The Road to Kargi

After my ordeal in the desert I just rested for a few days in the dusty ramshackle town of Marsabit. Then, despite the terrible roads I felt ready to tackle the next leg of the journey, to the small town of Kargi, about 75 km away (I know, when will I learn?). I was told the road was rough but rideable. It crossed yet another desert and dropped in elevation which increased the temperature.  

It was the ride from hell. After 10 km it became rocky, with rocks the size of softballs. It was impossible for me to ride on. I would ride 50 feet, hit a rock, lose control, and fall over, then walk the bike for 20 minutes before riding another 100 feet, hitting a rock and falling again. I got scraped up and bruised. I thought I broke a rib once when I fell hard on my side. Here is the road from hell. 

There were not many people on the road but I did pass some Rendille goat herders. Here is one young girl in traditional dress. 

But what concerned me was the water situation. I had planned my water consumption on 10 kph, but I was only making 3-4 kph, so I knew I would run short. But there were no vehicles passing so I began to really worry. I camped in the bush that night and figured I had to ride 50 km the next day to arrive in Kargi. If I could go 5 kph I could do it in 10 hours. That’s 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. I would get there right at sunset. But I would need some good road in order to ride. 

The next morning as I was packing up early I noticed a bee buzzing around my stuff. Soon there were two bees, then four, then ten, then, it seemed, hundreds. They weren’t aggressive, just curious. They liked my baby wipes. But then they started buzzing around me and crawling on me. I dared not disturb them. African honeybees are much more aggressive than our European ones. If you excite them they will swarm over you and when one stings, it sends a signal somehow to all the other bees around that there is trouble and the others all come to assist. That’s how people get hundreds of stings. It can be fatal, especially where I was, in the middle of nowhere.

So I was careful not to swat them, but I was also nervous, so I ducked into my tent and decided to wait them out. But after 20 minutes and time slipping away I realized I had to do something. It sounded like a beehive outside, with hundreds of bees buzzing all over my things. Then I recalled the bees my dad used to raise in Lansing, Michigan. When he collected the honey at the end of the season he blew smoke into the hives. Smoke makes the bees docile and less aggressive.

So I carefully unzipped my tent and slowly got my lighter and bottle of fuel from my bags, the bees still buzzing around me and checking me out. I walked upwind about 50 feet and slowly gathered kindling and firewood, the bees still crawling on me. One went inside my shoe and I feared he would get stuck and sting me in panic.  But I managed to get the fire going and piled on a huge amount of wood to create a giant blaze. Then I stood right downwind. The bees who were buzzing around me fled. Yes! This just might work. I took some burning branches back to my campsite and let the smoke swirl around the bees. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, they were all gone. I quickly packed up my things and got the hell out of there.

On the road, things got worse. The heat was intense (over 100 deg F). But a truck happened to pass and gave me six liters of water. I thought I was saved. But as the day progressed I became very weak again. The heat was just too much. I was going very slow and I used up the six liters quickly. For the first time on this trip I was really concerned. There was no water, no vehicles, and no people. I could not ride, and the next town was 40 km away. I was running out of options. 

Then in the early afternoon I met three Rendille warriors. They were also going to Kargi and offered to accompany me. They did not speak much English but with my limited Swahili we were able to communicate on a basic level. As they saw me struggle with my bike they offered to help push. I was grateful and agreed to pay them when we arrived in Kargi. So the warriors saved me. For four hours I stumbled behind while they took turns pushing my bike over that awful road. And when we ran out of water they knew of a well nearby and managed to refill all my water bottles again.  Here is one of the warriors, who called himself Robert. 

Well to make a long story short, I did manage to ride the last ten km to Kargi, arriving after sunset, exhausted, dehydrated and filthy. I felt lucky to be alive. But I had a problem. Although I filter my water it still retains a saline taste. The saline water coupled with dehydration and exhaustion landed me with a kidney infection. After two doctors and a slew of antibiotics and am still fighting it. 

