Monday, August 29, 2016

Into Al-Shebab Country

Another Coast Trip, 2016

Into Al Shebab Country

As the last time back in 2013, we did the same overnight bus trip from Nairobi, but this time we took the Buscar express all the way to Malindi. It was a nondescript yet noisy ride at that as the drivers (two) insisting on playing Swahili taraab and Hindipop music at mega volumes. I suppose they did this to ensure that the drivers, whom I suspect were high from miraa anyways, from falling asleep at the wheel. But I fear it was to keep us paying customers awake too. Nondescript that is until the driver had to swerve to avoid some “mad” person who stood in the middle of the narrow two-lane highway just before sunrise. Well that certainly woke me up after I finally managed to fall asleep. I noticed that for the most part, Jessica was awake for most of the overnight drive.

We arrived in Malindi around 9 am, gathered our luggage and hired two tuk-tuks to take us to our old favourite haunt from our last trip—Tamani Jua. Apart from some other Italians, whom are probably residents here, we were the only paying customers at this Italian-run resort. Surprising since I thought this was the “high season”.

We had decided to break up two hellacious bus trips with an overnight in Malindi. Gracie decided that we would rest up for a bit and then go for a brunch back in Malindi. We sorted out our rooms and showered then went for a brief kip. We would eventually have a fine feast of chicken and chips with fresh passion juice and kachumbari which is the Kenyan equivalent of salsa at the Barani Restaurant. We were famished and I was amazed at the speed that they brought us our meals—all six of us within minutes.

Nevertheless, it was great to be on the coast again as it was quite balmy compared to frigid Nairobi and its ‘sharp showers’, and its cold nights spent huddled around the electric fire watching nauseating teen dramas, Nollywood hocus pocus juju dramas and endless re-runs of cartoons on Nicholodean.

We left early the next morning bound for Lamu.


It’s been 14 years since I was last here in Lamu and 32 years since I first came to this island. Lamu Island is part of a greater archipelago of islands stretching like a necklace from here almost to the Somali border which is not that far away. In fact, we are a little west of the old UNESCO World Heritage site of Lamu, in the smaller town of Shela. Even though I have been coming here for years, it is actually my first time staying in Shela.

Coming to Lamu was my first exposure to Islam and Muslim culture. To be clear, it is really Swahili culture: a mélange of mainland Bantu people, some exotic spices of Persian, Zanzibari, Comorian, Omani, Yemeni and far eastern extractions along with the indigenous, if I can call them that, Bajuni folk who inhabit the string of pearls that form the Lamu Archipelago.

However, I will not be taking this bus ride from Malindi to here anytime in the future as this bus ride beats the crap out of you. The 14-hour bus trip from Nairobi to Malindi is quite enough even on good tarmac. The rest of the journey from Malindi to Mokowe is more like an endurance race for the body. I thought the old Arusha to Dar was the worst bus ride I had taken and from Kapiri Mposhi to Lusaka is not roaring hell either—with potholes that can swallow a Mini Cooper. This Kenyan version is something akin to a boat ride—quite rollicking. If you suffered from car sickness—this ride is not for you at all. And by the time you reach Mokowe, the last bit of Kenyan mainland before Somalia, you feel like you have been put in a tumble dryer for 4 hours. What surprised me most of all was the stoicism of the fellow passengers, some having to stand for portions of the trip, and the sheer battering that our Buscar bus has to endure. I wonder what the life expectancy of these buses are.

The first time I took this journey, and for a few after was with Tana River Bus service, but I don’t see them running anymore. I did see another bus company I used before called Tawakal, but I think they are a larger firm who are a national bus company.

My wife deserves some award for taking this longish bus trip sometimes every week—I think I would check into the loony bin if I had to do that or replace my battered ass. Maybe Jessy and Jeremy deserve a medal for enduing it too. Luckily we had brought along some mandazis, packets of UHT milk, water and a few biscuits to stave off hunger on the longish drive.

The only thing that broke up that monotony, if that’s what you call being thrashed about, are the police /army road blocks where everyone except the burka gals had to alight from the bus to get checked out. There are two smaller police checks outside of Malindi where the road is still good then two larger ones near Witu and Kapini where the road, if that’s what you can call it, has disintegrated. These roadblocks are manned by Kenya’s finest: a woman soldier for femmes and a brute of a guy for men. They actually checked my passport to see if I was indeed Emerson Gronk. The female soldier also looked at my passport and thumbed through it looking for my entrance visa and asked—“You are here for 3 months?”

