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.
Enterprising Gabbra women from the Kalacha Self-Improvement Group managed my stay in a humble facility they set up. 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 had a large black tank to trap the heat had warm the water. A sizeable bamboo-like stem attached at its lower end was the shower arm. At the free end of the shower arm was the familiar shower head. To use the system, remove the wooden stopper above the showerhead.
The window was a hole in the mud wall for better aeration inside the Manyatta. It allowed you to observe the local wildlife at night, attracted by the light from your kerosene lantern and the nearby Kalacha Oasis.
The oasis is literally the lifeline of this desert land. It is, perhaps, the only reliable water source for several communities that call this place home. People travel long distances to this place for water for domestic use and for their animals.
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.
The highlight of this experience is the singing wells. Men hum methodically as they pass water containers up and down the well. The chorus of hums in base notation is a sight to watch – soon, you will join in! The men empty the mtungi into a long trough above the well and then pass it down again. They repeat this process several times until they fill the well. 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. The menu included Italian-inspired Alesso and Arrosto, as well as the famous ‘Federation’ platter with vegetables, fresh meat, and spaghetti. This silverware serves the federation, satisfying 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.
Leaving the stunning desert countryside, I was amazed by its hidden beauty and the warmth of its diverse and hospitable 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.