While in Kenya last week on an official trip, I drove down from Nairobi to a small town called Magati, past the Rift Valley. I was headed to a site that had been identified for a project, which involved participation of the local community. The site was a few kilometers away from a point ahead of Mogati on the highway.
A colleague from Nairobi who was accompanying me said that an ‘elder’ from the local community would like to meet us. Should we meet him at Mogati or should we request him to come straight to the site, he wanted to know. Meeting him at the site at 2 pm would be more convenient, I said, and would save us some time.
As we reached the point that would lead us to the site, we were informed that the approach road could not be accessed as a river was overflowing due to heavy rains the previous day. A local person said he could take us to the site on a different route and we decided to use his services.
We got off the highway into a muddy road, which after 500m led us to a thick forest. The guide expertly navigated us through the trees on narrow dirt tracks. How he knew the general direction or where to turn, I couldn’t figure out as all trees looked the same to me. I had assumed that this was going to be a short drive, but found the journey stretching interminably. At one point, the jeep got stuck in the slush, and was extricated with some difficulty and some clever maneuvers from the driver.
We reached the spot after covering 22 km in slightly more than 2 hours. It was 4 pm.
The village elder was there, all alone and waiting for us. He had reached the spot at 2 pm as scheduled.
How did he get there, I asked my local guide. He had walked. Was there a shorter route for walking? No, he said, the old man had to take the same route that we had taken. As soon as he was informed that he had to meet us at the site, he had started walking in that direction, armed with a stick. Aware of the swollen river, he set out on the longer route that we later took. He walked the entire 20 km and reached the place on time. How long did it take him to cover the distance? Oh, maybe 2.5 to 3 hours, replied my local guide, nonchalantly.
We asked the old man to get into the jeep and started our way back on the same route. I certainly wanted to get back to the highway before it was dark. After 5 km or so, our jeep got stuck in the mud again and simply refused to budge, either forward or in reverse. If we had to walk the remainder of the distance, there was no way we were going to make it out of that jungle before it got dark.
As I was worrying myself with thoughts of giant mosquitoes, tse tse flies and snakes, I saw the old man pulling down some branches from a tree. He plucked out the leaves and heaped them in a pile near the tyres on the rear wheel of the jeep. Using that as leverage, the driver managed to pull the jeep out a few metres behind, then picked up full power and drove it past the slush.
What a man!
Not far from the spot we visited is the hilly region surrounding the Rift Valley, which has produced so many marathon runners and Olympic medalists in long-distance events. What is special about the region, many have wondered. Some have attributed it to the lung-capacity of the runners developed due to exercising in the high-altitude region. Some explanations point to the ‘birdlike legs”. And some to the fact that, historically, the men of the Kalenjin tribe had to move fast and over long distances to round up cattle, as those with the most number of cows managed to garner more wives.
I wonder how many cows and how many wives the old man I met has.