The next day we get up a bit late, at about 9am, take apart the tent, pick up our stuff and check out from the camp. We wait to get to Gilgil to have breakfast, I’m starving but I don’t say a word. Once we get there we have a full English with eggs and bacon and sausages and toasts and juice and coffee and everything.
My friend calls sister and asks her for directions to get from Gilgil to the big IDP camp next to Mawingo, as it’s difficult to get there. Yesterday she told us the road is very rough but that it should be more or less ok as it hasn’t rained lately. Finally my friend gets to talk to her and gets some indications and off we go again.
Here the roads are alive, have an identity, a personality, people know them by their name and they are either welcoming or unfriendly, nice or rough, young or old, they may be moody and they may become hostile when it rains, the rain upsets them and they don’t want people going around then. Here so much depends on the road’s temper, here getting actually around is not taken for granted like in first world countries, here it depends on the will of the road.
And this road so is very rough. Unpaved and undeserving of the name road, most stretches are little more than a rutted dirt track filled with stones. I look around and think it’s true: had it rained it’d be just impossible to drive around these tracks. But it’s very hot and dry and dusty and we don’t know what is worse, if lower the car windows and breathe the dust or keep them up and get boiled in the car.
The few people we cross on the road look at us with surprise and at me with incredulity, they must wonder what the hell we are doing here and where the hell we are going – and with a mzungu in the car. And again the landscape changes so quickly, now irrigated camps that look amazingly green next to the dry road, now flat brownish terrain that stretches out far in the distance, now green hills covered by trees – all in the space of a few kilometres.
But the road, the tracks, I really don’t understand how the car can make it and how it doesn’t break down – until we get to a steep and bumpy uphill track. We lower the car windows and approach it slowly and several children suddenly show up from nowhere and look at me and point at me and shout Mzungu, mzungu! My friend tries to make the car advance but the car stops once, twice, three times, it just can’t go up. We stay there for a minute thinking what to do and the children run to us, put their arms through the windows shouting Mzungu, mzungu! How are you?? Mzungu, give me a present! I say I’m fine, how are you?, and shake their hands and my friend says Lift the windows or they’ll get what they can, and I do and we stay there for a while and my friend starts the engine and tries again to climb the uphill track and the children run to try to help pushing the car from the back and it’s very dangerous because the car keeps sliding backwards and my friend tells the kids in Swahili to please stop helping us and the kids step aside from the car. Finally I get out of the car to make it lighter and my friend keeps trying to climb up the uphill track with the car. The children don’t run to me but stay away and I wander around and look at our car and I wonder whether my friend will be able to make it or not. And after a while he does make it and I give a sigh of relief and go back into the car and say bye to the children and go on towards the camp.
Uphill there are some young guys working on the road, fixing it or building it, I don’t know as at that moment they are having a break and they are sitting down on the ground and they all stare at me, give me a serious look while we slowly pass by them.
It’s funny how my identity has changed in just these five days in Kenya, in Africa, after the anonymity of living in London. Now I am a mzungu, I am different, special, I am to be shown respect, or fear, or dislike, but not ever indifference. I am to be asked for something, money, food, a present, anything, because I, the mzungu, have things, I have money, I am from a different world in which people do have things and since here many people don’t I, in fairness, should give them some. I am the highlight, the star, maybe I’m the one to spurn or maybe something special will happen when I appear.
We go on driving and now there’s nobody around and the road is as bad as usual. I think of the car breaking down when on these roads, in the middle of nowhere. I check my phone and there is no reception. I think of something happening and us being trapped here and lost and children and people suddenly showing up from the bush and closing in us, staring at the helpless mzungu who looks around with fear.
Soon after we finally arrive at the camp, Shalom City, the city of peace. We go in, park and get out of the car. At that moment the food distribution is going on, many big, white sacks lie piled up on the ground while dozens of people are gathered around some guys who are checking some papers. But there are many more people around, children and young people and adults and older people, most of them sitting on the ground but many others walking slowly around in all directions.
