Replacing tragedy with legacy, a British Columbia couple head deep into the beauty and squalor of remote Africa to aid in the fight against malaria.

At 5:30 a.m. we’re jolted from an ugly cement-floor sleep. Looking outside, I see a boy feverishly banging away at a rusted truck hub hung from a tree branch. It’s a brutal awakening, but just one morning for us—the 300 students at Manyara Secondary School in northwest Tanzania rise to this makeshift alarm clock every day. Unpeeling ourselves from sweaty sleeping bags we’re offered plain tea and white bread for breakfast. Outside, kids saunter around in clusters before gathering at the middle of the courtyard.

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Christina Tottle explains the life-saving benefits of the mosquito net to a group of students at Manyara Secondary Scool in Tanzania.

“Good morning students,” says a tall man in a grey suit, his green tie too short to stretch over a bulging belly.

“Good morning Headmaster!” they shout back in unison.

“Today is a special day. We have some friends who have come from Canada to help us. Their organization has supplied us with new mosquito nets for your beds. Show them respect, be cooperative and please have your dorm rooms clean. They will be coming around shortly to begin the exercise.”

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It has taken Christina Tottle and I two years to arrive at this moment and it feels good. When we first pitched the UK-based Against Malaria Foundation with our idea of delivering nets to remote African villages via motorcycle, they’d accepted us with open arms and even given the plan a name: Motos Against Malaria. They had then coordinated all of our fundraising efforts, magically turning money into mosquito nets and, most impressively, delivering them to us on the ground in East Africa. What seemed a concept for so long is now happening for real. It’s our very first experience in the massive worldwide malaria-prevention movement and it feels meant to be.

Distribution day.

We start with the girls dorm. They help us rip the packages open and neatly tie each net to the metal skeleton of their bunks. “I am happy for my new net,” says Chikundi, a 15 year-old with a dignified smile. “Before, too many mosquitoes are flying around my head, keeping me awake. I want to sleep so I can study well and learn, but in the day I am tired. I think now I can sleep better. Thank you mister and madam.”

“Wow, I never even thought of that,” I say to Christina. After helping hang nets over each and every dorm bed we’re happy to discover some thirty left over. We cram these into the army-style saddlebags strapped to our Yamaha AG200s—the underdog farm bikes (AG stands for “agriculture”) that handled Africa’s ever-changing on- and offroad conditions with aplomb. (Among other merits you could change a flat without removing the tire, and they came equipped with ready-made racks perfect for carrying gear and extra nets, as well as an ass-saving saddle seat that became the true hero of the journey.) Packed up, we’re ready to journey into the sparse desert wasteland towards Burundi on a quest to help even-more-isolated villagers in their fight against malaria.

We’re happy to finally be putting tires-to-the-ground in aid of community health, but for me, the project also has a deep personal element.

riding past Alice Township (Day 19)
Riding past Alice Township, South Africa.

ONCE BITTEN
Riding away I think of my late brother Sean. He’s the reason we’re here right now. In the spring of 1999, Sean had introduced me to the unrestrained world of adventure motorcycle travel. Twenty-nine at the time (two years older than I) he was in the prime of his life. Those who’d met him were treated to an expressive, odd-ball mix of mountain athlete dirtbag (climber, skier, mountain biker, tree-planter) and wing-nut party animal, a metal-music-loving hippie who lived in a van and travelled eight months a year.

“Wake up early, stay up late,” was his motto and he showed me how to live it everyday. Though both avid world travellers, we’d never set foot on foreign soil together. We decided to change that by meeting up in Cape Town, South Africa, with no real plan. Sean had arrived straight from Cambodia with unbridled passion for the new love of his life—racing and riding enduro bikes—and he wasted no time planting the seed. “Hey man why don’t we buy some bikes here and ride across Africa,” he’d said.

Todd Lawson ripping up the gravel, West Coast, SA
Todd Lawson ripping up the gravel along South Africa’s Western Cape.

