EPISODE FIVE. KESSUP AND THE RIFT VALLEY. HOME LIFE AND RURAL PEACE. January 19th to 29th



I treasure this picture, taken by Alex, of Precious and I just before I left them in Uganda ten days ago. It expresses so much about ‘family’ in Africa.

Afternoons in Kitale, I try to walk for an hour, sometimes two. In the fields of the wide valley below the house I can wander on peaceful tracks away from traffic. A small wood has become a favourite, 600 yards long, a calm place of wavering tall eucalyptus and heavy underbrush, a single footpath snaking through it with secret turns and meanders. It’s cool from the hot sun, a relief from the sticky humidity that can build as the ground gives back the gentle showers that have sometimes fallen in the night. There are monkeys and flitting birds, singing amongst the gyrating leaves of the spindly grey eucalyptus. 

In the smallholdings around, a heron flies low and languid to a zinc rooftop; a giant crested crane, a metre high, too big to bother to fly away, stomps away offendedly on its angular, gangly robot legs, golden topknot flickering; a hare runs across the red dust track into undergrowth where a large hole with vicious slashes in the earth walls and a mound of newly mined soil perhaps houses a big porcupine; bees and insects set up a hum of static and birds flute and warble musically everywhere about me. Flames trees, an accent of brilliant crimson, flash their blossoms on bare, gnarled, black leafless branches, adding a lustre to the many hues of green after the rains. The sky arches bright blue above, the shoulders of Mount Elgon ethereal on the western horizon. A woman passes quietly, giving a gentle greeting, a heavy bundle of firewood tied with local fibres on her head; cattle graze placidly – abundant food for now – and an unseen child amongst the bushes around a simple mud-walled house, calls, “Mzungu! Mzungu! How are yuoooo?” I have been spotted. Two small boys appear suddenly around a corner in the track. One greets shyly, the other runs away, terrified. Suddenly, I realise that I feel fit and content to be here in Africa, close to the Equator. I DID make the right decision in my precipitate escape. A gamble that is paying back handsomely. Soon I’ll wander back up the hill to a Tusker mixed with a Guinness on the porch with my comfortable friend and we’ll listen to the cheerful chatter and jesting of the pretty young women of the house as rich aromas drift from the kitchen. 

*

William watches Joy and Rachel bunch up black nightshade, a very nutritious vegetable. It will fetch 10 Kenya bob a bunch (About 15 pence), so this represents a considerable profit.

I planned to return to Kessup on Wednesday, but decided I had to see the odious Trump out of office, and in Kessup I am off piste for the internet and TV, so I delayed until Thursday. Sitting in front of the TV to eat supper was a serious break in formality in the Kitale house, where we always sit around the table as family to eat our meals. But Rico and I wanted to watch some sanity and decency return to America having followed the shocking events of the past couple of weeks as the Leader of the Free World (Huh) lost all semblance of rational adult behaviour and encouraged a hideous mob of far right fantasists to attack the seat of his own democracy.  

On Thursday, then, William’s Mzungu was back. A fine seventy mile ride over the mountains from Kitale to the Rift Valley. William is waiting for the sound of my engine. He comes grinning down his dry shamba to the rutted track to the guesthouse. A spare, rangy sort of fellow, now 55, with white curls to his beard. Within moments he is instructing the guesthouse staff in everything ‘his mzungu’ requires. How irritated they must be! Or perhaps they are just grateful, especially this year when I am probably the only tourist within 100 mile radius, that his friendship and guidance brings me here frequently. He frets and demands: there must be cold beer in the fridge, Jonathan likes his Tusker cold! Supper must be at seven sharp; there must be a reduction in the room rate. William, retired policeman, is a stickler for timekeeping. If the meal is two minutes late, he will be on his feet heading for the sooty zinc shack that is the kitchen. I must have just the room I want, and Jonathan likes a blanket, not the unbearably heavy duvet that locals seem to prefer. It’s funny to watch, but he’s kindly with the girls who work here, always inviting them to share the leftovers of our supper. Of course, I pay the bills – William has no money at all. But in return I have a willing, friendly companionable guide and a fine introduction to this community that I have come to know, and who’ve come to accept me. William eats the meat at supper; I eat the vegetables that he hahas procured from his neighbours’ shambas. “Why should I eat veggy-tables?” he asks. “I live on veggy-tables! When you are here, I can eat meat!” It’s a good deal for us both and not much goes wasted, between his relish for the meat, my liking of local vegetables and the girls’ delight at something beyond ugali maize flour and scraps from the kitchen. 

Rael makes me chai in her kitchen.

But how do I spend my days in Kessup? It’s a relaxing time, wandering the red tracks and mountainous footpaths; drinking milky tea on green hillsides with hardworking, friendly people – the most vigorous always women. I am suffered to investigate and ask questions, and respond to many more about how we do things at ‘my place’. We sit high above the dramatic valley, gazing into the misted depths, over small fields hacked relentlessly by generations of hard graft from the rocky slopes. But it’s fertile here, and plastic water pipes snake the lanes and hillsides, a fizzing leak here and there, powering small locally-made sprinklers. Shambas are green just now with young crops and elsewhere men and women hack new brown soil into beds. Large raptors circle ceaselessly above and hedge-birds flit and whistle. 

In Rael’s round, thatched kitchen hut, I sit on a stool polished by decades of backsides and kitchen spills. It’s about six inches high. She’s a fine cooking stove fashioned from clay, just eighteen inches high but sculpted into a piece of domestic sculpture, all rounded edges and decorative rings. She’s preparing disgustingly sweet milky tea for her mzungu guest. She knows me well by now; I am recognised all over this rural plateau from my many visits with William, patient to introduce me to his neighbours. He claims that my repeated visits have given him enhanced status here. I am constantly sorry that it takes the endorsement of a white skin for him to gain respect, for he is an honest man of integrity. Returning to revisit people in Africa is one of the most important social things I can do. It confers respect and friendship. I appreciate how many people accept me here. It’s taken time to be seen as a fellow human, rather than a representative of a race aloof, proud and rich – as we are seen so often in Africa as we race past, a dim, ‘different’ blur behind the tightly wound window-glass of air conditioned, zebra-striped vehicles between insulated game parks, segregated from the wonder that is the people of this generously welcoming continent. 

Rael’s kitchen hut has no chimney. This is the standard across the whole continent. It is full of thick grey woodsmoke, sweet-smelling but lung-clogging and eye-watering. The underside of the thatch, supported on a web of sticks, is black and tarry. The post that holds aloft her firewood in the ceiling space is polished like lacquer, Japanned by thirty years’ of hand grease and soot. The hut was built in the late 80s when Rael came to this compound on the hillside. She’s a smart woman, diligent, intelligent and very hard working. Her compound is always well kept and she is house-proud, although her wooden dwelling is simple. She’s put blue-squared vinyl on the floor of her living room, which is decorated with sentimental religious posters and a lurid Manchester United broadsheet. She’s very proud of her new TV. It represents considerable work and business acumen. Her husband, whom I’ve never met, drives a matatu and is away from dawn. So the household and farm work, as well as caring for the children, fall on her – capable – shoulders. An African woman… I note that some of the lovely row of eucalyptus that made a fine background for my portraits when I first came to Rael’s shamba, almost five years ago, are gone. “I planted them when I first moved here. Now I have been selling them. They pay for school fees for my children.” She gets about £25 for a large fast-growing eucalyptus. “But I replace them when I sell them!” She waves behind her to a grove of young eucalyptus – the weed-tree of Africa. The young ones are, Rael says, five years old. 

It’s been decades of work to create the terrace on which we sit, me puckering my mouth at the syrupy tea from the big pink Chinese thermos. The hillside has literally been moved ten metres forward to form a level space big enough for her kitchen hut and the black, vertically boarded house, neat with a red zinc roof. Curtains bluster brightly in the metal-framed windows. There are even some flowers blowing in a bed against the wall. It’s breezy today, the wind worrying up from the depths of the Rift Valley. Pleasantly cool. William is on his phone – as are many people we pass. He just begged a pound’s worth of airtime from me so he can call his cattleman, Atanas, far below in the shimmering valley. William hasn’t a penny in his pocket, his normal economic state. He’s arranging for us to walk down into the valley on Sunday. His mzungu needs a welcoming committee if he is to make such Herculean efforts, William thinks. Or maybe it’s just that he knows Atanas would be deeply disappointed to miss the event by coming up to the plateau to see his family? 

*

Very colourful beans.

We move on to visit Sally, another determined woman, who has moved here from a village beyond Iten, some kilometres up the winding road on top of the escarpment that towers above us. She bought the land on which she has built her tidy wooden home, with a smart brick latrine and quaint henhouse. She’s a farmer. The fathers of her children seem to be absent but she seems self-reliant – as so many African women have to be, even if a husband is around… She’s forged, in just a year, small rough terraces on which she is growing a lot of vegetables. Her tomatoes are superb. I took a bag home to Kitale last time I was here and we enjoyed tasty salad. She’s planted what looks like chard, and pumpkins too, and one of her family is sorting the most wonderfully coloured dry beans from amongst dust and debris on an old nylon sack. One small field is to provide tomato seeds for her next crop. There are velvety brown cows and dreadlocked sheep to tend, babies to care for, washing and cooking to be done, and the house to be kept tidy amongst various energetic children.  But what  impresses is the exhausting work that these women accept as their normal life, hacking and hoeing, digging, watering and cultivating and harvesting on a hillside that must be at 30 degrees, above one of the hottest valleys in Africa. 

Still Sally finds time to light a fire of sticks and boil more milky tea for her guests. By now I am brimming with the stuff, perhaps a litre of it. My stomach’s distended and we are able to use this as an excuse not to eat her kitere – beans and indigestible maize. We promise we’ll come tomorrow instead. She gathers a carrier of lush red tomatoes as a gift for me to bring back to the cook at the guesthouse to make salad for our supper. William will instruct the cook just how his mzungu wants them! We begin our slow walk home, meeting and greeting, entertaining children coming from school, jesting with neighbours. Life in Kessup. 

*

Awash with tea, we sit and pick sticky seeds from our socks. On our way home, we must stop at a kiosk to purchase superglue for William to mend his shoe. He’s shown me that he has a hole the size of a playing card in the sole. I can see his bare foot – odd, since at the ankle he’s wearing some thin, coloured socks. “If we walk down on Sunday, I must mend my shoe. For now, I can glue something over the hole! When I have money, I can go to Iten and find a fundi to put a new sole.” I tell William of the labourer I saw in Sipi last week. Pushing a heavy wheelbarrow of earth up an embankment, I was impressed that he was wearing substantial boots. But as he turned away from me, I saw that they had no soles whatsoever, just laced tops. Bare skin made the bottom of his footwear!

We stop at a kiosk to buy the glue. Shops here in rural Kenya are simple affairs, a dark tin shack with a wire and timber grille that protects the merchandise. The seller ducks beneath the counter and waits expectantly. Yes, she has superglue from China at 20 pence. There’s not much to buy – the seller doesn’t have the capital to keep much stock: some tired-looking dry cakes in cellophane; three small bottles of warm Coke; two dusty, rather dreary cabbages; some pots of milking jelly, whatever that may be – cow orientated, I assume; a festoon of ever-popular plastic sachets of cooking spice mixes; eleven rolls of toilet paper; seven plastic tubs of Tilly cooking fat; lurid packs of bubble gum and a bag of slightly melting sticky sugar lollies; eight tiny tins of black shoe polish; six packets of stale biscuits that look well past their sell-by date and the inevitable selection of washing soaps in bright sachets. A few items to turn a minimal profit that may make the difference between supper and going without, medicine or suffering, school fees or illiteracy. Life in Africa. 

*

Kimtai in his hard-won shamba

Another day. Neighbour Kimtai and his son Evans are tossing a thousand rocks across their shamba, clearing a tiny field to plant vegetables. It’s hard graft, making these patchwork fields. The ground is rocky. Kimtai takes me around the small beds he has made already, edged by high walls and heaps of piled rocks, surrounding just a few square metres each of red soil. But there’s water in Kessup, draining down all the snaking plastic pipes from the escarpment. Kimtai’s handkerchiefs of fertile soil will pay well. But it’s rocky ground.

William says, “He’s a Christian! A pastor.”

“So are you a Christian?” asks Kimtai of me. “Are you a believer?”

Sometimes I dissemble. But a look at Kimtai suggests he can accept truth. “Er… no!” I reply. 

“You don’t believe in Him?” he asks in wonder.

“No, not at all!” I proclaim. Evans, standing on a pile of rocks bursts into such loud laughter that he falls over. His face splits with the biggest grin. He almost clutches his sides at my straightforward answer. We all fall about laughing. I enjoy these exchanges so much. 

“But what about Heaven? And Hell? Don’t you think you will go there?”

“No, chum! This is all we have! If you don’t do good here and now, it’s too late! Once you’re gone, you’re gone. Just dead. Too late if you haven’t done it here.”

Evans is laughing with delight. I wonder what is his attitude to his father’s elevation to self-proclaimed pastor in some crazed offshoot of commercialised religion amongst the millions of fake tub-thumping pastors in East Africa? Laughing widely, we all agree to differ. “One day you will walk with me to my church. It’s five kilometres.” Kimtai points along the plateau to the north, the high cliffs rising above us to the left. 

“Well, I might enjoy the walk, but you can leave me out of the preaching!” We all laugh and part friends, waving as William and I walk away to meet more neighbours.

