North-Western Kenya: A Trip To Remember

Nearly every year since 1994, Geography undergraduates from Royal Holloway, University of London have visited Marich Pass, in North West Kenya, for a field trip to work on a series of environmental and social geography research projects, alongside local guides.

In 2009 I was lucky enough to go myself. After coming across my old photo album, it felt it only right to share some memories of that trip.

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Coca-Cola – hand painted advertisement at the Rift Valley!

Marich Pass and the surrounding area of West Pokot is one of the poorest parts of Kenya, with high levels of poverty and limited access to health and educational facilities. It is 500km north-west of Nairobi, situated roughly 30km from Uganda and 300km from South Sudan. The Marich Centre name is derived from the Marich Pass which is a deep, rocky cleft carved where the Moruny river emerges from the Cherangani Hills onto the dry plains of the Lake Turkana Basin. The Marich Pass Centre is in a forest clearing along the river bank two kilometres downstream from the Pass.

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Girls and our Banda (the rara skirt was just for camp)

On the compound, baboons, vervet monkeys and monitor lizards can be seen daily, with occasional visits by elephant and antelope. Over 100 birds have been identified on site and almost 400 within a radius of 30km. The surrounding scenery is superb, and the general area remains one of the least modernised in Kenya.

It is fair to say it was the most basic place I’ve ever visited. We stayed in 5 person African style huts (bandas), which were approximately 5m x 5m. The ablution block was situated about 150 yards from the cottages and was a home to a number of creepy crawlies – including scorpions! Cold showers only, but hot showers could happen by an arrangement of a bucket bath…  The food at the centre was ethnic African with staples such as maize, millet, sourgum and cassava root, supplemented with eggs and some form of meat, though it was hard to find out what…I was continually hoping for goat! Dinner time conversations went a bit like this:

Me – “What meat is this?”

Chef – “What meat do you like?”

Me – “Ummm…lamb?!”

Chef – “For you, it is lamb.”

There was no electricity but a generator would come on from 7pm-9pm to provide some evening light and a local well provided the fresh water supply.

All of this meant quite the culture shock for me, a 19-year-old who had never been to a developing country before. The bathroom was a total no-go area…with no light except that from torches which lit-up eyes glinting at you from the bushes on the walk there and then attracted swarming insect you when you reached the loo…the phobia was real. However, with the amount we were sweating in the heat of the day mixed with our limited and low-calorie diet, it wasn’t an insurmountable need…

While we also had bats, a monitor lizard and large spiders to shoo out of our bandas at night, one particular insect related incident will always stay with me. The open-air, cold water shower block happened to be situated quite close to the local all-boys school, a good five-minute walk from our banda. One afternoon, after a dusty day collecting data, we returned to get freshened up before an early supper. One of the girls in the group who had a keenness for cleanliness decided to go about a deep clean (rather than the one limb hopping in and out dance we had been doing, due to the chilly water temperature). Unfortunately for her, in the trees above were a troop of vervet monkeys – who enjoyed a bit of shit throwing at students (who doesn’t?!). To compensate for the poo-flinging primates, she thought it wise to lather up half a bottle of rose-scented body wash, least she smell of something else. This would have been fine, were it not for the African wasp swarm that then descended on the shower block on the hunt for these sweet smelling flowers! Screaming, soaking and soapy, she ran out of the block, clutching her travel towel, but like a hospital gown, it didn’t quite reach all the way around…The timing couldn’t have been worse. School was just out and a gathering of teenage boys were staring wide-eyed and mouths open at the screaming soapy half-naked white woman being chased across the courtyard by angry bees!

Aside from our total inability to deal with life in a well-run research centre, the trip also exposed us to real, hard poverty. Interviewing local Pokot families through a translator on their livelihoods such as panning for gold in the Moruny river, growing subsistence cassava in a totally arid environment or making a living chopping dead trees for firewood, brought it home that living in areas like this is a daily struggle for survival.

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Traditional welcome dance at Kandongdong

Health is a hugely under-resourced and for those that survive into adulthood, the average live expectancy is around 45. Everyone has had malaria and many drink untreated water from the rivers where they bathe, despite the risks of water-borne diseases. FGM is rife and girls can be married as young as 9.

It is a trip that will stay with me forever. It made me grateful to have been born where I was, at the time I was and made me conscious of my role as a tourist in exposing others to their own poverty. As our lecturer reminded us; in a world with no phone signal, no internet and where the only TV is in a men-only sports bar 10km away from the village, where which your neighbours are as impoverished as you are and everyone does the same back-breaking jobs to simply survive, we, as westerners, are their only reminder of their poverty. They do not have what we have, whether that be new trainers or a digital camera.

It made me acutely aware of my whiteness. For the first time in our lives we were openly but warily stared at and followed on market day because of the colour of our skin. It made me aware of my privilege and centre of references – when seeing a seven-year-old Pokot girl in a Little Mermaid dress, I asked my translator to ask her if Ariel was her favourite princess…he politely but firmly told me there was no way she would have seen the Disney classic, or any film and this dress was likely to be forth-hand aid clothes.  It was suddenly obvious to me that this was the case, but it is easy to forget that what means something to you, often means nothing here and here, Ariel is just a cartoon face with red hair. Nothing more.

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Market at the centre being set up for our party

We spent 10 days in Kenya, visiting Ortum, Lomut, Wei Wie, Marich, Le Mut, the Turkwell Gorge and Kandongdong, and stopping at Lake Nakuru en route from Nairobi.

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