The Valley

Let me tell you about a place, unique, so unique, a place where Man was born, where rivers hide under the earth, their path only marked by the rows of acacias that run on the ground, a place lost between the clouds, so white, so white, and the sky, so blue, so blue, that you shall never want to see any other sky again.

It is a scar on the planet, an endless plain, a tear in the side of Africa, when the continent split millions and millions of years ago. It’s called the Rift Valley, something like the “Split Valley”. Some say it’s Paradise Lost, though lost it isn’t, it’s easy to find, only a few hours drive from Nairobi,  in the heart of Kenya.

Did I tell you what Nairobi is like? It was invented by the Kingereza, the English, to escape from the heat of the coast. They built a train line to reach the highlands, cool, wet, green like the hills of  Shropshire or Scotland, or the mountains of Simla in India. To build the line, they brought foremen and workers from Punjab, from Rajasthan, from Lahore, from Delhi, from Lucknow. The line was meant to go from Mombasa, on the coast of the Indian ocean, to Lake Victoria. Halfway, they built an English city, with brick houses, and white-framed windows. They planted bougainvillea, jacarandas, and roses, many roses. The English need roses and whisky to survive anywhere. And tea of course. The Indians taught them the art of tea. Tea is called Chai, in Urdu, in Hindustani, and in Swahili.  To return the favor, the English taught cricket to the Punjabis, the Sindhis and the other peoples of India. When those started beating the hell out of them in Cricket, the English understood that it was time to leave.  From India and Africa.  Most left, some stayed in Africa, white Africans, wazungu**. It was their land too. Or so they thought.

Today, (or was it yesterday?) when you walk down the streets of Nairobi, you can see them all: the Kikuyus, who lived there before, long before the Kingereza arrived; the white Kenyans (wazungu) who stayed; the Sikhs, who wear their hair without ever cutting it, in a bun under their turban, with a steel bracelet on their wrist, symbol of strength; the Indian women wearing red, green, black sarees, embroidered with gold threads, Hopefully you will see the Maasai, coming to sell their spears to the tourist shops. Don’t buy an Maasai spear in these stores, don’t even buy it from them, if you go on Safari. I bought one a few centuries ago, and I regret it, it was like buying a piece of the Maasai warrior’s soul. What does a Maasai spear do, hanging on a wall? Nothing. It no longer serves any purpose, it no longer kills lions in a one-to-one fight, the soul of the spear is gone.

Don’t buy anything in Nairobi. Flee the city of jacarandas. Take the road north, boarded by the eucalyptus and the red earth, where the Kikuyu women plant the corn to make posho. It can be a little chilly at times, but the road is good. Then, when you reach the Escarpment, it’s as if the earth is cracking open. You reach the edge of the highlands, and you stop. Five hundred, six hundred meters down, you see it: the Rift Valley. The scar tearing Africa apart. Over a century, the Valley opens, two, three centimeters. In a few million years the Rift will have cut Africa in two, forming a new continent.

From the edge of the plateau, you can look down the Valley to the horizon, to Tanzania to the south; you might even catch a glimpse of Kilimandjaro, the silent volcano with its crown of snow, the highest mountain in Africa. Then you start down the road. Halfway down the mountain, you pass by the church built by Italian prisoners in World War II. When you arrive in the Valley, the heat embraces you, dry, rich.

To the south, at Olduvai gorge, a couple of Kingereza, Louis and Mary Leakey, discovered the remains of the first men. Adam and Eve? They were short, our grandparents, one meter twenty, some very hairy, probably all black. Did they speak? Tell jokes? Did they laugh? Sing? Dance?

The Valley. Not paradise lost, but one of the last places on Earth where animals survive in large herds. Gazelles, antelopes, giraffes, zebras, lions, hyenas, elephants, buffaloes, gnus, hartebeest, wildebeest, leopards, cheetahs… in April, when the rains begin, the young are born. A large nursery. How long have they been living there? Thousands? Millions of years?

Much later, the Maasai came. The Valley is the Maasai Country. The Maasai drifted South from the Sudan with their cows around the 15th century. The Maasai believe that God (Enka) has given them all the cattle in the world. Therefore, any other tribe raising cattle must have stolen it in the past. Fair game for cattle stealing (back). The Maasai men wear a large red piece of fabric tied at the shoulder. Women shave their heads and wear huge necklaces of glass pearls. The men walk naked under the red cloth. They never go out in the open without their spear. Before the wazungu came, the aspiring warriors had to prove their worth by killing a lion. Armed only with their spear. Today lions are protected. The Maasai have become cattle ranchers. Bored maybe. They sell the meat to the government, and they buy fabrics of all colors for women. Fashion has reached the Maasai, This year, yellow is the new red. Next year blue, perhaps. The young Maasai warriors wear elaborate hairstyles, with fine braids, tied in a round tail.

Did I tell you about the sky? Blue, oh, so blue, with those dancing white clouds. Then comes the night. Dark blue, lit by billions of stars. Watch it in a quiet place hidden among the acacias, near the river. The camp fire is lit, in a circle of grass cut with a panga, machete. Just sit there, by the light and warmth of the fire, nights can be cool. Just look at the stars. Then you hear them, the monkeys calling out, the night birds, a single lion coughing a few yards away. The hyenas laughing their eerie laugh. You can feel the furtive movements in the shadows outside the camp. Below the stars, you can see the bright eyes watching you in the dark.