*

Francisca shakes the gourd of yoghurt.

Francisca spots me through the trees and comes running to greet. “Eh, Mr Jonathan, you are back!” I’ve sat with her and her friends a few times; taken her picture several times; brought back the prints. Her husband, Silas, once worked in the Kenya Embassy in London, but he misbehaved (booze) and wasted the opportunity. He was sent home – to this mud and stick compound in rural Kessup. Francisca’s friends, Evaline and Elizabeth, perhaps a bit inebriated by mid-morning on too-cheap local spirit, josh and joke with me, middle-aged women full of goodwill. They all want photos taken and of course I’m happy to do this. I am Kessup’s official photographer by now. I’ve literally hundreds of portraits from these communities on the plateau above the huge valley. Francisca is animated and confident. She poses with a fine polished gourd with decorations of cowrie shells and beads. It’s from the Pokot tribe, she says. To get to their rather troubled homelands – they are an aggressive bunch – you go down into the deep valley and head fifty miles north. It’s usually off limits to me: too much tribal strife there; difficult people to police, often shooting first, and enthusiastic cattle rustlers. Seems I missed the only chance in years last year – when my riding in such a tough region was limited by my Achille’s tendon. There was a brief respite from the warring and killing, but I didn’t go. Pity, as there’s a pass I still want to ride, said to be very serious trail riding in magnificent scenery on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. 

Now Francisca brings her fresh yoghurt in another of these gourds. The inside surface is lined with aromatic soot from a special wood. Local yoghurt is made this way; the soot flakes imparting some sort of beneficial flavour. She pours me a glass of the lumpy yoghurt, flecked with sooty spots. It’s delicious, almost like cheese in taste. “Oh, you won’t want bulsa now!” William exclaims. We are due to drink the fibrous, sour local maize beer later. This sounds like the ideal excuse for me to make no more than a gesture! It’s not a beverage I like very much. I drink it to show willing, and everyone is very impressed that the mzungu will slurp down the filthy liquid from an old Tilly cooking fat container with them. William knows I am not enthusiastic, and has just given me a great get out.

We take the bulsa with my ‘age mate’, Joel. Frankly, he looks a decade older than me, with his stoop and stick. People age so much quicker in Africa – as indeed we Westerners did 100 years ago. It’s easy to forget that this privilege of long healthy old ages is something we’ve enjoyed quite recently. Some of us at least. Joel had English teachers in his childhood – a Miss Cunningham and Miss Armstrong, missionaries, I assume. But Joel mumbles and his accent is difficult to understand. It’s a long time since the Misses Cunningham and Armstrong were major influences in Joel’s life. His wife joins us, big silver coloured beads around her neck. I am content that the five litres of sour soupy liquid is being shared wider. I can get away with just one small plastic container of the rather unattractive beverage. 

Joel is my ‘age-mate’. Here he is with his wife, Rose.

*

Moses had an accident in a truck that went out of control on the winding road down into the other side of the huge valley from the town of Kabarnet, perched on the lip, visible by its twinkling lights at night from the guesthouse gardens. It must be fifteen or twenty miles away as the soaring raptors fly. Moses spends his life on a wheelchair now, sitting patiently on the grassy terrace in front of his iron-sheet house, marooned the best part of a kilometre down red rocky tracks. He’s a wide smile and seems to make the most of the hard chance life threw at him. Of course, he will have had no insurance to help him make life more comfortable, and is probably grateful for whoever supplied the wheelchair. He greets me warmly like an old friend. It’s good to be recognised in this rural community.

Boniface
Relaxing in a maize field with Anne and Sharon

In a maize field, we joke with Anne, Sharon and Boniface. They are harvesting corn; taking a break sitting on nylon sacking to slurp millet porridge, a spotty snotty sort of brown stuff in enamel mugs. It looks disgusting, but of course, I’ve eaten these sort of nutritious slops before. I’m happy no one insists I must try it again. I sit on the sack to have my photo taken by William. He knows how to operate my camera now, although I suggest he takes two or three shots – in the hope that one of them will include feet AND heads. He gets a good shot: happy and laughing. I love this interaction. Who needs a game park? I have cheerful Africans in a dusty field. 

*

We sit on an earthy terrace high above the valley. Sally, the tomato farmer’s daughters are delightful. It’s Saturday, they are home and have prepared tea and kitere (beans and indigestible maize kernels) for us. At the edge of the terrace, interrupting my view into the magnificent valley, hangs a line of flapping washing, ancient clothes torn and worn, faded and jaded, throwaways from the profligate world, fashions of past decades. It’s how everyone is dressed here. Me included.

William watches Abigail, Naomy, Mercy and little Allison prepare vegetables above the magnificent Kerio Valley.

I am about to pick up my spoon to eat my kitere when Abigail grabs my hand unceremoniously and turns it over with an exclamation of wonder. My palm is so white! She brushes it with her fingers as if the colour will come off. Her sisters gather and touch my hand like a delicate artefact. I wish I knew what they were saying – and what is the joke. Then they finger the hairs on my arm. “Why do you have this?” asks Naomy, a young teenager. “Because I come from a colder country and once my race was covered in hair,” I explain. The girls show me their smooth, polished black skin. Maybe I am the first mzungu with whom they could ever compare our racial differences. “Oh, we are just black monkeys!” exclaims Abigail, spokeswoman. 

“NO!” I respond. “We are the same! Just a millimetre of difference! No more.” I try to explain that the melanin in their skin is a protection; that I have much skin damage on my shoulders as my skin tries to develop the same melanin. I make Abigail put her cool hand on my red burning neck to see how the sun affects my skin. She recoils with an exclamation from the heat that my neck is giving off, amazed. It’s such fun to meet curious young people like this, unsophisticated enough to explore the differences we represent. I love curiosity above all other human attributes. 

Naomy laughs at the mzungu.
Allison Jepchumba. Jep is a feminine word and chumba means a white person. I couldn’t quite find why this lovely girl was described as a female white person!

We eat our kitere, me surreptitiously picking out the beans and avoiding the cubes of dry maize as much as possible. I know they’ll come out the other end still cuboid. In fact, this meal affects my guts adversely for the next four days. The girls pour me tea, unsweetened in my honour. I gaze into the vast abyss before us, shrouded somewhat by washing. The light shimmers below, far below. It’s over two and a half thousand feet down to the green bush lands. Later, I must take thirty or more photos of these cheerful girls. They are self conscious, laughing, giggling like young girls the world over. In the hour we’ve been here, we have broken down barriers and become equals – well, as equal as an old granddad can become with teenagers – and in Africa that’s a LOT closer than we’d manage in the ‘sophisticated’ Western world. 

Mercy Jerono

Tomorrow, we tell the girls, William and I intend to ‘foot’ to the floor of the valley and back. They are astonished. But maybe not because we appear improbably old and decrepit to their slender years…

“Won’t you go to church then? It’s Sunday tomorrow,” asks Abigail, somewhat scandalised. 

“This is the biggest and best church you’ll ever be able to worship in!” I say, waving a hand at the enormous vista of the Rift Valley at our feet. “Just look at this! THIS should be your church! This is your God’s work!” But my attitude is unconventional and I’ll never challenge the strength of African religious convention and dogma. But I know that had I ever an inclination of worshipping or prayer, I’d choose the Great African Rift Valley for my cathedral, not a tin shack filled with the noise of self-promoting ‘pastors’.

Naomy and her chicken!
William with Sally’s family; Abigail, Mercy, jepchumba and Naomy. Such fun!

*

The Kerio Valley, a major spur from the Great Rift Valley that splits the globe from Mozambique to Jordan, burns more than 2600 feet below my perch at the guesthouse with its green gardens, itself below the tall red cliffs that continue the wall of the Rift Valley up to the highlands six or seven hundred feet above. On Sunday (instead of Abigail’s church) I slip and slither down a dusty, rocky path that leads into the world below. Hours later, I puff and stagger back up! Both ways in one day, in high equatorial sunshine and about 30 degree heat. It’s the most arduous exercise imaginable. The last hour of the ascent will go down in the annals of my African journeys. By the time I am clambering up the steepest part of the climb, I’m stopping to regulate my heartbeat every few minutes. Of course, local people regularly undertake the journey, moving their cattle up and down with the seasons. William tells me, as I puff, even slightly faint at the effort, that the cattle often make the journey by themselves, taking three or four days to clamber up or down, knowing instinctively that the nutritious seasonal vegetation is above or below. William has a large tract of bush land just before the big drop, down at the lower edge of the Kessup plateau. And at the bottom, in the baking valley inferno, his family and clan have extensive lands too, where their goats and cows are tended by hired herdsmen. William comes of a long-established local family. Everywhere down there, we meet brothers, cousins, nephews of his family, in which William’s father’s polygamy makes for complex relations. 

This is the Kerio Valley, a branch of the Rift Valley. Imagine, this is where I walked DOWN and UP!

We climb the burning slope. The effort of not just putting one sore foot in front of the other, but one sore foot above the other as well, is ghastly. I am woozy from lack of oxygen, seeing a sort of halo of light shards created by the sheer effort I am expending. I sit on a rock, eyes closed for a few minutes, not telling William that I am feeling faint. He’s so solicitous for my wellbeing that he’d be worried. This will be a memorable hike. I’m a full decade beyond life expectancy here. William reckons that Joel, my age-mate, couldn’t make it any more. It’s so funny that William takes a sort of vicarious thrill at my accomplishment. “You were determined!” he keeps repeating later, as I drink the three beers that salvage my strength after a warm shower. “Determined..!” Yes, but once we embarked on the ascent, what choice did I have? There’s no respite or rescue on that enormous rocky slope. 

ALL the way down – and then up!

Twelve hours in bed completed my recovery. Monday, I am fit to go again, wandering the red paths, meeting neighbours and drinking chai in village compounds. 

*

The sunshine and heat of Kerio Valley produces what must be some of the best mangoes on earth, richly succulent and without those irritating fibres that bug the poor apologies we import to English supermarkets. Late January is mango season. Women sit by the roadsides in the valley with mangoes, bananas and watermelons for sale. William and I ride down the twelve miles to the foot of the curling road to buy mangoes for me to take back to Kitale. They cost 15 pence for giant fruits, my pleasure from this region that almost matches my enjoyment – and consumption – of fresh pineapples throughout January. It’s steamy-hot in the bottom of the valley. We stop off to visit the ex-chef of the campsite/ guesthouse far above, who’s working now in a new hotel that burns on the valley floor amongst attractive gardens formed by a lot of hard work and the limitless sunshine. Joseph remembers me and shows me his guesthouse. Perhaps I’ll stay a night sometime, I suggest. It’s so nice to be known. “Ah, do you remember the liver curry I made for you?” he asks. “I made it HOT. Plenty of piri-piri!” It must be three years ago. Going back. Returning to see people who befriended me before. It confers so much respect. 

*

On Monday I texted Adelight: ‘Returning tomorrow pm sometime’. She replied: ‘Hello. Welcome back home. We love you.’

*

Kenya is investing heavily in new roads – and increasing debts to the Chinese government with their ulterior motives of access to resources and the control of debt-crippled African countries. From Kessup back to Kitale there are now fine new roads, empty and sweeping about the hills in ways that bring smiles to a biker’s face. One road on the way home was so new it still smelled of hot tar, and the last two kilometres hadn’t even been built; I had to negotiate a construction site. Between the two scruffy towns of Moiben and Kapcherop runs a lovely road through soaring hills, at one point with a vista over mile upon mile of highlands to a distant horizon that probably contains the Rift Valley itself. I am way above 6000 feet high. It’s not a fast ride on a 200cc motorbike, but it’s fun and scenic. Children from school wave and call as I pass. 

Back home I am welcomed warmly. I feel fit and suntanned, sucking up the vitamin D, well exercised from walking sunny paths and the expedition to the depths of the Rift Valley – “Instead of church!” as Abigail was shocked to remark. A better church by far for me.

*

I haven’t mentioned the virus for some time. Mainly because no one here much mentions it any more. In rural areas it never made much of a mark anyway. People have so much immunity to so many diseases here: you must have to survive this life. Some of the reported cases are suspected of political corruption – in Kapchorwa, across in Uganda, the medical officers made a big fuss about two cases they ‘diagnosed’, almost certainly, it was surmised by everyone locally, to obtain financial aid for their hospital (and in Uganda, perhaps for their own bank balances). Some here have got in the habit of fist-bumps instead of the constant handshakes, although I still shake hands a hundred times a day in places like Kessup or Sipi. The fist-bump was the fashionable greeting of youth and is adopted by older people now in respect of the virus. There are those, William warned me, who believe that ALL white people carry the virus and that Europe is ‘dead’! That’s lack of education and the customarily irresponsible media. 

In town, people sport a sort of decorative chin strap in the form of a face covering that frequently doesn’t, but some wear a face mask, others, even in deep countryside as they walk rural paths and roads completely alone. I have my temperature taken at the entrance to all larger shops, and frequently have to suffer having a squirt of something cheap and nasty on my hands. People, usually unmasked, sell face masks at the roadside for 10 bob each (7 pence each. I bought a pack of a dozen in Boots for £6 before leaving England…). I wear my neck tube; it’s convenient to keep the sunburn from the back of my neck and can be pulled up in town or if I see police checkpoints – who might enjoy politely harassing a mzungu in the hope of a small fine. Otherwise, life goes on pretty much as normal. Few seem to judge others or to be scared by the hysteria-inducing media. I guess few watch the BBC or CNN. It’s about page three in the national papers. 

