Thursday, 24 December 2015

Christmas Greetings to One and All...

A Christmas special to bring 2015 to a close. Departed Sierra Leone early Dec to spend some time in London on business. I’m often asked of the challenges of running a small company in Africa. Are you making a living? Are you busy? Not quite as busy as a one armed painter and decorator, but surviving...













Can’t beat a hatchback for London...

The Christmas idea was to jog around the capital's landmarks, with a guest runner, to best capture London at Christmas. Handy Andy was keen, perhaps with Francesca. Evil Eva also showed interest. However, plans were scuppered by a calf injury the first night in London. Needed a new theme. Got it... rent a Boris Bike and ride around the sights? Position bike in photos, someone hold it perhaps? Great idea, more later...



















First, I need accommodation. Let’s try AirBNB. All the rave I’m told. This blog moves with the times? Uber last time out. Now AirBNB. Check the website. Yep, find what I’m looking for. The host describes himself as gay, a veggie, and politically left wing. Have an inkling this fellow was never in the army. Can’t remember too many veggies. Hang on, his profile also mentions he likes to take guests for a beer to show them the local area. This is the place. A few beers in the Punch & Judy, in nearby Covent Garden, and I’ll be telling Gordon my best veggie story… want to hear it...

… a bitterly cold windswept day in the Brecon Beacons. 0600 hrs. A young officer stands in-line. The gruff Staff Sergeant slops a ladel of something resembling breakfast into each expectant mess tin. He works like a metronome. Kippers Sir? Eggs Benedict? Sausages? The young officer politely informs the Staff Sergeant he’s a vegetarian. Slop. Well, pick the f*#@*#g beans out of that, came the sharp response. Move along… next… kippers? That’s the Army. Same ‘jokes’ over and over, you still laugh.

Fresh kippers sir? Sorry, where was I? Ah yes… Gordon… AirBNB… Good experience all round. Always have a little trouble sleeping in London. My sister advised reading my blog, that'd help. Family...

Rent the Boris Bike. Do a wonderful 2 hour ride. Some snaps with local help…
























Mr Khan, originally from Pakistan. A VIP driver outside The Dorchester...








Thanks to Gemma outside The Ritz, from the East End...


Boris at Buckingham Palace with loads of Santa's...



Thanks to Donny, from Santiago...


Boris at the London Eye...

Thanks to all my helpers. Back to Sierra Leone.

Do you remember the Freetown Christmas hampers from last year? Turns out some ’white guy’ who departed Sierra Leone recently, gave the Chairman a thousand dollars. Help sort his life out you’d think? When you apply any sort of logic? Did he set a little aside for a guilty pleasure? Did he invest in a small business opportunity? Did he share some of his good fortune? 

The Chairman you might remember is an amputee who ‘works' a Freetown beach. I’ve mentioned some of these fellows before, some featured in the Christmas Hamper donation last Dec. I had a meeting recently, near the Chairmans 'patch'. Want to know what happened to his windfall?

Well, he certainly covered the bases. The erstwhile Chairman married 2 more lucky brides. He had a party for his crew. Business? He invested, in what most might say is a recreational drug, beginning with M. Probably wasted the rest. The Chairman looked happy, maybe a little tired. Any wonder? I’ve long since stopped judging. However, he glanced at me, and said he might be dead tomorrow. An explanation not sought. I left smiling, gave him a little something, maybe shaking my head, as always… 

Another recent ‘event' from Freetown to finish off, a special request from Baby Diva...

Late November. Friday evening. 2230 hrs. Hop on an okada, a motorbike taxi. Spur of the moment thing. Madness. Decide to head to the Chinese casino for a few hands of blackjack. My rider says he's 7 years experience and no accidents. Bike has most of the things it needs, including mirrors. Due diligence & background checks complete. What can possibly go wrong? Let's go... I'm feeling lucky...

There's something strangely romantic zipping around Freetown on a motorbike late at night, especially along the coast road. Wind whistling through your hair in the absence of a helmet. I tell Emmanuel I'll pay him double on top of the double he's charging me. Just ride safely. 

We arrive. The warm comforting glow of the multi coloured Chinese lanterns swaying gently in the breeze. High tide. Sound of the waves. Christmas decorations, last years, the 2 dwarves on the door. Everything as it should be. Ask the rider if he wants the return ride. 45 mins later, I've folded quicker than an Italian tank unit. Home time. The 2 undersized doormen look up at me in hope. A win... we low five, I look after them. Sorry guys, not tonight. Outside now. Emmanuel seems less confident. 