 It is a unique place, a magical journey that never ends, where, for but a few minutes, I took you along.

Maasai woman, near Amboseli, Kenya, 1967. In those days fashion was red.

*Part of the Mzungu** chronicles.

**Mzungu, plural: wazungu. Mzungu is a Bantu (Swahili) word used throughout East Africa from Uganda to Kenya to Tanzania to Zambia and in the great lakes region, from Rwanda, Burundi, to Congo Kinshasa. It means “white man”, or woman. The origin of the name dates back to the 18th-19th century, when European explorers came to East Africa searching for the source of the Nile, the gold mines of Solomon, or the Mountains of the moon, what have you. It literally means traveller or wanderer. Africans then, could not understand why Europeans could not stay in place, why they had to move all the time.  They thought Europeans were a tad crazy. Mimi na mzungu. (I am a mzungu…)

Thank you for flying Equinoxio Airways. Kwaheri sassa. (See you soon)

115 thoughts on “The Valley

  1. Cet article est passionnant à lire
    N’as -tu pas pris de photos dans la région du rift. C’est rare de voir cela dans un continent . On l’imagine plutôt au fond du milieu d’un océan.
    Tu pourrais écrire un livre avec tes souvenirs de voyage

    • Bonjour Michel. Oui, on a pris plein de photos un peu partout. Mais à l’époque, les photos étaient chères, on emportait un nombre limité de pellicules. Il y a beaucoup d’endroits dont je n’ai pas de photos. Comme l’église des prisonniers Italiens dans la descente vers le Rift.
      Tout va bien? La santé?

      • Le rift c’est la terre en perpétuel remaniement, c’est la tectonique des plaques .On doit se sentir tout petit devant ces phénomènes à l’échelle du globe terrestre . A noter que la tectonique des plaques est connue depuis relativement peu de temps. Dans les années 1953-1958 on formulait des explications alambiquées à la formation des chaînes de montagnes ;

      • Certes. De même pour la double hélice de Crick et Watson… Tout récent…
        Et c’est vrai que quand on est en haut de l’escarpment, une sorte de corniche et qu’on regarde en bas dans la vallée immense c’est impressionnant.

    • I haven’t read it. I confess. I know it’s been a major success, but I feel I’ve read so many anthropology books in my youth…
      If I stumble on it in a bookshop one day, I might be tempted. Right now I’m reading Hemmingway’s “True at first light” last book on Africa.

      • It gave me a new perspective on human history and on the development of our culture. As history books go, I’d highly recommend it. It’s apparently based on a series of lectures Harari gave in a course on world history, which I appreciated: a historian writing a history book 🙂

        I’m currently reading Don’t Trust Your Gut, a book by a data analyst who used to work at Google. He starts off with examples from Google searches from different local search engines that will be etched in your mind forever 😁

  2. I’m so proud of you having enjoyed your time and getting to learn the language of Kenya 🇰🇪 I’m Tanzanian 🇹🇿 truly happy to see my culture being exposed world wide through your blog post.

    • Certains disent que l’Afrique est une maladie incurable… Ce qui est certain c’est qu’n ne s’en remet pas… I remember you’ve been there.
      All well here. You? happy in your cabin in the woods?
      Bises. 💕

  3. You painted a vivid picture of the African world of the Maasai and I concur about the taking of souvenirs. What purpose hanging there on the wall. Although I suppose the sword may have passed it use by date or else the Maasai would keep it for themselves?

    • At that time, it meant quick money for the Maasai who were not in a “monetary” economy. Some used sandals cut out of old tyres. Very smart. The story went that the metal of the spears was often taken of old car wrecks. I also suspect they could go to the local blacksmith and get a new spear for a fraction of the money… 😉 (Or so I would like to think…)

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  5. Beautiful writing. The atmosphere it creates is soothing and wonderful. Could picture the described visuals. And I’m a Sikh (Jat Sikh). Your posts are cultural bursts of splendor. You are truly a citizen of this world, and your memories and knowledge are irreplaceable treasures. 🙂

    • Dahnyavaad “ma’amji”. 😉
      So you are a Sikh. A true Punjabi… 🙏🏻 Hmmm. Amritsar is not too far away… I had been wondering about your last name. (Shouldn’t it be Singh? 😉 The Lion Name…) I came “across” Amrita Sher Gil this summer. The painter. Was she Jat Sikh too?)
      As for citizen of the world… Remember I am a Sindhi by birth. 😉 Started as a Chotta Sahib. Then became a mtoto (child) in Africa, then graduated as a kijana (young man). Strangely enough I learned more about Indian culture in Kenya than before. I was too “chotta”. LOL.
      Then, I’m sure you can relate, when I went “back” to France for College, I was more an outsider than French. (Still a few things about them I don’t understand…)
      Glad you enjoyed the little “safari” (just means “travel” in Swahili…
      Take care ma’mji… 🙏🏻

