Whack-a-Plant

We bounced along the dusty track, four of us squished into the back seat of a taxi on our way to the farm on Vipingo Ridge, a hotel complex and golf course. The sun hadn’t gained its strength yet and cast long shadows across the dusty road. My toes felt hot and uncomfortable trapped inside shoes and socks for the first time in a week. I felt a little foolish for the number of pairs of socks I had brought with me.

We walked across the hotel gardens, past the swimming pool that gleamed invitingly with one big blue winking eye, and onto the farm. Yael, Benji, Cameron and I took shelter in the shade under a tree whilst Godfrey disappeared off with the food and pans he had brought into the undergrowth with the job of making breakfast. I glanced uncertainly past the dense green foliage of the passion fruit vines to see what he was doing but couldn’t make it out. I diverted my attention back to Benji.

“You need to know what soil type you have, what your climate is like and how much rain you are getting before you can pick your cultivation technique.” He explained, perched with his laptop on a bend in the trunk of the tree. “If you have sandy soils the grains are too big so the water flows straight down and the roots cannot reach. If you have clay soils then the water cannot penetrate at all and runs along the surface.” We nodded, our tired brains still not quite up to the task of retaining new information. After Benji explained about the different types of soil we could encounter Godfrey appeared from behind the tree. He pulled out a green plastic tarpaulin from under the tree and laid it out on the floor, whacking away a hefty spider that had taken refuge inside.

“This is our table.” He said confidently and disappeared again. I struggled to bring my attention back to the soil types as I watched a disgruntled giant millipede that had also been upended by the shift in the tarpaulin. I edged slightly back from the shelter of the tree and looked over to where Godfrey had gone. He was stood stirring a pot over a fire that he had clearly just built himself. I stepped back under the shelter of the tree to listen to Benji, still slightly in awe of Godfrey’s ability to fashion us a meal in the middle of nowhere. When Benji had finished his introductions Godfrey reappeared carrying toast, scrambled eggs, a pan of hot water for tea, mugs and a water jug. We ate our bush breakfast sitting on upturned buckets. To say I was impressed would be an incredible understatement. I didn’t think I could make such good eggs in a kitchen with a hob let alone in the middle of a field over an open fire.

After our breakfast Benji took us over to the plants to explain what was what. The farm had lots of different things growing but it was clear that it needed a lot of work. They have one acre of land, of which at least half is overgrown with shrubs and bushes. The other half is cultivated into mounds growing peanuts, courgettes, rosemary, mint, oregano and watermelons that sat in the soil the size of swollen tangerines.

“The trick with the peanuts is to keep piling up the soil.” Benji said, “When you see the shoot you bury it again so more roots grow and then you have more peanuts. It is the same with the potatoes.”

We were then handed some wooden-handled heavily rusting pangas (like machetes) and ‘slashers’ which looked more like very small, thin ice hockey sticks. We were then unleashed onto the overgrown farm with the job of cutting away all of the plants that shouldn’t be there. Unfortunately for us, this turned out to be pretty much all of them. It was hot and hard work, slicing away at thick, stubborn trunk-like stems and soon our hands were blistering from the tough wooden handles. I alternated between left and right hands, trying to avoid the rubbed patches of skin and watching Benji enviously as he slashed away seemingly without any effort whatsoever.

Cam had brought his speaker with us, so we slashed and bashed along to the music. Soon the air was thick with the luscious and heady aroma of freshly cut plants, which was only magnified as the day got hotter. Fortunately, a generous layer of clouds blanketed us from the full wrath of the sun, but my top still stuck to my back and my hat to my forehead. My skin felt sticky from sweat and sun cream as I tried to brush the bugs off my arms and shoulders that would appear with each new plant we whacked. I watched a chain of frustrated ants march up and down a shattered stem. ‘Sorry!’ I thought, watching a tiny stick insect walk quickly and jerkily away from the carnage I had created of its house.

After about an hour and a half of work we stopped for a water break back at the tree, drinking down glass after glass with a sudden seeming insatiability. I gently rinsed my hands off in the water from the hose, inspecting my new blisters and raw skin. We stood in the shade for a little while, no one saying much between their guzzles of water. I stepped out of the shelter of the tree to survey our efforts. Slightly depressingly, it didn’t look all that much. I optimistically concluded that this was because all the foliage we’d cut littered the ground like some bizarre floral battlefield.

I hoped we were winning.

We headed back out after our break and the break had almost made me more aware of the shredded skin on my palms. I passed my slasher from hand to hand in an attempt to avoid the worsts of it. This was with limited success. We didn’t continue for too much longer as the boda-bodas were arriving to pick us up. The boda-bodas are motorbikes that came to Kenya around four or five years ago and lead to a whole new fleet of cheap transport. We walked back past the hotel pool, which now looked more enticing than ever, and out next to the road. We waited for a little while longer, sitting in a state of hot and tired delirium, singing along to the music still playing out of Cameron’s speaker.

When the boda-bodas did arrive I was pleasantly surprised to find that this time we were given helmets. When we went on them in Watamu there was no such luxury. I clambered onto the back, unsure of whether it would be acceptable to grab the driver by the waist and hold on for dear life. I decided that it wasn’t so gripped onto the luggage rack behind me, quietly glad of the 10l water bottle that was strapped to it that might theoretically prevent me from falling off.

The journey back to the house was extra bumpy as we didn’t take the main road but instead went back through the village but that was awesome. It was an odd mixture of buildings painted with SIM card company logos and traditional homes constructed from elaborately weaved mud and sticks. Small children ran in and out of houses, much to the irritation of our drivers who would honk their nasal horns at them, and they would stare at us from behind their mothers’ skirts. The less shy ones would offer a timid wave and giggled if I was able to unclasp the fingers of one hand to offer a quick wave in reply. The drivers expertly swerved their bikes around the roads to find the smoothest path and I felt myself beginning to relax. Or at least convince myself that a dusty Kenyan road rapidly moving towards my face wouldn’t be the last thing I would ever see.

“Where are you from? What are you doing in Kenya?” My driver asked me, tooting his horn at a herd of goats that looked like they might veer into the road. I explained that I was English and doing some volunteering before university.

“Ah I see,” he said “So which team you support? I like Manchester United.” It didn’t surprise me. The only thing most people seemed to know about England was football.

“…Chelsea…?” I replied uncertainly. This seemed to be the wrong answer and I could feel the disapproval coming from him in waves. He was very sweet though and told me about how if he was praying that one day God would grant him the chance to visit the UK to see a live football game. The conversation was lovely however I was glad when the Kuruwitu sign appeared up ahead in the dappled shade. It was only as I got off that I realised I’d been clenching the bike with my legs the whole way.

I pulled off my helmet and returned it to the driver. “Thank you.” I said. I really meant it as I wasn’t fully expecting to make it back in one piece and he’d been kind enough to pretend to be interested in my football supporting habits.

We headed into the house and Yael and I did not hesitate. We walked straight to the showers, stripped off our sweaty clothes and stood under the blissful coolness of the water. Well deserved after such hot work.

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