Typed up: at Morad’s place in Cairo Posted from: Morad’s place in Cairo
The bus ride to Kakamega was awful. It started out nice enough. We just wandered into the office, bought tickets, and with a little confusion got on a bus earlier than they told us we’d be able to catch. Our seats were in the back of the bus, and as soon as the bus took off some people raced from the back to some open seats closer to the front. That should’ve been a big hint that the back of the bus was not the place to be. The ride was extremely bumpy. It was of course continuously a bit bumpy, but we’re used to that. The real problem was the big bumps that came along every other minute or so. The bus was equipped with seat belts, and we used them so that we could stay in our seats without using our hands. Because of the many bumps, we didn’t see much out the window, although we did enjoy some rolling hills full of tea plants. Luckily, all bad things come to an end and after about 6 hours (including some short breaks) we arrived in Kakamega.
The reason to go to Kakamega is to see the last little bit of surviving rain forest that Kenya has. There used to be a lot of it, until the British came, built a rail road, and hauled it all away. From the description in our guidebook it sounded like Kakamega was nothing more than a few buildings on the side of the main road. In fact it is quite a bustling little town with several hotels, grocery stores, a market, etc. Because our guidebook didn’t list any hotels which sounded nice, we asked a lady from the bus company (Easy Coach, pretty good outfit) if she could recommend a place. She promptly personally walked us to the Golf Hotel. Unfortunately it’s a very nice hotel with a matching price. So after she’d left we talked with the receptionist a bit and eventually god her to recommend a cheaper place: Shyewe Guest House. We took too long finding a cab, and got to a now-familiar tired-and-carrying-our-packs-through-a-new-place state, but we found a cab who took us there.
Shyewe Guest House was exactly what we wanted. It had small rooms in our price range, was clean, and had a decent restaurant. The manager was very accommodating, and we even got a room upgrade because the hot water in the cheaper room he showed us wasn’t working. (I suspect that will work in general. Just ask to see the room before you buy it, and check the hot water.) We were very happy where we ended up for that night.
We got up early (again) because we only had 2 days for the forest, including getting there and back. At breakfast we met Kathrin from Germany. She had a ride set up for the forest in a real car, and thought we could come along. So we went and got our groceries (there was reportedly no food available where we were going). We managed to acquire a minimum of bread, fruit, hard boiled eggs, and water. We took a boda-boda back to the hotel, where we discovered that Kathrin’s ride was to the other side of the forest. So we did what the book suggested, and headed out for a matatu to Shinyalu.
The usual tactic of wandering into the main stand and saying the name of the place we want to go in a questioning manner got us to the right bus. In this case it was a Toyota pickup truck, with a hard shell. We got to sit in the back while our bags and food sat on the roof rack. While we were waiting for the truck to fill up, two women unashamedly breast-fed their babies, while the one sitting next to me held on to a live chicken. Eventually we had the required 13 people crammed in, and our truck took off. Along the way we picked up a few more, and it was crouching room only while another 2 passengers and the conductor hung onto the truck from the outside.
In Shinyalu we were immediately accosted by some boda-boda drivers, and we moved our stuff and attempted to get on 2 bicycles with it all. That didn’t work, so we got a 3rd bicycle for our bags, and we took off. Boda-bodas are a lot nicer than matatus in that you’re not crammed in, and you get to look around, and we took full advantage. We were biking on a dirt road, with small farm plots, stores, huts, etc. on either side of the road. It was quite busy with people and even bicycles, but cars were quite scarce. At a few points we had to get off and walk a bit because the hill was too long. It wasn’t very steep, but it doesn’t take much hill to slow you down when there’s 150 pounds on your bike rack.
We stayed at the KEEP Bandas. KEEP is the Kakamega Environmental Education Project, but the project has been successful enough that it has branched out into helping people with HIV, orphans, and other needy people. The bandas are simple cottages with cement walls, a thatched roof, and several beds. We were the only guests, and our banda was pretty nice. By the time we got there, it was lunch time and we ate a very basic lunch from the food we’d brought. Afterwards we met Gabriel, who would take us on a guided walk through the forest. The guides here are very reasonably priced, and it feels like a good deal. (This is in contrast with some other guided activities we’ve done, where I haven’t had that feeling.)
Gabriel took us into the forest, which is not like you imagine a rain forest. The growth is dense, but the terrain is pretty flat. The trees are tall, but plenty of sunlight still reaches the bottom. The main animals we saw were beautiful butterflies. There are about 400 species of them that live here, many endemic. Of course we spotted maybe 10, but it’s the idea that counts. We also saw a few colobus monkeys, which we learned have only 4 fingers. The best thing we saw were some of the huge strangler figs. Apparently they are taking over the forest, but they sure look cool with the buttress roots and hollow centers.
