On a hot day, in the middle of the day, in the heat of the Omo Valley four crazy Mzungus (white people) arrive at a small Ethiopian-Kenyan border. Robbie had found us a sneak route that would take us to Uganda, going West of Lake Turkana and cutting out about 1000km of road – allowing us to continue on our very very pole pole way.
The friendly officials wave us through with the last Amharic words we’d hear in a while. And we make our way around the corner to Kenya. That’s where the beautiful tar road that had carried us through the Southern part of Ethiopia disappears into a rocky, sandy Jeep track. Funny how so much can change just because someone drew a line on a map there a long time ago.
For us the bad road ahead is quite daunting. But what does it mean for people who happen to live in an area where tax money doesn’t quite make it through the system to build good roads? The next week or so taught us a bit about what it means not to have a good road, from the perspective of hot and tired cyclists. It gave us a glimpse of what it means for people who’s livelihoods are affected by the presence of a good road.
Around the corner down the hill into Kenya
The rocky Jeep track we’d started on was fun at first. It took us out into flat no mans land. If you picture the kind of land that no one wants, that’s what fills the space between the Ethiopian and Kenyan border posts. We stop for a perfect treat of an Ethiopian mango somewhere in the middle, unable to move much further without the food. As we carry on, there are beautiful mountains to gaze up at. They form a basin around lake Turkana and the idea that water is close by is tantalizing. Sometimes we ride off the road because the ground is harder there and we make sure to do a loop around the white poles that mark the unmanned border with South Sudan.
Cycling in no man‘s land
We’re happy to see the wonderfully welcoming Kenyan border officials after a few hours of desolate silence. And close to ecstatic when their chef offers us some steaming hot ugali (maize meal) with tomato goat sauce. What a welcome to Kenya! They’re so friendly that we end our cycling day early and sleep there for the night, in the neatly swept yard surrounded by their simple living quarters. We love watching the colours of the clouds go from pink to purple over a the dry landscape of the country we’re excited to spend the next little chapter of our lives in. Our phones no longer have signal from Ethiopia and haven’t yet reached signal from Kenya yet. It’s just us and the border officials and their stories. They tell us of the Ethiopian snipers hiding just across the border to shoot and steal the cattle on this side. They tell us how wonderful and safe Kenya is. We don’t need to worry now that we are on this side.
The sunrise is as gorgeous as the sunset and we continue along the small dirt road. The Southerly wind has picked up, blowing the sweat off our faces. The sand is thick. The patches of corrugated hard road give some relief to tired legs, until we’re glad that the bumps give way to soft sand. It’s slow going. Some walking, some cycling. It was made easier by the knowledge that in just 10km we would find a catholic missionary to break at.
The father welcomes us in. He’s about to go and give Sunday mass in a nearby village and Angus goes along with him while we sit outside in the shade of the beautiful round thatched roof kitchen. The lovely chef made us a flask of her finest sweet milky tea and we napped in the heat of the day.
Napping in the heat at the missionary
Another young person is visiting the missionary. Santra is from the great big city Mombasa and a student of community development. She looks out of place and uncomfortably hot in her black city jeans and top. She’s doing an internship here, spending time with the communities in the surrounding mountains. The roads leading there are even worse, she says. There is deep sympathy on her face when she speaks of how difficult it is for the people she’s met to access health care when they need it. She explained how there is nothing they can do to help themselves through the drought. Without access to water, food or income people are dying here. Such hard lives they have. There is a government food provision programme in place but the locals say that the officials are corrupt and the people don’t always benefit as they should. Of course this isn’t sustainable solution either. And so for Santra, the most important change that people need here is better roads: a gateway to trade, education, income – all allowing survival in tough times and an opportunity for personal and collective flourishment. It’s exciting that young people like Santra will be in a position to create this change.
Government officials recording food handouts with tablets under a thorn tree
So as we continue on our sandy slow way, sometimes pushing, sometimes cycling, we try to appreciate that we are travelling this road just for fun. That it is a three day experience. That we have cash on us to buy fish when we reach the lake and that we can pay for a bit of the precious little water available to fill our bottles (the lake is salty). And as night falls that day, having cycled only 30km, we sit exhausted under the stars, with a fish on the fire and tents to keep the mosquitoes out. It is hard not to be grateful for what we have. We think about the sweet children who’d run with us – pushing us through the thick sand. Sweating out their precious water and doing it just because they wanted to, shouting with glee. Luckily we have a bit of water to share with them. And that is probably what we could be most grateful for: a little bit extra to be generous. For that feels to be what really feeds the human spirit.
