Congo what? Congo-Brazzaville!

Never in my wildest imaginations thought I would come here. I have been to Congo – Kinshasa many times, rather the big nation, The Democratic Republic of the Congo (former Zaire). But the other Congo, The Republic of Congo, just across the might river has always been a vague entity.

But thanks to some business, I landed in Brazzaville, the capitol of the Republic of Congo.

The consulate in Nairobi gave me a visa in a record 30 minutes. The ladies in charge of the the visa section did not talk much. Took the documents, the fee and I was on my way.

I landed at Maya Maya airport and regretted skipping my college French lessons. Yes, they proudly speak French here.

Brazzaville is a pleasant city on the shores of River Congo. Across the river, you can see Kinshasa, the capitol of The Democratic Republic of Congo. It is actually a five-minute ride by a motorised boat between the two. The two cities are the closest capitols in the world.

At times I would have lunch or dinner at Mami Water, a famous restaurant and watch over the other city or fishermen in the river.

Brazzaville is small – well done streets and amazing architecture. One of its major features is the Pont du Août 5 bridge, a 560-metre cable-braced viaduct. It is a wonderful piece of art. And every Sunday they close the road to the bridge to all vehicle moment and let the people walk and enjoy. On this day, you will find families, joggers, lovers, photographers and choirs in practice.

On the southern part of the city stands the concave Nabemba Tower, the tallest building (30 storeys) in the country which rises from the banks of the river, loading over the city with magnificence.

But my eye popping moments are always in the markets and clubs. In the markets, I saw live and dead bats on sale. Yes, Ebola virus is not going away any time soon! I also saw massive worms on sale – big, succulent, fat worms! I was curious as to how they would taste once roasted. It is a delicacy and an important source of proteins here.

The people of this nation take things easy – polite, too. The Senegalese and other traders from the north (the Fulani) do most of the businesses. They literally run every part of Poto Poto, one of the major markets in Brazzaville.

My best moments here are at the street bars and restaurants. At the end of the day, they seem to pop out of nowhere. It is amazing to watch how evenings turn out where people set tables and seats outside their homes and have a good time.  Of course, the hot and humid weather makes it a necessity to do this in the evening.

For international shoppers, sorry – Brazzaville has few options. There are only two malls. A few hotel brands like the Radisson Blue and Michaels are present – you will find an expatriate crowd here.

For an East African, I finally found out the meaning of Lingala music – yes, here, it runs in blood and they can dance!

My First Flight after ET302 and Africa’s Emotional Connection with Ethiopian Airlines

The flight was tense. The passengers politely sat back as if awaiting a disaster to happen. A passenger on my left had a bible at hand, praying quietly.

I was aboard an Ethiopian Airlines plane a few days after the tragic crash of their Boeing 737 Max 8 which killed all on board. The ill-fated ET302 flight connecting Addis Ababa and Nairobi, Kenya, crashed six minutes after take-off killing 157 occupants on March 10.

I was traveling from Congo Brazzaville to Zimbabwe but the drama of flying in Africa meant several connections and a night in Addis Ababa (which I didn’t mind). The first stop was Ponte-Noir, a port city at the Atlantic Ocean near the Angolan enclave of Cabinda.

The landing was rough and a few passengers screamed! Was it the pilot or an uneven runway? I don’t know.

The point is, this was an emotional flight. It is an emotional connection to an airline that Africans have come to love. We love Ethiopian Airline because it represents what a great Africa could be. It represents excellence.

Ethiopian Airline has become a shining beacon in a continent where management of large corporations can sometimes look dodgy.

In the 90s and early 2000s when pan African airlines started to falter, leaving most of West Africa in confusion, Ethiopian Airlines stepped in and connected the region to the rest of the continent and the world.

While its major peers and competitors (Kenya and South African Airways) continue to suffer under incompetent management, making losses and seeking government bailouts, Ethiopian Airline is thriving with efficiency. So how can we NOT love this airline?

When the news of the accident broke out, it actually broke the heart of Africa. We mourned from every nation, ethnicity and language.

