Well, curiosity and a moment of insanity may be to blame I believe. Most people who know or have heard of Northern Kenya have the perception that the area is dry, undeveloped and is a security threat to all due to the numerous insecurity cases ranging from cattle rustling to deadly inter community/clan clashes. One may thus wonder, why, of all places , I chose this area. Well, it is only after one of my foreign readers queried on the safety of solo, female backpackers travelling in Kenya that it hit me, I didn’t actually know, as I had never traveled solo in Kenya. My conscience wouldn’t be clear if I responded with a generic response as all my articles and information are about my actual, personal experiences. My brain thus conjured this amazing albeit insane plan that I should attempt to backpack via public means, solo, overland from Nairobi to Lake Turkana in Loiyangalani. I figured, if I successfully completed this expedition to the harshest of areas in Kenya, it would be a great gauge/dip stick on the rest of Kenya and I would demystify Northern Kenya while at it. This trip eventually ended up being an adventure that covered about 1300km, took about two weeks and saw me traverse several towns like Suguta Marmar, Maralal, Baragoi, South Horr and Loiyangalani. More details on this on links at the bottom of the page.
The below are thus the challenges faced in no specific order:
1:Lack of information
This trip was more like making a jigsaw puzzle without actually having a picture of what it’s final look would be. The respective jigsaw pieces were also not together, I would have to find the pieces and complete the puzzle as I went. There was zero/no information on how one could travel as a solo, backpacker, overland, via public means from Nairobi to Loiyangalani. All the information was about chartered flights which were way beyond my budget at the time, or via organized tour trips, which was not an option at the time. Instead of scaring me out of the idea, this actually seemed to heighten my curiosity and wish to venture into the unknown. Hopefully, I could be like Christopher Colombus, discovering destinations and thus thereafter provide information that Google and other internet platforms could use to help others there after. The most I got after some serious research on google was how to travel from Nairobi to Maralal town in Samburu County about 345km via public service vehicles called matatus-thanks google :-). Well, that was better than nothing and I figured, once there, the locals would perhaps assist on how to progress there after.
Where do I begin on all the unconventional modes of transport I took. First, in Nairobi, I was to get my matatu/minivan from a bus stop in down town in a place called Nyamakima. I didn’t know the place well and thus ended up getting lost as I tried to locate it. I thereafter disembarked in a town called Nyahururu, to then get another “matatu ” to Maralal town. Two, before arriving in Maralal, I stopped over in a small town called Suguta Marmar that is about one and a half hours from Maralal town for a few days. From Suguta Marmar, I then had to board a lorry/truck to get to Maralal town. Imagine, being squeezed at the back of a lorry/ truck that only had two benches acting as seats thus people also had to stand and travel on the road that was rocky, rough and dusty.
The ride from Maralal town to Baragoi was a large minivan that was overloaded with some passengers actually sitting at the roof top where luggage is tied. From Baragoi to Loiyangalani, I had to plead and negotiate with a lorry driver to allow me to hitch hike his almost full cargo lorry/truck even though it meant sitting atop it, at the back for over 12hours as there was no space in the front compartment. I practically roasted in the sun, the dust covered me like a second skin and the bumpy ride whilst balancing my body upon the railings are experiences I will never forget. I had always said hitchhiking was a no no, never ever option, well, at that moment, I do not think the driver had ever met a more determined hitchhiker and negotiator like me, I had to travel in it as there were no public service vehicles from that point on.
3. Gender roles:
As we moved from one town to another, the cultural differences from my own stared at me in the face. I have grown up in an environment where as women, we speak our minds, we pursue our dreams, we share duties with the males among others. Here, the women in my view do the bulk of the job, they are wives, mothers, home makers-literally as they are the ones who physically build the homes, they milk the cattle and goats, they cook, they walk kilometers to fetch water and food, walk several other kilometers to fetch firewood, polygamy is the norm, girl child education isn’t appreciated and female genital mutilation though illegal still happens. The men on the other hand seemed to have a more relaxed lifestyle, they would take the cattle out to graze, provide security at times and/or sit under trees catching up on stories.
4. Male-Female segregation
In these areas, the men and women don’t interact as freely as we do in the major towns.The women keep to themselves and the same of the men, unless family or friends.This irked me for some time because I like to interact with the locals, as that’s the only way to learn more about a place and its people. There was one incident where whilst visiting a homestead in a village, I got to see the sharp disparity between men and women. The son of the lady whose home we were, returned from grazing their cattle, a practice called “kuenda fora”. He had been away for over six months and when he entered the home, all off us hurriedly left the compound without a moments notice. It is only later I was explained to that, it is taboo for females including his mother and sisters to see a Moran/initiate/warrior eating.Thus as a lady, keep your distance from the men unless you have one who is your friend, who can then introduce you to the others.
4.Holding my tongue:
In this area, I had to always remind my opinionated self that I was the minority, I was the outsider. I thus learnt to keep my mouth shut when I heard something that I did not agree with. I held my tongue when I heard something about their culture that annoyed me. I held my tongue when the different communities spoke ill about each other. I held my tongue, opted to be neutral and only spoke my mind in an environment that I felt safe to do so. Your safest bet is to always remain neutral, never take sides, be a friend to all and an enemy to none.
