Charity Challenge in the African Bush

April 4, 2016
Me and my Maasai warrior guides

Rift Valley charity trek

I gazed with a sinking feeling in my stomach at the growing pile of things I had to take. My eyes then moved down from the bed, on which my kit was strewn, to the smallish looking rucksack waiting to be packed. My son, conveniently dismissing the fact that his old man was about to undertake an unforgettable trek into the African bush, had nabbed the bigger rucksack the week before.

The kit didn’t fit. My wife, and packing expert, Judy had earlier sneaked off to bed, leaving me alone to deal with my packing dilemma. I tried again. And again. By ten past midnight I finally fastened the straps and fell into bed with my alarm set for 5.30 am.

When the clock rang it felt like I had only been asleep for about 5 minutes. It was time to leave the comforts of our old home in Dumfries and Galloway and head first to London and then on to Africa.

By 2pm I had arrived at Heathrow airport. Clad in a mandatory bright red ActionAid T-shirt and feeling somewhat conspicuous, I sat myself down in a little corner of one of the airport cafeterias and started tucking into a burger, chips and pint of Heineken.

I thought of Africa where I know so many people are struggling to find the most basic food. The big burger, such an easily identified symbol of our fast track consumer society, suddenly didn’t taste so good.

I met my fellow trekkers at Terminal 4. It was like a bunch of primary children. Twenty-six of us gathered together, some a little nervous, some a little shy but very quickly we were all chatting away.

All of us, hailing from the length and breadth of this easy land, had spent the last year fundraising for ActionAid in exchange for sharing in the privilege of following in the footsteps of the Maasai.

The eight-hour flight passed quickly as we ate slept and chatted to our fellow passengers.  I was lucky enough to get a lesson in Swahili. As we approached JK airport Nairobi it was not yet daylight and the horizon started to change colour through yellow, orange and crimson.

We barely had time to settle in our hotel before we were bused to the Kenwa (Kenya Network of Women with Aids) offices in Pangani, and then on to Kiandutu slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.

We arrived in the dusty village still weary and still registering a certain disbelief that we were actually here – all the months of preparation, fundraising and packing were over.

But a colourful all singing, all dancing throng of locals waiting to welcome us instantly knocked us out of our restful weariness.

Everyone who could be there was there. There were women, little children and youth groups and before we knew it we found ourselves in the thick of it all. Our little group of kaki clad backsides, doing our best to keep up with our African hosts and shake off the inhibitions of our western culture.

Their warmth and brightness was incredible. It was an unforgettable experience.  

We were then led slowly through the village, which consisted of an array of makeshift homes built from anything that was available such as sacking material or corrugated iron.

Tiny brown hands found ours and held them tightly as they trotted along by our sides. Now and again they would look up and smile trustingly, eager to show us around.

These endearing children were mostly orphans whose parents had died from Aids and many were themselves HIV positive. But just like kids anywhere, they were bright-eyed, bubbly, full of mischief and very excited by this strange old bunch of red t-shirt people.

Some pushed themselves forward to be photographed. Others however stood back and watched us from a distance often holding a smaller child close to them. Their dark un-laughing eyes conveyed a deep unknown sorrow or pain. Holding their gaze, for what must only have been seconds, left me with a sense of heaviness, which will never leave me.

In the village we were able to see for ourselves the work of the ActionAid-funded drop-in centre which included facilities for washing, disinfection, weaving, food supply and pain relief for those living with HIV and Aids.
The very sick were cared for within the community. Often they had to share a makeshift bunk bed. Too weak to move they would lie there, uncomplaining as they awaited their untimely death. A few of us were allowed the privilege of meeting these quietly courageous people. With no language between us they just smiled with us and offered their hand in trust and friendship.

One young woman lay with her baby safely cradled in her arms. We left quietly, allowing their care to continue unobserved.  Before we left the village, our ActionAid rep, Helen, handed over our gift of a food parcel consisting of sacks of rice, maize flour, sugar, lentils and cooking fat. A small contribution that was received with gentle gratitude   

Our visit over, we piled into our bus feeling overwhelmed by the mix of brightness and fun and the deep sadness, which had drawn all these people together. We were driven back to our hotel, back to our world of comfort and plenty.

On Sunday after an early breakfast we took a bus through the outskirts of Nairobi where the streets were lined with cluttered, untidy and tired looking business premises.

I gazed sleepily out of the window, fighting to stay awake as the grimy old buildings yielded to large expanses of fenced, dried out grassland, which in turn blended into vast open plains. Mount Longido loomed large on the hot horizon and the bus slowed to a stop.

