Some Equators Are More Equal Than Others

The morning before we crossed into Kenya, when Sampson announced he needed a day off to rest, I was hugely relieved there would be no border duty that day.

The previous evening, we’d stopped in deserted bush 75km before the frontier, the most peaceful spot in Ethiopia so far. A couple of guys had walked past, but there were no crowds of baiting youths. Zola and I took PJ for walk to make sure she’d crash out and not be scampering around in the small hours. We passed a silent night in velvety darkness.

The day before Sampson had driven 250km. At 5pm he’d taken the exhaust brake off with Zola’s help and discovered it was stuck on halfway! Something had melted on to it. They cleaned it and replaced the DIY gasket with the new joint Papi had belatedly sourced for us in France. Sampson got very cold and although I heated up dahl and served it with thick crumpet-like roti breads immediately they got inside, he was feeling completely shattered by bedtime and unwell by morning.

Thank God I’d finally managed to book his flight to UK for his brother’s wedding, (at double the cost it would have been if he’d booked it the first time he looked). The internet connection kept dropping so it had taken hours. Only with the help of my best friend, bless her, did we clear the final hurdle, booking his coach to Plymouth. It was such a relief to be sorted.

It felt like Big Reg had finally rolled into the Rift Valley proper: the countryside was lusher, greener and the earth much more red. The people were darker, wearing bolder prints; the women with centre partings and plaits either side. Although it was markedly flatter here on the plains, we were still at 1500m.

After Maths, Zola’s English lesson discussion led to research on the tango (who could have predicted that would be the topic he’d choose to explore?!) and poring over the atlas looking at Argentina for a fascinating hour exhausted me. I was happy to hand over to Dad for Natural Science after lunch.

I commenced chopping of the final few nasty carrots and half a cabbage, all of which I’d been planning to chuck but now we had to make last an extra day before making it to the market before the border. The carrots were bendy and so vrot, I had to peel them all and disguise them in a tomato and veg soup supperpot. I wasn’t up to editing, so lay on the bed doing the traditional reading-of-the-country-to-come in the Lonely Planet Africa. By bedtime I was aware all was not right.

At 3am I awoke knowing my immune system was under siege and fighting. The scariest thing was that I knew my heart was under pressure. I couldn’t explain it, but it was feeling weirdly frail and fluttery, perhaps arrhythmic. My hot flushes had gone next level in terms of frequency and intensity. When I got up for a wee, I felt very shaky.

By morning, the pain in my arms was ridiculous. How could fall-out from chopping a few veg and holding a heavy book yesterday be this bad? My rotator cuffs were behaving as if I’d been stretched on a rack. My arms felt like Elastagirl’s. My usual PEM was definitely being magnified by something else. It took everything I had to pull myself together and get out to do T’ai Chi.

This morning was the first time I mistook Zola for some bloke in the distance – he was looking so ‘manly’ I hadn’t realised it was him coming back from his walk!

Well just look at him! Wouldn’t you?

I felt much better in the afternoon, as we drove south towards the border – perhaps because of another drop in altitude. At 600m it was so much warmer; the mossies and jungle bugs were back.

Frontier town Moyale has a hectic reputation for aggro: in 2012, 20000 refugees had crossed into Kenya following clashes in the area. And in March 2018, just 2 months previously, another 10000 refugees fled Ethiopian army shootings of 13 civilians in Oromia, 80% of them women and children according to the UNHCR. A security guard on the Kenyan side later told Sampson that 5 people had died the previous week, shot inside the border post itself.

But, thank goodness, this 24th border crossing was possibly the easiest ever. A sign on the vast brand new building was promising ‘One Stop Border Control’ although they weren’t quite there yet. The Ethiopian official who dealt with our carnet explained that soon there would be Kenyan colleagues in the duplicate office next door, so truck drivers could stamp out and stamp in at the same place! For now, the huge taped glass hangars were mostly empty. (While writing this up, I discovered Moyale finally started fully operating like this last month, reducing processing times by 30%!)

On the other side, the good news: a 1 month visa for Sampson was free, 3 months for me was $50 and 3 months free for kids! The bad news was that Kenya charges $100 for a ‘Foreign Vehicle Permit’, so swings and roundabouts. Mr Alex in the customs office, explained in super fluent English (such a surprise after months struggling in Amharic and Arabic) that Sampson would have to go into town to get insurance. But as it was now after 5pm, Mr Alex said it was cool for us to stay in their massive empty carpark with an armed guard overnight.

