“Hey Nashibe!” I shouted to my sister through the window, “I’m going to Turkana!”
She opened the door for me smiling, “so, you are going back to Turkana after two years. Same place?”
I explained to her that this time round, I was going to Kakuma refugee camp, the biggest refugee camp in Africa. Two years earlier, I had been to Kaikor, a small village deep in the arid Turkana heartland.
“At least eighty thousand refugees live in Kakuma!” I said excitedly as I removed my beige cotton coat and slumped into a three-seater wooden couch that was occupying most of the space in our small living room.
After serving me one of my favorite meals – green grams and rice – my sister grabbed her handbag, wished me a safe journey, made me to promise that I would bring her a gift and left for Utalii College, where she was pursuing a diploma in hotel management.
I was going to the Refugee camp in my capacity as the Chairman of Kenya Voluntary Development Association (KVDA), to officially close an international work camp that had been ongoing for almost three weeks.
During the few days I would spend there, I was hoping to find out exactly how all those thousands of refugees lived and how the refugee system could be improved.
I was eager to talk to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) people and find out from them more about their limitations. I also couldn’t wait to talk to South Sudanese youth and find out about their hopes for their beleaguered country. In the same vein, I wanted to know from Ethiopian refugees why they hadn’t gone back home after the war stopped. As for the Rwandan refugees, my burning question was, “do they think the emotional wounds of the genocide will ever heal?” I really wanted to brainstorm with them ways of healing those scars.
When I reach Turkana, I am going to have deep conversations with each of the thirty-five international volunteers about their experiences with the refugees. I thought as I cleared the last grains of rice from my floral white plate.
A few hours later at exactly half past seven, I arrived at the Gantaal Bus Service station in Eastleigh suburb of Nairobi. The driver was revving the engine as he geared to depart for the long, twenty-four hour journey to northern Kenya.
I took my seat in the left side of the bus, mid-section and we set off within minutes. To my dismay, my seatmate was a rotund Somali man and not a gorgeous Ethiopian lady as I had hoped.
Across the aisle, in the three-seater seat, were three young South Sudanese men. They stood out from the crowd, not just because of their tall height but also because of their amazingly dark complexion. They also had the typical southern Sudanese initiation marks on their fore heads. It was as if innumerable dots had been poked into their foreheads. Just behind the Sudanese trio, was another Sudanese trio; two elderly women and a teenage girl.
The girl was holding two infants in her slender hands. I looked at her curiously and promised himself to have a chat with her later on. I wanted to know her story. Was she a refugee returning to Kakuma? Were those babies hers? Where was the father? Why weren’t the two women seated next to her not helping her to carry one of the baby?
Was there anyone in this whole wide world who would take a bullet for her?
We picked George at a small town along the Kitengela-Namanga road. He was a lanky guy with a spark in his eyes. The kind of spark that says, ‘I am ready to take on the world and will stop at nothing.’ I liked that. I am always on the lookout for that spark that can hopefully combine with my own so that we can take on the world and conquer it.
I was seated in front of my brother Mpasua’s double cabin pickup, while my close Rwandan friend Uwineza was seated behind. George joined her in the back seat and immediately began telling us about Njoroi, the locality where he came from. We were headed there so that I could interview a local women group about their beadwork. The Maasai community is famed for their elaborate beadwork that is laden with meaning. They have been weaving this beadwork for centuries, even if the material used to weave the beadwork has changed over time.
It took us almost an hour to cover a distance of less than ten kilometers. This slow speed was occasioned by the slopping, rocky terrain that only allowed a crawl from the car. At some point, about a kilometer from our destination, all we could see were expansive plains and rolling hills. Plus a few zebras and gazelles. A stunning sight.
George regarded these wildlife as if they were merely goats. He was used to seeing them on an almost daily basis. But Uwineza couldn’t hold back her excitement. Neither could I. I may have seen wildlife countless more times than her but zebras, gazelles and their fellow wildlife still take my breath away every time I see them.
We arrived at Njoroi to find a group of about thirty women sitting on the ground in a huddle. A few meters away was a manyatta, the loaf-shaped traditional Maasai House that is made from mud, sticks, grass and cow dung.
“Can we enter that traditional house later on?” Uwineza whispered in my ear.
