Muthigiiri is an interesting place, but no one in Embu has ever heard of it.
I set off south, towards the forest, past more ramshackle shops, selling petrol, chips, offering repairs and finally, the slaughterhouse. The road was a series of muddy ponds, and to avoid these I had to walk through peoples’ gardens. There were fewer motorbikes on this stretch. One had “Pathfinder” written on the rear mudflap. I followed him, through fields of head-high maize.
I saw a bird of prey perched on the branch of a tree ahead. I managed to get some great photos with my fancy zoom lens of the African Hawk Eagle. After it flew off I realised two men had been staring at me, wondering what I was doing. They were sharing out a bushel of fresh tomatoes. They warned me that there were many monkeys in the forest. I thought I’d better eat my last apple in case it attracted them. The lads wanted me to swap the apple for tomatoes, but I refused.
As I entered the forest, I had a nagging thought, “What if there were other animals in the forest which could do me harm?” But I dismissed it and concentrated on trying to visualise the half dozen birds that were tweeting away around me.
In the shade, the air was cool, but at open glades where there was no tree cover, the air was thick, humid and hot. There was no breeze to stir it all up. It was rather magical. There was a fragrant smell from conifers, which were the bulk of the trees. I scanned the curtain of greenery, searching for monkeys, but found none.
A trio of men was talking furtively in low voices as I approached. I heard one say “Muzungu” so I knew I’d been spotted. I greeted them all and asked what they were doing. “Digging for medicinal herbs and roots,” said their leader, showing me a clutch of thin, orange rhizomes. “Is this good medicine?” I asked. “It gives men back their power,” he replied. I thought of asking what kind of power but he then gave a gesture which confirmed my suspicion. He asked me if I needed it, but I said I’d be in touch if the Viagra stopped working.
To the east of the track, I could see some farm buildings and Archbishop Gitari Boarding School. The path had turned into a rivulet, snaking from side to side. I tried to make a dam and divert the flow into the verge but thought that there might be a reason why it was flowing like this. So I stopped being a little boy and walked on.
I saw several trees which had coffin-shaped boxed hanging from high branches. I thought that they could be beehives, but I couldn’t see bees flying in. Mysterious. What do you think?
I reached a graded murram road and left the forest behind. Motorcycles were swarming around me, asking where I was going. I decided to wave at all of them, and this seemed to ease their curiosity somewhat. A church service was just ending across the road and a man with an impressive rooster came out of the gate. He held it up for me to see, clutching it at the base of both wings, and offered to sell it to me for £5. I must be getting more Africanised because for a moment, I considered buying it. Not as a pet, but to eat, of course.
The shops were more sophisticated here. The Gilead Lifestyle Center (the balm of Gilead was a powerful ointment, “to make the wounded whole”) offered an impressive array of services, including “Complete health and Restoration”.
I looked up the strange choice of Jeremiah 46:11 when I got home and it was therapeutic nihilism:
Go up into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt: in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured.
The list of diseases treated included diabetes, cancer, fibroids, asthma, haemorrhoid (sic), high blood pressure, kidney problems, ulcers, asthma, stroke and no doubt several others. This overlaps with the management of chronic, non-communicable diseases which is the focus of my work in rural health centres in Kenya. I might have an open mind, but I doubt we will be collaborating with this healer.
I was exhausted when I reached the tarmac road, the Embu-Nairobi Highway. I had no choice but to walk at the side of the road. Speed bumps extended to the edge of the road (to avoid motorcycles cutting inside to avoid them). I was tired and I kept tripping up over the bumps. Some boys on a hill across the road thought this was hilarious. I crossed the Rupingazi River using the pedestrian bridge. It was even more uneven than the road.
Consulting Google maps, I saw a shortcut, up a muddy slope into Embu Town. I struggled past the Daniel Arap Moi Stadium (where they play more sevens rugby than football) and bought another litre of water at the supermarket. I was sitting on a wall, guzzling the tepid water when I noticed a familiar smell, that of spirit alcohol. Someone had dropped a bag containing a bottle of cane spirit as they had left the supermarket. A lady was cleaning up the broken glass, but the security guard gave me a stern look as he came to investigate. “Not me, guv, I’m innocent, a teetotaller in Kenya,” I said.
I took the shortcut back to our house along shady unmade roads, where there are more birds. I saw a spectacled weave in a tree and stopped. Two drunken young men staggered past and asked what I was doing. I pointed out the bird and he said, “No, that’s an avocado tree.” Actually, it was a mango tree.
It was 3:45pm when I reached home, totally shattered. I’d only walked about 20km but Embu is at 1,350m above sea level. This was altitude training, not a gentle stroll.
I stripped off, showered and collapsed on my bed to recover with a cup of tea. I thought, what lessons had I learned today?
Although Google Maps are good, they are not infallible. Local Kenyan villagers can’t read maps. Why should they need to? They live here and know their way about. One thought the line demarcating Embu and Kirinyaga counties was a road. There was a gap shown down the middle of the forest which no one could explain. Everyone was very confident about giving directions and advice, despite it being wrong at least half the time.
But Kenya remains a fascinating and beautiful place.