He says there's police checkpoints along the beach road. We'll take a different route. If stopped, tell the police the bike is mine he says. That he rides for me. The roly poly police lady is fine. Says the rider should bring his license over. Following my brief, he opens up the throttle, does a U turn and speeds off.

Great. Midnight, I'm 5 kms from my apartment. Start walking. Pitch black. 20 mins later, a new okada comes alongside. Tell him of my abandonment. Don't bother with due diligence. Just one question. Any problems with checkpoints? No, came the reply. Good. What can possibly go wrong? Let's go...

Approach the police checkpoint near Congo Cross. The rider slows, makes eye contact with the Police. Much better. I'm relaxed. He then opens up full throttle. We crash straight through the checkpoint. A burley policeman swings a large cane stick. Barely misses my left shoulder and takes the mirror clean off. The rider is laughing in a hunched position. He turns, no problem with checkpoints he says. We speed off. He bemoans the loss of his mirror. I'm contemplating what could have happened... told you I was feeling lucky... 

Emmanuel asks to be my regular Okada rider. Tell him I'll think about it… 

Well, that’s the blog for 2015. Here in the north of England it’s Christmas Eve and nearly time to play Santa. The stages of life are closely linked to Santa. You believe in him, you are him, and finally, like my tight-fisted Scottish neighbour, Taggart, you look like him… 

Wherever you are, and in closing, may I wish everyone a Happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. See you in 2016...

Sunday, 22 November 2015

‘Early Morning Run in… Nairobi’

Jambo! Karibu!

"Life is simple. You are born, you do your thing, and you die. It's easy. Anyone can do it." Joan K., a young Kenyan businesswoman.

I'm here in Muthaiga, an upmarket suburb of Nairobi. Feels good to be out of Juba. Reveille 0630 hrs. Press the Uber app. 15 mins later? Watch the taxi arrive on Google maps. Already know from my smartphone; the make, colour, number plate, drivers name, mobile number, even a photo. Please meet Samuel... the plan - take a taxi to the run start point...

























Uber recently opened for business in Nairobi. I've never used it before. Signed up yesterday. Let's give it a go. Will it work in Africa?

While waiting we warm up with excellent Kenyan coffee and some gentle stretching. ‘Ops’ has a couple of cigarettes. She looks good…



























Ops, how are you feeling? Ready? Like a startled gazelle came the reply. Kids, never ever smoke...

0645 hrs. Chilly. Sun slowly rising. We drive downtown. We ask Samuel plenty of questions en route. Uber? His opinion? Type of conversation you'd never dare have with a black cab driver in London.
"Excuse me, do you have a view on Uber?" Frank’s eye line adjusts slowly upwards into his rearview mirror…

“Uber? Bleedin disgrace, that's what it is, should never be allowed. Even the French have the right idea. Uber? Cowboys, unqualified, unlicensed... that’s what they are, don't get me started mate. Know what I mean. Uber.... now I'm all for progress, not like some of em… by the way, what's that idiot Boris doing about it; sod all, that's what he's doing, don't get me started... Sorry governor, where did you say you were going...” 

Post-Juba (previous outing), I'm staying with close friends who some readers will know. The Dingles from Nairobi. One of whom is my guest runner this morning. I give you, 'Our Man in Port Loko'. 'Ops' for short. Last seen bouncing enthusiastically on a trampoline in South Sudan...

We arrived back a few days ago. By KQ. Kenya Airways. Those old jokes about Kenya Scareways are wide of the mark (apart from their pricing). A bit like BA being called, Bloody Awful. Er, um…simply not true. Mind you a KQ yarn / true story that did the rounds several years back is worth another airing.

"What is all the fuss about?" Weseka Sambu asked a hastily convened news conference at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. 

"A technical hitch like this could have happened anywhere in the world. You people are not patriots. You just want to cause trouble." 

Sambu, a spokesman for Kenya Airways, was speaking after the cancellation of a through flight from Kisumu, via Jomo Kenyatta, to Berlin. 

"The forty-two passengers had boarded the plane ready for take-off when the pilot noticed one of the tyres was flat. Kenya Airways did not possess a spare tyre, and unfortunately, the airport nitrogen canister was empty. A passenger suggested taking the tyre to a petrol station for re-inflation, but unluckily the jack had gone missing, so we couldn't get the wheel off. Our engineers tried heroically to reinflate the tyre with a bicycle pump but had no luck, and the pilot even blew into the valve with his mouth, but he passed out."

"When I announced that the flight had to be abandoned, one of the passengers, Mr Mutu, suddenly struck me about the face with a life-jacket whistle and said we were a national disgrace. I told him he was ridiculous, and there was to be another flight in a fortnight.” 