I was scared shitless at first, but Sean’s zest for true freedom convinced me and off we went, freewheeling behind the bars through southern Africa’s wild expanses in an ultimate brother-bonding journey. It was the adventure of our young lives, so far-removed from any type of typical backpacker-style travel that each day was a revelation unto itself.

On a tight budget, we slept atop our spare clothes instead of sleeping mats, eating rice, plain pasta or instant mashed potatoes for dinner almost daily. Alarmed by tales of Larium—aka “Scarium” in traveller’s circles, a drug whose infamous side-effects included nausea, headaches and even psychosis—we carried no malaria prophylactics, hoping to compensate with our three hard-and-fast rules: never ride at night; always find a safe place to pitch camp; and always wear long clothes after dark. Other than that all we cared about was the freedom of the open road.

The great camel encounter_Northern Kenya
The great camel encounter, Northern Kenya.

But after four months of life-changing travel our dream adventure turned into a nightmare. Sean contracted cerebral malaria—bitten by a single mosquito on an island off the coast of Mozambique—and succumbed to the disease within four heart-wrenching days. I was at his bedside in Soweto, South Africa, when he clutched my hand for the last time. The worst day of my life followed the very best experience I had ever known. It still felt like we should have been plotting the next day’s ride on our tattered map; instead I was planning his funeral.

If I could take any solace in Sean’s death it would be that none of what came later would have been possible without him.

A HARD PILL TO SWALLOW
A decade later, Sean’s inspiration drives me to keep his spirit alive with a legacy that he’d be proud of. So here I am back on African soil with the love of my life—and the best riding partner you could ask for—helping to prevent a disease that still takes thousands of lives globally every single day. We’re under no illusions, and know our efforts are but a drop of water in the vast river of aid flowing into Africa. Still, we ride away from that little school filled with emotion and hope, knowing every one of those 300 children will now sleep better and learn more readily, freeing up room in their lives to dream a little bigger.

Burundi’s rural folk crowd us instantaneously.
Burundi’s rural folk crowds Christina instantaneously, amazed that a ‘woman’ could ride a big bike with all that stuff.  This was a typical scene almost everywhere the couple stopped in Burundi (and many other places in rural Africa).
Racing traditional 'Scooter Bikes'_Rwanda, Africa
Todd trades his rubber wheels for wooden ones, racing a local in a traditional handmade ‘Scooter Bikes’. Rwanda, Africa. The ‘brake’ was a flip-flop nailed to the back of the frame.
Christina with Turkana tribeswomen, near Kisima, Kenya.
Christina with Turkana tribeswomen, near Kisima, Kenya.
Whittlesea Camp (Lion's Lair)_Day 18
Whittlesea Camp, Lion’s Lair, South Africa.
cracked-earth river camp...2nd night in Sudan
Cracked Earth River Camp, second night in Sudan. The couple was lucky to even obtain a travel visa for the Sudan, a country that has been ravaged by civil war for more than 25 years.

For the next three days maximum focus and undivided attention becomes our mantra as we ride an unmapped road full of half-buried rocks, giant ruts and thick, fine sand that clots like flour. Our bikes are so heavily loaded with food, extra fuel and mosquito nets that they’re hard to keep upright. When we finally arrive at the Burundi border, the immigration official waves us over, beer in hand, and ushers us inside a cinder-block building. He seems dodgy and unsure of us, but eventually pulls out an official stamp granting us a three-day transit visa. Three days to cross the country. We’re under the gun now; luckily Burundi is one of Africa’s smallest nations.

It’s also ultra-crowded, and we feel the crush of population density almost immediately. As soon as we roll to a stop anywhere we’re engulfed in a ball of screaming, shoving, laughing mayhem. Throngs run from all directions to either greet us, meet us, or help us with directions on the unsigned gravel roads.

