On Into Kenya

It was hard to leave Tanzania, due to the great ties I made but also due to sickness and poor weather. I met many kind people there who helped me out when I ran out of money and contracted a vicious infection of my gastrointestinal tract, and just when I thought I was close to crossing into Kenya, I was beaten down by the weather.

Saint Peter by the Side of the Road

I was fifteen kilometers from the border-straddling city of Sirari. I had skipped the last big town of Tarime, thinking I still had plenty of daylight, why not head right for the border? The light faded quickly, however, blotted out by a thick, threatening set of storm clouds. It was a race that I lost before I even thought to pedal harder.

When the rain came, I was safely tucked into a middle-of-nowhere bar with many other refuge-seeking motorcyclists and pedestrians. I bought a warm beer before sprinting out to the canopy under which my bike and bag were stored so I could change clothes and dine on plain cookies and spoonfuls of cherry jam. The cold wind and whipping spray had me wanting a real jacket, something I had jettisoned early on in my trip around Lake Victoria. It’s always so hot, after all…

Hours later, long after sunset, I donned my poncho and set out into the light rain and darkness, hoping to fine someone with a guest house in Sirari. I misplaced my headlamp, so I relied on the headlights of passing cars to reveal the long dark road. Soon I had to dodge a dark figure strolling on the shoulder crying “Jambo! Jambo!” over my shoulder, grinning wildly at the absurdity of my situation.

“Jambo,” the man replied, and I figured to stop and walk with him, being that riding in the dark and the rain was not as much fun as I had reckoned.

He introduced himself as Peter, and laughed from under the jacked he had stretched to cover his head, finding that we shared the name. He had also come from the bar to collect money from selling bread there, and was walking back to his farmhouse somewhere nearby.

“You come to my home. I will help you, for we are the same. I am human being, you are human being. We must help eachother!” He explained that it was a bad idea to stumble into the border town after dark like this. I agreed and fell into step, chatting happily with the tough ole bugger.

“Your English is very good. How do you know English so well?”  I asked him. Indeed, he had perhaps the best English I had found in anyone in Tanzania so far.

“Back in 1982 I was in school in Kenya, staying with my uncle. Our people are on both sides of the border, you know, so our families are on both sides. When I am here, I am at home. When I am there, I am at home.” The Kenya-Tanzania border, like so many others forged by colonists, are completely arbitrary and do not take native cultural groups into account. The Tanzania side was German, the Kenyan side was English, and the natives were… still native, existing on both sides. What’s more, English is not taught very extensively in Tanzania to this day, so I relished the fairly smooth conversation we were having.

We came first to a small village whose name I can’t recall where Peter gathered a cell phone battery he had left in a shop to be charged. Soon after, I was shown to some friends of his who ran a tiny restaurant where we were given free tea by the family who marveled at what their friend Peter had found flapping in the wind.

My exhaustion waxed, though Peter kept assuring me that we were close, guided onward by a tiny flashlight he had in his hand. I  pushed my bicycle along a washed-out path for a one-hour nature hike through the bush before reaching his charming cluster of farm houses flanked by crops like cassava and leafy greens I couldn’t identify. In the darkness of his round main house with a conical thatched roof, I was asked to speak English to his wife and three children.

“I am teaching them English too!”

I exchanged simple pleasantries with his family while drying my blue jeans by the charcoal stove and eating a real African farmer’s supper. A big wad of Ugali (boiled flour) was presented with an omelet with mushed tomatoes, boiled greens (“like the ones outside!”) and a big cup of milk. The lumpy milk, which was really curds and whey, the real version of cottage cheese, was tough to stomach but I believed it to be spectacularly genuine and wholesome, so I knocked it down politely. Soon I was dozing in my chair, and my host graciously directed me to a mattress-less bed in another round hut where I crashed happily, next to the smoldering charcoal stove.

The next morning we rode side by side on to Sirari, me with the mission to make it to Migori in Kenya, and he to buy bread. “There are not enough bread factories in Tanzania,” Peter explained, ” so I bring it from Kenya-side and sell it here.”

He lagged behind, chatting with friends and neighbors heading the same way. I figured I’d catch breakfast in an outdoor cafe near the border and wait for him to pass by, but he never did. We never exchanged phone numbers or anything, both our phone being out of batteries at the time.

“I will help you because you are human,” Peter said over the rain when we first met. “When a person needs help, he needs to be helped, and it doesn’t matter how much money he has or what color he is. And maybe someday you will be able to help me!”

Stranger things have happened. I paid for my breakfast and walked my bike into the immigration office, stealing glances over my shoulder hoping to see Peter again, his bicycle loaded with crates of bread, before I left the border zone. I never did though, and Kenya lay before me, beckoning.

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