by Katy Brand
‘Would you be up for going to Africa for a week?’ my agent’s email read. I was delighted, picturing a luxury 5-star safari at a top hotel that had recently undergone a renovation, from which I would receive a free holiday in return for a nice ‘review’ type piece in a national newspaper. You know the sort of thing – celebrities get offered them all the time. Apparently. Except me, I never get offered them. Until now. Excellent.
‘It’ll be for Comic Relief – you’ll be driving hundreds of km on one of the busiest and most dangerous roads in the world, delivering hospital beds, bicycles and mosquito nets. They say it’s their toughest challenge yet…’
I said yes, though. Because when Comic Relief asks, you just tend to say yes. And also, it’s still a trip to Africa. And also, I was very cold. A week in the sunshine would do me the power of good, if I could avoid getting run over by a massive truck or punched by a roadside baboon. Or indeed, Russell Kane. He was to be my driving partner – there would be six of us in total – David Baddiel and Hugh Dennis, Michaela Coel and Reggie Yates. Each pair would share a vehicle, and in many instances a miasma of flatulence for the whole trip. It was going to be hard, I was warned, but I was excited.
Our first day meant driving into the slum in Nairobi, called Kibera. We met as a team at dawn and drove off together, but not before David Baddiel uttered the immortal line, ‘why, are you going somewhere they speak Swahili?’ when Russell told the group he was learning it via a language app. Yes, David, here. Here in Kenya. Where they speak Swahili. Here is where he is going. Here. Where you are.
But brushing it aside, we set off in our respective vehicles. I took the wheel and we immediately got lost. We were supposed to be part of a convoy with two trucks loaded with essential equipment to deliver, but the Nairobi streets in rush hour defeated us, and Russell and I spent a good half hour just driving around the city, our walkie-talkies out of range, wondering if we would ever be found.
But finally we came together as a group and entered Kibera. We discussed the use of the word ‘slum’ and asked some of the local people – opinion was divided – some didn’t mind it; some preferred ‘informal settlement’, and it seemed a nice term so we all adopted it from then on.
Kibera itself was bright and busy, but with no infrastructure it was clear people lived difficult lives. We arrived at the AMREF Medical Centre, our base for the day, and met the doctors, nurses and midwives who work there. I was with Virginia, who took me to examine her pregnant mothers and told me that when she was first assigned Kibera as her work place she was frightened – its lawless reputation preceded it. But after 6 years there, she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. She was an incredibly experienced midwife and I was so pleased to be able to be part of bringing her essential equipment for her work, which would make a life-saving difference to her patients. The others were busy too, and at one point I looked out the window and saw Russell and David pushing each other in a wheelbarrow for a small audience of screaming schoolchildren. This turned out to be the ambulance, and with the narrow streets it was highly effective although probably not very comfortable.
It was a long day, and we all collapsed back at the hotel. It was to be an early start the next morning – actually, it was an early start every morning which is always a challenge for a comedian – and a long driving day through the Rift Valley, where all our common ancestors lived and the great migration started around 60,000 years ago (Hugh told us about it – he was very knowledgeable. Possibly some others drifted off, but I listened for the full hour…). It was a spectacular and magnificent view. This was our main driving day and we put hundreds of km behind us. Russell and I took it slowly, but this was mainly due to a problem with the acceleration in our car which was taken away to be fixed after we were actually overtaken by a donkey and cart.
We drove through endless tea plantations and spectacular stepped countryside to the next project, Mothers2Mothers, an organisation which helps pregnant women who are living with HIV to understand how to prevent transmission to their unborn babies.
I had a long chat with the woman in charge, Beatrice, who told me all about her life and rather amazingly all about her sex-life too. Despite my slightly middle-class coyness, she was happy to talk about it as it was relevant to her important work - she had contracted HIV as a young mother and was thrown out of the house after her husband died of the same virus. She later met a new partner and wanted to have a child with him. She explained that with the use of drugs and careful planning it was perfectly possible to have a baby and not infect her partner or the child – in fact Mothers2Mothers told us they have got the transmission rate down from 45% to just 2% - a staggering achievement. I learnt a lot that day, and Beatrice and I exchanged email addresses in order to keep in touch.
