Blue-eyed in Luhya-land
(May 8th, 2001)
“Mr. Lindstrom, please wait a moment.”
I looked around to see who was calling. We had a taxi waiting outside the hotel to take us down-town for some shopping and it had already been waiting for us for quite a while. Over at the reception desk, I saw the receptionist making a sign at us. We went over to him to see what he wanted.
"Mr. Lindstrom," he said. "There was a phone call for you earlier today. He’s left a message." He handed Bertil a paper.
I staggered. What was this? I’d spoken to my family in Sweden a moment earlier so I knew the message wasn’t from them and nobody else knew where we were. I got a feeling of imminent danger – that I was falling into a black abyss. Oh God, my pulse was going up; I started shaking and hyperventilating.
With a comforting arm around my shoulders, Bertil held up the paper so that both of us could read it at the same time. Having read it, we stared at each other. It was from Kakamega; from Noah, who had helped us selling our computers. The message in itself wasn’t important but how on earth did he know where we were? We’d certainly never told him we’d stay at the Boulevard. We’d actually lied to him and told him we’d go up north, to the Turkana area on vacation and then we’d secretly sneaked off to Nairobi instead. And in order to fool people, we hadn’t booked a direct flight to Sweden but instead one via Italy and Spain. I felt kind of creepy inside. This didn’t feel good. We’d decided nobody in Kenya was to know we were heading for Nairobi. I mean, after all our lives had been threatened and now people had found out where we were; if Noah had figured it out, it was quite possible others had also done so.
In fact, this made us so nervous that we immediately took a taxi to the Swedish Embassy, where we explained what had happened and that we were very worried. The female Embassy official offered us a security guard from the Embassy for our remaining day in Kenya. We declined the offer, not wanting to seem like hysterical persons. We were advised that if we felt in the least worried at the airport, we should contact the Embassy security officer on duty there. To make sure we’d recognise him, should we need his help, she called him into her room.
We’d by now lost all interest in sightseeing and shopping and went straight back to the hotel where we kept close to other European hotel guests. Maybe they’d help us if something happened. We both had this strange feeling we were being watched and followed by people who wanted to harm us.
At early dawn, we caught a taxi to the airport, where we waited anxiously for the hours to pass. We were still feeling very uneasy as if, at the last minute, someone would catch up with us and prevent us from leaving the country. It was an irrational fear but nonetheless very much present.
We waited for boarding time, hovering in the vicinity of Immigration. For a couple of years we’d been longing for this moment to come – the moment when we’d leave Kenya. I felt somewhat relieved when I saw the security officer from the Swedish Embassy making sure we got safely on our way. But when I looked at the Immigration officer in front of my queue, my relief disappeared. He looked so stern; it was quite possible he’d stop us. Who knows, it might be forbidden to leave the country while a court trial was going on.
“Bertil,” I said, “couldn’t we switch to another queue? That officer up front seems awfully rigorous.”
“No, we can’t, that would look extremely suspicious. We have to remain in the queues we’ve chosen. See you on the other side. Don’t be afraid.”
It took such a long time at Immigration. I sweated and had difficulty in remaining calm. I wanted to shout, "Hurry up."
Suddenly it was my turn. The immigration officer looked at me, while he slowly leafed through my passport. He stared at me again until I felt I couldn’t stand it much longer.
Then he said in a serious voice, "Madam, you’re not allowed to stay any longer in Kenya. Your entry permit expires tomorrow."
"Yes, I know. That’s why I leave today," I answered in a pathetic voice.
"Have a nice trip," he concluded and handed back my passport.
I turned around and noticed also Bertil had now passed Immigration. Through the window I saw how the Swedish Embassy security man waved farewell to us.
"Gate number 12 is now open for boarding." What wonderful words.
Tears ran down my cheeks. "Thank God, we're alive!" I said. "We made it..."
I hiccupped, laughed and cried; all at the same time. In spite of the laughing, I felt totally ragged. I felt as if I’d just barely avoided an accident, with waves of adrenaline flushing through my body. An enormous fatigue. Limbs weighing tons. Almost incapable of moving.
By my side on the plane just taking off from Nairobi’s international airport, sat Bertil, bearded and sweaty; also he had tears in his eyes. He put his arm around me and gave me a reassuring hug. It was thanks to him, I’d made it through all the tumultuous events we’d experienced.
"And now, some champagne," he said. "Let’s toast the future and celebrate we’re on the plane.”
“But Bertil, I’m so…”
“Hush, don’t think about the bad times now. Let’s plan the future. And – who knows – maybe one day we’ll also remember the good things.”
I saw below us the dry plains in the slum areas on the outskirts of Nairobi and the national park. We were leaving Kenya, a country which had been our home for five years and the place we’d intended to spend the rest of our lives. We’d only packed one suitcase each on this trip. The rest of our belongings remained at Riverdale Gardens, our Kenyan home.
We toasted and then Bertil drifted off. I thought about our dogs, left behind in Kenya. I missed them so much: Rufus, my liver-brown flat-coated retriever we’d brought from Sweden when we emigrated in 1996, his beloved bitch Merry, and their puppy Musse, a sweet black rascal.
My thoughts also dwelt on the paradise we’d left. Riverdale Gardens with all its beautiful flowers, bushes and trees, lots of tropical birds in different colours and thousands of butterflies, and all the fruit trees. The wonderful weather. How on earth would I be able to live without all that?
But, on the other hand, we were through living with thieves and violence around us. I wanted a normal life again. No more checking over my shoulder to see if someone was too close; if someone followed me; if someone looked dangerous. I wanted to disappear in the crowd; not stand out as different and consequently a target for others.
And… Oh God, what would we do once we were back in Sweden? We’d handed in our notice when we left for Kenya five years ago, and we’d certainly not get our jobs back after such a long time. We’d also sold our house and I’d, once again, have to live with constant pain because of Sweden’s cold climate; one of the reasons for leaving Sweden. No work, nowhere to live, no money, no belongings …
When the steward had brought me a glass of whisky, I leaned back in the chair. I felt better now; my blood pressure was once more almost normal. With my eyes closed, I tried to concentrate on positive feelings, but it was so hard.
