Nairobi this past weekend was a scene of strangeness more than anything else. On Friday morning, I left the house at around 9AM and the street seemed as empty as one would find on an early Sunday morning. My fellow motorists and I could hardly contain our excitement! It was as though we happened upon a straight and well paved road - the kind that is often talked about in bars by men following an episode of Top Gear. When will it ever happen here?" cries one enthusiast and then another immediately replies that it would not be for a few generations.
Then again, before you can get too excited, you immediately remember the camouflaged traffic policemen. They usually appear out of nowhere on the streets of Nairobi and harass truck drivers - possibly the most annoying and hated motorists on the road. Being caught on the wrong is an incredible gift to these men. They will no doubt extort the situation for all it is and make life a living hell. It's a careful balance. When you are stopped and not quite on the wrong, you may simply buy your time and the police is usually very kind with the hope of being subjected to your gratitude. Now, being caught on the wrong will essentially turn the tables and you now have to buy their gratitude - a story that is consistent in far too many countries. In a very strange way, these traditions have a way of enforcing the law.
Our fellow motorists are also grimly aware of the time limit before the impending chaos would completely upset their routines. Rumours were that they only had until 2PM before everything would be shut down. Roads would be blocked, the internet, cell phone receptions and even hospitals would come to a stand still. It was expected that the police and army would be everywhere and as the latter were often easily annoyed, it was best to avoid any contact with them at all.
Business across the country were closed as the disruption to daily life was far too great for people to even consider patronizing shops. In fact, many used it as an excuse not to go work and since so much of the service sector was dependent on interactions, it imposed a holiday on the rest of the city. Banks had informed customers that there would be no in bank activities as they had told their employees not to come on the day.
Even though I grew up in this part of the world, I had never seen this sort of chaos in Nairobi. All these disruptions and distractions were for a moment that Kenyans had waited for a long time! They were preparations for the arrival of 'the president of the world's most powerful country', as one Kenyan newspaper put it. Since Barack Obama came to power, Kenyans found themselves united whereas only about a year before his election saw one of the worst cases of post election violence in Africa - a situation that almost led to a civil war. This man was their promise to one another, that somehow - they too could be where he is and they were genuinely proud of him. Some years back, when he first came on his Africa trip, I happened also to be in Nairobi, and Kenyans were heart broken that he went to Ghana but skipped his father's homeland - he was, after all Kenyan-American.
In two events in Kisumu, mothers decided to name their newborns children 'AirForceOne Barack Obama' to commemorate this auspicious event. While it is tempting to find humour in this particular version of Obama-mania, there is a beautiful tradition in the old African way of naming a child. Before Christianity and Islam reduced the choices to John, Peter, Mustafa, Idris and so on, African babies were named after special events - positive events that would bring a significance of that name to the community at large or describing the moment of birth. Someone born under an acacia tree, shadow of acacia; someone born at first light, brisk morning, and so on. The names signify a deeper connection to the family and the community - a celebration of an event, long before calendars were maintained in this part of the world - a tradition that unfortunately did not spread the rest of the world lest it imposed too harsh of an intellectual burden on parents.
Given all the commotion and unrest that was expected - with most of the city literally being in house arrest, I decided, with a friend of mine, to get out of the city. We thought Mount Suswa would be an excellent place as it's quite close to Nairobi and I for one had never been to it. My friend had a rugged land rover that was just perfect but even it, with it's exceptionally large tires and recently tuned suspensions were put through numerous challenges. I was shocked to find a number of small cars in the conservancies. I happen to drive one around Nairobi and I can attest to the difficulties of navigating bumps and pot holes in the city. As we drove through some of the roads, I had considered that perhaps the scene around is one that is a classic, having not changed in 50 years. There was something beautiful about that thought.
Mount Suswa was beautiful but as with almost all landscape photography, getting the lighting right was everything. Reaching the camps at mid-day, I didn't even bother considering photographing the scenes around, as beautiful as they were and as perfect as they were for a lunch time picnic spot.
At the distance, one could see clouds of steam coming out of the ground. Suswa was a conservancy and very integrated with the community which was probably why the Kenyan government had found it quite hard to exploit the geothermal energy in the region. Whereas presently, the entire country produced 2300MW of electricity in total, there are numerous expansion plans to generate more than 5000MW from Geothermal alone in the next 15 years. It is both surprising and commendable to see that the communities and conservancy had their rights respected.
Our immediate task was to find some of the thousands of caves that were in the area and housed some incredibly interesting animals. Mount Suswa was said to be baboon paradise with a great number of them in the conservancy. We didn't see any, however. There were specific areas and specific times to find them. The caves were quite incredible and in many instances, they interconnected and we were told that
One particular cave was quite scary. It smelt a bit funky as we walked in and out of nowhere, as though I was entering an invisible structure, the smell of ammonia was incredibly potent and almost nauseating. As we walked in carefully with our not so effective torches, we happened upon a setting that I had never before experienced. There were literally hundreds of thousands of bats - everywhere, screeching and shoving one another. Given the reputation of bats as being hosts to a large number of viruses, I wanted to stay clear but then considered that these caves are frequented quite often as we were brought here by a guide and so sure it must be alright.
As I write this, I still have some doubts but as I feel perfectly alright, I think I'll be fine.
The rest of the trip was simply spending time with friends, cooking and hiking. There are a series of photographs from the trip - some that I quite like and others that I am quite annoyed with as they don't reflect the incredible beauty that I saw in the setting.
All the same, remember to always wake up before sunrise and set your camera for those incredible landscapes. Granted that I wasn't here for photography purposes, if you head out on a landscape outing, your hikes should help you mark important areas to come to either at sunrise or at sunset!