During a journey that spanned 10,000 kilometers and 317 pieces of public transport, Steve Madgwick learned some things. Not least, that there’s no room for clichés on the world’s second-largest continent.
“You go to jail for seven years,” screams a soldier with war-nervous eyes. He’s the second to summarily sentence me in the past few minutes.
His finger fidgets above the trigger of his Soviet-surplus machine gun. With his other hand, he grasps the snatched camera like he’s trying to crush it for recycling; its strap snapped by the altercation.
Nothing clears the mind like being arrested at gun point, simultaneously by both police and military, then cached away to a remote compound of a country in which your travel insurer has no interest and where you have no embassy.
This was the only moment when my decision to travel the length of Africa overland, Cairo to Cape Town, using only public transport, seemed like a dumb idea. Six and a half months, 10,000-plus kilometers, and precisely 317 pieces of public transport—every wired-together taxi, listless ferry and curmudgeonly camel given its own stolen-pen stroke on a blank page of my out-of-date Lonely Planet.
‘It’ happened early on. Timeline Sudan: At a refugee camp that reeked equally of despair and diarrhoea, a satellite-of-a-nothing border town called Kosti. It was a new border, after one country was acrimoniously, asexually split into the relative haves of Sudan and the have-nothings of (new) South Sudan.
Many of the South Sudanese ‘refugees’ were actually born in the north and were being spat out into an infrastructure-less south that they’d never been to before. They were famished, frantic, waiting to be forced onto a boat downriver, sometime in the indeterminate future.
My crime? Officially, pornography (photographing the fully clothed people I was interviewing) and trespass, the police claimed. Unofficially, I had stuck my sunburned nose too firmly into other people’s beeswax.
The travel warning was extreme, like the eleventh notch on Spinal Tap’s speaker. Just to get the Sudanese visa, I had to sign a declaration at the Australian consulate in Egypt effectively acknowledging that I was a massive moron for crossing into the country.
I’ve felt more vulnerable in Paris, New York, Quito and my local pub than I did in 99 per cent of the villages I passed through continuing southward.
I’d stumbled upon the camp serendipitously, ignorantly, ill-fatedly. No one had said, “Don’t go in”, so in I wandered, naturally. She’ll be right, I mused, I’m from ‘Straya; white privilege my subconscious wingman.
Eventually, after being tossed up the chain-of-command like a frightened frisbee, a portly dude in a film-prop hat that no-one dared lock eyes with, snarled, “Go now. Get out of Sudan!” He surrendered the camera, less deleted “pornographic” images; proof of the refugee crisis to the outside world.
Before I managed to scamper across the border into Ethiopia, two days later, the sharia police paid a visit to my hotel room, as if to put an exclamation point on the farce. They didn’t need to knock—they had a key.
Convalescing in the charming Ethiopian city of Gondar, known as Africa’s Camelot, an earworm burrowed into my psyche, suckling on my shock. The little blighter echoed the rhetorical question that all the negative Neds and Nellys had been passive-aggressively parroting before I boarded the one-way flight to Cairo.
“Africa’s really dangerous, isn’t it?”
With more than half a continent still to traverse, it would have been easy to concede that point and abort the adventure. But I chose not to. Why? Well, next time you’re at a dinner party, try throwing in one of these similarly loaded conversation-starters: “America’s really dumb, isn’t it?” or “Europe’s really racist, isn’t it?”
In South Africa, a stranger earnestly warned me, “You will die” as I boarded one of the notoriously cowboy long-distance share taxis. Intriguingly, I didn’t.
There’s nothing like a mirror to reflect the absurdity of generalizing a dynamic continent, 54 diverse countries and 1.2 billion souls, with one ignorant swoop.
Like anywhere on earth, certain areas of certain cities at certain times of day can be risky for travelers. My experience tells me that it’s usually when you walk into a situation you don’t understand—exhibit A, above—or ostentatiously flash your cash in places where poverty and inequity have eaten into a community like an aggressive cancer.
I’ve felt more vulnerable in Paris, New York, Quito and my local pub than I did in 99 per cent of the villages I passed through continuing southward. The big cities, however, seemed to be a different beast, if the unrelenting, self-perpetuating hype were to be believed.