Bertil woke up, stretched and, scratching his beard, said, "Why on earth did we believe the village chief, when he said the villagers would celebrate us upon our arrival?”
“We’re probably the most blue-eyed people on the universe. Bertil, why can’t we ever learn?" Thinking of the chief’s words, I felt my blood pressure going up again.
“Yes, and imagine; if it hadn’t been for the gold, we’d never have been in this situation."
2. Gold on the savannah
Our Kenya adventure began with a trip to Masai Mara at the end of 1995, when I found a stone containing gold on the savannah. When I showed it to Herman, the camp chef, he told us about his home town, Kakamega, and its gold rush. A week later, we found a description of the Kakamega gold rush in an atlas of Kenya. Bertil, being an old gold-digger, went back to Kenya a few months later in order to plan future gold-digger trips together with the camp owner and Herman. Then, in May 1996, Bertil and I made an expedition to the Kakamega district where we found villages living on gold panning. We had a marvellous time panning for gold in the rivers together with the villagers. Everything was beautiful and people were so hospitable. And then, one morning, I looked down on the green valley from our hotel in Chavakali and said, "You know how we’ve been talking about leaving Sweden and our dull life, and find a place in a better climate. This is where I want to live."
And Bertil answered, without hesitation, "Then we’ll do just that."
We returned to Kenya in August that same year and spent time bumping around on almost non-existent roads in search of a plot. It felt like hundreds of kilometres and we got bruises everywhere from the potholes on the roads. We seldom had food and we almost never had time for sleep.
But then we suddenly found our green valley. Peaceful and beautiful and, as an extra bonus, close to the rainforest. Here and there, clay huts, scattered between tiny fields. A stream in the bottom of the valley and a small area with remaining rainforest on the opposite ridge. Cheerful laughter from the people working the fields. It felt right from the very moment we saw it.
At the purchase ceremony, we spent five hours sitting on chairs in boiling sunshine, together with half of the villagers, all the village elders, the local administration and the chief himself and - of course - the vendor in his mauve robe, with a big cross hanging around his neck. He looked like a true prophet. All the presents and the money we handed over, all the prayers in kiluhya-language, all the surveys and all the translations. Shortly after all this was finished into town for the sales agreements, witnesses signing with their fingerprints, all the stamps and lots of other, boring details. When all that was done, the domains were at last ours: twenty thousand square metres of land, used previously as maize fields, with old clay huts. I was so happy then.
Back in Sweden, we sold our terraced house and paid off our bank loans. That way we managed to amass a few hundred thousand Swedish kronor in cash. On December 6th, 1996 the moment for our emigration finally arrived. And so we left, with the blessings of our grown-up sons and our parents, to start a new and better life. Full of optimism, we still remembered the farewell words of our nice future village chief: “The whole village will dance and sing the day you’re coming back!”
3. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport
(December 7th, 1996)
The luggage line started with a whining and screeching sound. Everybody's eyes automatically turned towards the monitor close to the ceiling. Yes, it was our luggage that was on its way. My stomach was churning. How had it gone? Where was he? How was he?
I looked towards the line. I wasn’t at all interested in our suitcases and other things. My eyes searched eagerly for one specific item. Suddenly I heard a murmur from the crowd of fellow passengers and a surge of people approached the line and my package. A couple of men pushed their way through the crowd, lifted my item off the line and carried it towards me, accompanied by lots of people. I slumped down onto the stone floor in front of the grey box and, surrounded by a circle of inquisitive people, I carefully opened the door of the box.
He was sitting in there, still half-drugged by the sedatives administered to him before the flight. Our beautiful young dog Rufus. He tottered out of the box into my arms and gave me a hasty kiss on my ear, followed by a big yawn. The spectators asked anxiously how he was. They’d, in fact, been present at Arlanda and overheard our discussion with the aircraft crew as to whether Rufus would be transported in a heated storage room or not. They’d also heard my threats of not entering the aircraft, unless we had an absolute promise it would be heated. It seemed as if all these unknown persons were as delighted as we that everything was OK.
When Bertil had assembled all our things, we moved together towards Customs with an overloaded luggage cart. I had Rufus on the leash and in the other hand I carried an envelope full of different official and stamped documents. We chose the Customs exit marked with red and hoped we wouldn’t have any problems.
The two Customs officials were talking to each other, their backs turned on us. I cleared my throat several times in order to catch their attention. After some more coughs and a long wait, one of the officials turned round and asked in an irritated way what we wanted.
"We’ve brought a dog and veterinary certificates to show," I said.
"Go through," was the brusque answer.
"Where to?" asked Bertil.
"There," the official pointed towards the Exit hall. "Now then, move on."
Astonished, we stole through Customs to the freedom outside. What on earth had happened?
We’d had so much work with the Customs documents regarding Rufus´ arrival in Kenya. It was important to fill in the right papers. And then, a couple of days before our departure, we discovered the dog documents had been put in our ship container by mistake. It was impossible to get hold of them. It had been a true feat, succeeding in getting copies by fax. After all that work, nobody at the airport was even interested in looking at them.
Out on the pavement, we tried to exercise Rufus close to some dazzling flowerbeds. Not a chance; big balls of rusty barbed wire, hidden among the flowers, prevented Rufus from sniffing around. Seeing us, the passers-by recoiled, looking frightened at the brown monster on our leash.
Although it was still early morning and a little chilly, the air was filled with the fragrance of the frangipani - temple trees - and the blossoming flowers around the airport buildings. What a change to the Swedish weather; we’d left Sweden during a blizzard with the streets completely covered in snow. Now, just hours later, here we were in the beauty of the tropics, in a wonderful climate. The people around us looked so friendly – albeit curious at seeing our great heap of luggage. The women were so beautiful, many of them clad in fantastic African dresses. They walked with a majestic posture. And people were laughing and joking: that also very different to Sweden.