We were approaching half way now, and this was neatly underlined the next day when we crossed the equator and saw Ken the Magic Man make water go one way down a plughole and then the other a matter of metres apart. Debate raged on for the rest of the day as to whether we had been tricked or whether it was real. Ken didn’t help himself perhaps by choosing to call himself the ‘Magic Man’, rather than say the ‘Science Man’ or the ‘Physics Man’, but I chose to believe him anyway…
Onward to Uganda and the Kadama Widows, where we were delivered 100 bicycles and were greeted with a 45 minute traditional song and dance show. It was a wonderful welcome and we all joined in. There was some suspicion that Russell even became engaged to one of the dancers, but we reassured him and his wife (via text) that it was probably just part of the performance. Probably…
The performance over, we started to unload the bikes. Each person who would receive one was called forward by the Kadama Widows group leader Lucy, and some literally rode them away there and then to get on with the day’s work – they were all community health visitors and many of their patients lived miles and miles apart. The bikes would make a huge difference. This was the story again and again – the long-awaited equipment was put to use right away. In the health centres, we would put together a bed or hook up a machine and a patient would be on it in five minutes flat. It felt good to be able to bring something useful, but difficult to see how desperately needed even the most basic equipment is.
Evenings were spent with a cold Tusker (a Kenyan beer), eating from prepared buffets of meat stew and rice. We would chat about the day and try not to get tipsy as the next day always began early and was fairly relentless until sundown. But it was hard not to want a drink or two after some pretty intense experiences. We were really bonding as a group by now, and I felt I had made some new friends for life – this is always expressed by comedians by the level of piss-taking that goes on between us, and I can confirm that we had turned the general mockery up to eleven by this point.
Our final day was upon us, and in some ways it would be the longest and the hardest, but also the greatest. We were to assemble at a school and distribute 3,000 mosquito nets to students and their families.
Before this though, I went to meet a family who would be collecting some nets for themselves – Marie and her seven children, aged between two and 20. Marie has an immensely hard life – the current drought conditions means she cannot grow enough food to feed her children. She is living with HIV, and lost her husband to the condition – she took me to his grave, around 100 metres from the two small huts where she and her family live.
We stood in silence and she began to cry. I held her for a moment, but I knew there was no easy solution to any of this. Her oldest son, Charles, had dug into the ground to find dark clay to make paint in order to decorate their huts. The creative impulse was alive in him and I wished he would find opportunities to express it further, but it seemed somehow impossible. Marie has to watch at least one of her children suffer a bout of malaria about once a month, and with no money for drugs every time it is a potential death sentence. At least I knew we could help with this – sleeping under a mosquito net reduces the chances of being bitten and infected hugely. We had nets to give them.
Later, we went to the school to pick them up, and I was able to share a bit of food with the family too – just some snacks, but they smiled properly for the first time. They were happy to collect their nets, and Charles said he would put them up over the beds as soon as they got home. We all hugged and said good-bye. I have thought of them every day since I got home. We helped a bit, but there is still so much to do.
So, the final truck was empty – we clambered into it and sat there, for a final shot of the trip. We were all pretty knackered, our minds and hearts full of everything we had seen. Hugh tried to lift David on his shoulders, and this very nearly ended in disaster as he lost his balance and we all had to hold onto a limb to prevent a serious accident. We had made it this far – we didn’t want to lose anyone now.
We boarded an internal flight to Nairobi, covering the ground which had taken six days by car in a little over half an hour. I looked at the sunset over Lake Victoria as we took off – I would miss this incredible horizon, this huge expanse. I felt so glad I had met Virginia, Beatrice, Lucy and Marie – great, strong, smart women doing whatever they could with whatever they had. I looked back into the cabin of the plane – everyone from the team was asleep. I felt my eyes close too, dreaming of home.
To see more of Katy’s journey, tune in to The Red Nose African Convoy on Thursday 23rd March at 9pm on BBC One.