Africa knows no haste. It is an astute observation. A law that a keen eye visiting the continent has not failed to catch and eventually follow. A cliché used by boring people (that are usually bosses) trying to crack a pathetic joke pathetically bored juniors.
But, not unlike most celebrated sayings, we might still distill a grain of verifiable truth from it. And the truth of it is as follows.
The African Sun is required of by the gods to be friendly for an hour or so daily. That is, a few minutes at daybreak when the birds are happy to warm themselves while showing off their plumages and in the sunset when, not to be outdone, mother nature in her vanity and seeks to show off her glowing coat of many colors among the evening clouds.
But the real personality of the African Sun is quite diabolical. He is not your friend, that cruel bully. He rides upon fiery dragons throwing their flames towards poor African creatures on the savannahs, on open spaces.
Finding respite from the burning poison of these flames and the penetrating rays of our bully’s eyes, mortals are provided with two options. The first and most advisable is to hide under the shadows of houses and trees or if you are a reptile’s descendant, under a rock.
The second measure is a risky affair only to be taken when carrying out a commission that requires extraordinary urgency and this method involves walking ever so slowly. For the sun, the evil bully is always on the lookout for fast-moving objects to attack. Naïve visitors that have hurriedly gone about their business in the open African sun have often and very quickly learnt that the bully and his fiery dragons are quick to catch up with them and in equal haste and with atrocity, inflict sun strokes and sun burns. Or, if kinder, just the severest of thirsts. Thus the African sun is to be respected.
(I say “respected” but I in fact mean “feared”. You see, real men like yours truly do not admit fear. It is a law of chivalry. When beaten to submission, we report the end of the intercourse as having “respectfully” brokered a truce).
Armed with this wisdom, I meant to start riding every morning at five o’clock or thereabouts and set my alarm to wake me at that time. It was a short night. That is not to say I wasn’t happy to wake up soon as the alarm went. A short while later, I check out of the room at the same time the muezzins begun chanting through the loudspeakers atop the mosques.
The Moyale-Ethiopia main street/road alight with street lights was still warm and the tarmac embracing. If you ever observed the moving tread patterns on a tyre while riding under incandescent street lights, you will remember how they made the wheel appear to move backwards. It is a devilish optical trick meant to steal the attention of abstracted cyclists not to realize they are on the lane of oncoming traffic.
This absent-mindedness like most, was rectified by a frightening near-miss with an oncoming taxi whose cursing driver was yet another pointer to prove the theory that all taxi and bus drivers are sadists crazed and angry with the world.
The first moments of my ride on Ethiopian soil was an adrenaline-filled half hour. Not rash though, just apprehensive. What was I going to find in the coming 800-or-so kilometres? What new injuries were going to plague me? How many times was I going to camp in the open? And the realization that now, more than any time in the past, I was truly on my own…
Any which way, I was soon enough stopped at a checkpoint by a Swahili-speaking Ethiopian soldier at a checkpoint a few kilometres from Moyale. We immediately had company of some other three idle young men. I later discovered had been opening by bags as I was being interrogated. You see, I have never held a reputation as an admirer of petty theft or the picking of pockets. It was furiously demoralizing and I swore violence against the ill-informed thieving culprit if it were to befall me again.
Onward I pedalled. The people in Southern Ethiopia are mainly the nomadic Oromo and Rendille and are predominatly slim and dark-skinned.
There are dusty small towns along the way but they are few and far apart. Other than that, they have few interesting features that it would be sinful to dwell on them much. However, cycling past these towns, you are initiated to the irksome habit of everyone shouting “Ferenji! Ferenji! Ferenji!” and “You! You! You!…” as you go.
The next big town that I planned to spend the night is called Mega about 120km from Moyale. The ride is tolerable. The flat and monotonous scenery is broken here and there with tall white ant hills that should only remind one of Lot’s wife turned into a salt pillar.
(By the by, she must have been leading the pack of the fleeing household or no one else would have known that she had been turned into a pillar of salt. For it would have necessitated a turning back of the heads to witness what had befallen their mother. And who would not forgive a curious and caring mother for looking over her shoulders to judge how her trailing household was keeping abreast?)
But I digress. There are gentle climbs and not so gentle head-winds for most of the way until about two kilometres from my target town, Mega.
The town is built beyond the mother of all climbs. The bottom of the hill has a cynically placed police checkpoint. The requirement to stop and the obnoxious questioning by the soldiers takes away one’s rhythm, momentum, feigned patience and lastly the will to breath. The road then meanders ascending at what seems like an upright degree to a battered cyclist.
I rode into the town in a tired delirium and will only remember very few things and which were important to my continued existence then. I asked around for a room at a hardware shop. Among things sold in the shop were leather pistol holsters. A lot of them. I was given the directions to several hotels and to the police station if I failed to find accomodation. Maybe I shall never get Ethiopian jokes.
But first to pacify my angry shoal of stomach worms, I sought an eating place. Supper consisted of the most purtid, sour “anjera” ever made served with finely chopped, very spicy meat. I searched in vain for the wisdom to be learnt in serving a fine stew along with rotting bread.
All lodgings full on account of a high school sports finals being held in the town. By the time I was learning of this unfortunate turn of events, I had already made friends with a tall young man called Abdul, a teacher at a nearby high school. And since my friendship always comes with strings attached, I spent the night at Abdul’s single-room bachelor’s pad. There was no water to shower and even if there had been, my strength would have failed me on the way to the distance shower rooms.
Nor did I bother myself with a change of clothes as I fell to sleep on the mat. It reminds me now that I ought to make another journey to apologize to poor Abdul for suffering a stinking traveller on his floor until morning.
It might have been the reason my host was quick to remember my earlier request to be woken up at 5.30am.
Since Mega is built halfway uphill, I decided to tackle the two kilometers remaining climb before I sat to stretch and have my breakfast.