IN THE SHADOW OF ZION
24 June 2009
My Kenyan friends, the Da Gama Roses, host me on this, my second trip to Kenya. Horatius, the family patriarch, arrives for breakfast in a dressing gown. He lights a cigarette, smiles crookedly, and pronounces the journey Mike and I have planned to Uasin Gishu “bloody mad.” A stroke has paralyzed the left side of his face, but his voice erupts with force. His wife, Fernanda, sets a glass of fresh-squeezed passion fruit juice in front of him. She frowns in mock seriousness and nags him in a sing-song voice to put out his cigarette. A parrot they keep in a cage in a corner of the room echoes her. The Da Gama Roses are part of the Catholic Goan minority in Kenya. Most of the Indian population of East Africa descends from those brought over as “coolies”—manual laborers—but the Goans arrived as British-educated civil servants. They rapidly gained wealth and power thanks to successful commercial enterprises and now form a subset of the Kenyan aristocracy. Horatius calls the Goans “a photocopy of the Jews.” Perhaps that’s why Fernanda asks me to bring matzah ball soup mix when I visit.
Like the small Jewish community in Kenya, the Goans suffered discrimination. But Horatius’ father, an attorney, was equally sensitive to the racial prejudice against black Africans. He befriended Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Mau-Mau rebellion and Kenya’s first president, and even smuggled medication to Kenyatta during his imprisonment by the British. Horatius sees himself as a Kenyan patriot.
“Let me tell you,” he says, snubbing out his seventh cigarette in an hour, “I’ve never thought I was not a Kenyan. I love my country. The quality of life is fantastic.”
“But this is not Kenya.” Fernanda gestures toward their meticulous home. “We are lucky. Ninety percent are living in poverty.” She turns to me to explain. “I’m very realistic about the country and how sick it is.”
She then explains that the Uasin Gishu district witnessed some of the most brutal violence following the contested Kenyan elections in 2007. Near the district’s largest town, Eldoret, a mob surrounded villagers from the rival Kikuyu tribe who had taken shelter in a church. They barricaded the doors, doused the wooden structure in gasoline, and burned dozens of people alive. Others were hacked to death or beheaded. Camps for internally displaced persons still dot the region two years later.
I bolt a cup of strong tea before leaving the Da Gama Roses’ compound. Their security guard waves from his post and emerges to open the gate. He’s armed with a bow and poison-tipped arrow; guards who pack pistols become targets of theft and murder.
We head west out of the capital with the 104-year-old Zionist Commission map affixed to the dashboard of a Toyota RAV4. A copy of the Commission’s field notes, including the geographic coordinates of their campsite, rests in a plastic folder next to me. Our handheld GPS unit hangs from the visor. We know exactly where we’re going, but have little idea how to get there or what we’ll find when we arrive.
25 June 2009
By the time Mike and I arrive in Eldoret, it’s already dusk. The clogged streets and traffic circles, impromptu sidewalk markets, bicycle repairmen, and “small-joint butchers” are a chaos of micro-commerce. Masai with stretched earlobes wait for matatus--mini-buses--along the main road. They stand immobile against the stream of people that swirls around them.
We check in at the White Highlands Inn, named for the geographic region that includes parts of Uasin Gishu. The area was once reserved for the exclusive settlement of white Britons shortly after the first mzungu—white—settlers vigorously protested against the planned Jewish colony along the Uasin Gishu Plateau. The descendants of these once privileged settlers, today’s so-called Kenyan Cowboys, have a reputation for boorishness and vigilantism. But as far as I can tell, tonight Mike and I are the only mzungus in The White Highlands. The hotel is grim, poorly lit, and smells of insecticide. I take a cold shower before we head out to meet a journalist contact, Komen, at the outdoor hotel bar.
