Preceding Paul Theroux: from Addis to Nairobi
by Wayne Kessler (Ethiopia 1964-66)
As I age, I’m finding that memories have become a larger part of my life than I want them to be. I’d rather be thinking and planning something new than being caught up in the past. Regardless, memories happen, so when I read Paul Theroux’s (Malawi 1963-65) “The Longest Road in Africa” from Dark Star Safari about his journey in Ethiopia from Addis Ababa to Moyale, I was instantly caught up in my own memories of the same trip 36 years before his.
My wife Laurie and I left our Peace Corps village in the northern Eritrean Province of Ethiopia on July 1st 1966, with mixed emotions: sad to leave our Eritrean friends but excited about a vague idea of traveling by road from Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, with Gerhard Grau, a German freelance photographer. Beyond that, we had only the notion of finding work in Kenya. It was pure adventure. Had camera and two backpacks — wanting to travel. That was enough for us then.
On July 4th, we flew to Addis on a WWII vintage DC3 and promptly went to visit Clark Billings, a US government fellow from USAID, whom we had met months before. As we had hoped, he offered us a place to stay the few days we were in Addis getting ready. Clean sheets and a soft bed and hot showers any time in a quite spacious modern home sure beat the local noisy hotels with cold showers and lumpy beds with bedbugs.
During the four days we waited for Gerhard, we had fun bumping into PCVs like John Wheeler, having lunches at the China Bar with Alan and Sue Boyd, pizza dinner with Joyce Orwin and others, and going to a concert of the Phoenix Singers on tour. City culture was radically different from the village culture we had been immersed in for two years.
Finally, we made arrangements with Gerhard for the trip and left Addis on Friday, July 8. We were to go south to a small Seventh-Day Adventist Hospital in Kuyera near Lake Langano in the Great Rift Valley, and wait for him while he went to pick up our means of transportation. So, we hitched a ride with a couple of Ethiopians heading south and arrived in time for dinner with the Holmeses, one of the missionary families at the hospital. We had met Mr. and Mrs. Holmes on their honeymoon at Tisisat Falls on the Blue Nile River about six months before. I had borrowed his wide-angle lens to photograph the whole width of the falls.
The Willys Jeep that Gerhard bought for the trip needed fixing— lots of fixing. It was a Korean War era Jeep like the ones you see on M*A*S*H, but it was repainted a funny blue-green color. It had two bench seats, front and back; I remember them as being very hard. There was just a little place behind the back seat to stuff belongings, so we had to pile most of our gear up on the roof rack, making the whole Jeep look like it had a bouffant hairdo popular in that era. The primitive road made it roll from side to side like a boat in a rough storm. If you had imagined a Jeep Cherokee, forget it. This Jeep was uncomfortable and the rough roads didn’t make it any better.
Finally, on Saturday the 16th the Jeep, Gerhard, Laurie and I were ready to go. Nelson Mbeche, a Ugandan student traveling home, joined us. The four of us packed the jeep high with food, cooking stuff, a yellow three-person tent, and bags and boxes of photo equipment. Going along with a professional photographer was exciting. I had my little 35mm ready and was eager to watch and copy what Gerhard would be doing with his big professional cameras.
On Sunday at 5 AM, we headed out of the mission grounds and turned south on the main road. It was a spottily maintained gravel road at places and just dirt in others. We thought that we were making good time until at 7 AM the engine died after going only 25 miles. While waiting for something to come along, I took my first road photo of a man on a mule riding toward us, surrounded by thick green vegetation.
Lucky for us, we were able to stop a big truck that allowed us to hook up the Jeep’s front-end cable for a tow to nearby Dila, a one-garage town. Also lucky for us, it was open on Sunday and lucky for us, we got immediate attention.
As Gerhard and the Ethiopian mechanic haggled and worked on the oil-in-water problem, Laurie pulled out her travel reading book, The Tin Drum. “I chose the thickest book in our Peace Corps footlocker library,” she stated with a smug sense of preparedness, not knowing anything about the book. We were supposed to leave the books for the next volunteers, but she pinched it because she sensed we would need reading material for this long journey.