Right, enough jokes. KQ are my favourite African airline. Love you KQ. Let’s get back to Uber…

Samuel tells us he was one of the first drivers hired. He enjoys working for Uber. He thought it was fair, right for Kenyans, he was one upbeat, happy fellow. His one minor gripe was that success meant too many new drivers being hired. Too many drivers, less work…

He drops us at the Intercon Hotel downtown. No cash to pay, straight to my credit card. Receipt straight to my smartphone. Distance covered, route, duration and fare. 750 Kenyan Shillings. Just over $7.

What about the heart and soul? Meaning those painful, but often comedic taxi ‘negotiations’ all over Africa, in particular, Cairo. Lagos anyone? Bandido taxi drivers in large cities in Africa could become a thing of the past. Strangely, I’ll miss them. I actually purchased a taxi once in West Africa, a story for another time.

A big thumbs up for Uber. Worked superbly. Samuel gets out of his pride and joy and waves us off. I adore Kenya. I’ve made hand gestures before at taxis, but today everything feels like a feel-good moment. Wave back at Samuel. Let’s run…

0715 hrs. Right 'Ops', the plan? Do a couple laps of Uhuru Park, hills for cardio, the monuments, the old boating lake, bandstand, back through downtown, past Parliament and the historic buildings, oh, and I need some snaps for the blog. Finish at The Stanley Hotel for breakfast. Ops looks at me, and ex TLM folk will know this look, “whatever.”























I’m thinking about this as we climb to the top of the park. Uhuru in Swahili means freedom. I imagine those settlers coming to Africa a few generations ago.
“Look here Carruthers, the Foreign and Colonial Service is sending you to Africa for a few years. You’re an excellent fellow, the right material to represent King and country. What do you say?

“I’m not sure sir; Africa?”

“Good, that’s settled then. You are made of the right stuff Carruthers.”

“Where in Africa, sir?”

“Well, the most popular place is Kenya. Indian Ocean, Rift Valley, a fantastic climate. Ruddy great elephants everywhere. Great hunting if you like that sort of thing. We don’t need anyone there. Can’t get the buggers to come home.”

“There’s the Cape down south. Absolutely spectacular. Good for your health. The sea. Wonderful climate” We’re fine for people there. Can’t get the buggers to come home.”

“Many like the east as well. Abyssinia. Great climate, spectacular hills.” We have everyone we need there. Can’t get the buggers to come home.”

"Then there are the Arabs in the north. Troublesome fellows. The Mediterranean. Many of our chaps absolutely adore Cairo. Can’t get the buggers to come home.”

"I understand sir. Is there anywhere left?"

"Yes, there is Carruthers. You’re going to West Africa. Most chaps don’t like it. Can’t get the buggers to go there.”

"Why sir?"

"Well, you see Carruthers, quite primitive. The place is ridden with disease. Fever. Many don’t come back. A lot of our chaps go crazy out there. Rains non-stop for half the year. Wild animals. Huge forests. Even headshrinkers according to some. You’ll be fine Carruthers.”
“Headshrinkers sir?”

“Don’t fret Carruthers. Send us a telegram, and I’ll send you a new bowler hat size 1 and a half, on a passing steamer if necessary. Let’s focus on the positives, shall we? Get packed up now, there’s a good fellow…"

Divas… Kenya. You know what’s coming… yep... I could live here. 

We’re running well this morning. Over 5,000 ft above sea level fires up the heart and lungs. Ops starts telling me about a recent family mafia wedding in Toronto, I encourage her for details. Maybe it’s the altitude, she’s never short of a word or 50 usually.
Here are a couple of smartphone snaps of the sights… see you at The Stanley Hotel…



























The Stanley Hotel. Breakfast here we come...

























Thank you Ops, you're the 4th best guest runner to-date. Hey, let's have every course this morning, we deserve it. Then another Uber back to Muthaiga... 

Let me close out in Swahili, "Gari langu linaloangama limejaa na mikunga." A saying useful in all languages. The translation, in the next post.

Now it's back to West Africa. Sayonara... or, perhaps more appropriately Kwaheri, see you in London for the end of year wrap up...




















Wednesday, 14 October 2015

'Early Morning Run in… Juba, South Sudan'


“South Sudan is one of the most hard-put places in the world.” Difficult to disagree with Henry Rollins. I’m in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The world’s newest country…

Returning to more of an old style post this time. 0630 hrs, the morning air is cool. Guest runner. Let me introduce ‘Al Keeni’. 

