It was a great day. The sun was bright. A picturesque Kenyan late Friday afternoon; clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight, one of those days you simply need to wear your sunglasses. We hit the highway. My girlfriend and I. The famed Thika Superhighway. Stunning road. Each time I’m on it, I enjoy the driving experience immensely. The road was slightly dusty. The sun was out in her full regalia. Traffic was light, surprising for a Friday. We wondered, could Kenyans possibly be slogging it out in the office this Friday afternoon? HA. Fat chance. There must be some other reason. We made good time. We were excited. We had looked forward to our weekend away for the longest time. We both had been going at it really hard, with virtually no breaks. Week in, week out. Fatigue had begun to set in. You know fatigue is setting in when you’re tired by Monday. Morning. That was increasingly happening to us. When if you get a spare moment in your day, which, unfortunately, hardly happens, you shut your eyes and almost instantaneously fall asleep. You don’t even have to try. That was us. This weekend had been long overdue.
Past the superhighway now, onto the dual carriageway, headed into Central Kenya. It was a great drive. Talking about everything and anything. Soft music in the background. Open country now. Green, green, green. Like you don’t see in Nairobi. We have great conversations. I lose track of time in moments like these. Before we knew it, the sun had set and we were well past the dual carriageway, had been on the single directional lane A2 for a while now. Getting dark, parking lights on. Conversation still flowing. Our jobs don’t allow us to spend as much time together as we would like, so there is always a hefty backlog of conversation. The Google Maps lady kept interrupting our music to throw in her two cents on where we’re going. Change of genre now. Road still great, but dark now. Low beams on. We came up to a junction. I’ve been on this road before. Maps lady says turn right. I ignore her. What does she know. I’ve been on this road before. Kanye West pops into my mind, “Excuse me, is you saying something? Uh uh, you can’t tell me nothing.” I smile to myself. I like that song. I like that man’s chutzpah. Say what you like about him. We drive on. Still conversing randomly. Maps lady now annoying. She keeps interrupting the music to tell us we need to make a U-turn. We check the map. It’s not making sense. It’s showing a very roundabout route to where we are going, if we continue on the road we are currently on. I begin to wonder. Could I possibly have this wrong? Impossible. I drove this road less than a year ago, and there were no right turns this early. We soldier on. Then the road starts to deteriorate. Pot holes, markings are gone. And now I start to wonder. The road was fantastic the last time. Could it have gotten this bad in less than a year? Possible, yes. But do we want to take that chance? It’s dark. I’m a little worried now. We drive on. Ahead, I see a broken down truck. A bunch of men working on the second last axle. I slow down and take a closer look. Tyre is flat. Looks like more than one. They have a genuine problem. I pull over ahead of them. No folks, dispel of that warm feeling welling up inside you. I was not pulling over to help them. I was pulling over to ask for directions. I tell my girlfriend to wait inside and I lock the doors. I walk up to them. They look up. It’s a dark night but they’re not worried. Men of the road. I greet them, “Habari zenu?” “Mzuri” comes the reply. I tell them we are headed to Nanyuki, and I feel we may have missed a turn. They laugh and tell me I have and I haven’t. I will get there with the road I am currently using, but it is longer and not the best road. They tell me there was a right turn a few kilometres back that would get me there faster and on a better road. I thank them, wish them luck with their repairs, and get back in the car. Damn Maps lady was right. I turn the car around and instantly she relaxes, and tells me to stay on this road. Yeah, rub it in why don’t you. We find the right turn and dutifully follow maps lady. She has stopped interrupting me and is now letting our music play. We are more relaxed now. The conversation flow resumes. We settle in for the last stage of our drive. The road is good once more. The night is quiet. We come up to a town, and as we exit we are stopped at a police roadblock. Two cops, a lady and a man. We roll down our windows. “Habari zenu?” one asks. “Mzuri officer.” She shines her torch in the back of the car. “Mko sawa?” We smile,” Sawa kabisa”. She waves the torch to indicate we move on. Sweet chaps. Kind of nice to know the roads are not completely without police presence. We settle back into our road trip mode. Rapidly pick up speed once again. It is a dark night. There is little light out there, and the tinted windows make it seem even darker. Very few cars on the road now. It is about 8pm. Our xenon headlamps light up the road ahead like daylight, but on either side of the road, darkness. I am comfortable. I don’t feel worried. Close now. We can see signs. We are approaching Nanyuki town. Maps lady still on her game, telling us in one kilometre we need to turn right. I heard you the first time, lady. My ego feels slightly wounded, but no matter. We get to our turn, squinting for the sign. There are many signs by this particular turn, but we find ours. Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club. Bingo. We make the turn. Road is still good. We follow the winding road. Now there are no other cars. Small, black and grey gates appear every so often along the left of the road, in between low hedges, some kempt, some unkempt. The grass on the roadside is cut, the bushes here and there trimmed. This seems a semi-affluent area. Probably the weekend homes of some of Kenya’s better off populace. The road continues to wind, and we are now past the residential seeming area. We see signs that are clearly military. Where are we? Road is still good. We decide to find a manned gate and ask. We follow the road and on the right we see a road branch off. Still tarmacked. Right where this road starts, a brightly lit gate with the concrete blocks they usually put is on the left. On the right, another brightly lit gate. No blocks. We pull up to that one and dim our lights, roll down our windows. Don’t want any mishaps.