With the Jeep repaired, we left Dila about 4 PM and drove up and down hills on a red dirt road lined with large tree-sized banana and false banana (inset) plants until around 7 PM, when we found a place to camp. A group of passersby and small boys watched us set up the tent and prepare our meal on a kerosene burner. Gerhard saw a photo op and quickly arranged and posed this group of very perplexed people. I took a couple of shots myself, but it wasn’t my style to re-arrange natural situations. As it was turning dark, the locals drifted away to get home before the hyenas came out.
On the morning of day two, we were treated to the first of many bowls of oatmeal, which is what we had for EVERY breakfast, sometimes with nuts, and many times with bananas. It turned out that Gerhard was a person of habit. He introduced us to chamomile tea and we were stuck with this almost flavorless drink. It was quite a change from the highly spiced and strong black tea we’d been drinking in our village. As hitchhikers, we adapted.
That day was even tougher than the first day because, soon after we resumed the journey, the brakes froze. It took us an hour of jacking up the rear end, pulling off the wheels, banging on various parts, and then putting it all back together. Leaning against an unoccupied termite hill, Laurie made progress in her book.
On the road again, we quickly got lost. Going through the Mageda forest, the road deteriorated to a barely recognizable track. We bounced from one rock to another. No other cars or trucks were in sight. We went directly across a dry stream bed and up the other side. After a hundred yards we came to a complete dead end surrounded by large boulders and flat-topped acacia trees. Backing up and turning around, we stopped in the middle of the rocky stream bed. Gerhard walked one way and I went the other. About 50 yards downstream I saw fresh truck tire tracks heading out of the stream bed. It had rained heavily since the last vehicle had passed and a small flash flood had wiped out the “road” and all wheel marks.
Shortly after this irritating delay, as we were going up a particularly rough patch, Gerhard drove over a broken tree trunk. One wheel spun in the air. We got out the shovel, dug out high places, hauled stones to fill in ruts, and jacked up one side. The Jeep finally lurched forward, but the effort caused an electrical problem and the Jeep wouldn’t stay running. Gerhard and I turned into Laurel and Hardy, poking around under the hood and bickering at each other.
After a while, a Land Rover appeared and a mysterious man offered to help. He had the same brown skin color as most Ethiopians, but his hair was wavy, not kinky, and his nose looked more Roman than Abyssinian. His actions were strange; he didn’t say much but looked all around, noticing details. It was as though he was frisking us with his eyes, undressing us or seeing where we kept our wallets. But he seemed to know cars and this desolate part of Ethiopia very well. Gerhard already had demonstrated that he knew nothing about cars and wasn’t mechanically inclined in any way. I had just enough experience working on old jalopies to be worried. The stranger and I took off the distributor cap and he immediately found the problem. One of the contact points was ground down too much to make contact, so he squeezed a small piece of wood in behind the point in order to push it out. An ingenious solution.
After the mysterious Ethiopian left, we played a guessing game as we drove along speculating about his reasons for finding us in this remote place. Laurie asked, “What do you think he is doing way out here?” I wondered, “What kind of work does he do? He said that he was just ‘investigating.’” “He doesn’t look Ethiopian,” added Gerhard. Nelson thought he might be a spy working for either Ethiopia or Somalia. “More likely, he’s a smuggler,” someone suggested. Eventually, when we arrived in Moyale, we learned that he was a Greek-Ethiopian who was born in Asmara, but had lived in this area for the last 17 years. Even so, he remained mysterious, as we never did learn what he was really doing all by himself way out in the bush.
Late that afternoon, as we drove through a village, the brakes froze again. The spot became an instant campsite perched between tukuls, the classic African round huts with thatched roofs. Laurie and Nelson set up the yellow three-man tent as Gerhard and I unfroze the brakes again. Laurie had two tent partners, but Nelson slept alone on the back seat of the Jeep even when some of the nights were stifling hot.
On the third day, the journey got even tougher. We left right after the oatmeal breakfast and drove almost an hour before the brakes froze up again. Two hours of backbreaking brake-work and another hour of driving brought us to a steep bit in the track where we bounced from rut to rock. Then we heard a loud SNAP. Looking under the hood, we didn’t see anything wrong, until I noticed that part of the engine was sagging. The front engine mount had broken in half.