Kargi is pretty basic. No electricity, no running water, no land or mobile telephones. I stayed in a basic guest house run by a great guy named Moses and his wife Christina. They are super nice and helpful. I just relaxed there for about five days, reading and resting. Here is Moses (on the right) 

 

Christina dressed up for a meeting (l) and cooking at night over the fire with a flashlight (r). Yes that’s her kitchen. Pretty basic.

Kargi is home to the Rendille tribe. Around the main village are 15-20 traditional small villages, called manyattas. The traditional Rendille live there in small huts arranged in a circle. We visited a few of these to see what life was like in a manyatta. It was fascinating. The huts are small and cramped, with dirt floors and walls made with sticks and some kind of thatched grass. The men go out all day herding their goats while the women collect water and firewood, take care of the children and prepare the meals. Here I am with one of the Rendille girls who lived nearby. She had a lot of jewelry, indicating her husband was probably better off than most. 

After a few days I started going native. Here I am with a Rendille family.

I am wearing  a traditional kukoi, which is a length of cloth wrapped around your waist. Most of the men wear these. In the 100+ degree heat, they are a lot cooler than trousers and underwear as they allow air to circulate, uhh, down there.. I also had to carry a stick. All the men carry them. They indicate you have some goats to tend, which means you are not poor.

At a manyatta. The older woman on the right is the mother of the three young girls. The children are her grandchildren. She is making material for the wall of the hut.

Moses took me to one manyatta where lived supposedly a 126 year old woman. That would make her one of the oldest people in the world. I have my doubts, since the life expectancy in Kenya is only 50 years, but she certainly looks old. 

The girls get married very young, some as young as 13 years old. Most seem to be married by the time they are 16. They are basically baby machines, constantly breastfeeding the infants while keeping track of the older ones. Apparently as a man you can “reserve” a young girl, even as young as five years old, for future marriage. It seems you pay the father a sum of money and when the girl comes of age (13 or 14) you are then entitled to wed her.  

Here is one young wife, 13 years old. You can tell she is married by the string of red and white beads around her neck.

Circumcision plays an important role in Rendille society. Every 14 years there is a mass circumcision for the boys. The group is given a name and thereafter they are associated with that group. Of course the event is celebrated with a huge festival. They hold games, competition, dancing and music. They just had one in 2007 so the next one is not until 2021. Book now. 

The Rendille also perform female circumcision, as it is euphemistically called. The more accurate term is female genital mutilation, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris, done with a knife, without anesthetic. It is usually performed before or on the wedding day. The practice is officially banned in Kenya but it’s impossible to enforce in these remote villages. It is a dangerous procedure—up to 15% of the girls die as a result of complications or infections. 

Water was a problem again in Kargi. As in Marsabit the short rain was real short so all the wells were drying up. I was able to shower with a bucket of water. But collecting water from the nearly-dry wells was a tedious daily chore performed by the Rendille women and girls. They would sit on the edge of the well with their plastic cups for hours in the blazing sun. The wells have no safety railing and a couple girls recently fell asleep while waiting and plunged 50 feet to the bottom of the well, killing one of them. 

Here is a shot of the women collecting water from the well and a look down the well with all the ropes tied to plastic buckets at the bottom. Sometimes the ropes get tangled, leading to an awful row among the women.

A shot of Kargi and women fetching water.

There is a catholic church there. Inside was this mural of Christ preaching to the Rendille. A nappy haired Jesus? In Kargi, yes! 

I stopped by the local school and caused a commotion just by my presence. Each room had a different class, from 1st grade to 12th grade. This class, some of the older ones, are 15-16 years old I guessed. There was a teachers strike going on at the time, but the students still went to class, which were conducted by the assistant teachers not much older than the students. 

The older men who cannot work just hang out in the shade socializing with other old guys. Here are some playing a game with rocks called mancala. 

The men all chew this leaf called miraa. It is a mild stimulant, and is in fact banned in the USA. It tastes awful but the men sit up all night chewing bags of the nasty stuff. Here is Moses and some friends in the evening starting in on bags of miraa. 

