This article was first published by The Student Journals
Mum was practically singing. She had no right to be feeling happy: it was almost one in the morning, we’d been travelling for almost 24 hours and the airline had lost our entire luggage. For my family and me though, being back in Kenya for a two week holiday was more than enough to make up for it. I stood in the grounds of the guesthouse for a moment before bed, absorbing the still-warm tarmac on my bare feet, the raucous cicadas buzzing all around and the quiet smell of the bougainvillea, faintly orange in the dark.
It had been a long time. 13 years, almost, and much of the holiday was spent judging how much had changed in that time. Plenty had. The populations of Kenya and Uganda had rocketed over the last two decades or so, and it showed in Nairobi. If you’d asked me to name infamous traffic spots, I would have said Moscow, Mexico City, Mumbai, but not East Africa. We crawled and baked in the jams, watching billboards proclaiming investment banking and insurance policies, chatting to taxi drivers about politics and football. (“Liverpool,” snorted Kamau. “Most of their fans are ladies in Nakuru.”) I was sad at how completely westernized the development process was: all glossy corporate assurances of a prosperous future.
We spent three days in Nairobi waiting for our lost luggage and getting our hands on a vehicle via an old friend from our residency days. “It’s not a car, it’s a steam engine,” complained Mum as she, Dad and my brother got used to driving the old Land Rover we eventually tracked down. As if the dodgy lights, speedometer that fluttered ceaselessly in a thirty-kph radius and woeful steering weren’t enough to contend with, the ruthless driving practises and pedestrian competition kept things high-octane throughout. Everyone had a car, but the major trunk roads between the biggest cities in the region were still single lane. I saw one working traffic light the whole time, and it was brazenly ignored by everyone.
We stopped in at a giraffe conservation project and an elephant orphanage, both crowded but slightly unreal – almost like watching oneself on television more than taking in how much fun it was. Visiting the giraffe centre was one of my favourite moments of the holiday, as we climbed up to a platform and placed food in the mouth of sauntering, six-meter-tall giants with foot-long tongues that wrapped themselves slimily around our fingers.
Leaving Nairobi, we ventured northwest along the Great Rift Valley towards the lakes: Baringo, Naivasha, Elementaita, Bogoria. Baringo was perhaps the biggest shock, the campsite we’d stayed at years before was almost fully submerged by the lake. My parents reminisced to the owner, Moses, whose courtesy and helpfulness were untroubled by the rising water and falling patronage, even if his business was. We watched crocodiles sunbathing at the bottom of the gardens and went onto the lake in a canoe, where we saw giant fish eagles and tiny kingfishers swooping into the water for lunch.
As we travelled between the various lakes, we made a detour to visit my brother’s old school, where he’d boarded for a year before we moved to the UK. It feels strange being in an empty school under any circumstances, but this venerable English institution in the middle of the Kenyan countryside, with childhood friends still in old pictures on the wall, was important, especially for my brother.
We walked alongside wild giraffe, antelope and wildebeest on Crescent Island, and sneaked up on flamingos that were wading in the warm water of Lake Bogoria. The Land Rover’s engine blasted out a cloud of smoke and we spent a lot of time and money and cortisol on getting it fixed. We drank Tangawizi ginger beer. Every Kenyan we met smiled warmly and talked to us in their beautiful accent, when we could get them to switch away from Swahili with Dad into English.
Halfway through our holiday, we crossed the border into Uganda in a nightmare of traffic queues, persuasive insurance artists and night driving, which is even further from the categorical imperative than day driving. The Ugandan police stopped us to have an exchange of opinion about the Land Rover’s brake lights. Mum got sick. Dad sang. The battery light came on and we all prayed. The car’s electrics flickered on and off and we arrived in Mukono, our home of seven years, five hours later than planned and went to bed.
Over the next three days we explored the town, grown almost beyond recognition. The university where my parents had worked had grown from under 800 students in 2000, when we left, to over 8,000. The journey from there to the capital Kampala, which used to take us maybe half an hour, now took three times that. We met up with old friends, my parents’ colleagues mostly, and Tabitha, the lady who used to work for us. She cooked for us with her family at her home and, at the risk of sounding clichéd, we felt like Ugandans. We met students and young professionals we’d played with as children; they looked us up on Facebook on their phones.
After that, we spent a couple of days by the Nile, including Christmas Day when we ate tilapia and the mince pies Mum had smuggled in from England, and headed back across the border. We had one day left, which we spent in a national park, where we were lucky enough to see buffalo, hippo, rhino and two indolent lions all in the space of a few hours. “Gno gno gno, I’m a gnu!” volunteered Dad.
Back in Nairobi, preparing to leave for the airport in an apocalyptic downpour, I reflected on the trip. For us at least, things like water, electricity and internet were much better than I remembered, but both countries had far to go: what little I saw of Nairobi made the glossy “artist’s impression” of development plans in the in-flight magazine look wildly optimistic. I suppose most importantly, on both sides of the border, the people had been wonderful: warm, engaging, welcoming, quick to laugh. I would miss the tin roofs turned thunderous by rain, mosquitos slapped stiffly onto whitewashed walls, vast, bald-headed Marabou storks loitering balefully on lamp posts. Sitting in the Land Rover and watching East Africa go by: blue sky, green hills, yellow bark on the acacia trees, red earth.