Kwenia Hike: Cliffs and Vultures Paradise

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Months ago, a friend, John Saitoti, cajoled me to join a quick drive to Magadi and that is how I discovered Kwenia – a place of massive cliffs and intimidating valleys, 95Km south of Nairobi.

It looked like the Australia that I had seen in the movies or the US wild west, but, the cowboys here are my people, the Maasai. We had a simple to load up some emaciated cows onto a truck and move them to a new location.

As we departed, I looked back at the massive cliffs that stretched as long as the eye could see and vowed to return, toying with the idea of conquering them with me two feet.

I returned to Kwenia this week, accompanied by an experienced hiker by the name Herdsgirl. She has climbed mountains including Kilimanjaro, Kenya, and Simien in Ethiopia.

We pulled up at Saitoti’s homestead at 11:30am only to find it deserted – the nomad has moved, but the place is intact, well fenced with acacia thorns. We opened the gate and parked the vehicle inside the cattle kraal and left towards the cliffs at 12pm.

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Kwenia Cliffs, the home of Vultures

I stood at the base of the cliff and never in my life felt so small. The wall is tall – vultures and falcons flew around it. Kwenia cliffs host the largest colony of the endangered Ruppell’s vultures in East and Central Africa. There are 125 nests here and scientists have warned that the species is just one step away from extinction. I will explain later.

There is a pond where livestock and wildlife drink and it is also the beginning of some seasonal river. A herd of elands stood under the trees about 50 meters away – I clicked the Canon and the ever alert antelopes responded to the shatter of the lens and trotted away.

There is an official hiking trail but we do not know the exact starting point, so, we decided to climb from where we were. We turned slightly to the east and started to ascend away from the massive cliff. It is a rough terrain with loose volcanic rocks covered with acacia and shrubs.

We picked up the pace, with a mix of apprehension and excitement – what does this hike entail? How would it look up there? Can we survive the 23Km (7-hour walk) in this scorching sun?

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It took an hour to get to the top of the hill and started walking towards the rim of the cliffs. The Herdsgirl is holding her forte – careful, measured in her steps, skillfully testing the stability of rocks before stepping on them, conserving energy. I led the way, sometimes carelessly jumping from one rock to another – lighter and alert. Climbing hills is stuff I learned from an early age while herding other things – goats, cattle or hunting or extracting stuff from caves and other natural hideouts.

It seems the seasonal river below the cliff is an extension of another one above. We stood on the rim – the view is breathtaking. The seasonal Lake Kwenia is dusty with livestock raising plumes in their wake. Right below us, goats drunk water from the pond – the boys were taking a bath unaware of our presence, even though we might look like specks perched on the rim. Further West is Mt. Olorgesailie (correct spelling: Oloorkisalie) and a new ranch owned by Pakistanis who grow crops and rear livestock.

We head out facing South, looking for a place to climb out of the river bed. The rocks are blue, smooth and hard – slippery too. Once out of the riverbed, the terrain went back to the volcanic rocks, in plenty, like they were rained down by the heavens. Rocks and acacia trees are now our currency. We hoofed on!

We can make this easy by walking East until we find the official path but we chose not to but rather plowed through the bush, staying close to the rim to get a closer glimpse of raptors gliding and the fleeting landscapes below.

We walked for another three hours, with occasional breathers at the rim of the escarpment whose end is not in site. At times it meanders, giving a false hint that it will end, only for another longer wall to appear. The rocks below our feet are still in plenty – blessing our toes, the thorns challenging the soles of shoes.

Baboons and monkeys are in plenty. We came across the Monkey Chair several times. It is a plant, Pyrenacantha malvifolia – a rare species of desert flowering plants. It is not a very pretty site. It grows above the ground swollen and thickened with a diameter up to 1.5 metres. It has vine-like stems with green round shaped leaves. I don’t know if Monkeys make a chair of it but it is a useful to thirsty herds boys who cut it to draw water during tough times.

It is a birds’ paradise here – flowering season and they are happily chirping away in their colors and sounds. There is an occasional cowbell. We met one young man herding goats – we asked if we are going towards the right direction. He was kind but looked surprised with two backpackers just appearing on him – our common language helped. We still have a long way to go, he warned.

That was a red flag. We must pick up the pace if we have to make back to the vehicle before sunset. The Herdsgirl led, pushing hard against an unforgiving sun, buckets of sweat and occasionally sipping water from the backpack. Lucozade and apples helped to boost up our energies – it gave me this sugar rush and kind of got chatty but she preferred silence, maybe to conserve her energy.

We would need to descend when the cliffs get shorter and eventually end. The descend should lead us to a friend’s home where we can have a cup of tea before making a return to the vehicle and this means walking below the cliffs so that I can photograph the vulture nests.

