Sunday Walk in Embu (final part)

Muthigiiri is an interesting place, but no one in Embu has ever heard of it.


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Unsuspecting sheep, grazing where they are likely to end up


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.


Sunday Walk in Embu (part 2)


Rupingazi River overflowing its banks


I crossed the torrent of the Rupingazi River on a road bridge and saw two well-dressed ladies in their Sunday best, leave the road and climb into the forest. I speeded up and called to them. “Was this a shortcut to the forest road?” They reassured me that it was. I asked them if they could show me the way and they concurred.

One of the ladies was wearing red, high-heeled shoes. Not very appropriate for walking down a muddy path, through partially cultivated bush and coffee plantations. When I pointed this out, they just laughed and said this was a good path, easy to walk. They reached their church and told me to turn south.


After a few hundred yards I came across Camp Ndunda Falls. “Keep your negative thoughts away from this refuge,” proclaimed a sign. Two ladies were sitting in the shade outside a wooden building. A sign said, “No WiFi, so stop looking at your phone and talk to each other.” I asked what happened at the Camp and they said there was a £2.50 admission charge, for a picnic area, a nature trail,  a visit to the waterfall and a take-your-life-in-your-hands zip line. I asked if they had a map or a brochure, but the office door was locked. They looked at each other and didn’t know what to do.

“How do I get to the forest?” I asked. I showed them the map on my phone, but they hadn’t a clue.

“You should go back the way you came.”

Really? Eventually, probably to shut me up, one of the ladies pointed me to a track outside the fence leading westwards.


Never trust a woman who wears a dress which looks like it ought to be seen with 3D spectacles


“This will get me to the road?”


“Are you sure?”


I asked about how to cross a stream which was shown on the map, but she said, “You just cross.”

I walked about half a mile through beautiful countryside on the edge of the forest until I came to a fast flowing stream. I would have tried to ford it, but there was no path on the other side. My path turned north but was partly flooded by the stream, so I abseiled horizontally, hanging off a barbed wire fence, to reach the path as it reappeared.


OK, it doesn’t look much here, but it was more impressive in real life



This is a coffee bush, showing green and red berries


It was pleasant walking through dappled sunlight beside a coffee plantation, even though I was going the wrong way. Up ahead, I heard voices. Three men and a dog were sitting around the remains of a fire. They were making charcoal. A long thin sack would sell for £200 in Nairobi, they said. I wondered if they were doing this legally, so I didn’t linger.


“Is there a bridge across the stream?” “No, you must go to the road.”

“The path to the road?” “Just go straight.”

After a hundred yards, there was a T junction. I chose to turn right, up the hill away from the stream. At the top of the hill, there was a small homestead with a cow in a byre, a small boy with a large rake trying to do some gardening and his mother, who was washing clothes in a tin tub. The mother stopped scrubbing, greeted me warmly and offered to show me the real path to the road. Her son stared, open-mouthed. I wondered if he had ever seen a muzungu before.

She led me to another house where an old lady was cutting greens using a knife with no handle. Without thinking, she thrust out her knife-holding hand to shake mine. I pretended to be frightened and she burst into gales of laughter. Part of her left nostril had disappeared. People don’t have nose rings here, so I thought her nostril must have been damaged in an accident or by infection.

When I reached the road, there was a thin, old man in a suit with a trilby hat, looking down at his shoes. I immediately thought that he was wondering what to do about his wet shoes after fording the river. As I approached, he awoke from his reverie, saw me and set off up the hill at a pace.


I didn’t have to ford the river as there was a bridge with a weir. Some lads were washing the mud off their motorbikes and they waved in greeting. I ate an apple and they gestured that they wanted one, too. I politely declined and strode up the next hill towards the boundary between Embu and Kirinyaga counties.

A matatu stopped beside me as I consulted my phone map. “Where are you going? Why are you walking?” asked the driver. I told him I was going to Muthigiiri and he said I was on the right road. He said he wasn’t fooled by my amazing cartographic skills. “I know you have GPS.”

Another lad caught me up and settled in to walk beside me for a while. He said he had recently finished a degree in management and was now looking for a job. People often think muzungus can help them with employment. He told me that his family was poor, and his older siblings didn’t have jobs either. I commiserated. He said he had left his wallet in the house and needed to retrieve it. We joked about whether it would be empty when he found it.

In Muthigiiri, half a dozen men were sitting in the shade at the roadside. Despite being packed full, a matatu was waiting for more passengers before departing. There was a goat tethered at the side. It couldn’t go onto the roof – that was already packed with luggage. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Children here were much more frightened of me than in Embu. They kept on coming closer and then running away when I reacted. The church service was playing some funky music, so I gave the children a treat by doing a “dad dance”. They laughed.  I decided to extend my repertoire and started to throw some Kenyan dance shapes. Even though I have learned some fancy moves from the twenty-seven religious channels on our TV, the children became more concerned and ran off.