I’m now almost half way through my trip – as planned. As regulations change and change again for return to UK, I shall keep an open mind about the booked flights. Kenya is not a high risk country and I know I am welcome here. “Oh, you can stay a YEAR!” as Adelight said on my arrival. Well, maybe not a year, but my return may remain flexible.

*

Adelight and I go to town. I enjoy sitting in the car watching life around me. We are warm friends, content together. She’s some errands to make, ground up maize from the posho mill for chicken feed, chicken medicine from the agricultural supplier. For her chicken rearing business. 

I buy beer at the supermarket. Everyone meets my eye and smiles greetings. One woman, attracts my attention; runs into the street. “I need to marry you, Mzungu! Look, I even have my own business!” She points to her fruit stall, a table on the supermarket steps. A mzungu is seen as the answer to everyone’s problems and many women see marriage as not much more than a business agreement, it seems to me. I laugh. “You’d have to ask my wife!” Boda-boda boys watching laugh too. 

*

Adelight needs charcoal for baking bread tonight. We walk together to the charcoal sellers and buy a bucket of charcoal decanted into a recycled woven plastic sack. “Here, I’ll take it,” I say, lifting it from her hand.

“Hah! African men don’t do that! If people see you, they will say, ‘eh, this mzungu is a poor man!’” 

“Well, I’ll lead by example then. African women, they do ALL the work!” Stallholders selling secondhand mtumba wear watch us pass, bemused. I laugh and carry the charcoal. 

*

I sit and drink my beer with Rico on the porch. We’ve known one another for half our lives now, and share this strange obsession with Africa. His African family move around us, Adelight making the bread in the skilfully designed oven that Rico made from an old car jack, scrap steel sheets and bits and pieces scavenged around his garage, where nothing is thrown away. Charcoal glows above and below the bread box. The aroma of fresh baking fills the porch. Maria watches a cartoon on TV behind us in the house – the power is back on after another series of outages. 

Scovia makes me laugh: she comes out of the house door, dressed in a glamorous narrow black skirt that she’s worn to town. She’s one of my very favourite Africans. One look and I smile. She’s shapely and always cheerful, with a quip or two for the old mzungus. She always has the last word, does Scovia. She slips off her smart blue-green town shoes and pulls on gumboots – with the chic slit skirt and fitting white blouse, hair in elaborate braids – and heads out of the porch gate with a flounce, the big serrated bread knife in her hand as she goes to the chicken house to slaughter our supper. 

I jest with her about her attire. “Oh, it’s fine as long as you put your foot squarely on the chicken’s legs and hold the wings before you cut the head off. If you don’t hold the wings, then you get blood splashing!” she laughs happily. I guffaw at the idea of any smart young woman of my acquaintance at home even going into a henhouse dressed so smartly, let alone to sever the head of her supper! But this is Africa. You learn the facts of life and death of animals at an early age. You understand where food comes from. You can’t hide from inconvenient truths here. You consider yourself fortunate to have the luxury of chicken for supper, when most have ugali maize and a splash of stew… 

One of Alex’s Uganda pictures, with his aunt Khalifa.
Life in East Africa. Alex catches a happy moment… And I never take selfies.

EPISODE FOUR. MY UGANDAN FAMILY, A COMPLETELY CORRUPT ‘ELECTION’ AND RIDING THE ROUGH STUFF IN RURAL UGANDA. January 7th to 18th



This is a rather long episode, I’m afraid! I was without internet for eleven days, and then, having uploaded all this, I pressed ‘publish’ at the very moment the power failed in Kitale. It’s now uploaded by Rico’s mechanical knowledge, powering the router and our devices from his car battery and an inverter. We have had no power for 24 hours – so far. Life in Africa…

Mwanaydi strips the fibres from very tasty pumpkin leaves

I could well be the ONLY foreign tourist in eastern Uganda this week. “How many tourists are coming through these days?” I asked one of the officials at the small Suam River border. 

“I came on duty one month ago, and you are the only one I have seen.”

*

“We are expecting it today. Come today!” shouts Harison, the Medical Officer of Health for Suam border, into his phone on Friday morning, in answer to my query about my £50 Covid test result. 

“But your regulation is for a test within 72 hours of entry. It’s already almost 96 hours!”

“No problem. Come today!”

It takes an hour of extreme dust to reach Suam. “You are back! Go and see first, then come back to complete the formalities,” suggests the Kenyan immigration officer sensibly, recognising me from Monday. So I walk over the tumbledown bridge with its twisted railings over the rock-filled trickle of the Suam river. The Ugandan post is a place of dust-covered tents, an ancient round prefabricated zinc hut from colonial times, some down-at-heel offices brown with dust, all set in red dust and ruts. 

Harison comes down the broken embankments waving a colourful – unsurprisingly negative – test result. “Now you will be OK! You will have no trouble.” And formalities are simple and filled with smiles. “Welcome to Uganda!” I find a certain irony in the fact that my own ‘developed’ country is today discussing imposing the requirement for this negative Covid test for incoming travellers. It’s been in place in Uganda and Kenya since March… I laugh with Harison at this discrepancy. He is astonished: “We have been doing this since the beginning…”

*

On the wonderful trail around Mount Elgon into Uganda

I ride off into remote rural Uganda. The sun is hot. The views are wonderful. Ugandans could contest for the friendliest nation in Africa. People watch me pass, amazed. Everyone reacts to a smile and a wave, when I can take my hands off the bucking bars. Children shout excitedly from the roadside and fields. Infrequent drivers lurching the other way give an ironic wave and greeting. It’s fun to be here, an apparently old ‘slebrity’ (as Alex delightfully mis-spelled in an email) on a piki-piki.

In a few years, maybe even next year on the Kenyan side, but another three or four, I reckon, on the Uganda side, where they have some difficult topography to deal with, there will be a fine tarred road. ‘Just in time for a 75 year old adventure biker to be grateful for a smooth road,’ I think, as I lurch and bump over one of the worst trails of my considerable experience. It’s about 75 or 80 miles from Kitale to Sipi, my Uganda base. At present perhaps 20 miles are tarred, another 15 reasonably graded earth and gravel as the new road reaches slowly westwards, and the remaining 40 miles some of the most serious trail riding imaginable. Fortunately, my little Mosquito can handle it and I now know the machine well enough to make most of the rough stuff fun.

Tired, I stop as often I have done, at the straggly habitation of Kabukwo for chai at the Star Hotel, a very basic tea shack beneath rusty zinc sheets. Sitting on a low bench polished by tens of thousands of backsides, I sip from the scalding tin mug of over-sweet, reviving, milky tea. Soon I am in conversation with a young boy and Pastor Christopher. They are pleased to quiz me; not many strangers come this way. Always the same questions: how many children, what religion, which football team. It’s useless to try to change their long-held traditional belief that having more and more children is the aim of every life. These people have seven each as an average. Many will have ten, fifteen, even twenty – all on the very verge of abject poverty and total illiteracy. Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with a median age of 15.9 years. (Mali is 15.4. UK is over 40). There are children everywhere and teenagers already have babies at their backs. Uganda had a population of about six million in the 1950s. Now it has over 55 million. By 2050 it will double again to over one hundred million. But no one sees my logic, that if you keep dividing your inheritance of land between so many, they will end up with about enough to stand on. “But what if you have two girls?” comes the inevitable question, when I opine that two is enough and the planet is running out of time to deal with this explosion. Girls have little value, except for the dowry they will bring, and as producer of ever more babies. 

“Soon you will reach the tar road!” Pastor Christopher assures me. “You will be in Kapchorwa in under one hour!” Obviously he hasn’t actually driven this way, for the tar is still twenty or thirty kilometres off, and between here and that anticipated delight, are many miles of gravel and earth as the Chinese build the new road, and Uganda an ever-increasing debt to the Chinese government. A debt that they will never repay, except in handing out their natural resources and land to a country with interest in profit not the planet. Where bridges are still being built, even when I eventually reach the tar, there are deep dusty and earthy diversions across cabbage fields and rocky river beds. 

By the time I reach Kapchorwa, I am exhausted. I stop to use the ATM in the bank lobby. My temperature is taken, I am expected to wash my hands and some disinfectant nastiness is sprayed on my palms before I am allowed inside. I never had my temperature taken in England yet. Today I am hot – 37.2. Not surprising where I’ve been, leaping about on my piki-piki in jacket, helmet, gloves, boots and goggles. Now, though, I am only fifteen miles or so from welcome, rest and noisy greetings from Precious and the children. I ride, hooting, down the last dusty track to Alex and Precious’s Rock Gardens guest house, named after my own house. People recognise me now. They wave cheerfully. Precious comes, arms helicoptering in excitement. My two year old namesake, Jonathan – named for me and nicknamed ‘JB’ – erupts in wails of horror. There are just two reactions to mzungus from small children – fascination or terror. Jonathan selects the latter, and stays that way for my stay. Keilah, now three, is reserved but no longer afraid. Alex is out when I arrive. Elections are in full furore at present. The crook Museveni, the president, in power for over 34 years, plans to win once more, whatever it takes. Alex is campaigning for his local candidate. The opposition is led by a pop star called Bobi Wine. He’s popular with all the younger voters. He’s getting world media attention for his campaign, and for his frequent arrests on trumped up charges (funny, I never saw the relevance of ‘trumped up’ until I typed it…), and the deaths of his supporters and aides. It’s a disgusting process, this election. Corruption will win it for the incumbent as always. There will be much drunkenness and most votes are simply bought from uneducated electors more interested in 25 ’pennorth of hard booze than their prospects for the next five years. Undoubtedly, this will be the most corrupt, unrepresentative election I will ever witness. 

*

Satya is 86, very old for Uganda. He is senior in Alex’s clan
Alex’s aunt Khalifa with her grandchildren
Bath time for Salim Ahmed with his mother Rose

Jonathan’s House awaits me, decorated with tinsel and intricately folded towels. Precious’s presentation skills are way beyond the simplicity of the nascent guest house. She is excited. She greets me in the traditional way, by going down on one knee before me. Put out of work at the beginning of the lockdown in March, Alex has not worked since. There’s no government ‘furlough’ or state assistance. All the money donated from outside to help combat the virus has been filtered away into the government officers’ bank accounts. “Let them rot in the villages,” Alex’s employer in the hotel in Kapchorwa was heard to say. And without the small help I gave him, paying his salary for nine or ten months, the family would have been in dire straights. Precious gushes and mumbles her thanks alternately, overcome by emotion. It’s humbling to be so appreciated. They’ve never asked, just blessed me constantly for my assistance. And I can see that Alex, a man of great integrity, has used his time, and my small payments, with determination and honesty. The raised bar/ restaurant of which he has dreamed for so long, has developed a lot since I left in February. He calls it ‘1818’, a suggestion of Rico and I when we were here in January and saw its altitude on Rico’s dashboard instrument. It’s 1818 metres above sea level. Alex has worked on the building, raised three metres on posts to catch the view into the valley behind the matoke trees – the savoury banana that is the staple diet through much of Uganda. 

Peasant life in rural Africa is incredibly hard. And if you are born to this state with intelligence and integrity, charm and ambition, the challenges for most of us would be overwhelming. Most cook over small open fires on the compound floor. When it rains, as it did – very hard – through Sunday night, the place turns to clayey red mud. Rivers run through the yards and mud coats everything, especially the small children. As the rain roars on the tin roof of the mud and stick-built kitchen into which Alex and Precious have retreated to make my breakfast, we have to shout to make ourselves heard. We inhabit a world of red mud. “We don’t expect rain like this at this time,” says Alex making chapatis on a charcoal burner on the the wet floor, as Precious mops out with an old skirt. The rain beats a tattoo on the unlined zinc roof and cascades make a curtain at the door, falling into the rivers of mud that are everywhere. The children are smothered in mud, their decrepit shoes and sandals filled with red glue. Precious drops big cooking pots under the brown rain tumbling from the roof. Nothing wasted. Alex rolls chapatis on the floured top of a low stool and boils milk, water and tea in a blackened, lidless kettle for my chai. Precious can pick searing hot ashy saucepans and kettles from the fire with her bare hands. I can’t even touch the burning metal. “Oh, I am an African woman!” she laughs widely, mud from the ankles down, as she juggles pans and rinses a miscellany of mismatched plates, more cold water splashing into the mud of the floor. Keilah sits with a serious face chewing chapati in a child’s plastic armchair from China and the other Jonathan screams and hides behind his mother, terrified as yet of his mzungu uncle. The cooking knife has no handle, fresh water comes in plastic containers from a tap outside that only dribbles at night, the legs of the ubiquitous plastic Chinese chairs are stained red with mud. It’s just a touch above subsistence life. But subsistence life with so much ambition and drive from determined Alex. He brings a delicate china coffee cup he has gleaned from somewhere for my milky chai. The milk is straight from a cow across the muddy track amongst the matoke trees. “I’m sure my neighbour has been putting water in the milk, so I went myself,” Alex explains, cutting pineapple and passion fruits decoratively onto a green plate as if he’s in the Kampala hotel where he was so popular, but always cheated by unscrupulous employers – the fate of those with integrity in Uganda. 

