This blog is dedicated to the beautiful family of Nawir Ibrahim who shine in my memory like a beacon. This was a gruelling week for me – I felt at almost the lowest ebb of the whole trip both physically and mentally – but their heartfelt hospitality carried me through.
We were late. After a long day sorting out truck tax online with the Kenya Revenue Authority then doing a plastic fantastic shop upstairs at Naivas (new bowls, plates, cups and even a sink!) while Zola was writing his EMS exam, we realised with horror that somehow we’d left PJ behind. Big Reg had to go back to KALRO in the dark and we were so relieved when five minutes after calling out and flashing our torches around in the drizzle, she came mewing up to us complaining at such neglectful treatment!
So by the time we arrived at Nawir’s house at 10pm I was flat out on the bed, energy reserves entirely depleted, completely unable to go in. I felt I was being inexcusably rude – the family had waited up for us, and his sons were hovering outside hoping for a chat – but that would have finished me.
In the morning, Big Reg followed Nawir to his office at CAT: the Centre for Alternative Technologies. Nawir has been in the renewable energy business since 1996 and CAT installs solar energy systems in lodges, farms, offices and hospitals across East Africa. His expert team were ready to install a set of massive new solar batteries provided by Dutch company Victron Energy (suppliers of solar energy products worldwide) as well as a MultiPlus II, which they’d just launched. It’s a powerful new product which works as a 3KW inverter and solar charger while also allowing 50 amp charging from the grid, an unprecedentedly swift bonus.
Victron’s batteries were much bigger and much heavier than our originals, so the weight had to be redistributed across two storage cupboards instead of one. This took an extra day and required a hasty re-imagining of interior space. On the bright side, it finally forced Sampson to clear out ‘under the table’; but the dust and upheaval it entailed was a lot to cope with top of the unrelenting cold and lack of privacy as a team of men clambered over the truck for a week with the winter wind blowing through all the open doors and hatches.
We took shelter inside the CAT office. While Zola was writing his English exam, I was making notes for the first east side blog on Egypt. Nawir introduced us to his daughter Dalila, 23, who had just finished her degree in International Development at the University of Sussex in Brighton. She’d only got back from the UK 3 days ago, but she was already working alongside her Dad.
Then her mum arrived: Wow. Umkulthoom Saleh, known as Umi, is tiny but her impact is huge. She radiates light, positivity and joy in the same way her Egyptian namesake shone brighter than any star across the Arab world. She was so luminously genuine, I loved her immediately – and that was before she knocked me out knowing about ME! She has a friend with an autoimmune condition also suffering in their bedroom. To be immediately believed and affirmed I realised had never happened to me before; I was so dazed, I nearly cried.
At 5ish Nawir locked up the office and insisted Zola and I came home with them, saying his wife had cooked especially. Sampson had just swept up an entire bagful of dirt from under the table, but the contents of the storage lockers were still spread out all over the floor, and going to take another couple of hours to pack away, so I was relieved to accept.
Umi was fulsome in greeting and asked her son Ibrahim show us around their comfortable bungalow, a former farm manager’s house, all bay windows and wooden beams. It was strangely reminiscent of the old Victorian house I was brought up in during the 70s, Enid Blyton books and all. During the course of the evening, Umi was moved to tears several times due to our experiences echoing each other’s – firstly when she found out our birthdays were on the same day, although she is 3 years my senior.
She also homeschooled her kids: Musaab (20) was now doing his A levels, while Ibrahim (15) was due to do his O levels next year. Umi told me she was convinced she was experiencing menopause when, 10 years after Ibrahim had been born, she became pregnant at the age of 45! Amara Muneera was now nearly 6. “She had to have a companion” said Umi, so along came Najat, who is 4. I played “horsey horsey” and “I draw a snake upon your back” with the littl’uns and they were so lovely, it made me wistful that my kids were way past such simple pleasures.
That night, Umi served us superb food, as fine as any five star hotel restaurant we have eaten at en route: chili bites with chick pea flour and tamarind sauce, cauliflower pepper soup, coconut chicken, grated beetroot, rice with broccoli. It was so warming and nourishing, I felt bolstered despite my deep exhaustion. On top of that, she sent us home with all our towels washed and dried, and hot clean sheets. What a joy. After we were dropped off by Nawir, Zola ate another handful of the chili bites that had been pressed on us while telling his Dad all about our evening. I couldn’t remember when I last saw him so delighted.
In the meantime, after hearing how cold we were, Bryan Piti had come round to see Sampson bearing bags of groceries and two huge blankets – what a lifesaver! The next day, Saturday 9th June, I used them to make a bed in the CAT office and lay there writing a proposal for Africa Clockwise and Zijani to the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre.
CAT experts Mr Alex Wango, Stephen ‘Dofu’ Mwambire and Solomon Ochieng were busy wrestling with the installation of two extra solar panels as well as Victron’s fantastic Multiplus II and its colour monitor touch screen.
In the afternoon, Sampson performed the Africa Clockwise show for the CAT staff in their conference room and was gratified to have Mr Solomon gasp at his tricks, although he couldn’t teach this group anything about alternative energy that they didn’t know already!
Zola, in a break between exams, was entertaining himself with a new challenge: climbing a ladder while on a unicycle. I finally persuaded him to let go of his old faithful plastic slides from Liberia; he really can’t be accused of being addicted to fast fashion!
After this long day, we were all taken back for supper. Umi had lovingly produced another incredible spread: a huge plateful of freshly cooked triangular khameer, a bowl of gluten-free potato and onion bhajis for me, the most scrumptious fried fish in cumin. She must have been busy for hours. Dalila sat on the floor feeding the little girls, telling us hilarious stories. She’s a great mimic, with anecdotes for Africa. I told her she should be a comedian!