We trudged on. Herdsgirl is running out of drinking water. I glanced at the sun and estimated that we have another two hours before sunset. Not good at all. The thorny bushes occasionally biting, blocking a straight path, fatigue is setting in.

I saw a boma down below as the cliff started showing signs of relenting…gently lowering its massive shoulders towards mother earth. The boma that I see does not fit the description of the one that I was told by a local guide. I was getting anxious for a descend because I estimated that the drop itself will take more than an hour.

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Brutal Descend. Drop! Drop! Drop!

We made a decision to descend and not go to the end of the cliff. If we find a path that goes down, we will take it. We walked carefully along the rim, hoping to find a way out.

We found a narrow path between rocks – looks like one used by goats or baboons to descend. We took it – a huge risk, it could lead to nowhere. It is a steep descend – legs screaming, shoes peeling off parts of their soles. Not a bad first drop. I looked back at the rim of the cliff and smiled, knowing very well that going down is a multi-layered endeavor.

We approached another drop after about 100 metres – we looked down, too steep and no sign of a path. We walked along towards the east and felt good that for the first time in over 5 hours, we are walking in a different direction.

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A bird’s nest

Second drop. Easy. Feet are screaming but adrenaline to go down reigns supreme. We approached the third drop which I thought would be the easiest. It led us down a gentle slope towards the south then suddenly came to a dead end. It seems that a cliff collapsed years ago and dumped massive volcanic boulders on our way. There is thick vegetation too. It does not look safe – the kind of place for the hyena, lion, the leopard, and the python.

The only way down is to plow through the bushes with minimal vision or climb over the massive rocks. We chose the rocks – and every time we jumped from one to another, I watched the spaces between them and got convinced that this is a home of predators. There is no sign of the rock hyrax, nor baboons nor any animal with no appetite for eating another one.

We trudged on as I waited for some roar, some movement, from the owners of this house but none came. I had a plan in place depending on who will show up.

We came to the end of the rocks and we could see flat land, but we must do the last leg which entailed loose rocks. We sat down under a tree – won out. I still have half a litre of water and that was sipped sparingly.

“There are no more drops. There are no more drops,” she celebrated. Yes, there is no more dropping like an eagle from the sky.

We finally stepped on flat land and start our return towards where we began.

The soft soil felt good on below the feet. A beautiful song. A reprieve from the endless knocks by the rocks.

We still have 10Km to walk but on flat land. The sun was smiling, changing colour, mellowing like an elder who has just discovered kindness. I looked at it and was tempted to give it the middle finger.

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Then the breeze came – cool, strong, resisting our pace towards the north. We were tired but we kept the pace in order to get to the vehicle before dark.

The massive columns of the Kwenia cliff stood on our right, gloriously glowing under the setting sun. The light is perfect and I clicked away. The vultures are returning, smoothly gliding to their nests from Maasai Mara where they go every morning to clean up the mess that lions cause. The estimated global population of Ruppell’s vulture is 22,000 and the numbers are rapidly declining due to habitat loss and poisoning by herdsmen. The many empty nests on these cliffs is a testament to their situation.

We reached the vehicle just before sunset and rushed for the water that we left behind. Goodness, it is boiling hot – literally. We had left the windows closed and this is Kwenia, where the sun rules.

We drove to a nearby village and asked for drinking water. The cattle were in the kraal, women were milking and some elders sat against a hut wall – possibly waiting for chai. Kind people they were. The cold water was better than some earthly things.

We arrived at Magadi at around 9pm and checked into the hotel – another blessing from a random call from an old friend, Tulito Turere, who booked us in.

I rested my sore body in bed having conquered Kwenia cliffs with hot springs and a swim in my mind. A story for another day.

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Monkey Chair: Pyrenacantha malvifolia – a rare species

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Mara Magic: Lions, Obama Tent, People

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It is midnight as I listened to the roar of lions to my left and hyenas making their loud noises from the right. A zebra brayed and baboons didn’t sound like a very happy lot atop the trees down the river. The lulling roar of Talek River has just subsided after an evening of heavy rains where lightening beautifully lit the horizon.

I wondered whether the thunderous male lions have found a family of three sisters that we watched in the evening nursing seven cubs. It was heart-warming watching the cubs play – climbing on their mothers – learning to bite and roar. Of course, every game they played will add up to the final skill of killing and eating things and self-defense when they grow up. The play was beautiful until the rain started – dear Lord, they hated it and they curdled in sorrow.

Female lions do bring up their cubs as a group – a cub can suckle any female from the pride.

I wondered too about a coalition of male cheetahs that we left preparing for an evening hunt. They looked strong, deadly but calm – but we could not wait because there were too many tour vans waiting for the spectacle. My friend and fellow photographer Paras Chandaria was among them – waiting for the blood moment. That guy!

