One of the things that you dread the most riding a motorcycle is the possibility of hurting someone else. The roads in Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, are major arteries for almost everything that you can think of, including livestock, transport trucks, buses, bush taxis, and masses of people. There is constant activity along the shoulders, and it seems like around every corner there is a donkey, goat, cow, dog, or person waiting to suddenly dart out in front of your bike as you go by. It seems that no animal or human bothers to look to see if the road is clear.
In Gonder, we had met up once again with fellow Canadians and KLRers Sam and Peter (who we had first met on the ferry to Wadi Halfa). We all had bike issues of varying degrees of seriousness, which meant staying in Gonder for a couple of days while “Six” (the town’s master mechanic) went to work. Our misadventures at Six’s garage is a whole saga in itself, but I will talk about that later. After the completion of the bike maintenance, our plan was to ride as a group of 5 from Gonder to Addis.
On Wednesday, July 23rd we set out to do just that. It was a great feeling to ride in a convoy of 5 KLRs as we headed out of Gonder. We were all happy to be on the road again after being delayed in Gonder for longer than any of us had anticipated. Sadly our ride would end after only a few kilometres in tragic fashion. I was in the lead, followed by Jeremy and then Peter. Sam was next, followed by Tom in last position. Sam and Tom were a little ways behind the rest of us because a couple of donkeys had run out in front of them forcing them to brake hard.
We were all riding down the centre of the road because there was a lot of animal and pedestrian traffic along the sides of the road. We were going about 50 km/h. Because I was ahead I didn’t see what happened next. However Tom saw everything in horrifying detail.
A young boy (who looked like he was maybe 8 years old but who we later learned was actually 12) suddenly sprinted across the road right at Sam’s motorcycle. The child was looking away and did not see Sam’s motorcycle until he ran into it. It happened so fast that Sam barely had time to hit the brakes. He tried to swerve, but to no avail. The child was flung into the air like a rag doll when he hit the bike, breaking the signal light and the right front fairing right off. He bounced off to the left and Sam went to the right. Sam somehow stayed on his bike.
It was immediately obvious that the impact had resulted in a compound fracture in the child’s leg below the knee – the child’s tibia was protruding through the skin. Also of major concern was the fact that the child was barely conscious and had suffered a head injury of unknown severity. There was blood oozing from two abrasions on the right side of his head.
Had Jerry and I been on the scene, we would have done our best to prevent anyone from moving the boy until we were sure he was breathing and had been assessed for a possible spinal injury. We would also have immobilized the child’s leg for transportation to the hospital. It would have been difficult because the accident instantly drew a large crowd of people. As it was, someone immediately and protectively scooped up the child and carried him to a taxi van to be taken to the hospital. By the time I got to the scene a few minutes later, the child was gone.
It wasn’t until Jerry, Peter and I got to a gas station a few kilometres up the road that we realized that Sam and Tom were no longer behind us. We decided that I would go back to look for them, and Jerry and Peter would follow me if I did not return in 10 minutes. On my way back to where we had last been a group of 5, I saw Tom riding alone. He informed me that Sam had hit a Kid, and was pretty shaken. Tom continued on to the gas station to inform Peter and Jerry, and I continued towards Sam. I found him standing ashen beside his bike surrounded by a big crowd of people.
It’s hard to imagine how awful it must feel to hit a kid. I really felt bad for Sam. It could easily have happened to any one of us – he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such a horrible accident couldn’t have happened to friendlier or more kind-hearted person. Sam and Peter have used their trip from Cairo to Cape Town to raise over $16,000 for “Spread the Net” which provides mosquito netting to children throughout Africa to help prevent Malaria.
There have been reports of crowds turning hostile when a foreigner is involved in an accident in some areas of Africa. Luckily that wasn’t the case here. There were doubtless many witnesses who saw the kid run right into Sam’s bike and the word had spread that Sam couldn’t have done anything to avoid the accident. When Sam took out a pack of cigarettes and started fumbling for a light, someone thoughtfully offered him a pack of matches. It took him a few tries to get his smoke lit. His nerves were understandably shot.
Apparently someone in the crowd had called the traffic police. There was nothing to do but wait until they arrived. Tom, Jerry, and Peter soon arrived. After making sure Sam was alright, Peter borrowed my phone to call the Canadian Embassy. Unfortunately, the Ethiopian Sim card that I had bought the night before quickly ran out of credit and he was cut off in mid conversation. That phone call would have to wait until we got to the police station.
