Running for the Hills

Running for the Hills


Once again, I found myself in the now familiar surroundings of a plush mahogany office in the upper floors of the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure, facing a pear-shaped official with the suspicious-eyed look of a guilty man.  My experience over several months tells me that the mutual benefit gained from information sharing and open collaboration is as familiar to him as to the lone rhinos lumbering across the southern plains.

I sit before him, olive branch in my hand, imaginary white cat purring in his, trying everything in my armoury to convince him that we are actually trying to help the Ministry, and that the Ministry’s support on a number of key requests would improve the quality of that work:

“Thanks very much for your support over the last six months” (You’ve been a very unhelpful, and we’ve managed our work despite your time-wasting)

Silence. (Cat raises an eyebrow)

“We’re very keen to move forward, and are pleased to share our ongoing project plans with you” (I’ll try every possible way to get this done with or without you)

Did we approve these plans?” (Cat hisses)

“No, I’m asking you to do so now.” (And have been doing so for two months)

You can’t just arrive in my office and expect me to approve them” (Cat tenses claws)

“You’ve had them for a month” (You clearly have no problem rapidly signing off large sums of money for dubious projects)

“There is a long process of consultation” (Cat coils the hind legs)

“We’re concerned that the quality of our output will reduce if we miss this window of opportunity” (How the hell did anyone ever respect you enough to hand you such a senior position?)

“Yes, but you can’t just arrive in my office and expect me to approve them” (Cat casts a final eye over the prey)

“The plans have been on the table for the long time, and we are acting under the Principal Secretary’s directive at the last meeting to move as quickly as possible on these issues” (Yes I’m waiting for it, you unoriginal prick)

“There is a long process of consultation” (Cat curls up and continues preening himself)

“Well, we’ll do our best to move things forward, you’ve been very helpful” (I’m pretty sure the carjacking baboons have a better influence on Nairobi’s transport problems)

Of course, the Hon. Mr. Pear is not a unique character – I have encountered such fruits from across the continent – from Liberia to Congo, from Sierra Leone to South Africa – even Uganda, charming pearl of Africa; and closer to home, in Kent or London.  I console myself that such men must live in the cage of protectiveness and paranoia that they have built for themselves.  (Cat shits in Mr. Pear’s lap). 

Of course, Kenya’s institutions are also full of men (and a few women) of integrity. Mr. Pear’s subordinate, Engineer Ruti (for the prefix ‘Engineer’ is always used as a term of respect for the qualified man here) is such a gem. Hard-working to a fault, and highly experienced in running projects around his unwilling superior, he has a dream of one day being flown by his son,who is in the early days of training as a commercial pilot. We meet me every Tuesday morning just after sunrise, and Ruti pauses our meeting for a carefully worded prayer before we can take the first sip of tea. He tells me a story of a friend of his – a County Executive member (who have recently won a long political wrangle for access to Kenya’s purse strings), who lost his career and livelihood over a bribe of a few hundred shillings.  Ruti’s own problem is that he has far too many projects – the curse of a Ministry man who gets things done – and nor will he rise to the top floor, but he is one who gives me hope for Nairobi.

Tired of Mr. Pear, I ran for the hills, like the embattled Brits of Nairobian yesteryear.  Two and a half kilometres up on the high plateaus above the Kerio Valley, to the High Altitude Training Centre run by former World Record holder Lornah Kiplagat.  The centre is a true temple to her art form, a quiet paradise fuelled on maize and spinach, where there are three rules: eat hard, sleep hard, and run hard – and, in the high season, an unofficial Olympic village for the running elite.  Such is the devotion to their skill, that Lornah tells me she turned away a journalist who approached her about the remarkable story of Palestinian and Israeli athletes training together.

On Saturday morning, I darted out from the hive with all the other runners, beating down on the hard red earth behind some gliding teenage pacemakers, who said nothing and sweated even less.  The next morning, I flew through some 200 and 400m sprints on the new London Marathon-sponsored track, only to discover that one of the runners had a 15-year old daughter running my times.   Concerned to be shown up by more teenage girls, I skived the gym session in front of the television – and was awestruck as the Algerian who had occupied my room only days before sped to a silver medal at the weekend’s global athletic meet in Doha.

