Allen Varney, writer and game designer


African Dispatches

Allen Varney's letters from Africa (1 of 5)

[On June 9, 1998, my lady love Beth Fischi and I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya, to begin a seven-and-one-half month journey across sub-Saharan Africa. From Kenya we travelled by bus, train, and occasionally hydrofoil ferry down to Tanzania and Zanzibar, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and finally South Africa, flying out from Pretoria in late January 1999.

[Along the way we found that Africa is getting reasonably wired, and we rarely lacked access to e-mail. Before our departure we had created a mailing list of friends, "African Dispatches," and we posted periodic updates to the list throughout our trip. - Allen Varney]

Date: Wed, 8 Jul 1998 (Kenya)

AFRICA TRIP DAY 30: Pushing the Boundaries, but not Hard

Splashing waist-deep against a south current in the glassine coastal waters of Kenya's Tiwi Beach, with two thousand fecund miles of equatorial Africa stretching away at my left hand and six thousand vacant miles of Indian Ocean at my right, I got to thinking about boundaries. Shorelines, synapses, cell membranes -- births, elections, conquests -- the ramifying edge of a seed crystal growing in supersaturated solution, and the labyrinthine exfoliations of the Mandelbrot Set -- life's most intricate features develop at disjunctures, infecting the transitions between distinct phases. Viewed as a mechanism of energy transfer, life itself is a boundary condition, a fractal web of infinite tiny transactions up and down the energy curve between the Sun and cold space.

Life-webs flourish along geographic boundaries too, and certainly did on this tropical beach. One morning at low tide Beth and I waded out across acres of sand to Tiwi's reef linje. A few yards beyond, as it has for eons since this coast belonged to Pangaea and Gondwanaland, a tempestuous surf was pulverizing coral and shells into fine white granules -- sand that, in the latter Cenozoic Era, annually lured countless thousands of European package tourists. But in calm, weedy shallows behind the reef line, we stood in warm clear water no deeper than our ankles, and watched shellfish, hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, neon tetras, gobis jumping spring-tailed across exposed reef -- and starfish, teeming hordes of starfish. A quick census of the hundreds around our feet and a thumbnail calculation put the starfish population on that single beach at over one million. I don't know if this is the same crown-of-thorns starfish that is currently eating Australia's Great Barrier Reef -- Tiwi's is a little black number with five spiny legs around a central disk -- but whatever its species, this is clearly its Golden Age, the time future starfishy generations will hearken back to with longing in whatever passes for their heart.

In our month here in Kenya we've been exploring all kinds of boundaries. At Masai Mara National Reserve, the big southwestern game park that draws all the safaris, I looked down from the flat crest of Mount Mbara and watched Kenya tearing itself apart. The park -- like nearby Lake Victoria (source of the Nile), as well as a long chain of other lakes in the vicinity and the entire Central Highlands region -- forms part of East Africa's Rift Valley System, an enormous tectonic fault running from the Red Sea down through Tanzania to Malawi. Along this line, a few millimeters a year, the eastern horn of Africa is gradually pulling away from the western mainland. It's a weird, tormented, nascent landscape: peculiarly flat-topped and steep mountains of flexed granite and fractured quartz, shallow bathtub-shaped valleys, volcanic cones, and -- in the soda Lake Bogoria, where we saw hundreds of thousands of flamingos congregate skittishly on the briny shore -- geysers erupt from bubbling sulphurous rents in the Earth. When did YOU last see geology in such visible, dramatic action? Come back to central Kenya in a few million years and it'll be underwater.

Actually, Kenya as we know it may tear itself apart in ten years, never mind ten million. The country is rapidly nearing a boundary of another kind, as infrastructure decays, corruption festers, and tribal tensions rise. Kenyan politics revolves around the land's forty-plus tribes, even today a cultural force that rivals (if not overshadows) that quaint colonial concept, nationalism. In Kenya you may work in a smog-stained Nairobi skyscraper and drive a Peugeot through ear-splitting traffic to your Westlands suburban split-level, but you still introduce yourself to strangers as an Akamba, or a Kikuyu, or a Luo. And all those primordial tribal alliances and hatreds, fostered in spear-toting ages past, still linger in this day of the Y2K Problem, faults where the cultural landscape must eventually fracture.

