Gerissa, Kenya – It takes a while to weave your way through the dusty streets of Nairobi and surface from the coagulated gunk that is the city’s air.
The city confuses me.
In one moment it takes me home, further south the African coast, to Durban. And in the the next moment it startles me with an air of Delhi.
The orchestrated chaos of informal traders unwrapping their bright, fresh vegetables onto wooden tray tables beside oversized football shirts and mobile phone batteries would pass easily for a scene from Durban’s central business district where messy informality and sneaky formality contest each other for the remaining vestiges of crucial business space.
But then, the area around Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta monument, opulently wide, with an affectation of stateliness, together with the perennial haze that hangs over the city skyline like a soiled sheet, takes me back to the Indian capital.
It’s funny what malaria tablets can do to you. Or the British for that matter.
When you do eventually make your way out of Nairobi, the road furrows indolently, but the skies open with dramatic generosity.
The great expanse of the never-ending African sky is no myth.
It really does feel like the earth’s reflection turns the sky into a never ending search for itself as though the horizon itself need not make an appearance.
For the most part the road from Nairobi to Garissa, capital of the North Eastern province that lies just a couple of hours from Dadaab, the biggest refugee camp in the world, is nothing more than a litany of monotonous bumps.
Despite our scurry across the hard but puddled path, the world seemed to veer back in contemptuous discern. Old fashioned, dry, slow-motion humour.
The Kenyan traffic police litter the journey with curious eccentricity.
Some cops wave us down with a baton, others instead gesture at their semi-automatic rifles.
It seems Kenyan traffic police need to be rather multi-skilled as well as being adept at issuing traffic fines they are vigilant at watching out for human-trafficking.
This was one of the main transport routes from Somalia to Nairobi after all, and the two-decades-long civil war, now compounded by severe drought, obviously facilitates desperate measures, which usually culminates in horrendous crimes in human trafficking.
Although Garissa, our stop for the night, was still some hours away, the further we ventured towards the northeast, the drier the landscape becomes.
Baobab trees, the iconic African tree of life, stick out across the landscape, like hunched, disfigured torsos, aged by the scathing dry seasons that have so ravaged the region.
Of course, the Baobab spends a large part of its year, looking rather ravaged it’s nature’s Goth look.
But amidst the gloom, the Baobab’s nakedness looks spectacularly eerie.
Even the usually greener Acachian trees, identifiable by their smaller leaves, are perched like a brittle stack of wayward firewood. Dry heaps of birdnests still hung from some long abandoned.
Up to four rivers we crossed over were dead river-beds. On one of those river beds I see a family erecting a makeshift home.
“Imagine how many thousands of people from here to the coast were relying on these rivers,” Moses Obuye, the AJE cameraman from Nairobi, tells me as we cross yet another dry bank.
In areas alongside the long road, thorn scrub pricked out of the bloodshot red sand like dead grey hair on a wounded carcass.
But then we cross the Tana river and there is life once more bustling and roaring, Kenya’s longest river.
This, no doubt, is Africa.
And then we arrive in Garissa – a dusty one-horse town, where Somalis, relief workers and a handful of camels jostle for space.
Men sit outside the brightly painted container shops selling basic groceries and chew qat.
Others slide in grease under cars in roadside workshops. And tall Somali women draped in dark abayas negotiate a sale of not-so-fresh-veggies in makeshift shelters made of thatched straw.
The town is literally a three-street walk.
“Think of Garissa like you would an outpost … caught between the Kenya-Somalia border and civilization back in Nairobi … there is nothing around it,” Obuye tells me.
Tomorrow, onto Dadaab.