Deserving some mental respite from this pilgrimage of humility, I settled down to a well-earned Sunday beer as the morning chill burned off, only to be scolded by the great Kiplagat, who was returning from several hours at church before hitting the gym.

In her spare time, Lornah funds the construction of a girl’s boarding school in Iten.  She tells me that the involvement of the County, who were devolved significant political and monetary powers last year, extended as far as chastising her for not building a larger project.  Of course, rather than succumbing to these demands for a white elephant, Lornah has a refreshing approach to sustainability, unavoidable if you are from the community in which you work.

In fact, it reminded me that I have seen good political leadership in Kenya: recently, for example, after three months of waiting, five minutes of clear decision-making in one meeting has rejuvenated the energies of twenty organisations working for the much-needed improvements to public transport in Nairobi.  The only problem is that they are few and far between: too many decisions rest with too few men, who do not have the time to make them all or follow them all through for the long run.  Kenya needs a more balanced hierarchy, a healthy pyramid of delegation and responsibilities, giving more empowerment to the Lornahs and Rutis.  There are justifications for the big men – colonial histories, personal histories, extended families of Pears to support – but it is when I see those who lead by integrity and example that the excuses crumble around them.

At the end of this African chapter, one more pilgrimage awaits: that quintessential experience that has continued to elude me: Wide-eyed as a baby buck, this weekend I shall finally join the migration of the Homo Privilegianus into the Maasai Mara.

Bells and Scouting

Bells and Scouting


A warm sea breeze blows strong through the whitewashed concrete louvres, where the high sun brings light and colour flying in from the palm trees with the nesting birds.  A weathered frame of thick wooden beams occupies the centre of the room, and a dusty stack of ropes and timber lies above the narrow ladder from the chamber below.  A blizzard of white dots on the floor, amongst the tired plastic bags and debris from the nesting birds, indicates painters who know that this high perch is not often frequented.

Looking through the narrow slats to the blue sky and white sand outside, the serenity erupts in the clash and whirl of metal and wood.  We are at Kilifi, on Kenya’s Swahili coast – past the miles of cement factories and sisal plantations stretching north of Mombasa; past the resorts where locals marvel at western hedonism; and host to a collection of sleepy county government offices and occasional round-the-world yachtsmen.

The ringing in my ears is loud enough to have broken eardrums, driven mad and even killed the unfortunate characters locked up the tall fenland towers in the novels of Dorothy L. Sayers.  In the belfry in Kilifi, although the whirling hundredweights of bronze could still punish a careless move, the higher notes of the smaller bells are blown easily through the louvres with the warm breeze, a call to prayer for a devout community.  The Anglican church of St Thomas, sharing the architectural lines and angles of Cambridge colleges from the 1960s, is full every Sunday for three services a day.  The devout congregation sits in the close rows of wooden pews, facing the choir and the familiar large cross, and looking out not to stone walls, but to sand, grass and palms, where the year-round tropical heat sees no need for walls.

Today, the congregation have been informed that the sound of the bells requires no Sunday best, but is symbolic of something unique about their coastal church community.  Kilifi has the only ring of church bells in East Africa that are hung and rung for traditional English bell ringing – In England, this is taken for granted: the familiar singing of the wedding bells that are installed in nearly every parish church.  In Kilifi however, where the bells were installed in last year of colonial authority, ringing has perpetuated in isolation for half a century from any other practitioners of this art – musicians who have not seen another orchestra play for twenty years.

Downstairs, where the colourful ropes shoot up through the ceiling, only to reappear moments later, and where the connection between motion and sound is baffling to the uninitiated, I nervously take my rope, conscious under the watchful eyes of the local band that a mistake would undermine the credibility of their long awaiting training day.   Thankfully, after a few bumpy strokes on these unknown bells, and 6000 miles from home, the familiarity of a childhood knowledge returns to me: the physical setting of a dusty room up and away from the ceremony and seriousness of the church service; the unmoving faces of pure concentration from the circle of ringers; and the settling of the stern internal focus that is required for this unusual combination of music, physical balance, and numerical patterns.

