Thoughts on Africa so far

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Africa is beautiful, frustrating, overwhelming, fantastic and maddening. Here follow a few thoughts I’ve had about the place, some more fully-formed than others. I worry that most of them sound bitchy or condescending, and I suppose in some cases they are. Remember that I’ve spent most of the last few week sin Tanzania, though most of what’s below applies toa Africa in general. All I can say is that I’m trying to keep an open mind, but Africa is a real challenge. I’m in Malawi now, and am happy to report that it seems generally more prosperous, orderly and clean than what I encountered in Kenya and Tanzania.

A sadly prescient quote on the bulletin board in the truck.


It fesls like there is garbage everywhere – sometimes it’s like to whole continent is one giant garbage dump. It’s scattered along the roadside, or blowing down city streets, or piled in heaps that slide down riverbanks towards the water. The charitable part of me wants to think that people are living in such poverty that they’re far more worried about simply getting food in their mouths and shelter over their heads than in keeping things tidy. The uncharitable part can’t help but feel that even a hand-to-mouth existence could be made more tolerable by pleasant surroundings, and it wouldn’t take much to clean things up, or at least to stop making it worse by continuing to throw things out whenever and wherever the mood strikes. Perhaps they simply don’t care, or that those who do care are vastly outnumbered and overmatched. Tanzania was awful for this, but as soon as we crossed into Malawi there was a marked difference, despite the fact that Malawi is generally poorer than Tanzania.


Similarly, we pass a lot of unfinished buildings by the side of the road. In some cases it’s easy to see that they’re under construction. But most of the time it’s impossible to tell if the structure was halfway through being built, or halfway through being demolished. In some there are trees growing up through unroofed rooms and doorways with lintels that have sagged so badly they look like half-lidded eyes. I think a lot of the time people start building with a small amount of money and simply plan to continue whenever they have the funds to do so. It seems that most of the time, the funds just aren’t there. I asked about this in Uganda and was told that in some cases people will construct the bottom level of a building and rent it out, thus earning the money to continue building the next level. But this was in urban commercial areas, where there was obviously a lot more wealth than the places we were driving through.

Hand-made red mud bricks, the most common building material for small houses.


The service industry in Africa is… well, let’s just say it’s not exactly up to a Wal-Mart level of speed and enthusiasm. As I suspected, my experience with Fed Ex in Uganda was not a one-off but a sign of things to come. This is most obvious in restaurants, where the service can be unbearably slow. I’ve started to think that I should order what I suspect my grandchildren will want to eat, since sometimes it feels like generations could rise and fall in the time it takes to get a plate of food. Laurie ordered a cheese and tomato sandwich from a Zanzibar restaurant and after waiting for about 45 minutes finally asked about the hold-up. She was told that it would take much much longer still, because they were going to have to bake the bread. However, she could have a hamburger, because they had hamburger buns. Clever Laurie elected to have her cheese and tomato ON a hamburger bun, which was a revolutionary solution that seemed not to have occurred to anyone in the kitchen. Nor did it occur to them to simply explain that they were out of bread when Laurie placed the order. It’s just weird.


In general it feels like most things in Africa are broken but still in use. Buildings appear to be abandoned - leaning, tumbledown, and in danger of imminent failure - but in many cases they’re inhabited. On the way up to the north of Zanzibar we passed a long bus shelter with a corrugated metal roof. One end of the shelter was completely collapsed with its front corner resting on the ground, but people were sitting under the uncollapsed end, calmly waiting for their bus. It seems that the decay is so pervasive and overwhelming that they simply have no choice but to accept it, make the best of it, and carry on. The infrastructure in Africa is just a disaster. The main reason it takes us so long to get anywhere is that the roads are often in a bad state. We have a couple of big brains on the truck, and the consensus among them seems to be that the road beds may not have been properly prepared and compacted so that the heat of the sun, coupled with the weight of the heavy transport trucks, causes them to degrade quickly and develop big ruts. We’ve passed over some very nice sections of newly-laid asphalt, and we’ve passed areas where they’re fixing old roads or constructing new ones. But we also bounce over a lot of roads so dismal that I fear they will jar loose the fillings in my teeth.


Maybe because of the bad roads, or maybe because of less-than-cautious driving techniques, but most likely because of a nasty combination of the two, we’ve passed an alarming number of overturned, smashed or otherwise incapacitated transport trucks. Sometimes they’re off to the side of the road, but as I mentioned before, in one case there was an overturned truck completely blocking traffic in both directions. I estimate we’ve seen about six catastrophic accidents in the time since we left Nairobi, and I that’s more than I’ve seen in a lifetime of highway driving in North America.

The first of many, this one was on the way to the Serengeti


The luggage system on the Zanzibar ferry is a bit primitive. It works like this: anything too large to carry with you in the cabin is left dockside where a team of loaders passes it in a human chain up to the front deck of the boat. Once everything is loaded they tie a tarp over the pile and set off. At the other end the tarp is removed and another human chain passes each bag down off the boat to the dock where your only choice is to push your way through the crush of people to grab your things as they’re passed down.

