The Longest Road in AfriCa

BACK IN ADDIS, I tried to plot a trip by road to the Kenyan border and beyond. Not difficult to plot—there was only one road—but in these uncertain times no reliable information. The farther you got from an African capital, the worse the roads. Everyone knew that, but harder information was unobtainable, and the more you inquired the vaguer people became. In such circumstances the cliché “terra incognita” was something real and descriptive. The border was distant; distant places were unknown; the unknown was dangerous

Border towns in African countries were awful places, known for riffraff and refugees and people sleeping rough, famous for smugglers and backhanders, notorious for bribery and delay, nitpicking officialdom, squeezing policemen, pestering moneychangers, the greatest risks, and the crummiest hotels. There was either a new national language on the other side of the border or the same tribal language straddling it—and a nasty border dispute because the dotted line ran through a divided people. Roadside customs and immigration barriers were horrible bottlenecks, usually at one end of a bridge on the bank of a muddy river. People told me, Don’t go

Some buses went to the southern towns of Dila and Mega, and occasional vehicles to the frontier town of Moyale, but Moyale was the edge of the known world for Ethiopians. None of them ever went to Kenya—why would they? The north of Kenya was waterless desert and rutted roads and quarrelsome tribes, a border dispute among the gun-toting Borena people, and worst of all, the troops of roaming, heavily armed Somalis known as shifta. Just dropping the word “shifta” into a proposed itinerary was enough to make traveling Africans go in the opposite direction.

On what was now the longest road in Africa, some of it purely theoretical, from Cairo to Cape Town, there had once been a plan for a great transcontinental railway. Apart from his dream of diamonds and conquest, Cecil Rhodes’s imperial vision for Africa was of a railway line that would run from South Africa to Egypt, taking in Nairobi and Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Nubia. Later, track was laid to the Copper Belt in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as far as the Congo border. The Germans built a railway across their colony of German East Africa (later British Tanganyika, later still independent Tanzania). The Tanzanians, under the leadership of the muddled Maoist Julius Nyerere, soon had a line south from Dar es Salaam into Zambia, entirely the work of Mao-sponsored Chinese railway men, chanting the Great Helmsman’s Thoughts as they hammered spikes and fastened rails.

By zigging and zagging and taking a ferry across Lake Victoria, it was possible for a solo traveler like me, with a bag and a map, to go by rail from Cape Town to Nairobi. But north of Nairobi the tarred road gives way to mud, the buses stop running at Isiolo, and after that it is just a rocky road, hyenas, and colorful Rendille tribesmen, wearing armlets and loincloths, carrying spears and sabers, and forever fussing over their elaborate hairdos. As soon as the road surface turned bad the bandits appeared, shifta carrying AK-47s, classic highwaymen. The road from Nairobi to the border was reputed to be the emptiest in Africa. That was where I was headed.

No one had any information about that road in Addis, and there wasn’t much available about southern Ethiopia either. People would say they had been to a certain town in the south and then, when I questioned them further, they would go blank. Even the Kenyans went blank. Visa requirements had changed. I would need one. I went to the Kenyan embassy and was told by a sulky Kikuyu woman at a desk that I would have to wait three or four days for the visa. “Why can’t I have it today or tomorrow?” In a scolding tone she said, “Mr. Ochieng, the visa officer, must not be distubbed.” “And why is that?” “He is busy wucking.” “But I am busy too,” I said mildly, “and I want to visit your wonderful country.” “You will have to wait.” She picked up a telephone and flicked her fingers at me in a bugger-off gesture. But I did not leave. I buttonholed diplomats and inquired about the road. Of the three officers at the embassy I spoke to, none had gone by land from Addis to Nairobi across the common border. A Kenyan man in a three-piece suit seemed insulted that I should suggest it. “We fly,” he said. One Kenyan woman confided that she disliked Ethiopians. “They are proud,” she said. She meant racist. To annoy other Africans, Ethiopians sometimes said, “We are not Africans.”

Add Comment