We ended up stuck there for three.

In the morning, when Sampson returned to say he’d found the insurance office but their computer was down, he saw a thick sludge of motor oil under the truck. It had only been changed in Cairo, so he suspected turbo trouble. Why do we always break down immediately after booking plane tickets with a deadline to get to the airport hanging over us?

Meanwhile I was feeling so weedy, I couldn’t even sit up for Maths. I had a hellish headache and low fever. The hot flushes were continuing crazy extreme – my temperature regulation had gone haywire. I was hoping this was due to a period or menopause and not typhoid or bilharzia from the lake. A sudden excoriating kidney pain was so fierce I got scared. ‘Please God, not antibiotics again, not when he’s about to leave and I have to single parent’.

I didn’t waste energy washing or doing T’ai Chi, just got ready to leave for a clinic. But, like me, the truck’s pressure was non-existent and its temperature kept rocketing, so Sampson took a motorbike taxi to find a mechanic.

We were lucky: Moses was the only truck expert in town and Sampson found him just as he was about to leave on a bus to take parts somewhere. Moses and his assistant Ibrahim cleaned, replaced and flushed the oil filter and air-cleaned the sieve filter – it took a needle to push through the last bits. It looked exactly like what happened in Ebolowa, Cameroon in 2013 but that was breakdown 8 and this was no. 19!

I refused to go to the clinic on the back of a motorbike – it was too exhausting a prospect and there were too many variables – but I started taking 9 strain probiotics. The 3 pills I had today really helped me stop deteriorating so rapidly. I entertained Moses’ 4 year old boy Nurdeen (whose mom is Somali) with drawing and snap but had to lie down all afternoon. Sampson was shivering with fever next to me on the bed. I felt OK if I lay completely still, but he had to keep dragging himself up to interact with the mechanics.

His final motorbike taxi ride to get cash to pay them finished him off – an involuntary fart ended up ruining his trousers, poor thing. He just managed to wash before he collapsed. The fact he was wincing at the light and complaining about the cold breeze as he got out of the shower seemed painfully ironic: that sensory vulnerability was my daily reality he’d been denying this whole year.

The good news was that Ruby had managed to get 62% for an Afrikaans oral! Despite missing 3 years of the subject and being denied exemption, she might pass Matric after all.

Zola was a star and cooked us carrot, spinach and red bean stew. For the first time ever, PJ didn’t come in at teatime demanding to be fed. After a long hunt, we found her playing hooky with a strapping white and ginger tom behind the gates of the UNHCR food storage area. He was very handsome with a debonair aura and she was entranced and didn’t want to come home. We called him Bob.

Overnight, poor Sampson was on the toilet every hour. I started the day determined to ‘Be The Change…’ and got him a cold flannel for his feverish forehead. He didn’t ask me how I was. I wasn’t sure I could grow old with such a lack of compassion.

Despite dropping oil pressure, Big Reg made it into town. Unable to sit up, my first views of Kenya were glimpses out the window obtained by holding up the camera and snapping randomly from my bed. Moses met us outside the Afya Nursing Home and set to work again while we went inside for typhoid tests.

Sampson was so convinced he had giardia as well, he took a tupperware full of his diarrhoea along (although I told him it wasn’t – sadly I know that smell too well from the illness that triggered my ME in 1992). He was so stressed about it, he rushed off ahead. I longed to have someone take my arm and help me down the uneven street in the midday heat into the clinic.

The blood tests showed I had a higher dose of typhoid than he did. I was more ill with half the fallout because I have had to learn how to pace myself, living with varying degrees of such symptoms daily for decades. Thank goodness Zola was clear.

When I explained to the doctor how badly I’d reacted to the typhoid medication we’d taken just 2 months ago in Sudan, he prescribed Cefixime for me: a 5 day course instead of 14, the same drug the kids had taken back in Cote d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile, Moses had somehow sorted the compressor, cleaned it of carbon, so we could set off. Alleluya!

Many thanks to Moses Karanja Ngugi (far right) and Ibrahim Adi Bonaya (with thumbs up) plus motorbike taxi driver Mohamed Edin next to wobbly Sampson. Little Nurdeen at the front.

An hour later, we came to rest in a calm green new world.

