"The real voyage of Discovery lies not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes"
Marcel Proust

Monday, August 29, 2011

Rolling Down the HIV Highway

I took one last glance over my shoulder at Mount Kilimanjaro. Flat topped, white-capped, it seemed to hang ghost-like above the hazy horizon. We turned onto hwy A 109 and headed west toward Nairobi.  This highway is called by various names. Sometimes it’s called The Mombasa Road, or the Trans-African Highway, or the Great North Road, but most often it is called the HIV Highway.  It is the thin, fragile and clogged artery that feeds and fuels the heart of Africa.  The road brings goods, including a stream of diesel and gasoline from the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast to the interior of Kenya, and on to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan. Its not only freight and fuel that move along the highway, but the road “fuels” the HIV epidemic across all of central Africa.  They tell me that it is possible to move cargo (and disease) all the way across the African continent, even into West Africa as far as Lagos, Nigeria, on this highway.
This is one of the more dangerous and congested highways in Africa. It is not an interstate per se (it is actually inter-nation) but it carries the traffic of our interstates and yet it is only two-lanes. Can you imagine I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis or I-55 between St. Louis and Chicago with all of that truck traffic, if there was only one lane in each direction? Well if you can picture that scenario then you can picture this highway.

Lines of trucks, most holding containers recently taken off ocean-going ships, spew black smoke as they huff and puff their way up the gentle hills.  They carry the goods that will stock store shelves in Kampala, be bartered for in open-air markets of Kigali, or furnish modern office buildings in Nairobi.
Although we had left Amboseli National Park behind, a “giraffe crossing” sign and several “gazelle crossing” signs warned drivers to be on the lookout, just as we have “deer crossing” signs in America. Sure enough, there was a family of giraffes, surprisingly close to the bumper-to-bumper truck traffic. This was no road through Safari Land. Four giraffes walked beside the highway with their graceful gait. (Giraffes appear graceful because, like camels, they walk with two legs on each side moving in unison).  Giraffes are often depicted in carvings and artwork as standing straight up, but as they stride along they appear to be leaning into a strong head wind or maybe they are stretching their necks for the finish line – so they can win by a nose.
Besides gazelle and giraffe crossing signs, many other surprising signs lined the highway. In Africa you never know what signs you will see along the way.  For example, in the grazing and farming areas, dozens of signs announced, “This Land is NOT for sale.”  We all know about For Sale signs, but I had never seen “Not For Sale” signs on land or buildings.  I asked my driver Ken why landowners post “Not for Sale” signs?  Can’t that be assumed unless we see a For Sale sign? Apparently not in Kenya!  There is a widespread problem of deceitful individuals posing as real estate agents selling other people’s land or buildings that are not for sale. The owner, of course, doesn’t know that some unfortunate person just paid for the owner’s property, property the buyer can’t ever own. Land being sold out from under the true landowner has caused all sorts of problems (sometimes with violent consequences) for both the owner and the buyer, while the unscrupulous salesman disappears down the highway.
Other surprising signs along the way included the Serena Williams School (apparently she visited the area and donated a lot of money for the school so they named it after her) and the Michele Obama Grocery Store (President Obama is hugely popular in Kenya because his father was of Kenyan heritage. His face shows up on buses, taxis, and t-shirts). In Kenya, as throughout most of Africa, an exclamation point in a red and white triangle indicated an emphatic, if not specific, warning to be alert. Hand painted signs often lead to confusion. Is it NU DESIGNS? Or NUDE SIGNS? Much like the Mail Pouch or See Rock City barns in North America, in Kenya most of the buildings were covered in advertisements – Orange for the Orange Cell Phone company; Green for its competitor, bright Red buildings covered by Coca-Cola logos.  I wondered if the owners got paid for allowing this, or maybe like some of the early Mail Pouch Barn owners, they just wanted a coat of paint on the barn.
Along the road, little children with their mothers in tow walk hand in hand to school, sometimes a couple of miles away.  The brightly-colored clothes of the mother contrast with the navy blue or burgundy school uniforms of the children. Clusters of older students, also dressed in smart formal uniforms, lollygag to school. Many of the older youths also held hands as they walked. The children would invariably yell and wave when they saw this white person pass by in the car. Other women, many of them quite elderly, walked bent over with large sacks of produce on their backs. They were carrying their goods to market. Some walk as many as 10 or 12 miles on market day with these loads on their backs.  I asked Ken why Kenyans consistently did so well in marathons and Olympic distance running events. He said he thought it was because at a young age they walk – and often run – to school. He said he ran up to 10 miles to school each day when he was a boy.