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Maasai Mara is spectacular this January – never a dull moment. It does not miss the millions of wildebeests and zebras that have migrated to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. It is as if the land is celebrating their absence – displaying its spectacular warmth and beauty like a peacock. Even the usually dull Topi decided to put up a show for us – galloping away in happiness. Buffalo herds are here in their hundreds – a group of four walked towards our vehicle, seemingly harmless, but, I always say “Put me in a corner with a lion any time but not with a buffalo.”

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The Spectacle of Basecamp Explorer. Sheer Magic!

We are staying at Basecamp Explorer camp near Talek town with colleagues from Friends of Maasai Mara. We are “working hard” to finalise our annual plans – one big task on our plate handle this year is the construction of a conservation centre – a hub for our people here, scientists and other stakeholders. This will be ground zero for conservation conversations in the coming years as we seek to achieve Justice for People and Wildlife in equal measure.

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Using a drone to map the location of Maasai Mara Conservation Centre

Basecamp Explorer is sheer magic. It is a wickedly beautiful place (see photos). It is the best camp in Maasai Mara – I say this because of the effort they have put in taking care of the environment. They literally started a non-existing forest that now hosts over 200 bird species. One of its exciting features is Obama Tent – where US President Barack Obama stayed on a visit when he was a Senator. Let’s not talk about the food – It is mind-boggling. It is impossible to get enough of Maasai Mara. Every moment is new and beautiful!

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Friends of Maasai Mara team – dreaming, planning, doing…
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Nothing Goes to Waste. Elephant Poop Supports a Battalion of the Insect World

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Defying Climate Change: The Turkana – A World of Strong Women

930A3720Late last week, I found myself in Isiolo – woke up early at Bomen Hotel, the sun lazily rising up from the horizon. Maybe I was awakened by the annoying motorcycles – the new disease of urban Africa. I do miss the days when the rooster and the donkey were the natural signals for a new day.

Anyway, I came here to film a project on climate change adaption – whatever this means in simple English. It is basically a way of intelligently saying “how people survive droughts.”

Isiolo is dusty but a fast-growing town. It has a brand new international airport and upcoming hotels in preparation for a monstrous project the government calls LAPSSET – that is expected to open up northern Kenya’s infrastructure through oil pipelines, new highways, and a railway line.

I left town after breakfast, driven by Abdi, another young pastoralist with hands that were specifically made to drive Land Cruisers. My host is Omar, the first Turkana Muslim that I ever met. Our destination is Ngare Mara villages north of Isiolo.

I am a child of the desert and have seen enough droughts and does not need to be told what climate change means.

So, I was cautious when an NGO asked me to find a silver lining in a drought situation. Omar took me to a few farms – most desolate. Crops have dried up due to lack of enough rain. He lamented about how much work he has put into training the nomadic Turkana people to grow crops as an alternative source of income from the dwindling livestock herds.

The further north we drove, the drier it got and it crossed my mind as to why my pastoralist people tend to settle in the worst of places. The sun was blazing, screaming down at us and it is not even 9am.

“God, I hope you put something very valuable under this land. Something like diamonds or oil,” I prayed.

“Everyone is trying their best,” Omar interrupted my thoughts. “The only thing letting us down is the rain.

930A3570Ngare Mara is a small trading centre on the Moyale-Isiolo Highway. We stopped at a home without a fence, house made of mud and reeds with a corrugated iron for the roof.  I got introduced to Paulina Eken, 38, a mother of 9 children. She also takes care of four orphans – children of her dead friends and relatives.

I expected Paulina to start stories about the drought, the lack of schools fees especially in the month of January. She beckoned us to a fenced area at the back of the house and opened the gate. Viola! A vegetable garden! I mean – really healthy kales, onions, and tomatoes.

What the…were the words in my mind. She told me she had stopped buying vegetables about a year ago – a happy woman and confident of surviving the drought after losing all her livestock. She is part of a group of women who have tried to grow the crop in a larger piece of land but the rain was not sufficient. Lucky enough, the NGO had introduced them to various ventures that include table banking and kitchen gardens. Paulina struggles to pay school fees and other bills but at least she is able to feed them.

Next to her is another eccentric lady – Mary Ekeno is straight out of the feminist manual and we had good laugh over many things. She runs a shop that sells Turkana artifacts …stuff that she makes with her own hands and this is helping her put her children through university, high school, and primary schools.  I tried out a wedding headgear and threatened to marry her.

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Getting their hands dirty.

In the nearby Zebra village, a group of women is working hard to better their lives. Here, poor rains ruined their dreams of a bumper harvest but they have just laid down a pipeline that will enable them to irrigate the farm. I found them working on the farm fence – they were sweating, getting their hands dirty.

“Where are the men?” I asked.

“We are the men here. We do everything. We are waiting for no one,” Julieta Ngirisia responded.

I learned that Turkana men kind of don’t fancy farming but rather do the culturally “honourable” thing of looking after livestock. Meanwhile, their women are learning new skills, trying business ventures, paying schools fees, feeding their families and planning for the future.

