru along the Nairobii-Thika superhighway, past a group of galloping giraffes (this road borders the Nairobi National Park), and later, the Del Monte Fruit farm in Thika-  emergency stop for pink guava flavour.  The landscape changes and is different to anything I’ve seen before –very flat and sparse - valleys, euphorbias, the odd house --  the Aberdare National Park stretching away to our left and Mt Kenya to the right (swathed in cloud today which hanging weirdly – you know there’s something BIG behind…). In Nanyuki we pick up Cyrus, who will be our guide for the next five days.

We have lunch at the Trout Tree Restaurant – built in a magnificent old fig tree – a mass of pulleys, ropes and step ladders, with beautiful wooden tree stumps, and bar taps screwed into the trunk (- all the brainchild of a Canadian Mzungo, apparently.). The garden below is a lush jungle of banana leaves, amazing trees and lilies – and beyond lie the trout pools which are home to over 80 000 rainbow trout. Fish man fishes us out two into a bucket – crunch time is a knock on the head and then straight in with a knife. All systems are go, and in five minutes unfortunates 1&2 appear chargrilled on wooden plates with butter and lime – wow! We also have smoked trout, smoked over sawdust made from ‘merry oak’ from the woods of Mt Kenya National Park. Bonus feature, a colony of beautiful Colobus monkeys have decided to settle here – black helmet of fur, comedy nose and moustache, and very beautiful and expansive plumed white tails (help them to ‘fly’ between trees…).

Onwards, to the Blueline Hotel – I wear a jumper, for the first time since I arrive in Kenya, and there are no mosquitoes!! Many species of amazing succulents, and a family of busy weaver birds in the peppercorn tree). Cyrus briefs us for the expedition, and Ann (goalie for Black Cat girls, climbing with us) arrives from Embu.

Mountain Morning 1, and the summit is clear. What an incredible profile. Our team of porters – Daniel, Patrick and Kamiro arrive and we fill the van with supplies, it’s all so exciting!! First stop, though, is the Equator at Nanyuki (6398 feet) – there is a queue of American Mzungos waiting to have their picture snapped, and some overfriendly ‘curio’ shop owners (at least, until you convince them you ain’t buying). Equatorial water demonstration (water turns clockwise 20m North of the line, and anti-clockwise South – yes, it’s true!) – flows straight down over the line itself. On into Mt Kenya National Park, to the Sirimon Gate where we will begin our trek. Kamiro (58) the cook seems to be famous among the well-initiated here – he reminds me of a very sprightly tortoise and has an amazing face (no teeth though –  sugar cane causes him difficulties). He, Daniel and Patrick load a seemingly impossible amount of gear and food into their own bags, and our large ones, and tie them together with string (all we carry is daysacks, hardly seems fair…) – the loads are SO heavy and they are bent double.  Cyrus carries the box of eggs tenderly. All are wearing trainers, and Daniel has on a pair of pin-striped trousers.

 Three hours of walking takes us to ‘Old Moses’ Camp 1 – we pass through the start of the ‘Afro-Montane’ habitat, complete with baboons and black eagles, fresh buffalo and elephant tracks, and an ever-changing forest of red cedars, African olives, Bamboo, Rosewood, old man’s beard and junipers. Keeping eyes peeled for the elusive Mountain Bongo. Happily we miss most of the rain, but it is certainly cold enough up here, about 5 degrees. Kamiro pumps up the kerosin stove in the dark kitchen,  and we have hot chai and popcorn. There are mysterious hunks of meat hanging up on nails (cold enough here to keep well) – this is for the porters, apparently – Kamiro cooks us tilapia and roast potatoes (goodness knows how!), and there are passion fruits and tomato fruits for pudding… The weather closes in and it really is cold! -many more bowls of chai are consumed, and we have hot water in our bottles for sleeping with (along with precious camera battery – to preserve life)