We stepped down on to the red dusted track for a ‘taster trek’, a short half-hour hike to our first campsite and to our Maasai guides. We were now in remote bush land, it was harsh, arid and inhospitable. The temperature was well over 30 degrees and we were feeling it.  

We arrived at camp looking and feeling somewhat dishevelled. The dust from the dry track covered every exposed part of our un-acclimatised fair skins broken only by the little trails of sweat trickling from pores we didn’t even knew existed.

Hot, dry and thirsty we welcomed the large glassful of orange and mango juice and gulped them down. Grimy dust coated us from head to foot. No longer squeaky clean British travellers we were already beginning to blend into and feel part of the surrounding terrain.

After lunch in our long dining tent our little band of trekkers was taken back into the bush land for a lesson in survival with one of our Maasai guides, Moname.

We became acquainted with the ‘wait a minute bush’, so called because if you get too close, you will wait for possibly many minutes before you can disentangle yourself from the hundreds of tiny barbs.

We were back in camp by early evening. As we sat relaxing, out of nowhere, from just beyond a group of acacia trees, there appeared, at first one or two and then before long, a whole group of Maasai, men women and children.

They settled down quietly on the dusty ground, spread out colourful blankets upon which they displayed their hand made jewellery, exquisitely crafted in tiny coloured beads.

The Maasai struck a hard bargain and then disappeared as silently and suddenly as they had appeared.

Camp consisted of 14 two-man tents, two loo tents and an ingenious shower tent that housed a large suspended drum full of water. It was a little like one of those Japanese water torture ideas except in this case it wasn’t ice cold but pleasantly warm.

By the end of day one in the bush, most of us had managed to dispense with any of our remaining airs and graces.  All the accumulated stress and inescapable trappings of our cluttered fast track society just seemed to dissolve into the dusty warmth of the African evening.  

Around the campfire that evening, and every evening, we sat and talked with our Maasai guides.

Above us, the sky was pitch black as there is no light pollution here, and what seemed like millions of tiny stars were visible along with the inverted crescent moon of the southern hemisphere.
The following morning we were driven to what seemed like the middle of nowhere to begin our day’s trek.

By late morning the temperature was well into the upper 30s and we were feeling the full blast of the African sun.

Lunch was a very welcome break. We tried to take advantage of some semblance of shade under an acacia tree. But its benefits were soon diminished by an explosion of Arsenal umbrellas that shot up and transformed our gathering into a bizarre sight.  No guessing which team these Maasai warriors supported.

The afternoon trek was challenging with temperatures of over 40 degrees.

When we eventually arrived at our destination we found our crew, who had been well ahead of us, had already set up camp. We felt Christmas had come early. Lights out about 9.30 pm and there wasn’t a peep out of any of us.

The next day, we were up again before sunrise to begin our trek, which would take us to one of the local Maasai encampments.

We passed by some children who were taking their goats and cows to some grazing. They seemed unperturbed by us, some smiled shyly and then just carried on their way.

Our arrival at the encampment heralded yet another unforgettable welcome: about a dozen women singing and chanting in the traditional greeting.

After this we were invited into one of their homes, which was built with sticks and cow dung. The simple dwellings were surrounded by a protective, circular fence of roughly cut acacia branches.
Before we left we were, once again, persuaded to join in the traditional dancing and once again our complete lack of rhythm succeeded in creating hoots of laughter from the women and little children watching us.

The Massai region is peppered with volcanoes. Most of them are now inactive. But Oldoinyo Lengai (the Mountain of the Gods) is one exception. This wonderfully majestic mountain towers above the others and remains active. Through my binoculars I could see the solidified larva on the summit.

Our trek was taking us nearer and nearer to the escarpment of the Rift Valley and the highlands of the Ngarongoro Crater. This is a sunken crater, 600 meters in depth. It has created a natural amphitheatre and a complete enclosed ecosystem with its central soda lake.

We were driven in an open topped vehicle to Lake Magadi. It is a peaceful wildlife paradise. We had to pinch ourselves to make sure we were not watching a David Attenborough documentary.  We were actually there and amazingly close to zebra, gazelle, wildebeest, wart hogg, ostrich, lion and elephants. It was the stuff of every nature lover’s dreams.

Our final night was spent in bush land luxury. Dusty camps under the stars were just warm, enchanting memory as we arrived at the exquisite Maasai village hotel. There were four-poster beds and the most fabulous, invigorating showers. The food was fabulous and we talked well into the night. None of us wanted this fascinating, captivating glimpse into the world of the Maasai people and their land to come to an end.

But after 101,003 steps (according to my pedometer) and 50 toilet rolls, it was time to head home.