The Bad Car Day

Ishbel MathesonIn the second of her blogs from Kenya, Ishbel Matheson sees the living conditions of the Endorois, and has a bad car day

The day began badly. The car broke down, belching black smoke, on the outskirts of Eldoret, where I had been visiting camps for those displaced by the political violence earlier in the year. I was bound for Lake Bogoria in the Rift Valley – one of the premier tourist spots in the country. It is also the ancestral home of the Endorois – but when the area was gazetted as a National Park in the 1970s, the Endorois were evicted, with only paltry promises of compensation.

Endorois rep Wilson Kipkazi was keen that I see for myself the living conditions of his people. But it was well after 2pm before we arrived at Lake Bogoria, picked up two local councillors who had been waiting since early morning, and set off towards the Endorois villages. It was a pretty, but rough road that threaded through acacia trees, bound for a now-defunct ruby mine. But it was an encounter with a steep river crossing that proved to be our undoing.

The car lurched down a steep bank, into a shallow river… raced up the bank at the other side and… slid back down again. The driver, John Kangethe, tried again… but to no avail. And the tricky issue was that, not only could he not go forward, he didn’t have enough room to turn and race back up the other side.

Worst case scenarios flashed through my mind: hours of fruitless pushing, shoving stones under wheels, and oh yes, the familiar prospect of everyone but everyone, including the watoto (children), becoming experts on four-wheel driving, and shouting multiple, conflicting advice to the driver on which way to turn the wheel. The councillor, of course, was reluctant to go back – because he had arranged a community meeting on the other side – so insisted on a couple more valiant efforts up the bank on the other side. But once the gear box started to whine oddly, I foresaw a night in the car, in the middle of nowhere, beckoning. I started to wave my arms madly and shout, ‘No, no, STOP!’Although loathe to give up the sport of trying to get a 4×4 car up a river bank, everyone reluctantly agreed, and a temporary road in the river bank was cleared to allow the car to drive out.

The second councillor wanted us to continue to his community. ’It’s not far’he assured me, as I looked dubiously at my watch. 4pm. ’Just round there’, he said flapping his hands vaguely. Two hours later, the sun sinking spectacularly, in purple, crimson, and pink hues on the other side of the Rift, we were still grinding up a punishing escarpment, heading further and further away from civilisation. Anxiety beset me. Driving at night in Africa is always a really bad idea – especially when thunderclouds are in the sky, and there is no road to speak of. Finally, I said ‘We really, really do have to go back’. The councillor and Kipkazi conferred and the councillor made a couple of phone calls. Yes folks; even in the middle of nowhere, these days there is a mobile telephone network in Kenya. At the next bend, we came to a village where a community group had been waiting for about eight hours, for our arrival.

The men (and one woman) gathered in a little clearing, and a bench was brought for us, and as the last light faded from the sky, they explained the difficulties: the cattle-rustling Pokot were launching raids into their traditional lands, killing some people, and leading to greatly increased insecurity; the more frequent cycles of drought had also decimated herds, making it difficult to find the funds to send children to school; the nearest hospital was 60 kilometres away, so the community had built a dispensary and health clinic from their own funds; but the government had failed to staff it, or give it any supplies. Indeed, apart from a recent visit from the new District Councillor, they had not seen a politician in their area, or a government official since 2005. At heart, this small community shares many of the problems experienced by minorities around the world. In a country where political power flows from economic muscle, their ancient cattle-herding traditions, their remote location, has left them on the very fringes of society.

We spent barely half an hour with them, but they were unbelievably grateful that someone, anyone, from the outside world had come to listen to their story. Back in the car again, we lurched back down the escarpment. It was pitch dark, and Kipkazi and the councillor were conferring in their local language. Kipkazi turned to me, and told me that the place we had stopped on the way up to take pictures of the Rift was in fact a place where the Pokot hung out to ambush people. We passed two members of the Il Chamus tribe, armed with shotguns, guarding their villages from Pokot attacks. At that point, I felt things couldn’t get any worse. But they did. In the couple of hours since we had driven up, it had rained in the Valley. The ground was now dangerously soft, and we had to creep forward while the councillor leant out of the window, peering at the ground in the pitch dark, and guiding the car forward. After an hour and a half of nerve-wracking travel, including the further revelation that we were actually travelling on an ‘unofficial’ road, that the alternative was too dangerous, we eventually reached terra firma, and safety.

Later, in the hotel, I told Kipkazi that I’d been worried that we’d never get the car out of the river bed. He laughed and said. ‘Oh Cynthia and Clive got stuck for three hours’. (Cythia Morel is MRG’s legal cases officer, and Clive Baldwin was formerly head of international advocacy). ‘But,’ he continued, ‘it was fine when I took Sian,’ (an external evaluator for the MRG legal cases programme). A thought began to creep into my head. Had every single MRG staff member who had visited the Endorois gone down the ruby road? Was this some kind of initiation rite? Kipkazi confirmed he had also taken Samia Khan, our head of programmes, on the same torturous journey. ‘But,’ he said ‘Paile (MRG’s African Commission project officer) hasn’t been.’ He shot me a side-long twinkly glance. ‘She’s in my sights’. Paile, you have been warned!

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