The Kenya Agricultural & Livestock Research Organisation KALRO was a haven for the Big Green Truck in Nairobi. Sampson had made the contact when he brought the house down presenting at a science education conference at the Unizulu Science Centre in KZN. KALRO do groundbreaking work – there was a hive of people busy in labs and greenhouses all over the National Agricultural Research Laboratories campus – but it was lovely and quiet, with clean green air; the perfect spot for Zola and I to hang out while Sampson travelled to the UK for his brother’s wedding.
I was feeling the return to altitude – Nairobi is 1795m above sea level, 500m less than Addis but still high enough to have me labouring to breathe. I woke that first morning with my heart racing, feeling rattled by the after effects of the hectic journey and shivering as it was 20˚C and raining.
Like Cape Town, July and August are Nairobi’s coldest months. I felt cheated of the milder climate of the plains we’d hurtled across in between the capitals and wished we could go straight to the coast. Combined with still feeling knocked out by our second lot of typhoid meds in 2 months, I was scared that I might struggle to cope 2-3 weeks alone here.
On the bright side, the people at KALRO were just lovely. Director of the Children’s Science Centre, Kenneth Monjero Igadwa, had just driven from Kenya across Tanzania and Burundi to Uganda and back on a 6000km 2 week round trip agricultural mission and was exhausted (and going down with malaria) so we were greeted by his vivacious assistant Janet Kariuki, gorgeous in her sparkly scarf. Purity Muli (pictured below between Daniel Ndungu and Caleb Mwangi) doing her Masters in natural pesticides, was also assigned to keep an eye on us.
Before stressed Sampson flew out the following day, I made him a rice omelette to keep him going on the coach to Plymouth and tried to cut his hair into something a bit more respectable. It ended up rather New Romantic, reminiscent of Martin Fry circa 1982. “That’s the look, that’s the look” (I don’t remember seeing this ABC video at the time but blimey how much is going on here??)
It was SO calm after he’d gone. Zola and I enjoyed chicken soup and The Crown, reassuringly sedate and dull and delightful. I was hoping that being still for a while and ceasing the typhoid meds would alleviate the hot flushes I was now having all night and all through the day.
Each morning, Zola and I would walk around the campus, in a loop around gorgeous green fields of crop experiments, before knuckling down to school, determined to finish the term before Ruby arrived. We were also entertained by the monkeys scampering all around.
I adapted to single parenthood by cooking a huge supper pot once every three days e.g. a giant butternut, carrot, lentil and ginger soup – with Zola’s chopping help. We were getting into a nice rhythm, rewarding days of hard work with his keyboard playing or an episode of The Crown with us two cosy on the bed and the cat on my tummy. PJ was being uncharacteristically needy, coming to sit on my head early every morning before snuggling down inside my sleeping bag for an extra doze. She was also puking so often we were beginning to wonder if she was pregnant.
The peace was bombed when Ruby called me sobbing, completely overwhelmed by the Grade 11 workload at Wynberg Girls, which had her studying till midnight every evening while an old primary school friend of hers was homeschooling only 4 hours per day. I said if she wanted to drop out and complete her Matric that way I would be behind her 100%. I meant it, but also suspected that, without opposition, she would choose to push through. She’d come too far to drop out now. But the guilt and worry from not being nearer to comfort her was eating at me.
At 3am I woke with an appalling headache from severe brain inflammation (like when we were in Martigues in France). I couldn’t work out why; there had to be some midnight dumping of chemical fumes I couldn’t smell going on. I was worried how Zola would cope if I were to have some sort of episode as a result. However he was proving pretty adept at managing most things in the absence of his Dad, changing the gas bottle for us and filling up the water tanks.
Kenyans are far less likely than Nigerians to barge in without an invite, but slowly but surely, visitors began to arrive at the truck. We welcomed KALRO receptionist Sophia Munene (top right below), with her niece, engineer Abigail Njoki from Mombasa, who works in construction. Abigail had already built a mall, and was now working on apartments. She advised us to head to the north coast for parties, and the south for quiet.
The next day a whole host of students piled in. I ended up getting completely carried away by their enthusiasm and talked way too much but who could resist sunny Hilda in her bright pink jacket (in group pic below), as well as purple girls Nancy Kalee and Stacey Obatsa (below left)?
I was so honoured when Langat Kibet Emmanuel (above right, between Sophie Pauline and Mary Ndeto) told me I’d changed his mind: he was not now going to go to US after all but stay and invest his brain in the future of Africa where it would be more appreciated. The exchanges with these super bright sparks resulted in the Africa(‘s not had its) Day blog.
