Close Encounters in the Chalbi Desert

Many years ago I had an assignment in Northern Kenya, a fairly dry and isolated part of the country where very few tourists visited. 

Nice spot in the Chalbi, see "50 Treasures of 
Kenya"  for their  full photograph collection 

So you get a sense for life in a place like that, I´m going to describe the local tribes according to what I learned from the boss at the camp where I was staying, which means I´m probably going to give you a very biased version.

“The main tribe is Rendille. They are the good guys. The other guys are the Borana, Turkana, and Somalis. The Turkana are fine if you don´t mess with their cattle. The Rendille think the Borana can be killed because there are very few of them. But the Somalis have to be avoided, they are armed with AK47, and like to raid everybody else to steal their cattle. Don´t stare at women´s tits, and never take their photographs. It´s ok to wave at them, if they come close you have to shake hands. Don´t go too far from the camp without armed guards just in case you run into Somalis. It´s better to let the locals fight and stay out of it" (he said the last part because a few months before one of our guys had run into what he thought were  hostile Somalis and emptied a full clip on them, this caused a lot  of paperwork and strict orders not to shoot at the natives even if they were shooting at you). 

By sheer luck, several years before one of the logistics types purchased twenty Mercedes Benz four wheel drives, and sent them to Madagascar. After the guy got transferred to Papua New Guinea or wherever they went for punishment, the Mercedes were shipped to Mombasa, and somebody decided the mistake would be covered up by having those cars issued to isolated camps, like ours. 

This is why I drove a Mercedes Benz in the Chalbi.  The Mercedes was like a cat compared to a Land Rover or a Toyota. It had a nicer ride, real four wheel drive, a lot of torque, a really neat winch up front, and the seats were very easy to clean (easy to clean seats are important).

Mercedes Benz four wheel drive. Our model had a 
winch  in front and much more rugged bumpers. 

My job was fairly specialized,  I didn´t have to work most of the time, and then I had to work hard for 18 hours a day for several days, nonstop. This meant  I had plenty of free time to  drive around,   “go on safari” to look for animals,  and buy fresh fruit and soft drinks at the local store in the nearest towns, all of which were located very far away.

The Chalbi camp housed about 200 men. One hundred or so were the regular complement. The other hundred were locals who did all the grunt work, looked for snakes, and kept the place clean, plus about fifteen Kenyan Army soldiers who kept us company and made periodic patrols to show who was in charge. 

The camp amenities were fairly primitive, the water was terrible, and soft drinks were worth their weight in gold. That camp “potable”  water was borderline salt water. It was so bad the camp medic measured the salt content twice a day to make sure it wouldn´t kill us. The temperature went way up during the day, it was so hot  it was difficult to stand on the ground wearing boots and I had to hop around just to keep my feet from burning. And this meant we were always sweating and craving  water. Getting brackish water to drink in those conditions really sucks, so I spent a lot of time looking for the blessed soft drinks, which as you may imagine weren´t  available just like that.

One day I drove to town,  I wanted to buy at least 700 bottles, so I had the back of the Mercedes crammed with empty bottle cases. I had three men with me, a pretty slick guy from Mombasa  who spoke Swahili and  English, a local guy who spoke local languages and Swahili and was supposed to tell me where to drive (there was no real road or trail, so we sort of wandered around, stopped, the local guy would get out, get a feel for where we were, and point. Then he would get back in the Mercedes and we would drive a little bit more until he asked me to stop and the routine was repeated), and of course the Kenyan Army guy, who didn´t inspire much confidence. 

I was driving slowly over grassy sand and rocks, mostly focused on the ground, when I heard the local guy jabber, so I looked around and saw two Rendiles running, almost parallel to us. Those guys were outpacing us, each carried two spears, and they looked like they were going to a party, the spears had little copper wires wrapped around the shaft, and they wore nice necklaces and little colored strips of cloth. 

They definitely didn´t look normal (the guys you see in those photographs are posed, they dress up like crazy to pose, because most of the time they dress real drab, sort of like camouflage, which makes sense if you live in a place where you are either hunting or being hunted).

Rendile dressed to kill to pose 
for a photograph. Note the two
 spears. They carry two just in 
case the first one misses. 

Anyway, my local, the guy who spoke Rendile, started hollering at them, so they swerved a bit and eventually were running alongside the Mercedes. I stopped the vehicle, and they chatted for a minute. As it turned out, these two guys were so dressed up because they were going to meet girls in a different village.

 I like being friendly with the locals, after all it´s their land, so I offered them some of the water we had in the back. They each grabbed a bottle, put it to their lips, and drank. But when they realized it was pretty salty, one of them spat it out, and handed the bottle back. The other grimaced but asked if it was ok to keep the bottle. After I told him he could, he poured its contents out, put the cap back on, thanked us, and both of them turned around and ran away, at the same pace they had when we first met them. No wonder they win the Olympic long distance races.

We took off,  and eventually reached our objective. My companions asked me to stay by the car, and went into the local store. The idea was to make a deal for the 700 bottles as fast as possible, before the store owner  realized they were with me. Right after they went in,  I saw a crowd  coming down the street, about 100 people with a tall guy at the front, waving at me and hollering Hello! Hello! full blast. The guy at the front was dressed really weird: he had on a  dark suit, a white shirt, and a tie.

When he was close enough he told me he was happy to see me, because they had been expecting me for over three days, and they were really worried something had happened to me. He was really shocked when I responded I didn´t see how he could have been expecting me for three days, when I had only decided to come the night before.  You see, they though I was a missionary they had been waiting for, who was bringing in medicines and Bibles. He turned around, faced the smiling crowd, and told them I wasn´t the guy they had been expecting. It was a very sad moment for everybody. Their smiles disappeared, they all looked worried, and without saying anything else all of them, including the guy dressed in a suit, turned around and walked away.

Christian missionaries trying to convert Muslims in the back country sure got guts. That´s not exactly the place where one can survive as it is. Showing them a Bible must be pretty dangerous (imagine a Texas Bible Belter getting a knock on the door, and finding a skinny Somali waving a Quran, quoting Mohammed and offering  to convert him  to Islam). 

We got the 700 bottles of soda loaded on the Mercedes, and I was getting ready to turn around and drive back to the Chalbi camp when my guide mentioned they had a foreigner on the other side of town, and he was in some sort of trouble. So I decided to drive over to see what was going on. I can´t remember how I got there, but eventually I was on the side of a small hill, rounded a curve and saw a guy sitting on the side of the dirt trail, looking really miserable.

The man was really impressive, he was huge, had been white at one time, but now he was brownish with red spots. He turned out to be a Canadian, a water well drilling contractor working for Caritas, the Catholic missionaries. His water well rig had problems, and he didn´t have the foggiest idea of how he would come out of it. Lucky for him, he had run into the only guy with the disposition, the know how, and the goodies to help him. So we went over the situation, made a list of what he needed to get out of trouble, and he agreed to visit our camp, pick up what he needed, and fix his water well rig.

I returned to the camp that day feeling that I had accomplished something different. I had offered water to guys who spat it out and  I had disappointed one hundred people waiting for medicine and religion, but I had brought back SEVEN HUNDRED bottles for the camp to share, and I had helped the Canadian  man who was drilling water wells for the natives.

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