Round The World by Bike: Khartoum, Sudan to Ethiopia (March 2002)
Khartoum, Sudan to Ethiopia
“Apologies for my failure to think of a suitably cheesy yet inspirational opening quote. Can you help?”
– Alastair Humphreys
It is hot; my head pounds and my thermometer has a fit, races off the top of
the scale (50°C) and refuses to come back down. As I cycle my face is fixed
in a grimace (a combination of pain, heat, misery and genetic ugliness).
Exposed to the air my teeth become painfully hot. The ground is too hot to
sit on, my handlebars almost too hot to hold, the water in my drinking
bottle better suited for brewing tea than quenching thirst. But I must go
on: I have a rendezvous with a friend in some dilapidated Ethiopian town. It
is a race against time. I pause for food at sunset at a truckers’ stop.
Perhaps it was the heat but the conversation seemed rather surreal: “What
tribe are you from?” “Ermm… Yorkshire, I guess,” then a complicated
discussion about why farmers in England do not use camels.
Oh dear, the tears are back. I am pushing hard to meet Rob on time; on the
road an hour before first light, riding right through the midday inferno
(mad dogs, etc?) and on well into the night. There are too many hours
available for wandering thoughts… The road is so hard, so long, so quiet and
the sky is too big and empty for just one person.
But this latest episode of histrionics and soul searching runs deeper than last time [see Syria: “My
Life really is a Roller coaster”]. I really am in trouble this time. I
began this whole ridiculous affair because I wanted a challenge that I would
fail unless I really, really worked hard at it. But now I know that I can
cycle over huge mountains or across deserts. I know that I can cope alone in
strange countries and situations. I know that I can do it. The problem now
is that I no longer know whether I want to keep doing it. I am bored. I find
myself thinking “Not another massive mountain to sweat and curse my way
over. Not another 1000 km of road before my next ice-cream.”
So I weep my way through a few hundred kilometres of emptiness. At least it
passes the time. And keeps my eyeballs cool. It is the nearest I have yet
come to quitting. Being alone exaggerates all emotions and I feel desperate
to share my pain with somebody, anybody. But there is nobody: I feel very
alone. Being alone is infinitely harder than riding with a companion.
Thankfully a tiny shard of stubbornness keeps me riding and after a few days
my elaborate plans of 1) swerving in front of a truck or 2) heading for the
nearest England-bound aeroplane (slightly preferable to option number 1)
Tough guys tattoo LOVE and HATE across their knuckles. It is too hot for
such deep emotions now so I emblazon my cycling mitts with a dangling carrot
to keep me pushing towards Ethiopia: COLD BEER.
I drag my heels in Gallabat: the far side of the village is Ethiopia and I
am reluctant to leave Sudan. My passport is stamped in a thatched mud hut, I
don’t have to clear customs (the man is asleep and it would be a shame to
wake him) and the border policeman takes me for a final breakfast. Sudan
has amazed me. Arriving awestruck and nervous my head had been laden with
preconceptions. Now I have crossed Africa’s largest nation and have learned
Sudan has huge problems, amongst them an absurdly bad government, a horrific
civil war, hunger, drought and terrible poverty. However, Sudan has still
been my favourite country on this journey. Despite being poor the Sudanese
people that I met were genuinely happy. They are happy with what they have
and they have dignity and self-respect. They are the kindest, most cheerful,
most hospitable and welcoming people that I have ever met. The Sudan needs
the West to open its eyes to the horrors of the conflict, to rid itself of
unhelpful preconceptions caused by ignorance. It needs our awareness.
Perhaps you may like to read a book called The Weekenders; a collection of
short stories published by the Daily Telegraph to raise funds and awareness
for the Sudan. Perhaps you could read of the valuable work that Hope and
Homes for Children are doing in the Sudan. Please
don’t be as uninformed as me; Sudan is a wonderful, wonderful country and it
deserves our support.
The work of Hope and Homes for Children in Sudan
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half so bad
if it isn’t you.
Giggling and shielding faces behind freshly scrubbed hands, six small boys
stand in a group and sing a song. The boys are a family, hence the
embarrassment of performance, the clean faces, enforced best behaviour and
uncomfortable Sunday clothes. But these irritations are trivial in their
lives because they have a family now. Their singing is to welcome me on a
visit to their home.
A year ago each of these children was alone. Their lives up until then had
been horrifying. They were either surviving as best as they could on the
cruel streets or else they had been rounded up and dumped in government
camps. The camps are for children orphaned by the endless war in the south
of Sudan, their parents just another two of the two million people who have
disappeared or been killed in the brutal conflict. Alone in the World the
children have received scant education, inadequate food and shelter and
little love or personal attention for most of their short lives.
Hope and Homes for Children works in Sudan to take
some children from the government camps and to place them in homes within
the ordinary Khartoum community. They can then live in a simple but
comfortable home, attend a local school (plus receiving extra assistance to
help them catch up with other children of their age) and visit youth groups
where they learn useful trades (building, car mechanics, etc.) in order that
they will be more employable when they are older. The home I visited had six
orphans, now happily living together as brothers in the care of a permanent
mother and father. Everything possible is done to try and provide the
children with as normal an upbringing as possible. It is nothing fancy or
extravagant, it is just a childhood.
An important aspect is that the children are relying on each other and on
their new parents. They are not just feeling dependent on cash from rich,
white England. They are helping themselves. That is an extremely important
Children do not need much from life: education, food, shelter, love and
laughter. It does not even cost very much, which means that we all have the
potential to make a difference if we only choose to do so.
The singing brothers shook my hand as I left and as I looked into the eyes
of each of them I felt an amazing gratitude to them. The gaze of those small
boys showed me so much about courage, hardship, guts, overcoming adversity
and deep appreciation for renewed hope and laughter. May the wind be always
at your back, boys. You deserve it.
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
In the children’s homes are plaques acting as tokens of thanks to people
around the globe who have made a genuine difference to the lives of the
orphans. If you have enjoyed following the progress of my journey please
consider showing your support by helping these children. Perhaps you could
fundraise in your school or office and raise enough money to have a plaque
presented. It is not hard to do, but having shaken hands with those boys I
believe that it is hard not to want to help more kids like them, children
herded into indecent camps with only fleeting memories of their dead parents
to sustain them. You really can change the life of a child.
Please visit the web site for details of how you can help. Thank you.