Throughout the morning, it emerges that the local bellringers, amazingly, ring to a higher standard than most English churches.  From the retired village elders to John, suave young NGO worker, or Fiesta, the devout local pastor with a chunky metal necklace and gangland t-shirt, the enthusiastic band retains a far healthier profile than many UK counterparts.  Furthermore, it becomes apparent that they have an unusual musical ability, ringing more by ear than the usual means of timing pulls by sight of the surrounding ropes.  The explanation emerges over beef stew and ugali: under the palm leaf-shelter on a windy hilltop, the band puts on an impromptu, choral performance of well-known gospel tunes, crisp and clean notes floating over the fence to the neighbouring hospital.

Nestled in the foothills of the Aberdares, where Queen Elizabeth famously learned of her accession, the carefully tended lawns and secret gardens of the Outspan Lodge in Nyeri are a far cry from the heat, bustle humidity of the Indian coast.  The colonial terrace of wickerwork chairs looks over to Mother Earth’s breast – a wide dome stretching from end to end of the middle African horizon, and capped by the prominent nipple of Mount Kenya.

The Outspan, tired resting place for colonial romantics, houses a humble cottage in its grounds, by the name of Paxtu, or ‘complete’ in Swahili, last resting place of a powerful Lord of the realm – Lieutenant-General, Boer-war leader, and founder of the global Scout Movement – Robert Baden-Powell. “There is an old African legend about the majestic bull elephant. When he realizes that death is near, he returns deep into the darkest jungle. There he dies hidden from the world” – here, I am taken aback by the intimate nature of the small room in which a powerful man lived out his last days.  Amongst the colourful scarves and badges, familiar to childhood memories from around the world, the dimly lit also contains a number of pencil drawings, postcards from a devotee to the children of his empire.

This weekend, there is a different kind of safari on offer.  We drive slowly through the wild throngs, window open, shutter finger at the ready, looking for the perfect framing of the young animals in their native surroundings.  At home, this would land me in prison, but in Kenya, we are accosted by proud adults wanting photographs of their polite and curious entourages – for this weekend is the 157th birthday of Lord Baden-Powell, and Nyeri is a mecca for young Scouts.  There is an air of enthusiasm, framed by the optimistic words of the Scouting values etched in stone on the path up to Baden-Powell’s grave: ‘Trustworthy; Loyal; Useful; Friendly; Courteous; Kind; Considerate; Cheerful’. Many of the scout groups have prepared displays, framing Baden Powell’s austere figure with images of Rihanna, Manchester United and Eminem.

The next morning, far above the Paxtu plains where the herds of scarved young animals were migrating home, the earth got redder and darker with every metre of altitude. With the sun rising behind Mount Kenya, we took a white-knuckle ride past the climbing lorries, up to the merino sheep, onion field and dairy farming of the cold highlands, through the mossy trees of the upper rainforest, until our driver cheerfully announced the start of the ‘Kenyan massage’ as the rocky tracked turned on upwards.

Our target was Lesatima, at 4,000m the highest point of the Aberdares, high above the dangers of the elephant and buffalo crashing through the bamboo forest below, a barren Scottish moorland frequented only the occasional hyena, and broken by the triple cacti of the American Mid-West.   I couldn’t help wishing that we had spotted some scouts up here playing at being cowboys – but in Kenya nature is not free, and comes with expensive bills for rangers, landcruisers, and park permits.

Samson is our giant ranger, with tall cheekbones, a broad smile, and hands that no poacher wants to be caught in.  Supporting a wife and children in Western Kenya, he is highly educated (it is highly competitive to become a ranger), and walks daily amongst the hippoes, lions, elephants and rhinos of the lower park, monitoring their health and movements.  He intimately knows the dangers and daily behaviours of each animal, how to track with the wind and the ground, how to approach and not provoke, and how to know when something is amiss in the herds.   He counts himself infinitely fortunate to have been selected as a ranger, although he volunteers a fear of dealing with an incident if one of his tour groups was ever taken sick in the high moorlands, and sees a solution in the construction of a hotel below the summit of the mountain.  Samson doesn’t want to use his gun on animal or human, but has done so on several occasions – for poachers more heavily armed than himself, or for animals that repeatedly destroy crops.

In the Kenya Wildlife Service, Samson has listened to tour groups from all continents, and has worked for masters white and black – like many Kenyans, he is frustrated with what he sees as a decline in good management and leadership by example.  Schooled in the East African post-colonial experience, I was shocked to hear this Kenyan say, unequivocally and undoubtedly contrary to the prevailing political, academic and popular views in Kenya, that he thought that his country should be colonised again.  Realistically of course, the picture is far more complicated – 50 years have passed under the bridge, and perhaps it tends to be easier to live in a romanticised history than to engage and find solutions to the problems of the day.

