The very day I heard I might be teaching at the Masinde Muliro University I looked up the town in which it was located, Kakamega, Kenya. Twenty-one kilometers, or 13 miles, east of the town, there was a huge green patch on the map. It was the Kakamega National Forest, protected by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. The more I read about it the more I was interested. It was the last remnant of true rainforest in Kenya, that once stretched across Central Africa and also known as the Guineo-Congolian forest. Just like most rainforests in the world, it was under pressure by land development and local intrusion.
I read about the forest and found out that I could get there by piki-piki, or motorcycle taxi, for 300 to 500 shillings, or 3 to 5 dollars. The entrance fee was 600 shillings for non-residents, and I could arrange for a guide for 500 shillings for a short walk or 1000 shillings for a long walk. Yesterday afternoon I e-mailed the guide, Abraham Imbai, and he responded the same evening. I went to sleep last night excited that I was going to the rainforest.
I woke up, made some coffee and oatmeal, and as I was having breakfast I got a telephone call from Abraham. We confirmed that I would meet him at the park office at 10 in the morning. I took a piki-piki into town and picked up some water, fruit, and nuts for lunch. When I exited Tusker, a local grocery store, I picked out what looked like a responsible piki-piki driver if he would take me out there and asked how much. The driver seemed hesitant. He called over his buddy, much younger, who said he would do it for 500 shillings. This piki-piki driver was enthusiastic and impetuous. It was me now who was hesitating for a moment. I was not so sure about the driver. “Is there a place I can get a neon green safety jacket?” I asked. I had seen bicyclists and motorcycle drivers wear them. “Yes, I will take you there,” he said. “Okay, let’s go,” I said. He turned to another piki-piki driver and said something in Swahili. The other guy reluctantly handed over his helmet. “Here, take this,” he said. I put it on.
We stopped by a second hand clothing kiosk just down the road. I described what I wanted. The store owner showed me some neon green safety pants. “Yes,” I said, “But the jacket.” He shook his head no. I noticed his neighbor rummaging around in a large nylon bag. He pulled out precisely what I wanted, an ultralight safety vest, designed for bicyclists. I walked over. “How much? I asked, and he replied “200 shillings.” I pulled out 200 shillings and handed it to him. My piki-piki driver saw a heavier safety neon green jacket and said, “450 shillings. Buy it for me.” I handed him his requested fee of 500 shillings for the trip and said, “Here is your fee of 500 shillings. You can buy it for yourself if you want.” He shook is head and we walked back to the motorcycle without the jacket.
I have noticed that some piki-piki drivers, when given the task of driving a mzungu, get very excited. It was as if the driver were a Secret Service agent shuttling around the President of the United States. In a driving culture already on the edge of sanity and safety, the last thing anyone needs is a nineteen year old motorcycle driver in a hurry with a feeling of entitlement. Furthermore, these are small motorcycles in poor repair. When I sit my 200 lbs down on the back, the bike settles a few inches. When we hit a bump, we bottom out. The weight shifts back leaving the front tire with less weight on the road, therefore less traction. I have often wondered if the drivers take this into account, especially with potholes in the asphalt, rutted dirt roads, and large loose or embedded rocks along the way.
“Hey, do you know how to drive a piki-piki? he asked. “Yes, I know,” I said. “Good. Do you want to drive?” he asked excitedly. I thought for a moment. This might solve my concerns about his youth, personality, and driving style. But I did not have a Kenyan license. If stopped, I could face a fine or even arrest. An innocent outing could snowball into losing my job and being deported. No, it was not worth the risk. “You drive,” I said.
Off we went, at top speed. About a mile outside of town the road turned to dirt. My piki-piki driver was a man on a mission. I held on. I said, “You know, I am not in a hurry. We have plenty of time.” He nodded. He hugged the left side of the road where the dirt was more tightly packed, passing inches from people walking. Several miles out of town we approached a T intersection. We simply had to veer left. I saw another piki-piki driver, also with a passenger, coming down the road from our right. My guy showed no signs of slowing. The driver coming fast on our right looked right at me with a spaced out, bewildered look on his face, never even tapping the brakes. We were on collision course. Just a few meters from colliding I grabbed my drivers shoulders and said, “Look!” He braked sharply and we passed a meter behind the speeding motorcycle. My guy said, “I don’t slow down.” I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and was perplexed by my driver’s response because thankfully he did slow down. I said, “No hurry. I want to arrive safely.” We arrived at the Kakamega National Forest office and I was glad to be there.
