March 1995 — Kenya
A Fateful Decision
I’d been in Africa for nine weeks; two very eventful months. In that relatively short time, I’d already undergone a multitude of emotions, enjoying some incredible highlights and experiencing a range of unfortunate escapades.
I’d started in Kenya, flying out to Nairobi on a one-way ticket with a vague plan, a guidebook, and not much else. It wasn’t my first time backpacking in the developing world — the previous year I’d spent three months travelling down the spine of the Andes. It was a journey that had really opened my eyes. After that, the possibilities seemed limitless. I had expanded my horizons and having sampled the delights of South America I thought I was the bee’s knees; an experienced traveller who knew exactly what he was doing. Africa wouldn’t be a problem after the likes of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, would it?
Hah! Welcome to the Dark Continent and a timely reminder of how fate tends to give us a good kick when we get too big for our boots! Like a complete rookie, tenderfoot or greenhorn — pick whichever word you want — I had been effectively and aggressively conned out of all my traveller’s cheques. And that was less than forty-eight hours after landing!
Since then my luck had seesawed from the ‘not bad’ to the ‘oh for crying out loud, really?’
On the plus side, I’d seen the ‘Big Five’ on safari in the Masai Mara, hiked up Mt Kenya, and camped by the waters of Lake Naivasha next to Hell’s Gate National Park. I’d tramped through the Cherangani Hills and visited the Kakamega forest before moving on to neighbouring Uganda.
Once there I’d trekked into the Rwenzori mountains, or ‘Mountains of the Moon’ as explorers searching for the source of the Nile had called them. That trip had had to be abandoned part way through because another hiker had fallen unconscious with mountain sickness at one of the high-altitude huts and needed to be carried down the mountain to give him a fighting chance of survival. I had volunteered as part of the evacuation party.
I’d also been in a road accident; a matatu — the native term for a minibus — had lost a wheel as we hurtled down the highway, and we had screeched down the road with the passengers wailing in terror. Nobody was hurt, but perhaps you are starting to understand what I mean about my luck?
Even my trip to view the mountain gorillas had been a damp squib; it hadn’t stopped raining for three entire days in the Bwindi forest on the Uganda border with Rwanda and the Congo. The gorillas were equally as unimpressed with the weather and had simply refused to show themselves. I had exchanged looks with a lone silverback whose expression conveyed a shared thought — what am I doing here?
My personal lowlight was perhaps rather less exciting. On the bus from Kampala to Nairobi, with fifteen hours of travel still to go, a fellow passenger sitting in front of me had vomited out of her window. I had failed to duck sufficiently quickly before the contents of her stomach shot back through my open window, and covered me in undigested cane sugar. Surely things must get better soon? I had sighed with resignation as I mopped myself up.
That was certainly my hope because I was about to push my luck a little bit more. I was back in Kenya and wanted to explore the remote north; I wanted to reach Lake Turkana, where the waters of this 160-mile-long lake are jade green. This fabulous lake was close to the border with Ethiopia, and the place names on the edges of the nearby Chalbi desert and Matthew’s mountain range in this part of the Rift Valley evoked a magic all of their own; Isiolo, Archer’s Post, Maralal and Loyangalani amongst others.
This remote region was also home to the Samburu; a warrior tribe of semi-nomadic goat and cattle herders. Closely related culturally to the Masai tribes further south, the Samburu were less well known but just as fearsome and a fascinating and colourful people.
From Nairobi, I travelled northwards by bus. Arriving in Isiolo I found I was the only remaining passenger; tourists were few and far between in this part of the country. And from here onwards the transport options were much more limited; fortunately, I managed to negotiate a ride by truck.
How can I describe the scenery? Perhaps I should compare it to the Australian Outback or the American Southwest? Having been to neither that would probably be inappropriate. Suffice to say, it was an outlandish, fantasy land of scrub and sparse trees; a dry and dusty wilderness that looked incredibly difficult to make a living in. There was water here, but it was far from plentiful and resources had to be husbanded carefully.
My journey by road ended in the small town of Wamba. That night I met the Samburu for the first time. The warriors, also called moran, typically carried both a long knife — about fifteen inches with a lethally sharp edge — and a surungu. This was a club approximately eighteen inches in length with a long narrow shaft for a handle and heavy knob or ball at the end. It could either be thrown or used as a mace in close quarters.