Almost immediately, a man in fatigues with a firearm slung over his shoulder steps out. Heart beating slightly faster now, but I feel no need to be worried. However your pulse can’t help but race a little. After all, it’s not every day you pull up to a military facility in a strange town at night to ask for directions. He walks up to the car, peering inside. I am sure there are more of him poised for action behind that gate. I greet him. I decided to establish full familiarity and use our local language. “Habari ya jioni?” It had crossed my mind to use a term of position, but I had a very rapid sequence of thoughts and dismissed the idea. I was not sure what the appropriate term was. You see, these people are picky about these things. Kenyans reading this will know. A watchman hates being called watchman. I remember once when I lived with my parents looking for the watchman at night and I did not know his name (yeah I know, can we move on? That is not the point of this story. Plus, they changed them like every six months okay?) . I called out “Watchman” until I was blue in the face. The fellow was nowhere to be found. I needed him to feed the bloody dogs. I wound up having to feed them myself. A few days later, the grounds man educated me that apparently, they consider it an offensive name. I had hurt his feelings. They prefer to be called soldier. I still remember struggling to keep a straight face that day upon receipt of that little titbit of wisdom. Hell, I’m struggling just at the memory of it. So as he walked to the car, I cycled through the possible salutations that would provide him with that little ego boost that sometimes makes your life a little easier with the, ahem, proletariat. Soldier? Technically, that is what he is. BUT, surely they must know that security guards are also called this? Perhaps they don’t like it? I cursed myself for not having enquired this from the people I know with involvements with the military. But it’s never really been relevant. Officer? Surely not. That’s a police related term, and we all know there is no love lost between those two. I dismissed whatever else came into mind and engaged the man. Explained to him where we are going. He tells us we need to turn back, and watch for a left turn on the road. He was pleasant enough. As we drove back, my girlfriend quietly mentioned again what she had been saying since we missed that first turn, way back. When I am unsettled, I’m not my usual thorough self. I did not feel particularly unsettled. Now I was though. It was past 8pm, and we were in a strange town asking for directions. I thought about how I had not gone through my normal motions of calling any hotel I am going to and finding out exactly what the road right before the hotel is like, to minimise chances of getting lost. Oh well. Maps lady jars me back into reality. She wants us to turn left. Really? We both peer as I slow down. It is hardly a road. Un-surfaced, bushy….could this possibly be what the man was talking about? We decided not, and started to drive past, but Maps lady would not re-route. She wanted us to turn back. I thought back. She has taken me on some round about routes sometimes, but she has yet to actually send me in the wrong direction. Plus she was right the first time. We decide to try the road and see. So we turn back and get on it.
