Reading Dervla Murphy’s Ukimwi Road, a description of her trip through Kenya and Uganda in 1992 by bicycle at the age of 60, I came face to face with my own increasing antiquity. I assumed it was set way back last century then realised, I had been in Kenya myself before the book had been written.
I went there in 1985 with a bunch of friends renting a jeep and driving around the Rift Valley. It was the same time as Karen Walker was murdered in the Masai Mara, and Dervla mentions seeing her distressed father in Nairobi in his vain attempt to track down her killers, some seven years later.
Ukimwi is the Swahili word for AIDS. Dervla became resigned to the fact that her trip would be hijacked by the constant reality of HIV positive people everywhere sick or dying. She was seen as a Western person who must be able to help them.
Then I tune in to a podcast with a Jesuit in Hong Kong. He is just back from a trip to Kenya, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg where he has been highlighting the notorious business of drug mules between Johannesburg and Hong Kong. He is entertaining and self effacing, but his blogs have lit a fire in the East African media leading to the number of mules arrested at Hong Kong airport reducing to 2 or 3 from over 100.
Women are enticed by people who offer great hope of fortune overseas and then forced to conceal drugs in their bodies. Long terms of imprisonment or the death penalty lie ahead of them when they are inevitably picked up at Hong Kong airport which has high caliber police that detect the slightest change in behaviour signalling drug carrying.
I think of the web and how this exposes women to scammers skilled in enticement. I think of the women I know myself who have been deceived and scammed via tinder and other online apps. How close we can come to deadly intrigue and exploitation.
And I think of Dervla Murphy, on a bike in the jungle of Uganda, fearless, unarmed, without a phone in 1992, the year my son was born. How impervious she was – still is – to influences that might sway her from her path. I feel a connection with her. Long before I read any of her books, I heard my mother talking about this classmate of hers in Waterford who used to have to miss a lot of school to mind her mother and who took her 9 year old daughter on a bike trip across the Peruvian Andes in 1977. The year I was born, 1963, she cycled all the way to India from Ireland.
She still lives in County Waterford and travelled for the sheer joy of it, ‘refusing to believe in disaster until it is finally manifest’ – as she wrote in ‘In Full Tilt’ about her 1963 journey.
My mother is now gone but I recognise in Dervla some of the grittiness of my mother – the physical toughness, adventurousness and joy of travel for its own sake that stirs up so much in me.