Among my many travels across Africa, none has left a lasting impact like northern Kenya! Here, I have had the rare privilege of spending nights in the warmth of the Chalbi Desert, getting entertained by the soothing lullabies of hungry hyenas in the dark distance as the constant stridulations of venomous scorpions provide reassuring nights under my bed.
My stay was at a humble facility put up and managed by a group of enterprising Gabbra women, members of the Kalacha Self Improvement Group. What this place lacked in facilities and amenities, it made up for in amazing hospitality and great food.
I was in a place where basic infrastructure like electricity was virtually non-existent yet I still enjoyed daily hot showers with the added benefit of admiring the beautiful clear blue sky and the amazing desert scenery right from my bathroom!
The bathroom did not have a roof and its low-lying wall made from reeds provided ample views of the scenery above and around – probably not the intended effect, but I could even chat with passers-by as they happened about, which I found quite refreshing.
The shower system comprised this huge inverted tank painted black for obvious reasons to those who are privy to the laws of Physics. A sizeable bamboo-like stem attached at its lower end served as the shower arm. At the free end of the shower arm, was the familiar shower head. To operate this system, all you needed to do was unplug a wooden stopper, just slightly above the showerhead and let nature do the rest.
For better aeration inside the manyatta accommodation, the window was a hole in the mud wall. The hole also ensured you missed nothing at night as you interacted with all manner of endemic fauna lured to your room by the light from the kerosene lantern and to these parts, by the promise of water from the nearby Kalacha Oasis.
The oasis is literally the lifeline of this desert land. It is, perhaps, the only reliable source of water for a number of communities that call this place home. Men, women and children walk long distances to this place for water for domestic use and for their large herds of cattle and camels.
The weather around the oasis is a total contrast to its otherwise harsh surroundings. Over the years, a unique ecosystem, nearly similar to the coastal flora, has evolved here. Palm-like trees dot the entire sandy ‘beaches’. The only oddness was the constant mooing of cows and the granting of camels. The air here is cool from the evaporating water – a truly welcome feeling after a long day in the unforgiving heat.
One of the sights to see in Northern Kenya is the famous singing wells where a number of men inside a shallow well hum methodically as they pass containers of water up and down the well hence the singing wells. The chorus of hums in base notation is truly a sight to watch – soon you find yourself joining in!
The mtungi gets emptied into a long man-made trough above the well and then it is passed down again. This process is repeated severally until the need for water up the well is fulfilled. If you have ever heard of the legendary singing wells of northern Kenya, then this is it.
Mealtime at my humble abode usually transformed into a feast fit for a Sultan. Delicacies ranged from the Italian-inspired Alesso and Arrosto to the famous ‘Federation’, a mixed platter comprising portions of vegetables, fresh meat and spaghetti, among other interesting northern eatables.
The federation is served in this silverware large enough to satisfy two to three people with a hefty appetite. It is nearly similar to the Ethiopian mixed dish without the heavy spicing reminiscent of most Ethiopian foods.
As my time to depart from this breathtaking desert countryside drew near, I could not help but marvel at her hidden beauty and the rich diversity and hospitality of her people. There was so much more to see yet so little time to spare (and of course so little budget to go around).
I desired to return soon and perhaps complete my odyssey to the fabled rock art of Lesayu Hills or the desert museum of Loiyangalani – perhaps even go Tilapia fishing in the ancient Jade Sea they now call Lake Turkana. It has now been 8 years. I bet a lot has changed since.
Perhaps with the upcoming Lake Turkana Cultural Festival, which I plan to attend this year, I might just revisit northern Kenya to see how time has reshaped her. I know when I do, I shall, as always, be blown away. Have you been to the north? I would love to hear about your experiences.
This story has been entered for the Travelstart Blogger Experience Competition.