“Mzungu! Mzungu!” they sing and shout, followed by, “Give me money!” They speak French here, but every African child knows these three words fluently in English.

At times we feel ashamed at the amount of gear we carry, likely worth more than these people would earn in a lifetime. So many ask us for money that it’s heartbreaking. Knowing we can never help them all or even a fraction, it seems better to say no and leave them in disappointment than perpetuate the vicious cycle of handouts.

But wait—isn’t handing out expensive mosquito nets the same thing as handing out money? We think not. One net might help save a child’s life, creating a chance to live, to dream, to make a difference on their own.

By the end of day one, cloaked in a layer of powdery-orange sand, we find a small village high in the hills and stop on a grassy yard in front of a family compound. The people seem shy and uncertain, making us feel much the same. We don’t want to bluntly ask to stay with them but we want to provide a few mosquito nets, and now seems as good a time as any. We try and communicate with an older lady wearing a bright orange chitenje wrapped around her wrinkled body, but to no avail. The elders speak only their native tongue. Finally a male voice from behind breaks the silence in good French, and Christina translates:

“His name is William, and he says his mother has invited us to sleep in her home. She wants us to feel welcome, and not be afraid. The only time we see white people is on the primetime [TV], so the children also want to come and touch your skin to see how it feels.”

Small boys help push our bikes into the fenced-in compound. For dinner, we cook a bag of rice and fry some vegetables to share with the family of ten. They timidly accept but eat the meal in a separate room.

Night falls fast and cold so we wait until morning to tell them of our project. Crowds of dusty children, rust-coloured as the rooftops, clamber around to ogle the strange blue nets. We take turns pounding nails into the adobe walls using rocks, hanging nets over each of the beds in the cloister of huts. William and his family are grateful and willingly take part in the offering with smiles and laughter, but their neighbour isn’t as happy.

“What about me?” shouts a clearly peeved man from across the yard. His clothes are in tatters and it looks as though he hasn’t washed in days.

“What about my family? We also are suffering from malaria, where are nets for us?”

Colorful roadside tomato stands, rural Tanzania
Colourful roadside tomato stands, rural Tanzania.
Tank Kids, Ethiopia
Tank Kids, Ethiopia.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. “We are very sorry, but we can only carry so many nets,” says Christina, trying her best to resolve the situation. “We’re just two people and can’t help every person in every village. Because this family generously offered their home to us, this was our way of saying thank you.”

She finishes by offering to contact the AMF to see if they might put the village on a list to receive nets in the future. No doubt it sounds hollow to the man, but it’s all we have, and a refrain we’ll have to get used to.

Malawi schoolchildren, hands up when asked if they know what Malaria is.

VILLAGE TO VILLAGE, HUT TO HUT
Out of nets we ride north to Kampala, Uganda, to receive an update from the AMF. The foundation is making huge headway in malaria prevention through funding from organizations that host special events worldwide, with all proceeds used for the purchase of nets. (Malaria rates have fallen by almost 50 per cent since the year 2000; as of this writing, half a million supporters have raised enough money to distribute 11,114,131 long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito nets.)

In Kampala good news awaits. A massive 30,000-net distribution project will take place in the remote northwestern corner of the country and we’re invited to join. Most of the 2,000+ nets our Motos Against Malaria initiative purchased are to be given to those most susceptible to the disease: children under five years of age. We’re fortunate to be able to take part in the Malaria Consortium’s intense five-day training, registration, allocation and distribution exercise in the town of Arua.

Mosquito Net Beneficiaries_Pajama parish, Uganda
Mosquito net beneficiaries, Pajama parish, Uganda.

After hearing all organizational and infrastructural calamities shrugged off as “This is Africa,” we’re shocked at how well the logistics of this initiative are handled. Every single piece of paper is filled out with meticulous penmanship and organization. Attention to detail is prevalent throughout every aspect of the distribution process; each child and family in even the tiniest village is accounted for and not once is there argument or misunderstanding. We also receive a crash-course in rural malaria education that leaves us both anxious and better-prepared to undertake our own personal objective: making sure each net is properly hung over a child’s bed—perhaps the most crucial part of the project.

