Kathleen tells...


Small and big adventures


'Isn't cycling through Africa dangerous? Be careful". It's a sentence we often heard before we left. Safety. Every day - consciously or unconsciously - we are aware of it. And I am even more concerned with the question 'do I feel safe?' than with the real situation. When I'm at ease, I can fall asleep at night. I look around with an open mind during the day and can give the best of myself, because then I don't need to be defensive and protective.


During our passage through Kenya we meet the first 'big' animals. Giraffes, zebras, waterbucks, monkeys in all shapes and sizes, buffaloes. They stroll along the road. I'm not scared, especially because I don't know anything about these animals, and what you don't know, you don't have to fear. In the national parks where lions roam, we are not allowed to enter with our bikes. But these lions also walk along the villages from one park to another at night, depending on where most of the food can be found.


I ask James, the ranger who accompanies us for a while. He also mentioned the hippos and crocodiles that roam the road at night. And oh yes, also about the campsites, just along the tents. Along our tent. James doesn't understand my question very well. 'If you see a predator, you have to report it to a ranger,' he says. I'm not satisfied with his answer and ask further questions. 'Yes, but how do you do that, with those animals nearby?' Again he looks at me strangely. 'It's just the ecosystem', he says soberly. 'If the animals don't feel hungry and threatened, they won't do anything.' Mmm, so if they're not hungry...

It often goes wrong. Then tourists or rangers die in the parks, villagers (on their bikes!) or fishermen in the lakes are attacked by wild animals. At dusk and at night the hippos have a bad reputation. During the day we have to watch out for the elephants, other world cyclists have assured us. 'Yes, that's right,' agrees James. 'You have to be alert.' And with that, as far as he's concerned, everything has been said. 

It's special how relaxed people here live with all that wildlife. During the day, the village and its shores are human territory. At dusk, everyone retreats into their homes to make room for hippos, crocodiles, hyenas, lions and buffaloes. 

There's nothing dangerous about it, as long as you just stay inside and don't come out of the tent to pee. Although we have only camped once so far, I don't drink anything every night after 7 pm. Just a matter of training.


This vigilance in combination with the knowledge of the behaviour of all these animals and a sufficient dose of common sense reduces the chance that you will be eaten. As a human being you are part of the food chain here, so you are so modest to withdraw in time. Together, the community watches over the smooth running of the food chain. Fences, bars, and other shielding things are then not necessary. What protection does a tent fabric offer? Probably a lot!


Sometimes you are unlucky. 'Can happen', the Kenyan seems to think. Years ago I read the book 'The domestication of fate' by Prof. J. De Mul. He describes how over the years we in the West have developed the illusion that bad luck no longer exists and that everything can be checked thanks to our technical means, or that at least someone can always be held liable if things go wrong somewhere. Here in Kenya they do not (yet) know this illusion. Sometimes you are unlucky. Wrong place. Wrong time. There is not much else to say about that.


Yet even the Kenyan is sometimes a frightened man. Only not so much in the field of animals, but rather in the field of people. At least that's what I deduce from the heavily armed guards that are everywhere in the streetscape: at the banks, at government buildings, at Western restaurants. When we want to go to a bigger supermarket or shopping centre to buy something like a pen, we have to empty our pockets at the entrance, walk through a detector and have ourselves scanned by men in military equipment with Kalashnikov in their hands, who are doing their utmost to look strict. Every self-respecting house is surrounded by a large gate and wall with barbed wire on it, has a personal housekeeper and bars for each window, as well as the guesthouses and hotels where we sleep. The rooms are equipped with ingenious lock systems, for which we need a manual to open them, with on the inside often extra locks to lock the door. We don't know whether all this security stuff is justified, or whether it's more a show of power, or whether it mainly provides employment, we don't know. In any case, it helps to determine the colour of our passage through Kenya.


Just like the open sewers, of which we suspect that many a drunkard or child or cyclist must have tumbled in. Or the shower, where the electricity wire of the hot water boiler is hanging open next to the shower head, where we also have to turn on the tap, so that we get a shock every now and then. The mosquito nets are full of large holes, so malaria mosquitoes get free rein. Along the road we regularly cycle along signs that warn about crossing wildlife... All these details make sure that we keep our head on the 'now'. At home you follow a course in mindfulness.

And then of course there is the traffic, with one bus more crowded than the other, one truck more overloaded than the other, one road more holes than the other. And everyone who has an engine, flies over it like a rage. We slalom with our two wheelers at 15km per hour in between. In and around the loading bay of the open trucks there are and often hang large groups of people, who hold on to the edges, while the truck is thundering past us. The inscription on the back of the truck is: 'You are at your own risk on this truck'. As if we were still in doubt about that. 

Even with all that traffic it probably goes wrong now and then. Here too it has to do with a lack of waking up or a lack of common sense. Or bad luck. And here too, there is no one to tell about your bad luck, so you'd better try to make the best of it all together. In short, fate can also affect you on the road, but rather than investing in responsible driving or a better traffic infrastructure, Kenyan bus and truck drivers opt for protection from above. Because, as we read on shock absorbers, doors and side walls of many vehicles: 'A prayer a day keeps an accident away'.


PS1: for the mothers at home: don't worry, in reality it's all just fine.

PS2: for all other readers: the sharp edges have been taken out of the story, because yes, the mothers...