Featured

The late great Khalid Kiani

This is the post excerpt.

 

A conversation of late between my friend Serge Avery and I had been about celebrated travel writer Bruce Chatwin and his early death from AIDs in 1988.

This conversation very much reminded me of a close friend of mine, Khalid Kiani, whom also passed away from complications of AIDs in 1988.

Whilst working for Parks Canada and living at the old Bunkhouse, I often had long, animated conversations over the Bunkhouse phone with Kiani who was working just up the Trans-Canada Highway in Lake Louise. We usually reminisced about Islamic architecture and poetry. I used to hitchhike or take the bus up to see Khalid and stay in his garret in Deer Lodge–not much bigger than a shoebox.

Khalid so loved the Lake Louise area and especially this place where he was standing in this photo. He said that the mountains at the back of the lake here reminded him of a huge mihrab, the place where Muslims would worship in a mosque. I took this picture during the 1980s when Khalid worked at Deer Lodge which was just next door to the famous Chateau Lake Louise. We would hang out in the old chateau, reading poems to each other or having long, abstract conversations about Mughal architecture, and regale him with tales of travelling through Africa and the Middle East.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

I first met Khalid when I was staying at the Spray River Youth Hostel in 1982. It was a wilderness hostel in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies, six kilometres from the vaunted Banff Springs Hotel, up the boulder strewn Spray River fire road.

My first introduction to him was by the legendary Spray River hostel parent, Tony Chatham in 1983. Tony introduced him as just plain—“Hal”.

I looked at Hal and thought to myself, this guy does not look like a Hal or the 2001 Space Odyssey character of the same name. Moreover, I had just returned from a year long trip and this Hal guy looked like he was from the Indian subcontinent.

I looked at him, nattily dressed he was, and said—“Hal is not your real name, is it?”

He smiled and said with a slightly stilted English (upper class accent) “You are right, but no one can pronounce my real name, Khalid.”

Well, having travelled through Arab and Islamic countries in the past year, I had no problem with the guttural Kh sound and told him—“I’m not calling you Hal, but your rightful name—Khalid.”

We shook hands and this was the beginning of a great friendship which last until his untimely death in 1988.

Khalid Kiani was a very educated Pakistani guy from Lahore Grammar School and my mentor for Islamic and Mughal architecture.

We were supposed to have gone to a symposium in 1988 at Harvard on the Mughal holy site of Fatehpur Sikri held by Professor Stuart Carey Welch along with presenter Professor Lisa Golombek from (U of T) whom I would later take a class with at the ROM in 1993, but we never made it.

Khalid was a poet and one of his affluent Calgary friends got his poems published in Calgary. I never did get a copy of them because I was out of the country when he passed. Even today, there is a grant for students at the University of Calgary in his name for poetry.

He was the most educated and well read WOG I met (Western Oriental Gentleman) as he jokingly called himself. He called me an EOG (Eastern Oriental Gentleman).

Circa 1985, Jan Neuspiel and Khalid Kiani in downtown Banff..

When Kiani wrote letters to me, he would sign off Khalid Kiani, great-grandson of his Excellent Nawab, the Amjad Ali Shah, O.B.E. During the Mughal Empire, the emperor would designate those rulers who would rule in his name–they were called nawabs. Khalid’s great-grandfather was the last Nawab of Sardhana.

There is a scene in A Passage to India where the Muslim Doctor Aziz talks about how his ancestors rode on the back of elephants during Mughal times–that was actually Khalid’s ancestors who did that. His other great-grandfather was Nawab Qasim Jan, a courtier in the royal courts of Mughal Delhi.

I also had my own A Passage to India experience with Khalid.

He made no excuses for his bisexual nature and I met a number of his male lovers, one was a big time lawyer in Calgary. When I visited Khalid in his garret at Deer Lodge he did the unusual for a Pakistani man, much like Doctor Aziz did for Mr. Fielding in the movie A Passage to India. Khalid showed me a picture of his wife-to-be, a beautiful young woman in a dazzling, red chintz shalwar kameez who waited for him back in Pakistan.

If Khalid had been a traditional Muslim Pakistani male this act of showing me his wife would have never happened especially with me as a “westerner”. It was to have been an arranged marriage. I felt honoured then later sad because it was never meant to be.

Khalid’s mom was the first women to get a PhD in Pakistan, she was called Dr. Mrs. Aquila Kiani. She also taught at the University of Alaska of all places, finally residing in Vancouver and working for the BC government.

She was a riot. Khalid told me this story later. Unbeknownst to his mom, Khalid worked as the night auditor at Deer Lodge in Lake Louise. When she visited him and found out that he was living in a garret at the lodge–she told Khalid–

Oh Kiani, I didn’t put you through Lahore Grammar School (very elite school in Pakistan) and university, so you could work as a night auditor.”

He and his mom were related to the famous British author’s named Shah: great-uncle, Idries Shah, was an authority on Sufis and their religion Sufism. He had many books published about the Sufis including one with noted British poet, Robert Graves. Idries also had a humourous side and wrote about the silly escapades of the Mullah Nasruddin. Khalid’s great-aunt, Amina Shah, also wrote children’s books and was the Chairperson for the College of Storytellers. I had bought books on Sufism and the Mullah Nasruddin, and had a cassette with stories read by Amina Shah.

Khalid said he used to meet her with his mom at the Commonwealth Club in London for tea.

I suppose because he came from a long list of storytellers that it was only natural that he would regale my friends with Mulla Nasruddin tales and would tell jokes about stupid Americans and Canucks instead of the other way around.

We both went to see the Out of Africa movie when it came out in 1985 and he would often repeat the opening phrase—“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” He said it was a sad film, I told him the saddest thing for me was the last lines on the screen saying that Karen Blixen had never returned to Africa. When I first saw the movie with Khalid, I was in between my own trips to Africa. Well, it is 32 years later, and I still go in and out of Africa, but now to see my Kenyan family.

Khalid died from complications from taking anti-tuberculin drugs and AZT for AIDs. I could be wrong, but I think he was one of the first to receive the AZT drug in Alberta. Like Chatwin, Khalid was, at times, having trouble with having AIDs. He claimed to be bisexual, but, truth be told, I never saw him with or talk about women. Still, he was a great cook, a bon vivant and conversationalist–much like Chatwin–we would talk ad nauseum about everything from curries to cupolas. He was in his element talking about Islamic or Mughal architecture as he was about giving recipes or reciting poems.

One of his favourite poets was Coleridge and Khalid would often quote from his favourite poem, especially the part –

The Sensual and the Dark rebel in vain,

Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game

They burst their manacles and wear the name

Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!

Somewhere, maybe in my storage locker in Kelowna, I have a recording of this by Khalid.

One of the last pictures of Khalid in Calgary, 1987. L-R Susan Wright, Jack Laustanau, Janine Miedzik, Khalid and me

We need more Khalid Kiani’s.

Unfortunately, I could not attend his funeral in Calgary as I was overseas at the time. I did write a eulogy for that service, but I doubt anyone read it. Seems the only time my eulogies get read is when I read them out myself.

