Travels in Kenya
Kisumu to Eldoret
To be honest, my life has not seen many, what may be termed momentous changes. One of these came courtesy a small, innocuous ad in the newspaper. Inviting applications for Marketing Managers for East Africa. Sure enough a few months later, there I was - perched 5000 ft high, 4 degrees off the Equator – in Nairobi, capital of God’s Own Country – Kenya. Staring at crows with white collars. It took a while longer for me to differentiate the pied crow (corvus albus) from the white-necked raven (corvus albicollis). Just as it did to differentiate the Kikuyu from the Luo.
But I digress. The incident I am about to relate happened because we took the road less travelled. Preferring the road through the Nandi Hills from Kisumu to Eldoret - less frequented, more pot-holed, but scenically far prettier. Kisumu is a trading town and fishing hamlet on the banks of Lake Victoria – Africa’s largest freshwater lake and the world’s second largest after Lake Superior, one of the five Great Lakes in the USA. Eldoret is a tea plantation town founded by Afrikaaners and originally known as 64. For good reason, as it was established at the 64th milestone on the wagon route from Londiani.
This story is about my colleague, Godfrey M’Bugua and me, and the events that befell us that fateful September day.
M’Bugua is short, wiry and tough. Strong as a short ox, one could say. He owns a small farm in the Uplands outside Nairobi, to which I had been invited once for a family wedding. The Production Manager at our factory, a jovial Punjabi named Chawla insisted on calling him “Babua” – close enough I guess, as the M in Kenyan names, is silent.
We left Kisumu at eight am instead of the scheduled seven, a delay which earned M’Bugua a mouthful. He must have been chafing under this as I tried to get some shuteye in the Nissan pickup. The evening before had been a bit of a drunken affair – Kenya’s rightly famed Tusker Beer, quaffed between bites of Nyama Choma – fire-roasted meat and French fries. At the Sunset Hotel where one could see a glorious sunset over Lake Victoria. M’Bugua, like most Kenyans, loved nothing more than beer, nyama choma and French fries.
We had just left Kisumu behind and entered open bush country when through the corner of my half-closed eyes, I saw M’Bugua swerve sharply left. The Nissan pickup ground to a halt. We were suddenly surrounded by four men. One carried a stengun, another a handgun, one an incongruous, large transistor radio (obviously from another robbery), the fourth with his hands nonchalantly in his pockets.
We were hauled out onto the roadside, and quickly dispossessed of wallets and watches, M’Bugua of a black hat of which he was justly proud, me of my RayBan sun glasses. One of the men brusquely pointed to the grassy side of the road and asked us to sit down. “You have taken our cash and whatever else you wanted” I said. “Take the pickup and let us go”. Pointing the gun menacingly, he directed us to sit down. Expecting the inevitable, I said a small prayer asking God to look after my young girls, my wife and parents now that I was leaving the world so prematurely and unexpectedly. There was an animated discussion between the carjackers. Surprisingly we were told to get up and pushed into the back of the pickup.
The stengun sat beside the driver. The handgun and transistor bundled themselves beside us in the dark, enclosed rear of the pickup. I found myself seated atop the spare tyre. Although it was a cool, early September morning, I could feel cold sweat trickle down my armpits, down almost I thought, to my underpants. There was not a sound except for the tyres being driven off the tarmac onto a dirt track.
Some fifteen minutes later, the handgun said something in Kiswahili to M’Bugua. This started a conversation that carried on for nearly two hours. During this time, we were driven around, clueless as to our whereabouts in our confined, sightless surroundings. Finally the pickup halted. Our captors jumped out. We found ourselves in the middle of a sugarcane plantation with high crop all around. Ideal for hiding two bodies. Rotting, lying in the sun, hidden by the cane till cutting season. By which time, identification would be impossible.
M’Bugua looked at my ashen face. “Don’t worry, boss” he said, “they have promised not to kill us”. Not knowing whether he was just bolstering my courage, I tried to produce a sigh of relief.What came out sounded more like a squawk. I.continued looking anxiously at the stengun.
My clothes bag and briefcase were being rifled through. Only a few articles attracted attention – a pullover, a tie (which the stengun put on immediately), my briefcase. Amazingly, all my papers and chequebook were put neatly into the clothes bag. After further discussion in Kiswahili, we were back in the pickup in our original places.
After a while, from the sound of the tyres, we could make out we were back on tarmac. Suddenly, the pickup accelerated. As suddenly, the vehicle spun around and we were headed back in the direction from where we had come. For a moment, I thought we had chanced upon a police barrier and bullets would start flying about soon. There was a loud screeching of brakes. We ground to a halt and both our captors jumped out. Only then could we see and understand what the commotion was about. A white Toyota Corolla with two terrified blacks stood surrounded by our abductors.
The two men were quickly divested of their wallets and watches, the keys of our pickup thrown some distance, our abductors boarded the Toyota and were off in a white blaze. Relieved at this unexpected turn of events, we retrieved the keys, dropped the men who happened to be insurance salesmen, to the nearby Muhoroni Police Station to report the loss of their car. We were relatively fortunate having lost, apart from money and a few belongings, nothing more than some hair which must have fallen off from the tension.
On the long drive back to Nairobi, M’Bugua explained how we escaped with our lives. It seems the carjackers were junior Airforce officers, part of a failed mutiny against the Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi in August 1982.. As it turned out, these men were Luo. “We were lucky” said M’Bugua “ The Luo and the Kikuyu are friendly and intermarry”. As M’Bugua was a Kikuyu, it helped our cause.
“I also told them that the Kikuyu taught the Luo how to steal, so how could a Luo kill a Kikuyu? And my ghost would come and haunt them if they killed me.”
So the fact that I am alive today can be ascribed variously to deep tribal loyalties, fear of ghosts, M’Bugua’s persuasive powers and perhaps just that my time hadn't come. But when it does, who can stop it? Not Babua again for sure. But I owe him a great debt for giving me a second life.