A Guide to Urban Wildlife

A Guide to Urban Wildlife


High up in the Ministry of Transport & Infrastructure, reaching for the gods above the aromas of the breakfast café and hidden from the worker bees toing and froing on the lower floors, lies the office of the Principal Secretary.  Down the corridor, round the bend, under the falling plaster, and behind the faux plywood walls, we sat sipping milky tea and watching the sun set over Nairobi, waiting for Danish.  Not a nation of free-minded continentals, nor even a tasty pastry swirl, but the PS’ chief diary man.  One hour turns into two, until the tea is long gone, and each fold of the Kenyan flag and each polished turn of the mahogany grain is filed in the part of the memory that pushes the useful stuff out.

After a month of pre-confirmation, confirmation, and confirmation of the confirmations, the attendance of the Principal Secretary at tomorrow’s major workshop on urban transport in Nairobi is not confirmed.  Whilst the worker bees file out of the iron gates, we survive a long interrogation that could only come from a Kenyan version of ‘Yes Minister’ (“Was your request for the Principal Secretary’s presence signed by the Principal Secretary?”), and the charming Danish turns his attentions to negotiations with his university friend.   As day turns to night, the word is out that the PS has returned from the opening of Nairobi’s newest railway station, and the champagne cork of awaiting delegates explodes through the door to his ante-room.   Inside the main office, where padded leather walls are supposedly indicative of status and not madness, the Principal Secretary, with his warm Cheshire Cat grin, effused support for our little enterprise – before registering a no show at the workshop the next day.

One of the issues up for discussion was the Kenyan Police, the elephant in the transport room.  The police stand on the new signalised junctions on the Kenyan equivalent of the M1, where signal timings have been carefully calculated to optimise traffic flows, and direct traffic to disobey the lights as they wait for their political puppetmasters to speed through to their meetings, whilst Nairobi’s congestion is estimated to reduce Kenya’s GDP by 2%.  On the way home from the workshop, we were stopped by two policemen on a side road.  There is a ritual, an established etiquette where dignity dictates that bribery is not mentioned up front.  We stepped out of the car (taking care to hold onto the keys), and responded to the offence in question.

“Did you know this is a one-way street?”

“No, the signing is not clear, but sorry, we are just in Kenya for one week”. Most definitely not a car load of long term transportation experts advising the Ministry of Transport on road safety issues.

“You need to come to the local police station” No chance my friend, you’d get less money that way.

More dancing. “You are English?  From where? My brother is in Manchester”.  I suspect there are brothers in Mombasa, Kampala, Paris, Beijing, New York and Stockholm when the occasion demands.

“Really, I’m a great supporter of Manchester United.  Tough season this year.  Your brother a footballer? Fantastic, I’m sure he would do better than David Moyes”.

“Maybe, my friend, we can help you out”

“That’s very kind, what sort of proposition do you have”

“We are policemen, we don’t earn much” (Kenyan police salaries have tripled in recent years). “Perhaps you can help us with dinner?”

“How much do you need for dinner?”

“100,000” (about £800)

“We’ll give you 1,000” (about £8).

“Thank you, enjoy your dinner”

“You too”.  And off we went against the flow up the one-way street.

The weekend, as is so opportune of Kenya’s central geography, offers a move from the urbane to the rural.  Today’s journey starts with taxi driver Moses ‘four-jags’ Mwangi, who is lamentably unable to part a causeway through the Red Sea of Nairobi’s traffic, but who sources a different car every day, certain that the newest is ‘the one’ he will settle down with.  This morning, even a man of my short stature is forced into contortions to access the passenger seat of a low slung sports model, glassless wing mirror awry, and that vibrates with the force of a propeller-driven aircraft engine as it climbs through the pine forests towards Mount Longonot.

Moses had been carjacked seven times, which he regards as somewhat average in Nairobi, and neither better nor worse than 10 or 20 years ago.  On three of those occasions, he was forced into boot whilst the gang drove around committing robberies. On the remaining four, his car was taken and left somewhere else in town.  There seems to be a code among pirates here: on all seven occasions, Moses was able to recover his car, and has never been subjected to more than a slap.