Alex’s wellies are mud blathered at the door before the wall of rain. Precious thoughtfully bought them for my visit last year, but they are three sizes too small for me. My slippery flip-flops will do in this deluge. We slide about in the mud of the compound. “This rain will make the coffee flower.” Alex knows I’m always interested in life about me. “Last year we had NO coffee at all here, the rain was TOO much. The weather, it is changing…” If the Climate Change deniers had the humility to look at Uganda – or anywhere else in Africa, they may think again. But driven by blind arrogance and greed, they’ll never see this squalor and the suffering crop failures produce here. 

*

Alex is an accomplished chef, despite his kitchen
Children everywhere, but how they love Alex’s ‘slebrity’ mzungu

At least for a day the torrents will dampen the election fervour that is overrunning the rural village with noise and drunkenness. Fighting too, when candidates come to buy their votes. The price of a vote here? About four and a half English pence… That’s approximately what candidates hand out to the villagers here in the hope of a vote. The candidate with the biggest bank balance, and the most determination to cheat his or her way into lucrative local contracts, is the one that wins. Meanwhile, small lorries weighed down by vast loudspeakers pump pop music into the matoke trees as they pass on the narrow tracks. The populous runs behind to be at the front of the handout of pennies, enough to buy a box of matches. Fighting ensues and we even had reports of a shooting in the nearby trading centre. Everything went very quiet after THAT! The President has instructed the military to ‘shoot on sight’ at any disturbances at polling stations. The iron hand of a government that doesn’t care a jot and regularly arrests the opposition candidate, Bobi Wine, and imprisons his supporters on specious excuses. “What about international observers?” I naively ask Alex. “Oh, they go to a few polling stations where the officers are warned in advance. They look and drive off in their big vehicles.” This is an election split between the youth and the traditional older generations and mass of uneducated, who don’t like change and have been bought off over the years by an astonishingly corrupt leader and his cohorts. The opposition just gets locked up. And this man, Museveni, with so many lives to his account (actually of Rwandan stock) originally came to power to stamp out the corruption of the previous incumbent – back in the early 1980s, accusing Obote for ‘staying too long’. Rich irony: Museveni has been in power for 34 years, changed the constitution by force to remain in power long beyond the 75 years age limit allowed in his own constitution. 

“Huh! Our parliament is nothing more than a casino!” someone opined in conversation. “You get there by gambling. And Museveni is there, the big owner of the casino!” 

*

Alex with a small selection of local children for the mzungu’s camera

I photographed two girls one afternoon, mainly because they were obviously hanging about the house in wait for my camera. I always like to note down the names of my subjects, but I couldn’t understand their names, so I passed over my little notebook and pen. It was then that I realised that these two girls, about fourteen years old, couldn’t even write their own names. In clumsy capitals they wrote ‘WNNE’ and ‘BRIDGT’. Soon these two girls, from a village below the escarpment that Alex says has only the most basic education, will be mothers, to another illiterate generation. “They know money better, those girls. Always wanting money… They sell tomatoes all around the area. Only money…” 

“And the churches do nothing!” I exclaim, shocked, to Alex and his friend as we sit in the dark. “And the government cares nothing for the state of the people and the overpopulation of the planet. All they want is money.”

“The churches don’t even TALK about sex,” says Alex, putting on for a moment his mentor’s hat, the voluntary work he does with the local reproductive health centre to attempt to control the rampant birthrate, FGM and bring equality for girls. His friends says disgustedly, “All the churches came out for Museveni, endorsed him. The Catholic of course, but even the protestant, all of them. And you know what sort of cars they got? V8! Very big!” This is such a corrupt country, from the billionaire president – who will shortly be elected again – to the pettiest officials. When Alex’s employer at the hotel in the next town peremptorily closed his business at the beginning of the Covid crisis, he was heard to say, “Let them rot in the villages.” That’s pretty much the attitude of all who claw their way up the greasy ladder of wealth in Uganda. The candidate probably set to win this parliamentary seat, is a crook. Leaving school before O levels, he literally printed money – counterfeit notes, many of which were laundered by government officials – and his own qualifications. So this ill-educated candidate has the most money to give out in small notes to buy votes. Mind you, the incumbent has a low attendance and record of 0.037 involvement at the parliament, and he left school at Primary 7, so maybe a money faker without O levels can’t do much worse..? Another local candidate was discovered three days before the election with two full boxes of votes already-cast in her favour. No one ventures to disqualify her. The ruling party knows she won’t win anyway, so why bother? They’ve tied this election up months ago. It’s only a form they have to go through at huge taxpayer expense. Votes are usually cast on clan, tribal and religious lines – and those who buy the most votes. 

*

The cost of a vote? Well, now I’ve seen it for myself. I have photos of villagers lining up by the hundreds in a remote village to receive a 25p handout from a prospective candidate. “Oh, I am lucky,” he exclaimed through his megaphone to the watching crowd, “I even have a white visitor to my rally!” I gave him a thumbs up from the crowd, to the delight of the village. They see very few mzungus out there in the depths of the sticks. I do stand out rather, the only white skin in two or three hundred villagers, the sinecure of all eyes. 

Why were we in the distant areas below the big escarpment? We had decided to visit Alex’s sister, Doreen. Rashly, I’d suggested we could walk. I didn’t actually know it would be a very long trek of about 25 or more kilometres on broken tracks and ending up clambering straight back up the cliff sides in the pitch dark to get home, some 500 or 600 feet up, stumbling – at the end of 16 odd miles – over big rocks on black footpaths between the matoke. “I must just tell you that this mzungu can’t see in the dark!” I had to complain to Alex and his junior brother Nic, who accompanied us on the trek. I have often noted that those who live in the dark seem able to SEE in the dark. Nic and Alex scrambled sure-footedly upwards in the vaguely starlit dark. I trailed along, just about able to make out Nic’s white trousers, thankful for the 25p torch they had sent an acquaintance to purchase from some small country shack amongst the dark fields.

Nic starts down the ladder on the cliffside

We set off in the morning, through the matoke shambas to the lip of the great cliffs, from where the vast view into the west was hidden in mists. By good fortune we’d picked a cloudy day for our expedition. Steep metal ladders descend the cliffs here and there to help in the steep ways down to a gravel road far below. Everywhere we went, I was a celebrity, an ‘old’ white man who was being punished by his young guides and should just be put on a boda-boda for the rest of the journey. I don’t exaggerate that I greeted a thousand people lining the track-side. Children called, ‘old’ folk (generally a decade younger than me) made jokes, youths just wondered. “You must think young!” I proclaimed to elderly men and women, many of them anticipating the entertainment of noisy visits by prospective candidates and their supporters. No one seemed to be working the fields; the children aren’t at school – “Maybe they’ll go back after the election…” people say doubtfully. The government doesn’t care anyway. 

This was the longest walk that I have taken in years. Even young Nic, about 20 years old, overslept next morning and Alex was hobbling by the time we reached home at 8.20. ‘No point giving in,’ my mother used to say – and I maintained my self respect with two men less than half my age! By the end I was running on determination alone. 

*

Excited villagers greet an arriving candidate
An agent hands out bribes for votes. This is why the villagers gather! They aren’t interested in the politician… 25p each.

Election fever hotted up as the days went on. A rather strikingly good looking young woman candidate came to visit us here in the rural village. It’s her clan – an all-important relation here in Uganda. Her entourage stopped next door to Rock Gardens, where she made a speech, the parts of which Alex translated, sounding pretty relevant: calling Museveni to account for his inactions, rather than voting blindly for a man who has syphoned away billions of dollars in aid and international help, sharing it with the iron-fisted cronies of his own western clan and with the military authorities. But the villagers hadn’t come for the speeches. They’d turned out, running through the matoke shambas, for the pennies that would be distributed. With great acclaim, the independent candidate’s campaign team announced that she had brought 200,000 Uganda shillings (£40) for the four local villages. Not for a useful community project of course, for tiny sums for individuals. As soon as she left, unseemly chaos ensued. Fists were shaken and women screeched. Youths fought. Men tore at one another. Shouts and angry voices erupted. A major disagreement was caused by the apparent unfairness that the four hamlets are of differing sizes. People chased one another, clutching at skirts and jackets, screaming in anger. It was a shockingly undignified squabble over a few pennies. This is certainly not an election about causes, beliefs, ideologies or manifestos. It’s about money – who has it (the politicians) and who doesn’t (the voters). Undoubtedly the most corrupt, squalid election I’ll ever witness. Later, I had Precious and her mother in law line up for a photo, showing me in their open palms, the two 100 bob coins they had won. 200 bob is about 4.5 pence, and will buy a box of matches. “Oh,” laughs Precious, “but if I collect another 300 bob from other candidates, I have enough to buy washing soap!”

Precious and Florence, Alex’s mother, show off the bribes of one of the politicians. Two 100 bob coins will buy a box of matches…

*

Precious comes from western Uganda, far across the country. It’s a beautiful region that I have enjoyed several times. Her parents live on an island in scenic Lake Bunyoni. Her mother married at 14 and began giving birth soon after. Precious’s two older siblings were born from 1992, she herself in 1995. Her father is a teacher, so he taught his children to read and write, despite the fact that most education is considered wasted on girl children in Uganda. What’s the point? They will be married while still children and their responsibilities are motherhood and serving their men. Precious’s siblings taught their mother to read and write themselves. Precious is one of 11 children…

Her mother, constantly pregnant through Precious’s childhood, is probably in her mid-forties now. After the seventh birth, Precious dared to suggest that perhaps this was enough. Her advice caused pandemonium. “Eh! They wouldn’t speak to me for TWO yeeears!” 

Precious and Alex intend to limit their family to two children. “How can I educate and feed more?” he asks. “Already it is difficult. School fees for Keilah alone are £100. Where do I get that money – without you this year?” Alex is a keen ‘Champion’, advising and mentoring – against the greatest traditional odds – against large families and encouraging the equality of girls. Subjects that bring opposition amongst rural peasants. How he keeps his spirits, I never know. 

*

Thursday 14th January was the great day in Uganda when nothing would change. I had anticipated a corrupt election, but not on the scale I witnessed. No vote was cast locally without it was bought. It is the norm. You sell your future to the richest, probably most ruthless candidate, who will ‘serve’ for the next five years, make decisions that will affect your family and life – for a few pennies. More likely he or she will merely endorse the decisions of one of Africa’s personally richest, least caring presidents. If they don’t, they lose their privileges and rewards. 

“People are ruuuunning!” laughs Precious at breakfast time. “They are giiiving out money!” 

“Candidates and agents are running door to door, handing out money!” adds Alex, somewhat ashamed. “My candidate has failed to get more money… On the last day.” (So HE won’t win.) Of course, they raise the money on promises of favours if they come to power. “The crooks are sitting in the matoke with hands full of money!” It’s rotten all the way through. “There are lines sitting at the polling station waiting to be paid!” Throughout the day, neighbours came demanding money from Alex, knowing he’d been canvassing on behalf of his local candidate – whose money was expended. The choices locally are between the crook who counterfeits money, laundered by government officials; a woman who prepared her own filled ballot boxes; a man who left school before O levels, bought his qualifications and has ‘served’ the district as MP for five years. His record of speaking in parliamentary debates is just 0.037% – (one of the two occasions was in agreeing to Museveni’s change to his own constitution that enabled him to continue in power, a mandate opposed by most local people, his constituents); and a few independents who haven’t a chance anyway as it’s not about policies but how many votes can be bought on the day for a few bob outside the polling station. 

Call it by what it is – it’s plain bribery, in full sight and sanctioned by the president and his cronies. As Trump and Johnson have proved, tell lies long enough and almost half the electorate believe you. It may be politically incorrect, but democracy without education just doesn’t work. If it did, Trump would still be a second rate TV personality, I’d still be a European, not a Little Briton, and Alex would not live in a country hijacked by crooks. “This is only pseudo democracy,” says Alex with a contemptuous shake of the head. “BULLSHIT!” he exclaims exasperatedly, summing up so well what this charade is about. 

Kampala was closed down and militarised. The government drafted in vicious troops from Somalia, an experienced war-torn land, to repress its people. “There are troop tents in all the streets and military guards on all the buildings. Nothing moving in or out of the capital. Kampala is only soldiers,” Alex’s brother Cedric tells us, arriving from the capital in the morning; with great integrity, he’s come home to vote. It was said that the opposition candidate, pop star Bobi Wine, was taking refuge in the  American embassy, his whole campaign team arrested on some pretext while campaigning on one of the islands in Lake Victoria.

In the late afternoon, I accompanied Alex to the count, on a grassy hillside in front of a school building. The views across the valley were sunny and delicate behind the gathered agents and assistants. The returning officer emptied a box of ballots onto a sheet of black plastic on the ground and assistants – including young Nic – fell on their knees to sort the papers correct way round. The returning officer then held each paper high and announced the vote thereon, passing it to the relevant agent. This is a conservative place and we all knew that most would vote for Museveni as he has had longest to buy loyalty – 34 years of bribery of the uneducated. Sure enough, 176 votes were cast for him, but there was some excitement amongst my friends that Bobi Wine totalled 31 votes from the younger voters, claimed as a victory in such a hidebound constituency. “If he can do that in this village, most of his support is in the towns and cities!” Only about 200 people bothered to vote, perhaps 40% of those eligible – the others had merely taken the various bribe monies and stayed home. 

It wasn’t an election. It was an auction. 