More importantly, what the rest of the world missed during the tragic accident is that those who died are not just passengers on fun travel. They were Africa’s best brains – children, pilots, scientists, sports-people, business-people, engineers, journalists and doctors.

Most Africans who travel in the continent are not tourists but problem solvers – gifted people who are working all around to solve problems facing our continent.

So, we can’t forgive Boeing for what it did. This is a costly price that Boeing can never have enough money to pay for.

Fuck Boeing!

Over the last eight weeks, I travelled extensively with the airline and seeing its planes lined up at various airports across the continent is such a source of pride.

Rakesh Young: Bike-packing to Kenya’s Equator and Beyond

Rakesh Young

Nyambari, Uplands to Mogotio is approx 154km from Nairobi. I had planned to only ride to Nakuru but when I got to Nakuru at 3.30pm, hungrier than a hippo, I realised it was too soon in the day to end my ride – the sunset still three hours away. I tried looking for some kibandasky (street eatery) to eat at but found none,. so I rode to Naivas supermarket and went straight to their food sections. I got cashew-nut rice and two chicken drumsticks with some stew. The damage is five times what a typical Kibandasky meal would cost and it was a little on the spicy side. But I was full.  

By this time, it was 4.30pm and according to google maps, I had 42km to Mogotio. I’ve been on this road before, so I remembered the long climb out of Nakuru towards Kabarak. But with cashew nut, rice and chicken in my system, there was no stopping me. Some school kid on a black mamba tried to catch up and overtake me…bad idea!

So I get to the Equator crossing at Mogotio with the very last rays of the sun. There’s a way sunsets make everything look ever more beautiful – the wheat, sisal and grass fields. Even I, with my salty face, looked very beautiful! 

Since my phone was already off, I took photos with the camera. Then I went into the Baringo County Tourism Information Centre where they have a metallic globe depicting the world and how it spins on its own axis. Took more photos here with no one in sight and started contemplating pitching my tent right under the globe for the night, but there were two problems:
1. There was no place to shower
2. The nearest restaurant is in Mogotio town, probably 2km back.

Enter Kirui, a young boy, probably 14 – 15 years old. Well spoken, respectful and knowledgeable. He laid down the options for me: behind the globe is a slaughter house with tap water but no one in sight (so I can bathe there and still camp under the globe); 2km down the road is Lozich Bar & Restaurant with well kept lawns – I can possibly pitch my tent there and eat at the restaurant. I chose Lozich. I’m yet to get a hang of this wild camping thing.

I rode down the remaining stretch in partial darkness to Lozich. Sam Kibiko calls me wondering if I made it to Mogotio and after a few minutes I cut him short promising to call back after I’m settled in my new home. I went straight to the butchery section which is also the reception and put across my needs: a place to pitch my tent, water to bathe and food…please! (of course I’m prepared to pay but I don’t say this just yet). The lady in charge goes towards the back to look for the main man, Alex, who makes the decisions around here.

Enter Alex, a bespectacled gentleman – humble and soft-spoken but stern in his own way. His first reaction is that, it is not possible for me to camp here. Why? There are a number of reasons: he doesn’t know me, there are dogs wandering the place, what will his boss say if he sees my tent there.

I sensed that he was a little scared of something but couldn’t spill it just yet. So I tried to calm him down telling him my name (doesn’t always help in these situations), how I’ve cycled from Nairobi and I’m possibly going to Iten, I’m a Christian boy (not), all I need is a 4 by 6 space on the grass, a bucket of water and I’ll buy my dinner and drinks from them. Still undecided, he excused himself to discuss further with his colleague. I take this chance to stretch my sore muscles. Stretching after a long ride sure helps with recovery, just as much as a warm shower, good food and rest.


He returned after ten minutes with some good news and terms and conditions. He’ll allow me to spend the night here but not outside, in a room (there goes my camping dream again but I don’t complain). He will also go through all my stuff, thanks to the latest bombings in Nairobi where I have come (thanks a lot terrorists!!). He will also store my bike away from where I will be sleeping. I will also have to give him my National ID (I added him my High School ID just to prove my genuineness). 