Obviously, I am crazy and to be avoided at all costs.


Sunday Walk in Embu (part 1)

The clear, bright, blue sky was a welcome change to the ominous, dark, cloud-filled skies of the past few weeks. The rainy season has been unusually prolonged. Some say el nino, some say la nina. I was just glad to be able to go on a long walk without being drenched.

I packed my rucksack with apples, a litre plastic bottle of boiled and filtered water, my sunglasses and the brilliant Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens fitted to my 6D camera body. This would be ideal for capturing photographs of birds. For close up and “street photography” I would rely on my OnePlus3 smartphone.

The first church services of the day were ending when I tramped up the muddy road from our house to the main highway. Families dressed in their Sunday best and clutching their Bibles were walking home. I crossed the highway by the Anglican Cathedral and headed north down into the valley.


Boda-boda motorcycle taxis swished past me when their riders had cut the engine and were freewheeling down the slope. Those with empty pillions beckoned me to come aboard. Those already loaded with passengers would wave and shout greetings, lost on the slipstream. I discovered recently that there was no import tax on motorcycles of less than 250cc, so they were popular and more affordable.

Motorbikes coming towards me would have coasted down the opposing slope of the valley. As they bled off speed, their drivers would press the electric starter, but sometimes this didn’t work, and they would stop and have to kick start the motor. Going over speed bumps can be tricky while you are messing about with the starter.

Everyone at the side of the road, gardeners, motorcycle washers, people coming and going to church, would all catch my eye and greet me.

“Where are you going?”

“To the forest,” I would reply.

“Oooooh. Why?”

“Because I want to walk.”

Some of them expressed surprise that a muzungu (white man) would be walking at all. They think we are all from the WaBenzi tribe (the people who are driven around in Mercedes Benzes).

Up ahead was the Sunmoon Lodge, a local hotel. There was a half moon in the sky, but I couldn’t frame a photograph to show both. I walked up the hill and past a few dilapidated dukas (shops). The Njukiri Forest was to my left, but there were no clearly marked paths in that direction according to Google Maps. (I have a love/hate relationship with this app. It can be lifesaving at times and infuriatingly wrong at others.)

There was a sign pointing to the County Show Grounds, laid out on the fringes of the forest. I can just imagine the scene 70 years ago, with the white farmers proudly displaying their produce, their wives entering bakery and flower arranging competitions, with prize beasts being judged by men in white lab coats. It looked sad and dejected now.

At Njukiri Shopping Centre, a vivacious middle-aged lady wanted to walk with me. She hooked her arm through my elbow but I declined. I didn’t want to spend the next mile explaining to her why I didn’t want an African wife. She laughed and went back to her crowd of friends. I wondered what on earth had been in the priest’s sermon.

The prolonged rainy season had painted the countryside bright green. It is very fertile, with people planting stands of maize, interlaced with beans, sugar cane, potatoes (English and sweet) and arrowroot everywhere. The lakes and dams were full. I took a long look at one stretch of water to see if there was any birdlife. Two lads in fashionable Western clothes and American baseball caps asked me if I wanted to swim. I told them that I’d left my swimming trunks behind, unfortunately, and they laughed.


On the other side of the road, there was a ruckus. A man was trying to control a massive bull as it rumbled through the undergrowth onto the tarmac road. The bull continued to be rather frisky on the road, and motorbikes had to swerve to avoid it. I greeted the man and asked him what he was doing. Surely they would not be slaughtering on the Sabbath? No, he was taking the bull to cover some cows. “He knows, that’s why he’s impatient,” said the cowherd.


From one of the many churches at the side of the road, I saw a man with a massive box on a wheelbarrow. We chatted and he told me he had to move the loudspeaker from one church to another for the next service.

A boda-boda driver stalled his engine going over a speed bump and couldn’t get it restarted. I offered to help but he didn’t think much of my expertise. He pushed the bike up the hill, where there was a shack offering boda-boda repairs.


I’d been walking for two hours now and the sun was beating down. I stopped to rest and look down at a garden in a flooded valley. It looked charming, so I got out my camera. Out of nowhere, two men came to ask me what I was doing. “I am photographing this attractive scene. Your country is very beautiful.” They seemed unconvinced. “Why is this beautiful?” I rambled on about the verdant pasture, the different crops, the flooded stream, the people working in the distance. They were still suspicious. “What are you doing here?” I told them I just wanted a pleasant walk to see the countryside. “Why are you in Kenya?” When I said I was Daktari, their manner completely changed. From being a suspected spy, I had become a most welcome guest.