Taken straight out of my journal notes. Disclaimer for poor grammar,etc :)
At the matatu station, I am relieved to find that there are still matatus departing for Isiolo via Nanyuki, despite Nairobi’s ungodly rush hour traffic thoroughly interfering with any attempt to arrive and board quickly after leaving the Sudanese embassy. A wired and wide-eyed but friendly, khat-chewing conductor named Martin gets me packed tightly into the next-departing matatu, managing to fit me, my pack and my day-bag into the tiny interior without upsetting the rest of the passengers’ seating arrangements. Truly a miracle. While sitting out the long wait for out matatu to get a nose in the jammed traffic in order to pull off, Martin lectures me extensively about khat. Where it grows (Kenya, he tells me). How to eat it (you just chew it and pack it in your cheeks, in the style of a hamster). It’s authoritative-sounding advice and I make a note to try and find some khat in Ethiopia (he was wrong on that score – it in fact grows there extensively)
Finally, we slowly crawl out of the matatu rank and become enmeshed in Nairobi traffic proper. Rush hour in this city is a fearsome beast. But one faded into slightly softer contrast as the man next to me and I pick up where Martin and I had finished. We compare country notes on traffic, football teams and politics. Prime minister Odinga is the one much-loved by Kenyans, he tells me, with little love in his voice for President Kibaki. When I check my watch some time later, three hours have passed and we are still in the traffic, trying to leave Nairobi and actually begin the three-hour leg to Nanyuki, from where I can catch a further lift on to Isiolo. Despite the cheekiest efforts of our matatu driver to get ahead, a sea of taillights fades into the dust and darkness as the two lane highway ahead has become a four lane one, cars pushing past each other on the dirt straddling either side of the lanes.Throw in a general lack of highway lighting with occasional large, luminous billboards on the roadside and leaving Nairobi could easily pass for some sort of dusty Blade Runner, a busy, bustling dystopian future.
But we do eventually escape Nairobi’s orbit and spin off into the night. There is a warm, oversized moon hanging low in the clouds, leaking light onto the dim silhouettes of unknown scenery as the night begins to cool. The journey to Nanyuki is uneventful, save for occasional armed but unconcerned police roadblocks which serve only to set my nerves on edge as I recall stories of bandits and other general security hazards on the Isiolo-Moyale road ahead.
the car is surrounded by a motley mix of some of the most ragged bone thugs I have ever seen together in my life
At Nanyuki, we all pile out and only three of us remain to go onward to Isiolo. Its half-past eleven, yet matatus seem to still be plying the route onwards to Isiolo. Commenting on the relative traffic, given how late it is, one of the other Isiolo-bound travelers points out that the trucks going through Isiolo pick up passengers at all hours, so the matatus simply feed them day and night. His name is John (the same as my brother), I learn, and he is off to Isiolo to buy grain for sale in Nairobi. Just then, a large bouncer-type watching over us (I assumed to make sure we don’t skip off to another company) points out that our onward lift to Isiolo has arrived.
It’s a large and (compared to the banged up matatus generally departing to Isiolo) posh and unmolested Landcruiser. Not the usual taxi fare at all. But not one to question good fortune, I jump in bags first and belt myself in. Once everyone else is on board we set off on what is by now a rather dark and sombre-looking strip of increasingly tattered tar. Chatting to the driver, I learn that his name, too, is John and that he is in fact a driver for one of the Kenyan mobile phone companies making his way somewhere past Isiolo to rescue a stranded repair crew. We are a chance for bonus income on the trip.
My vague suspicion the the number of Johns I have recently met is a good omen of some sort is soon to be confirmed, and I recall what David had told me on the Vic Falls train almost two weeks ago – “If you have a good heart, then no harm should come to you. Men see and don’t harm such people”
As we pull into Isiolo around 1am, the car is surrounded by a motley mix of some of the most ragged bone thugs I have ever seen together in my life. My heart sinks further as I realise that most of them are drunk and a few are varying degrees of high. I also becoming tired and realise that I could well end up being economic sharkbait for the crowd outside. I am reminded – without any humour whatsoever – of the bar in Star Wars where Luke first meets Han Solo. But tonight I am lucky, as the two Johns step in to protect me – shooing off the assembled thuggery in Swahili.