There is an underworld in Nairobi, like Engels’ Manchester, that is little seen or heard, and perhaps heeded even less.  Every day, with the crowd of suits heading to the Central Business District, I walk past a group of street children playing in the drainage ditches of the new Japanese Western Link Road.  In Nairobi, you fend for yourself. One night, on a late drive home, I passed a corpse lying in the road, cars wavering past him, not stopping and slowing little.  I had no number for an ambulance, and drove around in vain hunting for police to inform.  This was no down-and-out, but a well-dressed man, probably hit by a drunk driver, but whom Nairobians presumably judge to have taken the ultimate responsibility for his moment of mistaken judgement.

From the summit of Mount Longonot, we looked down to a Lost World, where the steep sides of a perfect volcanic crater protects a forest unsullied by even the most determined of Nairobi’s social descenders.  The 2700m peak stands alone, pimple on the Rift Valley, beautiful arse of Mother Earth, shared with the geo-thermal vents spewing life-giving excretions from her inner machines. Lungs full of dust and life after chasing schoolchildren through the twisting ridge-top gullies, we found a church service under a tin shack on the crater edge paying homage to this creational vista.

The ride northward continues to attack the senses: through the lurching dust devils, past the bicycles stacked to the sky with wickerwork chairs; patiently held up by Africa’s real zebra crossings, and arrested by the birds of prey stealing away the rodents running through a roadside refugee camp.  Our arrival in Mogotio is signalled by the military rank and file of the sisal plantations, which thrive in semi-arid environments, and whose cactus-like lower leaves, woven into baskets in Kenya, are exported by the Chinese for their fibrous qualities.

In Mogotio, the children of the plantation workers are educated at the village primary school, a courtyard of dirty stone classrooms bearing the motto ‘Better your Best’.  The issues faced by the school are common in rural East Africa: poor parents, infrequent government payments, lack of teacher training, and an inability to save sufficient funds for improvement and upkeep of infrastructure.  However, a low starting point often means that such rural schools can develop fast and become sustainable, given some financial kick-starts, and the right factors of leadership and continuity.

On the way back to Nairobi, we flew in with the pelicans and flamingos to the shoreline of Lake Nakuru, where the cormorants perches on the inundated roadsigns of a newly submerged road.   In front of a sleeping rhino, CEO of the Nakuru plains, I had my first encounter with a secretary bird, naively assuming that it was tall bird’s attire and proud nature that had given rise to an obvious name, learning instead that the viscous nature with which it stamps on its prey is likened to a taloned secretary punching bile into the keyboard.  And oddly reminded me of some of the most preening of our mahogany-polishing civil servants from the upper echelons of the Ministry.

Indeed, the character of the animals is as varied as Kenya’s people: the old buffaloes looking knowingly on under their judges wig; the vain zebra, Nairobi’s fashion-conscious man-about-town, who stood, one metre from the lens, angling his neck for twenty minutes for the best light on his pretty face; the thieving baboons, cunning and self-appointed policemen of the plains; or the angry safari ants, the disenchanted gang of the city, who attacked us as the stars blazed across the night sky.  As she has treated curiosity from Joseph Conrad to Karen Blixen and beyond, Africa continues to take the pillion adventurer on a bouncy boda ride from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Through the Thin Glass

Through the Thin Glass


I’ve always been a fan of African flying –the informality and closeness of small planes, the crisp early morning vistas or the scurry through the sunset as the pilots try to squeeze the most from their daytime hours, the typically weary airstrips over the jungles and through the hills, and the excited round of applause every time the plane alights on the red earth.

This week’s flight was no exception, with the early morning start opening a causeway through the usual congested sea of Nairobi’s matatus, Mercedes and motorbikes.  Even Nairobi’s dreaded airport seems to smile in the early morning, although the general consensus is that operations are considerably improved since this summers’ fire burned down the main terminal.  Our destination was Eldoret, Kenya’s fifth largest town town, sprawled like spilt wine over the blanket of Kenya’s western highland plateau, where a potent mix of altitude and aspiration (mixed with some desperation and a little EPO) produces many a wiry legend of distance running.