Mountain Morning 2: hot pancakes at 6am – today we climb to Shipton Camp. The weather is clear again and you can count the snow-capped peaks, all 50 of them... Kikuyus believe that their god ‘Ngai’ lives on the summit, and build all their houses facing it (they are buried too with their head towards it– all described in Jomo Kenyatta’s autiobiography ‘Facing Mt Kenya’…) We climb in the early sun past the summit of Tabletop Moutain to our left and out of the scrubland (badly damaged here by poachers in a fire which ravaged this side of the mountain) - mountain chatts warble, and I’m still hoping for an elephant, or at least a hyena… Slowly the cloud passes below us and the sky is BLUE! Banana skins are lobed over shoulder to feed the rock hyraxes (like very large, hopping guinea-pigs – ever so stupid, with a tendency to stop and twitch nervously in the middle of the path). Also many mountain mice, and incredible birds – my favorite is the turquoise blue-black sunbird – they have hooked beaks for nectar. The landscape becomes increasingly bizarre – giant lobelias, and tall and hairy giant groundsel with green-purple ostrich feathers. With the thinner air it is a hard last push to Shipton’s hut at 4200m, but we have made good time, and I am allowed to help make the porter’s ugali (and beef stew, of course!) – ‘mzungo food’ is cheese toasties, though.

We sit around the kerosin stove all afternoon for warmth (I am wearing all my clothes). Kamiro is boiling chicken - water boils here at 90 degrees - there are lots of cheeky chats who flutter around (rich pickings for them here, including the hanging hunk of beef which has travelled with us). Later we take biscuits out in search of the ‘tame’ rock hyrax, and can see our summit point,  Lenana ( the name of an old Masai chief, who had two sons, Nelion and Batian… these two highest peaks are said to resemble the black and white of an ostrich feather, hence the nickname ‘Mountain of the Ostrich’). Early bedtime with another hot water bottle - we are SO well looked after and the stove is never off (actually becoming slightly problematic - it keeps exploding with a giant plume of flame – bad for the eyebrows, but it’s nice and warming…). The porters stay up in the kitchen and we can hear them talking loudly- ‘eh, eh’ (Masai affirmative…).

Mountain Morning 3, and Majel has had an interrupted night due to our dorm mates - the mice- one felt the need to squeak in her ear…  I sleep pretty badly too, maybe it’s the thin air. 6am brings a spectacular sunrise and I go out in the freezing air to ‘make photo photo’. Kamiro is melting the oil (solidified) to make the pancakes, and we have weetabix with hot milk. I am still wearing all my clothes, and washing doesn’t really feel like an option – the water is FRESH, to say the least (even my suncream has frozen).  What an incredible blue sky!! We do a morning acclimatization walk to two turquoise lakes. During the afternoon the rain sets in and some more weary clients arrive with their group of porters – 2 of them are crying and sick from the altitude - how strange, as none of us 3 are feeling anything. Patrick renames me ‘Magicko’ – meaning tall… The other group of porters let us share their jiko (stove) for warmth, it is really very cold.
(Funny old life as a porter – slogging up and down, carrying massive loads, to arrive and spend all your time freezing and cooking all the food you have carried for your clients (it is obviously somewhat of a competition to present your offerings as elaborately as possible) - endless plates of popcorn, ‘bisquits’, hot chocolate, fruit -  while you eat plain ugali and a cut off the beef hunk, when they have gone to bed…..)

I sleep deeply until 2am, when a mouse runs across the neck of my sleeping bag… 2.30 am is chai and bisquit time (sadly the milk has run out, and the hot chocolate…) and we leave at 3 for a headtorch ascent of Lenana – so exciting!- ‘pole pole’ (‘slowly slowly’) in step behind Cyrus, crunching on the frozen ground. Our headtorch beams pick out the shadowy forms of giant lobelias, groundsel and frozen glittery succulents, and the sky is FULL of stars. We reach the scree slope and climb steadily for 2 hours,  it is very steep. Break at the snowline (feeling a little bit sick!) – still pitch black  and extremely cold, and it is just possible to make out the dark forms of Nelion and Batian high above. (Another summit group is some way below us – you can see their headtorch beams flicking around  - stupidly this makes me feel rather competitive…) From here it is just one more hour and Cyrus times our arrival perfectly as the sun breaks the horizon at 6 o’clock – WOW!! What an incredible view. A huge ridge hung in cloud curves downwards towards Naro Moru, a sea of cloud conceals the peak of Kilimanjoro behind, and Batian lies in front, with a huge horizon and the many other snow-topped peaks lit up in orange by the sun. The Kenyan flag is flying at the summit, 4895m. Flipping awesome.