I was invited to visit the Samburu settlement that was located only a few minutes tramp from the town. That night the villagers were going to dance and I would have an opportunity to watch. Typically, the men dyed their hair a red ochre and adorned themselves with vibrant ornaments. Despite their tribal origins and the prevalence of Muslims in this part of Kenya, many of the Samburu had biblical names. That first night I met John, a seventeen-year-old student clad less traditionally in western-style clothing, and he became my de facto guide for the duration of my stay.
The Samburu huts were made from mud, animal hides and grass. Inside they were dim, odorous and smoky. Warriors sang together in the cramped quarters, preparing themselves for the dancing. John introduced me to his mother and we sat drinking unpasteurised milk and the locally brewed spirit water.
By the time the dancing started, the alcohol was having an effect. In the fire-lit darkness, it was difficult to see the dancing clearly, though I could see that it involved coordinated jumping to a remarkable height. I was invited to join them, but I was no match for their athleticism and soon gave up. It was an incredible night, and I felt very privileged to spend the time so intimately with them.
My experience with these intriguing people was just beginning. Over the next two days, I spent a fascinating time with them and was fortunate to witness such things as the bleeding of the cow. An important source of nourishment, several pints of blood were taken from a single beast before being mixed with milk. Once prepared, it looked just like strawberry milkshake but, as you might expect, the taste was thick and cloying with a heavy taste of iron. The Samburu would drink several pints at a sitting, but a few gulps were plenty for me. I wondered how they kept it down.
John, my ever-constant young companion was keen to take me on a safari from Wamba to the town of Baragoi. This would be a journey on foot of roughly one hundred miles across open country and through the dusty, sparse juniper forests of the Matthews mountain range. It would undoubtedly be challenging, but I was very tempted; how many people got the opportunity to do this sort of thing? I thought it would be fun; an adventure. What could possibly go wrong?
John estimated that we would cover the distance in four days, but I wasn’t convinced. Twenty-five miles a day sounds like a lot in the heat; my pack is also quite heavy, weighing in at about thirty pounds. No doubt we would see…
Day one — And So It Begins…
We set off early to make the most of the cool morning air. The terrain was reasonably flat and easy to start with, though the temperature rose quickly as the day progressed. I was going to have to watch that I didn’t dehydrate. There was very little shade and I didn’t think John understood that I would drink three to four times the amount of water that he did.
Lunch was chapattis. I don’t consider myself a fussy eater — after all I had recently consumed blood and milk mixed together almost straight from the cow. I did, however, rather detest chapattis. I found them dry and difficult to wash down. I was also starting to feel distinctly unwell and so, for better or worse, I skipped lunch.
In the afternoon, we reached a river and, stripping off, we took the opportunity to cool ourselves in the water. From where we swam, I could see cows upstream doing exactly the same; out here, everything seemed to be shared — especially water.
After a good ten hours of walking, we reached our destination for the day. It was a schoolhouse where the local children walked huge distances each day to get to the school from their remote rural homes. To be honest, I wasn’t paying a lot of attention. I was exhausted and feeling distinctly unwell.
I revived somewhat after a meal of boiled cabbage and spaghetti, washed down with the sweet, milky chai that is drunk by everyone in this part of the world. But I was beginning to wonder what I was doing there. By then I had worked out that I had giardia; contracted through contaminated water, it wasn’t difficult to self-diagnose, though I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say it isn’t pleasant. Right now, this walk was starting to look like a really bad idea.
In the morning, however, I felt much better. Giardia works like that — it goes in cycles with the laying and hatching of eggs. Anyway, there wasn’t much I could do about it right then, so I wolfed down a plate of cabbage and spaghetti for breakfast.
The second day was much a repeat of the first. The highlight of our walk was digging for water in a dry riverbed. John showed me where to dig a hole and we watched it slowly fill with the precious liquid — and bingo — there was our fresh water supply! It was somewhat opaque from the sand and mud but hopefully that had also filtered out most of the beasties; we gratefully filled our water bottles with the life-giving fluid.