After a while we came to a grassland clearing in the center of the forest. This used to be swamp, but over time it’s slowly closing up. There was a lookout tower, and we spent quite a bit of time on the top relaxing, and talking about the differences between our countries. Gabriel talked about his volunteer work through KEEP, helping the needy. We agreed to do a “community tour” where Gabriel takes us to some of the homes of the families they help.
Then we walked back, and sat in the covered dining area while the local weather put the “rain” in “rain forest.” Contrary to what the guidebooks say, there is a kitchen at the bandas. Two women made us a simple meal of sukumu (green vegetable) and rice, which we supplemented with some hard boiled eggs. We ate next to a fire in metal/ceramic insulated bowl while talking to Anton, who is the caretaker. It was still raining as we went to bed, but not like the downpour that we had earlier. We slept great, and were not bothered by bugs at all.
The next morning we got up really early (again) so we’d have time to hike up a hill a ways away and enjoy the sunrise. Gabriel met us just after 5am, and we set off on a trail that felt too narrow, too overgrown, and too slippery. I had put new batteries in my head lamp in the morning, and was glad for it. But after not too long we got to a road, which we walked on for most of the way. There was some suspense when we heard a car up ahead, and Gabriel ushered us into some bushes by the side of the road. He said that sometimes, in other parts of Kenya, tourists get kidnapped, and he was just playing it safe. The truck was driving very slowly and passed by us without seeing us.
When we turned off the road, the sky was getting a little bit brighter. We walked another wet clay trail to go up. As before we saw several fox prints, but of course no critters. This was the time when the forest started to wake up a bit, and we could hear some colobus monkeys make their scraping calls, soon followed by the first bird calls. As we made our way up the final bit of the hill, the clouds turned a bright orange which had somewhat faded when we got to the top. The view was still really nice, with misty rain forest below and the sun creeping up behind a mountain range in the distance. The sound was really what made the experience, though: countless bird calls coming faintly from all directions.
Satisfied that we’d seen it all, we continued after a while down a different trail. We stopped at an old abandoned gold mine. The shaft went horizontally into the hill. Not very, but far enough that we needed our flashlights. Inside we saw fruit bats hanging from the low ceiling, so we really got a good look at them. We were maybe a foot away, and not all of them flew off immediately. It was very cool to see them so close. The rest of the walk was a straightforward walk through the forest, still listening to all the activity. We only saw a few birds, though. The main activity was talking about politics. The common thread here is that everybody we’ve talked to want Obama to win. We’ve also yet to meet anybody who has a feel for how big and diverse the US really is.
After a brief break at the bandas, we were ready to go on our community tour. In addition to Gabriel we were joined by 5 others who do a lot of work with the organization. For them this was maybe an even bigger event than it was for us. The group had brought some soaps along to distribute to the people so we wouldn’t feel empty-handed. Gabriel had warned us that this might be a very sad tour, and we were not disappointed. We walked on the main (clay, dirt) road a bit and then turned off onto a trail which led to a few huts on a small piece of land, with a small garden as well.
This was Rael’s home. She’s HIV positive, and has been for 11 years. She has 11 children, and the youngest (she’s in the picture) is also HIV positive. For having had that many children she still looked amazingly well. Overall she didn’t look very suck, just tired. She had the kind of tired excited energy you have when you stay up too late with the new video game you bought. It’ll keep you going for a while, but it’s not good. Her husband doesn’t have a steady job, so money is big problem for this family. They farm what little they can on the small plot they own, but it’s not nearly enough.
In general Kenyans have tight family and community bonds, and help each other out. However, there’s a strong stigma attached to HIV/AIDS to the point where people might move away if they find out their neighbors are infected. KEEP helps first of all by educating the people on what AIDS is and how it’s transmitted. This helps the people with the disease to understand what’s going on, but it also reduces the stigma associated with the disease. In addition, they also guide people on nutrition, help with HIV testing, and provide occasional financial support.
Our next stop was to look at two orphan boys, who lived with their grand parents. They suffered from a parasite locally known as “chiggers.” This is a small worm/leech-like thing that burrows into your skin, most often in the feet. By laying eggs and making baby parasites, they spread over the surface of the foot. If you scratch at it you may get the same thing on your hands when an egg gets stuck under your nail. The real cause is people walking around barefoot in a dusty area that is not kept clean enough. This is a big reminder that shoes and vacuuming are not just a luxury, they are in fact very important to our health!
John, who is in charge of health care for KEEP, had brought with him some drugs that kills the eggs and the critters. To use this was a 3-step process. First they washed the feet with soap. Then, using a razor blade and a needle (which weren’t sterilized as far as I could tell), he removed all the chiggers he could. This involved shaving off the bit of dead skin covering the chigger, and then prying it out with the needle. It looked quite painful, but the boys bravely took the punishment. Finally they washed their feet in a dilute solution of the drugs.
They had been undergoing this treatment for some months, and are much better. When they started they could barely walk because of the pain, and barely sleep because of the itching. This family appeared to be more well-off than Rael’s family. Their plot was slightly larger, and they even had a small lawn in front of their home. But they still would not be able to afford the required drugs without KEEP’s help. A single bottle of medicine costs about Ksh 170, which is about \$2.50, and lasts for just a few treatments.
