monday memories / RTW trip: in to africa

while i have my around-the-world photos out from their usual home in the garage, i think i’ll continue telling some more stories from that adventure. after the last post about india ...

**note: most of these photos were scanned from contact sheets, thus the low quality.

we flew to nairobi, our luggage arriving splayed open on the conveyor belts, along with many other bags arriving in similar shape. curt was missing a few items, but we were glad to see our bags. many fellow travellers' bags didn't arrive at all. an airport luggage worker, either in bombay or nairobi, jimmied open the zippers on our bags and rummaged around. both places are filled with desperate people. still, we have a feeling it happened in nairobi ... 

curt and ngugi

we were there visiting curt's friend ngugi in ngong (pronounced "gogi" and "gong") outside nairobi. ngugi lived in curt's neighborhood in portland from age 10 to age 20, and they grew up playing together. at 20, ngugi had an apartment, a car, a job, a girlfriend, a bank account, and was going to college. he decided to make a trip back to kenya to visit his dying father. had all the necessary visas and paperwork. he took two suitcases, one with his clothes, and one filled with gifts for his family. at the end of his visit, he went to the airport all ready to head back to portland, and was denied transit. as in, the airport officials denied his visa, which had been fine a month prior when he had departed portland. ngugi later learned that while he was overseas, president reagan had changed the law. ngugi was not allowed to return to the US.


what? curt's family and all the neighbors worked on ngugi's behalf to help him return to portland, to his LIFE. but they were unsuccessful. and unable to send his things. ngugi had one suitcase to his name. 

with nowhere else to go, ngugi first built himself a mud hut in a shanty town. then eventually he married, moved in to a compound and had two beautiful children. ironically, he worked sporadically as a photographer of passport pictures. 10 years later, he was still bitter about how he was treated by the united states government. yeah, i get it. 


curt and i stayed with ngugi, his wife mama-ciku (once a kenyan woman has a child, she takes the name of her first born preceded by "mama") and their children ciku and jack in their two-room home for a few days until we were able to find lodging. we rented an unfurnished house -- a mansion compared to ngugi's place -- with an eastern (aka: squat), but porcelain and flushing, toilet. at ngugi's place, the shared toilet facilities were not porcelain, not flushing, and ...  how can i say it ...  the worst i've encountered ... anywhere, ever.

ciku (left) and jack and neighbor (right)

our house was clean and simple. we borrowed a single bed and a propane burner, and lived there for two months. but we only had running water for the first few days. from then on, we had to join in the queues of people with our five-gallon buckets. we had to boil our water for drinking, we used one-liter bottles for bathing and for flushing the toilet. 

mama-ciku and neighbor girl

we did take ngugi's family on a low-budget/high-adventure safari (the post which started this whole series of our trip around the world).

and we did visit ngugi's family farm one weekend. they even killed a goat in our honor (i was a vegetarian at the time. horrible.)

ciku and jack on family farm

and curt and ngugi got to spend a lot of time together. they had 10 years to catch up on. but two months was a long time for me. ngong was a poor african town with not much happening, no opportunity for the locals, people having to walk far for water. lots of people hanging around not working because there just wasn't any work. it was depressing, hopeless.

one night we visited ngugi's brother who was living in his old mud hut in the shanty town. we were drinking beer. two local policemen paid us a visit, and from what i could gather, demanded beer. they stayed and drank it, loosened their uniforms, disheveled. they had guns. it was very scary.

i also made a collage out of newspaper stories and headlines while i was there. horrific stories about people hacking each other up with machetes. police raping women with coke bottles. astounding brutality. 


we also visited mombasa on the ocean. curt got really, really sick. more sick than when we were stranded in that nepali village

i literally just found my travel journal out in the garage. here's an excerpt from that time:

mombasa was a bust, we are nonplussed and both got bacterial dysentary. curt was so sick and with such a high fever (i'm glad we had no thermometer!) and chills, i thought he might even have malaria. but after several hours of his suffering and my nursing, his fever broke. he was still not well enough to take the bus back to nairobi, so i exchanged our tickets for tomorrow and got more medicine from the nice indian pharmacist. 


and i have to say, africa -- or maybe it was just travelling in general -- was taking its toll on me. 

the morning we were going to the family farm, curt and i took our usual path to ngugi's, but the monsoons had started and it was pouring. i stepped in mud down to my ankles and basically had a meltdown. we got to ngugi's and i wouldn't stop crying. the children were concerned. curt laughed at me. i was not a happy camper. it was kind of funny that a little mud would warrant such an explosive reaction, but i just had had it up to here (karate chop in the air over my head).  

view of ngong hills from the karen blixen museum

to escape our heartbreaking surroundings, we snuck away -- somewhat guiltily -- and rode the insanely dangerous matatou (minibus) from ngong halfway to nairobi ... to karen. ah, karen. karen was the wealthy suburb where many europeans had plantations and farms. karen blixen (also known as isak dinesan, "out of africa"author) had her farm there, which had become a museum and which i visited often. and there was a great restaurant with a safe salad bar, candlelight and cold beer! curt tried game meats. i soaked up the sparkling clean ambiance. heaven.

another journal entry:

curt and i really do get along well, we have had nothing but time on our hands and have managed to keep ourselves and each other entertained -- thank god we both like gin rummy. he really is a pleasure to live with ... 

exotic plant at karen blixen museum

i'm embarrassed to say that i needed to get away to karen. but i really did. i just did. it was peaceful, subdued, beautiful. 

in spite of the hardships, in spite of my heart breaking over and over witnessing so much hopelessness, i did find beauty in the landscapes, the majestic animals, and the courageous people who live and laugh, day in and day out, with such rawness of LIFE. and what a treasure for curt and ngugi to have had that time together.


lessons learned: important friendships are worth any hardship. 


while we were travelling, we didn't really have any extra money or things we could give to ngugi and his family. but when we got home, it felt good to send ngugi some extra camera gear i had. and curt still sends money. 

in kenya, i became a huge karen blixen fan. read her "letters from africa, 1914-1931." when i returned home, i found this wonderful book "longing for darkness: kamante's tales from out of africa" by photographer peter beard. he collected stories and drawings by blixen's servant kamante, the hero in blixen's "out of africa."

portrait of kamante in the karen blixen museum