Challenging environments

After a 48-hour turnaround in Nairobi I flew to Lodwar, capital of Kenya’s north-western Turkana County. I was to spend ten days there interviewing staff in our field offices about the cross-border work they’d been doing with Uganda. It was only a 90-minute flight but landing was like arriving in another hemisphere: Turkana is essentially desert. The ground shimmered in the sun.

I was welcomed by Raphael, the burly, good-natured Programme Manager, who introduced me to four somewhat sullen staff and Pius the driver. Pius spoke no English apart from “fine” and “seatbelt”. I stayed a couple of days in Lodwar, little more than a village really, with three or four tarmacked roads that simply stopped and turned to murram near the edges of town. It was dusty. The electricity failed several times a day, sometimes for five or six hours at a time, taking the air conditioning with it. The normal daytime temperature was 36ᴼ.


I stayed in the grandly named County Palace, a little hotel complex past the Save the Children compound and opposite a smartly hand-painted road sign indicating Lumpy Bumpy Lane. County Palace had half a dozen little huts, some single-occupancy, some double, surrounding a spacious courtyard with plastic deck tables and single speaker that broadcast Radio Maisha every waking hour. Radio Maisha appeared to deal mostly in jingles and adverts, and loudly promoted phone-in competitions with cash prizes of ten to a hundred dollars. The A/C in my room was jammed on 29ᴼ. Dinner took two to three hours to prepare, even when it comprised no more than a stack of chapatti and a plate of oily spinach. Some mornings I awoke to the brief, desperate squalling of the day’s chicken attempting to resist the inevitable.

The next eight days were two whiplash circular field trips out of Lodwar into the desert. For the first I was part of a three-vehicle convoy with staff from two other NGOs. We drove south, stopping at Lokichar, Kainuk, and Nakwamoru before looping back north through Lomeremudang. We sped through the desert at sixty kilometres an hour, criss-crossing each other’s dust clouds and listening to execrable techno mixes on the stereo. Some of the villages we passed were scarcely believable, tiny clusters of huts a hundred miles from anywhere. Some of them were riddled with bullet holes. How did their occupants get water? What did they do when they got sick? We passed herds of goats, fat and brisk, and occasional groups of languorous camels.

After three days we returned to Lodwar, a booming metropolis of civilisation with wifi, running water, and roads as smooth as waterslides. Over that weekend I bade goodbye to the staff from the other organisations and was lucky to be able to visit Lake Turkana, hidden behind a row of palm trees that sprouted abruptly in the middle of the desert two hours from Lodwar. The lake was vast, big as a sea, and so flat that people, Jesus-like, a hundred metres in had water barely over their ankles.

Four more days in the pickup followed, looping east this time, towards the Ugandan border. The driver had a mixtape of ten tracks, two each by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Jermaine Stewart, Whitney Houston, and Rick Astley, that he played on repeat for the duration. I saw Mount Moroto, the burned-out husk of a truck that had caught the sharp edge of an inter-clan dispute (“These are not serious guys,” scoffed Ekuwam; “if they were Kikuyu they all would have been back tomorrow to collect the metal to sell”), and a mine where ex-raiders were pulling rubies from 30 feet within the earth. I learned how to eat ugali, a kind of super-viscous porridge, by rolling it into a ball with my fingertips, pressing with my thumb, scooping a mouthful of beans or greens into the depression, and hoisting it neatly into my mouth. It was a privilege. Nonetheless, by the final couple of days I was missing my friends, tired of being bitten relentlessly by ants, mosquitoes, and flies, wearied by the heat, and irritable at spending four to eight hours a day being smashed around in the back of a four wheel drive. I was glad when the trip was over.