In a taxi, loaded almost to the point of bursting, we arrived at the only hotel in Nairobi accepting dogs. Our entire luggage was carried into our room, while I exercised Rufus in the hotel garden. The exercise came to an abrupt end, when a wasp stung him on his nose. Our poor dog probably already hated his new home country. Later, an embarrassed reception clerk explained to us that the new hotel owner the previous day had decided dogs wouldn’t be allowed any longer. Crestfallen, we had to leave the room occupied a moment earlier. Now we had nowhere to stay.
Together with a friendly taxi driver, we tried for hours to find a hotel accepting dogs. It proved impossible. Finally, he took us to the estate outside Nairobi where we’d visited a Swedish friend on an earlier trip. After a search among hundreds of houses, we at long last recognised her house and could press the bell. What a relief when her house girl remembered us and invited us in and to stay in the house along with Rufus. The house girl told us that although our friend would be in Masai Mara for another week, she’d be happy to see us on her return.
Our first long period in Nairobi was dedicated to shopping for things to take to Kakamega. We rushed back and forth between the estate and the shops in the centre of Nairobi, overloaded with new and required equipment. Actually, we had neither any idea what there was to buy up-country nor at what distance we’d find shops.
We were soon able to find our way around in Nairobi without a map but, once in a while, by mistake, we ended up in the slum areas. What we saw there was awful. People starving, dying; deformed bodies, crippled children, street urchins intoxicated by sniffing glue or solvents … It was more than I could bear; I walked with tears in my eyes. A horrid stench emanated from the garbage heaps where people rummaged about looking for food. It was all so inhuman. A jarring contrast with the world of the well fed and clad Africans we’d seen at the airport.
Christmas Eve was spent with another Swedish friend, who invited us to a marvellous Swedish Christmas buffet in her beautiful house.
A few days later, just before New Year, we loaded our newly bought Land Rover up to the roof with canned food, tools, dishes and cutlery, cooker, refrigerator, gas cylinders and generator and with Rufus on the back seat; we started the northbound journey to our new home in Western Kenya.
4. Towards an exciting future
The journey up-country was exciting but long. Pressing on, we watched eagerly as the landscape slowly passed by the windows. It was impossible to press our over-loaded Land-Rover onto any higher speed so we had, in other words, plenty of time to look around and enjoy the view. We’d, of course, travelled the same way on earlier visits to Kenya but not at the same snail's pace.
Earlier I’d imagined Kenya as a flat country with reddish soil. Acacias scattered on the plains. Here and there groups of round clay huts with grass roofs. Roaming giraffes and zebras, some lions, and lots of vultures both in the air and eating carcasses on the plain. And it’s like that in Masai Mara among other places, but up in the western highlands of Kenya it is quite different.
While we climbed the western side of Rift Valley, I thought about the stories of how tough immigrants at the beginning of last century climbed these steep, at that time road-less, mountain slopes, in many places 2,000-3,000 metres high. After much hardship they managed to force their carts, pulled by oxen and overloaded with household goods, up the mountains in order to colonize the area west of Rift Valley. An area much more fertile than the plains they were leaving behind. A hilly and green landscape with streams curling in the valleys through the then existing big forests. Today a huge part of this forest area has been converted into enormous tea plantations.
With Kisumu, the capital of Nyanza Province, behind us, we climbed slowly northwards onto the plateau, which lies at an altitude of 1,600-1,800 metres. The road traffic was heavy. It was a tarmac road but with lots of big potholes in it. In many places on the descending parts, bumps had been built in order to decrease speed, but even so, fatal accidents were extremely common.
After about twenty kilometres, we crossed the Equator - marked with a signpost - and entered the most densely populated area of Kenya. The marketplaces were close to each other and alongside the road, commerce was intense. Everywhere there were swarms of people walking, cattle, bicycles and cars. People wore a huge variety of clothes. Some women looked as if they were going to attend a ball in their silk dresses. They carried their shoes on their heads in order to avoid dirtying them. Some men wore only a loin cloth, whereas others looked very neat in their suits, white shirts and ties.
In Chavakali, we saw the view that had made us choose this region for our new life. An undulating, green scenery. Ridges and valleys penetrated by streams. Along the roads, round grass-thatched clay huts and here and there houses with tin roofs. The huts were hidden in banana groves, among flowering bushes, tea plants and sugarcane. It was so beautiful and looked so tempting.
From one second to the next, it became pitch-dark. Nightfall comes so suddenly this close to the Equator. We realized we couldn’t possibly find our domains on our own. They were somewhere out there, to the right towards the rainforest - but where? After long discussions we decided to try to find our friend Timothy’s house.
Timothy was the man, who drove us around in the district for days on end in August, in search of a good plot. He was a cousin and close friend of the Member of Parliament, representing our new village. We knew more or less where he lived and asked people for road directions. Since Timothy was well-known in the countryside, we eventually got proper directions and found his house without any mishap.
The hospitality shown by him and his family, in spite of us being unannounced guests, was unbelievable. We were soon given a room in the house of Timothy´s mother. It was a genuine brick house, built during the gold rush in the 30’s and bought by Timothy´s father, who by that time was a most respected and popular chief.
The following day we went with Timothy, to our plot in Wuasiva village. After a couple of hundred metres on the narrow village road, we came to a stop. In front of us we saw a ravine with huge sharp rocks and hardly any space for the wheels. The whole ravine declined towards a tea plantation. If we tried to move on, the Land Rover could tilt over among the tea bushes. But Bertil rolled up his sleeves. We had to pass. Centimetre by centimetre he forced the rocks and after some horror-filled minutes we arrived at the far end with our lives and car intact.
"We drove here last August in an ordinary car. How is it possible the road looks like this already?" I asked Timothy.
"There’s been a rainy season since then," he answered, "and the road has collapsed even more."
"One thing is certain," said Bertil, "I don’t feel like passing this place every time we go shopping. We’ll probably have to make improvements on the road. We must talk to the villagers along it and find out if we can repair it together."
Rumour must already have spread via the grapevine, since the village chief, accompanied by assistant chiefs, village elders and lots of others, met us at the plot. We’d earlier decided we’d live in the lower of the two clay huts on the land, so we parked the car down there and the men helped us unload it.