In the middle of nowhere, with no town in sight, our mysterious “spy-man” drove up again in his Land Rover, as if he had been shadowing us. He looked at our problem and suggested that we jack up the engine and support it with a piece of wood stuck into the remaining part of the engine mount. Then he left.
We looked at each other. Nelson had a sharp panga (machete) and there were enough trees around. After two hours of whacking at a tree trunk, jacking up the engine, grunting the piece of trunk into place, and wiring it all together, we started off again. With all the stopping, Laurie had read 180 pages of her fat book in just three days. “It’s sure weird,” was the only comment she made.
I remember from that day a startling visual image of driving through dry scrub brush toward a small isolated volcanic mountain, and thinking that the road would skirt it. Instead, we went straight up the side, right into and through a round crater and then down the other side of the volcano. Inside the crater’s rim we discovered a dense forest and lush grassland on the crater floor — quite a contrast to the parched landscape outside the crater. We stopped to take some great photos of spear-carrying herdsmen with their cattle.
We arrived at the Swedish Mission at Yabello in late afternoon and received permission to set up our tent in their compound. As we were now in an area known for its shiftas (bandits), this was safer than camping out in the open with the possibility of wild animals and two-legged prowlers sneaking around. Dinner was boiled cassava with a sauce of canned peas and tuna. We bought the cassava and whatever we could find at village markets along the road.
Whenever we stopped, people would surround the Jeep and ask for help, thinking we were missionary doctors. It was comical to watch the local people try to speak to Nelson. Because he was African and presumably should have known their languages, they would gesture and shout at him when he spoke in English or Kiswahili. Once he found a man who could speak Kiswahili, but most of the time he was just frustrated.
Day 4, Wednesday. We filled our water jugs and did a little more shopping in Yabello as we left for Mega, the next town on the road to the border. We stopped quite a few times, sometimes to adjust sticky brakes or to re-wire the engine block, sometimes to take photos. Laurie took a picture of the three of us using a rope, trying to pull down a high castle-like termite mound. We couldn’t do it. Laurie was half way through her book by this time.
We were in the area of the Boran Oromo ethnic group. From a distance the Borana villages looked like haystacks in a desert of cactus, thorn trees and rocks. The men often wore cloths wound around their heads turban-like, and sometimes we would see aluminum phallic symbols attached to the foreheads of the older ones, probably the leaders. Every time we would meet them riding their horses on the road, they would move off the road, dismount, and hold their spears upright. It was the polite thing to do. They were showing us that they weren’t going to charge and try to spear us. The women wore what seemed to be hundreds of strands of square aluminum beads around their bare necks. They were striking, with these silvery beads against their ebony skin and colorful wraparound skirts. I had fun taking picture after picture.
A gathering of people, cattle, camels, and goats attracted us to a hole in the ground — actually a well! We watched as 11 men and women climbed down a deep hole — at least 100 feet deep — and stand on tree trunks wedged at intervals down the hole. It was more like a narrow mineshaft than a well. Standing one over another and chanting a haunting rhythm, they hauled out muddy-looking water for their animals, passing leather buckets from person to person — full ones up, empty ones down. The top person poured the muddy water into a canal that was directed into one of several troughs, one for camels, one for cattle and goats, and one for people. Nearby, several women squatted over hides used as basins, washing clothes with as little as a quart of water. Now we understood why their clothes were dirt colored. The whole scene was so fascinating that I still can conjure up vivid images, even without the photos.
However, Nelson thought it was disgusting and said, “They should not use that water, especially to drink. They will certainly get sick and die.” We pointed out that they had been living that way for generations and were used to it. Nelson was a sheltered city-dwelling African seeing primitive Africa, and he didn’t like it. Still, we didn’t take any water for ourselves, even though we would have treated it by either boiling or putting chlorine tablets in it. Drinking purified, thick, muddy water would have been nauseating, nevertheless. We carried jerry cans of water, filling them at village wells or public taps in little towns and treating them with purification tablets.
On our way into Mega, we passed what appeared to be an old Italian large castle-like building. It was probably a fort, left over from the years prior to WWII when the Italians ruled Ethiopia for five years.
