Red dust in my shoes ( out of Africa)

Africa has a way of stealing your heart. Perhaps the more so because I was born there and grew up under African skies. The visit this summer to Kenya and Uganda has involved a great deal of journeys. Hundreds and hundreds of miles, across both countries, on pot-holed, bumpy roads and dusty dirt tracks. Tiny villages, humble mud huts, wide open savannahs and rolling hills. A wealth of wildlife, up close and personal. The extraordinary privilege of observing lions, cheetahs, giraffes and elephants and many more, in their natural environment, often only a few feet away. July and August are the months of the Great Migration when the wildebeest and zebra migrate from Tanzania to Kenya’s Maasai Mara – the largest mass movement of land animals on the planet. It is a wildlife spectacle that has to be seen to be believed – the sheer numbers are amazing, as is the way they travel in lines – stretching out miles in both directions, drawn on by a never-ending quest for fresh pastures. This smorgasbord of ‘ready meals’ is a huge draw to the predators who travel with  the ready abundance.

This has been a trip of emotional journeys too. Forging real links with people and places that had been simply names on a map, and email contacts. The warmth of their welcome and hospitality, even in the most humble of circumstances. The experience of living in almost total minority – there simply are no other white faces in Bungoma, and most of the children we met in the schools, had never seen one ‘in the flesh’.  Odd to be an ‘oddity’, a source of fascination and wonder, and our ‘semi- celebrity’ status, even harder to deal with.

Steep learning curves. Speaking with almost no preparation, at a moment’s notice. The need to contextualise, making the Gospel relevant, and ridding it of ‘church speak’ and Westernisation. The need to connect with very different groups of people and speak from the heart. Learning to worship in another language and much more vibrant style. Praying with, and for, our brothers and sisters, and witnessing that sometimes language is irrelevant. Love and faith transmit, regardless, and language has never been a barrier to the Spirit.

Kenya’s red dust gets everywhere, and into everything. It is hard to shake off.  It travels with you. Jet travel transports you within hours from one ‘universe’ to another, but Africa is not that easy to leave. It steals your heart and keeps a bit.

Border Crossings

It is mid afternoon. The bus is full, and stifling. It is running nearly two hours late, and the kamikaze bus driver has decided he will make up time, overtaking three lorries at a time, and rolling this elderly tin can from lurch to lurch. Seat belts, like suspension, are things to dream of.

In a scruffy little town, it pulls to a stop and everyone gets off. It seems this is the border, but you have to guess that, along with where you have to go to have your passport stamped, photo taken, and fingerprints digitally recorded..eventually.  Leaving there and it is more alarming guesswork. A street hawker tells you, delightedly, ‘ Mama, the bus has gone!’ … and sure enough it has. Where, is the next part of the mystery tour, it seems, along with the forlorn hope of ever seeing our luggage again.  Hand luggage in tow, and life in hands – the road ahead has no pedestrian zones or provision. Health and safety assessed? I think not.  Bikes, buses and huge lorries aplenty, and little care for those struggling on foot. Nearly 1 k or so and it seems there is another sweaty office of officialdom waiting a repeat performance of assessment. Welcome to Uganda.

After the long queue, to be officially validated, the bus magically appears, along with the daemon bus driver ( and luggage! Woo hoo!) Even fuller this time. Every seat + 3/4 without. Squeeze ’em in, stack ’em high. This roller coaster is leaving now. Destination Kampala, six hours down the track.

Returning, the bus had been pre-heated for us, to optimum BBQ temperature, by standing on a forecourt, all windows and doors closed, in the midday equatorial sun.  At least when we approached the border, we had an inkling of what might happen. Except now it was dark. Pitch black.  Same sweaty office, same blank faced officials ( are they ever allowed to leave?) – then the crossing game, made all the more interesting by being unable to see, or more importantly, BE SEEN., by the said bikes, buses and lorries it was necessary to weave our way through.

Second security office. Three European youths, ahead of us, disallowed because of not having the right paperwork. Stranded, late at night in a nowhere border town. Welcome to Kenya, or not, as the case may be.  The bus driver obviously feels we need some exercise and further excitement as he drives past us, on into the night.  He does stop, eventually, but much further up  the dark road. Everyone piles back in, although no tickets are checked, so it is assumed it is the same passengers. Another European youngster in trouble. He had been told this bus would stop at Kisumu. No where near. It looked like he would have to stay on the rest of the night, til Nairobi and get another long bus ride the next day. We took pity on him, and promised to fix him up with decent lodgings in Bungoma, our destination. This should have been an hour up the road. The Kenyan security police have other ideas.

Police check points are regular events all over Kenya. We were given various reasons for them, not all of them kosher. Sometimes I think they are just bored, and want to throw a bit of weight around. So bus stopped. Everyone out. Lined up in male/female lines in the bus headlights and frisked. Bags poked and half heartedly searched. 3/4 of an hour standing in the dark, with patience at a low ebb, after an eight hour journey, at this point.   I was close to giving them a piece of my mind, but wisdom prevailed. That would have meant another two hours and good knows what else.

They say you don’t get under the skin of a country, until you have travelled on local buses..  it certainly adds spice. It seems the walking across the border lark is a regular event all across East Africa. How they know who actually comes in and out, despite the elaborate paperwork is a mystery. Just walk across in the dark and hop on a bus, if you can find one that is.. and one doesn’t find you first.