Maskarm Haile was born in Ethiopia in 1974 during one of the most devastating famines in the country’s history.
“There was nothing extraordinary about my family or me. Education was important; there was no other way,” she writes in her memoir Abyssinian Nomad: An African Woman’s Journey of Love, Loss, and Adventure from Cape to Cairo.
Maskarm’s mother was an aid worker with the United Nations. She says her passion for travel was ignited when she accompanied her mother on a humanitarian mission in Ethiopia, and by her multicultural childhood friends.
Her childhood dream was to take a trip across Africa, from Cape to Cairo, as a solo woman traveller.
On her trip, Maskarm had to overcome the grief of losing her beloved mother to breast cancer, withstand pressure from relatives and friends to marry and have children, break up with her boyfriend, face sexual harassment and rigid and complicated immigration procedures at border posts.
It took her nine months to complete the trip. Her journey started in South Africa; she travelled through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, DR Congo, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somaliland, Sudan and Egypt.
She captured her adventures in this book, which was published in January this year. In it, she chronicles her experiences in the 16 countries that she visited.
The book’s highlights include how she almost ended up in jail in Sudan on her birthday for attempting to swim in the Red Sea; Ethiopian border officials accusing her of being a spy, claiming that the tampons she was carrying were some sort of spying device; using her wits to avoid assault by a man carrying an AK47 while on a night bus to Isiolo in Kenya; watching the wildebeest migration in the Masai Mara; and how the kindness of strangers inspired her throughout her travel.
She went white-water rafting at the source of the River Nile in Jinja, and hung out at an underground gay club in Kampala.
Maskarm’s trip started at the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of the continent.
“I wanted to visit most of the countries on my itinerary because of the people I had met, books I had read, or movies I had watched. Watching The Gods Must Be Crazy in the 1980s, set in the Kalahari Desert, had created the image of vastness and vivid colours and space in my mind.
“I wondered and dreamt about that burnt sand-looking place for years. I just couldn’t believe it when I was finally there. Namibia blew my mind: Looking at the place where the desert meets the ocean, the wildlife in Etosha, close encounters with thousands of Cape Cross seals, the picturesque Salt Lake, watching the sunrise in Sossuslei Desert and the sunset in Swakopmund, and climbing sand dunes …”
She also explored the Okavango Delta in Botswana, crossed the Botswana-Zambia border on foot, and visited the Victoria Falls in Zambia.
Maskarm left Malawi and entered Tanzania through Mbeya. She boarded the Tazara train from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam through the Ngorongoro Crater, then flew from Dar es Salaam to Stone Town, Zanzibar.
She took a shuttle from Arusha to Nairobi. While in Nairobi, Maskarm’s sister called her with the sad news that their mother was frail and could hardly talk. Maskarm immediately booked a flight to Addis Ababa.
When she got to Addis, she found her mother could hardly eat, sit or talk. She passed away soon after. Maskarm stayed with her father in Addis for a while before she flew to Rwanda to continue her trip.
She was questioned at the Rwandan border when she wanted to cross into the DRC. Immigration officers nearly denied her a visa because she was a black female travelling alone. She met a similar reception from Ugandan and Sudanese immigration officers.
When she crossed into Egypt from Sudan, she could hardly believe she had made it that far.
“There was a sense within me that I had arrived, not only physically but metaphorically ... I had experienced love, loss, fear, sadness, and feeling lost, but right at that moment, though I was physically tired, I felt alive! When I started my journey, I was convinced if Africa didn’t kill me, it would heal me,” she writes.
In Egypt, Maskarm visited historical sights like the Abu Simbel, Luxor, Karnak and the Queen Hatshepsut Temples, the Valleys of the King, the pyramids in Giza, and the Bibliotheca in Alexandria.
The book is available at Cardamom and Koffee in Kampala. It will soon be available in Nairobi at Between the Lines and Prestige bookshops.