It is absolutely freezing (about minus 12, plus wind chill), and poor Majel finally succumbs to the inevitable and starts throwing up – the sun has finished arriving and it’s time to leave. Quite scary seeing what we came up with our eyes closed! The perfect sunrise turns into a perfect morning, not a cloud to be seen – Cyrus hasn’t had a run of weather like this for a long time – and we arrive at Shipton by 8am, an hour ahead of schedule. I wash for the first time since Blueline, and risk removal of the thermal leggings. More hot weetabix and pancakes on offer, though Majel’s in no mood to eat (she has been sick several times since), and Ann and I feel a bit weird, too…but it is genuinely ‘warm ’in the sun, and a family of hyraxes come out to sunbathe. The other group of porters are still waiting for their group to arrive and set up a breakfast table outside, complete with masai shuka tablecloth (they think they are winning the secret competition). Make the long step back to Old Moses in the sun - life is good and the bags are light! Patrick lets me make the chapattis, this is amusing, apparently...

Last Mountain Morning - we leave for the gate leisurely  and arrive ‘pole  pole’ after 11am  - soldiers from the ‘Kenyan Wildlife Services’ (they are hunting poachers) give us a lift to the tarmac in their 4x4, where Kioni and Oti are waiting for us. Back in Blueline at  Naro Moru,  I am very sad to say goodbye to Daniel, Patrick and Kamiro and more tired than I realized. And in great need of a hot shower (this is not immediately forthcoming, TIA). PYJAMAS, soap, oh boy.

Monday 14 May 2012

A few days in Nairobi

I catch a matatu into the depths of Kibera, fascinating. Home to 200, 000, this is Kenya’s biggest slum. Humongous rubbish piles, thousands of corrugated iron houses stretching for miles, crowds of people (especially as today is church day); plus endless stalls – fruits, hot chapos, boiled eggs and mandazi, butchers selling choma meat with hanging carcasses, h air salons and kinyozis (barbers). Very dangerous here at night, and even in the day… Ushirika clinic is a 24/7 medical centre built by Moving Mountains in 2003 – it offers medical consultations, drugs and maternal services at a cut-off price of 1000Ksh. During the morning we see many cases of malaria (the mossies DO seem pretty hungry round here…), and one guy who was properly beaten up last night by thugs – probable broken wrist – injected with morphine and sent to Kenyatta hospital…

‘Carnivores’ for lunch, with Hannah and Charlotta! This is Kenya’s most famous place to eat nyama choma, and has also been voted one of the world’s 50 best restaurants. ‘A beast of a feast’…literally. We sit among banana leaves and cacti, at a table set with gourds, banana leaf mats and zebra seats (although the serving of game meat is no longer allowed here). At the entrance is a huge smoking BBQ pit (all lit up in red; like something out of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’), and the meat is basted on real Masai swords. The waiters (dressed fetchingly in zebra aprons and boaters) appear constantly at your shoulder with the next sword of roasted delicacy – you just have to keep saying ‘no’ to keep up (alternatively you can knock over the flag on the table for a break, or remove it for complete surrender). Before the meat is brought you are given maize, soup and bread, and ‘Dr Dawa’ appears with his ‘medicine’ (‘Dawa’ in Swahili), which is a cocktail of vodka, lime and sugar, stirred with a bamboo stick twisted in honey… We have a multi-storey tower of sauces to accompany each meat (the waiter reminds us which each time) – fruit (for ostrich), wild berry, garlic, marsala, chilli, mint… plus matoke (mashed green bananas), sukuma, salads… The iron plates are sizzling hot, and are filled constantly with crocodile (a sweet, fishy chicken flavor!), ostrich (my favourite), oxen balls, chicken gizzards; plus perfectly cooked lamb, beef, pork,chicken, turkey, you name it… (*Ahem*, veggie must be officially set aside, for one day only; besides, this stuff is *so* dead already…). Trick is to try a little, then move on, for digestion’s sake - we eat from 1 – 3.30pm. Just as you surrender, icecream and Kenyan coffee is served. Next door is the equally famous ‘Simba Saloon’, which hosts amazing live Jazz nights – all of Kenya’s biggest musicians come to play here. All in all, a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience, and I have never been so full in my life…

