Sunday, December 19, 2010
Kenya Calling – Batting with Bandits
It is said (I have no idea by whom) that if you are lucky you die (which means everyone is at least lucky), if you are luckier then you almost die before finally dying, and if you are luckiest (like I always am) then you not only almost die but actually shake hands with death, smell her heady fragrance, embrace her if you may and then return before one day you finally die. This is actually a funny story (aren’t all stories are!) and has nothing to do with dying at least not of anyone I am aware of, but I thought this would make a good preamble to a tale where bandits would eventually drop down from out of African bushes.
If I would listen to even one hundredth of safety advices that my friends and strangers throw my way all the time then I would still be a simple boy from the backyards of some obscure Himalayan village and wouldn’t even dream of going out anywhere outside the precincts of my grazing goat-land. So when I declared that I was heading on my own astride a matatu for the Northern wasteland and the Mathew Ranges in Kenya, I was severely cautioned by all, Paula (this amazing lady and now a dear friend shall be introduced properly in a post later) in particular declaring that I would be drugged, doped, duped and finally robbed by bandits. She also insisted that I write down her mobile number on my palm (since I would shortly be lightened of my mobile phone by my fellow-passengers) and call her if I was indeed held up at the wrong end of a nasty gun. I have no idea if that ever happens, how on earth am I going to call Paula or anyone else for that matter. I couldn’t simply ask my assailant to hang on to the trigger long enough for me to borrow his mobile phone (since mine has long gone) and make a call pronto to Paula; and even if I could and did (not all bandits are rogue by the way) then what could Paula possibly do. But then she is Paula-the-Great (she could well be the long lost cousin of Alexander the Great) and she is loaded (with goodwill and smiles) so perhaps she would negotiate with the bandits that if they promised not to return me then they could have a free safari in the Nairobi National Park.
I am half-deaf anyway and I choose to hear only what I wish to listen (as another friend of mine would surely vouch) so all such advices and counsels fall on deaf ears and on the destined day I buy my ticket from a tout with a twisted cap on his scruffy head. I perch my precarious posterior (as they are by now soar from all the gallivanting I have been engaged in since the last few weeks) on a prickly pedestal that they call a seat in this part of the world. Soon the matatu is overflowing with mamas, papas, sisters, daughters and dangers, not to mention the abominable stench of human excretions as well as fried foods that fill up my nostrils like the smog that hangs over NYC every morning. Humans are followed by human belongings and things begin to fly through every orifice that the vehicle has and it has quite a few. From windows and sliding doors, beneath my feet and over my lap, and under my elbow, over my head things pile up like an anthill aiming for the Guinness World record for the tallest structure on planet Earth that can be squeezed into a matatu. By the time everyone settles in (in a morbid manner of speaking) I am sure that we had achieved the ultimate world record that would not be broken in this century at least, or in my lifetime, whichever happens earlier.
The air is hot, panting and porous. I am held in a death vice from all around and beneath and above. Lulled by such joyful interiors and mellifluous companions and with my dead mobile and money inserted deep within my smelly socks, which adds to the calmness of my mind, I soon fall asleep cuddling my tiny backpack as if it holds the last member of royalty (go figure which one I am talking about). I dream of the Bahamas and the cerulean skies of the Himalaya and finally the matatu reaches Isiolo (a dirt-rattled town with a large Islamic population nearly 330 km north of Nairobi) where it shudders and stutters and vomits out its passengers that nearly walk over each other to reach the outside atmosphere. Now begins my actual adventure. The first stage is to find a matatu driver who didn’t look like the first cousin of Mike Tyson and who would take me to the point where I had to meet up the vehicle from Camp Sarara.