I obliged to all the terms and took his bed (he said he’ll make other arrangements for himself). The entire time he kept apologizing for the above terms, but I understood. I took a lukewarm bucket bath under the stars – it was magical…and reminded me of why I hated bathing when I was ten. They shared their dinner with me so that I save my money for future expenses on the road.

Rakesh Young is a Kenyan adventure cyclist who uses his bicycle(s) to traverse the East African region connecting with people of different cultures and lifestyles. He is the founder of www.baiskeliadventures.com.

How a 24-year old Samburu Warrior Captured Images of Kenya’s Black Leopard


Letoluai Ambose, Research Assistant, Sandiego Zoo Global

The story of a black leopard being allegedly seen in Kenya for the first time in 100 years broke out this week – but a young Samburu warrior is really the silent figure behind the discovery.

“The remote camera that I helped set up started capturing images of the black leopard from January 2018. I have many images and videos of the animal,” Letoluai Ambrose, a Research Assistant with Sandiego Zoo Global told me. He seemed perturbed by the interest that the leopard has received from all over the world since last week.

Letoluai Setting up remote cameras

Letoluai, 24, grew up in Koija near Loisaba Conservation. He studied wildlife science at Kenya Wildlife Service Training Institute and returned home to support conservation efforts.

He was hired by Sandiego Zoo Global as a research assistant in a project that studied the behaviour of leopards in the Laikipia plateau. Part of this research is finding ways of mitigating the problems that leopard cause within the pastoralist communities.

During his interaction with the community, he heard about the presence of black leopards.

“At first I did not believe what they were telling me since historically we have been hearing such stories from old people,” he said.

At a later date, an elder asked him “Why don’t you capture the big black one in Lorrok area with your cameras?” He also confirmed with the owner of Lorrok ranch about the sighting.

He wrote an email to his boss and fellow scientist, Nicholas Pinfold, about the presence of the black leopard and they agreed to place trap cameras with hope of capturing images.

The activities of the black leopard started appearing in the cameras and a paper about its presence was published here.

The black leopard that has been captured since Jan 2018.

But the leopard became famous when Letoluai was requested by the owner of Lorrok Ranch to take a British photographer Will Burrad-Lucas to see the leopard. He showed the photographer where to place his remote cameras.

“Will Burrad captured quality images but the media should not state that he found the leopard. He was only here for three days,” Letoluai mused.

Letoluai states that no individual can take credit for research findings because so many people are involved in the activity.

”Were it not for that elder, the local rangers, the landowner and the involvement of scientists from Sandiego Zoo Global, we would not have made this discovery. Everyone had a role and no one person can claim credit,” said Letoluai.

Some sections of the media have claimed that this was the first time that a black leopard has been seen in Kenya in 100 years but to the contrary, the cats have been sighted many times in different parts of Kenya.

Author: John Kisimir – jkisai@gmail.com

The Marvel of Kenya’s Hell’s Kitchen

The spectacular Marafa Depression, also known as Hell’s Kitchen, is a sandstone canyon outside of Malindi, Kenya. 

Into the Unknown: Hike to the Everest Base Camp

Do I stop walking in the middle of nowhere because I just cannot take any more step or do I keep pushing, even though it’s becoming physically impossible? Is it my mind that’s giving up or my legs?

What will my parents say if I fell down from a 400 feet see-through suspended bridge in the Himalaya? How will this make sense to them? They know I’m very adventurous but wouldn’t this be a little too much?

Why am I here? What is it about mountains and the outdoors that I cannot get enough of?

Don’t forget to be on the mountain side when Yaks (long-haired domesticated bovid)  pass by.

I wish I was on my couch.

Oh God, get me to safety!

These and many more were some of the thoughts that were going through my mind when I was experiencing physical and mental exhaustion as I have never had before during my Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal.

My trek started out with an exhilarating flight from the capital Kathmandu to Lukla. Lukla airport is one of the most dangerous airport in the world because of its short, treacherous runway on a steep cliff. So, the first relief of the multi-day journey starts with landing safely at Lukla airport. Then begins the grueling, 90 miles (154 km) round-trip trek to Base Camp at a very high altitude, where the air gets thinner with each elevation gain .