Janet kindly offered to take me to the supermarket. Sampson had been doing the shopping since my sharp decline in Egypt so I was glad of her company. I thought we were popping across the highway but she said it was “cheaper down the road” – a matatu taxi ride away. Naivas was indeed cheap, and the first place I’d seen ricecakes on sale since SA, but it was also huge, packed and sensorily overwhelming. By the time I got to the till, every cell in my body was screaming at me.
Janet caught a different taxi home so I was alone in the matatu on the way back. As I tried to get out, one of my big heavy grocery bags swang across my lap and tipped me off balance. In slow motion, I missed the step and fell straight out of the taxi onto the curb. My elbow and knees were badly grazed and bruised, and a litre pot of yoghurt smashed, but I was lucky it was not a lot worse.
After that, Zola and I walked to the supermarket at the ABC mall. It was more expensive but less energy-consuming.
As the frequency of my hot flushes increased from every 2 hours to hourly, I decided this menopause was definitely not peri- anymore. Even though it was so peaceful here, I was struggling to sleep, waking up gasping every couple of hours. It had to be the altitude putting my body under pressure. My period did not arrive.
On Sunday 27th May, while Sampson was having a whale of a time at Paul and Fran’s wedding, Zola and I were invited to visit Dr Ken, now recovered from his bout of malaria. He said he was “sending someone to pick you up” so I was naively expecting a car and was surprised when Caleb and Neil Omwera arrived to escort us on the matatu. During the subsequent 500m walk to his house, I was getting a bit desperate. Thank God I hadn’t walked this morning as I was using up spoons at a terrifying rate.
Dr Ken is a very humble guy, considering his immense achievements. Born in a rural village in western Kenya, his academic capacity and diligent commitment to study has led him all over the world, from South Africa and Australia to the US, Canada and Japan. His main research focus is in the application of biotechnology for food security. But his passion for communicating a love of science to youngsters drew him to found the Science Centre Kenya, as well as his latest pandemic project the Fun and Education Global Network fostering peer learning and Agri-COVID food gardens. Read more about Dr Fun’s wonderful lifestory here.
We sat in his modest house with his lovely wife Triza and sweetheart daughters Grace, Love and Peace (whom I am delighted to discover have since welcomed a baby brother David) and I felt so honoured to be received into their home. Triza’s gracious and steady aura reminded me of Zola, and she pressed a plate of delicious banana/potato mash with beef sauce on him (while I munched my gluten-free padkos).
An hour later, her three darling little Red Riding Hoods escorted us back to the matatu stop, and dear Caleb walked us all the way home. On the taxi, Gregory Isaacs’ Night Nurse was booming over the system as a blue neon light flashed – very disco bus vibes. I felt elated to have survived the outing but was absolutely shattered and ravenous. When we got in, I improvised ‘pan jam tarts’ – fried biscuits with peanut butter and honey.
On Monday morning, Zola took 4 hours to do Maths. I was lying down trying to load a blog when I heard him sniggering. I stood up and caught him red-handed, headphones on, watching Misfits on Sampson’s laptop which had been charging on the table! Ruby advised me to let it be – her exams had started, and she reckoned we shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.
I did my washing all by myself for the first time in 6 months. Me squatting by the tap, scrubbing away while listening to the BBC World Service, caused a sensation in passers by. Kenyans are unfailingly polite but there were murmurs, greetings and enquiries. Best of all was an unexpected conversation with Ken’s colleague, Mr Alex Kuria, on the Art of Handwashing, as we both appreciated the expert strategic planning shown by generations of African women to get it all dry.
There was no TV for sneaky teen that night, but next morning, on our walk to buy bread from the campus shop, Zola and I talked about building trust and breaking it and how easy it was to conform to most women’s poor estimation of men’s trustworthiness. After that redrawing of boundaries, boyo was on his best behaviour all day.
Purity surprised us, arriving unannounced with 60 primary school kids from the Emerald School. I gave them a 5 minute chat about the trip outside while Zola quickly tidied up and then welcomed them in for the truck tour, 8 at a time. They were very clever and cute but I crashed afterwards, and had to lie down the rest of the day. For the second time this week, I was forced to acknowledge I need to tell people about how ME affects me because another spontaneous visit could be catastrophic for my careful pacing schedule.
Meanwhile Zola was ploughing through his revision notes and doing his washing. I shaved his hair for him. While cooking a big green veg mix for our supper, we had a lovely chat about how great a partner he is going to be because he listens and asks questions and smiles. I ended up detailing my attraction to his Dad, the history of our relationship, how we came to adopt and how scrumptious Zola was as a baby. It was such a special hour together. What a blessing he has been in my life, today and always.