Immediately I feel this is not right. Folks, learn to trust your instincts. The road is shit. Narrow, bushes on one side, a human height height barbed wire fence on the other. At this point, I struggle to think what stopped me from turning back. My mind was racing. I was running through some of the hotels I have been to, and how the roads to some of these places are surprisingly bad. After less than 100 metres, the road begins to deteriorate. Twigs, sticks are now on the road. Some brush the undercarriage. In my mind I wonder what the buildings behind the fence are. It looks like some sort of halls of residence. A large school? My girlfriend mumbles something about what it is. I didn’t catch it. My thoughts have already moved on. My girlfriend and I are already pretty much convinced this is very unlikely to be the road to the lodge. Another 100 metres, and now I am certain. The road is now absolute shit. Bushes are brushing the sides of the car. Twigs and sticks are scratching the undercarriage. The road is too narrow to turn. We decide to keep going and hope for a section that widens to turn and go back. Maps lady is yapping away to keep going straight. Numerous filthy expletives are mentally thrown at her in that instant I think of her, but information overload. No time to dwell. Another cannot be more than 200 meters and I quickly realise this road is not getting better, and perhaps may not get better ahead! I stop. Shit. Thick bush on the right, a fence on the left. Up ahead, my headlamps are lighting up nothing but more bush and what can hardly be called a road. SHIT. My heart sinks. What the hell am I doing? I have largely avoided unfortunate incidences in my life, and a large part of that is due to the fact that I am very particular about where I go at night, about what I expose myself to. But right now, I wasn’t even thinking about myself. If thieves come out of these bushes right now, this is my fault. I am with my girlfriend….that would not end well. We have to get out of here. My heart is now beating rapidly. There is a furious sense of urgency in me. The road is too narrow to turn. How the hell did I get us into this? My girlfriend suggests we reverse. I shift, roll down the front windows, and start reversing as fast as I dare. Which is not really fast, because the road is….well…barely a road. We are both now experiencing intense urgency, bordering on mild panic, to get out of this place. I can feel it in my girlfriend. We can feel mortal danger. The road is slippery, bushes are brushing the sides of the car as I reverse like a maniac. I look ahead and realise the road has widened slightly. Several thoughts sprint through my head. It will take me forever to turn the car. We will be sitting ducks while we do this. However, we are reversing too slowly. It will take us forever to get back to the main road. I make my decision. Turn, and get the hell out of here. I begin what has to be the longest twelve point turn in the history of man. As I moved forward not more than half a foot and backwards a similar distance in my effort to turn, my racing mind stops for a second on where I went wrong. How the fuck did we get here? What the fuck is this? How have I put my girlfriend in this kind of a situation? I thought about her for a second. She is such a gentle soul. So peaceful. So full of love. It would kill me if anything happened to her. I renew my vigour in getting the car turned.
THERE! After what seems like an eternity, the car was finally turned. We were facing the direction we came from. I stomped on the gas pedal and put my full beams. The bush was now on my left, and the fence on my side, on the right. A surge of hope waved through me. We may get out of this unscathed. And as the car began to pick up speed, I caught movement on the right in the corner of my eye. SHIT.
I turn my head to the right and see a man in fatigues literally somehow hopping up and down and simultaneously running alongside the car. He is on the other side of the fence. I focus on his hands. He is holding a large firearm, pointed right at the car. Multitasking score: nil. As my mind finishes registering what he is holding, I realise he is and has been shouting something. It sounded like stop. SHIT. Discard the mild panic, my heart now has gone berserk. This is a military facility on the other side. I stomp on the brakes, and as I do I start to reach out with my right hand, meaning to motion to him. As I reach out, heart beating to within an inch of its life, information overload, with zero multitasking ability added and stirred, I somehow hit the window button. The one touch function causes the window to begin to fully close. Somehow my mind manages to process the implication of the rising window. Full on panic now as I realise how this looks. He has shouted to a strange car to stop and the occupants have responded by closing the window. A heavily tinted window. My vehicle is one of those when the windows are up, you cannot see the occupants. My heart is on an absolute rampage. He will shoot. How the hell did I hit that button?
SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. In a mad scramble, I press the button to reopen just as the window is about to fully close. At the same instant I wedge my flat palm in the little space left and as the space increases, I motion to him to stop as I shout: STOP! STOP! The window is now halfway down, the car has stopped. I am still shouting STOP, DON’T SHOOT as I open the door and come out. My palm that was motioning to him to stop now joins my other hand in the air as I continue to shout to him not to shoot. He is also shouting, and now I can make out what he is screaming: “GET OUT OF THE CAR! GET OUT OF THE CAR!” “COME TO THE FRONT OF THE CAR!” “KNEEL DOWN!” “KNEEL DOWN!” He has not fired. I walk, struggling hard to restrain myself from running there, to the front and find my girlfriend also rounding from the other side. My girlfriend has the most expressive eyes I have ever seen, and I can almost always tell her disposition just by looking into her eyes. All I see is fear. My heart sinks. What have I done. She says one word to me, “Babe,” and I see tears streaming down her eyes. Right there, looking into her eyes, I think that may have been one of the worst feelings in my life. I take her hand and we kneel down in the full glare of our own headlights. The man at some point had been joined by others. I could see now at least six or so men in fatigues, all armed. “WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” the man shouts. Images flash through my mind, of execution scenes I’ve seen that look exactly like this. Nazi executions, extremist Moslem executions… I respond with my name and my girlfriend’s, and tell him we are from Nairobi, we were looking for Mount Kenya Safari Club and have gotten lost. My voice has that slight tremor it usually very annoyingly takes on in high pressure situations. He asks us almost sarcastically if this is the road to the facility. I tell him we do not know, we are not locals. He asks who else is in the car. I tell him no one, it is just us. He tells me to roll down all the windows and open the doors facing them. I get up and do so. My legs are trembling. My mind doesn’t stop, it seems. Adrenaline? Yeah right. Try fear. They see the car is empty. I re-join my girlfriend kneeling and take her hand. He goes quiet. My heart immediately takes it down a couple of notches. He has not fired. Even though he is still pointing it at us. We should be okay. I hear someone say call the commander. The thought relieves me further. The commander should be a reasonable man. Someone goes off to call the commander. I briefly wonder why, as I can now hear muted conversation on radios that I think all these men have. He asks us why we have come down this road. We explain to him we had actually asked for directions at the gate to a barracks further up the road and they told us to come down and turn left. We did so, but when we realised the road was not taking us anywhere we turned back. As I do this, I briefly glance down the road we are on and realise just how ridiculous our story sounds. He seems ever so slightly pacified though, because he has stopped pointing his weapon at us. I become aware of my girlfriend squeezing my hand, and I squeeze hers back. I want to hold her, but I dare not. It seemed like an eternity, kneeling there, waiting. My mind at no point stopped its racing. I may not be able to physically run distances myself, but my mind sure made up for that. I chuckled internally at this situation, in a way you can only do when the danger has partially passed. An employer. With a not insignificant number of staff. On his knees. Staring death in the face. In the middle of nowhere at the hands of some random soldier. Except he was not random in this particular instance. He was starkly relevant. It doesn’t matter who you are or to what extent you can make people’s world’s move; your life can end at the snap of a finger. That is the reality of life. Look at JFK. The austere reality of that fact hit me in that moment like a moving train. I notice someone jumping the fence up ahead, also in fatigues. He comes over to us. He is joined by one more uniformed soldier, I did not see from where he came. He tells us to stand up. Asks us the same questions as the previous man. We explain our situation. He asks us if we are Kenyans. I suspect he feels his first question should have been if we are thick. I respond we are (Kenyans, not thick) and he asks to see our IDs. I remove them and give them to him. Another uniformed man appears, flagged by yet another, both on the other side of the fence. By this point there are well over ten uniformed men. One of the latter two speaks up, and his words are nothing sort of Shakespearean in their sheer beauty. He says, “Eeeh. Ni wao. Walikuwa ile North Gate nikawapatia directions.” My heart soared. And slowed. We are safe. My mind is still racing, albeit at a slower pace now, trying to analyse what went wrong where. The directions fellow is still talking, clarifying the directions he had given us. Hardly relevant at this point in time. I run through the things I did not do right. I should have called the hotel, as I always do when driving, to get concise directions. Especially the last few kilometers. I did not. We had no business arriving in an unfamiliar town at night, driving ourselves, to look for an unknown destination. We should have left earlier. We had planned to. We did not. I should NEVER have followed Maps Bitch to the letter (Oooooooooh yeah, lady is LOOOOONG gone). But perhaps most important, I should have just followed my goddamn instinct. I mean sure, there are some resorts you will visit and arrive shocked at the road leading to it, but the minute I turned onto that road, my heart started beating faster, and I felt it was not right.
They went on to search the car. Turns out the man asking the questions now was the commander. He goes on to tell us how in these post-Westgate times they are constantly battling Al-Shabaab, and we really should not have pulled the stunts we pulled along the fence of a military facility. Yeah. You don’t say. I speculate internally whether he means they are fighting them in Nanyuki, or….FOCUS. Not important. Before he releases us with fresh directions, the sweet commander man takes a moment to tell us how we are lucky. How if he had not been on duty, things would have gone very differently. Seems his boys like to live it up when the cat is out. Well, actually, I tone it down. He actually said it in that callous way you sometimes hear certain Kenyans speak, that can put a slight chill in you: “Kama singekuwa on duty, tungekuja kutoa maiti hapa.”
Yes folks. That is what my significant other and I took from our first foray together into the innards of Nanyuki, Kenya.
“Kama singekuwa on duty, tungekuja kutoa maiti hapa.”