Last December, 83-year-old Peter Shompole ole Leroka lived his dream. Against the odds of a stroke that left him with impaired movement 11 years ago, this former headmaster and passionate teacher of Geography and History, went on a 23-day road trip from the plains of Kenya to South Africa’s coast and back. It was a dream come true in the most incredible manner. In this first instalment of a two-part series, he tells his remarkable story of resilience, faith, adventure and the beauty of Africa
In August last year when I launched Dare to Defy, the story of my life, I still had unfinished business. I needed to go to Kimberley, South Africa, to visit my youngest daughter, Teresia Samante and her husband Edwin Odupoy. They had a newborn whom I had given the name Naisula, meaning, the best of all; one who has succeeded.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
I knew I could fly from Nairobi to Johannesburg and then take another flight to Kimberley. But that would rob me of my dream to see all those land features in southern Africa that I had taught my pupils at many schools all over Kajiado, including Kiserian Primary School where I became Headmaster in 1967.
Perhaps I enjoy travelling, and studying landscapes, because I am a child of a pastoralist. Born by the Shompole Hills, my childhood was filled with long treks between Magadi and Ngong. I eventually settled in Kiserian around 1950.
On this road-trip to Cape Town, there were six of us — my son, Daktari (Dr Patrick Sankale), and four of his children. As we planned our trip — renewing passports, getting yellow fever vaccines and South African visas — Daktari studied maps on his cell-phone and told me that we would cover 5,225km, one way. He asked me several times whether I didn’t want to fly with my daughters Grace and Maria, and two of my grandsons. I was adamant. I had a list of places I wanted to see; this was my opportunity.
BLESSINGS AT HOME
A journey of this kind needed spiritual blessings, but I couldn’t join my family in church. Since the stroke I suffered on December 31, 2007, my physical movement is slightly impaired, and I suppose it doesn’t help that I am 83 years old, diabetic, 6ft 4 inches tall, and I weigh 151 kilograms. Thankfully, Fr Muhuri of Rongai was willing to come to my home a day before our departure. Daktari’s children arrived from their home in America at 8pm so they joined in the prayers for our safe travel.
We set off at 10am on Tuesday, December 18. Daktari declared that we would aim to cover 1,000km a day, and he would do the driving. I was in the co-driver’s seat, so I appointed myself the trip monitor. I watched Daktari closely, cautioned him about speeding and whenever I sensed he was getting tired I would shout my instructions. “Stop. Move to the back seat. Naasisho, come and drive. Don’t go over 100km an hour. Stop after 200km and let your sister Natasha or Naisula take over.”
Daktari loves speed and there were policemen all over Tanzania. Despite his speed detector, he picked four speeding tickets in one day! The fine is 30,000 Tz shillings, about Ks 1,000. Daktari’s daughter, Linda Naisula, was the accountant. We had carried some petrol in case we ran out, but she made sure we topped up at petrol stations whenever we could. I noticed the dominance of Total stations where we were sure to get clean petrol and bottled water for drinking.
My sightseeing list included the Limpopo River, the Victoria Falls, the Table Mountains and Cape Agulhas, where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. From Tanzania through to Botswana there is dense forest cover, a beautiful landscape. But it is frightening if, unlike me, you are not familiar with the wild. I was disturbed by some things — why were there no birds throughout Zambia? What indigenous vegetables do people eat in all of southern Africa? Why don’t they drink tea?
In Zambia, we saw many hawkers selling wild mangoes, honey and charcoal. I asked one where we could stop for a cup of tea. “What’s that”, he asked in fluent English. I explained that you boil some leaves and add milk from cows to make a beverage. “Ah, cows”, he said. “I see what you want. Go to European farms, they are the ones who have cows.
In my autobiography, I talk about the many road-trips that Daktari and I have made to the gemstone mines in Voi, and to the quarries in KMQ, a small town in Kajiado where we mine limestone. But on these Kenyan journeys, it has been many years since I saw people trekking for miles or waiting endlessly at bus-stops. This was a common sight in Zambia where we went through 300km of a very rough potholed road.
We would see a group at a bus-stop and drive for 30km lined with equatorial forests and no wildlife, before we would meet the bus those people were waiting for. Another common sight was long-distance truck drivers stranded by the roadside, desperate for water. We shared what we had.
Boda Bodas, Tuk tuks and Matatus were another scarce thing on this road-trip. We didn’t see motorbikes again after Tanzania where, Elias Opundo, a Boda boda operator originally from Kenya, helped us find a hotel in Dodoma when we got there at 1am, tired and hungry. At 6am, we were up again, determined to tackle the hilly roads to Iringa and get to Tunduma, closer to the Zambian border. But the woman who ran the hotel detained us until I had drunk some maize-meal porridge. She was very kind.