We stock up on fuel and food and begin a fervent week-long follow-up on our bikes, going village to village, hut to hut, to meet and educate the beneficiaries of the program about malaria prevention. We cover as much ground and as many homes as possible on rutted roads and village singletrack. Groups of mothers greet us with indelible African spirit, dancing, singing and clapping in gratitude for protecting their children. Thankfully we have a way of repaying them; although many have never seen a net before all are understanding of the impact. They know these nets will help save lives, plain and simple.

The outpouring of affection and gratitude moves us to tears.

 

Welcome Dance_Pajama parish, Uganda
Welcome booty Dance, Pajama parish, Uganda.

PURE AFRICA
A dusty road stretches into the rocky hills of Ojapi parish, cluttered with bicycles and strong women beginning the walk home burdened by 20 litres of water balanced atop their heads, each with a baby wrapped around their backs. It’s our final day of follow-up and we’re trying hard to absorb every little detail.

By day’s end we’ve checked about thirty huts in three different villages; most homes had hung their nets properly but others had set them too high, leaving a small gap at the bottom that would have rendered the net ineffective. Hot, sweaty, and tired, we find a mango tree to sleep under—much to the dismay of locals who’d rather see us inside.

Messages for Life (signs at Ojapi Primary School)
Messages for Life. Sign at Ojapi Primary School.

“Oh, why do you sleep outside like this?” says Mr. Andrew, introducing himself in perfect English as a former commanding officer in the Ugandan Air Force. “Maybe we can move you inside then everything will be okay.”

“It’s alright,” I respond. “As you can see we have now set up our bed between the motorcycles and have a mosquito net to sleep under. We like to sleep outside and feel very safe here.”

“Okay, thank you. Then it shall be fine. I am very security conscious and all of our people are very friendly. We have some hardships and poverty but we are a happy people. You will just rest here and feel at peace. Nothing can happen to you.”

Clifftop campsite at the Mushroom Farm
Clifftop campsite at the Mushroom Farm above the shores of Lake Malawi.

And nothing did, save for another magical night’s sleep under the African sky. The kind I got used to with Sean. We visit another school in the morning but can share only smiles and laugher—all our nets have been given out. Although there are thousands more children in need of them, we know we’ve done what we can and it’s time to go home to the Canadian winter.

One more ride in the African countryside brings it all into sharp focus. If we save but one life, it will have been worth every gravel-crunching, heat-searing, livestock-dodging kilometre. If we can help more kids sleep better and study more, we’ve done our job.

I think back to the days on my bike with my brother in South Africa and picture him smiling from the great beyond, hoping he knows what he inspired us to do… although I’m pretty sure he’s been riding with us the whole time.

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This feature is from the 2015 Mountain Life Annual, available by print subscription and through digital download here.

Read more stories online from past issues of Mountain Life Annual.

About the Authors

ToddChristina

To ‘train’ for their African journey, Todd and Christina spent 19 months riding through all 23 countries of the mainland Americas from Canada to Chile, a 47,000-kilometre epic. Blown away by the generosity they encountered on that trip, they founded the Sean Lawson Young Travellers Foundation, dedicated to helping third-world children enjoy the learning experience of travel. In 2008 the couple spent 11 months riding 23,000 km through 15 African countries; this story represents the final stages of that trip.

 

Todd Lawson,  is a transplanted Alberta boy who spent his summers chasing cows and picking raspberries on his grandparents’ farm. He now lives in Whistler, B.C. with Christina Tottle and their 4-year-old daughter Seanna (named after Sean). Travel and outdoor sports turn his crank as much as Crown Royal by a campfire. // againstmalaria.com

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