An incredibly boring and rambling post about yesterday’s journey to Mbita, Kenya that no one should read.

I have no money. I haven’t had more than a few dollars at a time for the past few weeks, and this pattern has been repeating itself for at least the last few months. Nairobi is a terrible place to live if you have no money. Now I can see why most people are so pissed off and mean a lot of the time.

It is incredibly stressful, but you learn ways of getting by. Eggs are cheap. If you are willing to walk a bit and aren’t picky about the taste, beans and a chapatti will only set you back about $.50. If you stock up on rice in the rich times, you can eat a reasonable dinner and stay full for a while.

Not leaving the house, ever, really helps. Every venture outside will cost you money you don’t have. Aside from the problems of having to run the gauntlet of people constantly demanding money… cause you’re white. And white people have money. And why don’t you have any money? You greedy bastard.

Whatever you do, don’t get pulled over. You might be able to plead your case and convince them of the truth, that you really have no money, but, if not, you’re going to jail, because you are a white guy and all white people have money somewhere.

But that’s not what I was going to write about. Because I have no money, I scheduled a trip to Mbita. I can get the per diems out here and at least eat and not feel horribly fucking poor. So it was a grand plan. Go on the road and not feel poor and ashamed like I did when I was in high school.

Was going to take the bus because I feel guilty about using my employers money, but had to get here by noonish so I just took the damn flight. It was only $40 more than the bus. Maybe they could spend that $40 on something useful and not me, but fuck it, I’ll fly.

The problem with coming out here is that you fly into Kisumu, then have to travel about 90km to the ferry and take a one hour ferry ride to Mbita. Though you are constrained by the ferry schedule. So you have to wait a while. The whole trip can take as long as the bus if you do it wrong.

The cab from the airport to the ferry is $80. Yes, the cab is more expensive than the flight. I think these guy s are ripping us off. So I hate them. I don’t want to use them. So I decided not to, aside from the bigger issue of having to front the money for the cab (money I don’t have) and fight to get reimbursed. Too much trouble.

So, I elect to take a matatu (bus). I run the gauntlet of cab drivers, one recognizes me, I tell him I have no money and have to take the bus, which is true. Kenyans first look at you like you are lying, then they look at you as if you are greedy, then there is some glimmer of understanding when they think about who they are talking to…. At that point, they just think you are pathetic.. like the KCs (perjorative for white Kenyans), some of whom really are dirt poor.

Loser.

Oh well. I walk past and go out to the road. A matatu comes by, I tell him I want to go to the Luanda Port, he says get in. I do. We roll along. At some point we pass by a familiar junction and pass it. “Why didn’t we turn?” I think. I ignore it and roll along with the ride. We are riding. They gave me the front seat.  I’m not recognizing anything at all.

After an hour, we get to Luanda. Luanda Town. Not Luanda Port.

Fuck. “Nimesema Luanda Port, si Luanda Town! Nataka kuende ferry port, harafu naende Mbita Town. Sijui?”

When Kenyans realize they fucked up, they kind of shut down. It’s weird. Like even apologizing or offering to help you get out of your predicament are admissions of guilt and inherently dangerous. There’s really not a whole lot you can do at that point.

I saw a shop selling drums. Maybe there’s something good. If I’m going to be lost, I might as well check it out. I run the gauntlet of Luos screaming “Mzungu!” Don’t they teach these people manners?

The shop is just curio crap. Wood giraffes and other assorted junk. Giraffes aren’t even out here. Not sure why it matters to create cheap carvings of them. Maybe they should carve hyacinth which is starving the lake for oxygen and light or even tilapia. Or cholera. I don’t know. Giraffes don’t make a whole lot of sense out here. For all their talk of “culture” in Kenya, the face they present to tourists is remarkably incongruent to anything resembling local culture. Now, I’m complaining.

Maybe an NGO taught them what to carve at one point and they just did it because it seemed like a good idea. No clue. That’s usually how it works.

