I sat high in the back of a large, cream-colored, dirty truck, on top of sacks of grain, sorghum or millet probably, as my beard and I made an exit from Kampala. I was on the opposite side from the diesel exhaust column. I watched the city fade into the dust behind us as we bumped out of town. The beard kept a low profile against further complaints from Idi Amin’s supporters. We were headed east on the road to Nairobi.
I sat back, safely nestled into the grain sacks, bouncing along as we drove down into the hotter Ugandan countryside. After a while, I got used to the rhythm of the ruts and saw the green countryside emerge behind and around us though the dust as we slowly fled the city. I looked back westward at all the parts of Africa I was leaving behind.
You may wonder why I usually ended up in the back of the trucks I got rides from. Easy answer: trucks usually traveled with a driver and a mechanic sitting next to him in the cab. With few, if any, service stations, any repairs had to be done on the roadside and that was the mechanic’s job. That included the often occurring flat tire. Some trucks brought an extra tire; for most trucks the mechanics repaired the puncture on the spot and pumped up the tire. For me it meant helping the mechanic or finding a shady spot to wait for him to complete his repair. Trucks also typically traveled as a convoy of two or three so help was nearby in the event of a problem. Once on the road, you were left to your own devices.
When you are a lone passenger sitting high, looking backwards, you can think back to the places and people you have met and see them more clearly. When I looked down at the sacks around me, I watched movies in my mind of my past adventures. When I looked up my eyes swept over the entire landscape we were travelling through, and I could see it for its inspiring scenery, not just a road ahead.
Kampala is in the hills of the East African plateau. We wound through those hills and descended to some wide plains which we rolled though for quite a while before heading up, up towards Nairobi. We passed though villages and some midsized towns along the route to the Kenyan border.
The highway was not like a US interstate that avoids settlements, skirting towns while offering hotels, gas stations and fast food. This African highway wound right through towns, often through the middle, becoming the main street past the market squares where local goods were sold or bartered, where people gathered in conversation and past stores where goods were hung outside to attract buyers.
When we rolled up to the border, I was prepared with my new visas obtained in Kampala. I had some self-doubting flashbacks, reflecting on incidents entering Niger and Cameroon, but this was one of my smoother crossings. Planning is great when encountering authority, but spontaneity brings opportunity. And with that I entered Kenya.
The road climbed from the plains up into the mountains where Nairobi is located, high above the heat of the plains. Another truck was headed to Nairobi from the border, and I was allowed to hop on the back for another full day’s ride in the sun towards the capital. When we reached the outskirts of Nairobi, I parted ways with my truck ride to look for passage into the city.
I was lucky to catch a ride with a young Pakistani about my age who saw me on the road asked me if I wanted a ride, and where was I going. I told him I had just arrived from Kampala and was looking for a place to stay for the night towards the center of the city.
He quickly volunteered, “You can stay with my brother and me.”
And so, it happened again. A perfect stranger welcomed me and extended the kind of hospitality that we read about from in centuries past. Few people looked like me and my appearance gave me some privilege that others may not have enjoyed. The distrust for the West was not strong in 1972, so I was welcomed as a source of information and news from the rest of the world, a curiosity.
Nairobi started as a railway town but was now the capital of the new Republic of Kenya. Its population was only about half a million at that time, not the huge 9 million plus it is today. That explosive growth is typical of many modern cities in Africa as people have moved from rural subsistence agriculture into crowded urban poverty.
My new friend, Omar, and his brother Mohammed were from a family that had been in Kenya for generations, tracing back to the turn of the century. They came to Kenya from India to help serve the British East India Company. They stayed on to live and work in the shops and government offices of British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika). Their role was just like in Kampala. This was their new world.
Omar and Mohammad shared a spacious apartment in the same building where the rest of their family had another larger apartment. It was near their businesses. After settling me in, the brothers brought me to meet their parents and sisters for a dinner of East African Asian food. After visiting with the family, we returned to their apartment and talked well into the night.
To them, I was exotic. They had seen movies of people like me, but never encountered one. I was equally curious about their life in Nairobi. My time, so far, in Africa, had been in West Africa and north of the Sahara – areas they had never seen. They were fascinated by stories of my travels, another thing they had never had a chance to do. Their lives involved working in the family business and staying clear of the political upheaval that had rocked Kenya’s independence. They were still concerned about how Kenyan independence under Jomo Kenyatta might affect the Asian population. Racism existed.
As a minority in Kenya, they were interested in how minorities were treated in the U.S. It was a good point of reflection for me as I defended the progress that I thought was being made; it made me realize that many countries had issues with minorities who filled very valuable roles in their societies. At that time, Asians were about one third of the population of Nairobi.
It was great to connect with people my own age and we had a lot of personal experiences to share and laugh about. They envied my ability to travel so far on my own. They were focused on getting their working and family lives started.
The next day I wandered Nairobi. I was impressed by the Nairobi National Park located on the southern side of the city. Numerous parks and protected forests were also within the city.
When I ventured out the following day, I saw a billboard promoting the newest James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever! I had to go… I found the theater, bought my ticket for about a dollar. The movie theater was spacious, cooler and almost empty. It was a little after noon yet as the theater darkened I could just as well have been in Iowa or Kansas rather than on a plateau on the Equator in East Africa. I momentarily lost myself in space and time as I drifted completely into the world of spies.
I was still enjoying the fantast as I wandered out of the theater into the bright sunshine of the Nairobi day. I continued wandering around for 20 or 30 minutes or so, until I realized… I had left a leather bag with my wallet at my seat in the theater. I ran back to the theater in a bit of a panic.
The fellow at the entrance greeted me with a big smile and asked what was wrong. He was surprised to see me back so soon. He clearly remembered me as the only foreigner in the small audience at the recent screening. I explained that I had left my things at my seat. He was happy to help as we trotted back into the empty theater. He watched as I walked briskly to my seat, bent over and picked up my valuables which were exactly where I had left them. What a relief! We were all smiles as we returned to the entrance; he seemed as happy as I was.
I continued my walk thanking my lucky stars that people in Nairobi were honest and I hadn’t ended up marooned again. Then, that night, I met my new friends for dinner at their place.