Ordinarily, the man standing beside the entrance to the mud and straw hut would have had skin the colour of deep black as the other Kenyans had. But he was old and his pigmentation was fading. Did he have grey hair? Do Kenyan’s go grey as they age? I don’t remember. Unfortunately although younger than me, I was facing an old man in Africa. His eyes were bleached and wayward and he was muttering incoherently.
Unsure how to communicate with a lost man who only spoke a different language I smiled and nodded and then ducked inside the low dark doorway of the mud hut that we were visiting. It was a simple hut of faded red Kenyan mud, roughly textured, with a low straw roof. A traditional hut of the Maasai, some of the world’s last remaining nomadic pastoralists – just like the ones we heard about in GCSE Geography. It was ramshackle, not even as tall as I was, with tarpaulin poking through the branches and straw on its roof. It was functional rather than beautiful and romantic; however, it had stripped living down back to the raw essentials of life: food, shelter and warmth. Was there love here? It was hard to tell.
I stepped inside and compared with London back in time 500 years. As my eyes acclimatised I could see a shaft of light coming in through a tiny open gap to the left. I was hit by the smell of livestock and woodsmoke and I started to make out the embers of a fire in the corner. The hut, although about the same size as a large car, slept up to 8 people from three generations with the men and boys and women and girls segregated on both sides. There was no privacy. Frequently, in the winter the animals joined their shepherds inside too.
Beside the fire I could make out a woman sitting, tending a large metal kettle and poking the fire underneath, she was bald-headed and dressed in the colourful traditional clothing of the Maasai women. She had a beautiful, clear-skinned face and wore an expression of complete calm. She was nursing a baby in a coloured sling around her neck.
We smiled at each other and immediately my heart broke. I’m not really sure why but this was one of my most moving moments of my life. Sharing this space with a fellow human who lived so simply really touched me. She seemed pretty content though, she, almost mysteriously, exuded an inner peace. It surprised me to feel so moved, I had been insulated for so long from my true emotions. Little did I know that this brief moment would be the start of a personal journey that would impact every single aspect of my life for the next two years.
Pretty soon the smoke in the hut and the heat from the fire and sun baking the room became too much for me. The smell was also quite unbearable and I had to leave. I gave a pathetic attempt at a warm gesture and bowed my head and walked out.
It was a real relief to leave the claustrophobic space and breathe the fresh air outside but it didn’t ease the momentous feelings (and sobs) that wracked my body.
Later that day we took to our mountain bikes and started riding out away from the Kenyan village of Olorte along unmade roads and spectacular scenery. We were heading to the Kenyan border with Tanzania. With every pedal, I was feeling that we were moving further and further away from the modern world and I embraced it.
As we neared our destination the road became a river bed and at points, it was little more than a track ascending a dried out waterfall.
We stopped occasionally and were met by the local shepherds – some looked as young as 10 years old. One took great delight in filming us with her last generation camera phone. I wondered what she’d do with those images. Despite spending all hours outside in the countryside the children were like children everywhere else in the world and were laughing and playing. In fact they seemed to take great joy in watching us struggling up the rocky paths.
Further on we came to a great plateau where a series of mud huts gathered, just as we’d seen in history books of ancient Britain. These huts were well maintained and beautifully presented. There was a mobile phone mast on the hilltop. The villagers appeared from all over the hillside and soon gathered around us. They looked on bemused at our bicycles as if they’d never seen one before.
The villagers crowded around our small group and gestured at the bikes. I dismounted and handed my bike to one of the villagers, who looked like he was in his early twenties. He excitedly hopped on my bike and started wheeling it forwards. It soon became clear that he didn’t know what to do, he could remain upright, in fact, he appeared to have incredible balance, but he couldn’t work out how to pedal it properly. He’d just push one pedal down and race forwards and then stop and pull the same pedal to the top of its stroke and push it down again. He gave up quite quickly and handed me back my bike with a bemused smile.
After another 30 minutes of riding, we reached our destination, the rocky cliff that marked the end of the plateau with views across the African savanna stretching out in the haze before us. It was the end of our ride.
The Tanzanian border was just down the hillside and the local guide pointed us in its direction. It was a short walk across the scrubland to the border which consisted of stone cairns about 200 metres apart. That was it, we’d made it to Tanzania.
At the end of our African cycling adventure, sitting on a rocky outcrop, surveying the Kenyan savannah ahead of us, modern life appeared so distant. There were no phone masts, no roads, no planes, no music and as we sat and had a Tanzanian Castle Milk Stout I was struck by how far we’d come and how much this time was making me think. For once I actually enjoyed the destination as much as the journey.
I watched, but chose not to help, as the Maasai warriors cut the throat of the goat we were to feast on, but I must admit there was a strange thrill watching these men hold down our food with their bare hands whilst its blood and life-force pulsed from it. We were all invited to drink the still warm pulsing blood from the goat’s artery as it died.
After our feast, we began our re-introduction to the modern world as we headed back to take our flights home. At first, we saw red mud huts and red mud roads, and as the villages grew into shantytowns the scooters and plastic rubbish – plastic rubbish everywhere – started to appear. Wild dogs and western brands started to arrive too; the obligatory Coca Cola and Marlboro billboards beside these towns that resembled the Wild West of 19th Century USA. Tiny two-room hotels that doubled as butchers during the day. Bars, cafes and restaurants with overdeveloped frontages and breeze block backs, just like a film set. The only signs of progress from the Wild West were the worn tyres discarded alongside the road and the car mechanic shacks replacing the blacksmiths.
As the roads improved, the traffic increased and the buildings became more sophisticated. Gated shopping malls started to appear. Fast food names from the UK. Mobile phone coverage and internet returned. I switched my phone on. My phone showed 1250 WhatsApp notifications. My shoulders knotted.
Eventually, we were sitting in cars, in long traffic jams of idling pickup trucks outside Nairobi, the outline of dirty grey high rise buildings on the horizon. I felt sick.
I thought back to my time sitting in the Maasai mud hut by the fire and realised that everything we called progress wasn’t making me any happier: quite the opposite.
I’m not so stupid to see that having clean water, access to medicine, educating women, and not going hungry is immensely desirable, it just struck that me that it didn’t seem possible to have both worlds.
Once we start on this journey of progress it doesn’t seem to ever stop until we’ve gone too far.
When I returned to England I told Ken I was leaving.