These women are literally defying climate change. I pay my respect to the Turkana woman!

I guess, my client has a lot of good stories that need to be told.

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Memories: Before Giraffes Left the Rangelands

20180107_090857My earliest memory of giraffes as a child is of tall, arrogant, condescending, but beautiful giants. Of all the wild animals that we interracted with and admired, the giraffe never lacked colour.

First, it stands still and stare down at you as you approached. The huge males would let us get as close as possible before walking away, but most times, we didn’t get close enough. In my eye as a child, the giraffe had this majestic elegance and confidence that ruled the canopies of our acacia trees and anything above my height. I loved how it ran with all its legs literally in the air. That was the 1980s and 90s before the Savannah plains of Kajiado County were invaded by the land subdivision (Quarter Acre Plot) disease – before the tin-roof disease arrived in Maasailand – before the thousands of giraffes left the land for better grounds or were literally hunted down.

We would sing a particular song to the giraffes:
Ormeut Lai Lentolit Nado (My Giraffe of Red Marrow
Kimanita Eliyo Elukunya (Your Head is Lonely)

Today, I found myself at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi – a sanctuary where the endangered Rothschild giraffes are bred and released to the wild in order to increase its depleted population. Rothschild giraffes, also known as Baringo Giraffe, are mostly endemic to central and northern Kenya. Maasai and Reticulated species of giraffe are found in Narok, Kajiado, Tsavo and other parts of Southern Africa. The obvious way to differentiate Rothschild from the rest is that they have no markings on the lower leg, thus giving it the impression of wearing white stockings.

Giraffe Centre is a popular place where tourists come to see; feed and pet the giraffes. Since I am not a big proponent of petting things, especially wild animals, I kept a little distance and watched my friends Amos Kipeen and Harris Taga of Friends of Maasai Mara feed the gentle giants.

My upbringing gifted me with a cautious mind – always be careful around wild animals, however, tamed they seemed to be! So, I preferred to chat with the guides, asking a barrage of questions – they seemed to really have a grasp of details on the giraffes, like its heart can weigh up to 11kgs. I asked “What was the worst experience here between giraffes and visitors?

“Giraffes can head-butt especially if you go close to them without the pellets in your hand. We also have one temperamental giraffe and has hurt people before,” the guide told me. I remember too as a kid, giraffes fighting – heading butting one another in a fight for dominance and at times would lose consciousness in the process.

Tourists kept streaming in – most reacting in different ways when the giraffes lowered their heads to pick up pellets from their hands. Some would put the pullets in the mouths and the giraffes would pick it with their 45cm tongues. Selfies went round as giraffes kissed the tourists on the mouths – I found it gross, rather, I am kissing no frog today, not even a Rothschild beauty.

There were moments of humour and anxiety when a giraffe would surprise an absent-minded visitor. One lady with her friend freaked out and smashed the man’s phone against a wall and ran. The man ran to the phone, picked it up, screaming “Babe you broke my phone. Oh no!”

She apologized profusely, promising to replace the screen – still in shock, with her hands on her chest. I thought the guy should have first checked if the lady was okay instead of reaching out to the phone, but, who am I to judge in this matter?

Anyway, the giraffe population is in trouble worldwide. We only have so few of them left – mostly as a result of habitat loss and poaching. The giraffe population in Africa has dropped from 140,000 to 80,000 in just 15 years, according to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. It’s a silent extinction.

That is the reason why we must support the County Government of Kajiado spatial plans to stop the continuous subdivision of the county rangelands into quarter and one-eighth acre plots. This insatiable demand for individual land ownership has destroyed wildlife habitat, taken away crucial livestock rangelands and grew urban areas in places they should not be. We must protect Maasai rangelands for the sake of our wildlife sectors.

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

 

Nairobi to Addis: Day 6 – Express Ways, Adama

Day 6: Approaching Addis Ababa – Dec 27

IMG_20171227_123644We left Hawassa at 8:30AM – in a jovial mood – musing over yesterday’s adventure with the Rastafarians. We passed Shashamane and saw the same brokers huddled around the gate – waiting for tourists.

The road is busy with traffic in both directions. We passed the towns of Kuyera, Negenem, Bulbula – areas covered by flat landscapes dotted with acacia trees and beautiful views of Lakes Langano and Abiata Shala.

The soil looks white and livestock keepers are literally covered by it as they followed their livestock to grazing areas and water points. There are signposts to tourist lodges around the lakes.

There are several flower and grape farms along and people are standing outside the gates, possibly looking for work. The driver pointed to a Turkish factory on the left with several kilometres of fenced land.

“They make chocolates and other things,” he commented. A man is driving his cattle along the factory fence and I wondered if this was once his land before the company came to the area.