At night in the guest house kitchen – the rustle of cockroaches, plus GIANT spiders. Also, bed bugs DO bite…

Today I am a tourist (‘you will see many mzungus’, Oti informs me). We drive out to Langata and Karen districts, past the Nairobi National Park where baboons swagger along the roadside looking for unsuspecting picnickers. First is the David Sheldrick Conservation Trust, which raises orphaned elephants (from poachers, or victims of wells, mostly) and also black rhinos – with the aim of reintroducing them to the wild in Tsavo National Park. They come sprinting from the park for their milk (they spend the full day there and only meet humans for an hour at 11am) , very cute - they are weaned on 4 tins of SMA Gold per day, specially imported from England (one can’t help but think of the babies in Embu…) and grab the giant bottles with their trunks. The tiniest are swaddled tightly in masai blankets, tied with a rope belt. The keepers are with them 24 hours each day, and one sleeps in the straw with each individual each night (important, as they are their surrogate mother, and elephants really do die ‘from heartbreak’). Such funny, smiling, furry beasts with their comedy black-tipped spiky tails; v happy rolling, farting, pinching the keeper’s spade, trunk swingin…

Next; the Rothschild Giraffe Centre, where you can stand on a raised wooden platform to feed the residents at eye level (apparently they are on a ‘diet’ of 2 pellet handfuls per visitor…yeah right; anyway, ‘no food, no friend’, or even a horn-butt.. I)f you place a pellet between your teeth, a long purple tongue will delicately extract it (you can see how they fish for ants in the thorn trees) – how Romantic (although motives questionable) - up close and personal they really do have bizarrely long snouts.

Opt for the cheap lunch option, away from tourist prices – roadside ‘hotel’ (always tempting digestive fate) – beans and chapo for me, sawa, but Oti’s matumbo (tripe/intestine) is extremely well-‘plumbed’ and rather furry… Everywhere, everywhere you go, the red-painted stalls are advertising ‘barudika na Cola buridi’ (enjoy a cold coke) – in Kenya, there is always time.

Within the Karen district lie’s Karen Blixen’s original Colonial house, set in the beautiful grounds ‘at the foot of the Ngong hills’ (Ngong means ‘knuckle’ in Masai – the peaks really are similar, all 4 of them!). Loved seeing it all for real (I finished reading ‘Out of Africa’ last night!) – there are the lion and leopard fur rugs she shot, the stone mills outside where she sat to grind flour with Kamante, the oil lamps used to signal her mood to Denys Finch-Hatton… would have been quite happy to wander but the tour guide is painfully slow as he goes through literally every item of furniture, in each room, as ‘orrrrriginal’ or ‘not orrrrignal’… I nod lots.

One of the last chapters in ‘Out of Africa’ is called ‘The Giraffes go to Hamburg’ – about 2 giraffes captured and sent from the port of Mombasa to a travelling zoo in Hamburg’ – “gentle amblers of the great plain; cantering side by side; crowds will laugh at the long slim necks and the graceful, patient, smoky-eyed heads; little noble heads that are now raised, surprised, against the blue sky of Mombasa…”)

Last is the Nairobi Park Animal Orphanage – normally they feed here in the afternoons, but today everyone’s full, and not chatting, either, ah well. Not much to see. Patricia the warthog is sun-bathing though – unbelievably brown and ugly – I find her far more funny than is fair…