Or at least that’s how things are supposed to work. In my case, on the way back from Zanzibar, it works like this:

The bag – in this case my trusty Aeronaut – is passed to a less-that-capable link in the chain who fails to grasp it properly and drops it into the Indian Ocean. Then the crowd gasps, and I look on in horror, and other members of the chain frantically fish it out and hand it over to me, apologizing profusely. I snarl “Thanks”, filling the word with such vitriol that it drips as much as my bag, and start pushing my way through the crowd to get out while seawater soaks into my shirt from the sodden straps of the bag. It’s at this moment that a taxi driver decides I’m a prime candidate for his service and asks, “Where do you want to go?” Without even looking back I bark, “I want to go somewhere they won’t drop my fucking bag in the ocean!!!” He wisely backs off, as does everyone else in my way. (Note to self: Appearing to be dangerously unstable and on the verge of violence is an efficient way to get through a crowd.)

Safely back with the rest of the group my hands literally shake with rage (and adrenalin, probably) as I try to open the locks on my bag to assess the damage. Remarkably, it’s not bad. The Aeronaut is supposed to be pretty much waterproof, though I suspect that claim doesn’t extend to dunking because there’s some water in each compartment. I think most of it got in through the small space between the zipper pulls, so the damage is minimal. Clothing and gear is a bit wet, but the only real concern is my external hard drive.

Later that night I hang clothing out to dry and spread out gadgets and knick-knacks and turn the Aeronaut inside-out. The next day it’s all fine, and I test the hard drive and it’s fine too. And I pack it all away and carry on.

And that’s how the luggage system on the Zanzibar ferry works.


People really do carry things on the top of their heads. It seems mostly to be women, though I’ve seen men doing it too. Baskets of fruit, plastic jugs of water, laundry baskets, cases of soda, bags of potatoes, bunches of bananas – anything and everything. We even saw a woman walking down the street balancing a large rolling suitcase on her head. And I’m pretty sure I saw a guy with a small generator on his head in Zanzibar. And of course they don’t use their hands – the load is simply balanced on the head. It’s everywhere and yet, paradoxically, I have no photos.


I was expecting the bugs in Africa to be bad. I mean, it’s AFRICA – the land of malaria and mosquito nets, right? Well I think I’ve had two mosquito bites the entire time I’ve been in Africa. Others in the group are getting bitten by mosquitoes and sandflies and things that leave angry welts the diameter of a coffee cup. Laurie left with enough small red splotches on her legs to make one wonder if she might be contagious. I, on the other hand, appear to be completely unappetizing to the insect life of Africa, despite not having applied repellent once. I get more mosquito bites in a hour in Winnipeg than I’ve had in 28 days in Africa. Nice.


I’ve come to accept it, but it still grates. Everywhere we go, we pay mzungu prices (“mzungu” means “foreigner” or something like that, in Swahili). If the locals pay 500 shillings for a bottle of Krest Bitter Lemon, we pay 1,000. If we get stopped for speeding it’s likely because the petty official doing the stopping simply wants us to throw money at him to make him go away. (Kudos to our driver Dave for not taking this approach – he simply pulled out the recorder device attached to the truck’s tachometer and showed the guy he wasn’t speeding. Nevermind that it’s often impossible anyways, given the road conditions). Shopkeepers, roadside hawkers, cab drivers – everyone seems to be determined to swindle. This is especially odd because overland trucks go through these parts frequently, and it’s pretty easy for the group leaders to remember who screwed them around last time, and to pass the word among the fleet. It’s true that the difference in the prices might sometimes be insignificant to a wealthy western traveler, but it’s hard to develop a friendly and charitable attitude to the local population when you feel like they only see you as a wallet with legs.


I’ve complained a lot here, but I really can’t complain about the kids. They are almost always excited to see us pass and wave and shout “Jambo!” (“Hello!” in Swahili). And they seem genuinely pleased when we wave back. If we’re walking in a village they’ll come running out of houses to see us, and will often want to hold hands and walk along with us for a ways. They love having their picture taken and then looking at themselves on the camera display. Yes, some of them want money, and the older the kids get the more likely they are to say “No pictures” or to flash rude gestures from the side of the road. I suppose as they get older they start to understand and resent the immense gap between us. But when they’re little they just think we’re fun mzungus and it’s great. And I swear I’ve seen them playing the hoop-and-stick game that looks, to my North American eyes, like it belongs in an episode of “Leave it to Beaver”.

After out spice tour on Zanzibar we had lunch at a local house and the neighbourhood kids gathered to peek at us from the porch. After lunch we went out an played with them a bit, and gave them our souvenir origami frogs and hats and baskets made from leaves. This serious guy wanted me to take his picture, so I did.


And now, as I said earlier, we are in Malawi. We’ve landed at Kande Beach, on the shores of Lake Malawi, and a small mutiny in the group means we’re staying three nights here instead of the two that were scheduled. (We’re skipping one out-of-the-way spot to add an extra night here and an extra night in Livingstone) Everyone simply decided that after two very very long days in the truck, we want to sit somewhere and do nothing for a while. Well, not nothing. There is sleeping in, and having laundry done, and catching up on the internet (when the power is on). Also, the campsite is full of big overland trucks from different companies, and tonight we’ve joined forces with another Dragoman truck to share in the cost and preparation of a roast pig for supper. It’s on the coals now, which means I am done here.

(Please note: I realized a little while ago that a big section at the beginning of my post on Nairobi did not get published. I've fixed that now, so go have a look here.

1 Comment:

Rob said...


Sounds like your getting the full Africa experience. I'm glad you liked Malawi as much as I did. You're right - it is very tidy. President for Life Banda saw to that - he was a neat freak. It does make for a clean country though.

I've got to jump in with a bit of local knowledge. Mazungu is Swahili for white person (not exactly foreigner, but not far off). And, the quality of road building isn't the problem for the most part. The poor state of roads is because they're not maintained.

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