I’d bought lamb chops for his Friday Night Treats. This first red meat in recent memory felt so weird in my mouth I haven’t eaten them since. We watched Get Out which was brilliant on every level.
That night, in Whatsapp texts to my husband, I admitted I was dreading his return, worried that his unthinking chaos would destroy the steady peace and calm our son and I had established. I hadn’t cried once since he left.
I wanted to focus on writing and getting well enough to welcome Ruby so I wasn’t overly keen to fritter energy meeting a guy with a waste vegetable oil recycling business whom Sampson had been chatting with online – but what a treasure Bryan Piti from Zijani turned out to be! Our three hour chat was exhausting but he was so inspired and inspiring.
Bryan’s story was fascinating: a chance remark made by a lecturer in the middle of a boring Friday afternoon presentation “you can make biodiesel from cooking oil” changed his life. Aged 22, while still at university, he started the Biogen Diesel Kenya research project as a side hustle. Two years later he left to go commercial and started his company Zijani.
After being retrenched from an IT company, he sank all his savings into equipment needed to recycle WVO into biodiesel. Business was building slowly when he got a call at church to say his building was on fire. A second blow followed when his childhood best friend William died in a car accident; he had vowed to start a matatu business run on biofuel called BioBUs.
His elder brother then decided to invest 1.4 million Kenyan shillings (R175 000) in the business, with which Bryan was able to buy cut-price equipment from a enterprise that had failed. The money left provided for his employees’ pay, plus Ks20 for his matatu fare, but he had to walk the rest of the way.
His luck changed when he entered the Total Startupper competition and was chosen in the top 10 entrepreneurs of 3000 applicants. He also obtained free premises from a Catholic Father for a year – he pays his rent in liquid soap, as glycerin is one of the byproducts of the recycling process with which he adds value to his hotel clients. He also won a contract to service all 47 restaurants of the Java House chain and transform their waste cooking oil into fuel. So now he drives to work!
Bryan’s energy was like a whirlwind. His hilarious and heartwarming tales were topped by the revelation his mother was a tyrannical chemistry and maths teacher, who used to set her 4 kids exam papers in the school holidays! He knew his periodic table before he went to high school. No wonder he was so hardworking and committed to success! See him being interviewed on KTN News.
On Tuesday 5th June, the day Sampson set off to London for his return flight, I got up at 5am in his place to support Bryan at a Total Startupper breakfast meeting with fellow entrepreneurs and business mentors at the Nairobi Intercontinental Hotel. Getting up and out at that time on a chilly morning nearly killed me, let alone stringing sentences together as part of his presentation, but he fully deserved our vote of confidence.
I returned in the late morning thoroughly depleted and took a sudden dive just before eating the lunch I’d prepared yesterday. Zola asked me something about the foodbox and I realised I couldn’t recall what that word meant. I suspect what happens to the brains of people with ME when they run way too low on energy is akin to Alzheimer’s.
Sampson brought vile British weather back with him: it was raining and cold for his show at KALRO on Wed 6th June. In a violently stripey shirt and flash red and white trainers purloined from his best mate, Sampson delivered the Africa Clockwise multi-media show to a mixed crowd of staff and students. With top academics as Mr Dominic in the audience, he got great questions about everything from plastics to worm farms.
In addition, Deputy Director Willis shared some shocking info about the urgent need to recycle used cooking oil and take it out of the food chain in Kenya, because second hand use of WVO by street vendors was causing a huge increase in stomach cancer. Apparently this was about to go into law because smuggling WVO had become rife; a massive load from Ethiopia had recently been stopped at the border.
Back at the truck, we spent a couple of fun hours unpacking goodies from Sampson’s extra suitcase: 5 bottles of conditioner for me, 20 bars of chocolate for himself, loads of books and 3 pairs of shoes for Zola (not a moment too soon if you check the state of his current footwear). Zola was thrilled by sneaker donations from Joss and Paul; smart second hand were like new for him at this point.
To top off the treats, Sophia from reception delivered a parcel of fresh chapattis and a maize/beans/mash mix which was a perfect addition to our veg. They were all so kind at KALRO. Sampson would love to come back to Kenya post-pandemic and do the schools tour with Ken and his team that we didn’t succeed in getting sponsorship for in 2018.
I won’t dwell here on how sad I was not to be able to attend such a joyful family occasion as Paul and Fran’s wedding; it’s part of a grief about missing out on closeness with brothers, soul sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts that I long ago bound up tight in my heart. But I hope the happy couple won’t mind me sharing some glorious pics of their special day in May and understand that if I was struggling to travel to the next suburb in a matatu, that attempting a longhaul journey was way beyond me at that point. May they continue to be blessed with such sunshine and laughter!