(the beginning of November 2016)
In the part of the Rift Valley that lies at the foothills of the Abedares mountains, near Lake Elementaita, is a place called Gilgil. Large lorries crawl on the road like overfed rats, creeping slowly towards the distant, mountainous horizon. The sun beats down on dusty acacia trees ornamented with plastic bags and weaver bird nests, and, on the outskirts of town, you can see zebra and Thomson’s gazelles grazing. On all fours, pink-faced baboons stalk parallel to the road, eyeing their Homo sapiens cousins aggressively. Up ahead is a checkpoint where lorries and cars pile up behind each other as policemen in neon green vests randomly stop vehicles for a brief question or two.
Like other Rift towns, Gilgil is dominated by scrappy, brightly painted cement-block buildings, harsh and inorganic against the dusty wilderness. Picture Soviet-era apartments, recombinant with the coquettish colors of New Orleans ghettoes. They stand in the middle of a long-decrepit safari destination, hazy with sunlight and tin roofs. Add people from many of the 42 tribes in Kenya, motorcycles, strewn garbage, kanga fabric, goat herds scurrying down the streets, donkeys pulling makeshift carts, and intermittent rows of market stands. Fill your head with the din of goats braying, horns blaring, motors sputtering, and matatu touts yelling in Kiswahili or Kikuyu. Feel the osmosis of sweat pushing through your skin, the dust swirling in the air, the potholes cratering the road, the glow of the sun penetrating your optic nerve, and the drying, shrinking feeling in your lips. Imagine all this, and you may be able to conjure up the likes of Gilgil.
It is here that I’m headed to, as I wind down the highway from the misty green of Limuru. After a high-strung morning of packing, I meet Kim the Taxi at the Brackenhurst reception. As he turns the key in the ignition, his car grinds, then stops. Grinds, then stops. My dad jumpstarts it with our old Subaru, and then Kim and I are off.
However akin Gilgil may seem to other Kenyan towns in the Rift, there’s more to it than what meets the eye. Complex and dynamic, it’s been a crossroads of history time and time again. For thousands of years, it’s been part of a beguiling valley where human life is said to have originated. Once upon a time, it was between Masai land, where these Nilotic herdsmen upheld a distinct and mesmerizingly fierce culture, and the Kalenjin region of runners and storytellers.
I stare down at this same valley while Kim blasts upbeat Kikuyu music. This part of the drive has always captivated me. The road descends down the side of a mountain range, teetering on the edge of a steep plunge. The forests of Limuru change into shrubs, acacias, and trees that look like cacti candelabras. Brilliant greens change to golds, olives, beiges, and muted purples.
In the early 1900s, as Europeans fractured the Rift Valley into colonies, Masai land fell under British jurisdiction. A group of famous settlers, including Lord Delamere and Denys Finch Hatton, laid claim to the region surrounding Gilgil. Their reputation, amongst the Western world, was one of glamorous hunting trips, narcotics, luxurious safaris, and sexual scandal. One can only imagine how they were viewed by the rightful owners of the land.
With the progression of wars in Europe and therefore in Africa, Italian prisoners of war were sent to Kenya for internment. They built the road I’m currently traveling on, a highway that cuts through the Rift. As Kim and I near the end of the mountain descent, I see a little Catholic chapel hidden in the corner of the road. Though its precious items were vandalized a few years ago, the empty building remains. A forlorn Madonna watches over the valley, an abandoned relic.
In 1927, during the golden age of British imperialism, Pembroke House was founded just outside of Gilgil Town. A boarding school for European children, it became a stronghold of British culture in Kenya. Even after Kenya gained independence in 1967, Pembroke has continued to grow in size and beauty. Supported by the descendants of British settlers, the preparatory school greatly contrasts the surrounding poverty of local Kenyans.
Kim and I are almost to Gilgil. We pass Lake Naivasha, a glimmering blue plane behind vast fields. About thirty minutes later, after crossing through the police barrier, we are driving into the town.
As the Middle East morphed after World War Two, turning against European rule, Gilgil witnessed an influx of new foreigners. The British Mandate of Palestine created three concentration camps for Irgun and Lehi Zionist militants. One was in Eritrea, another in Sudan, and the last in Gilgil. After Israeli independence, these militants returned to fight in the Israeli-Arab War of 1948.
We drive through the busy Gilgil streets towards a smaller town known as Langalanga. The road between is only a few kilometers long. Dirt and rocks jostle the little old car like a bronco. A tank drives down the road, passing a cow. It’s from the Kenyan military camp located just up the road.
In 2007 and 2008, the post-election violence in Kenya displaced many citizens from their homelands. Gilgil was rendered a “New York” for Kenyan refugees, attracting migrants who lost their previous lives due to conflict. They are here, to this day, surrounded by what remains of Masai land and by British-Kenyans’ inherited holdings.
It is not the easiest place to inhabit, so much so that the BBC has made several documentaries about life on the streets of Gilgil. In particular, it is a rough place for street children, many of them orphans, estranged from abusive relatives, and forced into prostitution. Some are only toddlers. In the past, the aid they receive has often come with strings attached. For example, a British pedophile, disguised as an aid worker, was recently found guilty of molesting Kenyan children since the 1990s. An entire generation grew up affected by sexual abuse, contributing to a vicious cycle of suffering.
In 1979, a woman came to Gilgil as a school teacher. Her name is Mary Coulson. A somewhat mysterious figure, she resided in Langalanga through the decades. I met Mary in 2015 at a desperate period of my life. She was a major part of my recovery from anorexia, though that is another story for another time.
After the violence in 2007 and 2008, and the subsequent fluctuation of Gilgil’s street children, Mary decided to start an organization called “Restart Africa.” Restart takes in the most unwanted children, providing them with a place to heal from the great complexities and burdens of the past. The mantra of Restart is “Think not what you are, but what you could become.”
This is where I’m headed. Restart, in Langalanga, near Gilgil – a place of many tensions and tides, a place of many perceptions and pasts. I can only hope that my addition to this crossroads, and of other volunteers like me, will somehow leave a positive mark. In the wake of so many foreigners, how can we do our part to alleviate the crimes of the past?
As Kim slows the car to a stop, I get out. The sky overhead is blue, blue like the faraway mountains, blue like Mary’s eyes. Blue, and promising of what can become.