Nevertheless, I rejoice in spending that precious, yet short time knowing him—a great soul.

Maybe the poet is gay

But he’ll be heard anyway

This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.

post

Mpesa Kenya

For the uninitiated or those who have not been to Kenya in the past decade or so, Mpesa is phone banking. Now many of you learned folk will say who cares and I have been using it for a few years. Well here in Kenya, Safaricom has been at the forefront of this before any of your North American or European banks even thought about it.

It is the lingua franca of business here since 2007. So much so that hardly anyone, be they small dukas (shops/kiosks) down the end of our street, Uber Chap Chap, Uber XL, gas stations or the large supermarket chains Carrefour and Nakumatt carry change anymore. Or at least that is what they told me last week when the kids and I were taking an Uber Chap Chap to Junction Mall to see a movie.

It would be so bad but the ATM machines all cough up the new 1000 Kenyan Shillings notes (~$10 US).

Our UBER Chap Chap was only 280 KSH (~$2.50 US to Junction Mall but as become the custom here, I asked the cabbie if he had change of a 1000 KSH–the standard reply–“No”.

“No” because everyone pays by Mpesa except silly me, but that is because in order to get an Mpesa acct on my phone–I would have to have a Kenyan ID and since I am not a Kenyan resident–I am not entitled to one.

So what to do as all I had was a 1000 KSH bill.

Hakuna mtata (no problem) we would go up to the dukas at the end of the street surely they must have change. We went from one small shop to another–no change. Then the cabbie told me I would have to buy something. Ok, so I opted for a single banana–about 10 KSH (10 cents US). But the fruit seller guy had no change for my 1000 KSH–he had to go to another shop but no luck. Then I tried to buy a phone top up card for 100 KSH but still no luck.

The cabbie said the gas station en route must have change.

We pulled in to the Shell station, but the attendant said he had no change too.

We finally got to Junction and I had a small bills and had forgotten that I had some coins but not the required amount–still 10 shillings short.

We were going to contact Aunt Mary to see if she could pay it through her Mpesa but then I showed our driver my small bill and the coins and he said it was OK that we were 10 shillings short. For us to have gone into the mall to find change would have cost the driver an additional 50 shillings for parking.

Later, after our movie, we went into the nearby Nakumatt supermarket to buy a few things–I thought that I would surely get change of another 1000 shillings bill here.

We only bought a few things and I went to the under 10 items Express cashier, went to pay her and then asked if she had change of 1000 shillings and before ringing up she said “No”. I was quite pissed off as I wondered how does a cashier, any cashier for that matter, any fruit seller, gas station attendant not have a float.

So I took my items to the regular cashier and she rang them through then I asked if she could change another 1000 shillings bill, she said “No” too.

However, she said the next cashier had some change, but I had to buy some AA batteries first.

I finally got some change for our ride back in Uber to our apt complex.

Barring some UBER Chap Chap guy actually having change–upon withdrawing money from the ATM, you would then have to go inside the bank to get change from the tellers. This involves a musical chairs routine because Barclays and other banks have not found out about the taking a ticket number gizmo–so you have to shift seats to the front of the queue before it is your turn.

Rebels of Rai

I don’t know where I first heard the Rai Rebels CD maybe when Brian at CKUA played it in the late 1980s. It’s release date was 1988 and I had bought it around this time. However, I first heard of Cheb Khaled through my Oxford buddy, Mark Burns, who was a keen African music guy I used to stay with en route to Africa. I had recorded some of Andy Kershaw’s world music show on BBC in the early 80s. On one track was this Algerian guy whom Kershaw referred to as “an Algerian punk” who sang about un-Islamic stuff like women, booze and partying.

We subsequently went down to the local OXFAM shop in Oxford in 1986 that had a small world music section and Mark bought the Cheb Khaled LP. I didn’t think much of it at the time. It wasn’t until I was back in Canada that I got hooked onto the premiere Earthworks label Rai Rebels cassette. I was listening to it in 1988-89. This was before Cheb Khaled’s career took off in France. Khaled was called “the King of Rai” on the cassette. I might have a CD of it, but I gave away my original cassette to a girlfriend.

The music of “rai” or “opinion” was not acceptable to the Muslim Brotherhood during Algeria’s Civil War and the rai singers would soon become targets. One time when I was visiting Brain in Edmonton at “the cottage”, I had picked up a copy of the Guardian Weekly and one of the sidebars had a story on the shooting of rai rebel Cheb Hosni outside his family home in Algeria in 1994. It was only 6 months later that one of the influential producers of rai–rebel Pop Rashid, was also gunned down by Muslim Brotherhood assassins in 1995 outside his family’s home in Algeria. Things got so scary that all the remaining rai stars, Cheb Khaled, Chaba Fadella, Cheb Sahraoui and others sought exile in France where they continued to record. Apparently, many of the rai singers in effort to escape detection, covered themselves in hijab en route to the airport to avoid Muslim zealots.

On another visit to Edmonton, we went to check out various record stores and in particular, one in the Hub Mall which he frequented. As we walked in, our eyes caught a poster for a Rai Concert in Vancouver which was no less some 1000 kms away in a few weeks time. Naturally  we both jumped at the chance and bought tickets.

Time came and Brian took time off work to come down to Field to my Parks accommodation and we also enlisted another Parks worker who wanted a lift to Vancouver. We would take turns driving to Vancouver from Field which turned into a Fear and Loathing type roadtrip with mudslides and torrential rains blocking our way on the Trans Canada which momentarily held us up. I bootlegged the concert of Chaba Fadella and Cheb Sahraoui.

Both Brian and I bought a lot of rai CDs when we were working in UAE. I must have at least 15 CDs on rai. The last rai CD I bought was the 1,2, 3 Soleils which came out in 1998. It is a live performance of Cheb Khaled, Rachid Taha and youngster Faudel recorded in France. Khaled’s music had already gone mainstream in France but this one was one of the best sellers ever. It is easily one of the best performances by all three artists. Unfortunately, another rebel, Rachid Taha, died in 2018.

My fave CDs would be:

Rai Rebels 1 (Earthworks)

Rai Rebels 2 (Earthworks)

Cheb Khaled, Rachid Taha and Faudel (1,2,3 Soleils CD)

Chaba Fadella and Cheb Sahraoui (Walli CD)

Djam and Fam (1st CD) A concept LP.

Cheb Khaled (Kutche, Khaled, N’ssi N’ssi CDs)

Rachid Taha (Made in Medina CD) His track Barra Barra is used in one of the opening scenes of Black Hawk Down.

“Fat Ladies of Chotters”

I know it is a rude title for my blog, but it is a phenomena that I have come across here in Mauritania. I was even shown a You Tube video by my English teaching cohortess–Emma. In the video, a skinny Mauritanian man was being interviewed about his preference for a wife. In translation with sub-titles, the man said he preferred “fat women”–a little meat on their bones so to say. The term for this fattening process is called “gavage” or as the French would say “leblouh“.