At some point while we were waiting for the police to arrive (which took a surprisingly long time), Peter suggested that we carry on to Addis without him and Sam. However, there was no way we were going to leave until we were sure the situation would not get out of hand. How would Ethiopian law treat a foreign driver hitting a local kid? The accident had clearly not been Sam’s fault, but we didn’t know if the police would see it that way. Tom had seen everything and could prove a valuable witness if it came to that. We told Peter we would stay until the situation was resolved in a sane way.
After we arrived at the police station, Peter went to a hotel to call the Canadian embassy again. The information he received was cause for concern. Apparently under Ethiopian law, the driver is always at fault in a collision with a pedestrian. If the victim dies, there is an automatic 17 year prison sentence. When Peter informed us of this fact, I suggested that we consider making a run for the border as a last resort. Sam and Peter had already floated that idea. We agreed that there was no way that Sam should set foot inside an Ethiopian prison just for being unlucky.
The problem was where to go. The best choice was Kenya, but that border was 1700 km away. The closest border was Sudan, but without visas we would have to sneak into the country, which would create its own set of problems. To complicate matters even further, the police were holding Sam’s passport.
We decided to begin by getting legal advice before providing a police report. While Sam and Peter were searching for a lawyer who spoke English, Jerry and I were given the task of finding the boy and assessing the extent of his injuries. We wanted to know if he was alive, and if so whether it would be worth paying to get him transferred to a larger centre where he may have a better chance.
On the way into town, Jerry and I had both seen a sign for Gonder University Hospital, which seemed a logical place to begin our search for the child. When we arrived, the police lowered the chain guarding the main entrance and allowed us to ride our bikes into the compound. We parked near the entrance. After some aimless wandering in one building that seemed large enough to be the main hospital with no luck, a policeman approached us and asked us if we wanted to see the “baby” while making a hand gesture that could only be interpreted as a kid getting run over. We nodded. He had us follow him down a pedestrian path on our motorcycles, which were apparently not safe where we had left them. On the ride through the hospital grounds, I came dangerously close to hitting several people as they stepped in front of my bike on the congested footpath. That would have been just too cruel.
I am not sure what I was expecting of Gonder University Hospital, but I was not prepared for what I saw. There were crowds of people who were obviously in advanced stages of terminal diseases just sitting listlessly on the ground outside. They wore dirty rags. No one was attending to them. They were waiting to die.
The police officer directed us to a place where we could park the bikes and we continued on foot to a nearby building, which was the Gonder version of an itensive care unit. The police officer opened the door motioned for us to enter.
Before I was able to take in the room, I was hit with the smell of blood. Then I saw the child. I have been haunted by that initial image ever since. More than 5 hours had passed since the accident – why was he still in his blood stained clothes? Why had no one dressed his wound, or even cleaned the congealed blood off of his leg? Why had no one cleaned the dried blood from his head wounds? It looked like the only treatment he had received was intravenous saline. That, and a floppy piece of cardboard, now darkly stained with blood, had been placed behind his leg. There was also a pile of blood soaked heaped on the cardboard beside his leg.
His grandfather was sitting beside him holding his hand. It looked like he was unconscious. But he was alive. We found a doctor who helpfully answered our questions. Yes the child could be roused and could speak, although he did not know where he was – he believed that he was still at home. No there were no clinical signs (as of yet) of increased intracranial pressure, such as lateralization. No there was no CT scanner in Gonder, and therefore intracranial bleeding could not be ruled out. He would be monitored for clinical signs of brain hemorrhage over the next 24 hours. His score on the glascow coma scale was 13/15. No blood had come from the eyes, nose, ears, or mouth. He had no motor deficits. His sensations was normal. His posterior tibial and dosalis pedis pulses were normal. He had not been given any pain killers.
What? No pain killers? We were both incredulous. Jerry offered the doctor some oxycodone (a morphine derivative) that he had back at the hotel (which had been prescribed for his latest ankle operation). The doctor was reluctant. We explained that we wanted to make sure that the child was receiving the best possible care and was not in pain. At this point the doctor assumed that we wanted the child to receive special treatment. Somewhat indignant, he told us that the child would be treated like any other patient with the resources that were available (which were clearly limited). We asked whether the child would receive any morphine. The doctor said that the little morphine that they had was reserved for serious cases. If this wasn’t a serious case, what was?