Sunday 13 May 2012

How time flies

Gilbert takes me to the Dallas Dispensary for my first day – it is a 45 minute walk, and there is a trick to moving without attracting too much attention. The clinic was built with money from USAID and the Kenyan Government in 2007 (although it has been closed on and off since due to local disputes over ownership), and is run totally by nurses. Registration costs just 20 Ksh (still too much for some, though), and many of the drugs are free or subsidized. It’s a very impressive service, and well-equipped with a basic lab for microscopy (provided there is power!) and a pharmacy; services include HIV testing and counseling, a TB clinic, general consultations, ante+post-natal clinics and family planning, and child immunizations. I am the first intern who has visited here – introduced as ‘Dr Joy’, as usual… There is always a queue outside from 8am, but by 11 most people are at work so it is quiet. This fortnight there is  also a government funded programme to give all children under the age of five Vitamin A (to protect against ‘night blindness’); there is also a box placed outside the door filled with small bags of maize and beans (‘together to fight malnutrition’).  The Dallas community is a mixed population of local residents, plus some 20, 000 people living in the slum (primarily a Muslim population) – lots of TB cases, also cholera and typhoid due to the overcrowding. 

I sit in with the HIV counselor Joyce (she swears I am 16) who explains the tests to me – there are 2 (instead of the original 3 which created a ‘tie-breaker’ situation), same day antibody tests. It’s a 15 minute wait for the strip card to register, a bit like a pregnancy test – scary. There is a government campaign to encourage people to ‘know their status’ (‘Gjue hali yako ya HIV’) so testing is very important. The risk of MCT (‘mother-to-child-transmission) when exclusively breastfeeding is 60% (only 50% if ARVs can be used); however today we see a positive mother with, her baby who at 9 months is officially negative – what a relief! (Children testing positive at 6 weeks are retested at 9 months in case of false positives due to the mother’s conferred immunity). This centre advertises the importance of the strict use of condoms and there are free dispensers around (they are empty, but a nice thought!) – there are also free condoms supplied by the Japanese for several support groups which meet here – including one for HIV positive patients, and a commercial sex worker’s group. (Another statistic - 45% of women in Kenya are pregnant or are already mothers by the age of 19!) Male circumcision is done here (much safer than in the traditional ceremony which is done without pain relief – boys usually spend the morning in the river to numb the pain…); and interestingly this could be a moderately effective AIDs ‘vaccine’, reducing the risk of transmission by over 60% ,  and allegedly preventing over 3 million deaths in 20 years.

Today is the TB clinic, with Dorothy the nurse. Each patient who comes has a named box of (free) drugs to cover both the intensive and continuation phases of treatment. All patients are followed up regularly, as this is a communicable disease (as in the UK). So many people!

I visit the Dallas slum with Regina who is one of 50 Community Health Workers trained by the clinic– each are assigned a number of households within the slum  - roles include the mobilization of patients to attend clinic,  taking HIV drugs and food in for the sick, and addressing issues with sanitation etc. There are two ‘swamps’ within the slum (which seems endless) – these lie very close to the houses which is a problem - (when water supplies dry up they are used as a water source, which is obviously dangerous.) There are many people digging on the roadside – they are laying pipes here to create access to clean water which is great news (although it’s very muddy now -  ‘sorry sorry’ – the Kenyan response for anything which goes wrong, regardless of whether of not it is that person’s fault!). Sanitation is a massive problem here, especially during the rainy season when the piles of rubbish cannot be burnt (they are well grazed by cows and goats though).

I go back to visit the interns on ward 10 – it’s still ‘peak’ pead season and very busy! A nutritionist friend explains the new feeding programme for HIV-positive mothers - since a month ago, an NGO organization has undertaken to provide funding to supply all the mothers here with a 9 month supply of ‘AFASS’ Nestle milk (‘affordable, feasible, acceptable, safe, sustainable ….’), a water filter and thermos flask to prepare the solutions. (The milk comes in tins, each costs around 900ksh and will last only for several days – so each mother will need about 80 tins (she should pay for the last 3 months herself, until the baby is 1 year old)). This fulfils the recommendation by the WHO, and so far has been extremely well received by the mothers here as a replacement to exclusive breast feeding (which obviously carries a risk of MCT). (A baby has just been born on 13 – Veronika the sister comes to tell me that it has been called ‘Joy’!). Also visit the medical superintendent Dr Muli to finish my placement - his secretary always seems to find me one big joke which is becoming a bit disconcerting (doesn’t do much for one’s confidence when ALWAYs being smirked at - it will be nice to go around unrecognized, I do think…!)