On the outskirts of Mega we found another Swedish Mission, and again we were allowed to camp at the edge of their large grassy compound. Nelson decided to forgo the Jeep and sleep outside. However, we didn’t sleep very well that night because animals were howling all night long. They sounded like babies crying with intermittent sounds of grunting and growling. The frightening noises seemed very close by, just over the low fence that wouldn’t keep out a rabbit much less a wild dog or hyena. Soon after the hubbub started, we heard Nelson slam the Jeep door as he clambered inside. Next morning we found out that a pride of lions, with one of the females in heat, had made all the racket. “You needn’t have worried,” said one of the missionaries. “They’re interested in sex, not food. You don’t hear them when they’re hungry.”
Day 5, Thursday. We were tired and cold. It was a foggy morning, which sometimes happened during the rainy season. We got a late start after having our oatmeal and chamomile before the last leg to Moyale, only 65 miles away. Twelve miles down the road we came across a village that had been attacked by shiftas two days before. They killed a man and stole some cattle. Perhaps we should have been more worried about the shiftas than the lions.
Shifta is the Amharic word for bandit, but also was (and still is) applied to any group that opposes the Ethiopian government. These shiftas were probably Somali raiders that routinely crossed the borders into Ethiopia and Kenya. Partly political, partly tribal, partly a way of life, these groups were, and still are, active throughout the whole Horn of Africa. Their MO when we were driving through their territory was a sneak attack at night, starting off with a machine gun spraying a village with bullets, followed by the rest of the shiftas rushing in with their old Springfield rifles and spears, stealing what they could. Laurie made it through only 50 pages that day.
We weren’t bothered by any shiftas, but the possibility did begin to worry us because we were the only car on the road for miles and miles. We made only one forced quick stop for brake adjustments and paused to take pictures of the smallest and shyest antelope in Africa, the dik-dik. Every time we came across one, it hid before we could focus the cameras. We kept the engine running.
We made it! Finally, around 4:00 in the afternoon we drove into Moyale, not stopping until we were right at the Kenyan border — which was closed for the day. The border guards ordered us to go back. Grumbling, we retraced our tracks and stopped at the Ethiopian police station to ask where we could camp. They said it was best to stay right in the station. “Not safe out there.” So we hauled out our tent and camping gear and set up camp within a few yards of the office.
Why did this trip from Addis to Moyale take so long? There was only one “road” and if we had been able to see it, we wouldn’t have gotten lost. But our trouble with the Jeep slowed us down much more than our photography. It took us 5 days to cover roughly 350 miles, at about 70 miles and 7 hours per day of driving, for an average of 10 miles per hour. That’s the speed of marathon runners these days. For us, it was a different kind of slow motion adventure on “the longest road in Africa.”
We had covered the distance, but we weren’t in Kenya yet. After the usual breakfast on Friday morning, the four of us walked to the Kenya side and spoke with an immigration officer. He told us in a deferential manner that no foreigners would be allowed to enter Kenya by land. What a shock! Now what? The officer suggested that we fly to Nairobi from there or go back to Addis. The bandits, as the Kenyans called the shiftas, were also attacking anything that moved on the road south. We had hoped to join the next military convoy so we could be safely be escorted through the dangerous Northern Province. We said that we had come through southern Ethiopia without any problems. The officer smiled. “You were just lucky.”
The next plane was due Sunday morning, leaving us ample time to do some sightseeing within the confines of two-sided Moyale. The Ethiopian side had the police compound where we were camping, four or five little shops with canned food, soap and all the odds and ends for nomadic living — plus a little Coptic church built by the government, and possibly a mosque (I don’t remember seeing it). That was all. But, on the Kenya side it was a well-organized little frontier town: approximately two dozen dukas (shops), plus some restaurants and bars, lined both sides of a wide road that was in good repair; there were also government buildings, a clinic/hospital, a school, etc., all clean and neat in contrast to the Ethiopian side. I guess it was because of the British colonial legacy. Kenya had become an independent African nation only three years before.
We heard that the military convoy coming up from Nairobi had been attacked, so we certainly would not be going that way. Then we were told that we would have to wait another six days for another flight out of Moyale. Four Beatle-haired backpackers had priority on the next flight; they had run out of money after hanging out in Moyale for several weeks, and had worn out their welcome. For the wait, all I could do was to go to the bars and drink beer, but since my traveling companions were tea-totalers (herbal, at that), that turned out to be boring.