We spent the second night at the manyatta of John's uncle. Typically, a manyatta is a group of huts housing about ten families. These huts are arranged in a circle around an animal enclosure constructed from frames made from closely woven sticks and saplings that are then packed with leaves and plastered with cattle dung. This enclosure is where the families bring their livestock each night for protection.
That night I slept on a bed of cowhides. Peripherally, I was aware that my odour probably matched that of my Samburu hosts. I think I could safely say that not many westerners had had this kind of experience!
Day Three — A Moment of Indecision
This is a day I will never forget. It started normally enough with a breakfast of milk fresh from the cows and goats. Our days walking began with a steady climb for the first couple of hours and then eased as we began a descent.
What happened next took me totally and completely by surprise. I was walking through the bush, about ten metres behind John; I was just enjoying the experience, allowing my mind to wander, thinking about nothing in particular. I was not ready for the chain of events that kick-started as a Samburu warrior emerged from the bush next to John.
My first reaction was merely one of interest; another Samburu in the area wanting to say hello?
No. This moran immediately began striking my young guide with his surungu and John began screaming in sudden shock and pain.
I froze, my mind numb; what was happening? A second warrior emerged from behind the first one, his eyes fixed on me. A knot formed at the bottom of my stomach; a liquid knot of fear.
I know it’s a cliché, but time slowed down. The second moran started heading towards me. Stories of people being ambushed and robbed flashed through my head — a mzungu, or white man, was by definition a rich target. One such as myself, carrying a large backpack, would undoubtedly have lots of valuables. Typically, there would be no witnesses, and no body.
Still in slow time, a number of thoughts flashed through my head, one after the other, like dominoes toppling.
Oh shit, they’re going to kill us!
Stupid, stupid, stupid!
My mum will never know where I disappeared.
I didn’t want to die.
Bugger this — if they’re going to kill me, I’m going down fighting!’
I wonder what it will feel like? Will it hurt? Will it be quick, or…
I recognised these words for what they were; my last thoughts before I died. I imagined the fifteen-inch blade of his weapon sliding into my stomach, or slashing my throat. I was at least thirty miles from the nearest road; more than that from any kind of officialdom. I didn’t have any doubts — this man in front of me, this warrior was going to kill me. Don’t get me wrong — I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. I just didn’t think I was going to win.
I hoped he wouldn’t draw it out.
I reached into my pocket for my knife — my pathetic folding four-inch lock-bladed penknife. Then I stopped for a moment in indecision. My heavy rucksack was still on my back. Should I take it off first and then draw my knife, or vice-versa? I couldn’t fight very well with my backpack on and I knew it. Both the waist and chest straps were done up and it would take a second or two to undo them.
My hand was still in my pocket, undecided.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the moment that decided life or death for me; that determined whether the chemicals in my brain would keep my synapses firing or if I would become just another piece of carrion for the vultures.
The decision was never made because the second warrior — the one who had been heading for me — suddenly hurled his surungu. I didn’t even see it; just felt a wicked blow to my head. Stunned, I fell to my knees.
It wouldn’t be long now; perhaps a few more seconds.
Then I heard shouting. When I looked up, both warriors were running off on the path ahead of us. John was walking unsteadily towards me, clearly hurt. I put my hand up to my head and could feel a huge lump the size of an egg. I realised I was in shock. I couldn’t believe they hadn’t finished us off. John was already beaten when I had seen him, and I was practically defenceless, on my knees with my useless knife out of reach and my pack hampering me.
I was confused; disorientated. The moran had their long knives and their surungus. We would have been easy meat; a seventeen-year-old boy and a mzungu on their turf. I didn’t understand what had happened; why they had run off, leaving us alive.
“They thought you had a gun.”
"They thought you had a gun,” John repeated. “One of them shouted ‘He’s got a gun!’, and they ran.”
I considered it.
“I had my hand in my pocket…”
I thought about the implications of that; of what they had shouted, and what might have happened had I pulled my hand out of my pocket with my small camp knife — if I had actually acted more quickly and decisively.
I didn’t want to think about it.
