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The International Writers Magazine
: Kenya

The Jade Sea
Kathy Sharrad at Lake Turkana

As we drove through the vast and desolate plains of northern Kenya, I wondered if there was anything but heat and dust there. The only sign of life for hours were forlorn shrubs, scattered over the barren landscape. The only exception was one tall, slender woman walking casually yet strongly, with a heavy-looking load firmly planted on her head. She walked with the confidence of someone who normally walked alone through this lonely, isolated land, on her way to somewhere only she knew to be familiar. She barely raised an eyebrow as our cumbersome and loud vehicle churned its way past her. Perhaps there were more than a few strange westerners who liked to make this trip.

As the early evening began to fall, and the truck I was travelling on with ten or so companions had trudged its way through endless boggy sand paths, I saw the sight I had been waiting for all day. A glittering mass of turquoise appeared on the horizon, sparkling in the late afternoon sun - the Jade Sea was finally in my view. I gazed at it in wonder, my eyes aching slightly as I beheld its dazzling light.

The Jade Sea’s more common name is Lake Turkana, a soda lake boasting the biggest concentration of Nile crocodiles in Africa. It covers 2,473 square miles (6,405 kilometres), stretching to the Kenyan borders with Ethiopia and Sudan. The sight was truly magnificent, and I suddenly forgot the stifling heat that had been engulfing me all day as I gazed at the shimmering water surrounded by lush green palms. I wondered if this was what a mirage looked like to early European explorers of the African continent. What a disappointment it must have been to find out it was just an optical illusion. But this definitely wasn't. This was real as it gets.

After a couple of stops due to our truck getting bogged, we made our way towards Eliye Springs, a small village on the shores of the lake. Along the way, we saw children playing a vigorous game of soccer. They shouted and waved at us as we drove past, some of them running after the truck with boundless enthusiasm and waving arms, a greeting typical of what I had experienced in Africa so far.

Turkana Woman
We kept driving and finally came to a stop in the middle of a palm-tree forest beside the lake. This was Eliye Springs, once some sort of Arabian-inspired resort, but now consisting of only a few dilapidated buildings, mud and straw huts and a cement hole which looked somewhat like a swimming pool. Crowds of children shouted and screamed 'how are you? how are you?' at us as we wearily disembarked from our truck journey of 14 hours or so. Their smiles were electrifying. Bright white teeth gleaming out of smiling, excited faces. The adults were more cautious in their greetings, and slowly made their way towards us behind the cover of their screeching children. They smiled tentatively at us and showed us where we could set up camp.

They were the Turkana people, and lived in simple mud and straw huts around the shores of the magnificent turquoise lake that sparkled invitingly between the palms. They seemed gentle and hospitable, yet slightly wary of our presence, having the air of people who are perplexed as to why a group of white, dust-covered tourists would have travelled all the way to set up camp by a lake in the middle of a scorching desert – a lake that was even too dangerous to swim in, because of the crocodiles. Because of this threat, the villagers had kindly started filling the swimming pool for us to cool off in, but strangely given their children strict instructions not to swim with us in there.

After we set up camp and had some dinner, we relaxed with a few beers – a casual routine that had now become a habit come an evening in Africa. Some of the Turkana children hadn’t moved further than a few meters away from our campsite in the time we had been there, staring intently, studying our every move and smiling shyly when one of us looked up at them. One little boy, who seemed to have taken a particular interest in me, set himself up in the best possible position to observe me as I ate my dinner. When I suddenly looked up at him, he shot me a dazzling smile and laughed softly into his hands, never taking his eyes off me. Some of the observers changed shifts over the next few hours, but we were constantly watched by at least ten or fifteen children.

The next day began with an enchanting sunrise over the choppy waters of the lake. A slight breeze had begun before dawn and had cooled the temperature somewhat, also spreading generous amounts of sand throughout our provisions. I watched the sun slowly appear over the horizon, mystified, from my viewpoint on a sand-dune. The early morning light bathed the sand, giving it the appearance of soft gold, while the lake was a dreamy light blue colour, very different from the stark turquoise it was in full sunlight the day before. This place was truly magical.

Later, I visited the 'market' some of the Turkana women had set up for us near our campsite. Fifteen or so women sat behind their handmade goods, hoping to sell us something. The women were beautiful, with thin, exotic features and dark eyes. They were wrapped in colourful robes and wore an array of necklaces, bracelets, anklets and little beads in their hair. They smiled warily at me as I wandered around looking at their crafts. The women couldn't speak English and they chattered to me in their language, pushing beads and shawls and bags in my hands, nodding their heads enthusiastically. As I meandered through the stalls, I noticed small children following me, walking close enough so I could feel their small arms brushing against me. When I stopped to look at something, they would casually bump into me, laughing softly and grinning cheekily up at me. One little boy slipped his palm into mine, pausing slightly to see if I would reject it. When I didn’t, he beamed and held on more tightly. This action must have given others confidence, and slowly I began to feel little fingers grasping at my skirt, or reaching for my hand. I was overwhelmed by the attention, amazed and heartened by the gentle nature of these children.

One older looking woman had a collection of necklaces that attracted my attention. I stopped and looked more closely at them, and pointed to one, looking at her questioningly. She nodded, I took this to mean it was okay to try it on. She tied it gently around my neck and smiled. I noticed most of her teeth were chipped and rotten, but she had a truly beautiful face when she smiled. Her eyes shone with eagerness. Other women gathered around and stared at me. They smiled and nodded their heads approvingly. Obviously they thought it suited me. I wasn't so sure, so I moved to take it off. Suddenly the older woman looked annoyed and started talking angrily to the other women, pointing at me and shaking her head. I started to worry - maybe this meant I shouldn't take the necklace off. I tried again to untie the knot, when I noticed the woman was wielding a huge, rusty knife in front of my face. She looked even angrier and was talking even more loudly. I noticed my little companions had left my side and were cowering by a large palm tree, watching with scared eyes. Their reaction frightened me even more.

All I could see was the knife, and all I could think about was what she was going to do with it. I made a quick decision to keep the necklace and pay the woman some money for it. I pulled away quickly and started smiling and saying 'okay, okay'. Some of the younger women knew what this meant and must have conveyed this message to the angry woman. Once I took my money out and showed it to her, she calmed down as quickly as she became angry, smiling at me, as if nothing untoward had just taken place. I smiled gingerly, thanked her and retreated back to camp.

I have never been sure what the woman would have done with that knife - most likely it would be have been as innocent as her cutting the beads from around my neck. But I will never forget how quickly she became aggressive. Her eyes were filled with anger as she screeched at me in a language I hadn’t a hope of understanding. I blamed myself for not reading the situation better. Even though I didn’t understand what I had done wrong, I knew I had offended the woman in some way – and this bothered me. Never before had I experienced such a language barrier and I reminded myself then that I had only been in Africa for a week, and still had a lot to learn.

I travelled for six weeks throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, sometimes with others, sometimes alone. This was the only incident in the entire six weeks when I felt threatened or unsafe. As a general rule, the Africans I came in contact with were extremely friendly, courteous and gentle. I was constantly amazed and warmed by the peaceful feeling I received when I was in the company of African people. My experiences in Africa, the landscape, the animals, the people - will stay with me forever.

© Kathy Sharrad June 2004

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