Bikes, trucks and 8,000 mosquito nets: Hugh Dennis' Red Nose Day African Convoy diary
The comedian travels from Kenya to Uganda with trucks full of supplies – and David Baddiel
If, like me, you’ve already had the considerable pleasure of sharing a very long, very hot car journey with Mr David Baddiel, you’ll know why I jumped at the chance to be part of the Red Nose Convoy from Kenya to Uganda with him.
Our trip across Ethiopia for BBC2’s World’s Most Dangerous Roads in 2012 was such an utter joy that the chance to once more be incarcerated in a tin can on wheels under the equatorial sun with David was unmissable.
No, honestly, it was. Besides, as someone old enough to remember the very first Red Nose Day back in 1988 I was intrigued to see with my own, old, slightly blurry eyes exactly where some of the money people so generously raise actually goes and how it actually helps.
So it was with these fine thoughts in mind that David and I met up with our fellow delivery drivers Michaela Coel, Reggie Yates, Katy Brand and Russell Kane in the heart of Nairobi to form a convoy that will deliver life-saving cargo, all provided by Comic Relief, across Kenya to eastern Uganda over the course of a week.
Day 1: We leave Nairobi
This is, on paper, the easiest of driving days, a gentle introduction to forming a convoy and shepherding two enormous articulated lorries. Unfortunately, though, we are travelling not on paper, but on tarmac and dirt – and what should have been a very short drive across Nairobi to the giant temporary settlement of Kibera turns into a two-hour exhibition of how not to communicate via walkie-talkie.
When we finally arrive at our first drop-off point, the Comic Relief-funded Amref (African Medical Research Foundation) Health Centre, one of our lorries is opened to reveal all manner of medical equipment, including maternity ward delivery beds – one of which Michaela witnesses being used almost immediately after it has been erected.
While the rest of the team carry on with the heavy lifting, I go into the tight alleys of Kibera with Patrick, a community health worker with Amref, whose day-to-day role is to scour this vast area for people in need of assistance. “Seeing a mother deliver a healthy baby,” he tells me, “and seeing that baby growing into a thriving boy or girl, that gives me great satisfaction. And the appreciation I get from my community makes me love this job even more.”
What a man, and what a privilege to have been able to help him by bringing those vital supplies.
Day 2: Highways and byways
A solid 200 miles on the road today, giving David and me plenty of time to reacquaint ourselves with each other’s in-car foibles. The route sees us navigating out of Nairobi, where I can report they like to use their horn at least once every five minutes for fear it may dry up and remain silent forever.
It’s not tooted in a purely aggressive manner, you understand – it’s more a communications Swiss Army knife, seemingly capable of conveying thanks, caution, annoyance and even friendly greeting depending on the length and volume of the beep.
The road to our overnight stop in the tea-growing area of Kericho takes us along the main arterial highway in Kenya, used by thousands of lorries a day, and infamous for having transported HIV from one side of the country to the other in the 80s and 90s.
At a major weigh station on the route, the long-serving site manager describes how the use of prostitutes by truck drivers left devastation in its wake.
Day 3: Giving birth to hope
We escort our 18-wheel monster cargo trucks onto the Kenyan/Ugandan border, toward our next delivery point. This part of Kenya is in the grip of a drought that has left the normally verdant landscape parched, with crop failure evident in all the countless smallholdings we pass.
As the rest of us hit the road, Russell and Katy peel off to pay a visit to a remarkable Comic Relief-funded project called Mothers2Mothers, which has all but eliminated the transmission of HIV from mothers to newborns in the people it helps.
It’s a technique using mentor mothers, themselves HIV-positive, to connect with pregnant women and encourage them to take the steps needed to ensure their babies aren’t infected, too.
It has been fantastically successful and yet more tangible evidence that your donations really make a difference.
Day 4: Crossing the equator
Today we crossed the border into Uganda – and as your correspondent it is my duty to report that it was a very tedious affair. Many forms had to be completed, signed and thoroughly stamped by border operatives before we could leave Kenya.
A 100-metre walk across no man’s land and the whole process has to be repeated so we can enter Uganda. Among the administrative slog, the day did throw up the chance to test out the reverse whirlpool theory as we crossed the equator, thanks to an entrepreneurial local man/master of the Earth’s magnetic forces, who stands on the fabled line with a bucket – complete with hole – full of water and a leaf ready to demonstrate.
The six of us looked on in wonder as the leaf went down the makeshift plughole first clockwise, then, after a small step across to the other hemisphere, anti-clockwise, and then disappeared vertically when he stood dead on the equator.
Amazing, magical – but is it ultimately unbelievable? Watch and make your own mind up.
Day 5: Keen as mustard, proud as punch
Today one of the enormous trucks we’ve escorted all this way comes into its own. It’s delivery day! The Kadama Widows Association near Mbale in eastern Uganda provides medical help to people across a huge swathe of rural land, which has little or no access to formal healthcare.
Though there are now trained community health workers, they desperately need transport, so they can help more people in more places. In our truck are 100 shiny, sturdy, Call the Midwife-y pushbikes.
The superb, simple machines are received with absolute joy. If you’ve ever baked a cake, dressed up as a cake or told a series of bad jokes about cake to your humourless boss as a sponsored dare, all to raise money for Comic Relief, I guarantee you that as these bikes were handed to people as keen as mustard to use them to do good, you’d have felt as pleased and as proud as punch.
Day 6: Mosquito mission accomplished
On our final day, we have one more delivery – 8,000 mosquito nets. The fight against malaria is a huge success story.
Since 2000, death rates have dropped by 69 per cent among children under five, thanks in no small part to the fact that in the past six years access to insecticide-treated mosquito nets has almost doubled. However, in Africa malaria continues to take the lives of one child under the age of five every two minutes, so the cargo in the back of our lorry is still essential.
Hundreds of people from surrounding villages have assembled at the distribution point and patiently wait as we open the heavy truck doors and roll out the big bales of wrapped nets, which they know will mean they can put their children to bed at night without fearing that a single bite could have deadly consequences.
Nets, bikes, beds – the Red Nose Convoy delivered the lot, and all thanks to people like you, who make Comic Relief what it is. So whatever you do for Red Nose Day this year, be sure that your generosity will deliver help to those who need it most – no matter how long, noisy and dusty the road is to reach them.