After Umi spent a while expressing her great love for overland exploring, we were suddenly struck with the idea that she should write a Guide for Muslim Travellers to African cities. She would be the ideal person to address this gap in the market! I felt so blessed to sit around and chat in the bosom of this wonderful family, while Sampson did a mini magic show for the little sweethearts. I’m sad I didn’t get a pic of gentle Ibrahim, but like Zola, he does not seek the limelight.
Dear Nawir dropped us home very late. Ibrahim had said he would pick Zola up at 9am next morning to go to and see Deadpool 2 at the cinema and Zola was so anxious not to miss him he was up at 6am and sat outside for an hour and a half!
I was hoping Sampson and I could take advantage of this rare Sunday afternoon alone to spend some quality time together. Instead we ended up having a row so terrible I described it in my diary as ‘relationship-ending’.
When my husband disappeared over to the office to download podcasts on the wifi while stretching, I told myself not to dwell on wasted opportunities and go with the flow. But when he came back at 1.30pm and told me he was going to lie down for the rest of the day because he had a cold – with no thought of preparing food or needing a table to chop on or indeed anything for anyone else – it all came tumbling down. I knew he was stressed about getting back on the road to be on time to collect Ruby, but the gulf in his understanding of just how ill and incapable I was had become overwhelming.
I was aware I couldn’t think clearly, was battling to hold a thread in my head. Too tired, too hurt, too overwrought, in response to his shouting I ended up screaming, then begging. When, an hour later, I was in bits on the bed and he suddenly said “Maybe you’re right”, there was no comfort in it. I didn’t ever want a day like this again. I couldn’t cope with anymore. I was so completely knocked out by upset that I couldn’t eat but fell dead asleep for an hour, shattered.
I had been looking forward to a quiet day writing. But I had wasted a day of rest, and put myself through a pointlessly exhausting ordeal. I was beyond grateful that Umi sent a parcel of mutton and chick pea curry back with Zola, because when Sampson finally started frying an onion for supper, the gas had gone. She has no idea how vital that sustenance was that terrible night when I felt driven half mad by grief and despair.
Desperately drained, I only survived the next day thanks to moringa. While Mr Alex and his team moved batteries into the wardrobe, I supervised Zola’s Maths exam in the office. Bryan and the Zijani team delivered 320L biodiesel, and hoisted it up under the brand new solar panel. Sampson was so happy to be stocked up – this stash should see us home.
We were so blessed to find such incredible supporters here in Kenya. Victron took our solar capacity to the next level, but it was thanks to the ministrations of Nawir Ibrahim and the Centre for Alternative Techonologies team, and Bryan Piti and Ziljani that we made it into the last quarter of the journey.
Both of us were appalled by what had happened on Sunday, and were trying hard to be better. At supper, Sampson said that today he realised he has always felt that physical truck repair stuff is ‘not his thing’ – that someone else more practical should rather be doing it, like his Dad or his brother. He’d been slightly resentful of me as a result, but suddenly saw that was unreasonable. I had also been reflecting on his fragile mental state and realised I can’t be thinking I’m the only one with major health challenges to contend with. Our mutual apology – or at least acknowledgement – brought us a step closer.
On Tuesday, in the middle of the night I woke feeling very poisoned, though I couldn’t tell by what. I felt so confused: it must have been some industrial toxin in the air just released because I was gasping and had pain in my chest. I felt so nauseous I got on my hands and knees, but could not get out of bed. My husband kindly got up to get me a drink of water and open all the windows. It was frightening because I didn’t know why it was happening – but thankfully it had abated by morning. But the next day, while Zola did his science exam in the office, I was also struggling to avoid paint fumes in the yard.
Through Wednesday night, I had huge hot flushes every hour which left me like a limp rag. At 6.40 I woke in absolute hell. The pain was like I’d been beaten everywhere. I knew Sampson wanted the guys to start work at 7.30 so we could be on the road before lunchtime, but I could not surface. I felt 90 years old, and only managed to crawl out at 8am. I did T’ai Chi excruciatingly slowly, so embarrassed still to be there in the way. But as Steven finished off the final wooden shelving and Zola started his final French revision exam, Umi appeared, full of joy. She clasped my hands, delighted that due to our ‘inspiring’ example, Nawir had agreed to travel overland to Sudan for their next holiday!
I found their love story far more inspiring. Over a cup of rooibos, Umi shared that her parents were apparently not keen on Nawir initially because he was not Yemeni Arab like her family. “Islam kept us together” she said, simply. Nawir’s grandfather was from the Comores, but his grandmother Dorothy Patterson was South African, a mixed race daughter of a ship’s chandler who had two children with a Dutch ship’s chef. They left SA because of apartheid legislation while Nawir’s father was still in the womb. When the chef died, Nawir’s father was born in Zanzibar and she became a single mother in Dar es Salaam. Nawir still has relatives in Simon’s Town and had recently bought a holiday home in Port Elizabeth, where they love to escape to.
I was fascinated by the rich tapestry of intertwined family histories along the east African coast that Umi was weaving for me and longed to hear more, but it was definitely time for us to leave them in peace. But I will never forget her generosity of spirit – how she selflessly devoted herself to providing sustenance to all of us, Umm to everyone: family, staff and visitors. She had no idea how depleted I was, or how grateful for her example of commitment to happiness.
As Big Reg pulled out of Nairobi around 2pm, PJ was getting herself in a right old state. It seemed like she had forgotten what it was like to drive for any length of time, and was mewling in anguish. It was very upsetting, because her crying was reminding us of Lucky’s painful end in Khartoum. I stroked her and sang to her for so long, I fell asleep sitting up in the passenger seat with her draped on my arm.
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What a lovely family!