At 7am the view of Mount Kenya from our holiday cottage was spectacular. The clouds that hide the mountain for most of the day were just starting to form, banking up behind the peak and starting to roll over the shoulder of the hill. The peak seemed higher in the sky than land had any right to be, with white snow lining the crevasses and reflecting the first rays of morning sunshine (I didn’t expect to see snow just a few kilometres from the equator). Far below, the rolling hills were silhouetted in shades of blue, their tree lined ridges marking them out with sharp lines like a theatre backdrop. A flock of small birds wheeled through the sky, heading towards a nearby lake. A deer grazing in the meadow lifted its head to look at me, briefly disturbed by the clicking of my camera lens, then returned to its own business.
We were staying at a cottage in the grounds of Mukima House, a country estate at the foot of Mount Kenya, for Christmas and New Year 2021/22. This was after abandoning plans to visit the UK or Hong Kong for the second year running, due to Omicron, the latest variant of the COVID-19 virus which had defined our two and half years in Kenya.
Mount Kenya, which gives its name to the country, is the second highest peak in Africa after Kilimanjaro. The triangular shaped peak stands at 5,199 metres above sea level, high enough to sustain a few small glaciers at temperatures up to 30 degrees colder than the surrounding savannah. It also features in Planet Earth, which we watched while on holiday. It was a bit strange to hear David Attenborough describing the life cycle of exotic plants on the mountainside, and then glance out the window at the same view.
There were several safari parks nearby, including Ol Pajete, a former colonial era cattle ranch converted into a conservancy and rhino sanctuary. It’s home to the last two living northern white rhinos in the world, as well as Baraca, a blind rhino who lost one eye in a fight and the other to cataracts. To the delight of our kids, Zefi and Ayla, Baraca is semi-tame and you can get up close and even feed him. But we also saw plenty of wild rhinos on the drive, including a pair butting horns as they drank from the same pool of rainwater. In the background, Mount Kenya was disappearing again behind a dark cloud, with a wall of rain misting its way toward us across the plain.
Before the storm
We arrived in Kenya in August 2019, six months before the start of the pandemic. In retrospect, this was a good thing as it gave me time to get settled at work and move into our new home before the pandemic hit. Compared to my former duty station, Malawi, Kenya was in many ways a breeze. In Lilongwe, we had got used to frequent power and water cuts, a lack of products in shops, and very few places to go or things to do. In Nairobi, by contrast, we were delighted to find modern shopping malls, supermarkets with fresh produce every day, countless coffee shops, restaurants serving international cuisine, and even cinemas. You can pay for everything in Kenya with Mpesa (mobile money, which was invented here) and order shopping, takeaways and taxis via phone apps, which came in even more handy after COVID-19 arrived.
Although Nairobi is not far from the equator, the weather was mild due to the altitude. This meant there were fewer mosquitos and no malaria, which had been our biggest fear in Malawi. It was like permanent UK summertime, but without all the rain. The UNICEF office was a relaxing 20-minute bicycle ride from my house, in a vast UN compound (the second largest in the world after New York). It felt like a cross between a university campus and a botanical garden, complete with tropical birds and even monkeys – at one point during the pandemic, there were more monkeys on site than people. As a former British colony, English is the language of schools, business and government, and spoken fluently by almost everyone, so communication with Kenyans was easy.
On the downside, however, security was a serious issue – both from crime and terrorism. Before arriving in Nairobi, I heard several scary stories from former residents about home invasions, car jackings and kidnappings. It turned out that things had massively improved in the last five to ten years, not least because the police had rounded up and shot most of the offending gangs, but we still had to adjust our lifestyle and become much more security conscious.
Our new home was large and comfortable (we call it “peak house” – our best home to date or likely in the future) but it had a safe house upstairs, bars on the windows, a security alarm, flood lights, electric fence, security guards, neighbouring guard dogs and frequent nighttime patrols along the road outside. Malawi, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, was also remarkably safe and I used to regularly walk around Lilongwe city centre without any worries – something that is expressly forbidden in Nairobi by UN Security. When visiting the urban slums with work, or travelling within certain counties, I needed to arrange an armed police escort – again, something unheard of in Malawi. But on balance, it was a price worth paying for the many other benefits of life in Kenya.