Now I am not the one who started this conversation but had been earlier alerted to this phenomena of “fat ladies” in Chotters by my head teacher. Apparently, the term used is gauvage or what the French (leblouh) do for foie gras–“stuffing the goose” so to say.

In a little bit of research, they might have done this in the past and to be fair, there are many Mauritanian women here that I have seen that have an “ample bodice” to them. It is difficult to say that many local gals are “chubby” because there is no true sense of their shape underneath their flowing, yet flowery voluminous native raiments, called mulafa (like a mu mu), that they wear. The majority of those chubby women are what I detect as being the Mauritanians of the fairer skinned Arab descendance.

Of the 3.1 million Maurs, the majority are made up of Arab and Berbers of the nomadic persuasion and this “fattening of the bride” is a tradition carry-over amongst those camel herders of bygone years. A ‘fat woman” to marry was considered. Moreover, a man’s “fat wife” meant he was rich, more likely, meant that she was fertile and could bear many children. I reminds me of a Bugandan king who used to fatten his wives so much so that they could only roll around on the floor, but that is according to Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton.

However, traditions here in West Africa die hard or don’t die at all. There are still, for lack of a better term, “fat farms” where young brides to be are fattened up or “gavage” or what the French would say–“leblouh“. Even though this tradition is repulsive to most of us, this tradition has never been outlawed by the government.

The only skinny gals I have seen are the two young Senegalese women who cook our meals on campus at HIE. They do so in hip-hugging jeans and fashionable blouses or skirts, much like Kenyan gals would wear. And being somewhat of a fashion aficionado because of buying stretchy jeans and whatnot for wife, daughter, sister-in-law, I know full well that Kenyan gals if not African gals–don’t really fit into “skinny jeans” if you get my drift. Not to offend anyone, but African gals don’t have too much “junk in the trunk” they are just born with a trunk.

According to some articles, the gavage was on the decline but now it is back in vogue as well as “fat farms’ for young girls where girls are eating between 14,000 to 16,000 calories a day–4 times as much as an adult male bodybuilder consumes–sheesh wallah!

Needless to say, I am hesitant to take any pictures of women here maybe any of them–I am still a visitor after all and have my 90 day probation to consider.

In Search of …Western Union

Week 2.

For starters, this is Chotters (aka Nouakchott, Mauritania) not Doha or Dubai or even Nairobi. There are no Tim Horton’s Coffeeshops (a blessing for some readers and a curse for others), no Starbucks (thank god), no Arby’s (although I did see a faded sign for one), MacDonald’s, Mugg & Bean, KFC, nor are there supermarches called Carrefour (although every intersection is rightfully called that en Française), no MonoPrix (MonoPricks as we call it in Doha), nor Uber—pity!

We do have shitboxes that are “shared taxis”—these vehicles would be off the road everywhere else, except maybe Nairobi. They are Mauritania’s version of a matatu, because, here they are often full of more than 4 passengers in both front and rear seats. There are no seatbelts, no law for them either, no airbags either, but there are cops directing traffic at busy intersections.

Safe driving, as your driving instructor would tell you, should have your left hand at 10:00 and the right hand at 2:00 on the wheel. Here it is, cell phone to the left ear with the right hand busily dialing.

Driving is a combination of a Mad Max movie race and a demolition derby with a Mexican standoff thrown in for good measure. There are lanes, but not everybody obeys them, and not unusual to see three cars driving down what otherwise would be a two- way street.

We do have our friendly Lebanese shwarma/pizza joint run by Samir who gave me a free sample of lahemagine whilst I waited for my chicken shwarma the other night. He gave me that out of an order or 16 of them because I was probably the only one, apart from his Lebanese cook, who knew the name in Arabic.

We also have supermarches called Gallerie Tata (but no relation to Indian icon TATA), Sky Rim, and MauriCenter, plus Carrefour Blancopain, many boulangeries, patisseries and tiny corner shops that sell everything including fresh baguettes. Off to the side, are covered women lying on carpets in flimsy mu-mus hawking fruits and vegs.

Today’s quest is to find an elusive Western Union/MoneyGram agent.

Well it started out innocently enough. Checking out Google for Western Union (WU) offices which seemed to be linked with MoneyGram offices. For those unwashed, these are FOREX (foreign exchange places) that I have been a member of since my Kuwait days. I even have a couple of cards from WU and UAE Exchange that also doubles as a WU agent.

My Scotiabank has WU linked into it, so I do most money sending by that, but sometimes I am over my weekly or monthly allotment, hence the search for WU.

Curiously, I had read that WU is responsible, or more likely controls 40% of remittances sent home by Africans. You would think one would have no problem finding said office in Mauritania. Well, think again dammit!

At any rate, after locating a number of offices online (and you can check that out to prove me wrong) I enlisted the help of Major Sidi Mohammed #1 not to be confused with our erudite driver Sidi Mohammed #2.

In agreement with acting boss, Gerry (Adams) McKeown, I was allowed to leave work after teaching my WHO students, Fatimah and Aliooun. Our other student, Yakoub, was on an extended Eid holiday as are some of our Maur staff. Many have driven back to their traditional homeland, one guy, my officemate, Abdullah Beina’s family is a two days drive away—almost in Mali.

But I digress, Sidi 2 would be driving me to some WU office downtown.

I jumped into the Toyota Hilux and then 4-5 other guys in military garb also jumped in, I suppose they were bumming a ride too as our facilities are out in the boonies.

On Google, there were no street addresses given or roads given just landmarks like some place called BMS opposite the Palais and near the Ministre d’Affaires Etranger (Foreign Affairs). I had drawn a map so I could keep my bearings which Sidi and I plus the guys in the back often referred to it throughout this adventure.

Chotters is like that song from U2, Joshua Tree LP—“Where the Streets Have No Names”.

We drove by the said buildings and I was busy looking for a huge WU or Moneygram sign but naught. There were some pokey shops with all sorts of French about changing money and whatnot but they did not look like the real thing. So, we drove around the Palais and hailed some securite guys for info—naturally they gave Sidi direction but to no avail. Back down various roads to nowhere that looked like a WU office.

Sidi and I looked at the map again and went back to where I thought the place was but no luck. BMS, was, in fact, not a bank but an ATM machine.

At one point, the army guys in the back grabbed my map and shouted instructions to Sidi and we were off again like something out of a Keystone Cops movie. All that was missing was Fatty Arbuckle yelling at everyone.

We did see WU and MoneyGram signs on the outside of banks so Sidi and I went in—brand new bank buildings in fact, this looked promising, but as soon as we would ask the tellers, they would either say “No”, not available.

Luckily, one Maur gal spoke English and wrote down what she thought was a sure bet. Strange, inside here, they had posted signs up for WU but no WU.

We went to Attijara Bank, with 3 new buildings and WU/MoneyGram signs plastered everywhere. Guards instructed Sidi and me to go next door—I thought this was it.

We went in and asked the teller, but she apologized and said it was coming but they did not have it yet—pity. This was the same story at other banks and offices.