I have the feeling of being watching TV, the news, or a documentary – as I’ve seen these same images so many times just sitting bored on a couch with the remote in my hand.
My friend goes to search for the chairman of the camp and I stay by the car and everybody there looks at me, they don’t approach me but stare at me. They look tired, bored, they are all men and thin and seem to be just killing time, waiting – but waiting for what or for whom?
My friend comes back with a few people who apparently are the leaders of the camp. He introduces me to them and they shake hands with us and nod their head in greeting in a respectful way and then walk away with my friend, talking in Swahili. But then I am free to walk around and so I start walking around.
There are many white, shabby tents in sight, spreading out as far as one can see. And in the opposite end from the road there is like a shallow valley with a little pond at the bottom and then a green and beautiful hill framing the camp.
There are many children around and they all look at me, most with a distant smile, many even with some sense of superiority – the superiority that comes from innocence, because they are two times innocent, as children and as victims, or aren’t they? Some little girls look at me, the exotic mzungu, and smile shyly and whisper at each other’s ear and then laugh and walk away and soon lose interest on me. The young look at me with some curiosity but seem not to care too much about my presence – for them maybe I am just one more mzungu coming to take some pictures and then we’ll leave and nothing will actually happen after our visit. Most grown-ups simply ignore me and go on minding their own businesses. Men are just chatting or sitting around and women are walking, always are on her way to somewhere, carrying stuff on their backs or on their heads, carrying children by their hands.
I look at my friend, to whom the camp leaders are talking, gesticulating with their hands, pointing here and there while my friend pays attention to them and nods. Many people surround them, mainly children and young guys and also some men, and more people keep joining the little crowd around my friend, the last ones on tiptoe, trying to see him or to hear him, even if they don’t know what’s going on and what all this is about.
Then I start walking with my friend and the leaders of the camp – all men. They are going to show us around. They are in charge here and so they want to prove it to us. They walk slowly, ceremoniously, they give waves around now and then, they keep the children away from us, talk severely to them in Swahili, push them back from us.
But the children follow us everywhere, they point at us from the distance and run and jump around and look at us, at me. They shout, “Mzungu, mzungu! How are you??”, and I say, “Fine, how are you?”, and their smile broadens and they either stay where they are and look shyly away or reply, “Fine…”, or look at me in awe or just laugh and run away.
For them it’s like a game, we are something exceptional, something that makes today different to the last days’ routine. They talk to each other about us, they wonder who we are, what we’re doing here. They dare each other to say or to do something to the mzungu, and some child approaches me and extends his arm to me and I shake his hand and say, “Hello, how are you?”, and then the child smiles and runs back with his friends and points at me and brags about what he just did.
Or maybe he doesn’t, maybe they are just laughing at us, at me, maybe they are mocking me, how pale I look like, how badly dressed I am for the camp, wearing a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved sweater when it is this hot.
I take some pictures of the children and they just look beautiful in them. But, again, I have seen so many of these pictures, of these images, they are already worn out, they have become a cliché by repetition. What do they say now, these pictures of dirty, thin, beautiful African children? Do they say anything at all anymore? Apart from for me to prove that I’ve been here, for me to send them by email and show how cool and intrepid and good a person I am?
Are these pictures now anything more than postcards of the ‘Refugee (or IDP) Camp Experience’? You come here, take pictures of the children, they smile and maybe feel special, important, for a second and you check your nice picture in the camera screen and the children look at you and then go back to their trying to keep themselves entertained at the boring camp and nothing actually happens.
Anyway I do take some pictures of the children and wonder why they look that beautiful. Maybe it’s because they have some kind of double beauty as they are two times innocent? Maybe it’s because they still have that purity and that natural beauty of children, which in contrast to the ugliness, the exhaustion, the hopelessness of the camp makes them look even more beautiful.
Or maybe it’s not them but me, maybe I just want them to be beautiful, maybe I see them beautiful as beauty is the only thing they can still own.
I don’t know how to behave here. What is the right thing to do, to say? How to look at them? Should I smile in a paternalistic way? Should I look serious and concerned?
