“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Nestled in the foothills of Mount Kenya, Embu is a small town of about 50,000 inhabitants. I will be living here for a year. Those of you who read my other posts will learn about what I am doing here. I have just been here for a week, so I’m just getting used to the place. It is very colourful.
Starting off with a crude wooden gate, between chicken wire fencing, topped with barbed wire, with no doorstep, just muddy, red earth. This is a garden gate to a cottage behind the Embu Level 5 Hospital.
The corrugated tin sheet shack is close to the previous door. It is a funeral parlour of sorts. There is a doorway, with no door. I suppose it allows easier access to the coffins inside, but I don’t know what they do for security at night. But who would steal a coffin?
Pink is a popular colour for African doors. Well, all colours are popular. Blue, orange, yellow and green here.
Red is an appropriate colour for the door of the Paradise Butchery.
Like Montreal, there are many churches in Embu, like this one, “Jesus Healing Pool Ministries, Intl.”
Jo’s Cereals has a light blue door, with what looks like heavy raindrops falling on water painted on the lower wall. I wasn’t expecting Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, but the grains displayed on the poster look more interesting than wheat, corn, oats, barley, millet, sorghum and rye. I’ve just finished reading one of Jo Nesbo’s crime stories about Harry Hole, the Norwegian detective, one of Jo’s Serials.
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.
“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.
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.