Between us, we assessed the damage. John had been struck hard on his elbow and in the mouth, and was bleeding somewhat, but wasn't incapacitated. I had a big bruise on the side of my head and was certainly in some sort of shock, but was otherwise okay.
On the downside, however, they had taken my daysack, which John had been carrying. It had contained his clothes and sleeping bag, all of our food and half of our water. Not good.
There was nothing we could do, however, except walk on. I didn’t want to; I’d had enough of our little walk in these hills, but we didn’t really have any choice.
Our main concern was that our attackers would return to finish the job — we both thought it likely. After all, what threat did we pose? They could easily watch us from the safety of the bush and we would be none the wiser. I had my knife out now, blade at the ready, but was very aware of my limitations. I had never fought for my life before; never wielded a knife in anger at somebody else. I was just a stupid Englishman who was suddenly very out of his depth.
Oh — and I had the surungu in my other hand; the one the warrior left behind when it struck my temple. I carried it, but had no idea how to really use it. He — the moran — had thrown it from maybe fifteen metres away and hit me in the side of the head with incredible accuracy. I’d be lucky to hit the side of a barn. When was he coming back to get it? I wondered.
Day three - Goat
On edge and adrenaline still pumping, we walked for about an hour like this, until arriving at a small manyatta. Here, we rested, drank water and told our story to the resident family. After a break, we carried on until we reached a larger manyatta.
Here we were welcomed and invited to spend the night; we would be safe for a few hours at least, though to be honest, I was still somewhat paranoid about everyone's intentions. When we told our story for the second time, our hosts were clearly upset at what they considered a breach of etiquette. One moran offered to sell us a goat so that we would have food when we continued our journey.
Rather ironically this gave me a second opportunity to consider the realities of death in one day. It is rare that we think about where our meat comes from. But on my word, an unfortunate goat was chosen from their small flock. I was offered the opportunity to slaughter it myself, but they sensed my hesitation (it was clearly a day of hesitations for me). In a way, I wanted to do it, just so that I could prove to myself that I could. And that I wasn’t just a squeamish mzungu tourist; I was also afraid that I would lose standing in their eyes.
But the butchers' knife was gently taken from my hand and, with a really strange feeling, I watched as the poor goat’s throat was carefully slit. I couldn’t help comparing its predicament to that of my own earlier that day as it pumped out its life-blood. Death was a reality of life here, if that isn’t a contradiction, with everything from the animal being used, including the blood, which was carefully captured in a leather gourd.
My purchase was quickly skinned and butchered; I found myself trying to name the parts as they were removed; lungs, heart, liver, stomach, intestines. John immediately took the liver away and cooked it. Within a very short time I was hungrily eating the freshest meat I’d ever eaten. I didn’t as a rule like liver, but this was an exception. It had an incredibly sweet flavour and in the circumstances, I found myself very appreciative of the meal.
John told me that it was traditional to give a leg of the slaughtered animal to the local people. Oh, is it Really? I thought. I found I didn’t mind, just as I didn’t mind their assumption that I would give them the goat’s skin. I had bought the whole goat after all, so it was mine — but what would I do with a goatskin out here?
The family we were staying with asked if I would like to sleep in their hut, which I accepted gratefully. Later I discovered that the family slept outside that night to accommodate me. I was both chagrined and humbled by this act of kindness.
And so ended what I can only describe as the most challenging day of my life. To say it had been exciting didn’t really capture the magnitude of the situation — at least for me. And we still had to get to Baragoi safely. I estimated we had about fifty miles to cover. One of the warriors offered to accompany us to the village of Latekwen the next day; he wanted 300 Shillings (about US$8 or £5 at the time) and I didn’t hesitate. What is the price of life? Perhaps I’d better ask the goat?
Day four — Time To Get Out Of Here!
The next morning we set off after a simple breakfast of chai. Following the course of the dried-up river bed, our escort set a cracking pace and I struggled to keep up; it wasn’t the first time I cursed myself for carrying far too much. I didn’t doubt that the contents of my pack had — at least in part — been the target for the previous day’s attack.
At one point, we were startled by a group of camels running up behind us; I was still very jumpy — and paranoid. I glanced at my new protector, wondering if I’d hired the fox to safeguard the chicken.