Saturday the 23rd was observed as Sabbath by Gerhard and Nelson (Seventh Day Adventists). Gerhard and I went for a little walk, while Laurie read her book and played with a baby goat. Nelson read his Bible. Since we had to leave the Jeep in Moyale, we needed to eat up all our food. We splurged with pudding, canned pineapple, and orange drink. For dinner Laurie and I had liver from a freshly butchered cow, while Gerhard and Nelson watched and ate rice. We celebrated with the Ethiopians — it was Emperor Haile Selassie’s 75th Birthday.
That night we slept poorly. First, we worried why a policeman had come the night before to say, “Do not be afraid. We put three guards near you.” Second, there was drumming all night long. Then it started up again and continued throughout the day. Disgruntled, we went to see what the drumming was all about. An Ethiopian bride had arrived. We joined the wedding celebration, with drumming, singing and dancing, to pass the day. Even with all the partying, we heard the plane fly over the town, so we rushed over to the Kenya side and met the pilot. After we explained our problem, he said that he had unfortunately brought up only a two-passenger plane, but he could bring up a four-seater the following Tuesday for the remaining two Beatle-haired travelers and two of our group.
Day 9, Monday. Gerhard decided to sell his Jeep and fly out on the next flight after ours. Nelson hoped to go with a convoy, if one ever arrived, as he was East African. Laurie and I prepared to leave on Tuesday. Laurie finished her only book, all 573 pages. Now we had to leave, because she had nothing left to read, and we couldn’t venture outside of town because it was too dangerous. Waiting was hell, due largely to the sitting around in the stifling heat with nothing to do and no place to go.
Day 10, Tuesday, July 26th. When we heard the plane fly overhead, we piled in the Jeep for the last time and Gerhard rushed us across the border into Kenyan Moyale to meet the pilot. The pilot said: Yes, we could go, but Gerhard would have to wait for three more days.
Laurie and I climbed into a police truck with the Beatle-haired brothers, and went out to the dirt runway under armed escort. We were overloaded, and the small 5-passenger Beechcraft had trouble taking off. On the second white-knuckled attempt we made it, barely clearing the flat-topped thorn trees at the end of the runway. The weather was beautiful with fleecy white clouds, but every time we went into a cloud we hit a strong updraft, and in between we hit downdrafts. On this roller coaster ride to Nairobi, only Laurie and the pilot arrived with grounded stomachs.
That night, as we were safe and comfortable in our Nairobi hotel room, the shiftas attacked Moyale. Sneaking close to town, they opened up with a machine gun, spraying both sides of town with bullets for 15 minutes or so. Then the spear throwers rushed in. The police fired back into the dark. Gerhard and Nelson lay flat at the bottom of a shallow foxhole for several hours as the battle raged over and around them. Bullets whistled overhead, thudding into buildings. They heard the shouts of the policemen as they fired back out into the darkness, sometimes from only a few feet away. In the end, the Ethiopian police killed several of the raiders, stripped four of them, and hung them upside down in the police compound where Gerhard and Nelson were staying. They didn’t get much sleep that night with naked mutilated corpses hanging upside down a few feet away.
For Laurie and me, the trip was exciting, but it was beyond exciting for Gerhard and Nelson. The end was horrifying. After a few days Gerhard joined us in Nairobi, but poor Nelson had to wait a couple of weeks for another armed Kenyan convoy.
Our trip had everything: good companionship, tension over mechanical breakdowns, fear of lions and shiftas, great photo ops, seeing different ethnic groups and Nelson’s reactions to them, and the boredom of just waiting around. And most important, it augmented two of my major interests. One is a life trip of photography as I was fascinated with documenting people’s ways of life; this eventually led me into more than 20 years in portrait photography. The other is my interest in international development. The trip laid before me the conditions of traditional people and opened a discussion within me over the ways to help them live better lives without destroying their culture in the process. This discussion still continues.
Wayne and Laurie returned to their home in Shingletown, California, in 2002 after living and working for seven years in Eritrea. Currently hunkered down in Mount Shasta, California, enjoying the fruits of a large garden.