Last resort, I told Sidi to go back to the huge bank– Société General Banque on Rue de Charles de Gaulle downtown near where I live. Driving by it, there were no WU/MoneyGram signs, so I decided to throw in the towel.

We drove back close to where I live, told Sidi “Khalas”, immediately 3 army guys jumped into the cab and they buggered off.

I bought a fresh baguette from the small duka/shop near Bill’s place and sauntered up my road to my abode.

As the old colonials would say in Charles Allen’s book, Tales from the “Dark Continent”,

WAWA—West Africa Wins Again!

Only in Mauritania

I’d only been in Nouakchott less than a week and already had forgotten to make sure I recharge my Internet dongle each night. Internet can be dodgy here at the best of times. Much like Kenya and Nairobi in that regard—same applies to power blackouts. As a result, I could not use either my i-Phone or my laptop at my new residence in Nejem apartments because I forgot to recharge my dongle.

In a few frantic phone calls, I was instructed by the erstwhile Irishman and cohort, Gerry McKeon, to try the Café D’Alger as they had wi-fi. Earlier, My other friend, Bill Curry (Mombasa) had told me I show just get a Mauritel SIM card and forget about my dongle and just Hotspot from my i-Phone.

I had intended on going to Mauritel offices but my Lebanese shwarma/pizza guy Samir told me the offices would be closed because it was the weekend.

I’d already been out in the noon day earlier, so back out again as I clomped to Rue Charles De Gaulle and the said café. I ordered a cappuccino from the buxom African gal and was duly brought a Nescafe version.

Hard to tell other West Africans from the Mauritanians but many Maurs are mixed with northern Arab blood while others would not be out of place with their darker Nilotic brethren and sistren from East Africa. The two coffee gals were not covered and were wearing jeans—maybe they are Senegalese. Many of the street touts are Senegalese guys who are hawking everything from phone cards, SIM cards to knock off i-phones.

A Mauritanie guy came in dressed in his voluminous bu-bu or mu-mu kaftan with an edging of blue swirling in front of me to watch an English Premier League game.

I finished checking my emails and was about to leave. Nouakchott easily has the highest curbs of any city I have been in and I have to be careful with them and not stumble into the traffic as my knees are arthritic these days.

The Maur gentlemen who had been watching the EPL footie game from the café saw that I had dodgy knees and offered to help.

“Can I give you a lift?”

Naturally I agreed.

His English was very good and in conversation found out Brahim had been an Arabic-Russian translator in Dubai for many years, then switched into being a manager of some oil/gas company in Kazakhstan.

He drove me to my apt complex which wasn’t that far away but appreciated the drive because it was quite hot and humid. The weather here is not unlike Lamu: both coastal and at times, both humid but not like ungodly Doha.

Just before alighting from his vehicle, I mentioned that I had originally gone downtown to go to Mauritel to purchase a new SIM card as had been instructed by Bill Curry.

Brahim produced a Mauritel dongle and asked me if I still wanted to get one, but I told him I had been told by Samir the Lebanese shwarma/pizza guy, that the Mauritel offices were closed being the weekend and all.

Nevermind, said Brahim, we shall go and find an office for me. So we were off again on another adventure—I had no clue where we would go.

Back down Rue de Charles De Gaulle, down past begging kids, Senegalese guys hawking phones, and other shadowy women heavily covered selling fresh produce, past Mauritanian lads begging us for something but, I was told, they were the moneychangers.

We were confronted by local police who had barricaded the main road, and Brahim told me it was blocked because of construction on a new building right next to where the said Mauritel office was.

No bother, Brahim rolled down his window and hailed a local to ask where to get a SIM card. He told us there was a place, just down a back lane, where I could get a card.

I found a shop with a guy who looked more Indian than Mauritanian. Between one thing and another I got a card, and luckily, I was carrying my passport as otherwise I would not have gotten anything.

We hotfooted back to my place and then exchanged phone numbers, but Brahim never asked for any money for gas or the trip, just friendship.

As Bill said later, this could only happen in Chotters (as we call Nouakchott).

Post-colonial bureaucracy be damned!

Here we go again.

Now where was I, oh yes, I was waiting along with my Kenyan brother-in-law, Josie, at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in the Cargo Terminal for my massive and heavy suitcase. Well, it is going on 7 hours now and I still do not have my suitcase in hand.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps I should start at the beginning of this sordid affair.

OK, I did not feel like giving Qatar Airways in Doha my hard earned riyals for excess baggage, so I took the advice of wiser folks and decided to ship a suitcase by QNT to Nairobi. Seemed simple enough, pack up my mini-book collection of four years, my Marcos collection of plimsoles, the infamous MBT shoes and sandals, and trainers (as the Brits would say), plus extra shirts, coats, a used iron, and other personal times. I was warned not to include any gas, aerosols, bombs, AK-47s…the kind of stuff for starting a mini- insurrection.

I had so much crap stuffed into the suitcase that I had to sit on it to zipper it shut and then use the locking device. I eventually got it to the QNT shippers and sent off with plastic wrapping around it.

That was a week ago.

It finally arrived here in Kenya, and I was instructed to pick it up at JKIA as soon as possible otherwise incurring daily storage charges–at US dollar prices no less. I thought it was kinda cheeky of the cargo office for the latter since they only called me just as their offices were closing and we live about an hour to 2 hour UBER ride from the airport.

So yesterday, Josie and I took an UBER Chap Chap taxi (smaller Suzuki) to the airport. We debated whether to keep the guy on hold, but luckily decided that we could get another at the airport.

Bureaucracy #1: In the brief conversation I had with the custom’s gal on the phone last night, she mentioned I would have to get a “clearance agent” to help get my suitcase through customs. Seemed like a bit of overkill. I told her that no one had told me about this in Doha. She said–“This is Kenya.” She also said that this would cost me between 5,000-10,000 KSH (roughly $50-$100US) for the agent. One guy, Laban, phoned me and instructed us where to meet him. We followed him up to his cramped office, shared with four others surrounded by stacks of all sorts of 3-ring binders bursting with yellowed dog-eared folders.

Josie and I sat down, then Laban stunned me with–

Bureaucracy #2:”Where is your PIN number?”

“What PIN number?

“You need a PIN number to get your suitcase through Customs.”

I was dumbfounded. I looked at Josie, and asked him if he had one. No

“Look, I just sent this from Doha, no one mentioned that I needed a PIN number. I am not a resident here, just a visitor.” Maybe I would have to abandon this as it was already getting complicated–it was just a suitcase after all.

A lot of jabber in Swahili between different agents in their small office, and luckily, Josie was there to provide a blow-by-blow description of their chatter.

Then Laban told me that there may be a way around this, and phoned some other clearance guy name Samdee.

Bureaucracy #3: For a Kenyan guy, he looked remarkably like one of those Bushmen from The God Must be Crazy movie.

He introduced himself and said they called him Sameday meaning he could get everything done in ‘the same day’. I explained to him that I had no PIN number, and he said it did not matter. Seems the agents must have this same problem from time to time.

