Lamu, Suswa, and London

At the start of March I was sent for my first ever trip into “the field”, which in this case was a tiny island called Lamu off the northernmost tip of Kenya’s coast. I was to do a series of interviews with a range of people who would in some way be affected the LAPSSET project, a giant infrastructure investment by the Kenyan government that will connect a new port near the island to a network of roads, railways, and oil pipelines that reach across northern Kenya. I had no idea how to go about doing this, and despite travelling with two other staff from Nairobi, I felt totally reliant on three DRC staff who were based in Lamu itself.

The team leader was Muhammed, stockily built like a weightlifter and with short greying hair. He single-handedly made our trip work, arranging and re-arranging interviews, sorting out logistics, and informing us of all the political and diplomatic information we needed to get people on our side. He worked incredibly hard for us while also attending his own busy schedule of meetings and workshops. He stopped only to answer the call to prayer five times a day, the last of which in the early evening meant his day was done, when his earnest frown would relax into a smile as he wandered off to the mosque.

The near-silent Rachel had a perfectly circular face and hair which, apart from a thin streak of grey emerging on one side, was exactly same colour as her skin, which reflected well her aura of being complete in herself. She smiled almost always but rarely spoke, contributing instead through her easy laugh that showed her teeth and shook her shoulders. I hoped she was somebody’s mother.

Juma had huge long legs and big hands and feet, which made his ability to appear and disappear even more unlikely. He guided us round Lamu like Virgil, popping up with his rucksack hitched high on his shoulders like a schoolboy to point us to the right office or hotel lobby before vanishing again. At the end of our interviews as we stepped squinting back into the white sun he would invariably be waiting for us, listening to Tanzanian pop music on his telephone headset and swatting the mouthpiece away as he picked the next track.

Being a coastal town, Lamu is Islamic in heritage, having been a trading post for ships that used to come down from the Middle East. We stayed in a lovely house built by the Omanis a few hundred years ago, full of wide open spaces and low-slung sofas around the edges. Lamu is built from coral rock and mangrove timber, giving the buildings a beautiful granulated texture.

Lamu’s main mode of transport was donkey. They were all over the place, tethered to drainpipes, wandering free, being ridden by youths who’d devised halters from bits of rope. As pleasing as this was at first, the novelty soon wore off. There were piles of droppings everywhere and any street not on the seafront reeked of piss.

It was 30ᴼ by the time we finished breakfast at 8am, and so humid that even in the shade I sweated throughout the day until the sun went down at around 7pm. On top of this were the flies, which we wafted at like absent-minded orchestra conductors as they settled constantly on our arms, our faces, our drinks, our notebooks, and our food. Fishermen carried the fruits of their day’s labour through the streets, in pungent baskets full of red and blue catch, or on strings with tiny sharklets, aghast fish, or stringy octopi hanging off them. One evening a young man struggled past me with a barracuda fully five feet long in his left hand, his right held horizontally away from his body as he tried to avoid dragging the fish in the dirt. Another guy tried to sell me a live lobster, its eyes swivelling blankly.

Our interviews went well and we were lucky to be able to meet a wide range of people, from the newly installed County Commissioner to representatives of hunter-gatherer groups from remote areas of the mainland. The seafood was fresh and delicious, and I loved the specialty fruit juices that bartenders would blend from baskets of fruit on the counter. Even half full of crushed ice, the drinks were warm by the time I finished them. There was very little alcohol: Lamu is a traditional Muslim town. The women mostly were fully covered in long black dresses and brilliant headscarves that flowed around their shoulders. My favourites were the honey yellow and the turquoise, but despite them being very beautiful I avoided taking photos.

Back in the refreshing, dry 28ᴼ of Nairobi, I woke at 5 the morning after getting home to go hiking on Mount Suswa, a crater around two hours’ drive from Nairobi. With a small group of young Kenyans I climbed through inclining scrub for two or three hours before hitting the edge of the crater itself, from where it was another two hours upwards to the peak. The crater was thickly covered in little trees that rustled together in wind and sounded like the ocean, and underneath them sprouted a layer of lemongrass that made the whole mountain smell fresh and clean. After hitting the peak there was still around 14 kilometres back to the minibus, too far, really, and those among our small group who weren’t used to hiking suffered. I reached the van with shaking legs and feeling slightly nauseous with tiredness after walking so far in the baking sun after a draining week and threw myself down on the grass. The guide, who had walked the whole way without so much as a sip of water, looked at me expressionlessly. “Exercise,” he said, and continued chatting to the driver.

After that it was back to work, and a final few weeks that bounced from fraught to empty, as is the nature of collaborative work. I find myself frustrated that so many things are outside my control, which is definitely a good learning experience, but also satisfied to be working on something intellectually stimulating and (hopefully) that will be in some small way influential in helping Kenya’s rich and powerful make sensitive business decisions.

As I enter my last few days I find myself listing what I will miss and what I won’t. The weather is an obvious one and not worth dwelling on. I look forward to supermarkets where I’ll be able to predict what’s on the shelves and that don’t get flooded whenever the freezers get hit by a power cut. I’ll miss being able to buy freshly grilled corncob for 20p from any busy street. I won’t miss the power cuts, the mosquitoes, or being metal-detected every time I enter a public building. (Public security measures have been in in Nairobi ever since the Westgate attack, although they’re so cursory they’re more annoying than reassuring.)

I’ll miss being able to jump on the back of a motorbike and zoom to any part of the city for a couple of pounds, but not when the driver assures me he knows exactly where my destination is, doesn’t, and then gets annoyed at me for not giving accurate directions on the fly. I won’t miss the traffic, taking my life into my hands whenever I cross Waiyaki Way, or being a pedestrian in general. Nairobians as a public (but not in person) are somewhat inconsiderate and pushy, as I suppose the citizens of any overcrowded city are. I’ve often been unable to cross a road because a driver won’t stop accelerating, never mind slow down, or had to jump a ditch or go onto the road while running because the people walking towards me on the pavement won’t so much as rotate their shoulders to create a space.

I’ll miss my mental inventory of football shirts, which I realise I’ve been half-consciously building ever since arriving. Manchester United and Arsenal are comfortably out in front, followed by Chelsea, with Manchester City, Liverpool, and Spurs lagging some way behind. From Italy the usual suspects of Juventus and AC Milan dominated, with an honourable mention to Roma, while from Spain Real Madrid, interestingly, far outstripped Barcelona. Bayern did extremely well overall, and Dortmund, appropriately, punched above their weight. The Old Firm was won 1-0 by Rangers. The real pleasure was in these one-offs, which included Ipswich Town, Blackburn Rovers, Leeds United, Valencia, FC Köln, and even, poor fellow, Aston Villa.

I’ll miss my flatmates, my balcony, and being able to afford a pleasant living space with a big kitchen. I won’t miss working from home, which often led to days of feeling isolated and cut off from the outside world. I look forward to seeing my friends, most of whom I haven’t seen since July, and of course my family, including my newly arrived nephew who I will soon meet for the first time. And mostly I look forward to seeing Katy, whose graciousness and warmth from afar has helped me both to bear the low moments and enjoy the many privileges of living here.

I fly back to London this weekend, hoping to find a job quickly. Thanks for reading – I hope to see you soon.

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One thought on “Lamu, Suswa, and London

  1. Lovely writing, once again, Dom. Thank you. But sorry to hear that you’re coming back to the UK. I really thought that ‘foothold’ was going to be enough to get you into a groove out there. The next steps? Who knows exactly? Enjoy them, wherever they take you! Howard.

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