This area being remote, not too many people speak Kiswahili let alone English. Kenya has 43 tribes, thus one cannot learn all the languages. I enjoyed making friends and somewhat assimilating with the various cultures, body language being the main means of communication in some instances. I always break the ice with a smile and use body language and actions to communicate. If you can, find a local who also speaks Kiswahili or English and they can act as your translator which would enrich your experience. A visitor will always be a visitor, regardless of how much you try to blend in. Thus, the people would stare, talk in hushed tones as I passed them, others viewed me with suspicion and others out rightly came and asked what I was doing there. Do not worry, all these are normal and once they realized I had no ill intention, they integrated me or just left me alone.
This area is not the safest of places with cases of cattle rustling, inter community clashes and banditry being prevalent. I choose to write about it not to frighten anyone but to prepare you psychologically if you choose to travel the same route, knowledge is power. I listened to stories of cattle raids and inter community clashes, I saw young men walking around with guns and trust me, my heart would beat so hard I was almost sure I would faint from fear. Even as some hitchhiked our vehicle and dropped off along the way, or waved at the vehicle from a distance, I tried my best not to stare at them, tried to be inconspicuous, I didn’t want them to notice I even existed. It was great that we didn’t have any incidences, some just waved , some just boarded and disembarked when they arrived at their location that soon it seemed so normal. Refrain from sneaking pictures of the armed young men as you may spook them and pray, all is well during your trip.
7.Poverty and Hardship
This area is super hot and dry thus food is scarce, water is scarce, trees are scarce, transport is scarce, the general area a harsh environment to live in. People have to walk several kilometers and at times days to access some basic needs. Be emotionally prepared to see intense poverty. I kept asking myself and I am still doing the same, how do these people survive here?
Trust you me, even as I planned, anticipated and eventually ventured on thus trip, fear was my companion at most times. I was worried about what could happen, I imagined coming face to face with insecurity instances like banditry, community clashes, being harassed and especially sexually harassed, getting lost and lost forever at that. I was afraid of the unknown, where to sleep, where to go, how to get there among others. However, at the end of my trip, I realized that the fear in my head was just that, mental fear, a figment of my imagination. Nothing bad happened and most people were nice and friendly to me on the road. We got transport and accommodation in the most unlikely of ways and made lifelong friends along the way. Sometimes, as Nike would say, “Just do it”, you don’t need to have it all figured out, venture out, step out, take the first step, leave your comfort zone and let the world expose itself to you. However, believe you me, I never mentioned I was scared to those around me, I never showed fear, I never spoke fear, I behaved and acted oh so confident that I believe I should have won an Oscar award. There are times like these, that you should keep the fear away from the public eye 🙂 . I also almost desperately wanted to successfully complete the mission and fear wasn’t going to be allowed to stop me.
Back packing isn’t the norm for Kenyans or even generally for Africans. Then top that with being a female, Kenyan, solo back packer/traveler. I met people who couldn’t understand why I would leave the capital city, to travel to one of the remotest areas in Kenya, just for the passion of it. Some believed there was a sinister motive to the travel with some actually sharing their thoughts on the same. I remember one lady at a shop I had stopped to ask for information on which way to proceed once we arrived in Maralal town and she inquired why I wanted to travel there. After I responded that I wanted to experience the area for myself, her response followed without her even batting an eyelid, ” Wasichana wenye huenda huko ni wasichana wanaenda na wanaume wazungu ama wazee” which translated from Kiswahili means, ” the girls who travel there are those who are travelling with male foreigners or old men as their sugar daddies” (Ouch). Never let such negative perceptions stop you, I don’t. I know myself and my reasons for the travel and that should be enough.
Well, some of the people I told my plan told me “Don’t do it”. That place is not safe, you are a girl, bad things could happen, you could be robbed, kidnapped, raped, lost, married by force among others. Yes, I agree, any of the above can happen, could have happened and can happen anywhere in the world, but in my case, they didn’t. I always say, take all the safety measures you would as a female traveler anywhere in the world. Don’t trust anyone, but you may accord them benefit of doubt. Do not put yourself in a compromising situation, avoid dingy routes, always be on high alert, ask for help, let people know where you have gone whether its the hotel you are staying at or your hosts and never ignore your conscience or gut instinct when it warns you among others. Also, do not let other people change your dreams, plans or decisions, that should be your prerogative. Listen at times to what people say, comment or share and make the final wisest decision.
As I started off, I knew not where I would be sleeping. I had decided that I would just approach the local administrations in the area to get guidance once I arrived. I was however impressed to find several beautiful hotels along the way . The costs are fair, the food great and the community integration informative.
However, even with the challenges, this trip was super amazing and exciting. I learnt a lot about the cultures in the region, I learnt not to believe everything the news say, made some amazing friends and stretched myself out of my comfort zone everything from hitch hiking to being in a somewhat volatile area. I was also really happy to respond via personal experience that Yes, it is safe for solo, female, travelers to backpack safely in Kenya. For more details on the Northern Kenya experience, check out:
Suguta Marmar and Maralal :http://wangechigitahi.co.ke/exploring-suguta-marmar-and-maralal/