Millions of years ago the African continent tore itself apart, creating a jagged trench from Jordan in the north to Mozambique in the south. Great volcanic mountains erupted on either side of this giant crevice including Kilimanjaro and Ol Donyo Lengai (Mountain of God) in Tanzania and Longonot, Menengai and Mt. Kulal in Kenya. The 5400 mile trench, or rift, is called the Great Rift Valley. It is visible from the moon.
Blasting down the Rift Valley are wind currents propelled by hot dry air masses from the north that create an almost constant growl of wind. These were the winds that now pounded the village of Gatab, perched on the edge of one of the sheer mountain cliffs of Mt. Kulal. I was glad we were staying in a solid cement house– the home of a doctor who had left the area but allowed visitors, approved by the missionaries, to use the home during his absence. It was a clean, sparsely furnished house with three bedrooms and the ultimate luxury of a flush toilet. As night descended on the village, we settled in. Sheets were put on beds and Omar cooked us a dinner of rice, cabbage and some of the fresh spinach from South Horr. While we ate, Kura, Judy and Ali told me the ancient story of Harra, the Rendille giant who was eventually killed by the red hot knife of his own people, driven straight into his heart.
I tried to sleep, but the thorn branches of a bougainvillea bush, brilliant with pink blossoms during the day, now clawed at the tin roof of the building, desperately trying to hang on as the wind blew and blew. The missionary’s dogs barked in desperate pleas for calm which eventually came with the dawn, as the winds quieted down and the mists descended from the forest, blanketing the village in an eerie white fog.
No one was in a hurry to leave. We slowly drank our sweet tea and packed the vehicle. Damaris and her husband hosted us in their new home for a breakfast of njera and more tea. Hosea, the other Mentor from Gatab, also joined us. I was disappointed that I could not visit with more of our businesses in the village yesterday, as many of them were closed because of the demonstration. I did get a chance to visit with Alice Learamo of the Baraka business group and I was impressed with the diversity of products that her group was selling – metal cow bells and tire sandals from the Maasai markets of Narok, padlocks and inexpensive cell phones. The business had propelled Alice to take adult literacy classes so that she could maintain the group’s financial records. The mother of five children, Alice told me, “most of my life I have had nothing. Now I have a little something for myself and my children.”
“How has the drought affected you?” I asked her. “When others were suffering we were comfortable,” she told me.
I was looking forward to our trek today because we would be driving through the verdant Mt. Kulal forest, part of the reason that Mt. Kulal has been deemed a UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Reserve. Surrounded by deserts, this unique forest traps moisture, contributing to the humidity and cool evening temperatures on the mountain. Dozens of forest springs provide water and the cleared patches of land, clinging to unstable volcanic soil, at times becomes green grazing lands for goats and cows.
Kura carefully steered Gumps down a forest path. Semeji gripped my shoulder from the back seat, excited and terrified as we rocked and rolled over boulders and around giant trunks of trees. Moss hung from branches and the vines of strangler figs descended from the canopy, choking the life out of the trees that had originally hosted them. Occasionally we would come upon people herding their livestock through the forest, including visitors from the drought-devastated villages of the arid lands below.
“Who is in charge of protecting the forest?” I asked Hosea. “Oh, we have a forest ranger, who is supposed to keep people from cutting down trees and foraging their livestock in the forest, but he lives in the village of Loiyangalani.” Loiyangalani was dozens of kilometers away.
We stopped a few times to get out and walk. I couldn’t believe the size of the trees and we took a group picture at the base of one of the most impressive specimens. Eventually, we emerged from the forest and joined another path that took us to the village of Arapal, home to a smaller Samburu community. We visited with a few of our businesses in the village. Before I got back in the vehicle, I took a last deep breath of the cool mountain air. Ahead of us was the Falam, a notorious desert that we would have to cross in order to reach the village of Kargi.