For the next 5 hours, Sameday, would move in an out of various offices, flitted back and forth to where we were, instructing us to sit and wait for him and enjoy a tea. I had to give him my passport, and initially, I thought that was the last I would see of it. I think my passport changed hands a number of times between various custom officials in their offices. Sameday seemed to be on a caffeine buzz and he hurried around leaving us in his wake. He often came back to see us asking for money for different parts of the process with a fistful of papers to show for his actions.

Bureaucracy #4: Josie and I eventually were told to go and wait in the Custom’s office for “Verification” of my suitcase, so we waited and waited and waited then suddenly the blinders came down on the various windows for Customer Service and the Cashier offices. It was 1pm and lunchtime for these hard-working Custom’s bureaucrats. Seemed their job was a lot of talking, computer print-outs, signatures, and endless banging of their stamps. That would build up anyone’s appetite.

Josie and I waited for their lunch hour to end and then we were told at 2 pm, all the staff had an impromptu staff meeting. God, this was taking forever. More paper shuffling, signatures, stamps with my passport going and coming. Sameday introduced us to his son who would assist us in our quest.

Bureaucracy #5: Somehow, Sameday had managed to jump the queue and brought me a yellow fluorescent vest to wear with his company name on the back in the event, I got to “Verify” my suitcase. I was, after all, the only mzungu in the whole frickin’ place–not hard to see me or tell me from other Kenyans.

I was struct by one custom’s gal who’s only job seemed to be ferrying empty blue water bottles around, or bringing a thermos of tea and a fresh pitcher of water for the Customs Supervisor’s office next to where we were waiting.

Bureaucracy #6: Finally, Sameday and his son were furiously waving at me from the custom’s security door to come for verification. I walked through and met Madame Customs officer.

My bound suitcase was ferried over on a skid by a manual forklift. Seemed a bit of overkill.

“Is this your suitcase.” Indeed it was.

Then Sameday’s son, used what looked like metal shears, to cut the plastic wrapping

I had to key in my secret three numbers for the security lock.

“What is inside?”

“Just personal items” I told the Custom’s gal who seemed pleased with that.

She signed some forms and handed off to a bigger, burly Custom’s guy who then asked me the same questions.

“Do you have any contraband?”

“No. I lost my job in Doha. No contraband.”

“You can come and work on my farm,” he suggested and laughed.

I had to do a more thorough search through my shoes, sandals, books, diaries, to satisfy him.

“Is that iron box used?”

“Yes”.

Ok, then I thought I could collect it and walk out.

I finally managed to zipper it shut with the help on Sameday’s son.

Then I had to go back out and sit with Josie again.

Bureaucracy #7: After another 3 hours, more paper shuffling and then finally told to go through another security area, through a turnstile, a pat down by security agents, surrendered my passport again, was handed a name tag and then followed Sameday and his son to another crammed office. Sameday told Josie to get an UBER cab. I waited again and they were playing reggae music and I recognized a song by Jamaican group Chalice. “Shine on your way. You gotta fly your way home.

Could not go home just yet.

Bureaucracy #8: Had to leave their office and one more time for a new Custom’s guy to inspect my suitcase, as if I had snuck in though security doors, the only mzungu, to sneak something into my overloaded suitcase. This time, Sameday opened my suitcase the wrong way and everything fell out. I swore out loud, but the officer seemed satisfied. Had to repack everything then zipper it closed. Josie was not allowed inside this security area but the Uber guy was.

I followed Sameday back out through the security turnstile, handed over my name tag and vest. I paid Sameday his amount for running around for me and jumped in the cab with Josie–it was past 5 pm now. We’d been here since 10:30 am.

Note to self, nevermore!

A chance meeting.

I finally got through Qatar customs and dutifully surrendered my Resident Permit after being asked if I was leaving the country for good. I went to WH Smith perchance to grab a book for the flight back to Kenya. Nothing caught my fancy, but I was rather shocked with some of the book titles on someone’s favourite book list (maybe the New York Times one). Seems profanity is the name of the game to getting published. Here are some memorable titles: Get Your Sh*t Together the author of The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, or who could forget Every Thing is F*cked (A Book About Hope), not to be outdone by his later work-The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Maybe in order to get published, I should try changing the title of my books to Yemen: Who The F*ck Cares or on another trip Iran: I love F*cking Persia. The whole title profanity thing seems perverse.

At any rate, I struggled with my over the limit carry one and equally heavy laptop shoulder bag with 2 brand new Samsung A-10s for the kinder, my I-phone and a dodgy cheap Nokia. Nothing suspicious except my daughter asked to keep the Samsung in its original box–I just hope Kenyan customs did not enquire about why I was carry so many phones and one in its original packing!

I finally managed to get on the plane after stumbling up the stairs–seems Qatar International airport does not have enough elevated platforms to just walk from the waiting area onto the plane.

I preferred a seat with extra leg room. It was a 2-4-2 seating plane. I noticed that there was another chap, late 50-ish who was already seated at the window seat. Since I seemed to be the first person in the line up, I wondered how he got ahead of me when Zone 4 was called. He just sounded like a North American, so I did not give it another thought and then he politely shifted to the middle section for more room.

One thing led to another and he looked shagged from his earlier flight from Casablanca to Doha (6 +hours). Then he said he was Moroccan, and he seemed to be getting preferential treatment for the stewards: bringing him newspapers and an earlier pre-breakfast snack. In conversation, it turns out he is the Moroccan ambassador to Kenya, Dr. Mokhtar Ghambou, no less but I would not have guessed it from his casual dress. I also wondered why he was in Economy. He then said that on regular diplomatic flights he is First Class but this what out of his own pocket for a flight to visit with family. Thus, explaining his first class service in economy.

I said he sounded American and he said he studied in the US and was a professor at Yale–his Masters and PhD were in post-Colonialism. which prompted me to mention the “father of post-colonialism” Edward Said. To which the ambassador said, “Said was my mentor and advisor”.

I told him I loved Said as an essayist but not being such a big fan of Orientalism book. That’s because I had been called an Orientalist myself mainly for my interest and study of Near Eastern archaeology, anthropology and 20 years living and working in the Middle East.

Then he mentioned that Atlantic Monthly magazine article by Said on Where Did Bernard Lewis Go Wrong. This was a rebuttal to Bernard Lewis’ earlier book–Where Did We Go Wrong. I told my ambassador friend that I howled in the bookstore (the Chapters bookstore in Kelowna, BC) when I saw the cover of this Atlantic Monthly article–it was cheeky, brilliant, and priceless.

He then mentioned that the famous Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, was a Visiting Professor from 1989-1992 at Yale as well. I did not catch the author’s name at first and then said Ngugi and his “Decolonising the Mind” book (incidentally the very book amongst my Doha collection that was going to be sent a few days later). We probably would have had a longer conversation on that, but he was knackered and suffering from jet lag so I let him rest. I soon followed suit and passed out.

We deboarded the plane at the same time, but I never saw him after that as he was waiting for his security guys to take him and his diplomatic passport through customs and out to his awaiting limousine.