We arrive to find the bar crowded with men already drunk on a combination of papaya wine and High Life brandy. They motion to us to sit down and Mike and I collapse into wobbly plastic chairs around their white plastic table. A charcoal heater warms our feet beneath it. Komen calls my cell phone and then wanders over to meet us. He walks quickly towards our table but before sitting down he squints at each of us in turn, probably noting that the others at our table are all Kikuyu. Komen, I soon learn, belongs to the Nandi, a sub-group of the Kalenjin tribe implicated in the horrific church-burning I’ve heard about.
At first Komen is quiet, but when the others identify him as part of a dynasty of Kenyan athletes, he smiles an abashed, buck-toothed grin and joins in the conversation. One guy pours him a pink-hued glass of syrupy papaya wine. I show them my old maps of the region and ask whether they would have wanted another tribe—the Jews—in their midst.
“Once, perhaps,” a man named Peter says. “Once we were all Kenyan first.” He takes a drink and screws up his face. “Now, though, it is tribal. It is about defense of our home. I was born here, here in Eldoret. I will not leave.”
The tension silences us. I’ve never been in a bar fight, but I can sense that I’ve pushed the conversation to within one drink of violence. The other men brood and avoid looking at Komen. Then a plate of grilled meat—nyama choma—arrives for Komen. He huddles over the dish and shovels the morsels into his mouth rapidly without saying a word, and without offering any food to the others. Peter laughs a deep belly laugh at nothing. The others join in. Then Peter claps his pint of brandy between his hands and lets out a whoop. The small bottle explodes between his palms, showering glass and brandy over the table and down on to the charcoal heater, which shoots flames up the table’s legs. We all lurch back. A waiter runs over and pours a pitcher of water on the flames. My maps rest on the table and somehow escape the worst, though an ammoniac smell of cheap brandy lingers.
26 June 2009
We bounce our way toward Mt. Sirgoit to trace the Commission’s footsteps. I’m armed with a topographical map of the area I purchased from the Eldoret branch of the Ministry of Lands and Settlement. It’s more than twenty years out of date, but at least it’s better than my by-now fragrant and warped copy of the 1904 expedition map. My provisions include several bottles of water, a pound of Gouda from Eldoret’s dairy, a greasy bag of samosas, and what can only be described as a loaf of challah, which Mike discovered in the local supermarket.
Thus equipped, we drive past rolling hills, crop fields with freshly turned dark soil, and isolated stands of eucalyptus trees. The pale blue sky vaults overhead. A few clouds race along the horizon. A sense of wide open space prevails. The red dirt road that skirts the northern slope of Mt. Sirgoit is in good repair. An enormous wheat field surrounded by an electrified fence surrounds the base of the mountain. Gazelles with striped black flanks cavort among the green waves. We follow a cattle trail along the perimeter of the fence as far as we can in the Toyota. The last mile or so we hike beneath a blazing sun into a small valley.
I check the GPS as we close the distance to the Promised Land campsite. The footpath seems to lead straight towards it. Mud-daubed homes with thatched roofs sprout amidst small plots of maize and wheat as we near the site. A few cows swish their tails and low and lumber away from our approach. Several women and children from the village wash clothes in a stream. They shield their eyes with their hands to stare at the mzungus in short pants and baseball hats bearing down on them. A middle-aged woman with dread-locked hair straightens herself and waits for an explanation. She smooths the grease-stained housecoat she wears as I ask permission to proceed to the precise location of the expedition camp site. She looks at me and smiles wanly. My interest in her land may be foolish, but it’s mzungu foolishness, which she regards as she might a dog chasing its own tail.
The spot rests in a grassy clearing on a natural terrace surrounded by a copse of bushes and thorny acacia saplings. A fire pit sits in the center. It looks like the Zionist Commission members have just folded up their green canvas tents a few hours before and stolen away. I can’t help myself and put my hand over the ashes in the pit to see if they’re still hot. Ridiculous, of course. The smoothed stone I pluck from the dust is warm, but only from the sun.