North 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.

The snowy slopes of Mount Toubkal

Posted from Imlil, Marrakesh-Tensift-Al Haouz, Morocco.

We spent a few days driving around southern Morocco along the coast towards Agadir. We then turned inland to take a road that would lead us straight to the Atlas Mountains. The views from the narrow, windy road were stunning with mountains all around us, often one after the other in different shades of grey, and the sun setting behind them in a deep orange glow. Some of the peaks were even covered in snow. This is the roof of North-Africa with many peaks above 3,000 and 4,000 metres. After our accomplishment conquering Mount Cameroon (4095 metres) a few weeks ago, we felt like taking it one step further and attempting Mount Toubkal (with an altitude of 4167 metres above sea level), the highest peak in the Atlas and thus all of North-Africa,. We read about it in our travel guides and it seemed feasible, in particular because we were in the right season; according to the Lonely Planet it is not “unbearably hot” yet in these months. And it certainly was not!

When we arrived in the village of Imlil, the usual starting point for climbing Toubkal, it turned out that there was still a lot of snow on the mountain due to recent heavy snowfall, meaning that we needed some serious alpine equipment: thick jackets, insulated hiking boots, crampons to walk on ice, walking sticks and even ice-axes. We started having doubts about whether we would be able to reach the summit, particularly given our lack of alpine experience. Stories of a Spanish hiker who died on the mountain a few months ago increased our anxiety, but luckily did not deter us.

We met our guide Saïd and immediately started our ascent to the refuge hut where we would spend the night. The route started off easy enough through the last villages and up the mountain pass to the ‘shrine’. There were a few shops where we could eat and drink, and a large white rock that is regarded as holy to Muslims; the sick are taken there by mule to be healed. It seems that every mountain invokes spiritual feelings in the local people. From there the hike got somewhat tougher and the first snow was visible around us. I struggled with my rented boots, which gave me huge blisters on my heels, before I finally switched shoes with Saïd. Eventually, after hiking for about five hours, we reached the refuge at 3200 metres. It was a much bigger building than we expected with dormitories, private rooms, heated sitting areas and even hot showers. Our meals were included, so that night we dined with our fellow alpinists, all of whom seemed to be more experienced than we were.

After a good night’s sleep, we woke up early to get our equipment in order, eat a hearty breakfast and start our ascent to the summit. The refuge was at snow-level, so we immediately walked out into the white landscape on crampons, which are metal spikes attached to your boots that enable you to get a grip on snow and ice. The equipment was a bit old and worn out though, so the crampons kept coming loose, forcing Saïd to re-attach them about a dozen times per person. To deal with the lack of oxygen in the air, we adopted a ‘slow & steady’ pace again, but still seemed to be going faster than the other teams. Meanwhile, Saïd nearly doubled his estimated time of arrival at the summit, saying we were “slow”. Twan struggled with the altitude during the final ascent, but got through. Eventually it took us less than four hours to reach the summit. There we found stunning views all around, and could see Toubkal’s neighbouring peaks, some above 4,000 metres. We also found a group of Dutch police-officers who made it just before we did.

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We walked down fast to the refuge where we rested, had lunch and re-arranged our baggage. Soon we were ready to descend back to the shrine and then Imlil. We kept a fast pace the whole way and arrived back at the car at just after six o’clock, tired but proud of our achievement.

Date of homecoming: 28th of April

Posted from Tiznit, Souss-Massa-Draa, Morocco.

The Africa Expedition is nearly over. Right now we are in Morocco to relax and enjoy the African continent for a few more days before we take the ferry to Europe on the 20th of April. Two days later, on the 22nd, we can pop open the champagne because it will have been a year since we departed. We will arrive back in Molenweg in Sint Odiliënberg (Limburg, the Netherlands) six days after that on the 28th of April around 15.00 hours. Everyone is welcome! Send us a brief e-mail if you want to come.

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 1 – Europe to Egypt

desert

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 highlights of this journey, while we prepare for ‘the long way up’ along Africa’s west coast.

‘The start of our journey’

After preparing for about a year and a half, we finally left on Sunday 22nd April. Expecting only a small, family departure, we were surprised by the large number of people who had shown up for the occasion. Not only were our families there, including some rarely seen distant cousins, but we were also pleased to see that friends and the ‘dispute’ we both belong to had made their way south to Twan’s home town of Sint Odiliënberg. Twan’s mother, Gerry, had arranged a buffet that provided a wonderful brunch for everyone in attendance. After singing the dispute song, twice, to please our audience, and saying goodbye to our parents and brothers, we drove off, heading south. Of course, you don’t immediately take it in that our departure had become a reality, instead of the dream we had planned for over the past few months; something that carries such weight and with so many implications takes several days to sink in.

‘Africa in Sight’

On our last day in Europe, we made our way to the western tip of the island of Sicily to Trapani, to catch the ferry to Tunisia. However, while we were looking for the right dock, Twan got a call that the ship was delayed for a few hours. Perhaps more importantly, the friendly woman on the phone informed us that we were in the wrong city; our ferry was to depart from Palermo rather than Trapani! So we drove the 100km or so to Palermo, checked in with the friendly and interested officials, spent some time in the city centre and watched the second part of The Godfather on the docks until the ship pulled into port and we could get on. The ship itself was soon filled with countless bodies lying on the cold floor, most of them wrapped in blankets on sleeping mats or anything else remotely comfortable. We decided, although formally forbidden in both Italian and Arabic (neither language I speak or read), to sleep in our car on the lower deck. An undisturbed night was the result. In fact, the only thing making the experience less than comfortable was the deep penetrating sound of the ship’s engines.

