In the only bar in Illeret we meet a friendly (jovial) looking fellow called Chris. He bought some beers and asks for a ride home. We agree and ask in return a spot to pitch our tent. We shake hands to seal the deal.After a very short ride we are surprised when he guides us into the local police station. Turns out that Chris is the chief police inspector of the county.
“We also give people rides all the time here, it’s a way of getting them on our side” he tells us. “Everybody has to give rides to everybody. It’s the only way to survive out here! There is no public transport in these areas. Sometimes our police truck looks more like a local Matatu (small public bus)!” he laughs.
Chris offers us a salt water shower. We accept it with gratitude. It’s the first time we can wash our hands in three days. The mixture of dirt, mango juice and sweat disappears like snow in the sun.
Chris tells us it’s not easy to be police officer in these areas. “It needs a lot of diplomacy, because most of the people here have more guns than we have” he tells us. They drive around the land and try to prevent cattle rustling. But it’s not easy because they don’t speak the local languages, there’s most of the time no phone connection and it takes a whole day to get to the police head quarters in Marsabit. For most minor offences they are obliged to play judge, because they can’t spend a whole day driving to Marsabit. Chris looks like intelligent, diplomatic man, so I think he’s a good judge.
Chris has the broad jovial face with some typical Bantu characteristics. He lives in the South West of Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria. He’s a proud member of the Lua tribe. His two colleagues and lower ranked inspectors, Kato and Hussain, are from Marsabit (250km south of Illeret) and Somali province in the North East. They are a very colourful bunch. Seeing them together it becomes clear just how diverse the population of this country is. They work, live, eat and laugh together 24/7. “We have to get along with each other, there’s no room for regional or tribal differences. We are all stuck here in this outpost and we try to make the best out of it!” Hussain tells us. Just a few times every year they can return home for a short holiday. We might think it’s shocking but for most African men, working far away from home is quite normal. In most cases it even seem to prefer it.
Kato decides to cook for us: Ugali (white dough made out of maize flour, the most popular staple food in East-Africa) and a cornbeef tomato sauce. It’s delicious! I never liked Ugali but now it’s the tastiest thing I’ve ever tried. This police inspector is a three star chef in disguise!
But we’r most of all impressed by the story they tell us the next morning. The three of them served some jail time in Ethiopia. We are baffled. Are these policemen former prisoners who have become police officers? Are they corrupt policemen who are sentenced to serve somewhere in the middle of nowhere as a punishment for their dodgy deeds?
“No” Chris laughs, “we just crossed the border with our guns without and prior consultation with our Ethiopian colleagues. We have a couple of ‘helpers’. They are local guys who get guns from us to keep peace and quiet. You’ve seen how big our operating area is. We can’t be everywhere. So some guys are reservist police officers and they get a gun to confirm their authority. One of these guys crossed the border with Ethiopia. These tribes don’t have border. They just pass from Kenya to Ethiopia without any identification. We got after him to retrieve the gun. The next thing we know we’re blocked by two Ethiopian police jeeps and we were taken into custody.”
They spent one week outside behind a fence at an Ethiopian police station without food or water. Some of the local tribes people (Dasanach) recognized the Kenyan police officers and gave supplied them with water and food. Chris got really sick. They were only released after a high level diplomatic round of negotiations.
They were probably unlucky to have crossed the border right at a time when tensions in Ethiopia were quite high. Weeks of manifestations led to the proclamation of a state of emergency. On top of that they were just one week on their new posting and they didn’t know how sensitive Ethiopians are about their border sovereignty. Let’s say they made a beginners mistake, but not to be repeated.
After our tea and breakfast (we’r getting used to this four star treatment in the police station) we find some petrol in the mythical mission post of the German father, Florian. We just need a little bit so we can reach the first town in Ethiopia. The pastor is not there and his whole settlement is not as impressive and mythical as I thought.
We ride north, presumably cross the Kenya-Ethiopian border (it’s not indicated) and after a few more rough sand patches we finally see it: A beautiful blackish snake that crawls through the dry landscape. It’s the Chinese made tarmac road we’ve been hoping for! Finally after more than 700 km off road we have reach Ethiopia and paved roads.