John the driver stays near the Landcruiser with me, while John the businessman works the system. Picking seemingly innocuous (to me) individuals out of the crowd and talking to them, he explains that most of the trucks that go through the route ahead are owned by such men – with whom one must negotiate a fee for moving cargo and passengers to villages in the North. The trucks have livestock truck chassis, with a large metal space in the back for carrying cargo and a grid of bars over the top. A tarpaulin typically covers the top and passengers sit on top of it as cargo to be delivered is stored in the main compartment. The trucks then roar off down the last remaining tarmac and onto the unmarked dust trails of Northern Kenya, delivering their orders and accruing new ones as they go. Sort of a truck-based version of the Disney Series Tale Spin.
John(the driver) watches me watching trucks of an altogether different variety pushing off every half hour or so. Filled with troops, all geared up with AK-47s and an occasional bolt-action rifle. John explains that these are security patrols, watching the road north for bandits. Seeing my eyes widen a little at confronting the truth of the situation up ahead, he reassures me that there is nothing to worry about nowadays, as the bandits have mostly gone to ground rather that encounter one of the patrols. Another troop carrier growls off into the night.
He also tells me loudly how Kibaki has made basic education free during his administration, so that he – who could not afford to go to school previously – could now be able to attend school and get an education, “if I want”, he declares. I wonder to myself why he doesn’t.
A young-looking guy in a Liverpool shirt works his way up to John and I and starts to make conversation. John seems unworried by him, so I relax a little. He speaks excellent English though, which strikes me as immediately odd, given our location far away from any of the major centers and the lack of English among the early morning crowd around us. It turns out that he is Kalla, a tourguide for occasional groups overlanding North into Ethiopia and a blacksmith in Isiolo when not on such trips. As we continue talking, he confirms my suspicions that the road ahead becomes progressively worse, and that I can expect a long journey to Moyale. The roads, and indeed the entire Northern region, were severely neglected in the past, he opines. Kibaki is the first president in ages who cares enough to help in fixing the northern infrastructure, unlike the self-involved prime minister Odinga, he declares. I grin, remembering the reverse sentiments on the matatu from Nairobi earlier in the evening. He also tells me loudly how Kibaki has made basic education free during his administration, so that he – who could not afford to go to school previously – could now be able to attend school and get an education, “if I want”, he declares. I wonder to myself why he doesn’t.
It’s now pushing 04h00 and I am feeling quite guilty at being the cause of the two Johns having such a massive delay in their own travel plans. John the businessman suddenly pops back up at the car and tells me that he has found a truck with space which is in good condition. For Ksh 1,500 (around $20), they will take me through to Moyale. And while I will have to sit on the top tarpaulin for the first day, I can get first chance at sitting in the front cabin once its current occupants depart in Marsabit. Keen at the prospect of getting moving and increasingly sleepy, I immediately agree. John the driver gives me his email address and makes me promise to email him when I get to Addis Ababa. I wonder gratefully how badly I would have been scammed here this morning if the two Johns had not taken me under their wings. I don’t know what Isiolo by day is like, but Isiolo on a Friday night is a terrifying beast that I am glad to have been saved from.
My pack is passed up to the top of the truck and we say our farewells – me thanking them for the umpteenth time for their help. Only on climbing to the top of the truck and sitting down does it become apparent that the top is in fact some twelve or more feet above the ground. Falling off, even if not at speed, would be dangerous. John the driver cautions me not to take an eye off my pack, so I put it right behind me and settle in for the journey. A few minutes later Kalla pops his head over the side to ask for money for John and John (and him) to get a soda. The Johns, I realise as I look around, have already left. I tell Kalla no and he retreats mopingly back to the ground.
Then, with a deep growl, our truck comes to life and we are off. I am about to find out how difficult the most difficult leg of my journey can be. For now, it is still night and an unknown number of hours until Marsabit and beyond, Moyale and the beginning of Ethiopia.