Before Bertil and I could move into our hut, we needed a toilet and a shower, a fence and a couple of guards –“askaris”. Since the plot wasn’t fenced, Timothy was concerned about our security and wanted us to rent a villa in Kakamega to begin with. Our own chief opposed that and repeatedly declared, "Your safety is my concern." However, as we understood it would be difficult to have Rufus running loose without a fence, we decided to accompany Timothy to Kakamega to look for a villa. After a several-hour-long search even Timothy understood we wouldn’t find a suitable house. They were all let for a minimum of six months to a year and we were, of course, not interested in that. The heat was agonizing and Rufus, who was hungry, hot and thirsty, became increasingly restless.
Suddenly Bertil remembered a small hotel, where we’d had lunch during one of our earlier visits to Kakamega. Fortunately enough they had a room for us and also accepted we’d bring our dog. The problem now solved, we decided to stay there for some days, until the workers had put up the fence on the plot.
We spent New Year’s Eve over a tasty Kenyan dinner with champagne on the hotel lawn. Above us thousands of billions of stars twinkled in the pitch-dark night. We felt very confident, with lots of plans for our exciting new life that would start the following day.
I was too tired to sleep. So many new impressions and such a lot of sunshine had worn me out. Now my body couldn’t relax. But it didn’t matter as I was so happy. Everything was progressing on our land and we would finally move into our small clay hut tomorrow. It was such a challenge to make this adventure work.
My thoughts drifted to my earlier life; what I’d done before meeting Bertil. Suddenly, I realized that our African adventure wasn’t the first challenge I’d accepted in my life. On my own, I’d actually once before exchanged a secure existence for a very uncertain one.
I’d been working hard for many years within the Swedish travel trade, having finally obtained a rather high position with a good salary. My work was prestigious and opened doors for me. I travelled a lot to different countries, always staying in the best hotels. Everybody seemed to think I was an important person. My life was really comfortable; I bought shoes in the Philippines, clothes in Hong Kong and had new outfits made for me in Bangkok. I had Singapore Slings at Raffles in Singapore; I visited Alice Springs in Australia – a place I’d wanted to see all my life; I went to Borneo and stayed with the head hunters in a long house…
During my vacations, I was quite another person. Walking barefoot at the summer house, fishing, roaming the forests for mushrooms…
One day, I started thinking about the future. Would it always be like this? Would there never be anything new in my work? Would I do the same boring work year after year? Was it enough to be regarded as an important person?
No, it was not enough. I decided to climb down the ladder. I needed a real challenge.
In my work, I’d started using computers, in a very simple way. I actually didn’t understand them but saw that there was a potential in them. I bought one - 640 kb RAM - and started learning some fundamental computer programs. But these couldn’t do all I wanted done. I needed to know more; I needed some programming skills.
I quit my work and the wonderful monthly pay check was history. With trial-and-error and a lot of computer courses, the machine suddenly obeyed my instructions. I was programming. My small company got a few important projects at a big company and I managed to survive on the money coming in.
Life was once more fantastic. It was such a wonderful feeling having to strive again. It didn’t matter that I no longer could afford travelling abroad or all the other things I’d had for such a long time. I felt alive.
A couple of years later, I bought a new computer. It didn’t work well so the company sent a man from their technical team to help me. We started talking and it didn’t take long before we discovered that we had a lot in common. Both of us loved Australia, both of us had been in Borneo… He had been several times in Australia, digging for opals and panning for gold.
This man was my future husband, Bertil. He moved into my house and a couple of years later we got married at the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok. Christian and David, my sons from an earlier marriage, were our witnesses and accompanied us on our honey moon trip in Asia.
Now, a really strenuous life began with work around the clock. Bertil was working full-time in a news agency. Night time he helped me with my computer company. But it was fun to work in a team. Whenever we could take some time off, we went gold panning in the northern part of Sweden and Norway – a hobby that I’d come to love.
Our major problem was that we didn’t know how to balance work and free time. Work occupied more and more of our time. Since I was also suffering badly from fibromyalgia, worsened by the Swedish climate, I was getting depressed. Would I always have this ache? Work was too much. Too little freedom. Too little time to enjoy life. Reading the newspapers was horrible. Everywhere on the globe, people were suffering. We wanted to help them but were regarded as too old. How could we change our way of living? Get more out of life.
One day, we were offered a wonderful gift: a three-week tour for two persons to Kenya. And that was actually the start of this new challenge of ours…
6. Our African home
While carrying our suitcases into our "banda" (clay hut), we couldn’t help glancing furtively at each other. I felt certain Bertil, like me, was wondering what we’d embarked on. Would we be successful in this huge adventure? The difference between this and our terraced house in Täby was unbelievable.
Our new home was both very small and extremely African. A traditional round banda, thirty years old, with a roof covered with brown grass, tilted towards one side. The diameter was just over five metres. We’d have to share that small area; two grown-ups and a dog. But it would work; I was sure. The rest of the villagers lived in similar bandas and those families mostly were much bigger.
Part of our land was now fenced in. We also had a simple wooden shed for the shower and toilet a couple of metres from the banda. The shower consisted of a 70 litres black plastic tank on the roof, a tap and a hose. It gave us sufficiently hot water, assuming we asked someone to fill the tank. Of course, sunshine would also be necessary; otherwise the water would be too invigorating. The toilet was a pit-hole toilet, a deep hole in the ground. In order to feel more civilized, we bought a proper seat for it.
After our first night in the banda, we had to call the carpenter for urgent assistance. He had to put papyrus mats on the walls of the shed in order to prevent people from seeing us through the big gaps in them.
Timothy lent us a low table and a couple of office chairs to put outside. Since the small papaya tree, close to the banda, didn’t offer us any shade, we had to move the furniture around the hut in daytime following the shade.
The askari problem had been solved. The village chief and Timothy, who didn’t seem to be best friends, had finally compromised and chosen one askari each. Timothy, cousin of our Member of Parliament, chose the chief askari, Jim. This man had earlier worked as security guard to our M.P. and was an intimidating person but since he probably knew his stuff, we’d have to accept that. Our chief selected Nick, one of his cousins, as guard number two. A small, simple shed was built for them and our chief helped us to shop for the things they’d need for their household.