“Sure,” I answered and added with a mischievous glint, “but only if we shall use it to experience love.”
All the women were bedecked in colorful bead-work jewelry that looked dazzling in the late afternoon sunshine. One of the them was Miriam, George’s mother. She was wearing Nborro, a long necklace with blue beads. Also among them was Elizabeth Kanyuaya, a jovial octogenarian with a beautiful wide smile.
The old lady talked about her lifelong relationship with Maasai jewelry, “since my childhood until now, I have crafted all manner of beaded jewelry. When I was still young, we used to make even more different types of these bracelets. But times are changing and everything is changing. Back then, we used to make belts using raw cow hide and not processed leather as is the case these days. Nowadays our beaded jewelry is a lot more commercialized.”
Her words triggered in me images of centuries gone by when the Maasai weaved these beadwork jewelry purely for their own cultural and ornamental use.
The advantage of commercializing this jewelry is the fact that Maasai culture and fashion have now spread all over the world courtesy of these incredible beaded Maasai jewelry.
I went on to tell the women that through Sasafrica.Shop my African products E-commerce website, we would find for them a wider global market for their products. So help me God. I will ensure that the stunning beaded Maasai jewelry will spread like wildfire across the world.
And one day, I hope to experience love in that Manyatta.
The group discussion was getting intense, like a sprint hurtling to the finish line. On my right was a lanky participant from Eastern Europe. He had a serious face but friendly presence. On my left was a bespectacled young man from Sri Lanka, decked in a tucked-in checked shirt. To his left was my new friend Harshini, also from Sri Lanka. She had a warm smile and a bubbly spirit. She was wearing a loose floral dress that enhanced her easy-going nature.
Then there was me, a young man in his twenties sitting at the pinnacle of youth leadership at the United Nations Environment Programme. I was donning an ankara top that I had bought in Mauritius a few months earlier. My afro hair was sitting proudly on my head, hiding the fact that for half the time, my mind was with Puja. I had met her two days earlier during the official opening of the 2005 Tunza International Youth Conference that was being held from 4 - 10 October in Bangalore. She was in charge of street children dancers who entertained the hundreds of youth delegates at the opening ceremony.
After the event, I pushed my way through the crowd of fellow youth until I came face to face with her just outside the entrance of the large hall.
“Congratulations on the amazing dance!” I was all smile, speaking in a warm, cordial tone as if we were long lost friends reuniting.
It was friendship at first sight. I was loving Bangalore, the capital of India's southern Karnataka State.
Two days earlier when we landed in Bangalore, I was wide eyed with excitement.It was my first time in India and I was itching to see the entire place, as if it was a small town and not an entire sub-continent. The land of Mahatma Gandhi. The man who told us to be the change we wanted to see. The land of spicy food. We were accorded VIP treatment at the airport since we were the UN team. Together with us was Eric Falt, the then Director of UNEP’s Division of Communications and Public Information. Also on our contingent was Theo Oben, the Head of UNEP’s Children and Youth Unit. The jovial Joyce Sang, His colleague in that Unit, was also with us.
As the luxury van ferrying us from the airport sped into the streets of Bangalore, I became a little boy again, as I always do whenever I travel to a new place. My eyes remained glued outside as I devoured all the brand new sights before me. An elderly man jogging. A couple laughing as they pointed at something behind them. Mannequins standing guard outside boutiques.
All these sights flashed through my mind once again as a fellow youth from Kenya gave a presentation in the group discussions. She was wearing a white T-shirt whose front bore the inscription - Women AIDS Run. I loved her shoulder-length dreadlocks and made a mental note to ask her how long it had taken her to grow them.
My mind came back fully to the conference hall when Luis Betanzos raised his hand and began speaking in that Spanish accented English that Anglophones love.
I had met Juan when I traveled to Lima, Peru a few months earlier, for the Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Latin America meeting. He had a quiet presence that cajoled you to listen to what he was saying. Most of the time, he would be speaking about Latin America’s youth and environment, two of his passions. He was working in UNEP’s Latin America office.
A few minutes later, we had to conclude the group discussion and troop to a larger discussion that was being held in the main hall. I made sure that I sat in the last row so that I could sneak out if I got bored. Luckily, that prospect disappeared because there was a young lady at the front giving a powerful presentation.