The doctor informed us that the child was scheduled for closed reduction of his fractures that afternoon. His leg would then be immobilized with an external posterior plate. He would be monitored for signs of increased intracranial pressure and/or cerebral hemorrhage. Apparently they had the capacity to perform a burr-hole operation without the benefit of a CT scan if it became necessary (you drill a hole through the skull to drain the blood). The nearest CT scanner was in Addis Ababa, more than 700 kilometres and a two day drive away. The doctor deflected our suggestions of arranging for an air transfer. The child would be treated in Gonder.
The doctor went to the child to perform a neurological exam. The child responded to being poked in the chest on both sides by pushing the doctor’s hand away. He opened his eyes. He said a few words. What happened next both Jerry and I believe is unacceptable. The doctor assessed the child’s lower limbs, causing him to squirm with pain. His leg was not immobilized, and you could see the broken end of the tibia press against the skin covering the child’s calf from the inside, causing it to bulge grotesquely. I had to fight down a wave of nausea.
I gave the doctor my phone number and he agreed to phone me if there was any change in the child’s condition. He asked us why we weren’t talking to the police, suggesting our stay in Gonder would be quicker if we cooperated fully. How come everyone in town seemed to know every detail? We explained that we wanted to do everything properly.
Jerry and I returned to the hotel to meet with Tom, Peter, and Sam, who had been gathering information in the meantime. We reported our findings, which were cautiously optimistic. We thought that the child had a good prognosis but our major worry was his head injury. It would take at least 24 hours before a severe brain injury could be ruled out. We hoped that his confusion was the result of a concussion and not something more life-threatening such as a cerebral hemorrhage
Sam was relieved that child was alive and conscious, and appreciative of our fact finding mission. While we had been at the hospital, Peter had found an ex-pat who ran an orphanage in Gonder and was married to an Ethiopian. She had told Peter that he should not file a police report but instead consult a village elder who could help mediate a settlement between Sam and the child’s family without involving the police. Finding a lawyer in Gonder who spoke English was proving much more difficult. Luckily a lawyer was not actually necessary – all we needed was a reliable translator.
We found the village elder in his pharmacy. A meeting with the family was arranged for the following morning at the police station. When Jerry and I visited the hospital again the next morning, we were happy to see that the child’s wounds had been dressed and his leg was immobilized. We were told that although he was still confused, his level of consciousness was improving. He was now scoring 14/15 on the GCS. Our fears of a serious brain injury seemed to be allayed.
We returned to the police station to report our news. The negotiations soon began. The family’s opening offer was 100,000 birr (which is about $10,000).And so a child’s suffering was reduced to money. What a windfall 100,000 birr would be. Enough of an incentive for desperate people to throw themselves in front of foreigners’vehicles. Soon it became clear that our presence was not helping Sam in his negotiations. The family saw 5 foreigners and assumed that they could get more from 5 people than they could from just Sam. So Tom, Jerry, and I made a big show of leaving. We finally left Gonder about midday on July 24th. We hope that Sam and Peter were able to arrive at a reasonable settlement. Hopefully we’ll see them soon on the road to Kenya.
It took us two days to finally reach Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian highlands offered up easily the most spectacular scenery of the trip. Lush green mountains, cascading waterfalls, stunning vistas, and gorgeous sweepers have meant that there has not been a dull moment. The Blue Nile valley cuts a path through the mountains over 1500 metres deep. It was so cold and damp that Tom and I both were using our electric heated vests on the high mountain roads. When we descended to the Blue Nile, the temperature soared as we lost altitude. We had to remove all our layers on the way down except for a t-shirt and riding jacket, only to put everything back on again as we ascended the other side. The dramatic change in climate as we changed altitude reminded me a lot of riding in Colombia. Even the vegetation is similar. There is one distinctive species of barkless tree that is exactly the same. It would be hard to tell the two countries apart if you were away from any villages.
The ride to Addis, although a feast on the eyes, has also been stressful. Sam’s accident has had us all riding on edge. Despite our hyper-awareness and extreme caution when passing people or animals, we have all had several near misses. Once, a couple of horses suddenly ran across my path, forcing me into an emergency stop. Another time I would have hit a dog if my horn hadn’t convinced it to turn around at the last second. While riding through a village, I saw a woman carrying a large pot on her head dart out in front of Tom without looking, forcing him to slam on his brakes. He barely missed her. Jerry was forced onto the shoulder when an oncoming bus passed an oncoming truck right in front of him.
In other news, we actually made the news. You can read our story on Yahoo! News.
Kids showing off their aquatic stunts for us on the River Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo by Khaled Desouki (Agence France Presse).
Jeremy gets a hand from some kids on the sandy shore of the Nile in Khartoum, Sudan. Photo by Khaled Desouki (Agence France Presse).