Part 4: Beggars and boda bodas

Beggars and boda bodas
I guess begging has always been a problem here in Lamu since apart from being a stevedore, or carrying luggage to hotels for tourists or working in the hotels—there is very little chance of gameful employment.

Seems Lamu County and the other provincial authorities would like to keep it this way with the uneducated lot here. A pity really! I never did see an actual school in my time here apart from madrassas.
Perhaps, as a result, begging is endemic here.

For instance, take the older Swahili guy in raggedy clothes and a tattered kofia and his younger mate, who were dragging a dead fish, what I presumed, was a mud shark along the dirty rutted concrete promenade next to sea front.

He was a toothless hag maybe my age, accompanied by his much younger helper, and judging from his mate’s darker skin colour, physical shape and lack of kofia—probably from up country.
A crowd had gathered and followed them wherever they went.
He soon spied me, the only mzungu sitting near the dock, and headed straight for me to start a conversation.
“We caught this tiger shark and we want to sell it,” he said.
I had no interest in this shark or any shark for that matter.
It was about four feet long with its tail making up the majority of length.
It was gray, with dappled black spots like a leopard.

“It is very good”, he continued, “You just slit the sides to make thin slices, dry it and mix with salt and it will taste good.”
“Lekum” I said, reminding myself that I had been told by my Emiratis students that the Omanis liked to eat dried shark in some kind of salty brine—called lekum.

But, this toothless hag neither heard me nor knew this Arabic word.
He continued with his story and another crowd grew, but I told him I was still not interested in it.
He seemed to be pissed off that I wouldn’t buy it.
“Mzee,” (old man) he said, “I need to sell this to buy two new fishing hooks so I can feed my family.”
I genuinely felt sorry for him, but I had no use for the now rotting shark.
He mumbled something under his breath and he was off again making the rounds of other mzungus.

I was sitting there awhile watching Lamu kids trying out there new roller blades on the very uneven concrete surfaces of the promenade without much success I might add.
A bevy of bui bui waddled past in their latest embroidered burkas called bui bui.

I could have easily been back in Doha at my university with all the Somali, Sudani, Irani and Qatari women who dress the same but in more expensive and chic attire.
Awhile later, the same two guys came by me pedalling the same rotting shark but to no avail.

Further along our route, an older gent in his green dog eared kofia struck up a conversation as we walked.
A toot toot sounded from behind and we scurried out of the way as a boda boda (motorcycle) drove by us.
He commented that the boda bodas were ruining Lamu.

I think he has a point as I don’t remember any of them in town as far back as I could recall. Not only that but now there are speed bumps everywhere for the cursed beasts.

Boda boda touts have taken the place of the hotel, tour and sunset dhow touts that used to proliferate here in the old days.
At any rate, in his conversation, he mentioned that Lamu was at risk of losing its UNESCO World Heritage Site designation with the unfortunate arrival of the cursed boda boda.
I also offered my two bits about the potential arrival of tuk tuks.
He said that might be a possibility—pity!

As the kids and I walked back to our place, we heard some older chap, a bald headed guy hassling some other tourists for some money.
Our new friend told me, “This guy is always begging from the mzungu.”
I thought it was a bit flippant of our friend that was until awhile later, I saw the same old bald guy, lying down in the doorway of his hut, with a cloth waving behind from the wind, asking for money. He was just too lazy to come out and ask us in person but rather from his shack.

Today I walked out from our place around 6:30 am and there was a person perched on the promenade concrete wall. At first, I thought it was a woman dressed in a flowery bui bui but on closer inspection, it was the bald headed guy begging again but this time pretending to be a woman—the nerve.

On another walk of the promenade, we came across our old friend Farouk.
Farouk has lost most of his teeth now probably due to his love of sugary tea and his penchant for palm wine. My wife says he is an alcoholic and can’t be trusted anymore with our kids.

I later saw him shouldering a heavy suitcase for a pair of well-heeled Italian tourists and shuffling off to their abode in town. He was smiling this time with the few teeth because he had at the bit of money from them, and he would probably buy some more palm wine.

Between cocaine, miraa, bhang and who knows what else they do, a great majority of the Bajuni and Swahili menfolk here are addicted to one thing or another which leads to their slovenliness in character.

I get the distinct impression  that some of these former “dhow boys” have never grown up or out of their addictions despite having family, but I think their children suffer as a result through neglect and maybe not going to school.
It’s a vicious cycle and one that may be hard to get out of. Begging goes along with this life cycle too and a hard one to break.

I am constantly asked for money to pay for family meals, to pay for a visit to the dentist because of a tooth abscess or to buy fishing line or hooks, but undoubtedly and unfortunately, the majority of time this small money will not go for any of these given reasons but to the guy’s addiction.
I still try to be civil with these men but sometimes it is difficult.

En route to my favourite hangout these days, Lamu House, I struck up a conversation with a young artist guy, Patrick, who is from the Giriama. tribe
He was saying there were too many Giriama in Mombasa and more in Malindi but hardly any here in Lamu. The Giriama are the largest of the Mijikenda tribes which inhabit the coast. Many of the up country folk come to Lamu as well but mostly to do the heavy construction work as the Bajuni and locals don’t seem to be up to that kind of physical exertion.

At any rate, he told me that the locals are lazy, something I had already gathered, and that the Saudi and Emirati governments are partly to blame.

He claimed that those governments send food money to the local Muslims here so, he claims now that the locals don’t have to work for a living.
This seems a bit of a sham as the majority of those I saw don’t look like they have eaten many meals, but maybe the locals use this charity to buy miraa or whatever drugs they are on. At times, the locals act like a bunch of drugged out zombies.

The odd or ironic part is that the bui bui women look overweight whereas the men look the opposite.

Moreover, the slightest bit of information these beggar guys offer you, or to tell you where such and such a place is—they expect kitu kidigo or small gift for doing absolutely nothing. It is pathetic at times. Why don’t they just busk?

Derek, the Belgian manager of Lamu House, is so exasperated with the Lamu shenanigans, boda bodas, and donkey shit everywhere that he is planning on moving to nearby Shela.

For some reason the town fathers of Shela and those hotel owners on Manda Island have taken matters into their own hands and don’t allow boda bodas in Shela or Manda Island.
Also, there is a concerted effort there to clean the latrines, donkey do from streets and clean the beachfront in from of hotels in both areas.
None of this is done in Lamu despite it being a UNESCO heritage.

This is probably why most tourists opts for staying in Shela or the back side of Lamu rather than in Lamu stone town itself.
I told Derek that we had stayed in a private house in Shela two summers back and for a month, we all walked barefoot without fear of stepping in donkey shit or being run down by a boda boda.

The open sewers here where we live now are putrid and I complained to my wife, but she said the Lamu City Council just doesn’t do its job.
If Lamu wants to get its groove back then the Kenyan government and the Lamu City Council need to get their act together; build a new sewer system, get a recycling plant for all the water bottles, build a new sewage plant, install solar panels for every house, and fix up existing roads, and maybe, just maybe, ban boda bodas.
* * *
So we came out of Lamu World last night after being told there would be a local musician, Makenya, playing from 8-10pm. We arrived late (8 pm) and instead of getting front row seats, the only seats available were at the back of the café near the hotel’s pool.

