We took the orange tractor back to the beach after visiting the school to find a very welcome 4WD drive vehicle waiting for us. There literally are no roads on Pate, just walking paths through the vegetation and so to get around the islands you genuinely need a 4WD.
When I got into the car with my colleagues I immediately felt a distance from the reality of the place I was in. I felt like I was in a bubble looking out at the passing world – a visitor to an alien place protected from its harsh realities – able to witness what was going on but unable to really participate.
We passed by salt marshes and lagoons with lonely figures foraging for food seen only in silhouette in the distance.
We passed donkeys slowly walking in the baking sun carrying heavy loads being gently led by their owners who walked by their sides.
We occasionally saw monkeys and small antelopes scuttling across the road as we passed. Herds of goats held us up a couple of times and all the while passers by on the road staring at the big powerful machine so out of place in this stark and simple world.
Over the next few hours we visited various schools that had also been built by the American military. Once again the schools stood in total contrast to the villages built in stone with corrugated roofs as opposed to wood and thatch.
One of the more memorable places we visited was a town called Chungua. They had acquired a generator and a couple of Camara computers and were running a lab in the school. I was curious to see how they were getting on.
We arrived at the school and the generator was running. Only 4 computers out of twelve were on. They explained that if they turned on any more computers the surge protector cut off the electricity and all the computers turned off.
I asked them what the power output of the generator was and they told me that they thought it was 6 KW which should have been enough to power the computers (each computer needs about 400Watts max). I asked them for the generator handbook and discovered that the series 6 generator that they thought they had bought looked suspiciously like a series 3 generator which only output about 2 KW. Somebody had duped them when they bought the generator.
I felt so sorry for them. They had bought the generator in Mombasa and then had the enormous challenge of getting the machine up to the island intact and safe – to then discover that the machine would only power 4 computers.
I explained everything to the councillor and he promised to follow up….
That said, the computers were working and being used. In particular they loved the Camara Wikipedia. I came away convinced that every year we should upgrade and update the Camara Wikidepia and bring it with us for trips like this. It is a very powerful and useful tool for remote areas like these islands.
The head master explained that there was a huge drug problem developing on the islands. With little to do, young men and women were turning to drugs to escape the boredom. The computers however small in number as they were, were keeping people interested and engaged and many of the students asked to stay on after school to use them….it was good to hear this.
Then I noticed a young man wandering in the school yard. At first I thought I was looking at somebody from a strange tribe. His body was totally out of proportion with his head which was only the size of medium size grape-fruit.
He came over to me and I suddenly realised that he had huge learning difficulties. He stumbled over his words and made no real sense when he spoke. He was then joined by two others, a boy and a girl, that were similarly deformed. The head master came over to us and explained that they were ‘mental’ (his words not mine), that they were all from the same family but that they had two normal older brothers and that they could not ‘learn’.
The young girl then tried to interject and showed me she could count up to seven.
‘This one, she can learn’ conceded the head master.
I asked what the problem was and he told me they suffered from microencephaly.
I had heard the term before but I had never met anyone suffering from the condition. I had a weak phone signal and was able to get onto the net to find out more.
Apparently if a pregnant woman catches illnesses like chicken pox or Rubella or suffers from alcohol or drug abuse microencephaly can occur. There is also a possibility that partners with too similar genetic makeup can case the condition to happen.
I gave the information to the councillor and he was amazed that I could get the information using my phone.
It occurred to me then just how powerful information access is to places as remote as this. Information access could literally save lives and reduce suffering and hardship. Who knows why these poor children were born like this but perhaps with the right information (particularly around the dangers of drug abuse when pregnant) births like this could be reduced.
I feel awful writing a sentence like that and I hope it does not come across the wrong way. If you are born with a disability then I truly believe our society should be setup to care for you. Out here though, if you are born with a disability there really is no support structure and everyone struggles more including the people trying to care for you.
The fact that people can be born with awful disabilities has always been an enormous spiritual challenge to me. I have never truly been able to reconcile it with the existence of a loving God. Its at times like this I wish John Moriarty was around to throw some light on this profound mystery. (If anyone reads this far and has any enlightening insight please fill me in..!)
We left Chungua and headed for Faza. Again the journey in the car was like traveling in a time machine to an age long since forgotten.
We passed by women pumping salt water from ancient wells – water they would use to clean dishes and wash in.
We saw rain catchment gutters designed to capture as much water as possible and feeding them into large black tanks for drinking water. We saw women making dresses from long grasses and leaves at the side of the road.
Faza is on the northern tip of the archipelago. In order to get to Faza town we had to leave the car on one side of a causeway and walk across a narrow stone bridge that stretched for about 200 metres to get to the town.
Millions of tiny crabs were running below us on the baking sand as the tide was out.
Naked children, covered in sand were playing chasing games with the crabs.
At this point I was utterly starving. I had forgotten to bring food with me foolishly thinking I could last the day on fruit and water. The councillor brought us to a local ‘restaurant’ where he said food had been prepared for us…
To be honest, I was dreading what was coming. I have had too many bad experiences eating local food and suffering for it afterwards. And I had a long boat journey home later that evening…
But I was so damn hungry. In the end I ate a marvelous meal of boiled beans and chapati bread washed down with a hot cup of masala (spiced) tea. I decided that, worst case scenario, my imminent bowel problems might come in useful. They could add a little horse power to our boat and speed up the journey home;)
A few hours later after visiting another school we were making our way back to the beach we had landed on. We had left it late and the sun was setting quickly. One of the reasons we were late was because we had to wait for the local fishermen to return from the sea with a gift for us….
The fishermen on these islands are legendary. They free dive and stay under water for over ten minutes and hand fish! They do not use nets….you would not believe how fit these men looked when they arrived with their catch.
They had caught a number of huge red and white snapper (about 20Kgs of fish) which we were urged to cook as soon as possible.
And so it was that we sped across the islands in the 4WD with this cargo watching the sun go down on this truly beautiful place.
I think I would have enjoyed the sunset more if I was not thinking how challenging it was going to be to navigate the mangrove reef that we had come through in the morning. It did not help that our captain waiting at the beach was urging us to get into the boat quickly.
The journey back across the open section was much rougher. The wind had risen and our little boat was thrown about quite a bit but thankfully all went well including my ability to contain the extra horsepower in my lower bowel. I could see a light ahead and it was clear that the captain was heading for it.
It turned out that the light was from a much larger boat owned by the local police commissioner. We managed to catch up with this boat and simply tailgated it as it navigated the mangrove reef section! I am not sure how we would have navigated it otherwise. How do the Africans plan these things….
A simple twist to the story was that as we were emerging from the Mangrove forest on the final stretch of the journey home the Police boat hailed us asking us for fuel! It had ran out and so we ended up helping it get back to port.
That evening we asked a local restaurant to cook the fish for us and a party of 12 people ate the most magnificent barbecue fish dinner with coconut rice and swahili sauce with freshly squeezed mango juice to wash it down.
A perfect ending to a truly incredible day.