A couple more young Rendille warriors who stopped by one day. 

After five days of doing very little it was time to go. I left Kargi in a truck. There was no way I was going to continue on that road by bike. As it turned out, I had to backtrack to Marsabit anyway, since there were no vehicles going my way. I had to hitch a ride again a couple times as I made my way further south. Finally I made it back to civilization. Paved roads, running water (even hot water!), ATM machines, fresh fruit (the mangos are heavenly), cold beer, and English football on TV. But the internet is still elusive. I try to post something every week to 10 days, but in Africa it may be 2-3 weeks. Internet access is just not reliable.

16 thoughts on “The Road to Kargi

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. February 9, 2009 / 6:09 pm

    Kev,

    I imagine things will get better upon reaching Nairobi. Of course, relative to what?

    I am continually amazed at the kindness people show to you, from young to old, man and women. Apparently you haven’t run into any “young toughs” such as one might expect.

    One has to be careful expressing too many value judgments on the lives or customs of this seemingly desperate people less one gives the impression of a deep and abiding racism. These poor people are locked in an area to which nature is dealing a severe blow and that, coupled with their ancient myths and practices, only exacerbates their unfortunate situation.

    Question is: is Africa, the cradle of civilization, doomed? I wish I knew the answer to that. Good luck, my man, and keep truckin’.

    Don

  2. Kevin Koski February 10, 2009 / 2:15 pm

    Don, not everyone is nice. I’ve had drunks hassle me, kids throw rocks, some punks drive a car at me trying to scare me, a few people grab my bike, etc. But nothing too serious as yet.

    The people are locked in to a great extent. In Kargi I asked Moses why people don’t move to another village where water is more available. His response was that all his social structure was in Kargi. His circumcision group, his family and friends, etc. If he moved away he would lose all that, and in fact, would be somewhat ostracized by the Kargi community. Plus, he would never really be accepted into the new community since he was from a different tribe.

    During the post-election violence last year, many Luo people who had moved into Kikuyu areas were killed or driven from their homes. So societal norms really do make it difficult to escape.

    Is Africa doomed? I am not optimistic. The population is growing tremendously, and the land can only support so many people. Grazing land is becoming scarce, firewood limited, and demand for water exceeds supply. Throw climate change into the picture and at some point there will be huge famines which will kill off millions, just to remain in balance with nature. AIDS is reducing the population somewhat but the growth rates are still the highest in the world.

    The only way out is for the politicians to open up the economy, reduce corruption and graft, allow greater democracy and free up the system so people can try to better their lives. If the government allowed freer trade and less bureaucracy more small businesses would spring up and lead to greater prosperity. But people must be willing to leave behind their old traditions in order to improve their lives. Indeed they may be forced to just to survive in the future.

  3. DAD February 10, 2009 / 11:56 pm

    After reading all this i wonder if you will be able to return home and begin mundane work 9 to 5 sort of thing

  4. Robin Timothy February 11, 2009 / 3:00 am

    Hey Kev,

    Fantastic snaps – what an adventure! Really enjoy seeing what you’re up to. Safe travels…

    Rpt

  5. Alissa Nembhard February 27, 2009 / 6:55 pm

    They married the girls real young. Did you find young girls who seemed unhappy about this early marriage thing? You look real nice in your skirt Kev, lol

  6. hargura April 9, 2009 / 1:28 pm

    hi Kevin Koski,
    Wonderful to read this about my home.I know all the people in the pics coz thats where i grew up.I attended the local primary school (Kargi Pry),
    and taught as one of the assistant teachers, as you call them.We call them UTs!I spent my entire childhood there before i left for high school and on…presently a 4th year medical student in Turkey!Moses is my brother too, we’re from the same clan.
    When were you there?Were you lucky enough to witness a SORIO, a ceremony during which they slaughter alot of goats and sheep.We love guests and host them for year without asking for anything in return.It is our culture.
    Alissa, girls dont seem unhappy because they dont know anything else they can do with their life.Think it this way; If the whole point of growing up is getting married why wait till your twenties.We are looking forward to one day stamping it out, we hope to.The way of life, not the culture per se, has condemned them into such pathetic condition.

