The International Writers Magazine: Kenya
Kathy Sharrad at Lake Turkana
we drove through the vast and desolate plains of northern Kenya, I wondered
if there was anything but heat and dust there. The only sign of life
for hours were forlorn shrubs, scattered over the barren landscape.
The only exception was one tall, slender woman walking casually yet
strongly, with a heavy-looking load firmly planted on her head. She
walked with the confidence of someone who normally walked alone through
this lonely, isolated land, on her way to somewhere only she knew to
be familiar. She barely raised an eyebrow as our cumbersome and loud
vehicle churned its way past her. Perhaps there were more than a few
strange westerners who liked to make this trip.
As the early evening began to fall, and the truck I was travelling on
with ten or so companions had trudged its way through endless boggy
sand paths, I saw the sight I had been waiting for all day. A glittering
mass of turquoise appeared on the horizon, sparkling in the late afternoon
sun - the Jade Sea was finally in my view. I gazed at it in wonder,
my eyes aching slightly as I beheld its dazzling light.
The Jade Seas more common name is Lake Turkana, a soda lake boasting
the biggest concentration of Nile crocodiles in Africa. It covers 2,473
square miles (6,405 kilometres), stretching to the Kenyan borders with
Ethiopia and Sudan. The sight was truly magnificent, and I suddenly
forgot the stifling heat that had been engulfing me all day as I gazed
at the shimmering water surrounded by lush green palms. I wondered if
this was what a mirage looked like to early European explorers of the
African continent. What a disappointment it must have been to find out
it was just an optical illusion. But this definitely wasn't. This was
real as it gets.
After a couple of stops due to our truck getting bogged, we made our
way towards Eliye Springs, a small village on the shores of the lake.
Along the way, we saw children playing a vigorous game of soccer. They
shouted and waved at us as we drove past, some of them running after
the truck with boundless enthusiasm and waving arms, a greeting typical
of what I had experienced in Africa so far.
kept driving and finally came to a stop in the middle of a palm-tree
forest beside the lake. This was Eliye Springs, once some sort of
Arabian-inspired resort, but now consisting of only a few dilapidated
buildings, mud and straw huts and a cement hole which looked somewhat
like a swimming pool. Crowds of children shouted and screamed 'how
are you? how are you?' at us as we wearily disembarked from our
truck journey of 14 hours or so. Their smiles were electrifying.
Bright white teeth gleaming out of smiling, excited faces. The adults
were more cautious in their greetings, and slowly made their way
towards us behind the cover of their screeching children. They smiled
tentatively at us and showed us where we could set up camp.
were the Turkana people, and lived in simple mud and straw huts around
the shores of the magnificent turquoise lake that sparkled invitingly
between the palms. They seemed gentle and hospitable, yet slightly wary
of our presence, having the air of people who are perplexed as to why
a group of white, dust-covered tourists would have travelled all the
way to set up camp by a lake in the middle of a scorching desert
a lake that was even too dangerous to swim in, because of the crocodiles.
Because of this threat, the villagers had kindly started filling the
swimming pool for us to cool off in, but strangely given their children
strict instructions not to swim with us in there.
After we set up camp and had some dinner, we relaxed with a few beers
a casual routine that had now become a habit come an evening
in Africa. Some of the Turkana children hadnt moved further than
a few meters away from our campsite in the time we had been there, staring
intently, studying our every move and smiling shyly when one of us looked
up at them. One little boy, who seemed to have taken a particular interest
in me, set himself up in the best possible position to observe me as
I ate my dinner. When I suddenly looked up at him, he shot me a dazzling
smile and laughed softly into his hands, never taking his eyes off me.
Some of the observers changed shifts over the next few hours, but we
were constantly watched by at least ten or fifteen children.
The next day began with an enchanting sunrise over the choppy waters
of the lake. A slight breeze had begun before dawn and had cooled the
temperature somewhat, also spreading generous amounts of sand throughout
our provisions. I watched the sun slowly appear over the horizon, mystified,
from my viewpoint on a sand-dune. The early morning light bathed the
sand, giving it the appearance of soft gold, while the lake was a dreamy
light blue colour, very different from the stark turquoise it was in
full sunlight the day before. This place was truly magical.
Later, I visited the 'market' some of the Turkana women had set up for
us near our campsite. Fifteen or so women sat behind their handmade
goods, hoping to sell us something. The women were beautiful, with thin,
exotic features and dark eyes. They were wrapped in colourful robes
and wore an array of necklaces, bracelets, anklets and little beads
in their hair. They smiled warily at me as I wandered around looking
at their crafts. The women couldn't speak English and they chattered
to me in their language, pushing beads and shawls and bags in my hands,
nodding their heads enthusiastically. As I meandered through the stalls,
I noticed small children following me, walking close enough so I could
feel their small arms brushing against me. When I stopped to look at
something, they would casually bump into me, laughing softly and grinning
cheekily up at me. One little boy slipped his palm into mine, pausing
slightly to see if I would reject it. When I didnt, he beamed
and held on more tightly. This action must have given others confidence,
and slowly I began to feel little fingers grasping at my skirt, or reaching
for my hand. I was overwhelmed by the attention, amazed and heartened
by the gentle nature of these children.
One older looking woman had a collection of necklaces that attracted
my attention. I stopped and looked more closely at them, and pointed
to one, looking at her questioningly. She nodded, I took this to mean
it was okay to try it on. She tied it gently around my neck and smiled.
I noticed most of her teeth were chipped and rotten, but she had a truly
beautiful face when she smiled. Her eyes shone with eagerness. Other
women gathered around and stared at me. They smiled and nodded their
heads approvingly. Obviously they thought it suited me. I wasn't so
sure, so I moved to take it off. Suddenly the older woman looked annoyed
and started talking angrily to the other women, pointing at me and shaking
her head. I started to worry - maybe this meant I shouldn't take the
necklace off. I tried again to untie the knot, when I noticed the woman
was wielding a huge, rusty knife in front of my face. She looked even
angrier and was talking even more loudly. I noticed my little companions
had left my side and were cowering by a large palm tree, watching with
scared eyes. Their reaction frightened me even more.
All I could see was the knife, and all I could think about was what
she was going to do with it. I made a quick decision to keep the necklace
and pay the woman some money for it. I pulled away quickly and started
smiling and saying 'okay, okay'. Some of the younger women knew what
this meant and must have conveyed this message to the angry woman. Once
I took my money out and showed it to her, she calmed down as quickly
as she became angry, smiling at me, as if nothing untoward had just
taken place. I smiled gingerly, thanked her and retreated back to camp.
I have never been sure what the woman would have done with that knife
- most likely it would be have been as innocent as her cutting the beads
from around my neck. But I will never forget how quickly she became
aggressive. Her eyes were filled with anger as she screeched at me in
a language I hadnt a hope of understanding. I blamed myself for
not reading the situation better. Even though I didnt understand
what I had done wrong, I knew I had offended the woman in some way
and this bothered me. Never before had I experienced such a language
barrier and I reminded myself then that I had only been in Africa for
a week, and still had a lot to learn.
travelled for six weeks throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia,
Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, sometimes with others, sometimes
alone. This was the only incident in the entire six weeks when I
felt threatened or unsafe. As a general rule, the Africans I came
in contact with were extremely friendly, courteous and gentle. I
was constantly amazed and warmed by the peaceful feeling I received
when I was in the company of African people. My experiences in Africa,
the landscape, the animals, the people - will stay with me forever.
© Kathy Sharrad June 2004
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