Throughout southern Africa, whenever we were settling our bill at a hotel, I noticed how scarce the use of mobile money was. But Daktari had prepared well. Apart from credit cards, he had carried US dollars which are usually accepted at hotels and they are the easiest to change to local currencies.
We needed to stay in touch with family members. Instead of roaming on his Kenyan line, Daktari would buy a local sim-card at each border-crossing. That kept cell-phone costs down, but he complained a lot about the lengthy registration process. Often, it would take him close to an hour before he had a connection. Back in the car, he would hotspot his phone so that his four children had Wi-Fi connection to make Internet calls. But in most places the network was too weak for that.
Road-trip cuisine can be fun but risky. The wild fruit did not worry me as much as the bugs in Zambia! We declined them because they were uncooked. Except for one long day of hunger, before we got to Serenje for the night, we never really had trouble finding familiar foods. I especially enjoyed eating fish, thanks to the plentiful rivers that criss-cross southern Africa.
LEMONADE OF MY LIMES
My bulky size has been the source of many mixed blessings. That includes a few sorrows. In Tunduma, Tanzania, I could only get a room on the second floor. That hotel had no lift. Given my impaired movement, getting me upstairs was hard work for Daktari and his son, Nathan. I fell several times. We were missing the week-old wheelchair we had decided to leave in Kiserian because, with six of us, there were too many suitcases on the carrier of Daktari’s Toyota Prado.
We stopped regretting that decision when we reached Kazungula in Zambia. Daktari decided to hire a wheelchair so that I could see the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River — the largest waterfall in the world! We should have known that standard wheelchairs are of little use in the case of a man of my size. As I was being pushed downhill, the wheelchair broke! I fell. Big as I am, my fall could hardly be heard. Even though it was the dry season and the water levels were low, the sound of the water as it falls 108 metres to the ground is absolutely deafening!
HEALTH INSPECTION OF ITS KIND
We had decided to enter South Africa from Botswana, not from Zimbabwe. But the health checks to enter Botswana are rigorous. We had to disinfect our shoes, and the car, and we were ordered to sit down to eat all the mangoes we had bought from roadside vendors in Zambia! We had to throw some away.
Once border patrol was satisfied that we couldn’t carry disease into Botswana by any means, I sat in the car waiting for Daktari and his children to finish their errands. Suddenly, I heard a strong tug on my passenger door. I turned startled, my rungu in hand. Monkeys! “What do you want here?” I asked them. They were looking for food.
The drive through Hwange National Park gives way to open grasslands. And that’s when I saw them — Cows. Sheep. Goats. Elephants. Many, many cows, unattended. I told Daktari, “Mimi Maasai. Nitaenda kuleta waMaasai tubebe hizi ng’ombe!” I studied the cows and saw bells on their necks. Oh, so they must belong to someone I thought, reluctantly letting go of the fancy that I could take over these herds.
We talked about some kinsmen I grew up with in Shompole who crossed into Tanzania long ago. But I didn’t know that Maasais go way beyond Moshi and some live far inland, past Mbeya. We saw them in their shukas by the roadside and saw their manyattas all over. We also saw their modern houses, their women carrying loads on their heads. It seems the Maasai in Tanzania have assimilated and taken on the ways of other local communities. Some call themselves Wagogo.
Botswana is a wealthy country. Low population, good rainfall, no hawkers and hustlers at border points. We spent the night at Francistown ready to cross the border at Martin’s Drift at dawn and make it all the way to Johannesburg. And then the headache begun!
Nathan, one of Daktari’s children is a minor, and Daktari had not realised that he would need a letter from his wife, in America, giving him express permission to enter South Africa with the child. The letter needed to be witnessed by a Notary Public. Mama Tasha would have to drive 120km on a Saturday night in the thick of winter, from Pullman to Spokane in Washington State, to obtain that letter.
The border was full of stranded travellers, especially long-distance truck drivers. There was no hotel and, at 9am, the heat was already at oppressive 38 degrees Centigrade! Fortunately, the hygiene here was the best that we had encountered so far.
My age got us through many sticky situations at this border point and I was so touched by how respectful South Africans are to old people. Moholo, they called me in Sotho. “Look after your father well, let him sit in the shade, over there,” they told Daktari. Their concern took the sting out of the long wait.
With the time difference and the problems of finding a lawyer over a weekend, by the time Mama Tasha sent the required letter via e-mail, we had lost 18 hours. We were going to be late for Christmas in Kimberley. We decided to skip Johannesburg and stay on the smaller highways. But first, we had to get over the obstacle of racial discrimination in Lephalale, Limpopo Province where we arrived late at night, desperate for a shower and a bed.
Next Week: Spotting the Tropic of Capricorn and a narrow escape from flash floods
Mzee Shompole talked to Dr Joyce Nyairo — [email protected]
Read Part 2 next Sunday