Kisumu: different lives
During the six months before COVID-19, I took two field trips with work: to Kisumu in the west of Kenya and Turkana in the north. Kisumu is a town on the shores of the small corner of Lake Victoria that is in Kenya. It was lush and green and reminded me of Lake Malawi. I was there partly to create multimedia stories for media and social media. One of these was about children returned from institutions to family care. It was a story I had done before in Thailand, Myanmar and Malawi, but I hit upon a new angle. A few months before travelling, I met Samora Asere, Chair of the Kenya Society of Care Leavers, at an event in Nairobi. Over lunch I discovered that as well as growing up in an institution, he was also a professional photographer. This gave me the idea to hire him to come with us to Kisumu and tell the story partly through his eyes.
With Samora and videographer Enock, we visited some of the children returned from Agape Children’s Home to family care. This included 14-year-old Mark, whose family lived in a small mud-walled house in the rice-growing district of Ahero, just outside Kisumu. It was rainy season and the earth road to their house had turned muddy and waterlogged. Our UNICEF car lurched alarmingly from side to side as the driver tried to navigate the thick mud without getting stuck. When we arrived, Samora interviewed Mark and took his photo, while his younger sister played outside, peering around the corner of the house to watch the unusual activity.
Mark ran away from home after stealing his grandmother’s phone, because he thought his father would be angry with him. He lived on the streets of Kisumu, until he was found by Agape outreach workers. They contacted his mother and after a period of family counselling, Mark returned home. “It was very hard on the streets,” he told us. “There was a lot of drugs and violence. I slept during the day and stayed awake at night. I was afraid that if I slept at night, other boys would attack me and steal my money. I’m happy to be back home and decided to change my behaviour. My father wasn’t angry with me and we’ve started a new relationship. I love my family and I don’t want to let them down.”
Mark’s story was in many ways similar to Samora’s and they quickly formed a bond. “When I look at Mark, I have mixed feelings,” Samora said afterwards. “I feel a bit sad because I see all the things I missed out on growing up. But much more than that, I feel happy for Mark because now he has the opportunity to lead a normal life and follow his dreams.” Read the full story here.
Because we’d done the whole story in and around Kisumu town, we finished early and had some free time to see the sights. Samora suggested going to Lake Victoria We took a tuk-tuk from our hotel down to the lakeside, where we hired a small wooden boat for a sunset tour. There were pods of hippos in the shallows, some emerging from the water as the temperature dropped. Birds perched on high branches of trees alongside the lakeshore, drying their feathers in the last rays of the setting sun. Two small birds landed on the prow of our boat and rode with us for a while.
Afterwards, we went to local restaurant in a wooden building on stilts, overlooking the lake. We had a fantastic meal of freshly caught fish, washed down with local beers. When I’m in the field, I always try to have a video call with my kids in the evening. While we waited for our fish, my son Zefi had a long chat with Samora, who is great with kids and listened patiently as Zefi told him all about his day at school.
Homa Bay: sex for fish
The next day, Samora returned to Nairobi but Enock and I went on to Homa Bay, another lakeside county which has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy and HIV in Kenya. Part of the reason for this is the ‘sex for fish’ practice, which is exactly what it sounds: young women trade sex with the fishermen for a part of their catch. Transactional sex is very common in Homa Bay and also happens with boda-boda (motorbike taxi) drivers for lifts into town.
We visited one of the fishing villages, Sindo Main Beach, early in the morning to film the fishermen coming in with their catch. The smell of fish was already strong in the air. White egret birds perched on rooftops or circled overhead, squawking loudly and looking to steal a meal. It was a crowded, noisy and seemingly chaotic scene, but as I watched, a sense of order emerged.
Each time a new boat arrived, a man waded waist deep in the water and showed it where to land. Dozens of women then raced forward to place their buckets in the boat, reserving a portion of the catch. Fishermen scooped up handfuls of tiny fish – called omena – quickly filling up the buckets. Most of the women handed over 1,000 shillings (around US $10) but a few did not. For these women, there was an understanding that they would meet the fisherman later for sex.
