161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa


The night air presses hot and thick outside the windows. The ancient bus groans and heaves itself another mile along the road. It’s four a.m.

A slim throw of light weaves ahead, as we slalom around endless potholes, the creaking chassis of the bus vibrating stiffly with every bounce of broken shocks.

And beyond our beam, it’s only darkness. As black as pitch – there is no distant orange streetlight glow here; no twinkling, reassuring glimmer of a distant homestead to break the gloom.

The rain is falling softly now, sluicing insistently down the windscreen. There are no wipers on the bus. But after a while, the drops somehow reassemble a filmy view of the road in front, and it doesn’t matter any more.

This is the main East African coastal highway – but don’t imagine any shiny roadsigns to announce that fact. No white lines, nor other traffic, either. Just deeply pitted, decaying tarmac. Puddles and blackness stretching far ahead.

In the distance, our headlights pick out two women walking slowly with five yellow water containers and a bicycle between them. Where have they come from, at this unholy hour ? Where are they going to ? I just can’t say.

The black fingers of the night fold tighter, squeezing closer to the roadside. Behind us, to the north, lie Watamu, Malindi. Lamu. Beyond that, perhaps Somalia, somewhere far beyond. And ahead of us: the port city of Mombasa, and then – who knows ? Tanzania, a ship to Zanzibar, or Mozambique ?

But tropical Africa won’t stretch so far, this time. It’s the airport that’s in our sights. A journey home – this trip now slowly beginning to unwind itself, as they always do. A reversal through the mirror, reflecting on lives lived another way.

An hour past Kilifi, the first laconic light of dawn shrugs itself wearily into the sky. The trees of the rainforest are slowly thinning now. A few minutes later – a clearing. A house. More bush, and then a field or two. A village. A hotel. A hundred shacks of corrugated iron, mud and straw.

The day arrives to greet the outskirts of Mombasa. Roadside stalls. Shops. Huts. Hovels. People and cars, aimlessly wandering. And finally the city itself – no seaside beauty, this place, but it looks far more prosperous than when we drove the other way. A grimy, desperate shithole then, now it looks buzzing, more reasoned, enticing – faintly thriving, even.

a-road-in-mombasa-by-impresslflickrcom.jpgIt’s just perspective. Two weeks can change a man.

The rain falls more heavily now. As we pass the oil refineries, I see our driver’s knuckles tighten as he stares determinedly through the cloudburst. There’s no airconditioning or fan to clear the fog, so Moses jumps up to wipe the misting windscreen. It’s the twentieth time this morning.

Soon after, he rises slowly to his feet, just before the airport. He’d like to wish us all a safe and happy journey, and hopes to see us back here soon. We’ll be very welcome. ‘And please don’t forget us, here in Kenya.’ If we want to leave a tip of thanks, then he and William will be very grateful. Their families will be, too.

The woman in front of me sighs in sharp annoyance. ‘They’re never slow in coming forwards to ask for money, are they ?’ she moans.

I brace the politest of smiles across my face.

‘Yes, exactly. And my God, don’t they need it ? They’re starving half to death.’

I reach into my pocket, and from the disgustingly deep pile of notes I find there, unpeel a thousand shilling note. It’s hardly anything at all for bringing a whole family safely through the forests of the night. Just £7 – and, anyway, who am I kidding about generosity ? – I can’t change Kenyan currency back at home.

The Englishwoman falls silent. A flash of anger rises above the grimace on her brow. Then slowly, quietly, she reaches in her purse. Pulls a hundred shilling note, and puts it back. Replaces it with twice that much. Finally, decidedly, she cuts five hundred shillings from her pack, lays them down on the dashboard, and with a fleeting toss of highlights climbs off the bus.

A few moments later, I follow. But there’s no chance now to catch her eye – right here, beneath the steps, a thin, emaciated man with hollowed eyes, dirty clothes and a grubby muslim headdress demands my full attention. He stands and peers imploringly into my face. ‘Carry heavy bag, please ?’ he offers.

* * * *

An hour later, our last shillings safely spent on cake and croissants, we’re getting on the flight. I shuffle down the aisle, find my seat and fold myself to fit. A moment’s rest to close my tired eyes, and try to think about this trip. So much to say, but how could I ever find the way to start ?

Just then, I hear a teenage voice, three rows in front. ‘Aw, Mum,’ she whines. ‘It’s not half as good as Virgin. There’s no seatback videos on the bloody plane.’

mount-kilimanjaro-and-serengeti-from-the-air-august-2007.jpgAnd now I understand. That here’s as good a place as any for me to begin.

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14 responses to “161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa

  1. OK. You have my full attention. Please carry on!

  2. Excellent. Now just let me shake the dust out of my suitcases a moment or two, and I’ll proceed further …

  3. A long, long time ago, I lived and taught in a small village in Nigeria. Those two years changed my life and made such a deep impression on me that even today, the memories resurface when I’m least expecting it.

    Your evocative writing has just revived them again, Roads!

    Thank you…

  4. Thanks very much, Gigi. That must have been an incredible experience for you. Perhaps you’ll know these two books on Africa:

    The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and

    The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

    Meanwhile, I found this news report on the state of the Mombasa road, rather indignantly berating the government’s failure to repair it.

    But where can they get the money ? Most European companies doing business in Kenya don’t pay any tax at all.

  5. Hello again

    Hope I might avail myself of your blog to archive a little bit of Africana.

    I recently published my diary for Day 4 of a solo trip by public transport and/or hitchhiking into the north of Ghana where I ran into a Peace Corps worker, and spent the day visiting village heads:


    Here’s my record, verbatim and complete from the preceding Day 3. Anything in brackets is an addition, to make the meaning clearer:

    Dec 18th 1967

    “Travelled from Kumasi to Tamale. Guess who I ran into at the bus station ? None other than the Carters and Joan (fellow teachers at Accra Academy). They were on their way north to Ougadougou (capital of Upper Volta as it was then called, now Burkina Fasso). Like me they had spent two nights in Kumasi.