We stopped at Zuway Town for breakfast – Mila Senbera (injera and matumbo). The great Haile Gabreselassie has a resort here but we turned into a travel restaurant by the roadside. It was busy and waiters were fast and friendly. Word quickly went round that I am a foreigner – A waiter mused that I look like Mo Farah, the famous British athlete. The manager came over for a chat. I pointed out that the coffee is late.

“Do you want your coffee before with your meal?” he asked in English.

“Yes please,” I responded.

Coffee in Ethiopia is mostly served after meals. Well, I am just a foreigner, a traveler. Naloolo Ai!

The coffee was heavenly and I could still smell it as we drove out past a chain of donkey carts that are possibly going to the market. Vehicular drivers drove alongside the carts cautiously.

As we approached Meki Town, I saw a few burnt trucks along the way.

“They were burnt by Oromo protesters two years ago,” the driver said. The Oromo people that make close to 50 million of the 100 million Ethiopian national population have had years of run-ins with the government.

We drove past another broken truck with its driver’s palms on his face – in despair. He might have been on the road for days and now stranded with cattlemen walking past him like he did not exist.

Alem Tena Town is green with irrigation fields that draw water from River Awash – tomatoes, onions.  The river drains into a lake that I could see it is chocking under hyacinth – a deadly water weed.

A chain of buses passed heading us towards the opposite direction carrying people who will be attending St. Gabriel festival in Hawassa. It is an important festival for the Orthodox Church followers.

The driver made a quick cross prayer as we drove past a church. I remembered passengers from Moyale doing the same and got curious if it means something different. It basically says “God sent his own son to earth to put us from the left to the right. Thank you!”

“We do that short prayer while driving, asking God to keep us safe,” he explained.

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High School pupils on the roadside in KokaTown

We reached Koka Town at 12:30AM. It is another town surrounded by irrigated farms. Hundreds of uniformed high schoolers were walking along the road from schools. Our vehicle lost power about a kilometre from Koka and we pulled over and found out that the battery terminals got loose after hitting a pothole.

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The vehicle lost power after hitting a pothole.

We stopped on approach to Mojo Town, 65 KM from Addis, to buy fresh strawberries at the gate of a farm that produces them. The town is named after Mojo River, also transliterated as Modjo. It has all the signs of a well-planned town and a growing economy – new buildings going up, busy streets and a high population. It hosts a major station of the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway that connects the country to the Red Sea.

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A toll station on the Express Way

From here we joined the Express Way – a six-lane highway that connects Mojo, Adama City and Addis Ababa. The Express Way started with a toll station – we paid 15 birrs to Adama, another beautiful city that we had planned to see.

Adama whose other name is Nazreth is the capital of Oromo region and just one those places you would love to live in. It sits between the base of the escarpment to the west and the Great Rift Valley to the east. It looks carefully planned – wide, clean streets, colourful buildings, hotels and office blocks.

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The City of Adama is modern and beautiful!

Now we got 99KM to Addis Ababa and we were cruising, excited, that this journey is finally coming to an end.

We started the approach to Addis Ababa, the city on the foot of Entoto Mountains– the home of the African Union, University of Addis Ababa and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Like all cities, the sky is disappointingly gray – a sign of pollution and I felt a little sad for its 3 Million inhabitants.

We drove into Tulu Dimtu tall station at 2:30P and paid 50 birrs, our cost for using the Express Way and started meandering on various roads towards Bole Area near the airport where I would be staying for the next four days.

1600KM! Welcome to Addis Ababa!

*John Kisimir is a Kenyan journalist and nature enthusiast. He is currently the Board Chair of Friends of Maasai Mara.

Nairobi to Addis: Day 5- Shashamane & Rastafarians

I usually start my day with prayer – with the face on the mattress, then a reading from The Daily Bread.

Today is my birthday and I asked God to keep walking with me on this journey of self-discovery, to give me another chance to start over with Him – to keep forgiving my belligerence and selfishness.

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Me and Ras Hailu

“Happy Birthday Dad!” came in messages from my son and daughter. I quickly responded that I am actually some years younger according to the Ethiopian calendar.

The driver called in sick – food poisoning. He will see a doctor and come pick me up later.

I spent most of the morning on a boat ride at Lake Hawassa – pleasant views and I really felt guilty enjoying this without my children but again, how would one keep teenagers on the road for long without causing a crisis or war?

The driver arrived after midday and we decided against driving to Addis Ababa but instead tour the nearby town of Shashamane, the home of the Jamaican Rastafarians. We picked a 19-year old fellow who knows Shashamane well to accompany us – a friend to the driver. This will probably be the most eventful part of my travel.

Shashamane is 25KM from Hawassa – a town of 100,000 people. It is here that Rastafarians migrated to from the UK, France, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago etc. – they are descendants of African slaves who were taken away during the tragic trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

During a visit to Jamaica in 1966, Emperor Haile Selassie set aside 500 acres in Shashamane to welcome back descendants of slaves seeking to return home. They did, and many Rastafarian made Shashamane their home and Ethiopia has become their spiritual home and they believe the Haile Selassie was a descendant of King Solomon and the Messiah.