With tea and coffee prices stagnant or falling, there's no money in Kenya, except foreign aid. And because the last century of British and (later) independent government policy has relocated the population to cities as a source of cheap labor, there is hardly any traditionalsocietal structure left. So Kenya, once Africa's success story, is now writing your standard developing-world poverty saga: corrupt President-for-Life strongman, corrupt comic-opera opposition leaders, a fabulously wealthy political elite, everyone else in eight-kid families in wretched shantytowns -- amputee beggars, child beggars, child labor, child prostitution, every strutting cop on the take -- a pervasive atmosphere of crime, of thievery so rabid that in Nairobi they will grab your eyeglasses off your face (though we have luckily avoided losing anything so far) -- chronic water shortages, power outages, potholes -- oh, the potholes! Kenyan roads are okay if your local representative belongs to the ruling KANU party, but if he's in the opposition .... In places the potholes grow so large they join up, making a kind of anti-road, a Rift Valley where steep asphalt-topped mesas rise lonely from the rubble. We got down here to the coast on a bus from Nairobi six days ago -- 250 miles in ten hours -- I think my jaw is starting to unclench.

But more significant than urban crime or infrastructure problems are the northern bandits. At this point the entire northern half of Kenya is basically beyond government authority; there is no Kenya in northern Kenya. This anarchy has prevailed for a couple of years, though the cast has changed somewhat. Originally the bandits were Somali refugees called shifta. Before the 1997 elections, Kenyan president Daniel T. arap Moi, of the Kalenjin tribal group, armed Kalenjin in the north on the pretext of driving out the shifta. They did -- and they also attacked the villages of the Kikuyu tribe, who opposed Moi's re-election. After Moi won handily, the Kalenjin took over the shifta's lucrative profession of thievery. Now they knock over tourist caravans every month or so, four or five buses at a time.

In response, has Kenya rallied and captured the bandits? No, the government has silently ceded the territory, closing its northern parks and reserves. But now, because of this, the bandits are moving south. When Beth and I took an eight-day safari out of Nairobi, we got through Masai Mara and Lake Nakuru all right (saw lions, giraffes, elephants, water buffalo, a few wildebeest, two white rhinos, a beautiful leopard, uncountable zebra and antelope, and over a hundred kinds of birds) -- but due to constant problems with our minibus on our way to Samburu National Park, we arrived at the northern town of Isiolo after dark and found the road blocked. Turns out the police don't allow anyone north of Isiolo at night without an armed escort. While our (thickheaded, totally apathetic, non-Anglophone) driver tried to line up an escort, one of the police sidled over to our group and, obviously frightened, told us that bandits had "slaughtered one of our corporals" two days before. We mutinied against our driver and took rooms in Isiolo for the night. The eventual stay in Samburu went fine (we saw the top fifth of a submerged hippopotamus, our first, albeit fractional, hippo sighting), but on our return to Nairobi we complained bitterly to our despicable safari company, Come to Africa Ltd. They showed no interest or sympathy, deriding our claims with brazen lies and juvenile behavior. It put me in a foul mood, the moreso as I fell sick with a fever and had to spend days in fuming, festering Nairobi. I meditated on Africa's still-prevalent ignorance and barbarous customs -- ritual clitoridectomy; the superstitious refusal by nursing mothers to feed their newborn infants their vitamin-rich first milk, the colostrum; arranged marriages of adult men to preteen girls; the current wholesale uprooting and destruction of beautiful umbrella trees across western Kenya,in the belief that they harbor evil spirits. I thought the darkest, cruelest, most politically incorrect thoughts, and wished upon all Kenyans a horrible early death from hunger or wasting disease -- which curse, given that HIV infects perhaps a quarter of the adult population here, may eventually come true.

Later I mellowed. Still, all these drawbacks and dangers have led to a precipitous drop in tourism, Kenya's main source of foreign exchange. Hotels and restaurants have closed; everywhere we go, we're virtually alone. The papers talk endlessly about how to revive the tourist industry, but always with a strange blind spot. Marketing campaigns, "cultural centers," lower taxes on hotels -- Kenyan writers suggest all kinds of fixes, never once mentioning that this country is flat-out dangerous. We speculate that everyone here is simply used to crime, like New Yorkers. But imagine a whole nation that works like the South Bronx -- would YOU visit?

In Kenya I've thought a lot about a simple question posed to Beth and me by one of our friends in my juggling club, Matt Vance: "Why Africa?" Scenery, animals, exotic cultures, history -- we could get all that in South America, he said, or even in Mexico, a five-hour drive from Austin. So why trek across the Greenwich meridian, across the equator, across half a world to Africa?