    We stopped en route at Techiman – we were taking the Kintampo route north. Techiman was the coldest I have experienced in Ghana. Further north where we stopped to assist an overheated coach, the sun just shrivelled (us) – maybe the hottest I have experienced it.

    It was fascinating to observe the smooth transition from forest to savannah (who said the boundary was sharp?) Gradually the trees became more dispersed and stunted in appearance, and that long (guinea?) grass became the typical feature of the open landscape.

    Got chatting with a UK-trained graduate mech’ engineer at Techiman, who was on the coach. He said that I could go on to Bolgatanga the same afternoon, 4:30 pm from Tamale . Big surprise: the Kintampo route was a recent introduction which cut time considerably.

    At Tamale I parted company with the Carters – (then) tried to get Bolga’ ticket – woman at window a real cuss – no luck. Had excellent “chop” (meal) for 3/-round the corner. Finally packed tight on back seat of coach (11/-). Noah Amoah ( the engineer) soon showed his contempt for Northerners. Noah is not a thinker by any means, and displayed several prejudices.

    Thunder and lightning en route. Thought this was responsible for widespread bush fires, but later found not so.

    At Bolga’ Noah took me round to Black Star Hotel. Told the prop’ that I could not afford his prices but, with Noah’s help, he was most obliging, and gave me half a double room for 16/-. But I had to sit opposite Noah watching him eat a 14/- meal with great relish while I took occasional sips of water.

    Two Stars ( beers) on Felicity (Noah’s old flame). In conversation I told Noah that I had asked my pupils to consider why Volta water is not pumped back to high level to work turbines over and over again. Noah Amoah, BSc, GMI MechE reckoned they reversed the paddles! Noah evidently not acquainted with the Law of Conservation of Energy. Bid farewell to Noah.”

    Such is (relative) youth !

  6. Thanks very much for your memories of Africa, Colin.

    As it happens, I also visited Accra in Ghana, during 2003.

    Our attitudes to Africa and her people are slowly changing.

    Sadly I’m not sure that the situation is really improving for most ordinary citizens of the continent.

    If anything, it seems as though the economic gulf between the North and South is swiftly widening, and I find it depressingly hard to envisage how that configuration will easily change under current conditions.

    Unfortunately, I really can’t pretend that I have the answers.

    I wish I did.

    Still, there is some cause for limited optimism. Much is already being done, through support from western government development programmes (which we all contribute towards, through the privilege and social responsibility of paying our taxes). Support by charities, and through donations gathered by the likes of Band Aid and Live8, is also hugely important, but sadly I feel that these initiatives alone will likely never ever offer quite enough to facilitate lasting change.

    Nevertheless, just as in the case of the environment, where it is becoming clear that individuals, and groups of individuals, can often bring about radical changes in economic lifestyle and accepted practice more easily and effectively than governments can (witness the impressive take-up of recycling over the past decade or so, without any legislative compulsion) so I now believe that individual action can also be an effective way of helping Africa.

    That may appear a somewhat puzzling contention at first reading. What are the problems which can realistically be addressed, and what on Earth can we as citizens of Europe and America possibly do to help the so very distant poor of Africa ?

    Perhaps not much, but perhaps enough to make a big difference, too. These are themes worth exploring further and to which I will return, as I write more.

  7. Colin – I remember Star beer!! Although I’m surprised I remember anything much, considering the amount of Star I consumed at the time. Didn’t it come in huge green wine-sized bottles?

    Roads – I know and love The Poisonwood Bible but I’ve never read The Shadow of the Sun…I will do soon, though…thanks

  8. That’s a pleasure, Gigi.

    The Shadow of the Sun is simply marvellous – you’ll love it.

  9. Hiya Gigi

    Fancy meeting you here.

    There were two main brands – Club and Star, but not a lot of difference between them as I recall.

    As you say, big green bottles, and when you first arrived in Ghana you needed a real friend who could spare you a couple of his empties, because they would not sell you new ones at the local shop without empties in part-exchange !

    For a long time I used to puzzle the fact that I could never put away two, or at most three bottles in one sitting. One would get an acrid taste in the mouth. I’m pretty certain now that it was the result of too much metabisulphite preservative, aka sulphite or Campden tablets, which we’ve discussed before in connection with some French wines.

  10. Perhaps you just needed more practice, Colin. I managed…:-)

  11. sorry, this question is totally random.
    Did you try tusker? its one of the best beers i have ever tasted.

  12. Yes, Anonymous – Tusker came under test, and it passed with flying colours.

  13. Lynne Thomson

    After returning from Kenya in March 2009, my heart goes out to the Kenyan people. All your comments are so very real from everything I see in this country and I hold a very special place in my heart for these people and their country.

  14. Thank you, Lynne, and I’m glad you enjoyed this piece of writing. There are six further articles on Kenya in these pages — to read them all, you can click on this link: perspectives on Kenya, by roads of stone.

    Kenya has had an appallingly difficult time since our visit in 2007, with the widespread violence which followed the disputed election at the end of the year effectively shutting down the tourist trade — on which the nation’s economy has increasingly depended — for most of 2008. The collapse in tourist travel budgets as a result of the credit crunch of 2008 and into the worldwide recession of 2009 has only made these problems much worse.

    I’m glad to see that you visited this spring, and that other visitors are slowly beginning to return to Kenya. There is so much that is wonderful to see, and so many critical issues which urgently need addressing. It’s hard to emphasize enough just what a life-changing experience it is to see our planet from another perspective.

    Many thanks again.

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