Once off the back of a speeding motorcycle, I noticed how calm and peaceful it was. A young lady met me at the office. “Abraham told me you were coming,” she said, “Welcome.” She took my 600 shillings entrance fee, and I signed in. I also paid the 1000 shilling fee for a long walk. On the wall it said a short walk was 1-2 hours and a long walk was 3-4 hours. There were other options such as the sunrise walk, night walk, and full day hike. Abraham met me and introduced himself. We headed toward an area called the KEEP Bandas. He introduced me to Emily, who was a local high school student. He explained that he often brought local residents on the walk because very few had an appreciation for the forest, its plants, and animals. He said that most residents rarely left their town. They assumed that all of Kenya was rainforest and had no idea the area was precious and endangered.
The KEEP Bandas are traditional Luyha dwellings made out of a timber structure then packed with mud. The outside is coated with a mud and cow dung mixture that acts as stucco, and they are painted, and a thatched roof is put in place. They are available for rent at 900 shillings a night ($9), or 1800 shillings a night including two meals.
This is the dining area, also a traditional structure.
We began our walk. A couple from Kisumu joined us and they wanted a short walk. Abraham told me we would do a short walk, break for lunch, then go on another walk. That sounded good to me. This was a beautiful iridescent blue-green butterfly.
Abraham talked a lot about the strangler figs and how they are so important to the ecosystem. They surround a tree, and then the original tree dies, leaving a space in the middle. That space is often used by animals and insects as a home.
There were many incredible butterflies.
Abraham knew a lot about how the local plants were used as medicines. He pointed out a 120 year old woody vine, he called it. He said the vines were used by primate mothers as a jungle gym to teach their young ones how to climb, before heading up into the higher canopy. The vines extend up for tens of meters. He said that he caught a local guy cutting one or two meter sections out of the vines, and leaving the rest of the vine to die. He asked why he would do such a thing. The local guy said that the Luhya bullfighters would pay him 15,000 KSh for the woody vine sections. Apparently, they would burn the vine to make charcoal, crush it, and feed it to the bulls. The bulls would then become muscular and grow very large, but would become sterile. I mentioned to Abraham that it sounded like the vines contained anabolic steroids which would increase muscle mass, and were used by body builders. The local guy was arrested for cutting the vines and spent 6 months in jail. They told him if they caught him doing it again it would be a year.
We saw Black-and-White Colobus monkeys in the trees.
A group of Black-and-White Colobus monkeys. For some reason, I was very good at seeing monkeys in the trees. I would see one or a group and point them out. Abraham was impressed.
I was also impressed at their incredibly long tails.
Abraham took the time to smell the flowers. This small bunch of flowers, by the way, was over 5 feet tall. He did not pick them. This glade was one of several large areas, natural and not cleared, in the forest. He said that slowly but surely the forest was moving in.
There were lots of mushrooms. The couple from Kisumu were surprised that the forest had so many downed trees, and wondered why they were not cleared. Abraham explained that when a tree fell it was left where it fell. If it fell in a path, they moved the path around it. He pointed out tiny holes all over the tree. “These dead trees are home to thousands of insects and animals. They are home to mushrooms.”
After a break and lunch, we all took Abraham’s motorbike to the Rondo Retreat Center, a beautiful bed and breakfast lodging. We then walked down a road and climbed a mountain.
We could see the rain moving in but it never rained hard. This was looking to the south towards Kisumu.
Abraham spend quite a bit of time talking about this plant. He said it was used to stop the bleeding and provide comfort after the circumcision of young males. He winced as he spoke about it. I asked at what age males were circumcised. He said, “12 to 14 years. If they knew what was coming, they would move away before it happened.”
He called this a Protea plant and said it only grew in this volcanic soil on the hill. I could see lava rocks, large and small, in the red soil, similar to what I have seen in Oregon and Hawaii. My guess is, however, this region’s volcanic activity was a long, long time ago.
We headed down the hill and back to the Rondo Retreat. We sat on their expansive lawn, had juice and sodas, and talked about our day. Abraham then drove Emily and me part way back to Kakamega, and I caught another piki-piki the rest of the way home. I was careful to pick a driver that looked calm and mature, and the ride was uneventful. I am looking forward to my next visit to the Kakamega National Forest, which will almost certainly include an overnight stay in the KEEP Bandas. I want to do a night hike, and/or a sunrise hike, when Abraham said many animals are out and about.