I visit ‘St Monica’s Special School for the Mentally Handicapped’. It is really a lovely school – very positive and caring (despite the problems with national stigma – children with special needs are sometimes hidden within the house for shame), and the children are encouraged to be as independent as possible. There are 120 kids, aged from 4 to 30 years, and most board full-time. I am shown the farm, the shamba, and the classrooms for woodwork, jewellery and needlework too (I come away with an new apron!).

I am invited to Lillian’s house for tea. She lives on the other side of Embu, near the Dallas community. There is a small shamba at the bottom of the garden, with 2 goats, 5 rabbits & chickens (and a new chick!). She is a great church-goer and the living room walls are lined with bible verses and prayers. We have tea and bread and sweet bananas and eggs. Erin her daughter is there (and brings her friends over too). It is dark by the time we leave and walk back towards town – so many children come to shake my hand, everyone is staring and laughing… Such a busy, interesting place – all the streets are full of people, music playing, dancing, many butchers and milk ‘bars’ (selling maziwa lala – ‘lala’ means the milk has ‘slept’…), people selling chargrilled maize and tilapia (twisted up in newspaper with salt). Back in town there has been an accident and no taxis are going – Lillian’s ex-neighbour comes to take me home on the back of his bike – there is a full moon and it’s a wicked ride!

Jenny from the kisok plaits my hair early before church. I only want the front bit done, but this takes some explaining… I sit outside her house – one room only but it’s separated by curtains; there are lots of pictures of ballet dancers. Next door the neighbor is beating her child with a large spoon, oh dear. It hurts, a lot!-my scalp has never had such an attack…but cool to try (although it falls out by the end of the day – my hair is just not the right consistency, as I am constantly reminded…)

I spend the afternoon at the Rescue Centre. This week the schools go back (lots of singing when you walk past! And counting – 1-10 is Moja  mbili tatu nne tano sita saba nane tisa kumi), and so it is fee-nightmare when all the children sponsored through the charity have to have the costs met and the term’s shopping done. Today there is lots of tell-tale left-over githeri – many of the usual customers have been chased home this morning as they attended without the required sum. Intense scrabble match (no threats from my side, though); there is one chess set too. I bump into Summi in town (the son of Joy, the patient with a SSC of the cheek) – nice to see him, but his mother is no better.

Sunday Black Cat home match against Dallas team – we win 4-2, no worries (tricky playing conditions as the pitch is pretty wet today, and there a big clumps of grass; still lots of them play bare foot!). By great luck and a bit of insider knowledge I have managed to acquire Embu’s very last ‘Harmabee Star’ (the Kenyan National Football team) shirt – the kit factory has gone bust so it’s a big deal. Poa poa. (The national motto is ‘Harambee’, which means ‘together’ - this is written on the flag; which is black (for the people), red (for the blood spilt in the world wars), green (for nature) and white (for peace); there is also a shield and crossed spears to show power and defense. I go to football training (strictly on best performance as under scrutiny of the boys plus the mass of spectators at the stadium) – a long run which is fine, then a match – 3vs3. Not so skilful, not gonna lie…
The guava season is upon us. Officially mangos are over now, but small sweet ones can still be brought in the market – about 10 for 25p (also yellow passion fruits, similar to their brown cousin but much less crunchy)! Mama Whyela has taken it upon herself to feed me – ‘you want to take githeri’ (a cup for 20 bob), baked sweet potatoes (SO sweet!), hot chappatis and milk, uji... I have discovered African honey, which is very dark and sweet, with a definite hint of BBQ flavor (and can be eaten with avocados – wow).
We run out of gas; then the power goes off. Somewhat limiting; plus I only have dried beans. One of the WORST noises I know is the whine of an approaching mosquito, especially when you can’t see it coming - yuck! In other news, I have been mistaking the local chipmunks here for squirrels, which are much more interesting.

