One part of my Ethiopia trip was practically culled from the articles, below is the unedited version of the trip from Moyale to Nairobi.
The road home is long and hard. It’s the end of the journey and it has none of the excitement that fired you up during the forward leg. All you have to look forward to is the familiar and I have found that I am too restless to want the familiar after just a few days. In Africa though the way home is its own little adventure filled with setbacks, surprises, and shenanigans.
We left Hawassa on the morning of the 4th. The original plan was to get to Moyale that night, cross the border with the first rays of sun and get back in a bus to Nairobi by the 5th. However it turned out that it was impossible to get from Hawassa straight to Moyale. A stop at a small town called Dilla was necessary. When we got there we went to stay at the Tourist Hotel in town. That was its actual name. It looked lovely. A huge front garden, the rooms were large and spacious they all had verandas where you could sit and look out at the nature. They were practically small bungalows in the suburbs, there was a bar and restaurant, and best of all it cost 115 birr(500 shs.) for the night. We were all dog tired and retired pretty early. At about ten I heard someone knocking at the door. I was tired and decided I didn’t want to open the door so I slept, or pretended to. The knocking continued and got steadily louder, angrier, and more insistent. There was no ignoring it and I had to go to the door. At the door I saw 4 or 5 men but my attention was drawn and riveted to the policeman in the middle of them. He was just the right weight for people to assume he was always jolly. We played a game of guess the word, one that I had become quite adept at. I figured they wanted my passport and as I had left it in my friend’s room I directed them towards it. They left in a huff, later I found out that when he had opened the door to show it to them they had barged in and began searching through his bags. Dumping out all clothes and minutely going through them while all the time murmuring something about having firearms.
We were glad to leave in the morning. By a stroke of luck we got on the same bus that had brought us up from Moyale. The conductor gave us a hearty “salamno.” He shared his cake with us as we travelled and made sure we never got lost or left behind. We got to Moyale around 5 pm only to discover that on weekends the border closes much earlier and we were thus obliged to spend one more night in Ethiopia. You see this country had grabbed a hold of us and was not willing to let us go back. It had adopted us and was fiercely protective, jealous of our need for our mother country and thus putting obstacles in our path. After another night in the company of beautiful women, rich food, and tasty beer we crossed the border.
We got to the Kenyan border too late to get a bus to Nairobi and after thirty minutes we realised that we didn’t really want one. You see at the border office where we had sat to read up on the news we received some first-hand reporting on events in Kenya. There were some AP policemen there who had spent the previous day transporting a group of Ethiopians for deportation. They talked about their approach to Moyale and how there had been shooting as they drove, at about 4 p.m. the tensions that the area makes the news for flared up. They were near the borehole that was the territory being fought after that afternoon. There was one person who at the sound of bullets promptly threw himself under the exhaust and waited out the battle. Being 3 of them they did not have enough firepower to quell what was happening in addition they had a human cargo of more than 40 foreign nationals whose safety was their first concern. Due to this occurrence our best bet was to travel to Isiolo with them. When we broached the subject they agreed and then one of them said that we should make sure not to die because if any of us did then we would be dumped out of the truck like a sack of maize and they would be on their way with the survivors and the news of our demise. Something that struck me as a bit of an anti-climax after the trip.
Sometime last year I read an article on the internet showing the smartest, though not most correct answers to questions in a classroom. One flashed to the top of my mind. The question: what is a risk? The one word answer the student had supplied, “this.” He was awarded full marks.
Before we left we went to have lunch first. After a long, long time we finally got to taste chicken. That and ugali were my first meals on Kenyan soil. We were walking around with one of the border officials and when we told him about how we had searched and searched for chicken he told us that there was some available in Moyale. The way it is prepared is they de-feather it and then remove the skin that we usually leave on. It is then stuffed with rice, vegetables, chillies, and (I suspect) tibs. Then it is roasted and served with injera. He also told us about the special nyama choma that is cooked in Moyale Kenya. The goat is put whole, though dead, into a traditional oven and then the heat is turned up higher and higher until the meat falls off the bones cooked, soft, and tasty. I really wanted to try these meals but it was soon time to keep going.
The police truck was a small lorry. The cops sat at the front and we along with one of them and some other stranded travellers got on the back. The back had a convertible roof that consisted of a heavy fabric draped across the metal bars at the top. When it was pulled down it would cover the sides and form a wall to keep out dust and cold. It was never closed however. This would obstruct the view of the policeman who sat at the back with us and kept a vigil in case anything happened reminiscent of the previous day. On the floor of the truck were sacks of maize everywhere.
We began the journey with quite a few people and most of us sat on the maize though there were those who opted to sit on the benches that lined the side of our little wall-free cabin. The police drove fast though after Ethiopia everyone seemed to drive fast. The road was bumpy and threw us in the air multiple times. There was a guy who went to have a smoke at the back of the cabin. In addition to contending with the dust coming in and the bumpiness of the road there was the added problem of lighting his cigarette. He put it in his mouth and tried to strike a match. He would succeed, hold it to his mouth and then a bump would throw his hand so far in the air that the light would go off. Persistence pays and soon he was enjoying, or rather experiencing his cigarette in the back. Swallowing dust and smoke and looking like he was trying to tame an errant riding bull the whole time.