*

Keilah, Alex and Precious’s 3 year old

On Friday we heard that the crook had carried the day for local MP; he with the deepest pockets. He’s known for faking notes of several nations, then burning the counterfeits in collusion with high bank officials commissioned to destroy old bank notes, which then slip back into circulation. He’s also known well amongst the government mafia, working with corrupt politicians. He left school before O level and faked his own papers. One of his teachers told me himself that he dropped out of school and stole a cow to start on his career – now to Member of Parliament for the district. Few are even ashamed of his record. He’s been ‘successful’, manipulated the system. So now the Sipi district really can be sure it has criminals in charge from bottom to top.

People still wait for more handouts – now for local officials’ posts… The system is ingrained and established. Only a revolution – or universal education – can solve things now. Nothing changes. African ‘democracy’ in action. It makes me proud of Ghana, who have largely managed to reduce the tribal system to less importance than national pride, and have free and fair elections with peaceful handover of power. It’s rare on this continent.

Sure enough, on Saturday, we hear that Museveni will be president again. What a surprise. Like so many long ‘serving’ African leaders, he will have to die in office to save the ignominy of being dragged to international courts on charges against human rights, and to protect his vast personal wealth. It is suspected that the votes were consistently rigged against the pop singer, so popular with younger and urban voters. Museveni’s stronghold is western Uganda, the region from which he comes, and that has received most of his bounty over the 34 years. Voting is partisan, as is the corruption. 

*

Alex stands in front of Rock Gardens, proud of his dream: the 1818 bar/restaurant

I gave Alex money for two more lorry loads of rough stone to construct the lower levels of 1818, his new bar and restaurant. He began his project with insufficient engineering knowledge. Now he must support the raised timber bar on strong stone piers. Sadly, in his enthusiasm, he started with the decoration and twiddly bits. For safety, his heavy upper structure requires a lot of support. Once he assures that, he will fence the compound for privacy and security, construct a more pleasant latrine – “It’s OK for me,” I said, “but your visitors won’t accept it! Locals like to keep their pride intact.” Then he and Precious will open for business, a pleasant bar for meetings, small conventions, and quiet visitors. By charging more for their services they can keep out the drunks, says Alex! Since March and lockdown, he has left his job at the hotel in Kapchorwa and concentrated his efforts at Rock Gardens. He is admired by his late colleagues. “They laugh and say I am the only Ugandan to escape from that employer!” The boss regrets his exploitation now, that drove away his best, most popular manager. 

Alex watches work to strengthen 1818. Pity he started the project wrong way round! Build the roof, then the foundations…
The interior of 1818 so far. A bit wonky, but with charm and a nice view

On Saturday, a team of masons and labourers gathered to continue building the piers to strengthen the bar/ restaurant. Everything costs money, of which Alex has so very little – without my patronage. How he withholds the frustration of seeing his ambition creep forward at such a snail’s pace, I don’t know. A 50kg bag of cement at £6 is a tenth of the salary he used to bring home from a month on call 24/7 as manager at the exploitative hotel in Kapchorwa. £110 for stone is beyond his capability. My £2000 may make this lovely family independent. That’s MY ambition. He’s thrilled that I’ve shown him how to make paint from local pigments that is much cheaper than the vividly artificial colours available from the small stores in Sipi. He exclaims at the samples I have produced from earth from his own compound mixed with PVA, known here only as a wood glue: rich browns from the earth, a warm grey from wood ash and black from the bottom of the charcoal bag. 

Precious jokes with little JB and Keilah at home
Precious poses with her mzungu

The weather has been cloudy, cool and sometimes wet. On Friday night I had to scurry about my round room at 2.30am moving belongings from drips and puddles, before moving the big bed away from spray through the banana thatch. It’s not a very luxurious life, living like an African! But I am here for the human warmth and love expressed so readily on this fascinating continent, not for comfort.

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Edissa is a keen athlete and wants to run competitively, but her chances are remote in her rural village

My virus test was valid for reentry to Kenya until the morning of Monday the 18th, so Sunday saw my journey home to Kitale on the wildly wonderful road around Mount Elgon, really one of my favourites. Fortunately, despite several heavy rains in Sipi in the past days, Sunday was bright and sunny and the difficult road dry. In rain this route is taxing indeed. I preferred to travel back through the small, friendly Suam border post, where I am known and recognised as the old mzungu on the piki-piki. They’re friendly officials, and that counts for a lot in these uncertain times. 

The beauty of the trail between Sipi and Suam. One of my favourites. Why not have a wide smile on my face?

And what a fine ride it is! I’m now in good control of my little machine. It clocked up its 100,000th kilometre at the most notorious section of the lovely road. We have ridden over 27,000km together (17,000 miles). When I first rode the bike, I dismissed it as weak, slow and too light, and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Then Rico nobly scavenged a comfortable single seat from a derelict NGO machine in Congo and nobly fought it through Customs and Excise – partly because it was carried in a large plastic bag, banned in the countries en route! My rides changed after he fashioned the steel brackets and carrier to fit the new seat. I could now ride easily for long journeys. Now, four years on, I realise that this small 200cc Suzuki is the perfect bike for my travels. It is lightweight – a serious consideration as I get older – and it is a great off-road machine. It’s a bit tedious on long highways, to be sure, at 45mph, but I am not here to hurry. On the Sipi to Kitale road I can dance about on the versatile machine and have a lot of fun. I am now confident enough to watch the vistas stretching into the blue distance and even to wave at the clamouring children as I pass, weaving over hard trails and rocky hillsides. I have a wide smile on my face to be here, close to the Equator in rural Uganda. 

Tough and energetic – and lots of fun
Rough but magnificent in the equatorial sun
The road around Mount Elgon will one day be easy, slightly disappointing tarmac, but for now there are adventures to be had by an old mzungu

*

So home to Kitale and beer on the porch with Rico, warm greetings from Adelight, Scovia, Marion and Maria and a time to reset for the next part of my journey. My charming, warmhearted Ugandan family long for me to return in February – with a new £50 virus test – to decorate the slightly wonky bar/ restaurant of crooked timbers, rough stones and mud plaster with our homemade natural colours. “Make it look traditional. Even if we have to invent the culture!” I told Alex. 

It’s not my creative scenery design ideas they want. It’s my company. Love and warmth and family are expressed so generously and fulsomely here in Africa, Precious crying as I rode away up the red dusty track and Alex waving until I disappeared round the corner between the matoke trees. Only little Jonathan, JB, named in my honour, was happy to see the white skinned figure of fear ride away at last! 

Mary. Who could resist?

EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – SIX

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DAY 43. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 23rd 2019. DEBRE TABOR, ETHIOPIA

In a hearty attempt not to repeat the trials of the last few weeks, I only rode 100 miles today, and then booked into a… (well, I’d call it pretty good; you’d think it was absolutely foul, but that’s where I differ from most of my readers!) …a ‘pretty good’ hotel in this rather unattractive high altitude town at 2.30 in the afternoon. I had a hot shower and lay on my bed for a couple of hours or more watching Richard Strauss opera, one of my passions that can make me forget the cough, tune out all the impressions, observation, thoughts, and rest my mind on something from my own familiar culture. For this my iPad has added a dimension to my journeys (7 filmed operas and 10 favourite films, a lot of music and some books – I invariably read Jane Austen on these journeys!). Very restorative – and still a bit required, for my cough continues, although all the fevers have gone. My nose bleeds a bit when I blow it, but that’s probably the altitude affecting my capillaries. Here in Debre Tabor I am at almost nine thousand feet. Tomorrow, I think I’ll hit the highest on my motorbike in Africa. There’s a point in Lesotho that claims to be the highest motor-able road on the continent – 3255m – but we beat that in the minibus in the Simien Mountains on Sunday, and I think the road tomorrow will take me around 3355m – 10,800 feet. I’ll keep my jacket handy. It gets chilly up here on a motorbike. I read somewhere that wind chill is one degree per mile of hour. OK, I’m crawling along at 35mph, but that’s still 35 degrees of wind chill.

The first sixty miles today, retraced my journey up to Gondar: I passed the huge thumb of rock for the fourth time as I descended. Then I turned east on a big high plain to begin my circuit across the high mountains before I turn south again back to Addis Ababa. So far my roads have been pretty good and traffic is less dense and less incautious up here, so it can even be quite relaxing, bowling along at my steady 37 miles an hour – on the flat; on these hills I am down to 25mph! Children wave, I swing round donkeys, sheep, cows; and in villages I slow down because the pedestrians have less road sense than donkeys (which often just lie in the carriageway as speeding buses swerve around them). Then there are the decrepit horse carts loaded high with hay at this season, and the ghastly tuk-tuks, that obey no law known to Ethiopian traffic. But I’ve sort of got used to it now, and I can anticipate the hazards better than most, I think. Just expect anything, but certain actions from certain vehicles. Generally, up here on the open road, other drivers are surprisingly considerate. 

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After I turned east, the scenery became very handsome, with large volcanic cores sticking up everywhere from rolling agricultural landscapes backed by a range of mountains that I was approaching, and soon climbing slowly between waving hands and the strange homes: built of vertical sticks and poles with mud on the insides, with the usual zinc roofs. They are oddly high and could even have an upper floor, but they don’t seem to. I know it’s a fact that something like 30% of Ethiopians, obviously in rural areas, share their living spaces with their animals. It’s also a fact the most sleep on the floor, which, when you consider nighttime temperatures in these mountains, is pretty rugged living. But then, the life of most African subsistence farmers is unimaginably hard (even to me, who sees it all the time – and then pays an extra £3.50 to choose a ‘king size’ bed tonight). Life for Ethiopian peasants is probably harder than most; partly because of the climate and conditions. Ethiopia has, it seems, very little apart from vast arid deserts of formidable dryness, or these high, cold mountains. There’s really not much mid-ground. 

Debre Tabor arrived about thirty kilometres sooner than I expected. It’s difficult to judge distance on my map, as the country is so vast, and some of the roads much more convoluted than they are shown. I wondered whether to continue. It was only shortly after two. Then I remembered Kari’s warning advice in an email this morning: ‘please, please rest long enough to recover some strength. Even if you get bored. Keep watching the operas.’ So I checked out the two biggest hotels and chose the Hibren, a large, slightly old fashioned place, rambling over three floors, and picked a room right at the back for peace. For £12.50 I thought I might as well have the king size bed. Very comfortable that is too. It’s quiet and cool enough for a thin duvet up here. It’s 8.00 and I’m in bed. ‘Rest long enough to recover some strength…’ OK, Kari, message received. Over and out at 8.15… No more opera, just oblivion. 

DAY 44. THURSDAY JANUARY 24th 2019. LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA

By any gauge, today’s ride counts amongst the best I ever took. It’s up there with some days in Lesotho (still top!), Namibia, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. It was truly magnificent – most of the day. I rode to my preferred limit, just a few more than 200 kilometres (125 miles), which I hope to maintain after those few ghastly rides that so exhausted me. There’ll be a couple of very long ones going  back into Kenya, they can’t be helped.

****

I slept well and long, luxuriating in thick – ironed! – Egyptian cotton sheets in my distant room all alone at the far back of the oddly dated hotel in Debre Tabor. I’m feeling much recovered although the cough is slow to go. No one had any idea how long my ride would be today; most people seldom leave their home patches in rural cultures such as this. I guessed about correctly from my map, and I could see from that my road would be high all the way, never dropping below 2500m and reaching over 2950m (around 9600 feet ASL) about 50 miles from Debre Tabor – the highest I ever rode any of my bikes. The little Mosquito does well, puffing and straining a bit, coping with the climbs slowly, with lots of gear changes, but it gets me to the top and then down the other side. Tonight I am still at 8500 feet, and very impressive it is too. 

The road climbed gently out of Debre Tabor. Once loose of the horrible town traffic, pedestrians and tuk-tuks, the landscape enlarged, rolling mountain scenery, closely cropped grass stubble, all pale yellow and grey and brown. Eucalyptus provided dark shadows and graphic qualities to the wide scapes. The architecture was the first thing I noticed changing: to handsome local homes of the usual vertical sticks and timbers, plied with mud and straw on the insides, but here the houses began to be built as two storeys, with heavy stone bases for the cattle, and a rustic balcony for the simple upper dwelling. These are houses built by mountain people: you see similar solutions to the high climes in the Himalaya, the Andes – even in golf-course Switzerland. Some of them here sported grass thatch and many were attended by smaller round mud and stick huts with conical roofs. They really were a lovely vernacular, of the landscape and well proportioned. They delighted me as I rode. Later I even saw complete rustic stone houses with old wooden doors and wide eaves. Haystacks stood around, and large piles of foot-round, hand-patted plates of cow dung were stored in shapely heaps. Everywhere, families were turning their hay, tossing fountains of yellow straw, catching the sun high on the breeze, with three-pronged wooden pitchforks. It must have looked thus for 100 years, maybe centuries. 