Apart from the two askaris, we employed Johannes as “shamba boy” - garden boy. Probably we wouldn’t have chosen him of our own free will, since he didn’t speak one word of English, but the reason for doing it anyhow was that we, one of our first days in the village, received an official letter from the Chief’s Office. In this letter, the chief told us Johannes was very poor; his wife had recently died and he couldn’t afford to get her body from the morgue. The chief asked us to lend Johannes money for that purpose and to let him repay us by working for us. We felt sorry for him and gave him a loan and temporary work. Every payday we deducted a small part of the loan. In that way, he still had some money left to use for food for his little daughter.
There were moreover loads of day-workers on the plot busy with fencing, compost digging, preparation of a vegetable garden and lots more. Top-speed everywhere and at the end of the day the queue of people waiting for their daily salary was long.
As our household goods in the shipping container wouldn’t arrive for a long time, we were forced to make innumerable shopping trips to nearby Kakamega. We’d indeed bought a lot in Nairobi but had completely forgotten to buy essential things like kerosene lamps, mattresses, blankets and similar household items. We went to town almost every morning, with long lists of what to buy. And we returned almost always without having been able to tick off all the items on the list. Everything was so time-consuming.
Something as simple as opening a bank account took several days. You couldn’t just walk into the bank, asking for an account. No, first you had to be recommended by other bank customers. Then the issue was to be discussed at a board meeting and only thereafter, if you were lucky, could you get an account; this being a big privilege.
We’d have had difficulties in coping with all these new things without Timothy´s help. He assisted us almost daily, showing us around, introducing us to people and explaining Kenyan customs.
7. My former life
I looked up from the book I was reading. I saw Bertil further up on the compound talking to a couple of the workers. He looked so alive and happy, not at all like the tired and worn-out husband he’d been during our last year in Sweden. He didn’t seem to miss his computers; he didn’t even talk about them any longer. His mind was engaged in finding technical solutions in order to improve our existence. He’d even started commenting on birds and flowers; he’d started noticing nature and its wonders. He was really happy. He hadn’t agreed to move to Kenya just to make me happy; he, too, had obviously really wanted that change in life-style.
I was so happy that both my sons had given us their blessings before we left Sweden. They were both very fond of Bertil and since he was such a secure and reliable person, they were convinced he’d take good care of me, and I of him.
It was maybe not so strange that David had given us his blessing since he had the same longing for adventures as I. A couple of years ago, he’d actually taken a break in his architectural studies to go travelling in India and South East Asia. He’d spent quite some time there, going twice with his friends. On his travels, he met and worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He’d also done the Indian Himalayas on a motorbike. He was an adventurer in heart. I mused when I thought how much he resembled his father in his physical appearance but he had inherited a lot of his character from me. He was really a true mixture of both of us.
Also Christian, my eldest son, had given us his blessings. He had led quite a different life from his brother. He was now a civil engineer with Computer Science as speciality. From high school he went straight into a serious relationship, living with his girl-friend. Both of them studied hard and soon finished their education, after which they both found good jobs. They’d still not seen much of the world outside Sweden, but I hoped they’d visit us soon.
Ulrika, my sweet baby girl, had died in a cot death being just one month old. Had she lived, she would now have been one year older than David. Losing her was horrible. I’d been almost out of my mind; if it hadn’t been for Christian, who was three years old at that time and needed me, I wouldn’t be here now.
I’d met the father of my children, and my first husband, when I was studying languages at Stockholm University. He was finalizing his studies in Economics. I’d just come back from Spain, where I’d spent much of the past few years. I lived with my family until the day I got married; moving in together was out of the question in those days. Courtship, engagement and marriage, it all followed the rules of etiquette – so important at that time.
Immediately after my wedding, my parents moved to Sri Lanka, where my father led a UN project. They left their big flat for us to live in, while they were abroad. It was enormous: 275 square metres, located in the posh part of Stockholm. So there I was, a newlywed, without anyone to ask for advice. I didn’t even know how to cook rice. I didn’t know how to polish the parquet floors; I didn’t know anything at all about a household. I’d never lived on my own and had been sheltered from reality by my loving parents.
It was unbelievable how different my first marriage was to the life I now had with Bertil. Dinner parties, cocktail parties, dances, bridge evenings. Evening dresses, dinner dresses, mandatory high heels and painted nails, beautiful hair arrangements. I had two seamstresses making new dresses out of all the wonderful fabrics my parents sent me from Sri Lanka and India.
It was a fabulous life, at least to begin with. It soon, however, began to pall and feel shallow. When the children arrived, things changed a bit, of course. My husband was the centre of the family and there was no team work at all. In that respect, our marriage was very old-fashioned.
After twelve years, our marriage ended and my sons and I moved to a terrace house to start a new life. It was tough. In order to survive, I had two jobs: one full-time in the daytime and one part-time at night, when the children were asleep. I loved my children and wanted them to have the things their friends had. I also tried to compensate for their absent father. He was too busy with his new life to care about his sons and there was no contact.
Thirteen years passed in a never-ending struggle. I was lonely and it was tough bringing up two teenagers by myself. No one to talk teenage problems with. No time to relax on my own. My parents, who were back in Sweden, helped all they could, but they were getting old. Nor did they have much patience with teenagers.
And then suddenly I met Bertil and the loneliness I’d felt was over.
8. Interlude in Nairobi
It was a real nuisance that, after only two weeks in our village, we were forced to return to Nairobi to arrange our entry permits. However, it had to be done, so we packed some clothes and Rufus into the car; picked up a Kenyan couple we’d promised a lift to the capital and were on our way.
With Kisumu and Lake Victoria behind and driving towards Kericho, the engine stopped suddenly in the middle of the countryside. We were stuck on the road in the heat without any means of finding shade. Thank heavens we’d brought a Kenyan man in the car. He darted about like mad by “matatu”, or minibus, in different directions all afternoon in order to find a car mechanic and spare parts.