  7. Sanget Z.A. August 19, 2010 / 10:39 am

    Hi Kev,
    Wow! your pics of Kargi leaves me with a lot of nostalgia. I attended school for four years (1971-1974) at the same school you visited. Currently I’m based in Nairobi and work in south-central Somalia for an Humanitarian organization as a Project manager.Harugura who is studying in Turkey as a Medic is a cousin and kinsman.
    Rendille people may have little in terms of material wealth but they are very kind and full of hospitality to friends and strangers alike.
    Enjoy your great travels and keep us posted!

  8. Orre Peter August 21, 2010 / 10:02 am

    I really like the adventure you had within the Kargi environs, I also grew up there, learnt every bit and pieces about the culture of the Rendille, the pattern of the societal administration, events, annual planning, decision making and many other things before I started moving to Nairobi due to my demanding Industrial design profession, where I capture, organize, execute, test and launch products either consumed or produced for fabrication (components). The men captured in you snapshots are my friends and relative brothers, Moses, Jeremiah Guthuro, Ltinga (with red ochre under the tree with a packed bicycle) Galsugo Silamo near a block house with Miraa ready to munch and the environment. Captured are also men palying “boola” Round stone/pebble game for elder under a shed. One of the men are my Uncle, Lkwasi Adille, Mzee Gobanai and two other. The culture is really good, its just that you are new and u need to get use to people after a while they respect you as a guest and give you the hospitality you deserve…. U cannot just die within the Rendille even if you are in abject poverty. However littleh they posses they put God first to be their provider. Otherwise good to have located a discovery about the Rendille Culture. I live in Nairobi and a do Industrial Graphic design, edit photos and frequently visit home. If you want to reply/ ask anything people do not hesitate, call me on peteriltan03@yahoo.com and i will respond to you soonest or Facebook name Orezzander Del Pietro. Thanks.

  9. Alice Mwangi December 30, 2010 / 1:13 pm

    It was great you being in Kargi. We saw you and imagined its just one of those Mzungus looking for trouble. But Kargi people are friendly and we stay with them peacefully.At the moment there are rains, you can make a telphone call 5kms from the town and next time, ask for a tour guide from Marsabit.

  10. John ndegwa(Marmar) July 20, 2011 / 6:30 pm

    Kev,
    Jambo,we saw you and at some point i thought of comming to greet you and have fellowship with you but later thought its not ok to just approach you.
    We live there in Kargi and Rendille people are the most hospitable people i know in Northern Kenya.
    Thanks for your observation and the photos of the home next to the wells to the left side of the Road to the south of Kargi is our home.You are wellcome next time.

  11. muma July 24, 2011 / 7:19 pm

    wow a what a story u gave about my village,its great.think about how u assis kargi the salty water,make another visit again

  12. Anonymous August 12, 2011 / 8:25 pm

    i have lived there for along time becoz my mother is a missionary there.I like the place very much.

  13. David Shepherd August 12, 2011 / 8:29 pm

    Exactly Alice Mwangi is correct those guys are friendly and in fact if you want a freshed air place just stay there and you will enjoy yourself.(Alice works with my mother)

  14. David Shepherd August 12, 2011 / 8:30 pm

    Exactly Alice Mwangi is correct those guys are friendly and in fact if you want a freshen air place just stay there and you will enjoy yourself.(Alice works with my mother)

  15. KENNY November 11, 2011 / 1:37 pm

    to close to Somalia

  16. fulaye August 9, 2012 / 9:40 am

    that’s home ! where i grew up ! you must have appreciated the hospitality of those people.Moses is a brother in law…. by the way i concure entirely with comments above of Hargura, Orre and Sanget…

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