Published: March 20th 2010December 9th 2009
I have to return to Joburg as I have some stuff stored in a hostel there, plus it's where my Europe-bound flight will depart from. With the 2010 World Cup draw now complete, the hostel owner says he is already fully booked for June and July of next year. I wonder who will come off worse in any run-ins between beered-up English football fans and Joburg's criminals.
This has been a strange ten months wandering through Africa. It's shown me how little I knew about the continent at the beginning of 2009, with much of what I did know being sweeping generalisations ignoring the differences to be found between 50-odd countries, thousands of "people groups", and an estimated 2,000 languages. Based on media coverage, it's easy to think of Africa as a large amorphous blob on the other side of the Mediterranean, with news coverage falling into a small set of broad themes, such as poverty, famine, HIV/AIDS, and civil war. Success stories tend to be patronising ones celebrating projects of such low levels of ambition that, by Western standards, it's a wonder they're reported at all.
Having said that, much of what follows will be an attempt to summarise my experiences across a slice of those disparate nations, peoples, and cultures. With my trip beginning in a country geographically African but really Middle Eastern, finishing in one that smacked of Northern Europe, and going via one that culturally felt more like Southeast Asia, I need hardly state that there are exceptions to every all-encompassing statement that I'll subsequently make.
From a travelling point of view, there were a couple of stand-out differences between this trip and my previous ones in other parts of the world. The first was the lack of other long-term travellers. Egypt had plenty of tourists but mainly in groups, there were a couple of traveller hotspots further south (such as Kampala and Nkhata Bay), and southern Africa was awash with holidaymakers, but I hardly met any long-term travellers. This was surprising and disappointing.
Not that there was a shortage of foreigners, but the vast majority of those I encountered were either living or working in Africa, the lion's share employed by aid agencies. Their stories all had a healthy dose of motivation, generally coupled with initial optimism, but then followed by a worrying slide into frustration if not outright cynicism.
More depressing, though, was the low volume of interactions I had with local people. There were regional variations - the Sudanese, Malawians, and Swazi were notably chatty and hospitable, Egypt, Kenya, and Tanzania were home to legions of touts who effectively prevented me getting any idea of how "normal" people behave in their lands, and Rwandans seemed happy to ignore me - but, flicking back through my journal, it's noticeable what a dearth of random conversations I had. I wonder if my own travelling ennui manifested itself in my body language more than I realised.
A frustrating aspect of the interactions I did have was the pigeonholing that went along with being a white foreigner. I've been to other parts of the world where I was clearly an interloper, such as Southeast Asia, but people there seemed to understand that there was a distinction between the English, Germans, Australians, etc. In Africa, though, especially East Africa, I was a generic foreigner. If people said there was "someone like you" in the town, they didn't mean an English person, or a 6'3" man, or a traveller, or a computer programmer, or someone who likes cats - they meant a white guy. It's bad enough having "English" as one of the simplest labels that can be pinned on me, with its connotations of lager loutishness, bad teeth, and an addiction to tea, but at least it also suggests that I can speak English, I know something about the Premier League, and my sense of humour is not non-existent. Being defined by "white", though seemingly carrying with it suggestions of being "rich" and "educated", says nothing about me except that I need SPF30 on a sunny day. Maybe there's also a sense of indignation at the insignificance of being just one of the billion or so whities on the planet.
From a purely touristy point of view, my favourite parts of the trip were the historical sites of Egypt (long dreamed of, and fortunately not spoiled by the Olympic-standard hassle every step of the way), going on safari in the Masai Mara, the photographer/lazy man's paradise of Ilha de Mocambique, the wildlife of Madagascar, and the stunning landscapes of Sossusvlei.
Public transport, however, receives a big thumbs-down, being generally overcrowded, uncomfortable, and time-consuming - the roof rack would also appear to not have been invented/copied in many countries. Rwanda deserves a special mention for being an oasis of decent roads and scheduled departures. Food variations are few and far between, especially if you aren't enormously fond of meat, and if you see something interesting growing in a field then it's highly likely it's for export. Of course, you can usually find tourist-oriented restaurants but then you'll be paying tourist-oriented prices and experiencing no local atmosphere.