The remains of long-dead and destroyed trucks litter the roadside like the rusting exoskeletons of large insects.  Every few miles a large semi would be broken down on the highway. Lacking flares to give warning, truck drivers place twigs and branches in the road to indicate moving off to the side to avoid a broken down vehicle. Putting branches in the road is a common rule of the road throughout Africa, but I was surprised to see it in the relatively well-developed country of Kenya, particularly on this heavily traveled highway. Many of these broken down trucks had been totally overloaded. Freight would be stacked amazingly high, impressive packing jobs! A pick-up passed with a bed in its bed.  

As we approached Nairobi, cement plants lined the highway. Rhino Cement, Co., Mombasa Cement Co, and many others, producing the cement demanded by the growing population and associated development. Suburban sprawl, business parks, buildings with familiar names like Caterpillar, Coca Cola and FedEx, and even the Belle View Outdoor Drive-In Movie Theatre made this stretch seem much like the approach to any major city.
In Nairobi, this constricted artery became a completely clogged artery.  There is no bypass around Nairobi. This road, carrying all of the freight from the continent’s coast into Africa’s interior, passes right through downtown. Traffic lights and round a-bouts provide resistance, pushing back against forward movement of traffic.  Can you imagine I-70 feeding all of its traffic into a city street in St. Louis? That is the situation in Nairobi which is why Nairobi is notorious for having some of the worst traffic problems in the world.

In the city, Hadada Ibis and enormous five-foot-tall Marabou Storks, with wingspans exceeding 10 feet, replace the pigeons and sparrows that we see in urban environments. Hadadas and Marabous perch on street lights, road signs, and the tops of skyscrapers. Even in cities, Africa wildlife is spectacular.
After inching your way through Nairobi, you soon reach the rim of the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley is one of those places where the earth’s crust is being ripped apart. The Great Rift Valley was originally described as the spectacular geographic trench which stretched almost 4,000 miles from Syria in the Mid-East to Mozambique in southeast Africa. Today, the term Rift Valley usually refers to the valley of the East African Rift which extends from the Red Sea near Ethiopia down to Mozambique. It was into this tear in the earth’s crust that the highway descends. At the rim of the escarpment, red wooden shops, with wood curious and white sheep skins on display, hang over the edge offering a free scenic view to entice tourists to pull over and take a look. Within seconds of aiming your camera down to the expansive valley below, the sales people accost you with their wares in tow. Through the blue-brown haze you can see two large satellite dishes that receive and send global communications, odd in that Maasi youth herd goats around their base as they have done for eons.  The view of the Rift Valley is spectacular and from a distance the scene is placid, if not pastoral. But a closer look reveals blemishes.  Clusters of white tents can be seen.  In January 2008, post-election violence displaced thousands of Kenyans.  Several “Internally Displaced People” camps sprung up in this area on what are not lush pastures but desolate dusty plains. Three thousand people still live there in tents or makeshift homes with no shade, running water, electricity, or protection from the elements.

The road winds its way perilously down the steep escarpment. Overloaded and poorly maintained semis, with long lines of vehicles lined up behind them , struggled to make it up the cliff face.  In fact they would be traveling so slow that boys who had roasted corn over open fires could trot alongside the trucks and sell the corn to the driver while the truck struggled uphill. Impatient drivers would attempt to pass the trucks, chugging their way up the hill and willing to roll the dice on whether an approaching car is flying downhill around the next curve.  Passing on curves is a contact sport on the escarpment. Debris from head-on collisions is a reminder that this form of Automobile Russian Roulette sometimes ends tragically. (See for example: www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmEHr60KDYQ)
If you are fortunate enough to survive the trip down the escarpment, you are released into the Rift Valley town of Maai Mahiu. Towns like Maai Mahiu give the highway its name as the AIDS Highway or HIV Highway. The truckers and other transient men, often from other African countries, stream through town along the road. It is too dry to do farming and poverty leaves many children and women hungry and homeless. With no other way of surviving, many of the girls and women turn to prostitution.  In fact the only two sustainable and significant industries in Maai Mahiu are trucking and prostitution. The highway artery brings a steady stream of new customers every night.  The most striking thing about the town is the astounding numbers of bars and hotels for a town this size lining the highway. With thousands of truckers passing through and who knows how many women serving them, HIV/AIDS is rampant. One study estimated that possibly as many as one-third of all truck drivers along this road are HIV positive. Although Maai Mahiu may be the nexus of this problem, towns all along this highway have the same problem to varying degrees, hence the highway’s name of shame. Opportunities for vices seem to gravitate toward highways, even in America. The transient and anonymous nature of travel lends itself to indulging in such behaviors and there are generally individuals willing and waiting to profit from it, particularly when they themselves are desperate and lack other alternatives for income. But on this highway, the temptations, like the trip up and down the escarpment, can be particularly deadly.
It is here at Maai Mahiu that I left the HIV Highway. I headed south to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve where the only congestion would be among the thousands of wildebeests migrating to greener pastures, where the honking of horns was replaced by the snorting of zebras, and the only dangers were from the lions crouching in the grass.

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