Kibera is a little pocket that was built along the vacant land of the railway tracks. Close by, literally a stone’s throw away, are Wilson Airport, gigantic modern stores, mansions and the National Park. It’s this strange combination–slums and mansions, office towers and airports, lions and rhinos, all within sight of one another–that constantly amazes me.
Within 15 minutes of walking out of Kibera we were strolling beside the National Park. I’d seen a white rhinoceros grazing right there the year before. We stopped–there in the field—because a hundred yards away we thought we saw a lion. It’s fairly common for lions to leap the fence and to have to be killed by policemen. Our armed guards close by we were not afraid. We stopped and looked over the fence, hoping we could get a picture. Perhaps it would get up and move–preferably away from where we stood.
Finally our driver, Alex, an experienced safari guide, got out of his car to look. He stared for a while, looked at us and said, “That is a rock.” He climbed back in the van and drove away and we started walking again. A good story—but it would have been a better story if it had been a lion.
We started up the Mombasa highway. As Muchoki observes, Being finished with Kibera did not mean being through with Nairobi. It stretched out along the highway. It was still people and shops and homes and vehicles in an endless line.
We still had a long way to go to get free of Nairobi. We walked along through the city. The road was chaotic–the ‘rush hour’ in Nairobi lasts all day long. Horns blaring, exhaust fumes tainting the air and filling our nose, eyes and lungs. Like Muchoki, I just wanted to be free of Nairobi, to pass the airport and find myself away from the city.
Our plans that day called for us to walk half way to Machakos–a distance of over 30 kilometres. We started strong, almost marching along. I think we were all buoyed by being not only free of the city but by being away from Kibera. The impression it had made was heavy on our hearts and we talked about it as we walked.
Eventually leaving the city behind, we entered into a landscape that was very similar to the place where we’d started. Acacia trees were in the distance, as well as cactus and scrub bush. When the land gets drier it gets poorer. There are fewer farms, fewer stores and fewer people. Once again we were walking through open savannah. I mentioned to my companions that I’d often seen zebra and giraffe here through the windows of my car as we drove. Almost instantly, as if on cue, we saw three giraffe, not far off the road.
In Canada we have problems with cars striking deer or moose. It Kenya it can be giraffe and elephants. I read in the local paper that on average they have three giraffes a month killed by traffic along the Mombasa Highway where we were walking. Quickly the animals are cleared by local people who come out with knives and machetes and take away the meat.
Giraffes are shy and beautiful animals. They pose no threat to people. In my mind, I placed Jata beside me and wondered what she would say, how she would react, and I thought: Wouldn’t everybody want a giraffe as a pet?
While giraffes pose no threat to people they can be a sign of potential problems. Where there are giraffe there are always zebra and where there are zebra there are lions—“See zebra, think lion” is more than a quaint saying.
At this point, our walking procession had stretched out farther than was wise. Matt–always filming–was not only far behind but most vulnerable. With his eye in the viewfinder and his mind distracted by the film, he wouldn’t see a lion until it killed him. I asked one of our guards to slow down and wait for him and worked at keeping everybody else bunched up without telling them why. Like Muchoki, I didn’t want to worry them.
At the end of our day we’d be driving off. We were planning on staying at the home of a friend–Reverend Nicholas. We’d be sharing a meal and sleeping in soft beds provided by Nicholas’ hospitality. But what about Muchoki and Jata? Not only weren’t there soft beds there were hardly any homes. The country was getting drier and drier and the homesteads farther apart and poorer. Besides it wasn’t like they could simply knock on a door and ask for a room. That’s when I came up with the idea of having them climb a tree.
Lions are generally land animals, leaving trees to leopards. They can climb trees but generally don’t climb, don’t climb high or climb with little grace and agility. Large male lions are even less likely to try to scale a tree. My decision to put Muchoki and Jata in a tree would certainly not be a guarantee of their safety but would make them safer. The higher they went the safer they would be.
Sometime around one in the afternoon we were passed by a man in his mid-twenties walking. He was keeping a good pace and we seemed to subconsciously pick up ours to match his. Sometimes he’d stop and we’d pass him. Inevitably he’d reappear behind and eventually overtake us. At first we simply thought that he would be going a short distance. Then “short” became longer and longer. Finally Henry spoke to him.
He had been living and working in Nairobi. He’d lost his job. With no money and no place to live he decided he needed to return home and the only way to get there was on foot. His home was on the other side of Machakos. He was going to walk approximately 75 kilometers along the same route we were going to walk. Here we were–by choice–making this walk. He, like the characters in my book had no choice.
As we neared our goal for the day, the sun was starting to set. We called for our driver and climbed aboard. As we drove we started looking for our friend. He was less than a kilometer ahead of us. We stopped, hailed him and offered a ride to Machakos. There weren’t enough seats–Baraka doubled up with Julia–and he joined us. The next 25 kilometers would have taken him five or six hours. He wouldn’t have arrived until sometime in the middle of the night. We were there in twenty minutes.
We pulled off to the side of a busy road in Machakos. He offered his gratitude and said that now he had hope that he could reach his homestead–still 25 kilometers away–by midnight. He waved goodbye and disappeared into the crowd. It was only then that we realized that if we’d given him a couple of hundred shillings–$3 or $4–he could have taken a matatu and been there within the hour. I felt bad for not thinking this through. Part of me felt like I’d let down Muchoki and Jata. If somebody had given them the money they could have taken a matatu too.