The desolate beauty of the road to Lokitaung

If I need a theme for this post, its vulnerability and anxiety, including every stage of it from natural nervousness to complete fear.

It all started with the hairdresser yesterday. Remembering watching Palin getting a shave in the Sahara some years ago, I imagine a situation of banter and excitement. Either I lack Palin’s charisma or, more likely, Palin’s team searched several places and carried out several fillings in order to get the most exciting TV. In any case, my hair cut experience is disappointingly without incident.

I don’t know who is more nervous; the barber or I. Or perhaps only I am nervous. Nobody in the joint speaks English. So I stop the barber as he is about to take the clippers to my head. I point at his friend, who has hair about half my length, and say yes. I point at a child whose hair has all been taken off, and say no. The child looks a little sullen. I say sorry. Nonetheless, after much nervous shuffling on my part, and careful use of clippers on his, I get a hair cut easily as good as any in the UK. This sets me back 300KSh, or £2.30. This is the same as I paid the previous night to have all my laundry washed and dried. Petrol is not as cheap as I’d expect at 79p per litre of unleaded. Some things are priced internationally, whilst human efforts can be made cheap.

Sandfields are keen for me to have a driver. I’m keen to self-drive. Ultimately, it isn’t my decision: I’m introduced to a young man named Sammy. He’s smiling and excited: we get on instantly. I go to eat breakfast. I’m then told there’s a change of plan – I’m to be given a more experienced driver with a larger car: a Toyota Land Cruiser. Ekai is a much quieter guy than Sammy. He also seems some years older than me. I’m actually very nervous about this: I feel responsible for him. The land cruiser is huge. I fear I’ll stand out too much, especially as I haven’t seen any other muzungus since the airport. Yet I quickly realise that everyone drives them.

There’s a sign on the main roundabout in town saying ‘end child labour’. I’m not sure what it’s for. If people are making their children work then they probably don’t have the money to stop, even if the UN say to do so.

On the long drive to Lokiatung, our off-road journey is shaped by the path left by the dry river. It hasn’t rained here for a year. The whole landscape, however, is carved by rain’s path: bridges have collapsed and the roads (where they exist) are deeply potholed. I drive for a little, then Ekai takes over. After a while we pass a group of people by a hole cut to reach the river below. They’re filling plastic cans of water. I realise that the trees are different colours depending on whether their roots reach this water.

After several hours taking turns driving off-road in the blistering heat and in and out of sleep, we get to Lokitaung. I ask if we can go north to Todonyang, but Ekai refuses: The Turkana are fighting the Ethiopians there. We stay at the Catholic mission on the edge of town.

The Turkana are in luck, for the sky darkens shortly after we arrive and thunder rumbles loudly overhead. Perhaps these thirsty and malnourished people will be spared more deaths for a while: if there’s enough rain, that is, and if it’s not so heavy as to wash everything away. In any case, Mother Nature is angry: the wind picks up quickly, and becomes loud enough that we need to shout over it. The sky is darkened as much by all the dust and sand lifted off the ground by the wind as it is by the ominous clouds. Eventually, the lightning and rain come. We stay outside and watch, but the wind is blowing sand and rain under the verandah. The electricity, and the Safaricom mobile network, cut out. We go inside. On the way into the building we find a baby chicken, wet and bedraggled. We bring him in. I then worry that I will stand on him in the dark.

I’m woken in the night by a second bout of rain pounding the tin roof. I briefly panic: if lightning strikes will I be electrocuted to death lying in a metal bed under a metal roof? I think about something else. The rain subsides. I fall back to sleep.

In the morning the whole world smells of damp.

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The desolate landscape
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Digging for water

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The first rain for a year at Lokitaung mission

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