It was a frenetic scene and not one that I would normally be able to photograph. However, our local partner LVCT Health had introduced us to Colins Ochieng, Secretary of the Beach Management Unit, which makes the rules and maintains order on the beach. With his permission, we were free to move around and film. While women walked up the beach carrying buckets of fish on their heads, or spread hundreds of the tiny omena fish out on mats to dry in the sun, Colins explained to us the drivers of the sex for fish trade.
“This is not a new practice. In our native language, we call it ‘jaboya’ and it’s been going on for generations,” Colins said. “But it’s got worse in recent years because of poverty. Often, teenage girls drop out of school and their parents are not financially stable. They’re lured by the money that fishermen have. Our whole economy depends on fishing. Peer pressure also plays a role. Adolescents do what their fellows do, whether it’s right or wrong.”
Afterwards, we interviewed some of the adolescent girls and staff from LVCT Health, which promotes condom use, HIV testing and counselling. Read the full story here.
Turkana: troubled waters
My second field visit was to Turkana, which felt like it was in a completely different country to Kisumu. Turkana is very hot all year round and the land is semi-desert. The people are nomads who move around with their cattle, goats and camels, looking for pasture. Turkana people are immediately recognisable by their colourful robes, the wide bead necklaces that many young women wear, and the small wooden stools that men carry around with them.
My favourite story from Turkana was about a solar powered water system that UNICEF had installed in Naipa village, to help the school and community adapt to climate change. It was a scorching hot day when we visited. The ground was dry and sandy, punctuated with small gorse bushes and occasional trees. Tall, thin termite nests pointed like fingers at the cloudless sky. In some places, dust swirled in miniature whirlwinds. Yellow locusts swarmed around the remaining vegetation, stragglers from the recent locust invasion which had made global headlines. It seemed barely habitable, but people survived here, herding hardy animals like camels and moving around in search of pasture.
Naipa village, however, was like an oasis in the desert. The solar powered water system pumped groundwater up into overhead tanks on scaffolding, from where it flowed down to taps in a school and several nearby villages. At the tap nearest the main pump, a group of women and children had gathered to collect water. The Turkana are tall and striking. In rural areas, they still wear traditional clothing – beautifully coloured and patterned ‘leso’ wraps, headscarves for balancing water containers and bead necklaces. They smiled and laughed as they filled up their buckets and jerrycans. A boy walked past, leading a line of well-fed camels to the water trough.
“I used to walk six hours every day to fetch water from the river,” said Veronica Alimeme, 18, mother to a one-year-old baby boy. “But now it only takes me one hour and the water is cleaner. I use it for drinking, washing, cooking and cleaning.” Read the full story here.
We also visited a vocational training centre for vulnerable adolescents, including teenage mothers, who were learning skills like catering, hairdressing and tailoring, while their children were cared for in a creche on the same site.
The Turkana visit also sticks in my mind for another reason – it was almost my last visit anywhere. I was at Lodwar airport with my colleague Dennis, when our return flight was changed at the last minute from Safarilink to budget airline Fly540. The flight then made an unscheduled stop at a Tullow oilfield in the middle of rural Turkana, to pick up some workers. After taking off again, the plane gained altitude and started flying over a range of mountains.
Suddenly there was a loud bang overhead. From my window seat, I could see that the right-hand side propeller had stopped turning. The plane started wobbling and the pilot came on the intercom. “We’ve just lost one of our engines,” he announced as the plane performed an unsteady U-turn. “We’re going to try to return to the airstrip.”
There followed a nerve wracking 15-20 mins as we flew back towards the oilfield. I remember thinking several times that we might not make it. Eventually the airstrip came into view in the distance and my hopes rose. But then two things happened at the same time. The second engine started to fail and the plane dropped rapidly towards the ground. The pilot was trying to lower the wheels but they were jammed and not extending fully. I could hear a repeated ‘clunk, clunk’ noise as the wheel tried and failed to come down. At this point, with the airstrip still some kilometres ahead, it was clear that we were going to crash.
Two things saved us. First, the flat, dry landscape of Turkana, with just a few scattered shrubs and trees, which provided plenty of potential runways. Second, moments before we hit the ground, the wheels finally came down. At first it was like a bumpy landing at a rural airstrip, but then I saw branches and leaves getting caught up in the wheels. Suddenly, we stopped with a jolt and a boom. Sand filled the air, slowly subsiding to the ground. There was a spontaneous cheer and round of applause for the pilot. I looked at the passenger next to me. “I think we’re OK,” he said.
