East Africa

The mind of Africa part 3 – Developing “uncivilisation”

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

White men and women go to Africa to help it and its people: to develop it, grow it and civilise it. During their stay in what they may dub “uncivilisation”, they find a freedom and a simplicity. Time is no longer perishable, productivity is determined by temperature, everyone should be included in long talks with tea and what doesn’t happen today might tomorrow, God willing. The well meaning Samaritans are put in their place and have no choice but to conform to the African way. Any attempt to resist it will only lead to frustration on their part, and it almost always does. This collision of worlds often made me wonder if progress is indeed progress. Contrary to the image portrayed in the media, it seems that everyone in Africa is always smiling; they have their place and purpose in society, they know everybody in the village personally and have plenty of time to enjoy life for the simple pleasures it provides. Moreover, the people in “uncivilisation” are often a lot more civilised than those who claim to live in civilisation, particularly with respect to hospitality and humanity. In a
developing society people are challenging their place in it; they don’t know their neighbours and simple delights are replaced by a constant urge for more, newer and more expensive. By imposing our solutions on Africa through volunteers and NGOs we assume that what works in the West will also work in Africa, and sadly we impose our values on them too. In reality, these solutions have unexpected side-effects, mixed success due to African diversity and rarely lead to the desired result. So, I must preach once more: African solutions for African problems.

The mind of Africa part 2 – The incomprehensible ant

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

Africa is spread out over 71 different latitudes. Each of them, in combination with a raw geography shaped by unimaginable forces, produces a different landscape and ecosystem. It seems that every animal is perfectly adapted to the elevation, climate and terrain in which it lives. This is particularly noticeable in ants, which vary dramatically from tiny harmless black dots to huge red warriors with a vicious bite. Africa perfectly adapts its inhabitants to the harsh conditions it poses. The same goes for humans; despite our common ancestry, we evolved over millions of years into Himba, Kikuyu, Somali, Berbers, Pygmies, Europeans or Arabs. We are truly as different as the ants we find on the forest floor. Some may crawl on your leg to explore; some find a way around you but rarely bite your toes when you mean no harm to them. Accidentally step on an ant nest though and you may regret your carelessness when biting ants crawl up your legs to courageously fight a war they will never win. I once had an ant walk up my leg to my knee, but when I tried to get it to walk onto my hand it jumped like a skydiver. Relatively speaking, the distance he fell to the ground would have been equal to the distance travelled by a skydiver jumping from an aircraft, except the ant didn’t have a parachute, but just landed on his feet and walked off. That is what Africans do: they struggle and struggle to build a life for themselves with the few resources they have, but when trouble arises they leave it behind and walk away to build a new life elsewhere. Rarely do they fight to replace their corrupt leaders, and, if they do, then another power-hungry leader will soon take his place. Perhaps Africans are used to the harsh conditions they live in and are more equipped to deal with them. Perhaps we are the ants that end up losing unwinnable wars and they are the ants that just jump ship, brush off and go on with life on their terms.

The mind of Africa part 1 – A guest of the incomprehensible

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

In just over 370 days we did what many thought would be impossible: crossing Africa in our circumnavigation of the African continent. We drove through the Sahara on both sides, worked our way through the Central African jungle, saw countless kilometres of Sahel and savannah, and climbed mountains and forded rivers. We met people with worldviews more distant from ours than you can possibly imagine, but even after all that time I still don’t understand most Africans. A wise missionary who worked in Africa all his life once said he would give a lifetime of work in exchange for an hour in the mind of an African. I understand him now, for Africans are truly incomprehensible, from their political philosophy to their spiritual beliefs, and even after a year I have to admit that the mind of an African is still a mystery to me. I will hold Africa, with its endless hospitality and boundless variation, close to my heart forever. Although I will always merely be a guest on the land of the people I cannot understand, I am happy to be so.