So…, my time in Embu comes to an end. Mad! SO strange to be leaving, and not coming back. And so many goodbyes!! :(

Saturday 5 May 2012

It's a hard knock life

My first day of Obstetrics. Ward round and checks for breech presentations etc - baby monitoring is done using a fetoscope (a cone with an earpiece) – no fancy stuff here. Sometimes the mothers don’t know their delivery date, so clinically estimating the gestational age is important. An emergency admission with an impending uterine rupture comes in for a C-section – these are all done by the interns (but not me, hopefully!) There are also two mothers waiting to go into the labour room - the contractions are pretty terrifying but there’s very little support or sympathy which is hard to see. Mercy is 20 years old and this is her first baby. The delivery room is a frightening place, with a frightening sister – there are 4 beds (no sheets or nufin) and zero privacy, but thankfully today she has the room to herself. Not a whiff of oxygen or encouragement (as childbirth is considered a ‘natural’ pain), and the episiotomy is brutal (the nurse assures me she feels nothing but I can’t quite believe that from the noise she’s making) All pretty harrowing for her, and me. I get to deliver her baby boy (3.5 kg) and cut the cord – all is well and we wrap him up in a kanga by the heater, but poor Mercy still has to be sewn up…before being pointed to a cold shower and a cup of uji. Tough old world. The second mother staggers in as they are swilling the floor (and the token curtain) – think I’ve had enough for one day and carry Mercy’s baby for her to the post-natal ward (much to everyone’s amusement), as she has to carry all her belongings, bent half double…there is a bed for her but it’s half occupied with another baby – a shame as she can’t really sit down. TIA.

Braving the labour room again.  There is a miserable girl who delivered prematurely early this morning – her baby is now in the neonatal unit, but she is still lying on the couch with a retained placenta. Sparing the details, the removal is not pleasant, and requires the ingenious use of a third pair of gloves fashioned into arm protectors. I am offered to learn how to suture (by same frightening sister, she is called Veronika), but make my excuses… Also see a few amniocentesis procedures – there are a finite number of clean gloves today, for some reason, and also laboratory sample bottles, so the fluid is placed in normal glass jars. Two more emergency C-sections which I scrub in for (we are delayed as the theatre bed is broken, but a welder is summoned who zaps it up pronto in the corridor) - this hospital still uses the midline sub-umbilical incision (old-fashioned, even by Kenyan standards, but its consultant’s choice) – quick and simple, at least! All a bit different to home where layers of bright new surgical drapes cover the patient from head to toe – the scrubs are stained and have holes in – they are bundled up with masking tape into the sterile sets. Baby No.1 isn’t breathing but is resuscitated fine (he has a VERY long head which explains the obstructed labour!). There are two power cuts during the ops, but the generator kicks in fine. This procedure will leave the mother with an impressively large scar – I wince as the stitches are covered over with a few large bits of the usual plaster tape – will hurt to come off… I visit ‘my’ mother and baby from Monday’s birth on ward 14 – she looks very well and her baby boy is called ‘Mathugai’ –  it’s very nice to see them!

I visit the Embu-Mbeere hospice with Judy (the palliative care nurse) – it’s  about 10km from town, in the middle of nowhere, and is still very much under construction  - it should be a really impressive centre though when it’s completed in 2014. There are currently very few hospices in Kenya (all out-patient based, otherwise allegedly people would bring patients to the door and leave them…), and as yet, no recognized paediatric programme at all. Today the team goes through the new assessment form (detailed history including tribe, chief, etc), and drink tea, tea, tea…! (Fast gossiping in Kiswahili – the equivalent of ‘errmmm’ here is ‘nini’; I miss the rest of the conversation though).