Everything started out great. I was feeling strong, great pace, enjoying the extraordinary view, making new friends, counting my blessing, and just soaking it all in until half way through the trek where I got the flu because of the extremely cold temperatures at night (-20 to -10) and sanitary conditions at the tea houses. (Tea houses provide accommodations for trekkers. They are run by locals and all trekkers basically have to stay there at different stations along the route).

At the Everest Base Camp

I do relatively ok at higher altitudes so I wasn’t having altitude sickness but was suffering from cough, sore throat, headache, lost my appetite, and had no energy to keep on (lost 10lbs (4.5kgs) on the trek, I can’t really complain about that).

I observed that the trekking industry in Nepal is so unregulated that it’s actually dangerous for the many tourists that visit the region. Many of them get sick, some lose their lives, and many feel drained so much so that they vow not to ever go back again.

I remember thinking, I cannot return without accomplishing my goal. Turning back was not an option I wanted to consider. I thought I will be so disappointed at myself that I decided to push through the difficulty. Happy to say, I made it!

Himalayan mountain range is the highest mountain range in the world. In this range, Mountain Everest is the tallest mountain. Therefore the Himalayas is a range of mountains while Sagarmatha (the “mountain that touches the sky”) or, Mt. Everest, is one mountain.

Everest Base Camp at 17, 600 feet (5,365 meters) is the gateway to Mt. Everest. It’s one of the most surreal and unique places I have ever been. It felt remote, dangerous, but exciting and beautiful at the same time. I was lucky to get there early before other trekkers so I had Base Camp for myself for 2:30 hrs before the crowd. I wanted to stay longer but I needed to get to a lower altitude for me to feel better. Despite the physical exhaustion, I realized that the only way I was able to make it was because of an unexplainable desire and determination to fulfill my goal.  

I have had so many favorite moments throughout my journey. Seeing Mt. Everest for the first time in a clear sky and wonder what it would mean to be up there, looking at the stars at night over  Everest from Kala Patthar, being able to cross those insane, see-through, wobbly, suspended bridges (personal goal), and so on.

This experience meant so much. Each day was filled with a reality, story, thoughts, and imagination that I still need time to process. It pushed me to my limit, but it did not break me. It’s a tremendous opportunity and a self-discovery journey.

I promised myself that I will never go back to the Himalaya for any kind of trekking but that seemed to quickly fade away even during my flight back home. Save me from myself!

*Selam Mesfin is an Ethiopian-American adventurer. She lives California and has traveled to over 67 countries and 42/50 US States.

The call of Mt. Whitney, Contiguous USA Highest Peak

I started hiking a few years ago because it is a bit of a mix of sports and outdoors, both of which I enjoy.

At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal to hike Mt.Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada with an elevation of 14,505 ft (4421 meters), 22 miles (36km) round-trip, 6,100 ft (1859 meters) elevation gain. In order to prepare for this challenge, I hiked many of the Southern California mountains including San Gorgonio, the highest peak in Southern California with 11,503 ft (3506 meters).

After few months of training, on Sunday, July 3, 2016, at 2:00AM, I started the journey to conquering the world famous Whitney trail with three of my team members. The weather was pleasant, except for some temperature fluctuation in the early hours. The recent warm temperature has melted most of the Winter snow on the trail. There was some snow towards the summit, which required me to have my micro-spikes. The trail starts at 8,360 ft (2548 meters) with quick elevation gain. I saw few people struggle with elevation, but I have found myself to acclimate relatively well so the quick elevation gain did not bother me.

After 7 hours and 11 miles (18km) of continuous ascent, I was able to reach the summit to be rewarded with such a magnificent view that Mt. Whitney can only offer. I stayed at the summit for about 40 minutes enjoying the views and taking plenty of pictures. I was also able to sign the Mt. Whitney registry as part of Mt. Whitney legacy, which was so special.

Hiking Whitney was a difficult physical and mental challenge, but it has also been very rewarding. I felt greater sense of accomplishment and a sense of assurance that anything is possible if we put our mind and effort into it. I always encourage people to go out and experience what nature has to offer. There is so much beauty not to enjoy.

Signing the famous register

*Selam Mesfin is an Ethiopian-American adventurer. She lives in California and has traveled to 67 countries and 42 US States.

