Monday, April 18, 2011

The Ukimwi Road

From Kenya to Zimbabwe

The word "intrepid" scarcely seems adequate to describe Dervla Murphy. In 1992 she set out on a four-month, 3000-mile, bicycle trip through East Africa -- alone, and at the age of 60.

Early on she is challenged by an African pastor to speak out about AIDS (ukimwi in Swahili). "There's no medicine for this plague, only information to stop it," he says, and his words are borne out by people who believe the disease is caused by alcohol, or witchcraft, or American biological experiments. Condom use is widely disdained, one reason being the belief that only inferior ones are sent to Africa, another that they are part of a Western plot to slow African population growth.

AIDS thus becomes the book's leitmotif, and Dervla reports on the devastation she glimpses and the tangled ethical and moral issues it has stirred up. She also voices some pet peeves -- the IMF, the World Bank, and "UN free-loaders." At one point an FAO Land Cruiser whizzes past her, "vividly illustrating the reality of Western 'aid' to Africa. Hundreds of such vehicles, normally carrying only one or two expatriates, zoom around rural areas; but the locals, to whom transport would be a boon, knew better than to expect a lift."

Yet the book is not shrill or single-minded, and contains the usual elements of good travel writing -- description, anecdote, conversation, historical context, economic status report, observation both sympathetic and caustic -- as well as her own somewhat eccentric behaviour. She tipples Nile beer in Uganda, Tusker in Kenya and Tanzania, and Carlsberg in Malawi. She registers herself as a Russian astronaut at a police station, and alters a date on her vaccination booklet to facilitate a border crossing.

Throughout her travels she is repeatedly cautioned by concerned Africans about her safety, yet the only violence she witnesses are two episodes of brutal government repression in Kenya. True, she is harassed by belligerent louts, jeering children, and uncooperative officials, yet such acts are overshadowed by many instances of friendliness and generosity, people who go out of the way to help her when she has a flat, gets lost, falls sick.

Kenya (2 chapters)

From Nairobi she heads west to the port of Kisumu on Lake Victoria, then continues on to Uganda. While in Kenya she observes that "a half-century of White settlement created a racial chasm," and mentions the legacy of paternalism exemplified in the writings of Karen Blixen and Elspeth Huxley.

Uganda (4 chapters)

She "salutes the Nile" at Jinja, visits friends in Entebbe, and tours the Sese Islands in Lake Victoria. She spends time in Kampala, then heads west to Fort Portal and skirts the Ruwenzoris.

Tanzania (2 chapters)

After a stop in Bukoba, she takes the ferry to Mwanza at the southern end of Lake Victoria. The road is so corrugated that she departs from it at Old Shinyanga and (in my favourite part of the book) heads overland to Dodoma -- on a footpath! She camps out four nights in succession after being reassured that leopards and hyenas are rare in the area. After this detour she returns to the road system and continues on to Iringa and Mbeya in the beautiful southern highlands.

She blames much of "Tanzania’s drab and uniform poverty" on Nyerere's disastrous ujamaa policy.

Malawi and Zambia (3 chapters)

Faced with visa limitations in Malawi during a time of upheaval, she departs from her planned route and takes a rough mountain road which turns out to be one of the highlights of the trip. She delights in Malawian charm, and in Zambia declares, "The good news, in Zambia, is the Zambians – warm-hearted, open-minded, high-spirited against all the odds."

After a stay in Lusaka, she crosses the Zambesi into Zimbabwe where she is immediately felled by malaria and the book ends in Karoi (where the family of Alexandra Fuller once farmed, as described in Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight). When she recovers she heads back to Nairobi by public transport, a journey that regrettably she does not describe, for part of it was on the Tanzam railway from Lusaka to Dar, which I very much would have enjoyed reading.

Dark Star Safari

Paul Theroux replicated part of this route about 10 years later, as recounted in Dark Star Safari. He was about the same age as Dervla at the time of her trip, and though he didn’t travel by bike he was as intrepid as her in his own way, and equally scathing about aid workers. Moreover, as a young man he lived and taught in Malawi and Uganda, and still retains a grasp of Swahili. It’s interesting to compare the two books.


Dervla's Website
CBC "Writers & Co." interview (podcast)