Lest you get confused, which I am sure you all are, I must tell you how my route lay and brief you on the lay of the land. My travel arrangements with Piers who would be hosting me at his Camp Sarara located deep within the Namunyak Conservancy were thus: I had to reach a certain point in the middle of nowhere, a turning off point, where his vehicle would be waiting to pick me up around 2 pm. I just had to reach this turning off point somehow around that time. The route I would take is: Nairobi to Isiolo by road on a matatu, then hire a private matatu (since I was going to leave the main road) who would go from Isiolo via Archer’s Post and Lerata (where we leave the tarmac and hit the dirt road going to Wamba) and would drop me till the turning off point. From Isiolo it involved traveling over extremely barren, deserted and badly damaged roads for a distance of around 75 km. The area north of Isiolo is famous for Somalian bandits as they roam around the deserted and arid landscape looting vehicles and people under swaggering AK 47 or Chinese automatic rifles. Their favorite target being solitary vehicles with few passengers (that exactly fitted my prospective ride).
At Isiolo I look around for a matatu driver and all look capable enough of beating Mike Tyson. I look further and deeper into the stinking alleyways and peer inside every matatu. Eventually an old man who must have seen me poking my nose like an impatient gazelle, asked what I sought. He leads me to his son, a very capable and brave matatu driver he assures me, who could take me anywhere in the continent I wished. I meet the son, he meets my criteria though he could outpunch any lightweight boxing champion, and we start our negotiation.
The old man and his son on one side and I on another. I draw a map and explain them the exact drop off point, mentioning the distance in particular. They hum and haw and look at the sky and the moon and then on the red ground and then at me. ‘How much you pay?’ the son asks. I tell them I have no idea how much is the correct amount, but left to my choice I wouldn’t like to pay anything. They find that amusing and few more minutes pass by as they look up and down and scratch their chins pensively. I have no idea what the time is but my shadow under the sun tells me it’s well past noon. Finally the old man speaks, ‘Ok you give 6500 bobs.’ (all my male readers don’t read it wrong, there’s no extra ‘o’ in that word and in Kenya it means Kenyan shilling). I nearly fall off my feet. I nod my head gravely and declare that they were asking for a king’s ransom and where would a poor Indian student like me find that kind of money.
That makes them laugh (which is good in any form of negotiation) and I know I am winning. They find it amusing that a white haired and bearded scrawny little chap like me could be a student. So I tell them about being a student all your life, etc which they again find highly amusing. ‘Ok,’ the son now says, ‘how much you pay?’ I quote 2000 bobs. They nod and hum and haw and make an offer of 4000. Offer and counter-offer continue for a while in between smiles and finally we seal the contract at 2500 bobs. That makes everyone happy. Suddenly the old man hugs me like his long lost first born and pushes me inside the matatu next to the driver’s seat and off we go like a bazooka across the Afghan hills. My driver plays music and sings and grooves as the deserts outside rush by my window in a blur. We reach Archer’s Post in a blink and suddenly I sense a new found alertness in my driver’s demeanor.
We leave the main road and enter into the courtyard of a rundown mud house and I feel that my end is near. A group of bare bodied young men are loitering beneath a tree and they eye me through slit eyes that betray no emotion. Perfect stance for your prospective executor. The driver hops out and asks me not to step out, of which I have no intention. He soon drags out a can out of the house and I realize it’s a refueling stop. Soon we hit the bumpy road. As we come out of Archer’s Post we find a line of colorfully dressed Samburu women lined up across the road and waving at us like kites soaring in heaven. We stop to enquire and my driver chats with them through the window, one woman being the spokesperson who knows Swahili. I don’t think my driver knows the Samburu tongue anyway. They want a lift till Lerata and beyond, my driver declares and I can see that he is unwilling.
In this region any kind of vehicles are so sparse that mostly these women would be walking for hours under burning sun carrying provisions back to their village in the jungles. I have come into their land and to study them closely, to befriend them and understand their life and livelihood. I instruct my driver that I didn’t mind and we must give them lift. Soon enough the women pile up inside falling over each other, followed by big boxes and bags of provisions they had bought from the market. This would be their monthly stock and they would return again the next month. Finally a boy arrives and speaks to me, ‘we are bandits and we will rob you soon.’ He follows that with a big grin, so I know that he is being funny; or maybe not. He had only come to settle down the women and once packed in like sardines on the back seats he gets off. Our matatu roars back to life and we fly into the desert winds. At Lerata we duck left and leave the last vestige of civilization and safety. Now we are deep into bandit land where lawlessness is the law and a man and his belongings are soon parted. My money is safe but my camera and lenses are in my backpack so I hope that the bandits are not keen on photography.