One of the attractions also was nyama choma or gristly goat meat being barbequed outside on the promenade along with jacket potatoes and some other garnish. This was a favourite meat dish amongst Kenyans.

One of the distractions we had to endure was the gay banter between the latest scourge of Africa—NGOs with their faux limey accents. They sound so pretentious as they bore each other with their babble and fill their glass from a third ice bucket of chilled Pinot Grigio.
“I just bought my third property on Manda Island.”
“Oh, how nice.”
“You must visit me when you come to Addis.”
“When you come to South Africa, call me.”
“Here’s my card, I’m based in London now”.
“I shoot promos and TV ads.”
The idle rich and as someone has said—“They are different from us.”

Do they actually work or just spend time lounging around, waiting for “happy hour”, sipping wine, telling tales, and collecting paycheques paid for by the UN or IMF?

One of the guys that works with us in Doha had spent time with an NGO in Kenya. I told him I was going to Lamu and maybe Shela.
He smiled and drifting to the past said, “I remember happy hour at Peponis.”
Really, that’s his memory of Lamu or Shela–a happy hour no less.
The funny thing is, I remember Peponis “Happy Hour” too, not because I drank there but because of its notorious clientele: many Brits/white Kenyan ex-pats, Ian from Talisman restaurant fame, and writer Errol Tzrebinski (Happy Valley gang), to name a few, who started their “Happy Hour” at 11am rather than the typical later time.

Nevertheless, as we traipsed out of Lamu House just opposite us, I noticed two guys chewing miraa perched on the concrete balustrade. The wind had died down, but the high tide still lapped just below them with the silent heaven’s above—it was a blissful scene except why were two guys so busy chewing the addictive narcotic at such an ungodly hour—is nothing sacred?

For crying out softly, even the qat chewing Yemenis had a set time for chewing their narcotic leaf—qat. The time in Yemen (mostly the North) is roughly 2pm till 5:30 and then the green spittle stuff is spat out and life goes on. According to Professor Keall, trying to get anything done in Yemen between those hours was “a total waste of time”.

Why would some young guys be chewing the Kenyan version, miraa, at 11 pm then?
Were they going to be doing an all-night drive to Nairobi?
Hell no, there are no roads directly from Lamu Island.
Were they going to an all-night cinema showing?
Hell no, there weren’t any and if there were, they would be Bollywood movies.
What the hell would they do for the rest of the evening—stare into black space above their heads?
Would they read a Robert Ludlum thriller by paraffin lamp?
Doubtful.
For that matter, no wonder many of the Lamu guys appear slovenly.
They need jobs here but imagine reporting for work or looking for work at 7am following a night of miraa chewing. Not a pretty sight.

God only knows in this zombie like town which is more like a shadowland.
What a waste of a narcotic—William S. would not be amused or would he?

Part 3: Lamutown redux

Lamutown redux, 2018
Back into this fabled town again.
We somehow managed to stumble down the barnacle-ridden concrete steps into the public dhow that will ferry us across to the Island of Lamu from the last mainland port of Mokowe.
Despite all my previous visits to Lamu, remarkably, this is my first time entering Lamu at nightfall, and I missed the glistening white washed skyline outline during the daytime at this UNESCO World Heritage  site—Lamu’s stonetown. Instead the steady drone of the aged diesel engine on our boat and twinkling lights on the black horizon would welcome us.

There is something about arriving at or departing from a place by boat.

This is quite a leisurely way of getting somewhere especially after the pounding of a bus or enclosed environment of a plane. The boat ride seems unreal and fantastical until you hit another boat’s wave and that brings you back to reality.
The taste of the salty spray heightens the drama too.

About 30 of us were huddled in the diesel run dhow, all issued mandatory life jackets because of a recent spate of boats capsizing and a large population not adept at swimming.

This is one trip I never get tired of and I think erstwhile traveller and kayak enthusiast, Paul Theroux, would approve of this entrance.

After a 25 minute bounce due to the ferocious winds that were kicking up white caps, we eventually landed at Lamu’s main concrete dock. Gracie and the kids had all disembarked and it was up to me to scramble as best I could up the slippery stairs and at the top of the gangplank I bumped into that familiar face in the crowd—our old houseboy from two summers ago—Edward.

In a way, I felt sorry for him and Lamu as it has become the sad sack sister for Zanzibar. At any rate, I was the only mzungu getting off the dhow. In the glory days of the 80s, there would be a couple of boatloads of backpackers; verbose Aussie and Kiwis, noisy Germans and other Euros getting off. Most well-heeled nowadays head for the southern sister of Zanzibar. However, according to my later acquaintance, Derek at Lamu House, almost 30% of ex-pats have left Tanzania owing to the new president who has led Tanzania once back to the dark days of ujumaa.

Maybe too many fingers in the pot in Tanzania, so as a result, western involvement and financing are pulling out of natural gas projects in the south and other mining prospects in Tanzania.

Derek used to run a tapas bar in Stone Town, but he said Zanzibar is now overrun with hotel and cafes with huge resort projects underway and gated communities in the north of the island with Gulf Arab or Chinese finance.
He said I was lucky to see the island when it was “untouched” back in 1984. Back then you were just lucky to get on and off the island let alone find any accommodation.

Our accommodation this time in Lamu, and perhaps for many other trips to come, was a new flat my wife has rented.
A stevedore had loaded our bags onto his cart and wheeled it away at great haste. Gracie and the kids followed quickly behind and I lagged after that because of my bum knees. It was dark by the time we had reached Lamu and so off everyone went in the growing shadows.

Gracie and the kids were ahead in the dark as some of the corniche’s lights weren’t working. She left Jessica behind to guide me from the Stopover Hotel building.
We soon caught up and followed them past a hovel to an open area beside a fetid latrine and a whitewashed house.
The iron door for our flat was immense and unlocking it was a bit tricky so as to prevent anyone from bolt cutting the lock. It was the kid of unyielding door you’d find at a castle keep.
Up some uneven stairs, carved out by elves, was a two BDR with living room and a small kitchen and bathroom.
I was told the toilet was a Turkish squat toilet, but the seat for this one was six inches, if that, off the floor. It was more a sit down affair, like shitting on the floor—a bit of a contortionist act for me. I told Gracie the next time I would come, I will bring a booster seat!

Two overhead fans that would keep the mossies and flies at bay. This would be our place for the next two weeks.

Because the normal mode of transport in Lamu for the past millennium has been donkeys or asses, the jackasses are everywhere–mostly trying to bum a meal. Not a problem except at night when they start hee-hawing for some unknown reason. It would not be such a problem, but owing to the closeness of buildings, the damn beast of burden sounds like it is in the bedroom right next to you. The way they start, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking someone was being murdered–it’s very disconcerting especially when you are full-on sleeping–I was stirred from a deep sleep a number of times.