      • Sikh women usually have Kaur as their middle name and men use Singh. I somehow have neither. My parents didn’t add it to my name and at a certain point I was familiar and comfortable as Terveen Gill. I really admire your adaptability. It’s not easy to live in a country where one is a foreigner. I know how I grew up being bullied in the US. And then when I returned to India I was bullied for my American ways and inability to speak the local language. Oh well… Thanks for sharing so much! 🙂

      • I’d heard about Kaur. Just learnt about Gill. All tiny things add up.
        Now adaptability? As you probably know my father was an Air France man. So we got moved around every 3-5 years. My father would come home one evening and say: “we’re moving.”
        We would say “again?” (And almost immediately: “where to”?)
        You become a chameleon. learn the local accents, speech patterns, idiosyncracies… The first few months are intense. Then you’re all right.
        And, and… you always know more than the idiots in front of you… LOL. (Just don’t show it)
        ‘Pleasure Terveen. Those exchanges are always very rich. So many things to learn… So little time.
        (But you’re all right now in India?)

      • I like the chameleon angle. Yes, it does seem that way. And I’m fine in India. But the feeling of home is something I still am distant from. Will I ever find what it means to me? I’m not sure. Probably have to write about it and get it out of my system. Haha. Next flash fiction piece is coming… Thank you for your words and connection. I appreciate it. 🙂

      • The advantage of being a chameleon is that I can be French with the Frogs, Posher than posh with the Bris, “Murrican” with our friends up North, etc.
        Looking forward to your next flash… 😉

    • Grazie Nilla. It’s nice when one manages to “transport” the reader in a way.
      And the picture is quite good. My father took it when he went to Kenya a few months before being posted there. Usually Air France did that. Hey, you’re going to Kenya. Block a week to meet your predecessor, staff and get a feel for the market. We all moved in September ’67.

      • I probably did not express myself well. Generally, agents were offered a choice of new posts around May-June for a move in September. Particularly when they had children. Now, I don’t know. You probably get a mail that says “Pack. You have a week.” 😉

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  7. Dancing white clouds and starry nights – nothing can leave a bigger impact than the natural wonders we are surrounded with. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful story from a place I have yet to see for myself. I hope all is well. Greetings from Ireland 🙂 Aiva xx

    • Dankie Robbie. Only us “wazungu” really know what it feels like, right? Kenya is amazing. So is Tanzania (Serengeti, Kilimandjaro). I understand there are some veeeery nice parks in SA too. Another blogger from SA is “bush-addicted”. They pack to a park whenever they can…
      How long did you stay in Kenya?
      What would be the Zulu or Xhosa equivalent to mzungu?
      Tot ziens.

      • Yes, that is true. We go to the bush quite often too. Many of my Thursday Doors posts on Roberta Writes feature those trips. I only visited Kenya for work purposes for a week. I have a collection of stone animals from the hotel. A different animal for each night of the week. My publications mainly covered Southern Africa and I’ve worked a bit in Botswana, Zambia and Mauritius. I also covered Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana.

    • It’s still there. My eldest daughter spent almost a year in Kenya (with Médecins sans frontières). Our youngest joined her at the end for a weeks across the land. According to the pictures it looks just the same. Maybe you can do an African “tournée” some day?

      • Change it has. Population of Kenya then was about 10 millions. Today it is 55 Millions! Can you imagine?
        There are buildings bordering the Nairobi National park.
        Tanzania has been planning a highway for years meant to cross the Serengeti national park and thus cut the annual migration north of thousands of animals to Mara Maasai in Kenya. They have been blocked by NGO’s, but who knows for how long?

      • Yep. And believe me, the damage is much worse in “third world” countries. Imagine how to feed 50 millions people (instead of 10) when you’re a third world country…

      • That’s for Aid. Which is one thing. The most important thing is public spending. Even poor countries have a budget. What happens is that any government contract comes with a “commission”. The contractor has to pay 10-15% (generally) to the elected officials who authorize the contract. There is a bid for… a new bridge. 10 Million dollars. A big bridge. The contractor pays 1.5. million dollars to the officials in charge. But the contractor can’t absorb the cost. So the bridge ends up costing to the people 11.5 Million dollars. That 1.5 million dollars could have been used to buy medicine, but no. Goes into the pockets of the ruling party, the president, the mayor, whoever controls public spending… Grrrr.

      • That’s true. I remember when my Nigerian friends went home after many years working in Germany, they not only had to have a big TV and all other electrical household appliances for prestige reasons, they had to save an extra amount for bribes. I don’t remember, how many people they had to bribe exactly, but at least six, to get their container safely through customs and out of the port.

      • Absolutely. It is one of the reasons I never did opinion research here. That would have meant working for the government and/or political parties. No way. Market research. For multinationals… 😉

    • Toujours aussi charmante chère amie… 😉
      Merci. Ça prouve que ça marche. Ce qui est bien. Quand j’ai vu ton message je me suis dit qu’il faudrait quand même que je me remette à écrire en Français… Hmmm.

  8. Pingback: The Valley by Brian Martin-Onraët – Gobblers & Masticadores

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