On a more practical level, in Africa a traveller has to constantly worry about access to money in a way I've never experienced before. On my trips in other parts of the world, I'd taken a few hundred $ as back-up but had rarely had to use them, as my Mastercard ATM card had sufficed. Such a policy failed miserably in Africa (see Dull but possibly useful info at end).
Due to limited interaction, I didn't get to the bottom of what the average African thinks of Westerners. With a history of colonialism in almost every African country, with aid workers no doubt the largest contingent of foreigners on the continent, and with the multi-millionaire footballers of the Premier League so popular, it's inevitable that Westerners all carry the tag of "rich". I've never been to an area of the world where I've been approached by so many people who appeared to be neither hungry nor ill yet brazenly requested money. However the wealth discrepancies are truly astounding. Half of Africa's population earns less than $1 per day, and even though $1 goes much further in Africa than it does in New York, it's still a pitifully small amount of money. A qualified doctor in Madagascar earns about $6 per day (something to bear in mind when you're tipping your guides) - with that as a "reward", it's a tough ask to persuade people of the benefits of an education. It's no exaggeration to say that a Westerner's pocket change represents riches in Africa.
Unfortunately that simplistic equation seems to have underpinned much of the West's aid policy to Africa - throw money at the problem and it will be solved. About $500 billion in aid has been given to Africa since World War II, a staggering figure when seen in the context that the standard of living in some African countries (a great example being the Democratic Republic of Congo) has actually fallen in that time. This approach has been flawed, with money being siphoned off by corrupt officials, or spent on pointless projects, or spent on useful projects but without adequate supervision - and a culture of dependency has arisen even around many of the better-managed affairs.
Of course, on some level, life for most Africans is no different to that of Westerners. People work, people get married, people have kids - the usual cycle that can be found in any society. There are moments of happiness, moments of sadness, moments of pain, pleasure, despair, and hope - all of these emotions can be felt regardless of your income, education, medical care, or access to electricity. People's lives revolve around their relationships whether they're Western or African or from any other part of the world. Guys talk about Manchester United and eye up passing totty, women chat at the market, kids play with a ball or a hoop.
As such, much of the "bad news" concerning Africa that appears in the Western media creates the wrong impression. Yes, there's immense poverty, and tales of starvation, disease, and civil war are tragically common, but the mass of Africans aren't dwelling on those issues - they're living their lives in the circumstances in which they find themselves. Much like people throughout the world. I guess the point I'm trying to get across here is that the enormous disparity with Westerners in terms of material possessions is a largely irrelevant difference. Life isn't necessarily a struggle if you don't have an iPhone.
It's unfortunate that the one aspect of the continent that is, if anything, underreported is the extent of corruption and abuse of power. This is the biggest problem facing Africa, one that has prevented development and meant that natural resources such as oil and gold have benefited a very small minority. A singular aspect of this problem is just how widespread it is.
One manifestation of this abuse of power is the suppression of democracy by any means possible. Many people in the US complained about 8 years of George W. Bush. In the UK, most people in their teens or younger have only known a Labour government. But this is nothing compared to the shelf life of African governments. In the first 30 years of the independence era, not one leader stood down as a result of being voted out. They either stayed in power without elections, with rigged elections, or with elections whose results were ignored. Failing that, they hand-picked their successors. Changes in a country's governing party have generally been effected by coups. Even Botswana, a country held up as a shining example of a multiparty democracy, has had essentially the same party in power for over four decades. Western-style democracy isn't necessarily a prerequisite for development, but the alternatives only work if the people in power have sufficiently good ideas that you wouldn't want to get rid of them anyway. That proviso does not cover the likes of, say, Robert Mugabe.
Corruption of course occurs all over the world but it's noteworthy that its detrimental impact can be seen in such a large proportion of African countries, and with such dire consequences for millions of lives. Even in South Africa, every day I was there brought new corruption/cronyism allegations in the newspapers. The complicity of foreign governments (Western, China, etc) and companies in the corruption - whether in explicit support or by turning a blind eye - suggests a permanence to this state of affairs that won't be eroded any time soon.
