When we drove up the western side of Mount Kulal to reach the village of Gatab, our vehicle had to negotiate the steep sides of the mountain. Deep gashes in the dormant volcano’s lava flows created jaw-dropping canyons that made the ascent long and challenging. The descent down the other side of the mountain was kinder. We dipped and curved. Forest turned to rocky soil and then to scrubland. In the distance, the horizon glimmered with the vision of a large water mirage. Kura stopped the vehicle for a minute and we all watched the shimmering lake. But it was not a lake. It was the Falam, and beyond it the infamous Chalbi Desert.
Our destination was the village of Kargi. En route, we would drop off Caro at her home in Olturot and then we would spend two nights in Kargi at Judy’s home. I had been looking forward to visiting, Kargi as we now have 40 businesses in and around the village. Later in the month, we would launch 20 more. There was tremendous enthusiasm for our work in Kargi, and we had worked hard to establish ourselves in this village region, keeping in mind that we also had to keep our staff safe in an area that sees frequent ethnic conflicts over livestock. What was heartening was that we also had overwhelming support for our work by the leadership of the village. The chief had even told Kura, “…these BOMA people, they look shiny.” Clean, healthy, shiny. Shiny is good.
Everyone started to shed layers as we drove across the flats. It was now over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.Rounding a stand of short scrub trees, we finally saw the Falam ahead of us — a strange bowl of soft sand with the dead skeletons of ancient trees poking out from the surface. In another climate, it would be a bowl of snow where the wind blows the soft material across the surface — filling in hidden crevasses and drops. Anyone trying to traverse this stretch has to know the route. Despite its ominous reputation, I wanted to get out and walk. I wanted to photograph Gumps as Kura drove across the Falam.
Omar and I jumped out and immediately sank down above our ankles in warm powder. It was tolerable for a few seconds before you felt the need to move away from the heat, only to sink down again in another ring of powder. We kicked the sand into the air and it drifted off in little fluffs. A dust devil came toward us, but then veered away as if intimidated by the unearthly appearance of the Falam.
Kura pointed us in the direction we should walk and Omar and I started out. The heat poured down on us like white hot lead. I tried to take a few pictures but you could not stand still for very long before the sand would start to burn. Finally, we reached one corner of the angulated circle of this strange land. I turned and signaled to Kura, camera ready.
The vehicle roared in low gear and was immediately swallowed by the dust. Omar and I were on the windward side of Gumps and we were able to capture glimpses of the vehicle as the wind blew the powdered sand high into the air. Gumps bounced across the surface, forward momentum maintained. Omar and I were yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” It was awesome.
A halo of dust settled on everything around us as the vehicle stopped. Kura had left the window open and his face and clothes were now coated with a light brown dust that stood in contrast to his dark skin. We were all coughing and sputtering and cheering. “Thank God we made it across before the rains come, Mama Rungu. The rain turns the Falam to cement and we would never be able to cross,” Kura told me.
“I know, Kura, you once called me on the satellite phone when you were stuck in this place. And this is where you also saw the cheetahs that time, right?”
“Yes, this is it. We had broken down, and we were driving at night. You were driving to Loiyangalani in the other vehicle and we were late meeting you, but I still woke you up at 3 a.m. to tell you we had seen the cheetahs!”
“That’s a great memory, Kura.” We both were grinning.
We got back in the vehicle and the road returned to hardpack sand. The light breeze blew the powdered dust out of our hair and clothes. Just before Kargi, we stopped in the appropriately named Rendille village of Falam. Kura wanted me to meet one of the BOMA businesses in the village. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to meet a woman who would redefine the way we evaluate our work. And she would bring me to tears.