Ololokwe: In the clouds of a perfect mountain

Perfect timing for a perfect Mountain!  Mt Ololokwe aka Oldoinyio Sapache  is my last major hike for 2018. 

It not only closed a remarkable hiking year but also a milestone for a mountain that has deep spiritual connections among the Maa speakers of Northern Kenya. It was only fair that I came here after Oldoinyio Lengai– another shrine of a mountain where my people converse with God during challenging times in the south (northern Tanzania).

The night before the hike was at Sabache Camp, a gem that’s sandwiched between Mt. Ololokwe and Loontare Hill. I am in the company of seasoned travellers (LG Shiks and two friends). We arrived at night by following Dipa, the camp manager, on a winding dirt road, not seeing much beyond the headlights but the profiles of dark mountains against the moonlight.

6:00 AM: We filed out of the camp, led by a quiet Samburu guide. I prayed for God’s protection and asked my legs to bravely carry me. The climb is steep and the trail is narrow – one foot after the other, following the famous elephant trail towards the top. At 6:37AM, the sun rose, painting the east with shades of orange.

The magic of sunrise and mountains. Photo: John Kisimir

There were two men ahead of us and one gasped at the rising sun. He has never seen sunrise from such a vantage point. That is the magic of mountains.

As we trudged on, elephant dung on the trail, broken branches and barks peeled off from trees – this is elephant country.

We reached the eastern rim slightly after an hour.  Loontare Hill sat pretty from northeast, shyly touching the rear side of his superior brother. From a distance I could see the famous rocks (Nkadoru Murto) where rich tourists sometimes land helicopters. 

Below us, the Isiolo – Moyale highway beautifully finds its way through the arid country.

I looked down again to admire the amazing view of Sabache camp – perfect location.  My mind drifted towards its manager, Dipa. When we arrived late last night, he offered us his room because another group arrived at the camp with more guests than booked and dislodged us. When I woke up at 5:00AM to get ready for the hike, I found him asleep on a mat by the bonfire site.  

To the West is a surprising view– all green, a mix of forest and open lush grass patches. Now I understood why elephants take the trouble of making treacherous trails to come here. 

The guide nudged us on, a little impatient with our pace. We walked west into the forest. The clean heavy oxygen hit our lungs as the calm breeze cooled down the sweat. It is an easy walk mostly on flat land.

At the top is lush and green! Photo: John Kisimir

We arrived at the Southern rim of the mountain after another hour. It’s a mammoth rock face and is what gives this mountain its magnificent shape. From a distance, the rock wears the top of the mountain like a hat, and then drops down hundreds of metres, making Mt. Ololokwe look like a massive tree stump from a distance.

Engulfed by clouds on the southern rim. Photo: John Kisimir

Below us, the eagles flew in cyclic patterns – six pairs and my heart leapt in awe at their welcoming party! Cattle bells of the Samburu people rang from a distance. Their circular villages are perched under miniature hills many kilometres below us. 

Then the clouds came in intervals, running over the mountain – engulfing us in acceptance.

I feel the presence of God. Mountains will always remain my true place of worship!  

We returned to the camp in time for lunch. Dipa, again showed his kindness by driving me to the nearest town, Archers Post, where I hitch hiked to my next destination.

Sabache camp, perched between mountains. Photo: John Kisimir
An eagle welcoming party, flying in cyclic patterns. Photo: John Kisimir

L


On the Footsteps of Marsabit Peacemakers

I am in Marsabit, Kenya’s northern county – a land of camels, mountains, elephants, deserts and diverse people. It is the home of Ahmed – the greatest elephant that ever walked on earth and the only one in history to have been protected by a presidential decree until its death. It is the home of Lake Paradise, possibly the most breathtaking place you will ever see.

I am not here to chase mountains but rather in search of peacemakers. Marsabit is beautiful but also a troubled land. Its people have been fighting for the last six months – lives have been lost and property damaged.

Mediators huddle together for a quick brief before a peace meeting.

For days in the last three months, I watched my friend Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan post depressing messages on social media – calling for peace among her people. She is the head of, Horn of Africa Development Initiative (HODI), an organization that uses soccer to create peaceful co-existence among various communities.