I was surprised and just said—“No, just 2 months.”

At the second roadblock, they separated the Kenyans from the wazungu (foreigners). I had to get in line with a bunch of Chinese who were travelling en masse as they are want to do—and they are most welcome to it. We had passed by Coast Bus which seemed packed to the hilt with them—they, the new travellers or new colonizers of Africa. Damn exploiters! Harrumph!

I had to laugh as the Kenyan sergeant asked each one of them their age and name. Laugh, because he found their accent funny and he didn’t know how to spell their names. The last gal, a little princess, was a tad rude when the guy asked her age, she chipped back cheekily—“You can read it in the passport.”

Of course he could, he just wanted her to say it in Inglisi pleezi.

Make no mistake about it—we were in Al Shebab country after all. Over the recent years, the Shebab had shot up a number of buses on this route and terrorized villagers in the Witu, Kapini area plus did a bold attack on Manda Island just opposite where we would be staying in Shela, and in the process, kidnapping some French tourists. Mind you, that was a few years back.

Since that time and the Westgate Massacre, peace has been restored in this area (we hope). Especially with the Kenyan Army joining the OAU, and for lack of a better word, invading southern Somalia. In the past bus trips, this bus trip went through the land of the shiftas. Those rag tag bunch of rogue Somali soldiers, who shot at and then robbed the buses. From 1986 onwards there was always a couple of Kenyan army guys who rode the bus. Nowadays, we get an army escort from the first checkpoint to the last one just outside Mpekatoni. Mind you, once we set off it is like an opening scene from one of the Mad Max movies as each bus is shuttling back and forth to see who will be the first one in lead so that the other busses and occupants eat their dust. The road is a dusty, teeth-rattling, corduroy affair.

Around Witu, the highway really cuts through a jungle—maybe the last remnant of that great Equatorial jungle which stretched from the Ivory Coast to here and I can see why Al Shebab chose this particular region to attack. It would be virtually impossible to detect them given the ground cover provided by the dense bush—albeit thorn tree or scrubland. At times, some of the thorns and leaves showered down on us through the windows as the bus lurched dangerously close to the sides of the road, scraping the bus in the process.

We did see some baboons lazing about in the swampland and then later saw a troop off on a dusty, lonely track that lead nowhere. I did see some grey-haired macaque monkeys up a tree as we hurtled along.

This is, without a doubt, one of the loneliest stretches of land if not in Kenya, perhaps in Africa. Hardly any signs of settlement and one wonders where the hell people are going when they get off in the middle of nowhere with no huts in sight. Where the land is arable there are great swaths of corn growing as it is one of the staples here—a tough, what I would call cow corn, that is dried and ground up into something resembling a thick, wall paper paste with a taste not that dissimilar—called ugali.

It was from this part of the journey that we took on more passengers than there were seats. As mentioned, some of those either stood for a portion of the ride or hoped to get a seat once some passengers alighted, in the middle of nowhere nonetheless. The driver didn’t dally too long and with a honk and banging on the side of the bus by the ticket taker, it meant time to go with the ticket taker usually running and hopping on at the last moment.

I was curious about one young guy who got on with his New York Yankees baseball cap at a tilt, holding firmly onto what look like a sound board. Perhaps he was a singer or a musician. What perplexed me was where he was going, what show he was doing and would the small hamlet have a steady flow of electricity—somewhat a bane of this country wherever you are. It’s seemed odd to be hucking around a soundboard that is until he alighted at Witu, where upon I saw his mates help offload four largish speaker cabinets and other parts of the sound system. Just the same, at some point, we did pass a small collection of mud and straw huts with a small crowd of thirty or so villagers gathered around a solo speaker or singer who was either an evangelist doing an open air sermon or maybe political rally, or perhaps some mini concert.

We finally arrived at the end of the road at Makowe. The town is built up since I last rode the bus to here. Before, you would just come to end and there would be the jetty which you would carefully have to navigate your way down as barnacles had grown from the high tide and it was a tad slippery to descend to an awaiting large dhow called a jihazi which would take you to Lamu just across an inlet where the Lamu touts would wait to pounce on you once you landed. However, this time the touts pounced on you as we alighted from the bus. Naturally they swarmed around me—the only mzungu on this bus. Times have changed.

