The African Experience

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September 17, 2009 by

As we watch the Spanish coastline disappear behind us we can’t help but think about what lies in store for us in Africa.  Our minds are filled with images portrayed in the media but also questions as to the true nature of Africa.  Will we encounter corruption, disease or violence?  What about fairness, well-being and harmony?  We know that in order to gain an understanding of the African people we’ll need to communicate with them.  We have confidence in our ability to communicate with people but will we be able to share in their stories as well as ours?  Will we make a horrible faux pas and be boiled in a cannibal’s cauldron of human soup?  We realize that it’s impossible for us to have complete confidence going into a territory that is so unknown to us.  This uncertainty creates anxiety and warms our skin with anticipation.  Excitement is really the only word for it and adventure is what lies ahead.

–    Culture and the Tourevolution

“Can we put up our tent here please, uh, fatigue, um dormir ici?”
This is how it started.  The next thing Peter and Shahla know, they’re the guests at a party for a little kid.  The father, uncle and older brother are standing in the doorway of a mud house and usher the two inside.  The boy is roughly five years old and wearing a little white gown with embroidered patterns.  He lays down trembling terribly and when the time gets nearer he has to be held down.  Snip.  The circumcision is completed with big shears and iodine swabs.   The sound is something these two will never forget as the boy’s gargling noises blend with the high trilling of the women outside and over that a word that will always make them think of this moment.
“Safi, safi, safi,” the men say in the loudest yet most soothing way they can.
After several cups of tea and lots of food the two make a break for the highway.  They feel drained by the experience and get a better idea of some of the cultural surprises that await them.
    Sitting on the side of the road in a rocky windswept desert, waiting for each other as they take turns running behind rocks to relieve their churning bowels, is not an easy task.  They’re either getting mouthfuls of sand, stabbing pains in their stomachs or both. Knowing that they will be in Africa for a long time was their reason for accepting the local cuisine to be their staple diet.  It’s been two weeks on the toilet but they know that their suffering will bear fruit in the future.  Eating the local food and riding bikes past the farms that produce the ingredients is a good way to experience the connection between culture and environment. 
    They feel the physical strain of dealing with the temperature variance between day and night and aren’t sure how long they can keep up a positive view.  The desert gets nearer and they discuss the option of crossing the Sahara on a couple of the mopeds that are always speeding by them.  They need a change of pace and they jump into the idea without any knowledge of the machines they buy.  This plan is both a success and a failure.  They maintain the freedom to ride when they want and cover more ground in a day.  On the other hand, they have to listen to a noisy engine all day, they don’t feel as much gratification as they used to and the mopeds keep breaking down on them.  Time to sell the machines and change the mode of transport yet again.  Since they’re at Dakhla and they still have a large section of the desert to cross, they stick out their thumbs and give themselves until Senegal to come up with a different transportation idea. 

–    Crime, Punishment and Appreciation

Dakar is a huge sprawling city and thankfully a couchsurfer invites them to stay with him until they have their transportation figured out.  They give themselves two weeks to finish the Frankentrike project.  They’re assisted by a local welder who works for twenty minutes and then disappears for two hours.  Sometimes he doesn’t even show up.  There seems to be a trend to the work ethic since arriving in Africa and it leans toward the non-existent.  The professional tradesmen are not put through school or tested in their abilities to meet a standard.  The result for the two travelers is a two-week project taking five weeks.  When the Frankentrike is finally ready to hit the road they breathe a sigh of relief to be getting out of Dakar.  They did enjoy their time here, buying fresh fish from the fish market, listening to good Mbalax musicians and walking through the lively streets of downtown.  However in any big city there will always be crime.  They walk back to their host’s place with a few friends after having a meal and they notice a man following close behind them.  They’ve had so many people follow them in the interest of talking, so they think they might have to explain where they’re from and what they’re doing here.  The man walks up and heads towards Shahla.  He grabs the camera hanging over her shoulder, snapping the strap, and begins to run.  Peter gives chase.  The man ends up on the ground with Peter on top of him but manages to savagely bite Peter’s forearm.  With the help of their friends, they retrieve their camera and make it back safely to the house of their host who is horrified by their story.  “He’s lucky,” he says.  “I would have killed him.”  The locals don’t take theft lightly and there are instances when thieves have been killed by the people they try to rob.
    Peter and Shahla took all the necessary vaccinations before entering Africa but even that does not eliminate the possibility of getting a disease.  As they ride through Senegal on their Frankentrike, they continue to eat and drink with the locals.  When they arrive at the town of Velingara, Peter cannot eat and lies down.  He remains in this state for two days, frequently stumbling to the bathroom where he leaves the toilet bowl filled with blood from his bowels.  Finally a decision is made to move him to a small clinic where he is diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, pumped full of drugs and allowed to rest for a few hours.  He begins to recover swiftly but has lost about half of his body mass.
    They didn’t plan on the days being as stifling hot as they are.  By now they have a supply of thirteen litres of water that is dirty to the point of looking like orange juice.  This supply should last a whole day but sometimes it’s not enough.  They wake up one morning to find that there’s only enough water to have a small sip each.  They save it and pedal their Frankentrike in search of a village with a well.  The first ten kilometres are tiring with no water to begin with and they feel forced to take their sips.  Villages with wells can be relatively close together along the road but this time it’s twenty kilometres in the heat of the African sun.  These trials of physical endurance not only build up their constitution but also make them appreciate the value of things that are so simple they normally take them for granted.  Never again will they think of a cool breeze or a good nights sleep, a healthy appetite or a drink of water and not think of the time when these things were out of their reach.
   
