Source to Sea

Boma Construction: Behind the Scenes
by Mark Downey -- October 17th, 2014

As I write (in my notebook, later to be transcribed to computer), I am sitting in the shade of a small mud house, staring deep into the snotted nostrils of a dirty child who is leaning hotly against my leg. Now he is hugging my leg. Now petting the hair on my arms. The first time that happened — and it happens often — I said, isn’t it like the lion’s fur? And the kids said, no, you’re like an insect.


In a word, my life in Kenya could be summed up by saying that 1) there are lots of big, wild animals constantly lurking near my tent, and 2) I try to avoid armed clashes with poachers as a habit. However, I would like to embellish that synopsis a little and try to convey the daily routine for myself.


It starts before sunrise, sometimes much before. Often I’m awakened by the sounds of zebra munching grass outside the window of my tent. Very loudly, ear level, right outside. These are relatively pleasant alarms, though. More often than you would think reasonable, I’m brought forth from sleep by the tinny buzzing of a cheap cell phone: a text message from an impatient customer or from my phone service provider letting me know once again that I’ve qualified for “Club 10”. Either way, 4:30am is a bizarre time to conduct business. Even here. (The most unpleasant wake ups: my eyes snap open to a somatic red alert in my bowels as whatever infected thing I had for dinner screams to break free. The race is on.)


Being on the equator, Kenya experiences extremely stable day-lengths and very fast sunrises and sunsets. In less than an hour, it goes from black night to full sunshine. In my default world in the Northern Hemisphere — north, even, of the 45th parallel — the sunrise is my favorite time of day. Or before it, I should say — when the light is grey and pink and orange but there isn’t yet a harsh sun claiming a corner of the sky as its own. Before the sun comes, you have the entire world to look at. Here, that slice of heaven passes so quickly that it feels like I’m stuck in some kind of temporal honey, moving much slower than the world spinning at normal speed around me.


Work doesn’t start until 8, so most days I have about two hours before I have to put my boots on and go. I think to the average observer, two hours at dawn on the savannah sounds pretty nice. And let me say, it probably is. But for me, in gets mixed phone calls to customers, answering emails — provided my solar gear is charged from the day before and there is phone signal; both contingencies seem subject to some kind of cosmic lottery system, neither predictably spiteful nor convenient — and boiling water for the days drinking.


Breakfast is an experiment in adding sugar to things. Most folks here breakfast on only tea with fresh milk and sugar, in a combination more accurately listed as milk, sugar, and tea. Once poured, it wastes no time in forming a thick, wrinkled skin on top and tempting flies away from whatever dung heap they were enjoying. I am offered it every morning and accept about 40% of the time. Mostly, I try to eat flatbread I’ve prepared the night before (flour, salt, sugar, oil, not in that order). But too often I’ve run out of steam that previous day before making anything, so I’m stuck with oatmeal. Which continues to be tasteless, always, not matter how much sugar I add. I cook in a cinderblock kitchen equipped with a sink, which sometimes has water from the gutters if it rained recently. Some days, when life gets too hectic, I just drink the rainwater straight, without boiling it. I tell myself that I’m building up my immune system.


After breakfast, the water I’ve probably boiled has cooled to tepid, and I pour a liter and a half into my bottles. I’ve stopped drinking coffee because it makes me hungry, and the available courses are rarely appetizing (or else such a hassle to acquire). Emerging from my pre-work solitude, I hop into the truck with Felix, my Kenyan counterpart. Somewhere on the road we’ll pick up our three construction workers. They’ll put their hands through the windows to shake ours, smiling and fresh, and then they’ll climb into the bed. By the end of the day, their shoulders will be sagging and they’ll sigh as they leave. But every morning, always cheerful. Which is opposite of my cycle: I get cheerful after work, munching my sugary flatbread.