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I religiously believed Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, to be the murder capital of the universe, because everyone was telling me so. I was meerkat-alert as I tiptoed around its heaving streets, awash with eight million potential attackers. But channeling the little common sense that providence provided me with, avoiding no-go areas come dark, a curious thing happened: I didn’t get murdered. All the murderers must have been on strike or holiday that week.
But if Africa’s people weren’t out to get me, surely its nasty public transport and Lucifer-worshipping roads were.
Statistically, there is some smoke to that fire; I was in two different buses where a wheel fell off, on another when the driver fell asleep at the wheel; fortuitously, in a featureless desert, so we just rolled to a stop. In South Africa, a stranger earnestly warned me, “You will die” as I boarded one of the notoriously cowboy long-distance share taxis. Intriguingly, I didn’t.
Once the fundamental Dark Continent clichés started to unwind, others lemminged off the cliff of ignorance behind them … All I know now is what’s not true.
In northern Uganda, home ground to warlord Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army, I struck up chitchat with Jacob on a bus so packed that it was more comfortable for me to have my arm around him than not. We ended up playing a couple of games of pool at his local (he let me win). The next day, I worked on his farm for a day, just to see what it was like. His mum cooked us a delicious bean stew for lunch. We’re still Facebook buddies today.
Funnily enough, no-one was spruiking the upsides of public transportation, of which there are many, if personal space is not fundamental to your felicity. Being sardined into buses and minivans with thrice the number of recommended passengers for hours, weeks and months on end is a wonderfully intense crash course on a country’s humor, customs, and politics (my record: 37 people squeezed into a nine-seater).
More than once, fellow passengers stepped in to shield me from officials seeking favor at dodgy border crossings and remote police checkpoints, sometimes physically putting themselves between me and my potential predicament. They had no reason to help this clueless mzungu, in fact, many reasons not to. But they did it anyway.
Once the fundamental Dark Continent clichés started to unwind, others lemminged off the cliff of ignorance behind them.
The generic African-village-in-crisis news stories had always bothered me; images of [insert this year’s trouble zone] unable to feed itself, a hapless foreign-aid vacuuming basket-case in frantic need of gap-year troopers. Never any deep political context offered or follow-up when things inevitably recover.
Case in point Ethiopia, which I expected to be the country equivalent of little Timmy-down-the-well. Ignorantly, my principal reference point was pathos-provoking news footage of starving, dying children that singed into my conscience during the Live Aid concert in the ’80s.
Yes, it is still poor by Western standards, yet modern Ethiopia sizzles with oomph, a potpourri of contemporary and ancient cultures, the most highlights-strewn country I’ve ever visited; not least because the food is the best I’ve eaten in Africa and the coffee is soul-quenching.
On three other trips to the continent, I have followed white-folks’ tales to magical places that had defined Africa for me, the Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar et al. This time, I was following intensely local perspectives. They weren’t always positive either.
I’m not even sure why I needed to see a small church where 10,000 people were bludgeoned to death during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Yet hearing every nauseating detail, stories of babies’ heads being smashed against walls, from someone who lived it instead from a Western intellectual seemed, weirdly, more appropriate. A country telling its own history; dealing with the consequences of its own million-person atrocity.
But, mostly, little positive stories began to mosaic together, stuff you never see on the news, communities making the most of their lot, often with great ingenuity. I loved seeing ventures such as Apopo HeroRats in Tanzania, where they train wild rats to detect land mines. Mind blown, pardon the insensitive pun.
So, what did I learn in six and a half months on this continent, taking the hard way down? If you are looking for a profound, pithy summation of Africa, you are not going to get it from me. Africa’s modern history is stained with grand statements from outsiders and passers-by, starting with murderous colonialists who dissected a continent from the drawing rooms of Europe for their own selfish ends.
All I know is what’s not true: The clichés that got left in the dust as I rattled down Africa’s B and C roads. Nope, I cannot say anything definitive at all about this continent.
As I said, it’s amazing how a gun in your face clears the mind.