We go on with the visit. I make questions. Who gives them food? It’s the government, mainly sacks of grain, rice, cereals. How often? Ah, that depends. In theory once every three or four weeks but you never know. Have any MPs or any politicians ever come here? No, but once Kibaki flew over the camp on a helicopter.
These people are also working the land, there are like little gardens next to many tents and some vegetables are already growing from them. The people from this camp have also bought this land, now it’s theirs, it’s their home, their only home. Unlike the other IDP camp, transport and communication from and to here must be difficult as the road is so awful, but unlike the other IDP camp this soil seems fertile and this place has water and is surrounded by a green hill. Who did they buy the land from? Just someone, you know. Are there any doctors? No, there aren’t. Do they have medicines? No, they don’t. Is there any school? Yes, sort of, a big tent near the entrance to the camp where the youngest children may attend some classes. What is it going to happen? They don’t know. Will this place become a town? Who knows.
The camp leaders keep guiding us, taking us to some particular places and not to others. It feels like the ‘official tour’ of the camp, they take us to the best spots with the best views, with the most dramatic ones. Then they wait while my friend sets the camera and takes some shots and then we are on our way again. I guess that other journalists before us took the very same shots from the very same spots. They make us talk to some particular people who have particular stories and who, probably, have told them already to other journalists before us. It feels wrong, partial, even fake, these guys are just showing us what they want us to see, only allowing us to talk to whom they want us to talk to. But isn’t precisely that what we journalists do when we tell a story? We are not the first journalists coming to the camp and these people learn fast – probably they are directly showing us the camp and taking us in the most practical tour from a journalistic point of view. But again, what happens with these scenes shot again and again by different journalists, with these same few stories told again and again by the same few people from the camp? What do these stories become? And what do all the others become, the untold ones? Do they disappear?
While my friend is doing an interview a young guy approaches me. Are you a journalist? Yes, I am. He is tall and thin and speaks softly and very politely. He introduces himself as Jay Crack, an artist. Which kind of artist? A musician. Which instrument does he play? The guitar, and he sings. I look at him, he seems very young. How old is he? He is 20. His English is very good. He tells me they don’t have water, they don’t have meat, they are hungry, the children are weak, they have no medicines, no money. He tells me they are trying to be self-sufficient and points at the little gardens next to the tents. He is being very dramatic and again it seems as if he was repeating some kind of learnt speech. I look at him and wonder – but of course everything looks true, I only have to look around to see the misery these people live in, their skinny bodies, their sad eyes, the fatigue with which they move. Do people here have any sort of income? I ask. He says most don’t, he goes to town to try do any job, he tries to earn some money by singing, he tries to discover more artists like him in the camp and to help them, he says.
Then he introduces me to a friend of his, James Mwangi. He looks very shy and very young too. I ask him. What does he do? He is a doctor, he tells me. A doctor? I look at him. How old are you? He says he is 21. 21? I say, and you are already a doctor? Well, he smiles, I was studying to be a doctor. And do you have medicines? No, he says.
My friend finishes the interview and we set to continue the tour of the camp. Jay says he wants to give me something and pulls a cd out of his pocket. It’s my last disc, he says, Songs for peace, I sing about the post-election violence to try to build peace. Do you sing in English? It’s mainly in Swahili, but there are English words and there’s one song in English. Thank you very much, I say. Yes, he says, you’re welcome, I’m now trying to record a new one. Can I put it on the internet? Yes, he nods his head. Thanks, good luck, I say. I shake hands with both of them and they stay back as we go on with the visit.
