We woke to the hum of Addis’ call to prayer before dawn and drove past young men playing football in the empty dark streets near our hotel. At the long distance bus station in busy Merkato, touts helped us find a bus which would take us all the way to Moyale at the Kenyan border – a two day journey. Through the palls of black exhaust swarmed a sea of travelers. Porters ran through the crowds and climbed easily onto the roof tops where the luggage is stowed, their shadows dancing on parked busses in the low, morning sun.
Ten hours later we approached Dila, where we were to spend the night. Beautiful giant trees punctuated an abundant green hilly landscape. In the distance, a lake lay in a serene sea of mist. We wandered through the muddy market where women sold produce under large umbrellas made of enset leaves. They gave us slices of tangy enset to taste from large blocks they were selling. Enset is a favoured staple in the south because it has such a high yield. The tall plant is used for everything from food to building materials and medicine to animal fodder. However, the limited nutrition of enset leads to malnutrition in some areas.
We left Dila at dawn and reached the cockroach infested border town of Moyale by evening. We cleared customs so that we would be free to cross the border in the morning and catch a lorry. We ate our last meal of engera and drank our last macchiatos with an Ethiopian NGO worker, contemplating the soggy chapatti or white tasteless ugali with tough meat which lay waiting for us in Kenya. The first leg of the long trip from Addis Ababa to Nairobi was over. We spent the night squashing enormous cockroaches that were trying to make off with our shoes.
The next morning, we walked over a small bridge into Kenya. After the usual commotion of dealing with touts, we managed to find two seats in the front of a reasonably new lorry. The trucks from Moyale to Nairobi take two to three days. We were supposed to travel in convoy for the first day because bandits have been troublesome on that stretch. However, we rarely saw another truck during the trip. Recently, there was a terrible massacre in a village in the area and we were a little tense for the entire first day. At one point as we drove through the rocky desert, there was very loud bang from behind us. Thankfully, it wasn’t a bandit – just a bit of truck falling off.
The second day began just as rough as the first. We couldn’t talk to each other such was the vibration of the truck as it shuddered over the unpaved road. Even breathing was difficult at times. Occasionally, we spotted gazelle in the semi arid desert of low trees and scorched earth of red, brown and white, and we were lucky enough to pass three beautiful stout giraffes with velvety tortoise patterned coats. They ran from the road into the bush as if their enormous bodies moved in slow motion.
The further south we drove, the more villages we passed through. Elegant Samburu and Rendille tribes’ people here wear stunning bright red and orange shawls which make them highly visible in the bush as they herd their goats, flecks of vibrant colour among yellow and green trees. The men wear necklaces elaborately tied to ears and nose. Girls and women wear dozens of stiff red necklaces of varying sizes which fan out from the neck down forming a sort of scarf.
By afternoon, we finally found a paved road. It led us through larger towns lined with churches, busy markets and brash building sized advertisements – “Tropical Mints ‘the coolest mint’”.
After a slow climb up into the highlands, the semi arid shrub gave way to vast fields of golden wheat and intensive agriculture. “White farmers” explained our driver. Tractors and lorries were parked beside light airplanes. “Marino sheep” he exclaimed at one point. We looked at each other and grinned. He had failed to show any interest in the baboons, monkeys, camels or giraffe we had seen but these sheep which we see at home everyday made him jump with excitement.
At nightfall, we parked at a motel to the west of Mount Kenya. The dozen other passangers on the lorry slept in the back on sacks of maize. We ate a small supper with sweet milky chai and collapsed into bed, unperturbed by the loud music ringing from a nearby caged stage.
Our fifth day on the road was delayed by a thorough search of the truck at a checkpoint. All the way from the border, our driver had handed over small notes to police – bribes to blind them to the fact that he was carrying paying passengers. At this early morning checkpoint, the police seemed anxious to find more discrepancies which would earn them a few extra bob. Even our bags were searched. Our driver was disgruntled as we all climbed back on board, “Stupid! He wastes our time.”
A couple of hours after dawn on our fifth day on the road, we were driving down a busy dual carriageway into the outskirts of Nairobi. Rubbish strewn on roadsides fell into open drains. Smartly dressed people walked purposefully to work and school through the mud and cold drizzle. Shiny glass towers stood in defiance of the poverty of the country, calling out to the poor with empty promises of work and wealth in the capital.
– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People