Fatuma’s posts were heartbreaking and in the process informed me that they have formed an interfaith team that will go around dangerous places to mediate peace. I got curious. What does it take to make peace when lives have been lost? What kind of people would put their lives on the firing line in search of peace?

So, I drove 550K from Nairobi to meet the Marsabit peacemakers also called Interfaith Mediation Team.

We left Marsabit town in the morning towards the conflict zone. In my company was Fatuma, two priests (Anglican and Catholic), a Sheikh, an ex-politician, a teacher, NGO and government officials. We headed east, dropping from the mountain height towards arid land. The mood was jovial – the group made jokes about their faiths, families and trivial things. They also reviewed the outcome of a meeting they had in a different village yesterday – it did not go well but no life was lost. They called that a win.

Mediators convincing Borana elders to attend a peace meeting with the Gabra.

Today, the aim is to negotiate a ceasefire between two villages – Jaldesa and Shurr villages

The road is rough and rocky and this was the first time that any vehicle has plied here in 90 days. On arrival at Jaldessa, men with guns accompanied by elders and their chief surrounded us. The armed men are called KPR and armed by the government to protect their villages. Some were very angry at our presence. To make things worse, the peacemakers wanted their elders to accompany them to Shurr village for a peace meeting.

This will not happen! They said. They are not willing to walk into the lion’s den. There was a melee. I could see anger, pain and genuine fear in their eyes. Someone’s father and husband was killed here. Inside a pump house where they draw water, I was shown bullet marks on the generator, an effort by their rivals to destroy their only source of water.

After almost an hour of tantrums, several elders and the chief agreed to go to Shurr. As we were about to leave, one elder walked away from the group – no, he was not going to give his life to the enemy.

The drive to Shurr was not long, may be 15kms but the tension in the vehicle smelled of a war zone. No one knows what waits ahead. A few peacemakers have already received calls warning them not go. Chances of a bloody ambush were real.

Shurr is stunning village – about 300 dorm shaped colourful houses surrounded by large umbrella-shaped tortilis tees. Our arrival was shrouded with palpable tension. Elders and young men under a tree even though they knew of our coming, were not welcoming. They had knives and guns. One commented while servicing his weapon and said “this gun should do a good job today,”

A mediation meeting under a tree in Shurr between Borana an.d Gabra people

We were directed to a place for lunch. There was immediate relief. Provision of a meal is a very good sign – they are willing to talk.

I heard from mediators that Shurr was not just attacked but bombed! Several people died but the numbers are dodgy depending on the source.

The negotiations started under a massive tree – cold shed. Only few elders (men and women) joined us with all the furious young men staying away.

There were long-winded speeches from sides. There was talk about how some of the elders have been friends before the conflict – they had visitations, friendships and intermarriages.

I heard about the source of the conflict – boundaries over land, access to water sources and grazing rights. I heard about politics too – that local politicians are fuelling the conflict by buying guns and grenades for their respective tribes.

The armed youths trickled in – mostly on motorcycles and sat at a distance, observing the process. None uttered a word.

The mediation team pressed both sides for a ceasefire and after about four hours, I started to see a relaxed mood and at the end, they agreed to talk further. A meeting was set for the following day at Jaldesa. Hope is in the air.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.

The meeting ended with prayer – no one was smiling but the elders from both villages hugged one another. This was good enough for the mediators. Peacemaking is a process.

We drove out as the sun painted the sky orange on the horizon of Mt. Marsabit. The mediators were tired but satisfied by the outcome. A joke went round about how much water they drunk but no one went to the toilet.

We arrived at Jaldesa and were received by an anxious community – glad to have their elders back in one piece. They could not believe that they were not hurt. The mediators briefed them on the outcome and requested that they prepare to host the mediation meeting the next day.

The drive back to Marsabit was one of emotions and relief. Father Racho skilfully paced the Landcruiser through the bends towards the mountain. There will be more meetings like this in the coming days and weeks until peace is achieved.

Peacemaking is not for the fainthearted.  May God bless these men and women. 

Good evening Marsabit!