That, along with the feline’s caterwauling outside our second floor window. When you poke your nose out the window, often they are just fighting over some piece of food, but there is surely enough for every cat, but they are so tribal at times. Hell, they are all related, but judging from their carrying on, you would think not.

Owing to the time of year, at the seafront, a gale was blowing from 8am till way past midnight only dying down for the briefest of moments just before sunrise. The effect was that you felt, to some degree, sandblasted. Once out of our flat and through a winding alleyway, you were greeted by a mighty blast as soon as you entered the corniche.

I tried wearing a baseball cap, but it could easily get blown off, and I don’t know how the Swahili guys kept their kofias or Swahili caps on. The wind blew like hell all day. So much so, that the water currents were quite strong out by our favourite beach in Shela. A bit of a rip tide.

When we finally went for a swim there, it felt like you were swimming up a river; against the current. Later, I saw two older women go in, the one was content to stay where she was and her friend swam out deeper, and the last I saw of her, she had drifted about half a mile away.

Our days consisted of getting up early and running, or in my case, stumbling to Shela beach which was over an hour away. I usually took off on a 45 minute head start.
Depending on the tides, we could either take the concrete promenade to the Kuwaiti hospital, or then either run along the hard sandy shore to Shela, or at Dudu’s Villas, head up to the deep sand road that ran parallel to the coast and on to Shela.
I always opted for the shoreline, but that meant removing my sandals and going barefoot from where the pavement ended at Dudu’s Villas.

This seemed a good deal that is until my last day of walking when the high tide came in. Now my route was more like an obstacle course having to shimmy along concrete wall sections at a 45 degree angle or try walking gingerly over sharp coral sections that were near the shore. In the end, I said, what the hell, and just went into the shallow water and waded to sandier sections of the shoreline to Shela to meet up with the family.

One of the oddest sights in Lamu and Shela is the preponderance of Masaai tribesmen. Okay so this is Kenya, but these Nilotic folk are from up country. They are at home with their cattle, fresh water streams, thorn bush kraals, wide open plains and the Masaai steppe–which includes Masaai Mara Park. Not to mention being surrounded by the Big 5: lions, buffalo, elephants, giraffes, and leopards. Here in Lamu, there is just sand, salt water, fish (which they might have a taboo against) but no game or cattle.

Primarily, Masaai carry around gourds that are filled with a milk/blood concoction which they claim gives them energy to walk for miles. So speak about a fish out of water and that is what you have with these Masaai who walk to Shela every day with their tire sandals to set up makeshift tables to sell their unique beadwork in belts, necklaces, bracelets and other knick-knacks to the well-heeled tourists.

Part 2. The Road to Lamu

The Road to Lamu
The road to Lamu is not paved and barely a road–more like a dirt tract. The Tawakul bus to Lamu was jam packed and upon boarding, I wondered what was with the empty, plastic Coke cartons blocking the aisles. I assumed that they might be offering us some cold drinks en route, but as soon as the bus engine revved up, three local women promptly took their bus seat on the cartons along with their suckling babies.
It promised to be quite a trip! We had lucked out in one way because the Tawakul bus was spanking new—something of an anomaly in East Africa these days.
Nevertheless, it soon became quite a raucous affair with babies hollering, tooting buses, non-stop Swahili chatter with others on their phones, Gracie yelling at her workers all this accompanied by a background disco sound of Swahili music. The tunes were appreciated just the same.

Mind you, the pervading rolling beat was the thump thump of the corduroy road underneath—that had a steady beat to—much like the bouncing around of our arses over the rear axle.
If you were faint-hearted or suffer car sickness—this is definitely a ride to avoid. Myself, I almost felt like vomiting a few times.
I believe the road was better two years ago.

The company’s logo is something like “We fly while others run”.
Well to be honest, this is, without a doubt, was the bumpiest flight I have been on, and on that matter, the meal service would have been cut as soon as we left downtown Malindi.
Nevertheless, this rollicking ride continued and no animals were hurt during this trip. The bumps we hit jettisoned my arse off the seat a number of times.

Whenever we stopped to let passengers off, the bus was suddenly surrounded by hawkers selling hard boiled eggs with pili pili, endless bags of roasted nuts or cashews, trinkets, plastic bowls of shrimp—maybe fresh water ones, bags of apples, fresh ripe mango, unripe green mangoes sliced with pili pili, corn cobs that had been roasted on hibachis, along with huge mounds of fresh pineapples lumped haphazardly with sliced ones too.

The verdant landscape drifted by like an endless diorama of typical African village life: women in kikois carrying huge faggots of found branches, or water jugs, lugging plastic buckets of potatoes or washing while men sat around talking on dodgy wooden benches.

The majority of villages and huts on the coast are airy mud and wattle, maybe they use cow dung as an insulator.

One thing that struck me odd was a shop out in the middle of a cleared area that stood on its own. Unusual in that it was Savika’s Paint Shop. Odd in that I had not seen one painted house since leaving the metropolis of Malindi. I wondered who the customers were, but I guess the shop being locked and no crowd of people lining up to buy acrylic paint anytime soon should have been an indicator.

Something else that caught my eye is that I am always amazed at how people get off in the middle of nowhere to go to a house somewhere in the bundu.
Apparently, the locals, mostly of the Boran tribe, know the bus schedule and there was usually a small crowd waiting for loved ones to disembark and then they would all go traipsing off into the bush.

According to my wife, there is an area along this route around Witu or Kipini that is out of bounds, meaning no mobile coverage, and this is, quite often, where Al Shebab have usually struck in the past, but as I was later told, Shebab always announce ahead of time when they will attack. Maybe this is a counter ploy, so that Kenyan troops will be on the ready in one area and let down their defences in another—but that is purely speculation on my part.

In the past, we were obliged to disembark to check in with the Kenyan Army and present our documents for inspection. However, on this day, we were spared the disembarking of the bus at one of the Kenyan Army/Police outposts along the way, and I did not see the army convoy this time either.

One of Tawakul’s bus conductors just yelled “Mzungu” and grabbed my Canadian passport. I was thinking, on second thought, that this might be the last time I see it and didn’t bother informing him that the passport is not mine but the property of the Canadian government.

At any rate, as per the last time, again I was the only mzungu or “whitey” on any of the buses going to Lamu through Al Shebab country on this day, and most likely, probably any northbound bus these days.

This was the most spine-tingling, bone jarring, stomach turning bus ride I have ever been on, but then, I said that the last time I rode this bus two summers ago (silly git).
Furthermore, I was glad I insisted that Gracie not buy those heavy ceramic plates in Malindi for our flat in Lamu because they would surely been smashed to bits by the time they got to our final destination–Mokowe.

Pulling into Mokowe, there was what I took as a jail including sand bags, razor wire fencing around the perimeter. I soon realized it was a Kenyan Army outpost and a lonely one at that. I cannot think of a lonelier place to be and so far away from any immediate backup; although, I did see an army chopper flying by earlier on the trip most likely up to this forward staging base for fighting the Shebab.