The earnest look on her face was complemented by her equally earnest pink jacket. She said that she was from South Korea and was studying environmental science at university. She was speaking about the need to work hand in hand with volunteers. I liked that, because when I turned 21 a few years earlier, I had joined Kenya Voluntary Development Association as a volunteer and risen through the ranks to become its Chairman, the youngest ever in its history.
Seated on the wooden floor a few feet away from the South Korean lady, was a young Indian lady. All through the presentation, her eyes remained animated, almost as if she was ‘in spirit.’ There was a massive green tree at the front of her white top. Also seated on the floor, a few feet away from the young Indian lady was a young Mexican lady who looked very familiar although I couldn’t place where I had seen her.
As I walked out of the conference hall one hour later, I was still asking myself where exactly I had seen that young Mexican lady.
On that day that I left for my first ever trip to Egypt, my sister Gish escorted me to the airport. She always did this back then. Whenever I was traveling out of the country, papa would pray, then Gish, myself and any other visitors who happened to be visiting us at that time would pile into Ngash’s taxi - it was one of those black London taxis - and we would drive off from Umoja to the airport.
That day, after they waved bye through the glass walls at the airport, Ngash dropped them back home.
My boss Charles Sebukeera was also flying on the same flight, which made me a bit nervous. Although he was quite easygoing, he was still my boss, so there was a mountain of respect between us.
When the history of Africa’s environmental assessment is written (maybe I should write it one day?), Charles will be one of the top three lead characters in that book. He has been part of Africa’s environmental assessment journey for almost three decades now.
That morning as we waited to board, Charles and I talked a bit about the Africa Environment Outlook for Youth, whose production I was spearheading, then strolled into the Egypt Air plane and disappeared into our respective seats.
When we landed in Cairo, I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was in Egypt! The land of pyramids. I could literally hear my heart beating in my chest. Even before reaching the immigration desk, I instantly texted Papa to tell him that I had landed in Egypt. Then I looked behind me and smiled at the three men and one lady who were behind me in the queue.
“Is it your first time here too?” I asked the guy immediately behind me. He had a shaggy beard and professor spectacles. And a deep frown that he instantly dished out after grunting a singular word, ‘no.’
We matched out of the airport right into the welcoming party’s smiling faces and outstretched hands. Two gentlemen ushered us into a black car and we drove off into the open arms of Cairo. President Hosni Mubarak’s photos were everywhere - on the billboard, sidewalks, building walls - everywhere. During the first decade of his reign, Kenya’s former President Moi’s photos had also been everywhere but not to this extent.
Looking at President Mubarak’s photos caused me to remember about his predecessor, President Anwar Sadat. He had led Egypt from 1970 until his assassination in 1981. He is one of my favourite presidents from Africa, with my all-time favorite being the late President Thomas Sankara of Burkina Fasso.
President Sadat once said that, “He who cannot change the very fabric of his thought will never be able to change reality and will never, therefore, make any progress.” Can I hear an Amen to that? If you desire progress in your own individual life, your community or country at large, focus on changing the fabric of your thought.
After checking in into a swanky hotel, I literally jogged into an elevator, as if afraid that it would leave without me and I would miss my room. Thankfully, my room was waiting for me when I matched into it two minutes later. I felt as if the walls had an extra shine to them. The room seemed happy to see me. The large bed cajoled me to lie in it instantly, which is exactly what I did. Within seconds, I leapt up and dashed to the window to see Cairo, half-expecting to see some pyramids in the distance. I was particularly eager to see the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which was the tallest man-made structure on earth for over 3,800 years. Makes me wonder if the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building in the world, will still be holding this record after 3,800 years! It may not even survive for a fraction of that time. Time will tell.
Of course I didn’t see any pyramids from my window. Just nondescript buildings that could have been in Nairobi or Lagos. But I felt the thrilling vibes of being in Cairo, Africa's largest and oldest city. I couldn't help but agree with the Bantu Poet Bwak, who wrote that, 'like the Nile that flows through it, Cairo glows with shimmering life.'
From the corner of my eyes, I noticed a TV remote on a shiny wooden study table. It was one of those big remotes with one million buttons on them. After a long search, I found the power button, pressed it and smiled with satisfaction when the TV came on and poured out an avalanche of Arabic. I increased the volume, eager to soak in as much Arabic as I could.