We had no good answer then. Later we decided that we basically wanted to test our boundaries. We chose Africa simply and especially because it was wayyyy out there. Now, with there become here, we're experiencing it more or less the way I imagined we would. It's amazing, scary, maddening, enchanting, wonderful, and horrible. But what Africa is, above all, shows most clearly in places like Nairobi's Ngara Street Market --

(-- a loooong line of claptrap wood shanties along a gutterless dirt road, each festooned with shoes, fruit, locks and chains, ladies dresses in laundry bags, Swahili textbooks, beat-up rotary telephones, open palm-leaf baskets of red peppers and squash and custard apples, then you crouch to enter a claw-walled roofless caravanserai-like structure where hundreds, HUNDREDS of rude stalls offer clothing and hair styling and goat meat and cassettes and stereo equipment, all flanking central concrete gutters under a low sagging roof of twine and thatch and spiderwebs, while sacred ibis fly squawking overhead, aiming for the garbage dump beside the Nairobi River --)

-- or here in Mombasa's Old town, a leading port today and back when Arab dhows plied the Indian Ocean, a town that changed hands violently nine times in two centuries --

(-- the narrow, twisting stone streets lined with wooden doors elaborately carved with Ottoman designs and Arabic script, the mosque towering white against pure blue sky, incessant chatter from the fish market, restaurants in side streets setting up tables right on the pathway and serving delicious coconut curry and chapatis, men in white robes and women in black veils or brilliant silk saris wandering by, and in one backstreet shanty sits a wrinkled old sailor in fez and tattered jellaba, who looks like he's been arguing toothlessly in exactly the same spot, in exactly that cross-legged posture, since the glory days of the Omani sultans --)

-- and what Africa is, above all, is THE OTHER. It is the traveller's great rush, the quintessential awareness. Beth and I see lots of Coca-Cola signs here, the damn Coca-Cola Company must own several highly placed government officials, and T-shirt shops (green shirts with yellow blazons of the only Swahili words every kid in America knows, HAKUNA MATATA -- "no problem," made infamous by the song in Disney's LION KING). But all it takes is a spirited bargaining session with a fruitseller over the price of one ripe pineapple and a hairy coconut to make you feel you are, beyond any question or qualification, SOMEWHERE ELSE.

Of course, even we out here in coastal Kenya aren't really pushing that far out on the boundaries of normality. We're staying in what the Lonely Planet guide calls mid-range hotels -- $15 a night or so, all seedy by American standards but with mosquito nets and flush toilets -- and eating in sit-down restaurants with tile floors and electricity. A far cry, this luxury living at $40-50 a day, from the true budget travellers who stay in bottom-end hotels ($5-6/night and watch your luggage!), eat in shanties like the natives, and spend a third what we do. And in the region another standard deviation beyond that move the campers, intrepid spirits who bicycle across Kenya in defiance of the lethal matatu minibuses, and who self-cater at markets and fruit stands for a few dimes a day.

Even this rough living, though, seems positively dainty beside the experience of one fellow traveller, Santa Cruz biologist Cathy Nishida. We met Cathy on safari, then kept travelling with her for a couple more weeks through western Kenya and down here to Mombasa. She studies birds, and so we learned more than we ever imagined was to be known about the Lilac-Breasted Roller and Superb Starling and Kori Bustard and about 200 other E. African bird species. And we learned about Cameroon.

Cathy came to Kenya on vacation after a seven-month hitch studying forest regeneration in a tropical reserve in eastern Cameroon, two or three countries west of here. She and a dozen or so other American scientists work with a tribe of pygmies, the Baka, and another tribe called the Bajaway, in a valiant but probably foredoomed effort to learn how to regrow the rain forest after the Africans cut it all down. Their base is deep, deep in the forest, 18 kilometers from the nearest village, itself a day's hard ride by public bush-taxi from any substantial city. Just hearing Cathy talk about high-stress week-long supply runs, from this place that (apart from Antarctica) is probably as remote as any point of land on Earth, made me shiver. I want to push my boundaries, but I don't want nearly so much otherness as that.

I guess I bring this up to reassure everyone back home that, for all the fears and hazards Kenya has thrown at us, Beth and I are still travelling in a way our folks might grudgingly accept as sensible; that we are still orders of magnitude up on the comfort scale, or (if you prefer) there are several more periodic doublings between us and chaos; and that for all the multifarious illnesses and maladies we suffered in our first African weeks, we are now healthy once more, with enthusiasm undimmed and cash reserves holding well. We miss you, all our friends, but we're having a high time here and plan to keep doing so for several more months at least.

From Mombasa we leave tomorrow morning by bus for Tanzania -- a small city just over the border called Tanga. There we catch a ferry to Zanzibar for a relaxing week of spice tours and walks around the Stone Town. Then to the capital, Dar es Salaam, and from there to Arusha for a safari to the famed Ngorongoro Crater. Back to Dar for the cross-country train to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika (just north of Ujiji -- "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), then onto the 1912-vintage German ferry Liemba for a leisurely cruise down toward Malawi. Tanzania should occupy three weeks or so, and e-mail is apparently very uncertain there -- to say nothing of the phone, which costs ten bucks a minute to the US. So it may be some while before you hear from us again. Don't worry -- we're not pushing our boundaries too hard, and we'll pull safely back home.