The jolts on the rainy-season rutted dirt road caused the woman, in the midst of an apparent miscarriage, to grimace painfully and suck in her breath. Her mother was in the back seat with her, urging me not to slow down until we reached the Kabiyet health center. The younger woman would have to bear the pain of a speedy arrival.
Speedy in this case meant seven miles of bumpy road done in 15 minutes or tolerating violent shakes at the "high" speed of 30 miles an hour. The pregnant woman painfully stepped down from the high-suspension, four-wheel-drive jeep when we arrived. An unperturbed nurse, who apparently has seen this scene before, stepped from the Kabiyet clinic and, with the mother, helped the limping woman inside.
I had been visiting two friends, David and Agnes Ronoh, at their Kibetbetiet village home when one of their neighbors, having spotted my rented jeep, rushed over to ask that I rush the ill woman to Kabiyet. Agnes went with me. We were both thankful that we were in the early October days of Kenya's three-month-long "short rains" when the downpours are light and the roads not so badly chewed up or turned into impassable swamps, a common occurrence during the black-cloud squalls of the "long rains" from March to June.
When I first arrived in Kenya's Nandi district as a Peace Corps volunteer high school teacher in 1969, I realized that I had taken asphalt city streets and cement highways in the United States for granted. At the Kilibwoni trading center, where I lived and worked for two years, all the roads for miles in any direction were red dirt. That circumstance retarded the economic development of the area and kept it relatively isolated. Few cars or trucks passed along the roads then, even in the dry season, and no public transportation ever.
But in mid-October this year, a two-lane, 18-mile section of highway--locally called simply "The Road" -- opened, linking rural Kilibwoni to two of Kenya's major commercial arteries. "The Road," which eventually will stretch 34 miles, has changed virtually overnight the economic prospects of the local Nandi farmers as well as their life styles and symbolizes a transition to a political sophistication that was not evident 13 years ago.
Thirteen years ago, half the year I would ride my bicycle twice a week to the nearest post office at Kapsabet, 10 miles west of Kilibwoni. However, during the six months of "long rains" and "short rains," the dirt roads dissolved into a slurpy red mire that the bicycle could not go through, so I made the 20-mile round trip on foot.
The more advanced farmers around Kilibwoni, who had begun planting tea, came to view the "long rains" with mixed emotions. They were necessary to give the season's corn crop a strong start to carry it through the semi-dry months between the end of the "long rains" in June and the October beginning of the "short rains." But the onset of the heavier rains made the roads so soupy that the huge tea-collection trucks were blocked from coming into Kilibwoni and the farmers' monthly cooperative dividends sometimes dropped to nothing.
The tea trucks, slipping, sliding and getting stuck innumerable times in myriad mudholes, burned more fuel, which further reduced the farmers' earnings. Operating costs are subtracted from their tea profits before the farmers are paid.
Children were suspended from school during this period when their fathers could not meet their fee installments. Everyone said a little prayer when a medical emergency had to be rushed to Kapsabet's hospital in the Kilibwoni health center's aging four-wheel-drive Land Rover. The 18 small shops at Kilibwoni ran out of sugar, salt and kerosene when the delivery truck drivers refused to brave the roads. And if they did come, their wholesale prices would have been raised to a point where the shopkeepers would refuse to buy the goods anyway.
School children would go from house to house asking to borrow their neighbors' dwindling kerosene so they could light their rope-wick lamps to study at night. They were not always successful. Building projects, continued between showers, would halt altogether because lumber or corrugated metal roofing sheets could not be transported. Whenever anyone talked about transporting something out or bringing a heavy item in, everyone looked at the sky "to guess" at the trip's feasibility the next day. But sometimes the heaviest downpours blew in at night, canceling the next morning's plans.
All of that has changed with the completion of "The Road," which passes just two miles south of Kilibwoni and connects to the Kapsabet highway.
