‘… So often I had felt irritated with people who arrived here, lived in “little Europe” or “little America” (in luxury hotels), and departed, bragging later that they had been to Africa, a place in reality they had never seen.’
Ryszard Kapuscinski – The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life.
* * * * *
The Indian Ocean lies behind me now, and with it the easy lifestyle of the North. The beach hotel. Comfort. Contentment. Ignorance.
And in front of me ? Adventure, uncertainty. Guilt. A touch of fear.
I’ve put this off for far too long. Why ? I’m not exactly sure. But I haven’t run for days, and I tied my shoes with strange reluctance this afternoon. A hundred excuses appeared to keep me by the pool, and worked hard to keep me there.
The truth is this: it’s hard to venture into the unknown. Too easy to bask lazily on the beach, gazing vacuously up at palm trees or the dreams inside your head. Too difficult, too risky ? No – just too uncomfortable to face the reality of another world around you.
A different world, not far away, on some television feature or rolling news where they show pictures from another planet. But here, right now, in front of you, outside the hotel gate.
That gate falls behind my steps, and Africa opens her arms out wide to greet me. I’m forgiven, for now, even if I don’t deserve to be.
* * * * *
Eager, thin men stand waiting outside the hotel, offering taxis and tours to anyone who wants one, and many who clearly don’t. Some might find that bothersome – but let’s just get real for a moment. This is Africa. That’s how it is.
There are crowds of people on the road. And not a single one of them is white. I’d like to kid myself, but it’s a strange inversion at first – just as unsettling and unfamiliar once again, although I’ve lived it many times before. I try to remember how I feel – conspicuous, edgy, out of place – to play it back whenever I see a lone foreigner back at home.
‘Jambo sana. Hello, how are you ? Come and look inside my shop.’ I wave and smile, and carry on.
Beyond the beach – the Europeans’ narrow strip of pleasant land cooled by the ocean breeze – the equatorial girdle of this continent stretches four thousand kilometres, deep and green and humid in front of me.
A lad of twenty, wearing just one leg and a tattered Arsenal shirt, leans patiently on his crutches, waiting for a tourist slow enough to ask for cash. Battered taxis and an unlikely rickshaw weave dangerously through the crowd.
A little further on, I pass a group of black-cloaked young women, mysterious and austere behind their burkhas. A young couple in student shorts and tee-shirts, eyeing me with a puzzled glance. A tall businessman in suit and shiny black shoes, tripping lightly through the dust.
Just opposite, two mechanics are sitting on wooden stools beside a pile of bikes. They’re struggling fruitlessly with tyre levers as they try to fix a punctured wheel at an open air cycle shop, laid out beneath the spreading branches of a mimosa tree. They glance up as I raise a hand. ‘Jambo,’ I try, and they reward me with a smile.
By the time I reach the junction, with its scraggy petrol station of empty pumps and puddled yard, and the mosque and stumpy minaret just across the road, the thought is well-embedded. I’m surely running through an exotic travel documentary – about a safely distant world where life is completely different from the one I know.
But it’s the same world – it really is – just seen from a very different place.
A kilometre run. Sensed and lived. Experienced.
I turn left, and pick up my pace along the road. The evening fills with folk returning from work, and others heading into town. A policeman in smart white shirt and freshly pressed trousers stares blankly for a moment as I run by. A pair of cyclists pedal straight towards me, so I dodge hastily onto the stony verge.
Next comes a mother carrying a basket of watermelons on her head. Her six-year old daughter holds her hand, skipping joyfully in a pink and frilly dress.
A moment later, I pass a white-painted chapel behind a half-broken picket fence. Just beyond it lies a group of sketchily mud-walled houses, each with palm-thatched roofs. A man is leaning disconsolately against a tree, whilst his wife cooks their meal on an open fire. Barefoot, partly-clothed toddlers play happily close by.
A hundred similar shacks and hovels lie hidden amongst the woods, those nearest the road doubling as bars and shops. Customers are sifting through stacks of pineapples whilst a woman feeds her baby on a chair outside.
But don’t have any illusions. These aren’t houses – not as you or I would know them. No doors, or windows, no garden path. A slab of corrugated iron here, a scrap of chicken wire there. An earthen floor. No mosquito nets. No electricity either.
You’ll find no fridge, no washing machine, TV set or computer. No drains or sanitation. The only water comes in yellow plastic containers, fetched laboriously by hand or bike from the nearest working pump – which could be around the corner or half an hour’s walk away. Untreated water. And – let’s be crystal clear – not enough food.
Just remember for a moment that this is not a war zone, nor a famine-afflicted area, either. With its jobs in tourism, poorly-paid as they may be, this is a fairly prosperous village, by Kenyan standards. Yet nearly every Kenyan you’ll meet here is chair-leg thin.
Time to get real again. Let’s not flatter our expectations about the growing wealth of ‘developing’ countries. The gap between North and South splits ever wider. This is sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s simply how it is.
Half the world is struggling to eat at all, whilst we in Europe and America blithely eat ourselves to death.
Best keep that in mind, if ever you feel the need to complain about your life. Who really cares if the hotel buffet seems repetitive and unimaginative ? Because, let’s face it – there’s food for us to eat, and far too much at that.
Ahead of me, a minibus has stopped outside a clump of roadside stalls. Two men get off, and two more get on – whilst a third shins up to hang on outside the door. He waves cheerfully, and gives me a beaming smile as they pass. Then the bus driver toots and stops again, and the process repeats once more.
Another mimosa tree, and in its shade a guild of carpenters is hard at work, planing furniture from darkly sumptuous wood. What they’re making I’m not quite sure – a piano, a desk, or a coffin, maybe ?
At last I reach a bunch of shacks and stalls with waiting buses. I cross beside the newly-painted ‘Marks and Spencer’ sign, and turn around. Just three kilometres will bring me to the hotel – but I’ve seen enough to keep me thinking many miles more, and down a longer road than this.
How rich for me, and for you as well, that the world forgives us these lives we lead. But please don’t tell me – just don’t you dare – that we deserve it, by whatever twisted logic we construct. Or that we have neither the time nor means to solve the plight of Africa.
So many intractable, complex, frustrating problems, surely. But for heaven’s sake, we can’t escape the obligation to help our fellow man, however much we try to ease that moral failing in our minds.
The dusk is falling, and the fading light has sparked a hundred piles of glowing embers to flicker dimly beside the road.
I run faster now, back towards the beach. Before too long, the village voices fade into depths of blackness, and the cloak of night enwraps me before the hotel gate.
The darkness falls hard and quickly here. Because this is Africa, and that’s simply how it is.
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