Higher and higher I curled. Then, as so often happens in this spectacularly rugged country, a vast chasm fell away suddenly to one side, straight down from the edge of the road to a dry river bed a mile below, crumpled mountains disappearing into the distance haze and fusing into the miasma at the junction of land and endless African skies. Tall eucalyptus lined my road, dappling my foreground and I had no idea that this extraordinary piece of road building was to keep me gasping for the next thirty miles or so, never far from an edge on one side of the road or the other – and most excitingly, sometimes on both sides at the same place, for often the road followed the very ridge of the steeply formed mountains, plunging away on both sides, just ten yards each way and then endlessly down into twisting valleys, terraced laboriously into tiny fields wherever ingenuity has made it possible over centuries of hard graft. It was a captivating ride; thirty of the best miles I ever rode. A motorbike – and I know I won’t convince everyone – except my biker friends – is the perfect way to experience a place like that. You lean and weave, out in the freshness of the air, you feel the light and shade, the warmth of the sun and the cool of the shadows; you smell the warm air, the rush of the breeze; the freedom and space; you become, if the road is quiet and surface good as here, just a part of the scene; you experience it FAR more deeply and intimately than any other way. It makes you smile; makes you content, happy to be able to have this extraordinary – and it is – experience. I hope I will long remember that ride.

Then the chasms fell back and I was in more prosaic farmland, trees and endless villages. Everyone waved – but sadly, whenever I stopped, no child resisted asking for money or pens. It’s irritating, but I suppose I just have to accept that a white person in Africa is generally associated with giving out ‘aid’ of some sort – most of it, I cynically believe, to make us feel better for the gross inequality we have caused in the world, for, let’s face it, we never really give what we cannot afford – or, two, tourists have thought it ‘fun’ and ‘kind’ to give out gifts; but it’s patronising and all it does is give every child the concept that white people have so much they can be importuned for small alms all the time. It alters the social cultural scene so unpleasantly; does nothing for the children and only bolsters the white people’s egos. One of the irritations of travel in poorer countries. If you want to help, give your money to a school or health clinic, don’t hand out useless pennies and cheap pens to all and sundry. 

Anyway, back to the journey, the magnificent journey, which was about to continue in as fine form from a small, filthy village where youngsters filled the street – 64% of the population, so they’re always around; the majority not in school or useful employment, many playing table football and pool at roadside bars or gathering in mindless, unproductive groups by the road. From that dirty, litter-filled, dust and dirt-spread village, a road turned north. I negotiated for black market petrol from a tyre mender (they usually know where to get it) and we poured it from drums and cans. I will have to have my tank emptied and cleaned out when I leave the country. So much dust and dirt goes through my engine with this ridiculous petrol situation. It’s been going on for at least two months and there seems no sign of an end. The country is moving around on an occasional delivery to occasional stations – and the rampant black market, that isn’t at all hidden.

The road to Lalibela I knew to be a dirt road. It seemed it would be 64 kilometres, for there was a rare sign at the junction, still just about legible, unusually. The road twisted out of the village and then, with a drama that is becoming almost predictable, dropped fabulously down a very steep escarpment into the vastness of Ethiopia. Once again the limitless, twisted and rumpled landscape lay at my feet, as my wheels bounced from rock to rock. Nothing between me and the endlessness of this gigantic mountain landscape; part of it for more miles than I could measure or see. The sun was lower now, so the views take on sharper shadows and more relief and shape. The light’s softer and colours gentler. Here there was even some brilliant green in the view. I rattled and bumped, shook and twisted. It’s good exercise, riding these trails. Imagine then, my delight when, after a mere fifteen kilometres, I was riding on smooth new blacktop. Apart from a few stretches, it brought me all the way to the last dramatic curling rocky shelf road up to Lalibela, situated on a high ridge with views downward and outward in all directions.

Lalibela is the site of one of Africa’s major archaeological sights, the rock hewn churches from the 13th century, cut deep into the soft rock around this town. They are the attraction best known of Ethiopia, on all the posters. I’ll leave them for tomorrow, but I don’t expect to be disappointed.

I needed to rest and a good place to stay for two or three nights. I rode about the large village, it’s hardly even a town. On the edge of the deep escarpment are a number of smart hotels for the majority of tourists who fly in from Addis – missing the astonishing beauty of the more arduous approach I so enjoyed. These places quote prices in dollars and keep you, the flying tourist, safe from the people of the country; a white enclave with a great view. About 200 yards away I found a slightly run down version of the same thing. Still just the most expensive of my visit but still within my self-imposed budget of £16 after some bargaining. Here I have the hugest room of my experience, with a bathroom as big as a ballroom – with hot water and a flushing lavatory! There’s a balcony with a stupendous view into deep valleys below. Rustically furnished even if it’s just a bit down at heel, it’s rather charming and will do me very well indeed for at least a couple of nights. I’m sitting in a giant room in a capacious locally made armchair of plaited ropes finishing my post prandial Habasha beer, anticipating a long sleep in this cool altitude again.  

This was a grand day! The sort of day that makes me forget the sickness of past days and look forward to any more of this extraordinary country that might turn up similar delights. I wonder what tomorrow will bring..?

DAY 45. FRIDAY JANUARY 25th 2019. LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA

Where to begin..? A very full and fulfilling day. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela deserve their fame; extraordinary monuments, and still important living churches too, attracting thousands of Ethiopian pilgrims to vibrant, lively festivals.

It’s been my privilege to see with my own eyes and experience with my own intellect a pretty large array of the archaeological wonders of the ancient worlds. Alongside the Lalibela churches I have seen and marvelled over: the city of Petra, also cut into standing rock, where I most memorably slept in a Bedouin encampment before they were moved out; I scrambled and puffed my way up to Machu Picchu in a damp dawn to beat the influx from the tourist train later in the morning; I struggled through the jungles to the Mayan cities like Tikal, Palenque, Oaxaca; the rock-hewn temples in India, whose name escapes me, as does all reference to them here, where these fine monuments are lauded as unique in the world (well, they’re not! I can testify to that. (later: they’re at Ajanta)); there are the incredible medieval cathedrals of Europe; the Terracotta Warriors of Xian; the temples and tombs of the Valley of the Kings, including Tutankhamen’s; and all the attendant wonders there; crusader castles in Syria; the giant heads of Nemrut Dagi in Cappadocia; the vast, fog-filled Salt Cathedral in Colombia – another religious structure built inside out; some wonders now lost to the world from fanaticism: the astonishing desert ruins of Palmyra, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the absolutely unforgettable souk of Aleppo, the water wheels of Hama; then there’re the Pyramids of Giza – well, you get the picture: I’m a bit of a judge of such sights! Lalibela is amongst that roll call.

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What is so astonishing is that these structures were build from the inside out, so to speak. Like any great sculpture, it’s what you see in the stone before you start, and how you chip away at the material, all the time controlling how much you take away, for it is what is left that creates the result. These churches were carved downwards first, one assumes, creating intricate facades – and chip away too much and you can’t put it back. Maybe they carved out a giant block of stone, creating the pit around each one? But even then, they must have known where the entrance stairs would be and have kept that negative spatial thinking all the time they worked. Then perhaps they carved inward, making several-aisled churches with sturdy pillars to hold up the still natural roofs. Imagine, you’d have to carve in at the doors and then upwards to the high roofs… I suppose, once you reverse the normal spatial thinking for long enough: the way of thought with which most buildings are constructed by adding layer upon layer, and comprehend that you are, in effect, making a mould, an opposite, a negative, a mirror impression, then, once you have that established, it’s just a matter off keeping the overall concept intact. Very impressive, though, speaking as a 3D designer.

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Around the town centre of Lalibela, ranged in three groups, are eleven churches dug into the rock. It’s a relatively soft tufa rock of volcanic origin, here and there interrupted by hard basalt. The original designers and craftsmen must have known their geology well. Remember too, that when you dig down, you create waterways and alter water courses. They had to deal with all that, and any geological faults they may have known. The roofs of the churches are set at about ground level, with big pits around them, and approached by intricate passageways and connected by rock cut tunnels. All the churches have different architectural features and styles, and it’s likely that it took more than just the 25 year reign of King Lalibela in the 12th century to complete the work, although most sources agree that many of the churches are roughly contemporaneous; there’s a theory that some of them may have been adapted at that time from much earlier (7th/ 8th century) structures, but no one can agree for sure on any of their history.

These are venerated, working churches, places of deeply held spiritual belief and pilgrimage. It’s a feature of this country, that religious belief still defines much of life and culture. I can’t share any of that, but I am impressed by the fact that it is very much part of daily life, and it does seem to bring a purpose and cohesion to the land. The Orthodox faith is bound up in every aspect of life. Oddly, the moslem faith seems much lower key, even though a third of the country is moslem – but mainly in the lowlands to the east and west of the highlands.

The impressive thing about religion here, as opposed to so much of the Africa that I have travelled, is that it is not an imposed, outside religion, arrogantly brought in to ‘enlighten the natives’, bring ‘development’, or exploit the land. Here religion is indigenous, older than almost any religion in Africa except the natural animistic beliefs. Ethiopia had an organised, national intellectual religion while the rest of the continent was beating drums to quell evil spirits. It is an integral part of Ethiopia’s history; long before white missionaries were invented by greedy western religious bodies, these people followed their own versions of the very religions that were even then only spreading into Europe. These structures were carved at about the time that Europe was building cathedrals and parish churches. Their foundation was a total conviction in a religious discipline that drove this outpouring of creativity and astonishing human effort. I have to respect that, as indeed, I do the belief that built the cathedrals of the world.

St George is a particularly venerated saint in the Orthodox cannon. Tomorrow is a day of celebration, centred on the best known and best preserved of the rock churches, a large block of rock about sixty feet deep, carved into a cross plan. Approached by intriguing single file passageways cut deep into the rock, and short connecting tunnels, it stands square in its deep pit, the always African blue sky arching over its deep hole. Pilgrims dress in white with embroidery, dazzling against the green and brown of the natural rock. 

Inside, all the churches are dark and shadowy, dreadfully lit by fluorescent strips dangling about the rock structures. Bright, glittery satin drapes hang everywhere, with some tattered painted canvases in the graphic Orthodox style of story telling. The doors are old and venerable, antique things of great weight, pinned and strapped by ancient iron, secured by shiny Chinese padlocks. You remove your shoes and the steps and passageways are polished by millions of bare feet. Tattered old carpets cover the very uneven rock floors. An occasional monk sits in most of the interiors, sometimes a few chatting together, their pillbox hats and white robes catching the brilliant sunlight that shines here and there from rock-cut windows and soft-edged rock doorways.

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My day has been long and hard, clambering about the dusty mounds and rocky ridges of this high town, sustained by half a litre of delicious avocado juice and another of delectable mango juice, pressed freshly and taken during the middle of the day recess and closure of all the churches. It’s surprisingly easy to beat off guides and just see the churches in peace at your own pace, which for me involved just sitting and absorbing the atmosphere, watched by a monk or two but left at peace. This way, you can take in the extraordinary feat of carving and ignore the selfie-takers; enjoy the quiet, the peace and the sanctified atmosphere, but a feeling too of working buildings, for such they really are. These are no tourist monuments to be wondered at, but places to which much of Ethiopia comes in worship. The interiors are an odd mix of ancient stone, plastic containers, battered old stacking chairs and venerable skin drums and artefacts. Each contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, so well known in Ethiopia – the reputed ‘original’ supposedly being kept in Axum, the ancient capital to the north. It’s been pretty well disproved archaeologically, but the legend still lives on and captures the imagination. It is speculated that these churches were laid out in a specific pattern for pilgrimage, representing the plan of ancient Jerusalem, long – by the 12th century – a destination for Ethiopian pilgrims. In the 12th century Saladin attacked Jerusalem and pilgrimages were prevented. It’s thought that King Lalibela may have created a site for domestic pilgrimage as replacement.

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The vast majority of tourists here are in organised groups, flying in to the local airport and being accommodated in style for big dollars. Mixed amongst them are the usual independents like me, finding our own way, arranging our own itineraries. In a narrow cleft – and most of them are one person wide – I waited a few moments while Nick, a traveller from the Isle of Man, made his way through and we fell into conversation, as one does. He’s 50, and his wife died last year after 30 years together and his way of coping has been to spend a good deal of time travelling, thanks to thoughtful employers. He’s been riding motorbikes in Vietnam where his brother runs a bike touring company. And being a Manx-man by birth and upbringing, he has motorbikes to the core. Our conversation continued over four beers and supper this evening, at his hotel just down the street. He’s just beginning his Ethiopian journey. I find it so amusing that I am now seen, by other travellers, as an ‘inspiration’! Mind you, I did watch a lot of Europeans today, many of them far less than my age, making very heavy weather of their tourism, supported by sticks and guides on the rough, difficult terrain! They should try riding a motorbike on these rugged roads. 

Sitting quietly beneath a tree outside one of the church compounds during the middle of the day closure, I had found a haven of peace. I was sitting at the head of a congregation of low stone benches set for pilgrims during celebrations. It was peaceful and welcome. Then up the rise, jumping from seat to seat, came a pretty little girl, aged about ten. She carried a lunch container in a florescent green wool tatted cover and a water bottle, for she had taken lunch to her watchman father. She was bright and cheerful and didn’t even ask for a pen. I spent a charming fifteen minutes with Betty, a warm-hearted child with a bit of simple school English. Her father came out to join us, at Betty’s cheerful invitation, and I had to submit to a photo with smiling, polite Betty. A charming interlude. For the town is filled with irritating children with whom it’s difficult not to get short. They attach themselves and walk alongside. Asking all the same trivial questions and telling all the same trivial information. I have to tell myself that they don’t understand that answering the same simple questions time after time gets really tedious – especially as the approach invariably ends up with a request for pens or money. One kid started to spin a yarn about his father having to bury his grandfather tomorrow… “Oh, go away!” I exclaimed, finally breaking. The more touristic the region, the more the begging, for many fly in with no understanding. I watched one woman tip a boy for helping her on some worn rock steps. She gave him 100 Birr. That’s £3. Most tips here are 5 or 10 Birr. The lad kept a straight face too! But it creates a ‘market’.

