Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rainy Christmas in Kenya (I)

The weather in Kenya is reputed to be stable all year, and in Nairobi in particular (because of its elevation), the days are pleasant and nights are cool – perfect for sleeping.


This December is different, and all of us seem to be a little surprised at the great variation in the weather during the Christmas season. While it’s not quite like London (“if you don’t like the weather wait thirty minutes!”), this time of year has not kept to expected patterns. Indeed since the “short rains” – usually expected to last through December – departed early in 2008, with people talking about how dry and brown everything was by Christmas, for some reason we sort of expected the same for 2009.

No way.

This year, the short rains are still with us and while most of the rain is during the night and the days are pleasant and dry, as Christmas approached we were inundated with what I can only characterize as “extreme” thunderstorms, almost every afternoon and lasting a good couple of hours.

So what to do about the holiday? Shall we stay home? Shall we have an excursion?

We opted for the latter, with our own conventional wisdom being that, with so much rain over the past few days, it was bound to let up and be pretty on Christmas Day. Likewise, being Christmas Day, there wouldn’t be any serious traffic to speak of (driving is very difficult in Kenya, and traffic can stall and not move for hours at a time). Perhaps it would be a good day to get away.

You can see it coming, can’t you?

We were wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Perhaps it should be stated this way: we were WRONG!!!

So with my friends Dorothy and Marcin Chlystun, we made our plans to drive to the Central Highlands. My driver was prompt – exactly on time – and we were able to get an early morning start. Our idea (and we carried it all through with just a few – shall we say? – challenges from time to time) was to be out of Nairobi in about 30 minutes or so, to head on up the highway toward Nanyuki, about a hundred miles or so to the North. We would come into Mount Kenya territory, have Christmas lunch at a special restaurant in the trees, see some wildlife, and have a leisurely day just driving around looking at the beautiful scenery.

And the scenery was beautiful, and while the skies were not exactly clear, we didn’t have any rain for a long time, and once we got out of the city we were able to view beautiful countryside.

As for getting out of the city. Here’s where our first assumption fell apart. No, there was not to be less traffic. In fact, there was plenty more than usual, and along the “new” highway – being constructed with Chinese investments and Chinese engineers leading local workers – construction was going on as usual, with the usual hindrances connected with road construction everywhere. We had long traffic jams, major stalls, accidents, and despite being Christmas Day, there were pedestrians all over the place, either walking to where they wanted to go (the usual custom in Kenya) or awaiting the private matatus – the private vans that most people use to get about in. Indeed, some assert that the matatus are more a part of the culture than a means of transportation, but however you think about them, they are wild vehicles, careering all over the place and almost as scary to watch as to ride in (which I’ve never done and don’t expect to do).

Finally though, we got beyond the Nairobi suburbs, and once we were past Thika things picked up. We drove through the lush pineapple country, past the many coffee and tea plantations (now most major agribusiness corporations), and further into the lush fertile farmland that supports most of Kenya’s agriculture. All the roadside stands made it clear that the produce from the smaller farms is readily available to take back to the city, and we promised ourselves that we could stop on our return.

As for the countryside, the topography changed considerably as we travelled. Off in the distance, the Aberdare range of mountains was lovely to see, and I was strangely intrigued to find myself thinking I would like to go there one day.

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