I’m wondering what the hell to do. Go back to that junction we passed? Seems reasonable. A bus is there. I tell the tout I want to go to the port. He says, OK, take this bus and get off at Ramulu, then change to a cockroach.

A cockroach is a Toyota ProBox which has been converted into a taxi. It normally seats ten. If you are lucky, you can sit in the hatchback, which is the cheapest seat, but the place where no one wants to sit because only the truly poor sit back there. The downside is that you’re locked in so if there’s an accident, you can’t get out. The upside is that you are the only dude back there for the whole ride.

The other seats are usually crammed four to a seat. As the Kenyan diet gets more and more calorie rich, people are getting bigger. You can imagine what it’s like to sit four across in the backseat of a ProBox. I’ll take the boot Er.. the hatchback. We’re British here.

OK, so I do all that. Just like the dude says. I look at Google Maps. We pass a road that goes right down to the port. Should I get out? I figure that the road might be bad. That’s why he’s passing it. Yes, that must be it. Yes. No need to fear. It’s only 25 km to the town where I have to get in the cockroach.

I continue.

We get to the town, I get out, he shows me the cockroaches. I need food. I go and buy some chicken. Animal Planet is one the TV. Reptiles are eating one another. It is an apt analogy for Kenya, perhaps. At least at election time. Maybe it’s an apt analogy for the US. I don’t know.

 

The chicken isn’t bad. Better than that terrible Nairobi chicken from those farms where they use hormones, which cause chickens to grow into full adults within an hour and give people breasts. At least that’s what taxi drivers tell me.

I go toward the cockroach. A guy is approaching me hoping to rip me off. I speak Swahili. He repels and yells loudly to his friends that I speak Swahili. They leave me alone. I must be a lost cause.

The cockroaches are waiting. Here, cockroaches wait until the car is full before they embark. Unless you have stuff to carry, it’s stupid to wait because you’ll be sitting there all day long. If you walk down the road for a while a rogue cockroach will come by and pick you up. Those guys are hated by the guys at the stages waiting for customers. They look at them as bottom feeding trolls. No pride.

I start walking. The cockroach guys complain.

The boot is open so I get in, and promptly fall asleep. I got up at 5 am to get to the airport and have already spent two hours in vehicles. A bag of maize makes it more comfortable.

Eventually we stop at the “Port.” It’s a dusty nothing town in the middle of nowhere. Not the port.

“Hapa si port!”

“Hapa ni Port Victoria.”

Good god. Luanda didn’t work for me. Now Port isn’t working for me. This just isn’t my day.

“Port Victoria” sounds like it should be some old British outpost or something, with grand houses and a nice place to drink tea on the water. What it is a dusty, waterless town in the middle of nowhere. There’s a non-sandy beach somewhere nearby though it isn’t part of the town.

Google Maps can’t generate a route from it since there’s no road, technically. I’m 100 km from the “port” I want to go to. I start walking. Then stop. I look around for someone reasonably educated to avoid making all the mistakes I’ve been making all day long.

Out here, most people aren’t all that well educated and aren’t used to dealing with non-locals. A bad mix.

I find a guy with shiny shoes. He speaks educated English.

I explain to him that I want to go to ferry port. He proceeds to give me a route with six changes. It’s complicated by not undoable, and spares me having to go all the way back to where I came from.

First, I I’ll have to take a motocycle taxi 20 km to a neighboring town, then change to a cockroach, then to few buses. The motorcycle guy tries to make conversation with me about mundane topics. I’m too annoyed to engage him. I stop replying.

Feigning happiness gets exhausting. At this point, I’ve been in motion for nearly four and a half hours. Just drive. He is ripping me off. 700 for this trip is just way too much.

We get to Siaya, home of the nyatiti. There are no nyatitis to be seen anywhere. Of course. Because even in Siaya, people don’t care about it.

I didn’t have any expectations of seeing people playing nyatiti on the streets of Siaya. For the record.

There’s a cockroach there. He tells me I can take it.

“Are you leaving now?” “We are waiting for a few more people.” The car is empty. I start walking. I can hitchhike it to Bondo. I note that there are no cars. It’s hot. 3 pm is the hottest time of the day. I have no water and Bondo is 20 km away. I can do this.