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I enjoyed sitting in those rock-hewn churches, imbibing the atmosphere. Sitting in one church, I thought to myself, ‘well, so what? I sleep in a rock-hewn bedroom at home’! Not quite so architecturally grand as Lalibela’s churches, it’s true, but hacked from living rock. 

DAY 46. SATURDAY JANUARY 26th 2019. LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA

On Saturday there’s a big, colourful market in Lalibela, to which people bring their produce and animals from outlying villages for sale on the crowded, dusty slopes of a lower part of town. Donkeys and goats and sheep; vegetables curiously familiar: small potatoes, onions, tomatoes, ratty cabbages (about the nearest you get to a green vegetable in this country) and copious numbers of chilli peppers, one of the staple ingredients of every damned dish. A lot of teff seeds and unroasted coffee, the two main agricultural products of much of the country, are for sale. There are plastic sandals galore, bright fabric, colourful cheap dresses from China, locally woven cotton with fine embroidery, plastic in every colour and form and cheaply made consumer items that will all fall apart and be discarded within weeks: made in China; not made to last. Soon they’ll be littering the yards and fields, the watercourses and roadsides.

****

The altitude is enervating, even now, when I have been travelling at these heights for three weeks. Today, pretty well a first in life, I took a rest in the middle of the day – and discovered that subsequently I had enough energy to wander the afternoon away, back at the rock-hewn churches and at the major festival that is taking place this weekend at St George’s church, the most important of the carved places of worship. Thousands of noisy pilgrims had gathered around the hole in which stands the cross-shaped rock church. It was alarming to watch so many, rocking and chanting, genuflecting and wailing, at the edge of an unprotected sixty foot vertical rock wall. In the end, I had to leave. The priests were all out in their glittery satins and tassels; their bright finery of long robes and turbans; shaded by brilliant, colourful parasols. Church members in long white robes and coloured cotton hats or intricate white turbans, crowded the precipitous edge, clapping rhythmically and swaying to the music of drums. A huge crowd balanced on every broken dust surface around to watch and ululate at the wisdom of the officiating priests. Down below, packed around the base of the carved church, were hundreds more pilgrims, all in white. 

Exposure to so many tourists makes this an irritating town, however. Children pester and youths assume they have the right to intrude as they wish. Many of the children want to practice their English skills; many also want money or spin well-rehearsed, tedious stories about the need for school books, pens, burial of dead elders, medicines and so forth ad infinitum. The same simple questions, over and over and over  become very annoying and it’s difficult to understand that some are genuinely friendly children being polite. As for the youths, most of them are just on the make and can be repelled. It makes walking the broken streets and climbing the cobbled hills tiresome. 

One youth told me that the $50 (£42!) each and every foreign tourist pays for a four day entry to the eleven churches goes directly to the Lalibela priests! it doesn’t go to the Orthodox church or to improve the poor infrastructure of this scruffy town, or to pick up the acres litter and plastic, or provide decent signage and tourist services: it goes to the priests. Yet one or two are still not above a bit of private enterprise, rather than the glory of god, when they suddenly dive through a curtain and come back draped in their fine robes, carrying large ornate crosses to pose for tourist cameras – and demand money for the privilege! One security guard clicked his fingers at me after I removed my shoes, demanding to see my ticket. I waved it at him across a ten foot gap, where he reclined against the rock. He clicked that I should take it to him. “Sorry, mate, I paid fifty dollars for this: you can come and fetch it!” He did, somewhat sheepishly. It’s a shame when the respect goes out of dealings between tourists and providers. Without our money, they’d have a much less comfortable life in Lalibela…

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Manx-man, Nick and I spent the evening drinking beer and eating dishcloth and meat on the third floor of a local simple restaurant (sorry, Rico, I know injera is one of your favourite African foods. I can’t get so enthusiastic; I’d sooner eat ughali, which you won’t countenance!). I’ve enjoyed some company for a couple of days. He’s at the start of pretty much his first African travel experience, having only visited South Africa before. He has three months or so to wander, and would have really liked to buy a motorbike for his journey, but the problem here is usually registration of said bike in the name of a foreigner. I’ve been extolling the virtues of many African countries of course, inspiring some ideas. He is doing this to come to terms with his overwhelming emotional loss and to give himself time to contemplate the future. It’s so odd that here in Lalibela, Ethiopia, I meet a man who’s even worked with some of the same people with whom I worked back in the late 90s, when I designed the upper floors of the IOM heritage centre in Peel, one of my favourite jobs, thanks to getting familiar with the IOM. We’ve bonded well and we’ve both benefitted by the company. I hope we meet again some day. 

DAY 47. SUNDAY JANUARY 27th 2019. WOLDIYA, ETHIOPIA

Just when I’m getting bored, Ethiopia throws another topographical firework to wake me up. It’s an astonishing country for that. 

I was riding along feeling guilty for being bored. I mean, I am in northern Ethiopia on my Mosquito riding at well over 11,000 feet above sea level, and I was bored? How ungrateful and complacent can I get? But the air was chilly, the landscape had a washed out quality, almost monochromatic browns and the yellow of stubbly cut hay. The houses were of stone and mud from the same soils, the thatch old and weathered, the eucalyptus dull green, coated with dust by the roadside. The road was long with terrible potholes, most of which stretched the width of the road, some of them a foot deep. The light was bright and tiring; I was so high. But did I really have the right to feel bored…? Surely not! This was the highest I ever rode…

Then without so much as a preliminary flourish, came another of those Ethiopian magic moments to stir my soul once again, back into my journey.

****

Nick moved to the hotel I had found yesterday. He was being charged $36 for a mediocre room in another hotel. The manager of that same hotel offered me a room for $14 in an attempt to entice me away from the one I had chosen. You really need to bargain in these tourist places, but Nick had recently arrived in Ethiopia and didn’t know the value of rooms or the currency. He took a ballroom-sized room at my hotel for half the price. We breakfasted together at the town juice bar – half litres of delicious avocado juice, and then, with him taking a few photos to inspire his biker friends in the Isle of Man, I rode out of town, back across the wide high valley, with views to the distant horizons. It was the same road by which I approached Lalibela, smooth blacktop for two thirds of the 64 kilometres, dire rock and dust for the other third. My mood was high; company had helped in this country in which I have spent so much time alone thanks to the vast communication gap. I enjoyed the ride: fine scenery, the high mountain escarpment approaching; bright skies; waving people; a curling road such as we bikers like best. 

Back on tarmac at the top of the impressive rocky, dusty climb, I stopped at the same mechanic’s booth as I did on Thursday and purchased four litres of black market petrol. It stirs up the tank as they pour it in from old funnels and homemade tin jugs. Each time now, a few miles down the road, my engine coughs and splutters – even cut out this morning. I have to rev wildly to pull the dirt through the carburettor before I can continue. At least I recognise the problem – and will have to get the tank rinsed out in Addis, and again when I get back to Kenya. 

****

Then it was off on a long ride across the top of Ethiopia. I don’t know the altitude (I’ll check when I eventually get some internet), but it was undoubtedly the highest I have ever ridden. But the distance just went on and on, the road stretched out before me, eventually becoming repetitive and tedious, even though I knew I should be revelling in the extreme height of my ride. I stopped to pull on my windproof jacket, for I was chilled through by now. 

Eventually, something subtly changed in the quality of the light; you get attuned on these very long rides. I sensed that I might be in for another Ethiopian visual firecracker soon – but had no concept just how explosive this one would be, for the road curled through a narrow defile, and suddenly I found I was at the very top of one of the biggest mountain passes I have ever seen (and I seek them out all over the world!). From the shelf on which I pulled up in absolute astonishment, the rock faces plunged away, falling, I am sure, at least five thousand feet down to where I could see my road twisting and curling like a skein of casually tossed string, etched all about the extreme slopes. Far below, and as far as I could see, tin roofs caught the sunlight like a great inverted glitter-ball, the mountains rising up on the opposite side of the giant valley as I marvelled at the engineers that had the audacity to scratch this ledge, frequently supported by a high wall, across the vast precipices and ridges. 

Eventually, exhilarated, I reached the valley bottom. Looking back up at the vast, soaring walls of rock and undergrowth, as much as a mile high, I thought to myself, ‘my Mosquito and I were somewhere up there half an hour ago! How was that possible?’

****

Narrow, twisting valleys brought me to Woldiya where I decided to stop, having almost done my 200 kilometre self-imposed limit for the day. There’s a very odd discrepancy on my map around here, for Woldiya (called Weldiya on the map), is in a completely different place to the road: about fifty kilometres north… Still, it does seem to have the junction I need to turn south towards Addis Ababa; in fact it’s right outside my hotel window in the centre of town; a town filled with big lorries parked up for the night now, which will ply these extensive roads – 500 miles north or south to reach Axum and Eritrea, or Addis. I probably should have been more circumspect and taken a rear room, rather than being attracted to watch the big dusty, broken roundabout out the front. I guess it’ll be an earplug night again. The Mosquito’s in the yard at the back, amongst the washed sheets on lines. I hope I chose a good place to sleep. It took a while to find something suitable, having spurned a whole section of the town that appeared to boast no less than five mosques in close proximity; rejected the expensive dollar-tariffed best hotel; utterly rejected a place that had raucous music and football games from every corner, and settled on the Yen Hotel, a clean, characterless place, but run by a smiley woman and her daughter. At this time of day, all I need is a good, big bed to stretch across until morning – when another 200 kilometres will turn up who knows what? 

I kind of knew intellectually that Ethiopia was mountainous; the map told me as much. But I had no idea just how utterly magnificent would be the scenery I was to ride through. It seems an unknown land, and it’s not until you ride the roads, see it with your own eyes, marvel at the most gigantic vistas you’ve seen in your life; get exhausted by the sheer scale of it all… It’s not till then that you appreciate what an extraordinary country this is. 

And I haven’t even mentioned the very friendly people today. It is one of the most challenging countries I have travelled in Africa – for there is no shared vernacular communication at all: rubbing my stomach and play-acting eating movements, for instance, just meets with blank stares of incomprehension, as do all my attempts – usually very successful in all other cultures – to overcome language difficulties by signs and gestures, smiles and role play. The ‘ferengi’ is just a  being who might be from another planet, and it’s only when I find someone who speaks some basic English, and they are few and far between, that I am able to manage even the simplest communication – although, as always a smile speaks a lot of words.

There’s a Total station just up the road. It must have had a delivery of petrol, for a line of perhaps 100 tuk-tuks waits all up the road. They have been queuing since I arrived in town, and looking out of my window as I go to bed, they are still lined up out there. (Next morning, the line had not reduced; I expect they were serving petrol all night).

DAY 48. MONDAY JANUARY 28th 2019. DESSIE, ETHIOPIA

This is such a kind country. Almost every day I meet with generous acts and open friendliness. It’s difficult now, looking back, to understand just what my emotional concern and lack of confidence was about, three weeks ago. It was unusual for me to waver that way. I suppose it was just total and utter physical exhaustion, compounded by my inability to communicate. Loneliness is an uncommon emotion for me on my travels, I’m very self-sufficient, but it has been something of a problem here: just forced so much on my own qualities, with no one to rationalise reactions. Yet, all around me I feel an outpouring of goodwill that is truly a wonder. I can think of almost no mean or thoughtless acts I have suffered in four weeks – and that’s not a bad tribute to any land. 

All the bikers I have met (precisely three, I think) asked me if I had yet been prey to the children who throw stones? On my very long ride – so far – I HAVE had that three or four times. One child threw a stone; another a spray of water from a bottle and another his exercise book. Others make feint attacks with their herding sticks. I’ve had fun when it’s happened! I stop immediately and turn the Mosquito – which is so very manoeuvrable – and give chase, a face like thunder, yelling. Haha! The children scream and scatter into the fields, running far further than I could ever chase on my little bike. It terrifies them when the ‘ferengi’ reacts thus! Perhaps it’ll discourage them.

But these thoughtless small incidents apart, and some children who think it’s fun to insult the ferengi – who doesn’t understand anyway – I meet with only goodwill and help. This morning, preparing to leave Woldiya, I fell into brief conversation with a local man drinking buna. Did he know where I could get black market petrol, I wanted to know? He pulled out his phone and made the deal for me, at a good rate. The tuk-tuks still lined the road to the Total station; still at least 100 of them. Well, I am rich and would rather pay the black market price and be on my way: it’s still only £1 a litre, a little less on today’s deal. A boy climbed onto the back of the Mosquito and off we rode through town to find the black marketeer – who seemed to be working out of a girl’s school down the road. I bought my five litres for £4.40 and we poured it into my tank. Before I could even offer my guide a tip – I was fumbling for the customary ten Birr note (30 pence), he jumped in a tuk-tuk and disappeared. I was going to give him a ride back to the hotel too…

****

It was difficult to believe I was on one of the two main roads north and south through this vast land: the traffic was so scarce and quiet as I rode south. In fact, this is the only road that is asphalted all the way to Eritrea and its capital Asmara; the other one, that I used northwards last week is gravel for the northern 400 kilometres or so. I passed through some small, fairly insignificant straggly towns, all tuk-tuks, crazy pedestrians and donkeys, but it was a calm, rather uninteresting ride. I say uninteresting with much the same embarrassment that I caught myself bored yesterday. I was in HUGE mountains, the road twisting and rolling; here and there a few hairpins; everywhere animals to avoid and everywhere smiles and waves. And the pleasure of the wide white smiles of some of the VERY beautiful young women, is a bonus much to be enjoyed in this country! 

