Home is beyond the perimeter of modern Kenya and way off the grid. When the ancient generator goes off in the evening we are left with a sky of untarnished constellations reflecting down on the star-spotted nightjars. Until morning we burn hurricane lamps of the Dietz ‘old reliable’ type. These run on kerosene. When we ran out of this I asked one of the young shepherds called Captain to cycle to the nearest village, which is about 15 kilometres away, on an urgent mission to buy more. ‘Please buy ten litres of paraffin,’ I said. I gave him 1,000 bob, about £7, and asked him to bring change and a receipt. He set off in the morning and I expected him back around nightfall — because the rule here is that, however early a trip begins, a man will never return before evening, armed with an elaborate story to explain his delay.
Captain did not return. For days we went without lamplight and we stumbled about with candles and torches. On the third day I sent a second shepherd called Ekwom to look for Captain. The next morning both shepherds appeared with a can of paraffin but no change or receipt. Captain enthusiastically delivered his story. As he was cycling home after buying the fuel, bandits had ambushed him and stolen the cash — the equivalent of about £1.50 — plus the receipts. Given that I had heard a similar excuse about month before, I suspected Captain was fibbing. I worked on Ekwom, who finally grassed on his mate.
These shepherds are tough men. They would rather be with their cattle among the burning wastes and black ash volcanoes of the far north where they are born, but their families have lost their herds in livestock raids and times of drought. Only the indignity of hunger had forced Ekwom and Captain to become ranch hands. The men have few joys in life and they work and play very hard.
Ekwom revealed that Captain had spent 100 bob getting drunk on chang’a — a vicious moonshine that tastes like battery acid and reeks so nastily you can smell a man drinking it from several huts away. The booze cost Captain ten bob a cup — about eight pence — and one snifter is enough to become almost insensibly drunk and possibly even blind.
After being drunk for a day or so in a corrugated-iron saloon bar, Captain realised he would like something to eat. He went to a second corrugated-iron shack that advertised itself as a café and here he ordered some meat. Who knows what sort of animal it was that the meat came from — it might have been a sheep or even a zebra — but piles of the stuff arrived. This cost Captain just 50 bob — less than 40 pence — and was enough properly to satisfy his ravenous, alcohol-fuelled hunger.
Captain now decided he might like a woman. He had just 50 bob left but happily for him this was enough to buy not only the services of a prostitute, but also to get a place to lie low for a couple of days and sleep off his massive binge on alcohol, meat and hired sex. The accommodation, undoubtedly in a third corrugated-iron shack calling itself a lodging, can’t have been very stylish. But who cares.
I should have been annoyed. Perhaps I should have dismissed the shepherd. He had not told me the truth and he had nicked some cash in order to go and behave very badly. But after all his adventures, he still had the decency to bring home the ten litres of paraffin fuel and tonight the lamps would be lit up again. As Captain tottered back to work with red eyes and a slight limp I stayed silent. To be honest, I shook my head in wonder and admiration. This can sometimes be a place of thwarted dreams that evaporate in the hot sun of a parched frontier district. In time, life will alter here. Street lighting will extinguish the stars and the sound of machines will go on all night and we will behave more responsibly. But for now I marvelled at what you can do for just £1.50 up here beyond the perimeter of the world.