Through the traffic jams and past the morning runners, our next destination was Kapenguria, and a small museum paying homage to the Kapenguria Six.  Led by Jomo Kenyatta, father of independent Kenya and of the current president, the Kapenguria Six were imprisoned for seven years by the colonial authorities for their part in the Mau Mau rebellions over land rights.  The faded posters on the cell walls provided a powerful and emotionally charged account of the injustices they suffered at the hands of colonial authorities, along with a proud snapshot of Kenya’s political honeymoon.   Facing the politician’s den was a small wooden shed that had no obvious context in a historical museum.

Behind the thin glass windows lay a gabon viper – lazy, replete, disproportionate in girth, and accompanied by a black mamba, dark tongue and quick eyes awakening the fear of its poisonous reputation.  Maybe it is Kenya’s viper that lies quiet as Kibera’s landlords make 100% profit on their slum rentals (90% of dwellings in an area of nearly half a million residents); or the mamba that strikes when the political elite buy up swathes of land around Kenya’s newest transport corridor (Thika Highway).  I knew the glass would not withstand an attack from either snake – but I suspected that both were comfortable enough, and was left contemplating the museum curator’s creative sense of humour.

Touch chicken and sweet tea bought our own comfort, peering out from the smoke-blackened kitchen at the steady stream of wellington boots on the muddy sidewalk, before jumping back in the Red Cross landcruisers for our onward journey in the highland rain.  For six hours our small convoy wound through the hills, stopping only for the sweet bananas sold by the cheery and beaded womenfolk of Western Pokot, and for the raging torrent of the Kerio river, where a crash barrier hanging into the ravine below told a story of past tragedies.

Eventually, following the churning rapids downhill towards Sudan and the Nile, we were spat out into the wide scrublands and sandy ravines of the Great Rift Valley, before coming to an abrupt halt in the thorn bushes.

We had arrived at the edge of the Great Rift, looking up at a wall of dusty green as the hills rose from the plains, and where our road became two concrete rails, winding on and up to the sinuous ridge-top village of Marin.  Reaching gradients of 30%, these foot-wide castings were the cheapest option for access to a mobile phone mast looking coastwards over Western Kenya, and provide the only route into the Sekker valley.  After ten kilometres, the rails peter out, and the road, a treacherous rocky staircase, weaves along the ridge, before twisting downwards off the col as the last huts of the village cede to the steepening forest walls.

For two kilometres, the rain drove on, and we bounced onwards, sliding and spinning through the worst of the mud, tossed like rag dolls over the rocks and through the streams, until we finally came to a halt beside a knitted tangle of thorny fencing.   A tentative hike up the road ahead revealed that, whilst the cars would slide down, they would be unable to return through the mire, and passengers would need to become packhorses.  Laden with water, food and clothing, ever conscious of our status as princes and princesses of the town come to play at being country mice, we slipped and skidded down the slope, through the driving rain and the maize fields under the gaze of the watchful villagers.

Our destination was a small lodge on the outskirts of the village, enclosed by the steep valleys on all sides, where the eye is drawn upwards to the summit Mount Mtelo, sacred to the Pokot villagers, and at 3336m Kenya’s little known fifth highest mountain.

The lodge, boasting the only burned brick buildings in the settlement, is managed by a congenial and engaging young father named John.  John was a bright spark at the village primary school – so much so that the village, all subsistence farmers with very limited financial means, clubbed together to send him to secondary school, one hundred kilometres away in Kitale town.  Secondary school proved successful, and John, still with the financial and moral backing of his village council, won a coveted and unprecedented place at university in Nairobi.

Unfortunately, the villagers’ resources could not stretch to John’s third and final year at University, and, with his new wife in tow, he was forced to drop out, and return to Sekkerto contemplate his future.  Clearly, John is inventive and resourceful, and in Nairobi he had added some business acumen and a network of student friends.  Learning a little about the tourist industry, and the direct view to the summit of the mountain from the small patch of family land in the lap of Mtelo, he decided to build a lodge.  After ten years of slow, incremental development, the lodge is now a collection of a brick living room, a few round huts, a palm-roofed terrace, and John’s humble living quarters.  Business is slow for John – marketing is difficult from such a location, and not many tourists will brave the concrete rails into Pokot’s highlands.