This was a short ride. I’d actually planned to stop at the next town, 16 miles nearer Addis, but I stopped for buna in Hayk on the way. At random, I picked a buna stall, pulled up and asked for coffee. In a moment or two, a couple of young men joined me. Abdulrahman, in particular, spoke pretty good English. I answered all the usual questions (Why a referendum? Why were we leaving Europe. God alone knows – lies, stupidity and ignorant voters) but realised I was talking with a man of considerable intelligence. He is a head medical officer for a private clinic; wanted to study medicine but is faced with the bill of £12,000 – for SEVEN YEARS’ training. Of course, such a sum is way beyond the aspirations of a medical officer or his rural family. Another African opportunity wasted. This country needs doctors. 

We chatted amicably, and interestingly for me. I was able to ask a number of questions that have been puzzling me: like the vast quantity of new building going on in the countryside. What is behind that? Everywhere I ride, I see new houses of stick, earth and zinc – substantial, well built local houses. Was it a government initiative, I wondered? No, it is private speculation on the back of the recent change of government and an anticipated weakening of control from previous repressive regimes. So I assume that given five years most will be falling to pieces. I guess I just came at the time to watch the boom, not the inevitable bust.

Hayk is home to a revered monastery and a rather beautiful lake, a fact I had overlooked entirely. On the back of the little Mosquito, Abdulrahman directed me the few kilometres to the tranquil, delightful lake side. On a promontory, that was an island until 1979, when severe droughts and changes in the lake topography caused a wide causeway to appear, rose the circular roof of the monastery, topped by the customary decorated cupola and Orthodox cross. Abdulrahman is a moslem, but tells me he likes to visit this monastery, a place of deep peace and strict religious discipline, but very much a working place of worship. Again, it’s what’s impressed me about the place of religion in Ethiopian culture: not an imposition, but an integral PART of life. It commands respect; cynicism  is silenced in Ethiopia. 

We wandered the small island, watching monks working their small fields (they are completely self-sufficient), washing their yellow robes in the sparkling lake water, apparently free of pollution and considered sacred. No plastic bottles bobbed. “It’s forbidden!” exclaimed Abdulrahman. 

The monastery was established as long ago as the 13th century, based on even earlier, 8th century religious traditions. The present building is uninteresting, only 19th century and block and concrete. Originally, vernacular stone buildings were bound by earth mixed with straw and egg. Many of the country’s oldest historic structures are just this mix. The little museum was the best I have seen in the country, filled with extraordinary artefacts, as old as the 12th century, displayed so I could see them – and, impressively, with English labelling, and a 75 pence illustrated guide. The monks were friendly and welcoming; we even went to the kitchen and received chunks of their very tasty corn bread. It was a charming afternoon, with Abdulrahman attempting to pay for everything, even my £3 museum entry. Such a kind man – another generous Ethiopian. Already, this evening, I fielded a text message asking me if my onward journey had been good: ‘hellow jonatan. Im Adulrahman. How Was Ur Travle’. When I left him, I only rode another thirty kilometres, by which time the low sun was making it difficult to read the road, the potholes, donkeys, cows and pedestrians. 

I stopped in Dessie. I have come to realise – and somewhere, a few nights ago, feeling grumpy with fever and cold, I said that Ethiopian cheap hotels were crap – I now admit that they are actually some of the best value in Africa. OK, they may be a bit idiosyncratic – my bathroom in tonight’s hotel – an almost new hotel – has a drip through the ceiling when I bend over the basin, and the floor – as usual – is awash from leaky plumbing (which is probably leaking to the floor below as well…). No one will fix any of it; they’ll just build a new hotel next door to save the maintenance money. Tonight, I stopped at the best hotel in town – the Melbourne, which reminded me of young Alice from that city and made me wonder where her travels have taken her now – she emailed a few days ago on her way to Djibouti. The hotel was beyond my budget, but a smile and a friendly approach always – ALWAYS – elicits a recommendation; right next door in this case. There I found a decent room on the second floor with a balcony and large comfy bed and spotless bedding for a little under £15 again. Despite the puddly bathroom, it’s just fine, only a bit noisy from the street outside. Earplugs again. 

And so saying, it’s time to get back there – I came back to the best hotel for supper. Food is so cheap here (for me, with my European currency), just a fiver gets me supper and a couple of beers in the best hotel in town. Dessie is a cold town, I need to get beneath the covers tonight.

Another good day, made delightful by a random chance of meeting kindly Abdulrahman and his friends in that buna stall. There’s so much kindness in the world if you open your eyes and accept it, and respond in kind, which often needs no more than friendly smiles and a trusting nature. 

Back in my room, already in bed. A text from Abdulrahman: ‘U welcome my dear..! I also like to tell u I love that the way u treat people… I like to thanks again for ur time. Have a great trip..’

DAY 49. TUESDAY JANUARY 29th 2019. DEBRE BIRHAN, ETHIOPIA

Gosh, I’m cold tonight! Up in these mountains again – and I think I’ve decided I do actually have a chest infection… I’ll get to Addis tomorrow and try to find some helpful advice and medicine. Maybe some food, bloody meat ‘tibs’ yet again – that’s the small pieces of meat with a shred or two of onion as a mere gesture to healthy eating, served with injera as always. Might warm me up, though. Goodness, I look forward to not eating meat when I get home again! 

****

Debre Birham is about thirty more miles than I intended to ride, making today’s long journey over 150 miles. I’d chosen another town as my destination, but riding through I saw a couple of hotels, in neither of which I thought I would enjoy my night: both looked old, weather-stained and grim. I carried on. And the last miles ended my journey on a high point, in all senses. I began a long, steep climb, twisting and curling up the mountains, back up from the relatively low plain area to which I dropped from Dessie this morning, back up to the Ethiopian Highlands. And wonderful it was too, if cold. The afternoon light is so much more descriptive of the landscape, for I am still only about 12 degrees north of the Equator, shadows filling the deepness of side valleys, shaping contours and making the tall eucalyptus flicker and flash along the roadside. The light takes on more colour too as it warms into the late afternoon, preparing for sunset, which happens here around six. The road was good; quite newly made and the traffic thankfully light, so I could enjoy my ride all alone up to these extreme heights of the Tamaber Pass, a mighty fine ride, with a half mile tunnel at the very top, a nightmare on my Mosquito, which has a light but doesn’t shine at the road. I’d have been as well with a candle in a jar in that densely dark tunnel, feeling my way, hoping for no potholes. After a while, I thought my eyes were getting used to it: I could see more detail. Then I realised that a pickup had come up behind me and was lighting my way. But it overtook, rather than help. Its tail lights, reflecting on the tar, showed me the way out into the bright late afternoon and the long curls down again, sweeping past rural lands and small dark stone houses with thatched roofs and an impressive view of the distant scenery, seen through a narrow, deep defile near the top of the pass. Debre Birham seemed to take a long time to appear; I was tired by now. Then, when the ugly town did arrive, it took me time to find a place to sleep.

The better hotels were all full, and the lesser ones uninviting. I ended up in a faded old joint, with a large room on the third floor for under £6. The bed is large and clean and comfy, and I don’t really care about much else. I’ll be wearing the same clothes for the third day tomorrow. It doesn’t matter much when you travel alone! But there was no way last night, or tonight, that I was showering in cold water in a cold bathroom. My chest feels tight enough already. No one will notice the smell!

****

I descended quite a way from last night’s high town of Dessie, down to a very boring plain, backed far away by dry mountains on either side. I had to negotiate an irritating number of very tedious ribbon towns, all filled with kamikaze pedestrians (they really are the worst hazard – rushing into the road, then looking…); uncountable undisciplined tuk-tuks, curtains a-blow, mirrors ignored, riders usually on their phones; then there are the minibuses, called, Abdulrahman told me, ‘Abadullahs’ after a former minister, known for his bulbous chin. Add to this mix the thousands upon thousands of animals: donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, dogs, and here camels – all of whom seem to have the right to roam, wander, sleep and carry huge loads anywhere on the road – and it makes for difficult riding with a million hazards every day. It requires constant concentration. Even when I am daydreaming, a large part of my brain is busy keeping observation of the many, many unexpected actions of everyone and everything on the road. 150 miles of this is HARD work! 

Much of this country seems to be divided vertically: the lowlands, deserts and plains seem to favour Islam, while as soon as I begin to rise back to the glorious heights, I am assailed by Orthodox Ethiopians. And there’s such a difference in attitudes. On the lowlands are many less smiles and greetings, less waves and astonishment as I pass. Thanks to their miserable, gloom-soaked repressive religion, those people stare and seldom react. Some women here were fully veiled, peering glumly at the world through a small cotton letter box dragging depressedly along, swathed in old cotton veiling, behind husbands and plodding camels. The camels have more enlivened expressions… (Whoops, sorry, a certain prejudice slipping out here! It’s a religion that seems to stifle fun.)

Then I began to climb, and suddenly I was rewarded by all those extraordinarily pretty Ethiopian girls and women, all smiling and waving; the prettiest, happiest looking Africans. It’s such a joy to pass a group of home-going secondary schoolgirls and give them a wave. I am repaid by excited laughter, big smiles and all that luxurious black hair shaken in the breeze. They wear rather elegant school uniforms: a long straight cotton skirt to the ankles and a cotton jacket. Some throw a woven shawl about their head, but many go bareheaded, their voluminous black tresses piled high on their heads. They are quite lovely – and apparently universally cheerful. No furtive, guilt-ridden eyes peering from behind veils for them. They seem to enjoy life and each other – and their religion too, always walking home in giggling, joking groups. 

The boys too wear simple cotton long trousers and jackets. Different schools have different colours but the style remains much the same nationwide. Somehow, they become aware of my white face from far off, and by the time I pass, they all know a white man is going by. Waves and thumbs-up, and all manner of gesture greet my passage. It’s generally only the younger children who cannot resist the temptation to beg for money. 

****

Stopping for buna breaks my ride and lets me meet people. Looking for a suitable stall in a straggly town, a girl gave me a big cheeky wave, so I turned and went back to her stall for three quarters’ of an hour. One fellow, Anteneh (Anthony) spoke a bit of English. I have the same conversation all over Africa: “Help me get to your country… I want to go to Engerland!”

It’s the African dream – and of course, it IS a dream. I tell them they haven’t a chance of a visa, especially in these xenophobic ‘populist’ days. I try to explain that it was the illogical, untrue rhetoric whipped up by the right wing that has caused all our present Brexit suicide. I tell them of hundreds of Africans, attracted by that dream, who die every week trying to get to what they think is a better life in Europe – only to end up treated like criminals in camps. I tell them that there’s no work, unless they are doctors or nurses; that the cup of coffee I am enjoying for 15 pence, will cost them £3 in Europe; a bottle of beer – here 65 pence, will be £3.50; that my monthly electricity bill – alone – is 25% more than Anteneh’s monthly take home salary as an office manager. I point out that in England I am poor like them (a bit of an exaggeration of course, but the analogy is what I am aiming for) and it’s only the relative values that make we white men seem so wealthy when we come to Africa. There are no money trees, just work – that’s the worldwide capitalist way. And if you are out of work in Britain – as many are, I point out – you are out of work in the cold. You can’t lounge about at a warm roadside and eat qat, and sleep in a grass roofed house; you have to heat the house, even if you haven’t an income… But it all falls on stony ground, the dream, the myth, is so powerful, propagated by the irresponsible dreams of cheap American TV, pumped endlessly round a world that doesn’t need this trivia. TV, for many unsophisticated viewers is a reflection of real life: the life led by white people, all of whom are rich, aren’t they? But my words make little impression: I am the one with the wealth to travel in their country; they’ll never even get the money together for a rip-off, non-refundable – refused – visa to mine.

****

Ethiopia has certainly turned up some very impressive scenery, and an admirable, ancient, fascinating culture. It’s bloody hard to travel here, but the rewards are in my reception, for I am welcome everywhere. The uneducated ask for money, which irritates, but the more educated try so hard to make me feel at home and generously want me to take away a warm impression of their country. They are proudly independent, warmly welcoming but limited by their inability to communicate with me as much as I am by my lack of language and understanding of their lives. I have seldom felt so much curiosity and wish for me to understand from any nation amongst which I have travelled. We both know we are losing out by our inability to share real communication, and we both seem to regret it equally. When we can commune, as with Abdulrahman yesterday, it’s a treat for both parties. Goodwill, though, is universal.

Right, bloody cold. Under the covers now, until eight tomorrow morning, eleven and a half  glorious hours away.

**************

POSTSCRIPT TO THIS EPISODE, which I will upload in Addis this morning while I have internet. I arrived back yesterday afternoon to find my cheerful young friend Alice (“Alice Yap – that’s because I talk so much!”) at the guest house. We had a happy reunion last night and now she is away on a 30 hour bus ride to the north. Fun how one can bond so closlely, despite the disparity in ages. I do hope she’ll turn up in Devon some day.

Oh, by the way, my chest is improving. The delightfully named ‘gingibbel chai’ – ginger tea, and deep breathing are doing the trick, before anyone worries! Service for the Mosquito today as well.

 

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