It was to be my last travel for some time. Shivering in the Baltic 19ᴼ of Nairobi, I returned to the office and my project on summarising the learning from our borderlands projects. I worked alone and largely unsupervised: a number of personnel changes left me reporting to three people who each deflected me on to another, resulting in a near total lack of communication. For five weeks in a row I sat at my computer and shuffled information around. It was rainy season. I tired of living with colleagues, whom I started my day with at breakfast at 7am, sat next to in the minibus that arrives like an automaton at 7.20 every morning, sat next to in the office for eight hours, and then came home and spent the evening in the living room with. It made it hard to switch off from work, and work was frustrating and dull.

My disillusionment spread to Nairobi. Although my work is very similar to the last time I lived here, this time I am within a set of expectations, social frameworks, and security guidelines that previously I wasn’t. I no longer discover new areas of town; I barely ever catch a matatu or a boda-boda any more. There’s nothing forbidding me from doing those things, it just wouldn’t make sense: I live within a set of demographic norms that regulate my behaviour as effectively as any written contract. I mix by default mostly with a class of people for whom English is a second or third language and use words like palliative and neologism and germane, and bump into each other delightedly in Istanbul, Goma, and New York. I drink cocktails regularly, and think $7 a pop is a good price at which to do so. I grew bored and lethargic, and was not enjoying myself.

The routine was broken by Christmas. Over the four-day weekend I booked a trip up Mount Kenya and found myself in the company of a Kenyan, a Spaniard and an Australian. We walked for four days: seven kilometres the first, 11 the second, ascending steadily, watching the peak, Point Lenana, grow ever nearer. We slept on bunks in wooden huts and ate noodles and fried meat and vegetables prepared by the team of porters. Day Three was the big one: we left our hut at 3am with the goal of reaching the peak for sunrise. We climbed the steepest part of the mountain for three hours in the dark, scrambling up fine, loose shingle that every few steps ripped our feet from under us like Velcro coming apart. Stars carpeted the sky like the lights of an infinite city. It was -5ᴼ without the wind. We cursed each slip in the pitch dark and the freezing cold, leg muscles burning, trying not to think that we were five hours away from breakfast, and arrived at Point Lenana soon after 6am.

The peak was a place of profound communal misery. People from other groups sat around as in an outer circle of Hell, anger and confusion with the world upon their faces. We huddled in the lee of rocks and were slack and silly with pain. A disgustingly cheery middle aged lady posed for a photo with a watermelon. The Australian later confided to me that the only reason he didn’t kill her was because he was spending his remaining energy on not throwing up. We were so frozen we could barely use our cameras. I put my head between my knees. We sat for fifteen minutes in pugnacious silence before the Spaniard announced that he felt he was going to faint. We descended.


It got better from there, although even three hours later at breakfast, choking down chlorine-y purified water and sliced bread wrapped around lumps of defrosting peanut butter, I was wondering why I was doing this to myself on Christmas Day. The temperature rose steadily, though, and the landscape was spectacular. For the rest of the day we walked steadily downhill, the terrain changing around us: rockland, senecios, bamboo, woodland, lemongrass. After 24 kilometres we arrived at the final camp and had a celebratory Tusker.

The fourth day was just an hour or so’s walk until we were picked up by the car and taken to a matatu stop back to Nairobi. It was good to shower. The combination of sun and wind burn left my skin peeling in the sun vampirically for days afterwards, but the more the ache in my knees receded, the more it felt like it had been a good experience.

I was back to work the next day, and troughed. That week I was forced into sending a polite but firm email to my bosses saying I was unable to work effectively and things had to change. They did, just enough, and three weeks have passed tolerably since then. I delivered a presentation to thirty people on my borderlands project and was received with moderate approval. I wrote an article on it to submit to a journal. I am largely free to do what work I want, which produces inertia, frustration, and enjoyment in various doses, often at the same time. It’s an odd working environment and one that probably will feel better in the long term than the short, but now, for better or worse, is about to change. On Saturday I move to Hargeisa.


What I’m listening to:

  • Songhoy Blues, Music in Exile
  • Alikiba, “Mwana”
  • Yusef Lateef, The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef
  • Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack

What I’m reading:

  • Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind
  • Virgil, Aeneid

2 thoughts on “Challenging environments

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