Latekwen was the only settlement of any size on our route. When we arrived at the village we were well looked after by John's aunt. For the first time in four days, I had a proper meal. News spreads fast along the bush telegraph and shortly after our arrival, the chief of the village summoned me to tell our story. Again, I sensed that the Samburu were displeased at the breach of protocol. The chief asked me to give him the surungu I had ‘acquired’ from its owner; he said it might help identify the culprit.
I handed the weapon over with some reluctance; I had very much wanted to keep it as a reminder of my unfortunate encounter. A keep-sake or aide-memoire for when I told the story in the years to come. I still regret not retaining it.
The rest of the journey passed without incident. Whilst I was still very nervous, there was little of importance to relate, save my reflections. The village chief and John’s auntie made sure we had a strong escort and we completed the remaining distance in one hit, walking through a good part of the night to avoid the heat. To this day I don’t know auntie’s name, but she was one hell of a lady!
We finally arrived in Baragoi and, exhausted, we thanked our guardian angels and found a place to bed down for the night.
The next morning, Madam Luck had one final bonus for us; as we waited outside the town for transport heading south, two British Army Land Rover’s drove past. I flagged them down and, after explaining that I was a marooned Brit the occupants offered us a lift. They looked a little askance at John’s spear, but I assured them it wasn’t a problem (although, knowing something about the armed forces, there is undoubtedly a procedure somewhere prohibiting the carriage of native spears or the picking up of idiotic civilians).
It turned out the soldiers were part of a medical unit. When I explained what I had been doing for the last few days they clearly thought I was some sort of mad lunatic. Rather ruefully, I admit I had to agree with them. According to the laws of Darwinism, I wasn’t sure how much longer natural selection would allow my continued existence; I was certainly pushing the envelope.
A few days later I was relaxing in the coastal town of Malindi, playing water polo with a group of mzungu tourists. Whilst cavorting in the water my face collided with someone’s elbow and half a molar instantly parted company with the other half.
I sighed. Sitting in the dentist’s chair later that day I reflected that Kenya seemed to be a hive of misfortune for me. Maybe it was time I moved on. Should I stick or twist?
I sent my mum a postcard, caught a bus to Mombasa and paid for passage riding atop the cargo of a small dhow bound for Zanzibar.
What could possibly go wrong?
And so ended a short but eventful episode of my life. For me, it was undoubtedly an epic chapter — monumental even. For everyone else — other than John, perhaps — not so much. My friends in the UK, waking up and getting ready to go to work knew nothing of my escapade. What would they think if they knew?
Of course, I am not the first to have such an experience. It happens all the time. Someone, somewhere, is probably experiencing that knot of fear right now. I was lucky enough to have survived my encounter in one piece. Many will not have.
Those moments — those few seconds in the middle of this tale — happened half a lifetime ago. I will remember them forever. As time slowed on that fateful day, I can recall every nano-second as clearly today as I did then. I remember the heat and the smell of the dusty earth, the sudden shock of seeing other people in such a remote and wild place. The realisation that all was not well. I remember my hesitation; a moment of indecision that almost certainly saved my life. And even now I wonder at the chance of that precise moment in time — the slender thread upon which my life — and that of my guide, John — hung.
I am grateful that I lived. And from that day to this, I realise how tenuous a grip each of us has on the miracle that is life. As a result of my experience, I try to live my life to the full. Perhaps that’s why I got on that dhow, having signed a waiver saying I wouldn’t blame the captain or Kenyan government if I happened to die on the journey.
And my luck changed with that dhow ride. From then on, things began to swing my way. I spent another six months in Africa, travelling from Tanzania, through Malawi and Zimbabwe, circling back through South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. And I can confidently say that my sojourn in Africa changed me as a person more than any other place I have visited. I learnt to appreciate life in all its forms. I’m still not perfect — far from it. But I like to think that my time on that challenging and magnificent continent had a valuable effect on me.
Two years later I met the woman who would become my wife. Our two teenage children will soon be looking to leave home and have adventures of their own. None of this would — could— have happened if I had taken my hand out of my pocket on that fateful day. Will one of them, somewhere, someday be thinking ‘my mum will never know…’? With all my heart, I hope they don’t have to experience that.