Shoestring travel makes for better stories

wildcamping

Every overlander has his own unique style of travelling; some travel in air conditioned luxury from lodge to lodge and eat steak in a restaurant every night; some ride their bicycle around the world, sleep wherever they can and eat whatever is cheap. We are probably closer to the latter. In general, we sleep in the rooftent, because frankly it’s usually the most comfortable option. In fact, even when we are invited to someone’s house, we often just set up the rooftent in the yard. We have on average €5 a day to sleep and €5 to eat, for the both of us, which is generally enough. It’s a shoestring budget for almost all African countries though. That means we usually cook ourselves and buy most of our food roadside. Sleeping is often a bit more tricky; one night on a campsite may blow our budget for two or three days, particularly in touristy areas. That means we wild camp about 17 percent of the time, and spend the night at people’s homes about 36 percent of the time. Staying in someone’s house varies from an expat’s luxury villa in a capital city, next to a decrepit hut in the desert or even in a farmer’s freshly plowed field. That means that more than half the time we stay for free, which has become our guideline on the trip. The rest of the time, we have spent on campsites, in hotels, on hotel parking lots and on boats. Twan keeps track of our overnight stays, which he set out in the graph below.

Graph

Financial issues aside, shoestring travel forces you to be bold and adventurous. Many people listen to our adventures in strange people’s homes, in the desert with bedouin or just out in the bush, with awe. Our advice to any overlander would be to spend more money on preparing your vehicle and fun activities, and less on accommodation and food. After all, shoestring travel just makes for better stories…

Highlights of the long way down part 2 – Lake Nasser to Lake Malawi

Lake Turkana

It took us five months and 25,000 kilometres to reach South-Africa. We travelled through some rough terrain, had our share of setbacks and met some very interesting people. In this three-part series we will take you back to some of the highlights of this journey, while we prepare for ‘the long way up’ along Africa’s west coast.

‘To the end of the world and back’

There is almost no government influence in this region [between Ethiopia and Kenya along Lake Turkana], since the different tribes control the land. They fight over cattle grazing land in what is sometimes armed conflict. The majority still wear traditional tribal dress, which is as exuberant as it is colourful. The locals rarely see “ferangies” (foreigners, often Western people) pass by and, if they do, everyone comes out of their huts to witness the spectacle, wave and, in many cases, ask for a “present” or “gift”, which seem to be the only English words they have picked up! We had visitors to our camp a few times, who were amazed by almost everything: mirrors, fold-up chairs, rooftents, blond hair etc. In general, though, you see more animals than people when driving over the rough track. The scenery varies between a savannah-type environment, with high grass and acacia trees, to barren rocky deserts with the odd bush here and there. The route, although long, is never boring and always challenging.
[Not a valid template]

‘CouchSurfing in Africa’

Honestly, how stupid would it be to drive into one of the most crime ridden cities in the world and stay the night with a random stranger? Pretty stupid right? Well, that’s just what we did. I posted our travel plans just beyond the end of the world, where the phone cables had just about reached, and logged into CouchSurfing. […] One guy, an Indian expat called Gaurav, wrote a message that he had read our website, liked our 1-year adventure around Africa, and was inviting us to stay with him. He seemed nice and genuinely excited to meet us.
[Not a valid template]
We drove up, went up to Gaurav’s apartment on the first floor and sat down on the couch. The first few minutes were a bit uncomfortable, just the normal chit chat and him trying to make us feel at home. We just needed a place to camp, and the apartment complex’s compound with guards and a big gate was perfect, but Gaurav wouldn’t hear of it. It was winter in Kenya and temperatures dip to around 13 degrees Celsius at night. Instead, he offered us a bed inside and slept on the couch himself. His hospitality was almost uncomfortable.

‘This Is Africa: Serengeti, Land Rovers and Endless Hospitality’

Soon after exiting the park, we stopped for lunch. For the first time during our trip we baked Dutch pancakes, while traditionally dressed Masaai people gathered, curious, around us. After lunch we started the car and the fan belt broke, so we decided to slowly drive back to the park gate to fix it. The problem turned out to be more complex than it first seemed, so we were referred to the mechanics that maintain the fleet of vehicles from the famous and exclusive Klein’s Camp, which borders the Serengeti. After a warm welcome from the camp’s manager, Tawanda, the mechanics Markus and Steph soon got to work, although they were unable to finish the same day. After a nice meal, we were generously offered a room, which was without doubt one of the nicest places I have ever spent the night. […] So, This Is Africa: you get into trouble and people will greet you with endless hospitality. In Africa things never go the way you planned, but in the end they always have a way of working themselves out as long as you are patient, open and creative. That Is Africa!
[Not a valid template]