The following day, I met amazing young North Africans who were attending the Africa Environment Outlook for youth meeting that I was leading. There was Saada from Sudan; Medhat, Shaimaa, Suhayla, Asmaa and Mahmoud from Egypt; Sofian from Tunisia; Khaled from Libya and Muhammad from Morocco.
Shaimaa had a cheeky glint in her eyes that mirrored mine. My heart instantly whispered to my mind that Shaimaa and I belonged to the same emotional tribe. For the five days that I was in Cairo, our eyes locked several times and uttered words that our mouths couldn’t or wouldn’t. She was my protector in the busy, crowded streets of Cairo. Whenever we had to cross the crazy roads, she would practically hold my hand as Mahmoud kept vigil. These two were utterly incredible. I owe my enduring love of Cairo to them.
Sofian from Tunisia was a big, quiet guy. Probably had the spirit of an elephant hiding somewhere in his soul. I would have told him this but he only spoke French and Arabic. Back then, I hadn’t started learning French, so the only French phrase I knew was 'voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' I definitely wouldn’t use this on Sofian. Google its meaning.
Then there was Sohayla from Egypt. The dimple on her right cheek injected an extra sparkle into her smile. Even now, ten years later, I can still see that smile glistening from a corner of my mind. I can also clearly see Asmaa another Egyptian lady, shy but quite cheeky. Her tender voice has stubbornly refused to depart from my ears. Mohammad Hassan, her country mate, was a bearded young man who could easily have won the title of the most jovial in the group. He was one of those people whose faces are permanently in smile mode. Leading this team as the north African sub-regional coordinator was Medhat Nagi, a recently graduated lawyer. He had a calm soul that helped in shepherding the occasionally boisterous meeting. The final member of the team was Mayar Sabet, who was the editor of the youth publication that this youth process was going to produce. Her deeply analytical mind was a marvel.
This was the dynamic team of young North-Africans who ended up writing a critical chapter of their region’s environmental story. I was privileged to lead and partake in this endeavor. And to exchange those sparkling looks with Shaimaa as our eyes spoke in a beautiful language that our tongues couldn't taste.
Dahlia and Suzanna from CEDARE, were amazing hosts. Their story will come soon. CEDARE was and still is, UNEP’s Collaborating Center in North Africa.
The Mida Creek boardwalk was rickety, swaying from side to side as Alex and I walked over it. Although Alex was striding along, my walk was more like a shuffle of a drunk hippo. The boardwalk was lined with two sturdy ropes on either side. Although I was grabbing them tightly for my balance, it didn’t help that the planks of the boardwalk that I was walking on were not evenly spaced. Adding to the drama, the planks were enjoined on two thick wires that that kept swaying with every step. Every time my feet stepped gingerly onto a plank, it felt as if I would tumble into the shimmering ocean water beneath. Growing majestically from the water were hundreds of mangrove trees.
Alex was a good friend and a staff of A Rocha Kenya, the organisation that managed the boardwalk. He was guiding me along the boardwalk, dropping the names of birds and mangrove trees as if they were his children.
I could see my long shadow in the ocean waters, shyly following me as if it would rather remain behind and swim towards the mangroves. The combination of the mangrove leaves’ green color and the ocean water’s blue color was such a joy to behold that I stood in awe.
After fifteen nerve-wracking minutes of hippo-walking on the narrow boardwalk, we arrived at the T-shaped end. Here, the planks were hammered into wood, not wire. The resultant stability was quite refreshing.
The entire creek was laid out bare before me. I leaned on the wooden railing and feasted on the incredible sights. What joy! On my left, the mangrove forest lined the entire shoreline. Bundles of fluffy clouds seemed to dangle quite low. If the mangroves could stretch, they would touch those clouds. On the right, was a wider swathe of the ocean. It unfolded like a blue Persian carpet. A dugout canoe stood immobile in the distance. There was nobody in it, making me wonder how it had gotten to the middle of the ocean in the first place.
