Uncle Maina, my dad’s youngest sibling, was always a welcome face at home. Having quit high school after about a year or so, he’d made his way into the Dagoretti Abattoir and began earning a living – like most young men in Gikambura. Githinjiro, as the slaughterhouse is called in Gikuyu, has been a permanent fixture of the area’s economy for decades. At least two generations of my dad’s family have channeled their dreams of upward social mobility via the meat processing industry at Dagoretti.
In the late Nineties, Maina would visit once or twice a month – usually on Sunday afternoons. At least some of the time, he’d be relaying messages between my paternal grandparents and my dad. Often enough, however, he’d come to see us on his own volition. He’d usually arrive around 1pm after a 90 minute bike ride from Gikambura. Either my sisters or I would warm whatever had been left behind from lunch earlier and serve him.
In addition to catching up on news from Ocha, the best part of Maina’s visit was that I could access his bike for a few hours. He’d barely have mouthed 2 or 3 spoonful’s of his lunch before I’d be mounting his Black Mamba bike and riding away.
Like many an aspirational young man, back then and even now, his mode of transportation was a big deal. He expressed his increasing liquidity by graduating from a run-of-the-mill road bike to a more specialized racing machine. To be aerodynamically efficient, these bicycles are designed with a low handlebar that forces the rider to crouch low and bend their back. On the streets, kids call them Komes, short for Komereras, a term coined from the Gikuyu word for crouching. Uncle Maina’s Kome was bright yellow; a lean machine that promised speed and luxury for the cyclist.
I decided to give the bike a road test. My parent’s home sits on a ridge opposite a section of the Ngong Forest. From my house, you go down a valley, cross a seasonal stream that is prone to flash flooding as water from the Ngong Hills rushes past, and ascend towards the forest. In the late Nineties through the early 2000s, a frenzy of mining, plus loose – or nearly non-existent – government oversight combined to create a huge environmental disaster: stone quarrying. The local economy certainly benefited from the influx of capital that accompanied the quarry operations. The local population increased due to significant numbers of migrant laborers, creating business opportunities for food processors, private property developers, transportation companies, among others. The cost of these monetary profits, however, was a sharp decline in the biodiversity of the area. Both the indigenous flora and fauna suffered as quarry blasting, earth moving, and the chemical remnants from the nitrate explosives took their toll on the space. Part of the Ngong Reserve had been previously turned into a man-made eucalyptus forest, the rest was still under natural growth. Some of these trees would have been hundreds of years old, supporting a complex ecosystem that disappeared in the span of ten years. In fact, one of the sections that survived the mining onslaught still supports the International Primate Research Institute, hinting at the wildlife that have always lived here.
Smack in the middle of the Ngong Forest Reserve is a murram road that runs from Em Bul Bul town to Rongai, approximately 25km away. It is on this motorway, hedged in on both sides by natural vegetation, that I embarked on my first long distance bike trek. Large sections of the road benefit from a high canopy that kept me cool on an afternoon that was otherwise hot and dusty. Other road users included a few trucks working overtime to ferry quarry chips or building stones, workers walking to/from their weekend shifts at IPRI, and church-goers on their way back home. Much of the road is flat, however, there were a few sections with gentle slopes, followed by sweat-breaking slopes that added to the cardiovascular benefits of this exercise moment. Overall, the experience was heavenly; I could switch off from the school rhythm and concentrate on the bird calls echoing around me, or even the occasional mammal that darted across the road just a few meters ahead of me.
Gataka is an infamous village along this Em Bul Bul – Rongai route. In the late Eighties, residents had already discovered stone mining and were busy supplying to the rest of the region. My dad and a close friend of his have stories of waiting for Gataka building stones at Em Bul Bul, often while enjoying “a cold one.” Gataka is also famous for its breweries; these produce large quantities of the illicit Chang’aa drink – liquor distilled from a mead, or more often, chemically processed using deadly ingredients. On a Sunday afternoon, both aspects of the town’s traits were clearly visible. A few lorries were testament of the continued trade in construction material, just as the staggering men demonstrated that Gataka’s heydays as a Chang’aa den were far from over – despite repeated invocations to that effect by local government officials. The drunks’ verbal outbursts illustrated the well-oiled bribery machine that endowed Ngong’s law enforcement with a gravy train they protected and benefited from.
By the time I got to Rongai, it was almost 5pm. This was a breakthrough because from here the road back to Em Bul Bul was tarmac, but I was still just over halfway done with my journey. Paved road, however, came with a lot more vehicular traffic. I now had to navigate around matatus and buses, no longer having the whole roadway to myself. From Rongai, I passed through Nkoroi, just a valley away from Laiser Hill Academy where an aunt of mine and her husband stayed. It was always a pleasure getting to visit her family; Uncle John was a vibrant man who visibly enjoyed the teaching profession. Their small home library boasted books such as Facing Mount Kenya, by Jomo Kenyatta – a staple in studies on Kenyan nationalisms. At the time, reading was the farthest thing on my mind. I was now hell-bent on getting home before it was too dark, let alone before Uncle Maina decided it was time for him to head back to Gikambura.
Past Nkoroi you come to Kiserian, a bustling commercial town with a large livestock market, abbatoir, and high volumes of trade in vegetables. The town sits on one of the many ridges that dot the Rongai to Ngong road – also called route 126. around the town are numerous arable valleys that are permanently watered by streams flowing down from the nearby Ngong Hills. Beyond Kiserian, I came to Matasia, and could now imagine an end to my bike trek.
Rather than proceed on to Ngong, and use the Veterinary Farm road to get home, I branched off the main road at 46, a spot so-named for mysterious reasons. From here I ventured onto rough dry weather roads, frequently evading piles of rocks placed in large potholes. I got home at dusk to find Maina anxiously awaiting my return. The yellow Kome jubilantly went back to its owner, happy to have survived a rough ride all afternoon. Because his Githinjiro job had an early start the next day, Uncle Maina chose to head back home.
Remnants of my long ride to Rongai have survived to this day. I still enjoy long distance endurance sports. So much so that I have made a birthday tradition to run as many miles as the number of years I’m celebrating. Last December I clocked 32 miles – a long jog that left my body so sore even my teeth hurt. During the last 8 miles, I was so delirious I imagined getting heckled by a squirrel. I’d stopped smiling at random strangers by around mile 20. I figured I’d much rather conserve my energy; I was only willing to engage with someone who could offer me a treat in treat: pay up or move on!