Benn Jeffries' Wild Ride Through East Africa

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Ahhhhhhh, travel…

We’ve run some pretty outrageous foreign excursions in our mags. There was that story about a Guy who danced with death after he stepped on a poisonous stonefish in Indonesia. Then there was that other time one of our writers had a Chilean gypsy offer read his palm for free, only to steal his money and squirt breast milk on his hands.

Then Benn Jeffries came along. He spent a year in Africa and set a new standard. We’re talking hustling with gangsters, managing corrupt bars and getting chased across borders. Benn Jeffries turned our idea of foreign mayhem upside-down. And boy he has some stories to tell.

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Whirlwind doesn’t seem quite right.

Maybe a skateboard to the shins or a sack-tap is more apt. Hell, in the first week alone we were chased out of Nairobi by election riots and wound up across the border in Tanzania working for some dubious charity group. Back then we were pasty white, naïve and as willing as poor old Samwise. But we made it work.  

Travelling with me was my good friend whom I will call Big Mike, to both please the man and maintain his mystique. Together, we somehow landed teaching roles in a dustbowl sort of school in central Tanzania where we were promptly put in charge of the English department and given work visas that might as well have been drawn in crayon. In each class, we taught about fifty kids with levels ranging from fluent, to not a lick of English. The classrooms were a tight squeeze; the kids would sit on one another’s laps and compete for the occasional breeze that rolled in through the barred windows. 

It was a headache and heartache to say the least. But we did our best with the tools we had. Our employers put us up in a four by four concrete box smack bang in the middle of the Unga limited slum area. We had no water, power on the odd occasion and a hole for a toilet. But damn was I happy. With skin coated in red earth, life became simple. Every morning we walked six kilometres to school where we spent the day with these incredible kids who had a hunger to learn like I had never seen. As the day came to an end we’d wander into town with the other teachers to find a bar. We would sit, eat goat meat skewers and laugh until the sun left us. It was an odd sort of existence; there was this feeling of fulfilment on the one hand and this sobering reality on the other. And we were just there, floating in the middle. After a few weeks, our shack started to feel like home and the neighbourhood grew tired of our novelty. We became part of the place. That was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my life. I don’t really know why. 

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The school year eventually came to a close and we left to float around central Africa. We bussed through the green hills of Rwanda and Uganda collecting bumps and bruises and a fellow kiwi by the name of Hugo. After a while, the three of us eventually wound up back in Kenya and through the magic of the internet, managed to find jobs working in a bar on a golden sand beach just south of Mombasa. Our employer was white and racist. He used to walk around with a Glock tucked into his belt accusing people of all kinds of shit and ranting about his days in the military.

He seemed to like us and after a week, made us managers. In reality however, he had hired us to babysit the local Kenyan staff to make sure they didn’t steal. I didn’t feel good about taking the job. But we swore to have as little to do with the owner as possible and treat the staff well. The bar we ran was a refurbishment in the ruins of an old five-star resort. We lived fifty meters away in the rundown bungalows, which we fought for every day with a troop of baboons. It was a sort of paradise I guess; palm trees and rum. By day we fished, read and slept and by night, we worked. When the music was turned off and the last of the drunks were ushered out, we would grab a beer and sit on the beach and talk until sunrise. 

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It was peaceful and we were all happy. Then one day the owner decided he was going to host a festival. Overnight the beach became a bustling and highly stressful place, a stage was erected, and coked up artists and VIPs rolled in from all over the country. Every day someone was having a meltdown, or sleeping with someone they shouldn’t have, or getting pissed at work and fighting. It was a fucking reality T.V show with a couple of kiwi’s stuck in the middle. We did our best to stay out of it, but when our staff weren’t paid on time, whispers of a riot began to circulate. When we worked, one of us used to wear a police panic button around our neck in case someone started shooting up the bar or a mob formed.

We threw it away and gave the staff our blessing to go find their money. It all came to a boiling point one night when the forty-odd staff cornered the owner. Thankfully nothing came of it, his bravado crumbled and he coughed up the money like a guilty toddler. We didn’t stick around too much longer after that. I sensed the money had dried up and our jobs wouldn’t be round for long. We had a party on the beach with all the staff and drank the owner’s booze. Then the next day we rented a car and drove west to Nairobi, plotting out our next adventure as we went. 

According to the Ethiopian calendar, it was Christmas day, January 7th, 2010 when we arrived in the capital. I was coming off my third bout of sickness and weighed as much as I did when I was 16. And as if that wasn’t enough, Addis Ababa was cold and sat so high on a continental plateau, it made your head spin; a stark contrast from the forty degree heat of Kenya. We didn’t really have a plan in Ethiopia and it kinda came back to bite us. But then again, we never really had a plan. I can remember looking at the map of the country and thinking ‘we’ll just whip over there, tiki tour over here…’ but Ethiopia is big, Spain and France combined big. Over the next month, we spent about two weeks in a fucking bus or jeep or on the back of a motorbike. 

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To make matters worse it was the season of religious festival and everywhere we went, we found towns overflowing with holy pilgrims. Everything was booked. But as luck would have it, we met a rather attractive tall blonde from Australia. She was travelling alone and had somehow managed to make a local gangster fall in love with her. And this gangster wasn’t hustling on the corners either; he controlled the city of Bahir Dar. Over the next week, we all hung out and became something like chums. We would drive around the city together doing gangster things like collecting wads of cash from people and shooting guns across the Blue Nile. Everyone knew him and everyone respected him.

And the only person he seemed to answer to was this Aussie. All she had to do was flutter her eyelashes, and click, we had it. When it became time for us to move on, he organised a full military escort up to the border of Eritrea. Here sits the Danakil depression, a landscape that closely resembles Mordor in its open lava pits, armed militants who don’t take too kindly to tourists, and temperatures that hit the low fifties. It’s a place that feels strangely primordial, which I suppose is appropriate considering Ethiopia is home for all of us.  

We looped back to Addis Ababa, where we all parted ways. After sharing a room with Big Mike for the best bit of a year, I was excited to pick up old habits, but at the same time it was the end of something great. We said our farewells and I jumped on a plane back to Kenya. I owed someone a dance and that seemed like a good reason to return to a place that felt like home. But it wasn’t just Kenya, all of East Africa had a curious effect on me. It’s hard to label exactly, but the place and people make life seem more real in some way, more earthly. I’d fallen in love I suppose. And so I returned to the beach for one last swim in the Indian ocean. 

Words and photos by Benn Jeffries.

This story was first published in Issue 3 of Hello Zukeen.

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Sam Fraser-Baxter