This final part of the boardwalk was an absolute haven of bliss. Jutting through the lower left railing were mangrove leaves that seemed to be basking on the dry boardwalk. Across the leaves, barely a meter away, was the shadow of the right railing. It left artistic patterns on the planks. I sat down here, leaned on the railings and gazed at the sprawling ocean. I imagined how centuries earlier, Portuguesse and Arabian ships had probably sailed in these very waters. Unfortunately, some of these ships ferried away slaves whose descendants now lived somewhere in South America or North America. They would never know the joy of sitting right in the middle of Mida Creek and whispering sweet nothings to the salty sea breeze.
I closed my eyes and opened my mouth wide so that I could literally taste that delicious breeze. Oh God. I whispered silently as I opened my eyes to see three little white birds - probably little egrets - landing gently on the wooden railing of the boardwalk. I smiled at them and they chirped merrily.
The white goat next to me was looking at me with sympathy. Am serious. Its hollow eyes were staring down at me with a clear 'poor guy' look.
I was sitting cross legged, leaning on the rough metallic walls of the truck. In the center of the truck were nearly thirty goats that were being transported from one remote Turkana village to another even more remote village. I was on my way to Kaikor to lay the groundwork of a work camp for international volunteers. Together with me was Samuel, the then Director of Kenya Voluntary Development Association, where I was volunteering at the time.
My pale eyes were struggling to stay open. I raised my dusty right hand and placed it on my equally dusty forehead. It was almost as if it was in an open air oven. My fever was sky high. All my joints felt as if someone was hammering them into pain with every passing minute. It didn't help matters that the truck had to make its own road as it roared on. There was no road or even footpath, so we were just romping along the wide, cracked and angry desert terrain. It was by far the bumpiest ride that I had ever experienced in the twenty-two years of my life.
Strangely, even though I was under the attack of malaria and sitting on the truck’s hot, dusty floor next to anxious, bleating goats, I felt free. Where else can you sit cross-legged next to an army of goats? Here, there was no etiquette to adhere to. I could just be myself. It is no wonder that Samuel my colleague was actually sleeping in the midst of the bumpy ride and bleating goats. His balding head was resting on his arms that were in turn resting on his knees. Every bump would throw his head an inch higher, so it was as if he kept nodding in his sleep. At one point, a large black goat with sharp horns approached him and surveyed him, wondering who could afford to sleep in such circumstances!
After a ten-hour ride from Lodwar, we finally arrived in Kaikor village, the venue of the forthcoming work camp. It had taken us ten hours to cover a distance of 160 kilometers! This was by far the slowest, yet most exciting road trip that I had ever taken.
Every bone in my body creaked as I stood up and descended from the truck. When I set foot into Turkana for the first time ever, I felt free. It was dusk and in the far distance, as far as my pale brown eyes could see, there was nothing but rocks, sand and the occasional thorn tree. I felt like taking a walk into this inviting desert and spending the night under a thorn tree. But all I could do at that time was to slither into a traditional mud-walled Turkana house and attempt to sleep in the midst of my malaria.
My head disappeared into a thin, bare mattress that was soon absorbing liters of my sweat. The only sound I could hear was the whistling nighttime breeze that was surprisingly cold.
The following morning, I did what I had wanted to do the previous evening. Despite my aching joints, I trudged towards a thorn tree that I could see in the distance. I was wearing akala, the open sandals that are made from car tyre. My sleeveless green top was still spotless but I knew that it would be quite dusty within minutes. Although it was only 9AM, the sun was blazing, the heat stifling. It didn't help that my fever was still high and I hadn't taken any medicine because the nearby Kaikor clinic had run out of malaria drugs.
Sweating profusely, partly because of the fever and partly because of the heat, I leaned on a lanky thorn tree and looked around me. Rocks. Small, rocks and big rocks. They dotted the sea of sand that was everywhere. It felt as if I could walk for months and see nothing but the rocks and sand. There would be no television to steal my attention and no internet to devour my time. I would be free from all mechanical things and just lie in the bosom of nature.
I would even be free from time itself.
I bent low and picked a small smooth stone. I knew that scattered for hundreds of kilometers all around me were such small stones. Some of them were smooth like a baby’s skin while others were rough with pimples all around them. I scooped two such rough stones and squeezed them into the palm of my right hand. It felt as if they were squeezing me back. At that moment, it was just me, two small rough stones, a thorn tree and the embrace of a desert.