The gang of us will proceed to the site of a new boma project. I’d like to boast that we’re a well-oiled construction machine, and that we show up with a plan, boom boom boom knock it out. But there is always something, be it rain, absent customers, misinformation, or just not enough room in the truck for materials. And what could be a simple process if it were run by robots with enormous resources instead becomes a game for these bush-dwelling humans to win more than we lose, by guessing and trying. The most difficult step in these projects is getting the owners to dig about 20 holes, each 2 feet deep for us to put our fence posts into. The task is never accomplished by the owner himself, but is always contracted to his wife or farmhands. And sometimes these sub-contract again. So from Felix’s mouth to the completion of the postholes is a tortuous telephone game. When we arrive on site ready for work, each time I am hopeful that we will, this time yes, get right to work like robots would. But every time there are holes in the wrong place, wrong depth, wrong diameter, whatever.


Once the holes are properly ready, we set the posts in concrete and then have to wait several days for the concrete to dry. When we return, we put the high tensile wire and chain link up. I don’t want to write out this process for you. It will get boring and confusing, for all of us. Like the best things in life, tensioning wire for fences is more an art than a science. I’ll just say there is a lot of unrolling wire, untangling wire, and twisting and tying wire in the sun,, and at the end of the day our fingers are crisscrossed with tiny slices from the sharp ends.


Somewhere in there we pause to make lunch in the shade of some tree. If there are any trees around. Lunch is ugali and fried cabbage; salty but curiously tasteless. To spice it up, I will sometimes add pilipili — a tiny pepper with spiciness levels amazingly disproportionate to its size — and in my usual desperation to interest my taste buds, I almost always add too much. So I cry and sweat and finish one of my bottles of boiled rainwater as a result. We eat with our hands, and I have to be careful not to touch my eyes for the rest of the day.


Sometimes the lady of the house will bring us chai, which is a Swahili malapropism. It’s the same as the tea I described above. This I always accept, because I’ve found it difficult to explain my worry that her generous brew will start a science fair volcano in my belly. I think my stomach is getting better at handling it, now, though. On the best days, our hostess will cook chapati for us, which is the oiliest, sweet-and-saltiest, most delicious tortilla I’ve ever had. This has only happened twice so far, yet it is the inspiration for my nightly experiments with flour, sugar, oil, and salt. In that order.


About 5pm is quitting time. Looking back, I invariably note that all of my careful plans and backup plans for the day’s agenda were modified or discarded, and what we accomplished was something I had not intended. Mostly in good ways. Beryl Markham wrote, “Africa is everything but one thing — it is never dull.” Yes.


Depending on the presence of buffaloes, elephants, or other wild dangers, I’ll drop our workers off somewhere on the side of the road. They’re tired and hungry, and we shake hands again. They have a salutatory expression that I’m not convinced has been translated properly into English: “Tomorrow is better.”


When I get back to camp myself, it’s more emails and phone calls. Sometime around 7pm I call it a day and cook myself rice and beans. Some days I splurge and buy a leg of goat for added protein. While cooking, I also read; I have to squeeze all of my leisure activity into this space. I’m usually in bed by 9pm — as long as some good movie is not playing on the solar-powered flatscreen in the rangers’ mess area. But usually they’re watching the news; these days, it’s court proceedings with lawyers in full wigs and gowns reading monotoned statements. Sometimes, if my mood is right, I’ll watch and marvel at their wigs, which are creamy yellow and perfectly curled.


After dinner or Con Air, I walk 100 meters down a small hill to my tent, swinging my flashlight this way and that. I often see lots of eyes shining back at me. I’m okay with that. It’s when I see only one or two pairs — those of non-herd animals, I surmise — that I worry. In my tent I usually try to continue my reading, though sleep tempts me away within minutes.


The child clinging to my legs is gone now. My entourage chased him away because it is lunchtime. We’ll scarf down our starch and get back to work.

1 Comment

  1. loise
    Nov 1, 2014

    Good read and very hilarious.

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