‘Heated debate along Lake Natron’

From the Serengeti National Park we drove along Lake Natron on the only road leading to the Ngorongo Crater. The local government had decided to charge all foreign vehicles 50 US Dollars for each of its three checkpoints, which are on one of the most terrible roads we have seen on the trip. After an argument with the guard at the first checkpoint, we parked the Landy right in front of the gate so nobody could get through. Before long, a local bus stopped behind us and demanded that we move so it could carry on with its journey. We refused. After a heated debate during which most of the passengers got out of the bus, tried to push the car out of the way (in gear – luckily!) and even tried to get in and move it, we got somewhere by saying we were driving for charity and simply did not have the money to pay each municipality to use their road. In the end, we moved our car and a friendly guy from the Wildlife Conservation got us through all three checkpoints. An interesting day in Tanzania.
[Not a valid template]

‘Ngorongoro Crater: zoo or natural beauty?’

We entered the crater as early as possible and drove on the crater’s edge through thick fog. We quickly descended 600 metres down into the crater itself where there was already a large group of other vehicles driving tourists around. This meant that inside in the crater there was no need to look for animals like lions or rhinos; the crater’s floor is so flat (with a salt lake in the middle) that if you just drive to where groups of cars are parked with tourists hanging out of the open roof taking photos, then you will find the wildlife. It felt a little like driving through a zoo, although there is interaction between predator and pray and animals are free to enter or exit the crater if they are able. In this respect, the giraffe was a notable absentee; its long legs and neck mean that it couldn’t enter the crater. In the end, we drove in circles half a dozen times, saw all the animals that inhabit the crater except the leopards, and then left. Back on the edge you get a spectacular view of the crater and its size.
[Not a valid template]

‘A piece of tropical paradise in Malawi’

Lake Malawi is 560 kilometres long and 75 kilometres wide at its widest point. It is famous for the enormous diversity of its tropical fish and looks rather like the sea; you generally can’t see the other end and the lake creates some significant waves, but has no tides and is not salty. After some searching we drove onto an abandoned looking campsite where we were greeted enthusiastically by Oswell. We were given a tour of where we could camp directly on the beach under the trees. The prices on the price list were immediately halved because the facilities were limited. We didn’t care though, the lake was blue, the local fishermen friendly and the sun was shining. The guestbook proved just how abandoned the camp was: the last visitor had left on April 30th. In the end, we stayed for four days and left this piece of tropical paradise with some reluctance.
[Not a valid template]

Politics in Africa: Politics under a Tree

politics

Despite my interest in politics and political philosophy, I have rarely touched on the subject in my articles for this website. With good reason perhaps, because African politics are as complex as the societies that govern them and a sensitive topic of debate. In my discussion of politics with Africans, I am often faced with either a reluctance to talk about the issues, or a clear, fixed position and an intention to convince. A guide who took us up a mountain in Uganda was keen to discuss politics and how wonderful the present system is with checks and balances and fair elections coming up. He turned out to be wearing a bright yellow t-shirt under his sweater depicting the current president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and like almost all other African leaders does not allow a serious opposition. Another young Ugandan woman I met criticised the current administration openly, and in particular despised the number of Indian-owned businesses, while also making a case that the rule of Idi Amin, perhaps Africa’s most ruthless meglomaniac, was not as bad as it seemed. The fact that Amin forcefully removed the Indians from his country in 1972 suggested that her views were perhaps somewhat blinkered. In a small town in Sudan, perhaps Africa’s most religiously ruled country, I discussed the country’s policies with a well-educated village elder. He criticised the amount of power the clergy had, the poor state of the economy and the need for change. The recent split with South Sudan was a sensitive issue, although it was clear that everyone was unhappy about it. He did, however, point out that democracy would not work in his village, nor in the country as a whole. Here, he may have a point. In colonial times, a multi-party democracy was often introduced, which replaced traditional rule by local leaders. Although it is sometimes suggested that this was a totalitarian form of governance, this was only true in rare cases, such as the Zulu empire in Southern Africa, the Ashanti society in West Africa and the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda, which still exists today although it should really be regarded as ceremonial. Instead, in most cases, politics was based on consensus and focussed on the collective group rather than the individual. The elders would sit under a tree and talk with unending patience until a unanimous decision was reached. The two altenatives were, and perhaps still are, no better: a winner-takes-all type of democracy or autocracy. In democracy, the winner could prevail by simply convincing a little more than half of the village to support him, leaving the other half unhappy. In a small town, which was often home to the highest form of governance at that time, it would be unwise to leave half of the village unhappy and create a basis for animosity. Autocracy only works if the leader or leaders have a clear basis for power, such as an ethnic majority or an inherited title. But even kings and emperors were replaced if society was unhappy about their decisions, and checks and balances were often in place to control the monarch’s power.