I had to laugh out loud when they unloaded our luggage from under the bus—it looked like it had been through a war—it was all covered in a heavy dust from the dirty track we’d been on for the last four hours.

Our group, all six of us, and our seven pieces of luggage were stacked on a small motorboat and they carefully helped us onto the powerboat. It was the first time the kids and the maids had been on one and Gracie made sure that we all got life vests except for me. It’s because, apart from Jessy and myself, none of our entourage know how to swim despite the adults growing up on the shores of one of Africa’s Great Lakes and as I so righteously declare, along with that British explorer guy named Speke, the Source of the Nile—Lake Victoria. Nevertheless, the ride was quite choppy owing to the high waves caused by the winds that had kicked up by the kazi wind.

We bumped along and the kids really enjoyed their first taste of salty air with Aunties Lynette and Beatrice holding firmly onto the side of the boat for fear that we would capsize. It’s the first time I have come into this place with my back to Lamu.

There is something to be said about arriving at a destination by boat—beats the hell out of by bus, car or plane. I think that old kayaker and travel writer Paul Theroux would approve.

We zoomed by dense mangrove stands that made loud sucking noises, tidal pools and then close to the Lamu’s corniche with a stunning backdrop of bleached coral rag buildings gleaming under the African sun of Lamu’s old Stonetown, and a first for me, as we sped towards our final destination just west of Lamu called Shela.

Once we docked next to Peponi’s, the ultra-tres chic resort, we were swarmed again by other Bajuni touts who offered their eager hands to shuttle our luggage to our guest house—Bait il Aman guest house. Like Lamu, Shela is a maze: a labyrinthine of coral rag houses. One can easily get lost here and luckily=y we had these guys to guide us.

As we started off a chap stepped forward, with a wide smile and grabbed my hand—it was our old friend Edward who had previously set up our accommodation and stay at the guest house he was now working at. Gracie had known Edward for some time as her fish business had put her in touch with him some 17 years ago. He was also the head guy at our old retreat of Stone House. I had met him there back in 2000 with Mike Bowie. I had met my wife there too. Lamu is full of such memories, most romantic ones too!

On the boat trip over, I noticed that there were more Swahili houses, actually huge mansions that the rich Euros had built on Manda Island. When I first came to Lamu in 1982, there were no such places on Manda—only the deserted sun bleached collapsed ruins at Takwa. On my last visit here in 2003, that Swiss guy named Joe had built the Manda Island resort and that was the only building on the island—how times have changed. Also, there was a proliferation of speed boats bombing up and down this busy passageway of water.

Edward, and our growing group of lackeys plus gear, headed off after a number of guides offered their services for day trips to Takwa, donkey rides, fish BBQ on Manda Island, and sunset cruise.

Lamu and Shela had suffered in recent years because of the Al Shebab insurgencies and terrorist alerts issued by British, French, Italian, American and Canadian foreign offices. We had docked next door to the famous Peponi’s Hotel which I had heard had just opened for the summer with over 300 guests expected—perhaps things were looking up.

Lamu had been dubbed “the Kathmandu of Africa” by the Africa on a G-string guidebook in the 1980s. True. There were some very up-market restaurants and cafes on the island back then: New Mahrus Hotel, The Pancake House, Kenya Cold Drinks, Petley’s, Mr. Ghai’s Curry House and the ever so posh The Equator, which even accepted American Express cards and I know that first hand as I treated my younger brother and then gf to dinner there. The Equator resembled the inside of a dhow that had been cut in half, with the owner, Ron, an eccentric British Kenyan, who sounded like Vincent Price and played Beethoven 78s on an old gramophone. It was a tad expensive—you needed an AMEX card to pay for the extravagant meal.

Those places are long gone and so is Lamu’s old claim to fame.

We did pass a number of wazungu en route to our guest house. Maybe times had changed and the tourists were coming back—thank god!

After zigzagging a few times past donkeys, scruffy kids and donkey do, we finally arrived at our destination for the next month or so—Baitil Aman Guest House.

Edward showed us to our quarters which were up on the second floor. To describe it as spacious would be an understatement—our accommodation could easily sleep two large families. The maids and the kids each had their own generous and ornate traditional Swahili bed, but they would share just two beds. Gracie and I had the honeymoon suite with walk-in mosquito net and en suite bathroom. There were two additional beds should Gracie’s siblings decide to show up (They never did). Two huge bathrooms with shower, linen and towels.

Yes, it was good to be back on the Swahili Coast!

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