I travel to rekindle our confidence in the goodness of humanity.
My greatest fear on any journey is that some crafty miscreant will take me for a ride. Not literally, of course. I am not afraid of being bundled under protest into a tuk-tuk in Mombasa or forced at pole-point onto a mokoro in the Okavango. It is the swindler that I dread, especially at borderposts and the countless roadblocks that straddle every African artery.
“Where are you from? Do you have something for me? What have you brought me from South Africa?” There is no other recourse than complete openness regarding the innocent nature of the visit plus a precautionary prayer that the vehicle carries enough white reflector tape, yellow stripes, red stickers and warning triangles to satisfy any real or invented local requirement. And that the paperwork is complicated beyond the wiles of the interrogator.
Certainly these encounters can sometimes be bothersome but they are equally frequently a chance for unexpected camaraderie. On a bridge that spans the Kafue River, my fifth roadblockster of that day asked me what I had brought him from South Africa. Pens? No. Cigarettes? No. Beers. No, no, no. I had brought him goodwill, I told him. Lots of it. At first he wasn’t sure but slowly his round face widened into a glorious grin. It was a coup.
Further north in Zambia another barrier stretched across the road, this time a couple of unconvincing bamboo poles balanced precariously on two official red cones. I wondered what these remote villains were after. Cigarettes? Beers? No. Did we have any books or magazines that we could donate to the local school? They were mugging us, admirably, of our literature and I was ashamed.
So it continued. Under protest and convinced that I was being duped, I paid a cash fine of 25 000 Tanzanian shillings for not carrying a fire extinguisher. I later discover that the law was clear. I had indeed transgressed.
We were charged a random few extra shillings for being non-Kenyan in a matatu (taxi) near Malindi but a local fellow-passenger was so appalled that he paid the difference himself rather than see us defrauded. The chastened driver consequently treated us to a complimentary coconut (with straw), an orange and a cellphone charging service included in the fare.\
My friend Stephen Kazungu, in his mid-twenties, is fairly philosophical about all this. When his house was destroyed by a mob in the riots following the Kenyan elections, he wrote to me that “really life is full of ups and downs; truly this is too much for me.”
I sent him money to rebuild and he wrote again. “Hi, my friend, I have got your moneys help to me without troublesome. I give my thanksgiving unto you and may God shower his grace unto you.”
Stephen is just one of the hundreds of decent people who regularly enrich my travels. In the thousands of kilometres I have driven in the countries to the north of us, I have never once been cheated or robbed. As Stephen is wont to say, it is “just brain-boggling”.
I hear from him frequently and he inspires me. “My friend,” he wrote in his latest email, “I hope you are riding well your wheel of life in your beloved country. Take care.”
Why do I travel? I travel to destroy my preconceptions. And, now that I understand this simple truth, I am riding my wheel of life very well indeed.