John believes that he owes a debt to his villagers: any benefits from his business are pumped back into the village, eliciting a gasp of surprise from our vehicle-owning Nairobian companion, in the form of water projects, classrooms, employment and knowledge.  And, if the cheerful greetings we received as we struck out through the village the next morning are any indication, they are grateful for his efforts.

Our mountain guide for the 11 hour ascent of Mount Mtelo is John’s younger brother, the aptly named Hillary.  Our Everest man, sporting a timeworn National Geographic fleece and the brown smile of a sugar cane grower, tells me he is 24, educated to primary school level, and happily married for eight years.

On the slopes, whilst he is running to and fro to keep the troops on the right path, I discover that Hillary is a fell runner of unquestionable talent – sure-footed, rapid and experienced in the conservation of energy.  Born and raised above two thousand metres, Hillary climbs Mtelo five times a month, can summit in under two hours, and also has a good tactical brain for racing and pacing – I naively began to suspect that I might have discovered the next Wilson Kipsang.   However, there are two obstacles to Hillary’s athletic development: first, the standards are simply higher in Pokot – it emerges that Hillary used to race with reasonable success, at district and county championships – but he never won major races, and never captured the eye of a business-savvy backer.  For every Kenyan highland talent, there are thousands who will train harder and run faster to work their way out of poverty, and very few who will succeed.  Secondly, I sense that, working in a carpenter’s store, and winning an occasional 50-200Ksh per day in the gold lottery when he is not climbing Mtelo, Hillary has no reason to give up his life in the mountains.

Thus ably guided, the ascent of Mtelo first took us down, fighting the cattle herds for space and footing on the chewed mud down to the river crossing, then negotiating the submerged stepping stones barefoot or scampering after the children across a fallen tree trunk high above the water.  Accompanied by two of the most persistent village children, we continued through the terraces of maize, over the gateways of tangled branches, and emerged onto a green shoulder of wind-stripped tree trunks overlooking Sekker to the south, the Rift Valley to the East, and Mtelo above.  If it were a border in West Africa, I felt sure the goatherders would be exchanging the conflict diamonds of lowland gunmen, watched only by the free-riding birds and the children trying to stop their football running away.

Through the bamboo forest and past the blackened ashes of a campsite used only by Hillary, and pausing only to check on a tree he had symbolically planted for a friend, we continued into the thick jungle so characteristic of Africa’s misty mountains.  Stopping to look at the footprint of an antelope, the jungle erupted into action as a family of Colobus monkeys, with their wise old beards forseeing the coming flight of arrows from the Sekker hunters, took great youthful leaps between the springing branches.

Above the tree line, and after a final breathless kilometre of beating up the stream beds and through the encroaching bushes, we emerged on the summit, and overlooking Uganda to the west and the Rift Valley to the east, joined hands in a traditional Pokot song:  two Canadians, two Japanese, two village children on their first trip up the mountain, one Nairobian who had never climbed a mountain, one Kenyan agriculturalist from a distant county, one hopeful Pokot carpenter-cum-gold prospector, and a wandering Brit in desperate need of a sugary cup of tea.

Watching the Wheels Turn

Nairobi: Watching the Wheels Turn


To cut a long story short, Nairobi has major transport issues.  With a population approaching four million, it is East Africa’s major centre for commerce, through which 67% of Kenya’s GDP is channelled.  For anyone working in the Central Business District, getting to work can take three hours of sitting in traffic jams; there is no significant ring road; planning is chaotic at best; and road fatalities in some areas are 1 per day.  The main artery for cargo for Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, South Sudan and Congo passes directly through the centre of town, through several junctions at which no-one obeys the lights; and where red and green are offered at the same time.  The economic clock ticks away whilst Nairobi’s workers wait in traffic queues, whilst the poorest are limited to work that can be found within considerable walking distances.

Our job is to make sense of this, and to provide a plan of action for Nairobi’s politicians and donors.  It’s a new way of working for me – we are consultants whose tool is the pen and not the project.  And this is a hard line to tow – Nairobi has waited too long for some a solution.  There are many donors willing to throw money at Nairobi’s traffic jams, and many engineers, Kenyan, Chinese, Japanese and European alike, chomping at the bit for interesting highways construction projects.