Fried dough and fish for sale by the salty Lake
As we continue, somehow, the people we meet in Turkana find that little bit extra to give us. Another day in the sand and another on a dirt road (that felt like a highway but probably was quite corrugated and rocky) started bringing us through small towns.
Absorbed in our first breakfast in the first town after a 3km ride on a truck because we were just tooo tired to carry on
One town will stay in our minds forever because of the generosity we find there. We ask if we can fill up our five liter water container. We say that we are happy to pay. A wonderful man said to us, “No problem”, and proceeded to go from family to family to ask for a jug of water from each of them to add to our container. And then asks if we need any more. “Where does the water come from?”, we ask. “The mamas walk kilometers to a sand river where they have dug a hole”. They return to their families with the precious liquid each morning. It’s hard work but no one in this village feels morally able to accept payment for their water. And so we were able to ride on, with hearts filled with warmth and awe of these kind people.
We spend a night in a riverbed surrounded by the magic presence of palms swaying in the wind. Another night in another riverbed where we scooped clean, clear water from the holes that the nearby people use everyday. It is special to sit and scoop with a group of young girls doing the same for their families in the dawn light. Then we take out our steripen to purify the water and the moment is kind of ruined. But worth it to keep our sensitive mzungu stomachs happy.
Jess scooping water from the riverbed
From there the road is tattered tar – once beautiful, an enabler to development – but now neglected and probably worse than if it were just dirt.
The road is leading us to Lodwar, the capital of Turkana and where we thought we could get our passports stamped before heading on to Uganda. Arriving on a Sunday morning nothing can be done for that and we set about finding somewhere to camp. The Catholic Cathedral is just around the corner and we find a mass for the local high school students in progress when we arrive. Robbie and I join in for sweaty song and prayer in the beautiful missionary building. Lodwar is just as hot and humid as it is by the lake. After mass, Father Ignacios welcomes us to pitch our tents near his house and invites us for tea and biscuits in his living room. He gives us the little bit extra that he has.
Monday comes and we learn that we actually need to go to Eldoret, 300km South to get our passports stamped. We spend about an hour making decisions over breakfast in town. Do we risk arriving at the Ugandan border with no stamp? We probably shouldn’t we decide. Do we take a bus down and then return here to cycle to Uganda? In the end, Jess and I decide to take a bus down with the bicycles and passports while Robbie and Angus opt to cycle the same stretch. Jess and I could visit a permaculture project in Kitale, just north of Eldoret and then we could all cycle in to Uganda at a more Southern border from there. We are exhausted by the shocking state of the roads we’d travelled along, can understand why people would say “pole sanna”, (very sorry in Swahili) when they greet us after a day’s journey. Travelling in these conditions is not easy. It also makes me think about whether the sense of community, of welcoming spirit, of energy to push strangers through the thick sand had anything to do with how difficult life is out there. Life is hard for everyone. There isn’t an opportunity for people to grow rich at another’s expense and so everyone has that special feeling of being able to give the very little extra to help someone else. While being disconnected from society makes life hard for them, it was incredibly special for to be disconnected from the rest of the world with no cellphone service, to allow time to connect more deeply with the people in our immediate presence. Roads are going to develop. Urbanization and availability of technology are on their way. People here deserve these things. There are Chinese companies building big roads all over Africa. Urbanization is happening rapidly, as is adoption of technology. So the question is: how can society maintain the beauty that exists in the simple, isolated way of living while benefitting from the structural changes that are difficult to argue against? I don’t have the answer but the fact that development professionals are recognising that human development is as important as infrastructural development is a positive sign. A friend working for the UN in Addis mentioned that that’s the next step in Ethiopia – they’ve done a lot for beautiful roads and now it’s time to think about about development in terms of the people. I hope Turkana receives both kinds of development simultaneously, in a way that the people living there feel they are actively contributing to and shaping themselves.