The road is groovy and bumpy, topsy and turvy, and the women sing from behind, my driver keeps pushing his pedals and I look for the bandits. At a particular turn of the road, just as we approached a magnificent acacia tree, out-step a group of men on to the road and wave us down. My driver doesn’t look happy, so I know he isn’t in cahoots with them. The women behind look as serene as ever, after all to them these bandits must look like newborn kids from yesterday. They approach us and I roll down my window. I don’t necessarily detest bandits or robbers or such men, they rob after all out of need; they are often poor and have been socially victimized by those above them. It’s almost like we kill animals to eat but mean them no harm otherwise, so with such bandits, they rob out of need and they don’t really mean any harm to their victims.
It takes them no time to realize the situation; a scared driver, a busload of Samburu women who could cut them down to their smallest sizes any moment and a charming looking, openly smiling foreigner of unknown origin who looked even more ragged than them. Though I can see the rifles slung around their shoulders and the sharp knives poking out beneath their shirts, I extend my hand to the leader and wish him the day. I am neither alien to guns or gun users. I have been held up by such people countless times before around the globe. I can fire any gun efficiently and notice that their safety catches are still ‘on’. I also know that I can take away the gun from at least one of them and use it against them if needed.
I stay calm, smile my best smile and offer them my hand to shake. They ask me to step out in broken English and ask me where I am from and how come I was traveling with the Samburu women. I tell them that it’s actually they that are traveling with me and spin my usual story of being a student on research work in these parts of the world. They ask for my passport that I don’t have and they go through my pockets and find such pittance that they leave them there. They don’t think of checking my socks for some reason. My backpack is well hidden under the flour sacks of the Samburu women and the bandits don’t dare to go through the Samburu belongings. They ask me how come I have so little money and I don’t carry any bag with me. I tell them that I have already been robbed the day before and I had nothing more than what I have in person. They believe me as they are trustworthy men of God. But I can see the leader is having second thoughts, he is thinking and has stopped baring his teeth – a potentially bad omen. I am certain I would soon be abducted. And then suddenly, out of the arid desert, rises a rumbling of such proportion that I am deafened for a minute.
The Samburu women have had enough by then. To them I was a benefactor and they knew what was happening. Like a deluge they rush out of the vehicle brandishing sharp objects and surround the bandits while screaming and singing their war songs like a banshee. In a moment the tables had turned, now the bandits were being cornered. Samburu people are extraordinarily valiant and they fear none except their elders and witch doctors. The women challenge the bandits while I and the driver ogle in disbelief. Many of the women are octogenarians and each of them is really scrawny but to see the fire in their eyes is something else. It’s a perfect standoff. Eventually the bandits stand down and retreat into the jungles and we recommence our journey like before.
The moment the vehicle starts moving, the women regain their erstwhile calm and smiling attitude and they give me a warm smile and surround me once again with their songs. We soon reach the drop off point and meet up with Camp Sarara vehicle. The place is indeed in the middle of nowhere. I pay the driver something extra and ask him to drop the women where they want to go, for it would be cruel for both of us to leave them in the midst of the jungle with scores of miles for them to go with such heavy loads. As we part I shake hands with each of these brave women, not knowing or finding the words that I need to utter. But then in such worlds, words are unnecessary. I smile and they smile back, I wave and they wave back and the last I see of my matatu is a racing devil on wheels blowing dust all around with dozens of hand emerging out of the windows and waving at me like windmills.
I will never see them again but from this day on, they would always be a part of my journey.
P.S. The cartoon appearing with this post is courtesy Bruce from UK and istockphoto.com. And you guys hope you don't take me to a lawsuit now that I have acknowledged the source