By Verity Twydale
Bumping along a dirt road I’m beginning to realise that I’ll need more than a few Swahili phrases and a mosquito net to get through the next three months. The romanticism of a dramatically wide savannah is quickly wearing off. I’m in the back of a car that’s largely held together by rust and rope, charging through a jungle of banana palms and maize plantations towards a village that doesn’t exist on Google maps. No-one knows where I am and I have lost my mobile. I mentally kick myself, repeatedly.
Thankfully, I have found my host. Dressed in an ostentatious red and gold paisley suit, Onesmus is sitting in the front of the scrapheap we are calling a taxi. He tells me we are trying to beat the rain and points to a cluster of murderous looking clouds flanking the mountains. “It’s the time of the long rains,” Nes explains. “It will be very bad if we get stuck. Very bad”. When it rains the village roads turn into a greasy clay that bogs anything from buses to bikes. From late afternoon to mid-morning, don’t plan on going anywhere in a hurry.
We pass rows of street markets pulled together with the aid of empty UN food bags set against a backdrop of captivating farmlands. Grubby barefoot children sprout on the side of the road as they hear the car pass. A chorus line of “Mzungu! Mzungu!” erupts and Nes is laughing, telling me they will run home to tell their mothers that they’ve seen a white person. We turn off the main road and a clearing opens before us. There’s a crumbling mud hut in front of me. Hours away from the nearest town there’s no turning back now. “Karibu Nyumbani” Nes says. Welcome home.
Shikunga is not an easy place to fall in love with. Life is a clichéd struggle. There is no water, no electricity, no hospital. The village runs to a soundtrack of funeral drums and there are signs of sickness and malnutrition everywhere. I came to Kenya to do what any socially conscious Gen Y’er wants to do – make a difference – but it was difficult to see what could be done. “Pole, pole” says Nes. Take it slowly, give it time.
So slowly I slip into life in an East African country. I get used to tea so sweet it causes instant tooth decay. I come to an understanding with the a chicken roosting on the end of my bed. I get sick and then I get better. I spend three months living life to my own personal album of children squealing “Mzungu, how are you?”, grinning madly as they shake my hand. I do what I can and it becomes harder to form conclusions about what life should be like. And as a pair of leathery old hands press a fresh egg into my palms I realise that life isn’t quite what it used to be.