As always, the first 24 hours on the meds felt like a miracle – my headache was gone and I felt bolstered enough to walk 100m down to the river bank. An old man with legs as spindly as his stick came past, herding a few cattle. I struggled to communicate with him but gave him a couple of tins. Local superhero Guyo Kanu Jillo came down to check we were OK and told me the old feller was deaf. Kanu himself was a Ward Manager looking after Ethiopian refugees in the camp nearby.

He told me the reason Ethiopia is much harder for travellers is because “they were never British”. “In Kenya,” he opined, “we follow British ways, democracy and the rule of law”. He didn’t seem to be just saying this because he thought mzungus like me would approve, but genuinely believed in the sacred nature of the latter.

I found it deeply disconcerting that his education had taught him that Kenya was superior to Ethiopia because it had been colonised. I might have expected that 50 years ago, but post-independence? The old guy probably remembered the young Princess Elizabeth’s visit to a nearby Mount Kenya lodge in 1952 when her father King George VI died, as dramatised in the episode of The Crown we’d watched this week. I wish I could have asked him what he thought about that.

There were so many refugee huts scattered next to the highway. (In December 2018 hundreds more Ethiopians were to flee across the border to escape ethnic violence.)

We had a big hike ahead of us: it was 750km to the capital and 2 days until Sampson had to be at the airport. Lying down in the back after my second typhoid pill, I was aware that I was fine as long as I didn’t do anything. Incapable of editing, I entertained myself watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding blow up on Twitter (notably via Caitlin Moran, Black Girl Nerds and Tom Eaton) in stereo with my Mom’s commentary on Whatsapp! In the end, I had to stop that too because my arms hurt from holding up the phone.

From the cab, Sampson saw herds of donkeys, camels, warthog, ostrich and a giant salamander twice the size of a cat! When we stopped to buy loads of lovely fruit, it felt both surreal and comforting to see how unbothered the quiet town of Marsabit was, 3 days into Ramadan, by the royal shenanigans convulsing the other side of the globe.

That evening, Zola concocted his delicious coriander/ginger/tomato paste, while I made mash and fine green beans to serve with tinned hummus – yum!

Day 3 of meds, I just managed T’ai Chi then climbed back onto bed for the rest of the day. We still had 450km to cover, double our usual maximum. It was difficult for Sampson driving such a busy road while ill. I wish we could have taken it easy instead of bombing towards Nairobi. I knew Andrew and Dee had spent a couple of weeks in this area because it was so beautiful, and I was grieving what we were missing. I tried taking more photos out of the window, hoping to capture insights. But they were just a blur.

Sampson saw many young people wearing nothing but skins and beads as we drove through the rural area, but didn’t think to mention it to me until we were climbing again and people were wearing anoraks against the cold. Suddenly I needed a blanket.

I managed one hour sitting up in the passenger seat around Mount Kenya – it was too misty to appreciate fully – but then I was too ill to talk to Ruby when she called us. So thankfully Zola was sat in the front with a seatbelt on when Sampson hit a series of speed bumps bouncing Big Reg so hard, I screamed and all the toiletries jumped out of the shower rack.

Hurtling along the highway, Sampson caught sight of the sign marking the Equator. With all the lorries thundering past, it was 200m behind us by the time he managed to pull over. In the state I was in, it was too far for me to walk and he refused to waste time doing a U-turn to take me back to take pics.

I took this photo using my zoom out of the back window

Fair enough, the traffic was horrible on this narrow road – I insisted Zola put on a high vis vest to walk back up there with his Dad. But it was tough to sit there alone, reflecting on past photo shoots at key milestones around the continent, and not be part of this one.

Remember us reaching the Tropic of Capricorn in Namibia July 2013?
And crossing the Equator on the west coast in Gabon Nov 2013
when the kids were 12 and 9
and my husband still took time to kiss me?
Straddling the Tropic of Cancer, in windy Western Sahara June 2016, kids aged 14 and 11, just before their birthdays

Now we’d made it three quarters of the way Africa Clockwise, approaching 40000km, but I couldn’t manage 200m to take a photo?

Zola and Dad together on the east side Equator, Kenya May 2018
This darling boy was coming up 14
and this feller was old enough to know better

It took one last exhausting push after supper to make it to Nairobi in the dark, and the highway had Big Reg soaring over one last speed bump: the slam dunk landing broke all the clips on the solar panels and almost broke my back.

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