–    Initiative and objectivity

As the two travelers sit and recuperate in the shade of a tree, they talk with a local man who is amazed at the sight of the Frankentrike.  He, like most other people, thinks that it is a very complicated machine.  The two try to explain the construction to him but he remains adamant that the machine must be imported from some European country.  “In Africa,” he says, “people don’t have good ideas like that.  Africans just can’t make that.”  They realize that this mentality is common and feel sorry for the people who think this way but they are not satisfied with leaving it at that.  They meet many people who have spent time working for the foreign aid industry and start to realize that there’s big money floating around in this business.  If the aid organization actually fixes the problem that they set out to aid then they put themselves out of work.  On numerous accounts they hear of aid workers that are frustrated because they feel as though they are doing nothing to help the African people, yet when it comes time to renew their contract they write a fancy proposal to keep the aid money coming in.  The money does trickle down to a certain degree and some tangible projects come to fruition.  However, even after there’s a pump and borehole in a village, the aid organization doesn’t teach anyone how to fix it.  The locals in that village will always be dependent on the outside world to live.  The local administrative workers distribute the small amount of money they earn amongst their families.  In the end there is a lot of dependency running around in Africa and it has taken the ingenuity out of the local people. 
As the two travelers pass by the African countryside they encounter many problems that have possible solutions.  They discuss the option of getting involved and trying to help out in the various situations.  They’ve seen many people jump in to help without realizing that they are biased in their beliefs and customs.  Problems to one person may be custom to another.  The help that the biased person tries to give has been given before and rejected.  There is also the fact that helping out can serve to feed the dependency of the locals.  The two travelers agree that the best path for them is in objectivity – to observe rather than to change.
One thing they cannot find a clear reason for is the mentality of the people regarding the western world.  True, their only education on the subject is probably through Hollywood movies that trickle down to the masses.  But to hold a conversation about the homeless people in Canada is totally impossible.  “There are no homeless people in Canada,” is the general reaction.  “Canadians are all rich and well fed and they all have big houses.”  It seems to the two travelers that the people they meet are all extremely sure of themselves.  They may not be willing to learn anything new nor be able to take what they do know and make logical conclusions, but what they do hold as the truth is infallible.  Then again, logic is not really a common thing in Africa.  For example, there are two packets of biscuits.  One is twice the size of the other.  The large one will always be more than twice the price of the small one thereby making it a better deal to buy two small packets than one large one.  After dealing with small illogical rarities like this on a daily basis, Peter and Shahla have learned not to ask too many questions.

–    Life and Death

Up until now these two have gained a greater appreciation for many things.  It is now time for them to face a challenge that will give them the ultimate appreciation.  The village of Mbie in the Republic of Congo does not see much traffic.  In fact, when an old cargo truck rolls into town, it is the first vehicle to pass through in several days.  Peter, Shahla and their good friend Martin end up riding on top of the cargo.  There are very tight regulations for the transport of goods and people in this country and the truck goes through intense scrutiny at every village it passes.  The three of them are forced to match wits with the corrupt officers looking for handouts and the driver and crew spend time chatting and drinking with friends.  Thus the estimated ten-hour journey now takes them well into the night.  Eventually Peter and Shahla fall asleep near the back of the cargo while Martin sits near the front.  Peter and Shahla both wake up suddenly when the truck begins to lean dangerously to one side.  They go through a moment of terror thinking that at any second the truck will tip.  The driver levels the truck out and they look at each other with relief.  A second later they’re flying through the air in the opposite direction. 
-Shahla hits the earth flat on her back and watches as the truck slides towards her on its side.  She waits spellbound for the truck to crush her into the sand.  She is certain that the end has come.  The truck stops before it reaches her and she does a momentary check to see that all her limbs are intact.  She jumps up and starts looking for Peter and Martin.  Martin is up and together they find Peter face down in the sand with cargo piled on top of him.  He is not moving.  She clears the cargo from his body and crouches beside him repeating his name.  He remains still.
-Peter experiences a sensation of weightlessness as he looks into darkness.  He floats on and the darkness encompasses him in its timeless grasp.  Something fills one of his senses and he feels as though he is waking up within a dream.  The voice calling to him sounds familiar and the need for air is all too real.  The realization that he is still alive hits him and he spits out the dirt that fills his mouth in an effort to breath again.  Still in darkness, he makes out Shahla’s voice and turns his head towards the sound.
    Although the three of them are still alive, one man was not so fortunate.  His life was taken from him while they were spared.  In an experience like this one it seems so natural for someone to be there one second and then gone forever.  People are fragile and tiny next to the blade of the Reaper.  An understanding of this brings forth an appreciation greater than all others.  It diminishes the trivial frustrations and focuses an importance on simple pleasures.  It forces us to evaluate the idea of life.

–    Diversity

Now that we are sitting on the edge of the Middle East, we look back into the African experience and remember one thing that encompasses the entire continent – its diversity.  It can all be traced back to one thing and that’s environment.  The beauty of the people is always a reflection of their natural surroundings.  Even though people can sometimes be harsh and critical it is the same with nature.  We have good and bad days, sunny skies and rain.  We all share this with one another and it will always be so.  We will always be connected in this respect and so we must embrace the diversity.

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