The later the day, the hotter it got. It was dangerous that Rufus refused to drink in the increasing heat. I was so happy when he, several hours later, finally accepted some fresh pineapple, brought for the journey.
Just before sunset, a village mechanic was successful in making a temporary repair and we were able to start the car and continue our journey, although with a very weak engine. To stay out there in the darkness would have been dangerous. The car didn’t work well at all and the headlamps hardly gave any light. It was really scary going at snail's pace and with poor visibility in the rainy weather up the hills to Kericho. At intervals, we had to shine a torch in front so that Bertil could see the road. The surroundings are notorious for road pirates and at our low speed it would have been easy to board our Land Rover.
In Kericho we put up at a hotel for the night and the following day we managed to drive all the way to Nairobi.
After the troublesome trip, we spent approximately three weeks with paperwork in the big capital. A couple of our friends had promised to arrange our entry permits before our arrival in Kenya, but had filled in the wrong papers. To our consternation we’d discovered on arriving in the country that we had no valid entry permits. Most of our first week in Nairobi was dedicated to waiting for people, who didn’t show up at the agreed time, on different floors of Nyayo House - the building where entry permits were issued.
It seemed hopeless to get the permits, so we finally decided to contact our Member of Parliament, to ask for his help. That was easier said than done since that man also worked in the President’s Office, which meant that, whenever the President Moi was in Nairobi, our M.P. had to be close to him, thus being impossible to contact.
After a lot of waiting outside the Parliament building, we finally succeeded in getting a meeting with him. He sent us to different authorities and ministries in order to solve the problem. Days were spent on a never-ending back and forth. The hopelessly corrupt administration made the issue even more difficult for us. And the many cautioning remarks we got from resident Europeans, gave us butterflies in our stomachs when we thought of the adventure we’d embarked upon.
Our documents were at last approved, on Bertil´s 50th birthday. By that time we were so tired we didn’t have the strength to celebrate properly. The only thing on our minds was that we’d soon be able to return to our village.
Having waved goodbye to the friends we’d been staying with, we drove through Nairobi city centre in order to leave the city on one of the big bypasses. With us on the journey was Betty, our future house-girl, recommended by some friends of ours.
With a sigh Bertil asked me to help him reading the map, saying, "I’ve more than enough, trying to cope with these perilous roundabouts.”
I spent a while studying the map, giving small hysterical cries when other cars were almost hitting ours, but then, at last, we were finally leaving Nairobi with its smell of garbage, dumped in the streets. We were once again on our way to our home in the Kenyan highlands, in the western part of the country – where the air was so much fresher to breathe.
In the back of the Land Rover, Betty was sitting with our two dogs, Rufus and Merry. Merry was our new young family member: a ten-week-old adorable black schabrador puppy we’d bought in Nairobi. I was happy that Rufus, being just over one year old, now had a little girl friend to romp and play with.
After some time on Uhuru Highway going towards Naivasha, I snuggled and started to relax. We had a full day's journey ahead of us and it would be dark when we arrived. Hopefully, the car wouldn’t break down again.
I drifted off for a while but woke up, as Bertil drove into a big parking lot. I recognized the place. In front of us, we had one of the most beautiful scenes in the world: the view over Rift Valley. We bought a Coke each and walked Rufus and Merry, enjoying the fresh wind and the wonderful view. It was hard to understand that the villages down there at the bottom were almost a kilometre lower down. It was really unbelievably beautiful.
The journey continued downwards to the bottom of Rift Valley. It became increasingly hot in the car. In the neighbourhood of Nakuru we stopped for a meal and also took the opportunity to buy some bougainvillea and jacaranda plants in a nursery alongside the road.
"We’ll have to make a turn here," I said suddenly a few hours later. We’d, a moment earlier, left Betty in her village, since she wouldn’t start working for us until next week.
Bertil turned off the big road onto a dusty gravel one. It was swarming with pedestrians, cows, goats, pigs, matatus and “boda bodas”, or bicycle taxis. An unbelievable hustle and bustle. Red dust was whirling around, covering everything. We realized suddenly we were now in the real Africa.
We’d been on the road all day long and the sun would soon be setting. The distance to Nairobi was only about five hundred kilometres, but it could just as well have been several thousand, judging by how tired we were.
Half an hour later we turned onto our small village road. Bertil stepped on the accelerator and almost in flight we passed the horrible road section with the ravine; we were fortunately still in one piece.
After another few hundred metres we saw the village public plot. Bertil turned to the left and stopped the car. We jumped out, with Rufus on the leash and Merry in our arms, eager to see the view of our beautiful valley. Home again.
9. The maize field
With our entry permits approved for the next two years, we were itching to start making our dreams come true. We’d, in fact, already been in Kenya for a couple of months and were longing for real work and we actually had a lot to take care of. It was still the dry season and only a few dry blades of grass were seen here and there, protruding out of the hard clay. Dust was whirling above the ragged soil. We walked around as if in constant fog with our spectacles covered in fine-grained clay and a thin layer of it was covering all our belongings.
How would we ever be able to turn this dusty maize field into a flowering haven? The project seemed hopeless, but we knew it was possible. Upon our arrival in the village, at the beginning of the year, our shamba boys planted wild hibiscus outside our banda. They put some dry twigs into the soil and poured some water on them a couple of times a week. Those twigs had already developed green leaves and red buds. And, during our stay in Nairobi, they planted around 250 banana plants, sweet bananas as well as cooking ones, along both the long sides of our plot. These had also done well and we were already harvesting some of them.
According to our calculations, our yearly banana production was going to be approximately four tons. Two bunches were always hanging in the shower: one with sweet bananas, which we ate for breakfast, and one with cooking bananas, which we boiled or fried. Cooking bananas tasted even better than the best potato. Bananas grow like weeds and they’re easy to plant. You only dig a hole, put the plant in it and give it some manure and water. Six months later the plants are between three and six metres high, carrying up to twenty-five kilos of bananas. When harvesting a plant, you cut it off and within a short time a couple of sister plants come up, as compensation. This way the number of plants becomes increasingly higher.