[Soon I'll update this post with one of Jay's songs]
A bit later we find three volunteers who are working at the camp, the only three volunteers, three girls, Madhavi, Ursula and Ritu. They are trying to map the camp, they tell us there are about 14,000 people living there, in between 3,300 and 3,500 tents. They say the camp is divided between the different towns the people came from, and that each area has its leaders, who then organise the food distribution and other affairs. They say they are not sure how fair this distribution is, as no one knows how many people and how many tents there are in every area. They confirm the people here so are hungry, they confirm the lack of meat, the lack of medicines. They say they do have water, that of the pond, but that it’s dirty, that the animals use it to drink and to bath and so do the children. They tell the people from the camp to boil the water before using it but they think many people don’t and they are expecting a cholera outbreak in the camp any day soon. They tell us they estimate that a third of the people in the camp have AIDS and that they have no condoms and that they have no money to get any medicines or condoms. We say good work and wish them good luck and continue our visit.
The leaders make us walk for a while, we are crossing the camp and keep seeing tents and more tents as far as we can see. We’re going uphill and the leaders take us to some spot from where there is an amazing sight of hundreds and hundreds of tents. My friend takes some shots and I look at the children who are already gathering around us. They say, Mzungu, how are you? And I say I’m fine and ask them how they are and they smile and keep looking at us.
Then we go on walking and reach another high spot from where we can see, downhill, a pretty house surrounded by a beautiful garden and big, farmed fields and even a little, private forest. The sight is amazing and contrasts so much with the sight of the camp. What is that?, we ask. It’s a house that belongs to an Englishman, we learn, whose family has owned it ever since the colonial times. The house and the fields and the forest and everything? Yes, the house and the fields and the forest and everything. Funny, isn’t it, I tell my friend, how one person, a British guy, owns all that, and I make a wide gesture with my hand, while 14,000 people share this, and I look back at the camp. Yes, says my friend, and a moment later he translates and tells me that, actually, the people from the camp are pleased with the Englishman, as he is giving them food and stuff. I look back down at the house and don’t know what to think.
But then we head back towards the entrance of the camp, where we parked our car. On our way back children keep running around and staring at me and saying, Mzungu, mzungu! How are you?
It’s hot and I’m tired and thirsty and hungry but I don’t say anything and keep thinking and start writing this article in my head while we slowly make our way back to the car. When we get there we notice someone has washed the car, which was very dirty and completely covered by dust when we arrived in here. Now it’s clean and still wet and the windows and windscreen look actually transparent again. My friend smiles and asks who has done it and goes and thanks him and gives him some money. We say bye and get in the car and off we go.
We’ve been told in the camp that we should take the other way, not that towards Mawingo but on the opposite way, as it is smoother and we’ll reach the road which goes between Gilgil and Ol Kalou. And we do and the road is slightly better, not that rough although it still is a dirt track full of potholes. But it turns out this way is much shorter and soon we get to the main road and start driving back to Nairobi. We have several hours ahead and I feel exhausted and I’m starving. We stop to have lunch at some place on the road, and then go on towards Nairobi.
I feel kind of satisfied, I think of this story I’m writing now, I feel like an intrepid and tough journalist who’s been travelling around Africa, I feel kind of important, like if I were doing things of great consequence – And the thing is I’ve been in Kenya for just five days, the thing is I’ve seen almost nothing, done nothing, written nothing yet. Intrepid, tough? I’m just another mzungu who thinks he is cool only because he was able to pay a lot of money to get on a plane in London to land in Nairobi.
Time goes by, the beautiful landscape passes by the car as we head for Nairobi. We see zebras and baboons and I think of the other African animals I’d like to see, elephants and giraffes and lions and cheetahs and leopards. I want to see everything.
We get to Nairobi and head to town through some of the richest and poshest areas in the north, Spring Valley, Muthaiga, Gigiri. I look around in awe, we are driving through beautiful, green streets with amazing, huge mansions both sides of the road. Actually, I can’t see the mansions themselves but just the roof, as they are surrounded by very tall walls and guarded by tough-looking guys. My mouth is open and I am dumbfounded. My friend smiles and says, Now you’ve already seen the two sides of Kenya, and I am going to say something but I just don’t know what to say and finally I manage to close my mouth.
Then we get to my friend’s place, unload the car, wash our hands and faces and refresh ourselves and then sit at the table for dinner.
(Want to see more pictures from this trip? Check them out on my Flickr set)