The next morning, we went up to the top deck only to be nearly blown off it by the strong winds. However, even through the horrid, almost painful, wind, we got our first glimpse of Africa: the mountains of Tunisia on the horizon, perhaps some 50 kilometres away.

‘Post-war syndrome hospitable Libya’

The next day we got up early and headed down the road towards the Libyan border. Along the way, we passed an enormous UN refugee camp, which gave us a harsh reminder of the situation we were driving into. […] The militia guarding the border all shook hands with us, asked us where we were from and why we were here (“transit to Egypt” sufficed everywhere despite the business visas).

Immediately after entering Libya, the waving, welcoming and honking started. Everybody was delighted to see us. We were in turn delighted to see the first gas station with diesel (commonly called “NAFTA” here), not only because we were were running low, but also to confirm the incredibly low price of around €0.10 per litre! The hospitality was un-ending; if you ask the way to a hotel, you aren’t simply pointed in the right direction, or even given directions for that matter; no, you are driven under escort to the hotel, even if it is on the other side of the city. We were also offered “help” at nearly every checkpoint, and there are many (although you can usually drive through and there is never a line). I am sure they would have been happy to provide us with a city-to-city escort if we had asked. Perhaps they would have used one of the many tanks we saw. Twan could fill entire photo-albums with them, blown up or fully operational, a trophy or a reminder of sacrifice, and Joris was even invited to sit in one. The artillery, as seen on the news (on the back of pick-ups), can be seen at every checkpoint and seems to be ready to shoot down anything that threatens the new, free Libya.
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‘He without a plan sleeps in the desert’

Typical for travelling without a plan, an opportunity lay around the corner. We were overtaken by a man who was traditionally dressed in a white gown and driving the most common car in this part of Africa: the Toyota pick-up. […] The car suddenly turned into the desert and, at tremendous speed, we drove down what was barely a track. A moment of doubt was followed by a feeling of adventure. Soon we spotted another truck on the horizon. What followed was a welcome with Egyptian tea (strong tea with as much sugar as water) from six local men from Salloum, none of whom spoke English, who seemed to gather here regularly to get away from their wives at the end of the day. A campfire was made, music played, singing started, photos were shown and videos too (sometimes gruesome images of slaughtered sheep and fights in neighbouring Libya). They immediately seemed to like us, and after an hour or so they offered to let us  stay for dinner. A fantastic night ensued in the desert with large insects, an ever growing campfire and exchanges of culture. We looked at the stars and I was able to see more of them than I had ever seen before. Close to midnight, we opened our tents and went to sleep. A night to remember.

‘German Military Cemetary in El Alamein’

We drove into El Alamein and spotted a German World War 2 cemetery on our route. Aware of the historic significance of El Alamein (being the second place the Gemans & Italians lost a battle, the first of which was the Battle of England), we decided to stop and have a look. When we drove up, we were greated by Moniem, who almost immediately invited us to stay on his family’s land, upon which the cemetery is located. Soon afterwards, we decided to make the most of this hospitality and stay for two days.
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‘A piece of paradise in Cairo’

When you drive up to the hill approaching the pyramids you are stopped by the “tourist police” (the sort who want to sell you a camel ride). Even if you don’t want to stop, you have to, because they jump the car and you’d have to kill someone to get through. Anyway, after working our way up the hill and using our windscreen wipers to get the fake-police off the Landy, we got to the checkpoint where we were checked and paid the 3 pounds (about €0.45) extra to go onto the terrain with the Land Rover. It would be an understatement to say I would have easily paid double, since we got some fantastic photos as a result. The visit itself was a bit disappointing, since the area is obviously crawling with tourists and people offering crap to them.
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‘Waiting for the boat to Sudan’

We are waiting in Aswan [Egypt] for the ferry to Sudan. The road that leads to Sudan was closed years ago by the Egyptians, effectively marking the end to the first trans-African highway, often referred to as the Cairo-Cape Town Highway. The barge upon which vehicles are transported had left some days before we arrived, so we have had to wait for it to return and for more overlanders with vehicles to arrive so that we can split the enormous cost of chartering the ferry. The wait was relaxing in the shade of the enormous Nubian family house of the Adam family. We parked our car in the front yard, set up our tent and within days the place felt like home.
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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.

The Desert

desert

Posted from Giza, Egypt.

A vast, empty expanse filled with not much more than sand and rock. Nature’s rubbish bin. Desert travel is lengthy, but never boring; the sand dunes, dust tornados and the odd rock formation provide a welcome change from the endless stretch of sand. The desolate, empty road provides you with a chance to dream, think and reflect. This dream is only disturbed by a car flashing its lights that has suddenly appeared from the fata morgana in front of you. You quickly return to your own lane, give a flash, honk and wave only to fade away in the distance and resume dreaming. Lees meer »

A piece of paradise in Cairo

giza pyramids

Posted from Giza, Egypt.

We drove into Cairo on a Friday, which meant that everything was closed. We were mainly in the vast city, with around 20 million inhabitants, to arrange our Sudanese and Ethiopian visas, but since that was impossible on a Friday we decided to get the mandatory visit to the Great Pyramids of Giza out of the way. Lees meer »

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