We were enormously lucky finding, at an early stage, a gardener in the neighbourhood. His name was Petrus. He had an undying interest in both flowers and vegetables and had a big greenhouse on his compound. He was whole-heartedly dedicating his time to help us get started. We got truckloads with flowering shrubs and trees from his home and, with his help, we also found excellent manure for the plants.
Days on end, people were digging, sowing and planting everywhere on our big plot. The lower part of it, stretching all the way down to the valley bottom and the small stream, had been assigned as a vegetable garden. We’d have all kinds of vegetables there, since we needed to be self-supporting. Up here in Western, beyond the tourist tracks, you couldn’t find much to buy other than carrots, tomatoes, onions and "sukuma wiki" (kale). That’s why we now had small plants of squash, eggplant, sweet paprika, sugar peas, haricot verts, cauliflower, cucumber, red cabbage, spinach and mangold, tomatoes and much more growing in our seedbeds and in the remaining part of the vegetable garden we’d dug down potatoes, sweet potatoes, casava, yams, maize and groundnuts as well as sugar cane.
The sun was burning and so hot it became important to protect the seedlings from it so we built small tables out of branches and banana leaves above the seedbeds. It was good to have staff that could descend the steep slope to the valley bottom in order to get the necessary water for the plants, but we realized we’d probably have to find a better long-term solution to the watering problem.
We also worked hard ourselves and our working days began at sunrise. I removed stones and cleared away maize stub from the fenced part of our land, while Bertil was building a shed for the generator. It would supply us with the electricity we needed and therefore it had to be well protected. It was hot already early in the mornings so our working hours were short. When necessary, we rested down in the shade we’d built out of poles, with roof and walls of papyrus mats. It was a luxurious feeling no longer having to move around the banda in search of shade.
As soon as our employees began their working day, it immediately became much noisier. We had to give instructions and check earlier tasks. And we were being watched. Outside the fence, around the part of the land where our banda was located, there were always hordes of villagers, watching and laughing at us. Lots of people wanted to meet us. The excuses to visit us were many. Some people probably only wanted to be able to say they’d visited a "mzungu" (European). Others wanted us to employ them or wanted us to pay the school fees for their children. They expected both this and that from us, because white people were rich.
As a consequence of all these visits, we never had time to sit down and plan. We’d therefore decided our askaris would have to restrict the number of visitors. This wasn’t easy. They couldn’t say we were busy or out since the potential visitors could see us. It was also important admission wasn’t denied to the wrong people, such as the chief, assistant chiefs and village elders who should always be made welcome.
Late afternoons, when the day workers had left, we enjoyed sun-warmed showers after which we changed into clean shorts and T-shirts. Then it was time to find something to eat. We’d by now finished all the canned food bought in Nairobi, and fresh food was problematic. You could find bacon, tasteless sausages and cheese at a high price. Because of the drought, vegetables were scarce and you could only find deep-frozen fish once in a while. It seemed the only things the Kakamega shops were selling were marmalade, fruit drinks, spaghetti, flour, cooking-oil and margarine. But fillet of beef was cheap, if you found a butcher who knew what fillet was. Alas, most butchers cut meat into small pieces and therefore it was quite impossible to find a roast or a nice steak. You just had to choose between fillet and meat for mincing. And minced meat was out of the question for us, since our mincer was packed in the shipping container, which hadn’t yet arrived. We usually wrapped the meat we bought in papaya leaves and left it in the refrigerator to tenderise. If we didn’t do this, it proved inedible. My parents, who had spent many years in the tropics, had taught us this.
Evening time, we went outdoors and snuggled up with a couple of burning kerosene lamps. Down in the valley, frogs were croaking and glow-worms and fireflies were dancing an exotic ballet. The starry sky was showing millions of stars and the white male flowers of our papaya tree were emitting a wonderful fragrance.
We talked endlessly with one another. We had time to do that now. We’d promised each other there would be no more discussions about computers or computer programmes. And we didn’t have to worry any more about client support. We were freed from all that. We would instead dedicate time for us and for each other, plan our future and enjoy life. And in this wonderful environment that was really easy. Yet another reason for feeling content was that I no longer had any problems with aching joints. I felt great after having suffered for many years.
Rufus and his girl friend Merry were resting on a blanket at our side. They, too, enjoyed the lovely evenings. Daytime was often so hot they preferred to stay in the shade or inside the banda. When it was cooler, they amused themselves immensely, running loose on the plot which we’d now fenced to approximately five thousand square metres. At night, we left the back door to the banda open, so that they could come and go as they pleased.
We mostly went to bed around nine, since we got up before sunrise in order to watch it. After tucking the dogs in, we strived to get into the camping beds in our pitch-dark and cramped bedroom. We’d lie there for a while, listening to the sounds from outside. In the neighbourhood close to our banda but on the other side of the fence, we sometimes heard the sound of a team of oxen, ploughing the neighbour's field in preparation for the sowing of maize. After that, we slept soundly in our small clay hut beneath our mosquito net.
Yes, we’d really commenced a Spartan life. But it seemed so right. Days and weeks passed quickly, but we didn’t care what day it was or time. We had no idea what was happening in the rest of the world. We had neither newspapers nor radio or TV. We actually only cared about what was happening in our own village. Nothing else was of importance.
Happy laughter was coming from the other side of the valley. At this time of year, everybody was out preparing the soil on his or her tiny fields. You had to hurry with the preparations. The rains would soon start and then the maize must be sown immediately. It didn’t matter how old you were. Everybody was at work, swinging his or her “jembe”, or pickaxe. Children, too small to lift the jembe, collected sticks and other things that could be used as firewood for the stove and carried home big loads on their heads. Some young boys were driving the family cows and goats to their bandas, sadly with stabs and blows. We’d already noticed they didn’t treat animals well and that many were limping. This wasn’t strange, since their front legs were normally tied together. When walking, they were dragged by the rope, thus in principle being forced to walk on three legs.
