All around us, a terrible drought, which had claimed the lives of most of the livestock, plunging an already poor community deeper into poverty.
For me – and my BBC colleague, Rumella Dasgupta – it was a story, sad, but not unfamiliar.
We were busy doing our job, putting together material for the BBC World Service.
Then, at the end of a long, tiring day, out of the blue a tractor came past us. On top of it a young, blond woman. And a little dog.
The sight was so strange we had to stop, turn our truck round, and find what was going on.
We just had to find out who she was.
We had come across ‘Tractor-girl’ – Manon Ossevoort.
She turned out to be a Dutch woman who had made her way across Europe, via the Balkans (and its war) down Egypt, Sudan (more war) and through the whole of Ethiopia.
Now Kenya and bandit country lay ahead.
All she had with her for company was her little black dog – a stray who had found her along the way.
Manon joined us for a meal.
Why are you doing it, I asked? “Oh, I am collecting the dreams of children. I will take them on my tractor down to Cape Town and then on to the South Pole.”
Bonkers. Clearly mad.
Yet here she was, after months of traveling on her own, about to cross into some of the roughest of Kenyan territory before ploughing on, very slowly, through the rest of Africa’s great land mass.
I never thought she would make it.
Yet after many an adventure – and some time on a catwalk parading fashion – Manon did finally get to Cape Town.
The journey recommences.
Now, after a gap of some years, and the birth of a child, Manon is determined to press on to the South Pole.
Still bonkers after all these years!
With the backing of Massey Ferguson, she will press ahead.
On 15th November this year she will leave Cape Town for the 2350km journey to the Pole, on board a specially modified tractor.
Still determined to place the dreams of all the children she collected along the way in a snowman.
Strange, very strange, but true!
And this is Manon’s recollection of what happened!
I remember it well…. Running into a BBC World crew in the drought of Southern Ethiopia. In their wake some humanitarian organizations arrived, bringing hay for kettle that had already died. Local people asked me; why is nobody really helping us? Maybe it was the politics that had stopped them all from coming sooner, but now that people had started dying the matter had changed. Maybe.
I was happy when the people from the BBC offered me to share a meal. And really relieved when I found out how involved they were in getting the stories of the people in the area across to the World. (even offering me the chance to do the same, something I’m still grateful for). For a day or two they took me under their wings and I had the privilege to see them in action. It really touched me.
Then I moved on to cross the border into Northern Kenya where no one dared follow me. It had just started raining in the area for the first time in three years, and the whole region ahead of me had flooded. The military post at the border had asked me: ‘If your tractor can do what you say it can, will you please call back from the next military post updating us on how many people and vehicles got stuck in the area so we can start trying to arrange help.”
With two soldiers on my tractor bouncing around, local people had a good laugh wherever I went. It opened up communications everywhere. But then we got into remoter territory and I passed truck after bus that was completely stuck in the mud. On the side of the road were woman and children, men sitting seemingly without food or clean drinking water. They told me they’d been stuck there for days.
Over the course of many days I heard stories of people in the area. Stories of despair, displacement and tribal war. A local primary school director during a break stopped me and told me about how he’d witnessed a massacre exactly where we stood only half a year before, killing most of the woman and children of the village, leaving him and some others desperate survivors. ‘Something must change, he said.’ Around that same time a plane crashed into the hills of remote Marsabit town I was heading to. In it a whole group of politicians that had set out to the North to finally talk about peace in the area. That night I arrived in a chaotic Marsabit. And slept, not in my tent but in a ‘hotel’ that was more like a brothel.
I arrived in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, with a soldier on the back of my tractor and stayed a few nights in what white people would call a ‘poorer area’ of the city. The people I met were hospitable and friendly.
A few days later the Tractor girl story became the talk of town. I was asked to bring my sudden popularity to use by walking the catwalk of a fashion show organized by a UN woman’s group to give some support to a female Kenyan politician (the honorable Nyoke Ndungu) who was trying to get a law in place that better protect victims of rape. Now that was really the talk of town, high and low, nobody believed that law would come to pass.
Because there were no local men or woman that dared share their story, afraid of the stigma it would give, I shook the dust out of my hair, kicked off my boots, and gave a public speech in front of mrs Ndungu and a big group of others, about how in my own country only recently the law had finally changed. And how that had made all the difference……. to me.
The stories I collected of the people in Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya are amongst the saddest and toughest I’ve come across in those 3,5 years of driving a very slow tractor through Africa towards the Cape of Good Hope. But they all travel with me on the back of my tractor to a continent where at least, there’s never been war. They all travel with me to the South Pole.
This article was written In response to the article posted by Martin Plaut. One of the most dedicated journalists I’ve seen. Martin and Rumella Dasgupta were part of the BBC World crew I met in the drought of Southern Ethiopia. It was a privilege meeting you. Thanks for all you’ve shown. https://martinplaut.wordpress.com/2014/08/15/on-a-tractor-to-the-south-pole-via-sudan-ethiopia-kenya/