Al Keeni is from Khartoum. He’s dressed in massive black ¾ length baggy shorts, like 2 windsocks. He beats me down to the lobby. He's busy warming up 1950s style. Rapid toe touching, windmills, that sort of thing. We shake hands. Salam Al Keeni.

Juba is pretty lawless, security is necessary. The overnight gate guard from ‘Warrior’ opens up. No tomfoolery today. Run.


























To our left the President's residence. A vintage Russian tank parked outside. Let’s turn right. We head south along Airport Road. Pace is modest, plenty of time to take everything in. Some tarmac roads. Fewer pavements. We run on uneven waste ground strewn with rubbish. Juba town is filthy. 

The rhythmic hum of generators. No power grid. Oh, and no running water or sewage system. Whatever happens, don’t get sick. Freetown, my more usual abode, is like a modern day metropolis in comparison. 

A few glum people walking around. I greet some. Little response. Not exactly the happiest place in the world. Mind you, after 21 months of civil war along ethnic grounds, a shattered economy, no hard currency, spiraling inflation, few jobs, institutions collapsing, violent crime, investors gone, the ones that remain losing money, an uncertain future; I don’t think I’d exactly be spinning cartwheels and cracking jokes first thing.

We make slow progress. The sun rises slowly behind us. Along with miserable people, there's the odd goat and some mangy looking dogs for company. Not exactly uplifting...

However, every cloud and all that… seemingly two types of business are holding up. I’ve mentioned the ubiquitous security. The other? A personal favourite… beer. Possibly a little harsh with my initial assessment? Could well be my type of town. 




















White Bull. I’m supporting the local economy most evenings, particularly given the Rugby World Cup is on. The tag line though is slightly ironic, ‘The Taste of Progress’.

Separated and independent from Sudan since 2011. The 2 main tribes are now fighting each other since end 2013. Nearly one in five displaced by the current conflict, from a population of 12 million. Tens of thousands killed. South Sudan has been at war 42 of the past 60 years. Staggering when you think about it in those terms. Any hope? Well, a peace agreement was signed 6 weeks ago. However, 7 failed ceasefires came and went previously. Back to the run…  

3 mins 23 secs, Al Keeni has folded quicker than a dodgy deckchair. Going backwards faster than a French tank commander. Come on Al Keeni, let’s get back for breakfast. He pants a breathless, 'Tamam'.

Everything lacks energy. Not just Al Keeni. The least animated place I've ever visited. No spark. No zip. Even the boda-boda's seem passive (motorbike taxis). Plenty of battered minibuses on the move too, known as haflah's. The side doors slide open and out come endless legs. These fellows are nearly all rangy and tall. I'm 6 foot but feel under elevated here. As for you Napoleon types? Consider somewhere else for your holidays. You might develop a real complex here. 

Eventually we get off Airport Road and turn left on Independence Road. As we head slightly uphill I'm thinking about the madness of this place. Is this what the late John Garang (left) had in mind…




We turn left again. Classic box run. Ministries Road. Moving east. Running into the rising sun, feels instantly better. Spirits lifted. Al Keeni has found a second wind. He starts running with his arms out to the sides like an airplane. Strange…

Another tank on our right... in the words of the UN there's been a proliferation of weapons. Or, as they might say in 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'.... everyone’s got a shooter. Plenty of AK47s around...

Government ministries, as the road name depicts, are dotted both sides mixed in with various UN agencies. I take Al Keeni’s mind off things by renaming several ministries, the Ministry of No Labour, the Ministry of Lack of Environment, the Ministry of No Finance, and so on… it’s worked, we’re flying now… 

After Ministries, turn left and head north. Towards the airport. Damn. We're walking again. Can't cajole any more from Al Keeni. He’s done. On our right the Sahara Hotel. Looks a complete dump. Essentially sheds from Homebase with air conditioners bolted on. On our left 'The Hungry Lion'. Must book a table…

















Al Keeni has a third wind. We're jogging again, along the airport perimeter. A burnt out vintage Mig on our left. I’d love a quick snap. However, photography is positively discouraged. We make a final left and push back to the hotel. This part of town looks better, relative of course. A Chinese casino, now we're talking. Perhaps a few hands of blackjack later, ahead of curfew?




















Busier now. Sirens. People on the move. We've made it back. 6 kms in 45 mins. Hardly startled gazelles this morning. Al Kenni, cold shower and meet for breakfast?

Eggs. Coffee. Life’s good. Oh, and a quick shout out to the the owners and staff at the ‘Tulip Inn’. You guys have done a wonderful job, well done. Thanks for taking such good care of us. An oasis in the madness. As some fellow said to me at checkout, TIJ. This is Juba. Yep, it is.



























