It is a Friday afternoon and we are parking our bags on the roof rack of a tour bus outside The Heron Hotel in Milimani, preparing to go spend the weekend in the bush like proper tourists sans the ‘Hakuna Matata’ t-shirts and tan Safari boots. I am excited because we are leaving the city and its maddening traffic and noise. Much as I love to stay in Nairobi for the work and business opportunities it presents, I know that it is not the friendliest city to live in. It can drive you to an early grave if you lived all your life and retired in it. You need to occasionally get away from its endless bustle for the sake of your sanity.
I am mesmerized with the sudden transformation as we speed down Mombasa Road and the industrial district falls behind to give way to the vast empty spaces dotted with acacia. I am reminded of the fluid mysteries of this city I live in. One minute you are in the chokehold of the Nyamakima or Country Bus jua kali hustle, and then you open your eyes and you are in the country serenity of Karen or Gigiri, with the birds chirping up in the trees. If you doze a bit in the back of the cab you will wake up eyeballing mating lions in the vast national park. It is a chameleon, this Nairobi.
The bus turns off the Machakos highway and as we trundle up into the bush, conversation has waned. Instead we marvel at the savage beauty of the scabrous hills jutting out of the wild country that is burnt the colour of the mane of an old lion in the baking sun. The roughly hewn rock faces of the jutting hills are painted in pastel sunset yellows, persimmons and browns amidst the stunted acacias. We have left all civilization behind and are journeying into an unexplored era where beasts roam the plains, unimpeded by man’s boundaries.
The immediate thing we notice about the camp on Lukenya Hill, where Kwani? has brought us to camp for the night are the vast open spaces and the endless open blue sky. You step off the bus and feel as if you have disembarked from a normal world and into a primordial one that turns around its own axis, and which you only read about in the history books.
We clamber up to the edge of the high rock face on which the campsite is built and gape at the vast Ukambani plain rolling away into the distance. It is a spectacular place. But also wild, warns a Maasai camp attendant who is watching us with interest. The wild animals are asleep in their burrows, he tells us. Once the sun goes down and the heat lessens they will come out to roam and hunt.
The afternoon went by in a blur, with the adventurous among us exploring the surroundings, perhaps hoping to startle a wild rabbit or rock hyrax out of its burrow and give chase. Others were in the main camp building cooling off at the bar. As the chill crept in the shroud of night suddenly descended, as it often does in the tropics without warning. One by one we huddled by the campfire for supper.
The nyama was ready, but since we were not ready to take a bet on their ugali, the Luhyia folks amongst us asked for a sufuria and a mwiko and rolled our sleeves to make ugali the proper way, now that the fire was blazing. It is the one thing we couldn’t trust our hosts with.
Meanwhile, the stories and jokes flowed around the campfire, the crackling flames leaping upwards lightning up our faces in flashes of fiery orange whenever a gust of wind blew up the hill from the darkened plain below, a column of sparks spiraling heavenward towards the vast star-spangled firmament. To someone watching us from a plane above, we were like a gathering of tribespeople at some nighttime ritual, only that we were not drinking blood out of cow horns but Tusker and Allsops out of brown bottles. The only common thing we had with a midnight tribal ritual was the roast game meat.
As was typical of any Kwani? gathering, it wasn’t hard to tell that these were writers and creatives. They looked wild and untamed. But in reality, it was a gathering of highly creative people who battled their own demons when they were in the privacy of their creative spaces back at home, and who were only too glad at the opportunity to leave their writing desks for a while and let off steam.
Annette Majanja – now Lutivini Majanja – was the nervous host at the party. She kept checking on everyone to make sure we were comfortable. We had to remind her that we were not at the office, and that she should sit down and have some nyama and let her hair down.
As the night wore on and the seemingly endless fountain of beer flowed the stories and jokes turned ribald, and we truly were family. The poet Stephen Derwent Partington – SDP in Kwani?-speak – hovered above us, keeping conversations going, and checking on things like the good host that he was. As for the camp attendants, they kept the fire supplied with wood, which was our insurance against the wild game now lurking in the vicinity of the party, and which could smell the nyama on the night breeze.
Gradually, sleep overtook us and one by one we left for the shared tents we had been allocated around the campfire until only the night owls remained to keep the Maasai guards company.
I took a quick leak in the scary dark and crawled into our tiny tent and zipped the entrance shut. In the tent nearby The Binj was already asleep, snoring. In the distance the cackle of hyenas continued to punctuate the night, the beasts getting closer and closer to the camp as the night wore on. You need to hear those beasts laugh on a dark night out in the bush in order to appreciate how eerie it sounds. Thankfully, we were too drunk to care, and soon drifted off to sleep.
We rose at dawn to the reassurance that none of us had been turned into supper for the hyenas. One by one we stepped out of our tents and yawned at the flaming sprawled hills in the distance, behind which the morning sun prepared to emerge.
At the makeshift bathing cubicles the camp attendants were boiling our bathing water in sufurias on open wood fires for those of us who took hot baths. As I waited my turn at an unoccupied bathroom, I stepped behind the row of mabati shacks and found Kama and some other Ukoo Flani Mau Mau guys sharing a spliff of weed. We bumped fists and chatted as we blew acrid smoke towards God up in the purest blue spread of sky I had ever seen.