Generally, issues that divide politicians in the Western world could be regarded as minor: tax breaks, immigration, social welfare etc; essentially, in the West the focus is on the balance between making the rich a little richer and the poor a little less poor. Here in Africa, issues are much more fundamental, concerning essential liberties and human rights that we take for granted. Basic freedom of speech may allow me to critise any African leader, but an African may not have the same right. This does not mean that foreigners wear a magic cloak that protects them from injustice when they visit the continent; the next border official may get a nice promotion for stopping a dissident visitor from abroad entering his country after criticising his leader.

Ideas for this article have originated from the book ‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’ by Richard Dowden. Buy the book here.

Ngorongoro Crater: zoo or natural beauty?

Ngorongoro

Posted from Karatu, Arusha, Tanzania.

The Ngorongoro Crater is located in the north of Tanzania, has a diameter of about 17-21 kilometres and is very popular with tourists because of the enormous animal population that inhabits the caldera (collapsed volcano). An estimated 30,000 mammals live on this tiny piece of largely flat, open ground, including elephants, rhinos, lions, hyenas, ostriches and grazing animals like wildebeast and zebra. Lees meer »

Heated debate along Lake Natron

Lake Natron

Posted from Arusha, Tanzania.

From the Serengeti National Park we drove along Lake Natron on the only road leading to the Ngorongo Crater. The local government had decided to charge all foreign vehicles 50 US Dollars for each of its three checkpoints, which are on one of the most terrible roads we have seen on the trip. After an argument with the guard at the first checkpoint, we parked the Landy right in front of the gate so nobody could get through. Before long, a local bus stopped behind us and demanded that we move so it could carry on with its journey. We refused. After a heated debate during which most of the passengers got out of the bus, tried to push the car out of the way (in gear – luckily!) and even tried to get in and move it, we got somewhere by saying we were driving for charity and simply did not have the money to pay each municipality to use their road. In the end, we moved our car and a friendly guy from the Wildlife Conservation got us through all three checkpoints. An interesting day in Tanzania.

[Not a valid template]

This Is Africa: Serengeti, Land Rovers and Endless Hospitality

serengeti

Posted from Shinyanga, Tanzania.

A great many of those who have spent any sort of time in Africa know the expression “T.I.A.”, which stands for “This is Africa”. To truly understand its meaning you need to visit the continent, but the following story may provide you with some background behind the proverb… Lees meer »

A beginners guide to helping an African village

zinduka

Posted from Nyamuswa, Mara, Tanzania.

Many volunteers, NGO workers and others have good intentions about coming to Africa and “fixing” whatever it is they think is wrong. However, along the way, we’ve found that Africans are usually best at both identifying their own needs and finding solutions to help themselves and their communities. One such person is Maximillian Emmanuel Madoro, who lives in the small village of Nyamuswa in Tanzania. He started his organisation, the Zinduka Savings & Credit Cooperative Society, with a vision and two small grants. He now lends money to women in the area to help them set up their own business, expand an existing business or improve their living conditions in a sustainable way. He has combined this small-scale microfinance initiative with two other pillars. Lees meer »

12