There were no windows and so we were able to enjoy the scenery of Moyale without any hindrance. It is a very mountainous region and much greener than the thoughts associated with the name. Dotted across the sides of the roads were traditional huts at various intervals. This stretch of road seemed as far removed from the urbanity of anywhere as any place I had ever been. It was easy to imagine this place looking like this, with the same huts in the same design 100 even 200 years ago. Of course this was probably wishful thinking. The placing of the huts signified that this was due to a road being carved out (no one could ever call this road built) on this path. There were phones and there was the truck we travelled in. On the bus I couldn’t observe just how much dust we threw up in our wake. The truck though bellowed out dust like some kind of ill-conceived dragon. It would throw what looked like kilos of sand in the air. There was no wind to carry it or corner to obscure my view and the dust would hang in the air for kilometres. Always replaced by something fresh. We passed a mother and her daughter on the side of the road and they just pulled their clothes to their mouth and nose and then got lost in the fog of dust.
A few stops in many of the people cleared out of the truck and we had space, lots and lots of space. The maize sacks looked like they could provide much more comfort than they currently were. We lay down on them. They provided oddly comfortable beds, after a few bumps there would be a nook in the sack that fit your head perfectly, the same with the rest of your body. It was like lying down in a bed that moulded itself to you in minutes. This was the most comfortable I had been on a vehicle since Christmas day. Unfortunately because of slow reflexes I found myself on the sack of maize closest to the exit. This was not only the most bumpy place but also the one where most of the dust from outside was deposited.
The journey had an oddly hypnotic effect. Because of the dust I had to close my eyes. When I did this all that was left to me was hearing and feeling, the dust having choked off my sense of smell. The truck was rickety and lying down on it meant that sound travelled through the maize and was deposited in my ears, my feet, and my whole body. I could hear every single one of the disjointed nails used to make it. I could identify the metal sheets. could hear the axle grinding as the wheels turned. Hear the small grains of sand getting stuck in the undercarriage and engine as we travelled. This is how it felt as if I was one with the truck. It was impossible to sleep. I don’t know why but this form of travel seemed to favour meditation and I let my mind wander around the year I had just lived and all the years before that. Every once in a while I would make the stupid decision to flutter my eyes open. A rush of dust would get in and then I would have to blink as hard and fast as I could. Produce tears to mix with the dust and make it mud and then rub it out of my eyes before it caused any damage.
We got to a stretch of good road and at that point I got up to watch the sunset. The shock on everyone’s face at seeing me was clear. I looked like I was made out of dust. Brown from head to toe and everywhere in between. The sunset, or rather the aftermath of the sunset, was beautiful. The sky broke into 3 separate bands of colour, blue, purple, and red. And then darkness took its time to enter the world. We were treated to a screening of twilight that anyone could appreciate. When it got dark it was possible to look up at the stars on the stretches of actual road. When I could I would open my eyes look up and to the left and be treated to a vast expanse of the heavens. Having grown up in the city I never knew exactly what the stars are supposed to be. That night I saw them in all their majesty. Thousands and thousands of little diamonds twinkling in the sky. This is a sight that can make anyone believe in God. This is a sight that lets you know that everything is ok. It can lull you into complacence and thoughts of eternity and oblivion are much more easily maintained than at any other time.
This beautiful dream time was not to last forever though. When we got to Marsarbit the sacks of maize were unloaded. As this was being done we went on a quest for food. At 8:30 the only kind of food we could find being sold was a goat head at the third eatery we entered. So we settled for bread. The next leg of the journey we had no cushion and were sitting on the hard benches on the side of the, it feels wrong to call it a cabin when it’s not cosy, truck. Every single bump was felt and appreciated. Soon I formed a system where I would jump up with each bump, just allow the car to push me and go with that momentum and then come back down for a soft, slow landing.
A kilometre or so after we left Marsabit we stopped to let off one passenger. Then someone else got on as we began moving. We weren’t with him and one of the cops at the back asked him where he was going. I should mention that he was in full traditional (Rendille as I later found out) dress. There was a sash, there was headgear, there were sandals, and there was a spear in his hand. There was not however even a rudimentary understanding of Swahili. So there we were thrown back in time to hand gestures and guesses that we thought had been left behind in Ethiopia. The truck was stopped though and he was escorted off it. After that the trip was pretty uneventful until we got to Isiolo. Travelling on those horrible roads though gives a clear picture and feeling about what happens when a government does not try to develop an area. It showed me the importance of roads. Without them the people on the 16 hour, 500 kilometre stretch and all the attendant side acreage are forgotten and cut off. Newspapers arrive 2 or 3 days late to Moyale and people have to be willing to suffer to make this trip. Development has not reached in and without a road this situation seems irreparable. Being in the northern parts of Kenya I felt as cut off from the government and the politics of the day as I ever had while still being in Kenya. Even more so since news travels faster outside than it did to these places.
Once we got to Isiolo we were able to get a bus since it was three in the morning. We were soon in Eastleigh. Thanks to a series of kind conductors who did not throw me off their matatus for dirtying them I got home at 11 the next day. Then I got in my bed and died for the next 24 hours. Thinking about the whole trip later the sentence that kept coming to my mind to describe it was one written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “not even Jonah’s wife would swallow that story.”