The village women passed on their way to and from the fresh water spring, balancing water tanks on their heads. I wanted to see the spring and therefore I went down into the vegetable garden, in search of Johannes. I found him carefully watering our small plants. It was rather strange to see him, a poor illiterate, who didn’t even speak English, care that much about everything growing. Why was he so lazy, when it came to his own home? Why didn’t he plant bananas and avocado on his own land? You could get those for free and they didn’t need watering. Doing that, he’d have something to sell and his daughter would get vitamins.
"Merembe, Johannes," I greeted him, when he came to meet me with a smile. I asked him some questions slowly in English. Despite him answering "yes" all the time, I grasped he didn’t understand me, so instead I started to try body-and-sign-language to explain to him what I meant. I could see he was delighted and proud that everything was growing like mad in spite of the drought. In many cases, the vegetables were ones he’d neither seen nor eaten. I’d make sure he and the rest of the staff would be taught how to cultivate them. They’d get seeds from me.
Johannes and I descended the slope down to the little stream, which wasn’t more than a small dribble now during the dry season. It constituted the lower boundary of our land. He pointed down into the water, drawing a fish with his hands, and started laughing. I understood it was here he, yesterday when fetching water for the flowers, found the mudfish, a twenty-five centimetre long fish looking like a small catfish.
So, the fact there were mudfish was the reason why everybody kept insisting we build a fishpond down here. Well, that would have to be another, later project. As it was, we had quite enough to do.
I explained to Johannes I wanted to see the fresh water spring, about a hundred metres from our compound. On our way there, he pointed to another place in the water, saying something sounding like "pesa". I didn’t understand him and then he pointed to a yellow flower, making rolling gestures with his hands. I suddenly realized what he wanted to tell me and was absolutely delighted by the thought. Gold here in the stream. How wonderful, gold on our own land! It was a fantastic feeling. I laughed happily, showing I understood him.
A group of women were standing at the spring. When we arrived, everybody stopped talking and looked curiously at me. I got friendly answers to my greeting in luhya language and everybody wanted to shake hands and greet me properly.
Part of the spring was made of concrete and the water coming out of the pipe looked clean. Many families didn’t fetch water from the spring. Instead they took water from the small stream, soiled by both animals and humans. Most of the villagers didn’t boil the water; one of the reasons for the many cases of water-borne diseases in the countryside. We, of course, boiled all drinking water, even from the spring.
I said goodbye to the women and went back up into the shade for a rest, before Bertil´s return from Kakamega. My legs became increasingly heavy on my way up to the banda and I started dripping with perspiration. It was extremely hot and it got hotter for every day. The crevices on the ground, caused by the drought, were getting deep as well as wide. According to the newspapers, Eastern Kenya now had famine and no rain was in sight, although the rainy season should have started by now.
10. The curse
For once, I woke up depressed and thoughtful. Not even the beautiful sunrise over the opposite hill could better my mood. I shuddered. I felt uneasy because of yesterday's incident. What a horrible night it had been. The most incredible nightmares about witches and sorcerers.
But it wasn’t perhaps that strange. When lying in bed last night, I felt despair, fear and anger. And the nasty short man Makuso in his white Salvation Army uniform had caused it all.
Makuso was the villager, who had shown us around in Wuasiva, when we, along with Timothy, were looking for land, finally finding it in the village. Later he wrote us a letter, asking when he could fetch the matatu we’d promised him. We answered we’d never either promised or talked to him about a matatu. We weren’t rich people able to give away presents that expensive.
Last week Makuso turned up at our gate, accompanied by a big horde, asking to see us. He was allowed to come down to visit us at our banda but without his companions. We talked for a while, without discussing the issue of the matatu at all. He’s a rather unpleasant person, so I was almost pleased when Rufus managed to dirty his chalky uniform.
Yesterday we suddenly had lots of visitors. Many of them looked at me in a strange way and asked after my health. Of course I answered that I was quite well. The local chief of the Salvation Army requested, when also he had asked about my health, we’d allow him to put up a local office on our plot. He and his soldiers would then take care of the gate control and also hold daily prayers with our employees and us. We rejected this offer in a diplomatic way.
Eventually, our friend Timothy turned up. When he, too, inquired about my health, I asked him for an explanation to all those inquiries.
"Well,” he answered, "unfortunately Makuso has visited the village medicine man, paying for a curse to be put on you. Now he’s walking around in the neighbourhood bragging that you’ll soon die, having suffered from a lot of body swellings. Are you sure you don’t have any swellings, Gunilla?"
"No, I haven’t," I answered indignantly, because I most certainly didn’t want to tell him I’d awakened with a gum swelling that hurt. He might then think I believed in sorcery.
"Why does Makuso want to kill me?" I wondered.
"Makuso wants your land,” Timothy answered, "and he’s planning that if you die, then Bertil could marry one of his daughters. Then they’ll murder Bertil and Makuso and his family can take over the land."
"Oh, my God!" Bertil exclaimed, "So I wouldn’t have any say in the matter?"
"It isn’t funny," I continued, tears in my eyes. "Of course, I don’t believe in these things, but I think it‘s awful people can be this malicious."
"Even if the two of you don’t believe in witchcraft,” Timothy commented, "you’ll notice it’s widely spread here and that people can be dangerous. You grab what you can, even if you have to murder in order to get it. I do beg you never to buy food locally. Never buy unpacked milk; never eat bread or anything else without a sealed package. It’s quite probable they’ll try to poison you."
When Timothy had left, we both remained silent. What had we embarked upon? Yes, we had, of course, heard some atrocious stories about things the villagers had done. One mother, still in prison, had poured kerosene over one of her children and then set him on fire. The reason for doing it was that the hungry child had stolen some “ugali” - maize porridge - just before dinnertime. You poison your neighbour's animals, you poison one another. You stab people to death. It’s irrelevant whether you’re doing it to family members, friends or enemies. People sat among the banana groves, drinking illegally brewed "chan´ga" (local spirits) and once they got drunk, they started…
So, last night we went to bed feeling very ill-at-ease, suddenly not feeling like confident Swedes any longer.