At this point, I realised that I was sat next to the emergency exit. Remembering the pre-flight briefings that I never expected to use, I opened the window and threw it outwards. I saw some passengers trying to get their overhead baggage down, as if we had arrived at a normal airport, but I was very aware that in these situations you save your life first, not your possessions. There was still the possibility that an engine could catch fire. I climbed out of the window and jumped down to the sandy ground. I then walked quickly to a nearby line of small trees.
Here I met up again with Dennis. He was even more shaken up than I was. Remarkably, this was not his first crash. He had been involved in another incident, also with Fly540, which crashed at Mogadishu Airport in Somalia. “That time was even worse,” he told me. “One of the engines was on fire.” The airline staff didn’t seem to know what to do but luckily Tullow Oil’s head of security was on the flight. He took over and organised the passengers. We waited in the patchy shade of the trees, watched by curious Turkana locals, until jeeps came from the Tullow base to pick us up. We were offered another flight, but after consulting with UN Security and Dennis, who was understandably reluctant to fly again, we decided to do the two-day drive to Nairobi instead.
The crash was bad enough to make the national news, with social media posts from other passengers quickly going viral. On the drive to Eldoret, I got a message from my colleague Marilyn. “I just saw you on TV,” she wrote. “I’m so glad you’re alive!”
Crater lake and crescent island
Although we didn’t have time to do a proper safari before COVID-19 arrived, we did make it to Lake Naivasha, a two-hour drive north of Nairobi. We stayed on the edge of the lake, which is in the crater of an extinct volcano, and took a boat trip to Crescent Island, where we did a guided walking safari. This is a moon-shaped piece of land, home to giraffes, hippos, zebras and pelicans. Interestingly, although the animals seemed very much at home, none of the wildlife is native to the island. It was all brought there for the filming of the 1985 movie Out of Africa, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. After filming wrapped, the local government decided to leave the wildlife there and create a miniature wildlife reserve.
Shortly after my visit to Turkana, the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Kenya. Events moved quickly and a few weeks later the Kenyan Government announced that they would be closing the international airport indefinitely, stranding any expats that chose to stay. With flights already being cancelled, we had to make a quick decision and decided to temporarily relocate to Hong Kong, where my wife Joyce’s family lives. My kids were two and four years old at the time and had no idea how unusual this unexpected journey was. “Do you want to go Hong Kong to visit Gung Gung and Por Por?” I asked my son Zefi, using the Chinese names for maternal grandparents. “Yes!” he replied excitedly. “Let’s go today,” I said. “We’ll leave in four hours.”
The flight to Hong Kong was a surreal experience. At the time, it felt like we were in the opening scenes of an apocalyptic movie. As the news showed more and more countries closing airports and locking down their cities, we watched the departure board at Nairobi airport nervously. More and more flights were coming up as cancelled. There were young European backpackers camped outside the airport with no obvious way home. Luckily, our flight was one of the few to go ahead. The first part of the flight was quiet but when we changed at Doha in the middle of the night, we joined a large number of Hong Kong citizens fleeing escalating COVID-19 cases in Europe and North America. We were wearing masks and using sanitizer but the people we joined were in full biohazard suits with plastic visors, which I had not seen until that point. There were entire families dressed like this, with the kids in miniature versions.
Arriving at Hong Kong, we were met by a noisy protest at the airport. We got electronic tags at immigration and then a taxi to Cyberport Hotel, near to where Joyce’s parents live. We checked in as usual but then the receptionist said: “See you in two weeks,” and sent us up to the quarantine floor, where we were shut into our rooms. We spent the next 14 days in two adjoining rooms, cooking with a rice steamer in the bathroom, hand washing our clothes and hanging them on furniture to dry, while jealously watching people exercising in the park outside through our window. Eventually, we were released into the relative safety of COVID-free Hong Kong, where we stayed for the next six months.
In part two of this blog, I’ll tell you about our return to Kenya in October 2020, and getting stuck into the largest vaccination effort in modern history, as UNICEF brought 21 million (and counting) COVID-19 vaccines into Kenya through the COVAX facility.
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