Here, London’s lesson is an interesting one.  Thatcher famously proposed turning the M25 into a ten-lane superhighway.  Instead, TfL was formed and money spent on public transport, and London has been transformed.  In Nairobi, roads are being built, but new roads are filled quicker than they can be built, whilst public transport use has dropped from 30% of all trips to just 4%.  Simple arithmetic tells us we must focus on public transport: one bus, 50 passengers, takes the roadspace of 6 matatus (minibuses) or 50 private cars.  The railways did not fare much better in Moi’s Kenya: a railway line through Kibera (the ‘Lunatic Line’ of 1903 which lost 2500 workers during construction) offers huge potential for slum dwellers, but there is now one passenger train a day and a lack of operational stations. I am meeting with Kenya Railways next week – hoping to dissect real progress from aspiration.

And to implement any sort of functioning public transport system: a realistic economic service model will need to persuade operators to invest; engineering projects will need to incorporate facilities for public transport and non-motorised users; the considerably powerful matatu lobby (owned by politicians and criminal gangs) will need to be offered viable alternatives; and traffic enforcement (and police corruption) will need to be addressed. The engineering is the easy part, but it is political will that will give Nairobi a transport system.  There is a long road of institutional reform and capacity building ahead – such was the loss of capacity in the 1990s that there is very little experience in the management of formal public transport systems.

I enjoy finding my stereotypes challenged – and my red education has led me to be suspicious of the World Bank, with its culpability in the structural adjustment legacy for Africa. The jury is still out, but first impressions suggest that this is no longer the World Bank that crushed African state infrastructure in the 1980s: in the transport sector, they talk the language of institutional capacity building, of patience and investment for long term growth; and of operational and maintenance considerations.  They were quick to advise the early engagement of the matatu drivers, and to suggest they be provided formal training and jobs as bus drivers, and brought to the table considerable wisdom and experience of bringing order out of similar chaos in other cities from Accra to Sao Paulo. Conspicuously absent from the table were the Chinese, who, it seems, build the roads they want and have little interest in wider coordination/planning.  And through JICA, Japan have impressed – strong on engagement, welcoming offices, and they have got further than anyone else in producing, with the Kenyan government, a comprehensive urban masterplan for Nairobi.

However, as promised: away from Kenya’s troubles and politics, is where many foreigners and locals alike seem to find their peace – in the country’s outstanding natural beauty.  Our morning began watching the clouds burn off the Great Rift Valley – a landscape of a scale that cannot fail to take your breath away.  The vastness is accompanied by the weight of history, and our conversation swung from the branches around the half-ape, half human Australopithecus who first came down from the trees four million years ago.

Deeper into the Great Rift and we continued our pilgrimage to Hell’s Gate, a tightly carved gorge into the belly of the world, where hot water pours from the sandstone seams, and whose name comes from the legend of the Maasai village destroyed by its devastating flash floods.  The morning rains didn’t change my expectations of a gloomy boat trip and a three headed-dog – but, who would guess that you can cycle up to the gates of Hell.  And, instead of Cerberus, Hell is guarded by giraffes, buffalo, impala, gazelle, baboons, hyraxes, and herds of zebra – our brave peloton was impeded only, as one might expect on a Sunday ride back home, by zebra crossings.

Winding through the sinuous intestines of Africa’s underbelly, and you are spat out, blinking and dazed in the sunlight, before climbing, up and up through the purgatory of dust and acacia thorns, to your place in heaven:  a high rocky perch at the right hand of God, where Simba himself must have roared, looking down on this paradisical kingdom.

Mildly disappointed by the no-show of pearly gates and justice scales, the journey home made it clear that there was still a biblical message to impart: the scene of a small herd of goats forming a local council under a dusty rock outcrop left me awaiting a bearded Michael Palin to leap out yelling about juniper berries.   ‘Enough’, I thought, ‘let me turn back to the world we inhabit’, and struck up a conversation with our guide, a kindly engineering student who enjoyed his weekend work in the hills.   His name turned out to be Jehovah.

Finally, we took a much needed meal on the shores of Lake Naivasha.  But this is no ordinary location.  We ate with the Colobus monkeys playing in the purple trees above us, and strolled through the lagoons on the lake shore, amongst the water bucks, ibis, egrets and pelicans.  It is no wonder George and Joy Adamson made their home here – beauty so rich that I could even be found humming the Born Free jingle.