After this home, we walked for a while on small trails through farmland and past many more small homes. At one point a couple of girls walked with Danielle, just to be with the mzungu. We visited a man who had gone blind as a result of HIV. He was the breadwinner for his family, and could no longer do his job. Now his oldest son is working instead of going to school.
Finally we “met” somebody who was bed-ridden because of HIV. The drugs had affected her mentally as well, and she was no longer in any shape to do anything. While we were there she alternately stared at us and moaned. Her husband had died several years ago, so it was up to the oldest daughter, all of 17 years old, to run the family. It felt very awkward and intrusive to be there. KEEP primarily helps this family by counseling her and the neighbors. The sad story of HIV in this part of the world is that the people survive for as long as the family is able to afford the drugs. Once they’ve run out of money the patient dies, leaving behind a broke family. People know this, and in some cases they will just lock patients in their room, waiting for them to die. When KEEP organizes free HIV tests in the village, the infection rate is about 40%.
After a very hot walk back to the bandas, we had a meeting in the dining area. We asked a few questions, but mostly the organization wanted to hear what suggestions we had. We felt totally unqualified to give suggestions. The only thing I could come up with is as another tourist attraction to offer tours of local people’s lives and culture, in addition to of the forest. Gabriel had been talking about the lack of web page a bit before, and I volunteered to set up and maintain one for them, if they could give me enough information. Sadly I haven’t done much on that front yet, but when I do you’ll be among the first to know.
We donated some money, which they gratefully accepted. They also said that just the fact that we walked around with them provided a boost to the community. Just seeing foreigners take an interest in their lives brings hope that some day things will be improved. All in all KEEP takes care of 195 families like the ones we saw. The entire organization has about 150 volunteers, but they are not all involved with helping people in this manner. Forest education by providing programs for local children is a big part of their work as well. And of course not everybody is as dedicated as the handful that we met. Nobody in the organization gets paid. All the money goes directly to do good in the community. There is no official easy way of donating to the cause, but if you want to give something, just comment below or send me an e-mail. I am in e-mail contact with Gabriel, and we will figure something out.
So, on that cheery note, we sat around waiting for the boda-bodas to come pick us up. I had told them to pick us up at 3:30pm, thinking that would give us plenty of time to get back to Kakamega before dark. When I did that, I hadn’t reckoned on the rain part of “rain forest” which comes in the afternoon any time after 1pm. Today it came at about 2pm, a few minutes before the boda-bodas came (who luckily arrived very early). They decided it was best to wait out the rain a bit, which we did. When it slowed down to regular speed, they decided it was time to take off.
We walked the muddy access road to the main road, where we got on the bikes. After just a short while it started raining really hard again. We all sought shelter in a small shack next to the road, used by the family that owned it to process corn. It was full in there, with us, some of the bikes, the family, and a few others all huddling to keep out of the rain. This lasted maybe 20 minutes before we got back on the road again. At this point the ditches of the road were full of exciting looking water. The road was wet, and mostly clay, which made it quite slippery. It was quite scary to sit on the back of a bicycle that was swerving wildly to avoid puddles and potholes that I did not see coming. At one point I even put my foot down because I felt sure that we were going to fall over. But we didn’t. We all arrived in Shinyalu without any accident, and with a lot of “How are you?” calls from the children on the route.
There we put our luggage on the rack of a similar Toyota pick-up as we’d taken here. The main difference was that somehow they managed to stuff even more people in this one than before. At one point the back contained 17 adults, a 7-year-old boy, and 2 toddlers. I had a pretty good seat in the middle, but Danielle was closer to the door and was more crunched in by women hunched over trying to somehow fit in. Next to me was a guy called Bernard who seemed quite interested in talking to me and practicing his English, while around us the women were joking about how full the matatu was.
Back in Kakamega I bought a few street samosas, which were very welcome food. Then we continued our walk to Shyewe Guest House where we got a real medium room this time around. This was still nice. In the restaurant that night we watched an episode of fear factor set on Catalina Island. The local Kenyan comment was that these people must be crazy.
The next day we got to get up early (again) to make our bus back to Nairobi. Our original plan had been to take the train, but they stopped passenger service with the election violence earlier this year and had not started it up yet. So we took the bus. Easy Coach again. Because we’d bought our tickets a few days before, we had seats almost at the front of the bus, and this was infinitely better than the ride up. Instead of an awful bumpy experience, it just felt like regular Africa roads. Sure there were some bumps, but by and large it was comfortable. Despite this, once we got to Nakuru after about 5 hours I was done sitting on the bus. Danielle said I was not good company for the remaining 3 hours on the bus. Also on this bus ride I took a picture every 15 minutes, so if you come across a long series of boring pictures, that’s what you’re looking at.