The 400 Rastafarians who live here believe they are fulfilling a prophecy that descendants of slaves will all return to Africa. It is upon this historical background that I was excited to visit Shashamane.

Home of Rastas
12 Tribes of Israel compound

We drove into the town – nothing different from the other Ethiopian towns that I have seen– the usual sea of blue Bajajs (Tuktuks), donkey and horse carts, street coffee places, shops and offices. It is really a crossroads town where major roads connect to different regions. We reached the home of the rastas in the northern side of Shashamane. We pulled onto a gate painted in rasta colours and written “12 Tribes of Israel.”

At first, there was a guard, then, a few young men joined from the street as we conversed about the entry. Within a minute we were surrounded by young guys all asking to be our guide, one had some kind of official tag. Another handed me some magazine about the Rastafarians. Another said he can get me something nice – “good ganja in Shashamane,” he said.

The guard opened the gate and we walked through, several of the young men came through too. I started to worry and told them I need no guide. “I am your guide. I have government papers,” the fellow with the tag said. He was definitely intoxicated with something “nice” and still chewing khat (miraa).

A rastaman approached us from the building – tall, slender and calm man with intense eyes

“Brother, just wait outside the gate, they are my guests now,” he told the “guide”.

“I am their guide,” the guide said.

“You are not our guide,” I intervened. “We don’t need a guide.

Words were exchanged and the young man wanted a fight. We retreated and left the compound and got into the vehicle and started to pull out.

“Sir, pay for the magazine, 200 birr,” I heard as a hand was extended towards me through the window. Ouch! I thought it was free stuff. I handed it back to him. He said I have read it so I should pay. Wow! This is getting interesting. I offered 50 birr. He took it.

We started to drive out while my mind was racing, wondering if this was the end of the Rastafari experience. I was disappointed. While at it, one of the young fellows came to the window.

“Brothers, don’t leave. I can take you to another place. A better place with no crazy people for free,” he said.

“For free? Are you sure?” the driver asked. “Yes, free.” I did not believe him but he has this cheeky smile and twinkling eye. He is definitely street smart and reminded me of my younger self while growing up in the border town of Namanga – hustling, always looking for one deal or another.

“I am sorry for the confusion, people here sometimes smoke too much stuff, too much marijuana,” he said.

He got into the car and guided us onto a dirt street to a compound that boasts as the only “Banana Art Museum” in the world.

He knocked the gate and called out. “Ras, Its Christmas family, they want to see you.”

It took a while until a tall, skinny rastaman opened the gate. He welcomed us with a smile – a soft-spoken man with kind eyes. His name is Ras Hailu Tefari, an immigrant from St. Vincent in the Caribbean islands. He moved here in 1995, took up land, built a home which is also his museum. ‘He has a beautiful place where he grows his own food, lots of herbs like Aloe-Vera and fruit trees.

“I am going nowhere. This is home,” he told me. His artwork is impeccable. He basically uses dry banana leaves to make art instead of painting – an art he taught himself from the age of 10. He believes the skill is a gift from God. I spent about an hour talking to him – going through his collection of many years. Asking about the family he left behind and the one he started in Ethiopia and the challenges that the rastas face in their new home. I found that he can’t travel outside the country because his passport expired and he still does not have Ethiopian citizenship. This is the case for many rastas. They are stuck but the government is still promising to process their citizenship at some point.

Ras Hailu charges $1 for entry to the museum.

I walked out of the museum only find the young men outside – all lit! Puff! Puff! A roll of marijuana was making rounds and another one was being rolled and passed around as a gift for me and the driver.

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Making a roll of ganja – plenty

We drove out for lunch at the Bolt Restaurant. It is managed by a couple from Jamaica. She was happy to see us and showed me photos of her visit to Kenya – so not all rastas are stuck here. The food was great!

We stopped by another compound with a museum and a Tabernacle, they call it – a place of worship. We were welcomed by a calm gentleman – very dark in complexion. I could barely hear what he was saying – he seemed to have had a stroke at some point in life. There are drums in the museum and he explained what the different drum beats mean but generally, they all ended up saying “Do Good.”

It was approaching 5PM and I still felt like giving the 12 Tribes of Israel compound another try, with the hope that the broker-tour guides have left. The place is home to just one section of Rastafarians. There are others like Bobo Ashanti and Nyabinghi and like churches; they too have different rules and regulations.

We drove back to the 12 Tribes compound – the guard was in prayer ((Muslim). We waited till he finished and were ushered in. The crazy “guide “miraculously reappeared and walked with us into the compound.

The same gentlemen who earlier received us came over. He was happy to see us.

