The other side
We've been looking for beauty for a while now. In fact, we yearn for it. Both of them.
After the natural beauty of the Rift Valley we plan to cross the mountain area of Mount Elgon, but the whole area is flooded by extreme rainfall, so we hear in the news, including heavy floods and landslides. Bridges have collapsed, half the villages have been wiped out and dozens of people have already died. A similar number of people are still missing.
We check the weather forecasts and only see rain and thunder for the next 10 days. Sandy roads are not an option for us, cyclists. The mud sticks to our tires, accumulates in no time and already after 10 minutes our wheels are stuck to the mudguards and they don't turn anymore. So the last few weeks we've been forced to cycle mainly on the hard shoulder of main roads, in the black cloud of soot of rusted, overloaded trucks.
Kenya is a lot richer than Tanzania. But also much less environmentally conscious, and the general streetscape looks less cared for. The asphalt road has crumbled on the sides and turns into a red-brown roadside, where all kinds of remnants of former fires, crops, shards of glass and metal residues can be found. We flatten our tyres on it. The houses along the road almost all consist of four straight walls with a sloping corrugated metal roof, brown with rust. The walls are often painted with advertisements. The hard green advertisement of Safaricom is doing well. We estimate that a quarter of the buildings advertise the fast 4G network of this telephone provider. Besides Safaricom, there is a lot of advertising for various paints and coatings that you can use to paint your walls. They promise that you will not have to worry about it for 15 years. Admittedly, the facades painted with those commercials always look very good.
The rest of the buildings are painted with all kinds of things. It is somewhat confusing for us. In the 'Bakery', where next to that name also delicious pastries are painted, we find a pharmacy. In the 'Bookshop' we can buy second-hand car parts and the print shop we need to print something turns out to be a print shop, but they ran out of paper and therefore we can't print anyway. We can buy toilet paper and hotel soaps, they tell us.
We sleep in shabby hotel rooms, where there's no lack of functionality. But unity lacks a lot. The colour scheme of any hotel room is quite unusual. Pink tiles on the floor with three mint green walls. The fourth wall, where the door and the windows are located, is painted light blue. In terms of design, the door does not match the window frames or the door to the bathroom. On the wall, the power lines are covered by white cable ducts. Apparently the electrician did not have enough with him and finished the last part the next day with a beige pipe gutter that is wider than the white one.
The bathroom doesn't do much better. Five different colours and sizes of tiles are more the rule than the exception. In short, there is no sense of what we mean by aesthetics. To make the cramped room a bit more pleasant, sometimes a ceiling fan has been installed, just under the only bulb in the room, so we seem to have ended up in a disco when we put on the fan as well as the necessary light. We can choose between light and air.
We eat in local restaurants along the road at discoloured plastic tables, with our hands or second-hand cutlery, with the TV loudly in a corner, surrounded by the exhaust fumes of the traffic. The smiling and hospitable people colour the gloomy surroundings in a beautiful way. The bright open glances, the enthusiasm, the dignity with which they walk the streets, the busy painted vans,... No, there is no lack of colour in the streetscape.
And yet our desire for beauty grows day by day. Where is the cultural heritage, the cozy hotel or restaurant, the rich Kenyan art? On good days, after a refreshing night's sleep and a nice sunshine, we still see some charm in this rough reality, but the many rains and accompanying dark skies often make the whole thing gloomy. Our mental resilience is put to the test. We yearn for visual aesthetics, not only because it caresses our soul. Also because we need it as a consolation, as a counterbalance to the abundance of hopelessness and neglect that we encounter along the way.
And yet we are happy (although happy is not the right word) that we are forced to get to know this side of Kenya as well. No, Kenya is not only the romanticized world of wild animals and soft earth colors and deeply rooted 'oneness with nature', photographed at a beautiful sunset. Nor is it the stereotypical image of famine and dull misery and bottomless helplessness. The largest group of Kenyans seems to live every day in that central area, through which we have been cycling the last few weeks. Nothing too much. Nothing too little. No real suffering, but also no prospect of a better life. No lack of basic things, but also no room for something extra like personal development, a trip to the sea, let alone a holiday. The average Kenyan has never seen an elephant and probably never will. He's never visited the city fifty kilometres from his village, where we cycled the day before, Fred tells us, the IT student who offers us some confronting mirrors.
In that sense, it's Kenya that we've come across the past few weeks. It is generous in what it has and shares generously. But it doesn't reach out to us to soften reality. It doesn't hide, doesn't spare. If we want to have a Kenyan experience, we get it.
It is entirely up to us what we want to see, what we want to focus our attention on with our eyes. Do we especially see the discourtesy along the way, or do we see the creativity? Do we see the broken dirty window of the butcher's shop, or do we see the dedication with which the butcher prepares our meal?
Do we see the rusty bike without mudguards with the front and rear wheels not in the same line, or do we see the pride in the eyes of the painter who is cycling in front of us, because he can show us the way to a guesthouse?
We tell ourselves that the absence of aesthetics is less important for the local man than it is for us. He may not know any better. But we do know better. We are spoiled. And used to it. To beauty. And suffer from the lack of it.
So we buy the digital version of Lonely Planet from Uganda, our next country on our route. We are eagerly looking forward to the touristic places mentioned, to find new beauty there. We decide to stay in the capital Kampala for a while. There we go to visit museums. And a concert or two. We enjoy all that beauty. We are going to 'take a holiday' on the shores of Lake Victoria. We have to take a breath and give in to the privileges we have to be Western Europeans. We have this choice. The average Kenyan hasn't.