Breakfast. Hang on. Same song again. The one that'll define this trip. 'I'm Getting Closer to my Home' by Grand Funk Railroad. Makes you want to cut your own brake cables. Fleetwood Mac & Stevie all day long. OK, some early stuff was written in Latin... on parchment… but hey, proper music...

I engage a stout German fellow on the next table. Sandals, socks, red in the face, you know the deal. Turns out he's a tourist. A what? A tourist? Really? Here to visit the worlds newest country. Impressions of Juba? Not so nice, came ze reply…

Reminds me, my favourite German joke?

German parents had a beautiful son. Fritz. They were extremely worried about him. He never spoke or made a sound. By his 2nd birthday; no words, no sounds. They sought advice from the worlds top doctors, without success. 

Time passed. His mutter gazed lovingly at Fritz on the occasion of his 5th birthday party. Fritz, do you like ze party? Gute, ja? How es your birthen caken? To her amazement, Fritz spoke for ze first time. Ze icing es very bitter mutter, nein? His mutter hugged him, she was overjoyed. Fritz, you can speak. Oh my darling, why haven't you spoken before. Fritz replied, everything so far has been zatisfactory... 

Forgive my accent. Good to know my 4 years in Germany with the British Army were not wasted...

All bad in Juba? No, of course not. Sure, it’s a tough place but some laughs along the way.

Mercenaries and missionaries? Plenty. The 3rd M? Misfits - yep, quite a few of them too. Some terrific characters. There's two Juba's. The day version, and the night. One is reasonably safe, the other can be highly dangerous. Most people don't move at night. Those who do have a curfew of around 2100 hrs. Sensible, especially for newcomers.

So how come then, 'Al Keeni', 'Our Man in Port Loko', SJ, and myself end up on a roof overlooking the airport at 2300 hrs, on a school night, bouncing on a trampoline? We'd enjoyed a stunning bar-b-que, a few cold beers, and the host had a 14 ft giant screen; an outside cinema if you will. Projecting on the screen was Elvis's comeback tour circa 1970. Surreal? Sort of... certainly not your average night in Basingstoke.

Gazing thoughtfully across the Juba skyline from this rooftop watching MT (our most generous host) and the others bouncing up and down (good for his lymph nodes apparently), to the strains of 'Wise men say, only fools rush in (bet you sang it)... Quick, let's get back to our hotel... pronto...

As always it's about people. There's some good folk here. It's like the parable of multi millionaire father who has twins. He loves them equally. One is downbeat, the other happy go lucky. He does an experiment. On their eleventh birthday he fills the first room with the most expensive presents. He watches his downbeat son open them with little joy. 

He fills the other room with horse poo and a shovel. He watches surprised through the window as his son shovels and whistles away. He asks his son why he's so happy. The son replies that with all this horse poo, there must be a pony in here somewhere...

Perhaps that wise tale is relevant here. Trouble is here the horse poo is a huge mountain. But maybe...

Before we left the building, or was it Elvis, I asked everyone to sum up Juba in 3 words. Explained I had a blog to write.

Our Man in Port Loko (remember her from Sierra Leone); complex, fractured, chaotic.

SJ (from Juba); bad security, poor economy, no human rights.


Lebanese guest on the rooftop; no competition, opportunity, lack of life security.

Me; complicated, unpredictable, wacky.

There you have it. If these words don't entice you to visit, I'm not sure what will? In closing, I guess Juba is somewhere you come for a reason, not exactly a bucket list destination. It's rough and tough. Likeable? Not really. Great experience? Yes, unforgettable...

What about Al Keeni’s 3 words? I had asked him earlier on the run; hot, expensive, unsafe. Thanks Al Keeni.

My first post for some time, about 3 months. In fact, there's now three in the works. No time to polish them. One is passed over for now (‘Postcard from America’) featuring a tennis accident in Florida (MP - hope you’re recovering), Baby Diva’s had a beautiful baby boy, a round-up of the Appeal, and details of the final donation. The other, ‘An Early Morning in Nairobi’, is looking good. This thanks to another guest runner - Our Man in Port Loko.

Some quick housekeeping. To JH on Victoria Island, many thanks again for your extremely generous donation. To ‘The Belgian’, great to see you again in Juba. Freetown - see you next week...

Follow on Twitter; @roadrunnertns

The last word? For you Beverley in Calgary; Happy Birthday, good luck and best wishes in your continued fight, hang in there… from the Thorn Tree at The Stanley in Nairobi…