“Please remind me which country you come from?” He asked. He later brought me a book which used to learn Kiswahili while in prison in Addis Ababa. He was jailed for smoking marijuana in public in that part of the country. He met a jailed Kenyan bank fraudster who taught him Kiswahili.

As someone who is on a spiritual journey, I learned a lot from the 12 Tribes of Israel rastas. One of their tenets is that they read one chapter of the Bible a day. I have never met kind people like these ones – actually, all the Rastafarians are respectful and have this aura of honour around, like some kind of royalty.

They believe in Jesus and the Bible, so, our differences is that they added Haile Selassie and the smoking of marijuana as their sacrament – the equivalent of bread and wine in Christian communions.

After the tour of the building, we sat around to chat and read the Swahili book – there was a translation of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and we tried to sing it. By now, a lot of people have come into the compound and never in my life seen so many joints of marijuana going round – rather, everyone had their own lit or rolling one.

“This is the red light district for marijuana,” said one of the rastas. “No one can arrest you for smoking it here but you can’t do it outside of this area.”

Did I take a joint? No comment. My teenage son could be reading this.

Did I smoke it? No comment.

Did I inhale it? Well, one could smell marijuana miles away. I think inhaling was not optional.

And with this, I bid bye to Shashamane! I will be back, someday!

Nairobi to Addis: Day 4: Where’s Christmas?

Day 4: Yabelo to Hawassa – Dec 25

Good morning. It is Christmas Day in theimg_20171227_123644.jpg rest of the world but not here. People are up and about working as usual.

The vehicle arrived driven by a handsome and calm 26-year old fellow. I threw my rucksack to the back seat and we hit the road towards the north, leaving behind Yabelo seated under the round Obda Hill.

He is a good driver – I could tell it by how he handled the Landcruiser in the first few meters – expertly nursing the accelerator, letting the engine sing to the change of gears.

“How long have you been driving?” I asked.

“Been driving since I was 14. I actually drove for many years without a license for a taxi company,“ he said.

“And you never got caught?” I marvelled.

“No sir,” he smiled. “You know if you don’t cause trouble like an accident, the police would rarely ask for your license.”

“What happens if one gets caught?” I pressed on.

“You can go to jail for a long time or pay a huge fine,” he answered as he gently turned on the music. Teddy Afro, a controversial and popular music came on…blurting the words “Mare Mare.” I responded to the beat shaking shoulders and clapping to the beat. He smiled – a little surprised that I know the song and how to dance it. That connected us and it will be three days of stories on the road to Addis Ababa.

IMG_20171225_121345The land is flat and beautiful but clear signs of overgrazing in non-farming areas. The road is wide and well-marked. Donkeys, cattle and camels are abundant, crossing the road at will; a driver has to be extremely careful for killing livestock carries punitive penalties.

They also grow Teff here – an indigenous crop that is high in dietary fibre that provides protein and calcium. It is similar to millet but the seed is much smaller and cooks faster. Teff is used to make Injera. After the seed had been harvested, the rest of the plant is used to feed livestock.

IMG_20171225_135543.jpgWe drove past small towns that are mostly occupied by subtribes of the Oromo people – Fichawa, Fresheka and Hagera Maryam. At about 100KM, we started to climb towards the highlands – a region called the Southern Nations Nationalities Peoples Region. This region is productive – green fields with maize and bananas. The road is now laced with trucks, donkey and horse carts that took produce to the markets in the towns of Gedeb, Fisehagenet, Yirgachefe and Winegu. The people are different too – more Bantu looking than Cushitic.  The farms and markets are busy – all  I could see is a hardworking people.

We stopped for a break at the city of Dilla Town – 200KM from Yabelo and this is also the end of the good road. We started driving very slowly past road construction crews and earth movers for over 100 kilometres. Sunset was fast approaching and we all seem anxious and I was relieved to see the 46KM sign to Hawassa at the town of Aposto.

We made it to Hawassa at 7:30PM. It is a beautiful evening in a seemingly busy city with well-lit streets. We checked into Pinna Hotel at the shores of Lake Hawassa.

I logged into the hotel wifi – Christmas Messages are still trickling in.  I am still unable to access Facebook and Whatsapp because authorities have blocked their use in order to mute a student-led protest over the unrest in Moyale.

Now 1300Km done! Goodnight.

Nairobi to Addis Ababa: Day 3 – Not Xmas Eve, Food

Day 3: A Day in Yabelo – December 24, 2017

It was an easy day considering that I was not on the road. I planned to relax and read.IMG_20171224_140149

There are quite a number of restaurants and coffee places down the street. I walked out for breakfast at about 10AM. To my surprise, there is nothing that is not meat. So, I bought milk from a shop, which turned out to be from Kenya and bread. I learned that most Ethiopian families here love to make their own bread – they do not have to buy it all the time. I can’t say the same of my own country.