I arrange to visit the paediatric occupation therapy department to see what’s occurring – lots of cases of cerebral palsy (from birth trauma, ah yes) and also delayed milestones secondary to rickets (again the reason for this strangely high prevalence in the Central lands is unknown– a recent study by Kenyatta University suggests it might have something to do with uncooked cereals in uji (most flours are a mixture of grains, some even have powdered omena!- and the high levels of phytates inhibit the absorption of calcium, even when the child is adequately fed)). APDK – The Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya are due to visit here on the 31st May which is pretty exciting – a group of surgeons will consult from very early ‘til late, assessing kids with cleft palates, club feet, spina bifida etc and referring them to centers for corrective surgery. Lots of swings and standing frames, and a small back area with a sink which serves jointly as a rehab centre for ‘ADLs’ and as a DIY mould-making room.

Today is ‘Labour Day’, a public holiday, and I go tilapia fishing with Nyambora and Ndwega in the lake behind Isaaks- technically this is trespassing and we are guiltily crossing the banana plantation when we are overtaken by a group of small boys who evidently have the same plan for their day off. Lucky they are here as they catch our bait for us - crickets (which are massive and rather off-putting; plus it is too hot to be running around...). Incredible, the tilapia bite for them like nothing else! - even in the shallows they nibble the line (despite the noise coming from the boys next to us who are swimming with a mosquito net to catch the ‘fingerling’ babies) –annoyingly they are remarkably good at removing the poor insect and spitting out the hook. I do catch one, though! -it is pink and silver…immediately feel sorry for it and donate it to the boy’s collection (strung on a stick). Would have been too small for fish marsala, anyway. The lake is beautiful, with enormous red and blue dragonflies all about.

It is hard to be a chicken here. There are so many shops advertising ‘day-old chicks’, which are raised to become ‘broilers’ – boiled and deep-fried kuku, v popular. Lucky birds reaching more senior stages are tied by their feet and carried about upside-down in bunches, they are remarkably docile about it, no flapping. The streets of Embu are wicked in the early evening – shoeshine huts, maize sellers grilling the cobs in roadside pits, women shredding sukuma, smoky charcoal fires. There are a few roadside ‘garden centres’ on the main road out of town where you can buy anything – mango trees, cacti, and bizarre trees with spread-out layers of leaves, like an inverse-Christmas tree. Massive sisal plants grow (I thought they were aloe vera at first) which are made into rope. Shop names are hand- painted and make me laugh – ‘nice and lovely’, ‘jolly precious fish + chips’, ‘victory snacks’, ‘lord’s super butchery’ (and ‘the roastful butchery’, too).  An alternative medicine clinic: ‘we treat, God cures’…

Lizard in the bath, slim and brown, a friend of the gecko. Horribly wriggly to get out. Massive storms at the moment, with lightening forks across the whole sky and TORRENTIAL rain – this means the power sometimes stays off for almost 24 hours which is frustrating! BUT after a heavy rain Mt Kenya can be seen incredibly clearly from the hill, snow topped peaks and all.

I buy a fab wooden spoon (actually it’s more like an oar, although not as big as Lillian’s which is the next-oar-up) at the market for making my own ugali. Ugali is essentially a large white polenta cake, but is surprisingly difficult to make properly – when done you should be able to turn it out as one big mass, leaving a thick hard crust on the pan which never comes off… Also barter hard for some small ebony carved animals – exhausting - the seller is at pains to prove to me the quality, ‘sister’ (real ebony secretes oil when you scratch it). Best purchase though is my first ever cocoa pod! – green-brown and furry on the outside, and rattles when you shake it. Inside is a sweet white pulp surrounding the cocoa beans (this can be eaten, or fermented and used in uji) - separated by string fibers into segments. (Chocolate though is a long way off – the beans have to be sweated, fermented and dried for many days…ah well).

Fav foods at the moment: avocado (which can be brought for 10 bob - about 7p - from Mama Whyela and are as big as 4 normal ones – the trees are LADEN with them at the moment), mazala lala (fermented milk), the oranges, and boiled arrowroot (or sweet potato, or left over ugali, for that matter). I also cook Kunde – this the name of the dish and also of the African black-eyed ‘cow peas’, which are stewed with onions and tomatoes (the base of every recipe here!), peanut butter and sukuma.