There are even large black-lettered white signs pointing to the Kilibwoni turnoff. Previously, one had to know where Kilibwoni was. The narrow, two-mile dirt road leading to Kilibwoni climbs steeply uphill to where the trading center sits on the flat landing of a valley wall. This last stretch drains quickly and vehicles never were stuck on it, even after the heaviest storms. All of which means Kilibwoni can now be reached year-round.
" 'The Road' is a vital communications opening for us," said Julius Chelulei, deputy headmaster of Kapnyeberai High School near the center. "It is going to improve the economics of Kilibwoni," Chelulei continued. "We can now get our tea, corn and milk out without any thought as to what the weather is doing."
I taught Chelulei in 1970 at Kilibwoni High School in the days when he had to look for kerosene when it ran out. At his home, Chelulei pulled out the actual rope-wick lamp, made from a small tin can of Blue Band margarine, that he used all through high school.
The tea trucks come every day now, mainly because there is the new Chebut tea factory at Kapsabet. The particularly heavy Kenya Creameries Cooperative dairy trucks also can come daily and the farmers around Kilibwoni are busily upgrading their cattle herds with quality breeds of dairy cows to get in on this relatively new source of income. The Kenyan government is talking about opening a new dairy at Kapsabet as a direct consequence of the mushrooming milk production.
Constructing his new house will be less expensive, said Subchief Cleophas arap Moro. "The charges for transporting things like cement and roofing have been reduced because of 'The Road.' The truck drivers no longer mind coming here -- how do you say it? -- rain or shine."
Matatus, Kenya's unique style of taxis made from imported pickup trucks with a passenger cabin built onto the rear, now regularly ply "The Road."
"The Road" also symbolizes a major political shift among the Nandi voters around Kilibwoni. At each election from Kenya's 1963 independence until 1979, they had elected former member of Parliament Marie John Seroney. In Kenya's conservative brand of politics, Seroney had been a popular political gadfly, backbencher and thorn in the government's side. Kilibwoni, therefore, did not receive major government development projects.
Seroney reinforced his popularity in 1969, and was locked up on charges of sedition, after issuing "The Nandi Hills Declaration" stating that all those who then occupied traditional Nandi lands did so at the sufferance of the Nandi. The declaration was an implied threat to the foreign-owned tea estates formed early in this century when the British Army, after 15 years of warfare, forced the Nandi off some of their choicest land. Seroney was returned to Parliament with an overwhelming mandate despite the government's backing of another candidate. Kilibwoni continued to suffer.
But in 1979, President Daniel arap Moi let it be known that he was backing a young, university-educated technocrat, Henry arap Kosgey, for Seroney's seat. A younger voting-age group of Nandi were more interested in local development than irredentist sentiments of the past. A fierce election campaign was touched off between the older sentimentalists and the young pragmatists. Kosgey won and was raised to Moi's Cabinet as minister of transportation and communications. Construction of "The Road" began the following year.
Earlier this year, Simeon Misoi opened the first genuine general store in Kilibwoni, complete with post office. It is the only store made of cement and containing windows. He originally owned a shop like the others, constructed of mud and wood with tin roofing. The unlit interior was dark and you had to focus on what you were buying to see, just as you do today in the other Kilibwoni shops.
When I first saw the new store, I knew immediately who the owner was. On my return hikes from Kapsabet to Kilibwoni in the "long rains," I would often run into Misoi pushing his bicycle through the mud with two 4-gallon tin cans of kerosene tied on the back rack. He was the only shopkeeper who did that when kerosene ran out. Not much of a talker, he would, however, talk about the store he wanted to build one day.
When construction crews broke ground for "The Road" in 1980, Misoi dipped into his profits and began assembling building materials. He won the mail contract when the store opened and now carries the mail between Kapsabet and Kilibwoni twice a week -- Wednesdays and Fridays. I mailed two letters at the store. Kilibwoni now has its own post office box, Number 72, Kapsabet.