I had some real nyama choma for lunch – they call it Woslam in Oromia. The meat is roasted in a kiln and it comes out really hot and yummy. Happy man!

Today is Christmas Eve and Christmas messages from Kenya started buzzing in but there is no sign of Christmas here. Ethiopia celebrates Christmas in January. This is also not the year 2017 but 2010 according to the Ethiopian Calendar. Am I ten years younger? Whatever makes me happy – Yes!

Nairobi to Addis: Day 2 – Yabelo!

Day 2: Moyale – Yabelo Dec 23, 2017

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John Kisimir

I alighted from the bus in Moyale, called my contact who advised that I should make haste and cross to the Ethiopian side because they have power cuts at 10:00AM and that means they will not be doing any immigration work until the afternoon.

Breakfast: Liver and ugali at ZamZam restaurant – Yes, let me make it heavy. As I washed hands at the back of the restaurant, a young Maasai warrior emerged from one of the rooms. I could tell he is Tanzanian by the colour of his shukas and beads. What on earth is one of my own doing 1000KM from home? A little chitchat – he sells honey and its good business. Whatever works for you man – as long as it feeds your kids.

I made my way down to the border post, past yelping money changers, boda boda taxis and did my paperwork – it is a beautiful building with a large parking area for travellers and transit tracks. I could see across the bridge in Ethiopia that they have put up the same facility. Africa is moving forward and traveling is much easier!

My contact/fixer arrived as I walked out of the Kenya immigration and we crossed the bridge towards Ethiopia on his motorcycle. I found a group of Kenyan Christians on a mission to Djibouti lining up at Room 2. The officials were chatty and friendly – a word of Swahili and Amharic here and there between them and the excited young missionaries. My turn came and the passport was quickly stamped and told: “Good luck with Djibouti, sir!”

That was easy! The backpacker just passed for a missionary. I rarely cross African border posts with little drama. As I walked through the gate, the guard blurted “Wapi chai?” I smiled and walked past him and jumped on the motorcycle – I need to change money and find a bus to Yabelo – 200KM away for my first night in Ethiopia. There is no direct bus to Addis Ababa from Moyale but you can take buses that stop at cities like Yabelo, Hagera Maryam, Hawassa or Shashemene. It all depends if you want to tour these towns.

My contact quickly briefed me that there is tension and insecurity on the Ethiopian side of Moyale. There has been fighting between Somali and Oromo people and dozens have been killed. The government claims that the conflict is overuse of resources like water and grazing areas etc.

Moyale on the Ethiopian side is literally divided into two – one side occupied by each group.

As we rode towards the bus station, Gede showed me the station on the Somali side that is empty – for fear of attacks. Somalis were staying indoors or have left town. It is strange that everything looks normal – shops are open and the streets are busy with people on their daily chores.

Transport to Yabelo is by minivans and I found passengers already seated and luggage being tied to the carrier.  The fare is 60 Birr (Sh180) but was quickly hiked to 80 once the attendant learnt that I am a foreigner.

There was also an extra fee of 100 birr (Sh300) for my rucksack – purportedly for the customs and police officials at different checkpoints along the way. We haggled over this, as I insisted that I will deal with the police myself if they have a problem with my luggage.

“He is not a foreigner,” said one of the passengers. “He is pretending not to know our language.”

Am I causing unnecessary drama? I look a little Cushitic and you could not pick me from a crowd in Ethiopia as long as I keep my mouth shut. My contact negotiated the fee down to 50birr (shs150). He took the phone numbers of the driver and another passenger so that he can check on me while on the way.

11:20 AM: Okay, let us go!

The road to Yabelo is smooth – easy drive. There are a number of police checkpoints but they did not bother with us except the conductor passing on bribes to them.

The driver could speak some English. A mother offered his 8-year old son as a translator. I sat next to a young couple who are definitely in love – hands wrapped around one another. I mused if they know that love could at some point fade away and that it will hurt. I turned my attention to the window to enjoy the landscapes of Southern Ethiopia!

As we approached Yabelo at 2:45 PM, the driver asked: “Do you need a bedroom?” I had to quickly remember that he meant hotel accommodation.

“I will stay at Yabelo Motel. It should be on the road before the town,” I responded.

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Yummy: Sheekla Tibs and Injera.

I alighted and bid them goodbye and crossed the street to the motel. I could feel the passengers’ eyes on me – still wondering why I am not one of them.

Yabelo is a small town of about 15,000 people. It is predominantly occupied by Oromo people and hosts several aid agencies. My contact here is an old friend.

I had Shekla Tibs and Injera for dinner and downed it with local beer. Shekla Tibs is some kind of sizzling nyama choma placed on a little clay pot cum jiko.

My contact here had some good news. I can get a ride on one of their vehicles going to Addis Ababa on Dec 25 (Christmas Day). This means spending an extra day in Yabelo. Perfect!

Goodnight – 1,000Km Done!