Cars come by, they ignore me. Eventually, a preacher picks me up and drives me a kilometer or so. He is friendly and wants my number. I give him a fake number.

I keep walking and cars keep passing me by. The cockroach still hasn’t appeared and I’m 10 km in. On foot. Which means he is still waiting over there.

I get another ride from an electrician who says he’ll take me all the way in to Bondo, saving me a lot of trouble. He’s nice enough and doesn’t talk about Jesus, which is cool. Not talking about Jesus is a sign of character to me. Trump never talks about Jesus but he’s an awful individual. Hm.

Now this post is rambling. No one is reading this. I can write just about anything at this point.

Dude negotiates a price for me on the matatu, which is kind of unnecessary, but he gets it to a real price of $.50. At least I have some backup if they try to rip me off. Sure enough, the guy tries to rip me off. I call him on it and he coughs up the money.

The lady next to me compliments me on saying “asante” as if I’m straight off the boat. For some reason, this annoys me. Generally, at this point, anything could annoy me, but after arguing with the matatu tout over a few coins in Swahili, you’d think that I would be able to say thank you.

Most whities that come out here are religious people. They capitalize on dumbness, it helps them do what they do because there are people who are just midline educated and have no work prospects and want to feel as they have control over some particular space. So having a semblance of power over white people, however benign, is a premium. “He doesn’t know ugali. The poor guy. I will teach him.”

I find this type of pandering annoying, and find the ways in which white religious people exploit it to be offensive. It’s the little things that count.

For the whities, it’s a cash cow. They take some pictures of them “helping” poor people, then go around to churches in the states to raise money for their “projects” but the cast majority of the money goes to supporting the missionaries themselves. The smiles and feigned ignorance of the ways of the savage are simply a means to an end.

But I digress. I run into so few missionaries in Nairobi that they always stick out to me here in Western Kenya.

I go on, get out at a stage and realize that if I don’t drink water anytime soon, I’m going to suffer heatstroke. The bus is ready to go to the port. I casually tell the guy to wait without indicating what I’m going to do. I go buy some water, chat with the lady and drink some. When I come back out, the bus is still there full of people.

“Twende” and we’re off.

We’re driving for a while and the tout taps me on the shoulder for money. I have him 50 bob and he just stairs at it. “How much is it?” “200” he says.

“That’s too much. Pesa mingi sana.” People laugh. I think he’s trying to rip me off and stew on it for a while. I realize at some point that the port is significantly farther away than what was described to me. It was probably a fair price.

I’ve now been on the road for seven hours and have spent more that $15 of money I don’t have. I was hoping to take a nyatiti lesson this weekend but have spent it all on this stupid trip through Nyanza.

I go to get a soda at the hotel across the street from the port and ask a guy what time it is. A full hour till the ferry comes. By the time we hit Mbita it will be dark and I’ll miss the sunset by the lake, which, aside from work and money, is why I come here. Again, I stew on it, annoyed.

The watch guy asks me if I’m going to Mbita. He says he can get me a spot on the boat matatu that’s leaving now. “It’s faster. You can get there by six.” For 200 schillings. I already bought my ticket for the ferry but screw it, let’s go.

The boat matatu is fast. We are there in a mere 15 minutes. The ferry is absurdly slow. We see it crawling on the way. It was 5:30 and it had just left port. I wouldn’t have gotten to Mbita until well past 7:30. This was a good plan.

They at least give us life jackets but the ride is fairly scary nonetheless. No one here can swim to I’d probably die trying to save someone. I always think about these things.

After more than 10 hours of travel by plane, matatu, bus, motorcycle, foot and boat, I finally arrive in Mbita, run another gauntlet of motorcycle taxis and hit the gate before it closes.

Now, finally, I sit here by the lake and watch the sun go down.

Coming out here is complicated. I am reminded of a time of my life where things really weren’t so bad, compared to now, where things really can’t get much worse. Oh well.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine
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