It's obviously highly presumptuous of someone to spend a few months wandering through a part of the world then think they can pontificate about it with any credibility, but surely that's the point in having a blog? That said, I don't think any of the above is exactly ground-breaking thought. From a travelling point of view, though, like elsewhere in the world, the behaviour of the governments is rarely a reflection of the behaviour of the majority of the governed - the hospitality I experienced in Sudan, say, being the opposite of their president's anti-Western feelings. People may in general have been quite reserved with me, but there were enough kindnesses along the way to throw the irritations (tout hassle in touristy areas being the worst) into sharp relief.
I feel that Africa came at a bad point in my travels, specifically when I was getting weary of being constantly on the road. As such, I don't think I was able to give the continent my full attention, with the result that my experience was not as fulfilling as it could have been - or indeed as my trips to other parts of the world had been. Africa taught me more about Africa than it taught me about myself, which is perhaps a sign that I've reached saturation point in life lessons and need some time for them now to sink in. I can't deny that being mugged on my South America trip also changed my outlook - even now, over a year on, that's still fresh in an oft-picked scab kind of way. But whatever regrets I may have about travelling through Africa this time, I know I can always return for a second dose. Especially as West Africa represents the largest contiguous land area I have yet to visit, outside of Antarctica.
However that's a trip for the future. Right now, I have an appointment with my sole sibling - in Paris. Dull but possibly useful info
On the subject of money, the countries I passed through can be summarised by the following: Egypt
- no problems in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan using my Mastercard ATM card. Sudan
- unless you have a local bank account, all ATMS are useless, plus you can't get credit card cash advances. In other words, you need to bring $. Changing is easy at either banks or on the street. Sudan is so safe (in the sense of crime rather than civil war) that carrying $ should not concern you. Ethiopia
- no problems in Addis Sheraton using my Mastercard ATM card. Saw a Visa ATM in Gondor but it was out of action. Was able to pay for a flight by credit card in Lalibela but not in Aksum. So unless you arrive in Addis first, you're probably going to need $. Ethiopia is fairly safe so should be no cause for alarm in carrying $. Kenya
- no ATMs in Moyale. I think there was one in Eldoret but I didn't try it. No problems using my Mastercard ATM card in Nairobi. Uganda
- no problems using my Mastercard ATM card in Kampala, Kisoro, or Fort Portal. I couldn't use it in Kabale. Rwanda
- ATMs don't accept foreign cards. Can get credit card cash advances in some banks. Hence you need $. Country is pretty safe. Burundi
- as for Rwanda Tanzania
- couldn't use my Mastercard ATM card in Kigoma (though I was able to get a Visa credit card cash advance there) but was successful in Dar and Arusha. Malawi
- couldn't use my Mastercard ATM card everywhere (e.g. Karonga, Mulanje). Generally I was fine if I could find a Standard Bank. However, in Malawi, the rate you get from (legal?) moneychangers is about 14% better than at the bank so, even though you can use ATMs, it's more fiscally sensible to change $ at a moneychanger. Mozambique
Could use my Mastercard ATM card everywhere. Swaziland
Could use my Mastercard ATM card everywhere. South Africa
Could use my Mastercard ATM card everywhere. Madagascar
Could use my Mastercard ATM card everywhere. Zimbabwe
The currency is now the $ - but check before you go. You can pay for goods in a variety of other currencies, but note that the South African rand rate is often given as 10 to 1 whereas in reality it's more like 7.5 to 1 so paying in rand will cost 33% more. Supermarkets are more likely to give you a rate closer to the correct one. Botswana
Couldn't use my Mastercard ATM card at any ATMs, but in Maun was able to withdraw money over the counter using it (there's a bit of form-filling required but that will be like the blink of an eye compared with the time you'll have to queue in order to initiate the transaction). Namibia
Could use my Mastercard ATM card everywhere.
I think that having a Visa ATM card is better than having a Mastercard ATM card, in general. You can replenish your stash of $ in any country where you can use an ATM. Spread for $ is usually small so you don't lose much by converting local currency to $ (though no doubt the rate you get from your bank when getting local currency from the ATM will include a commission).
Note that in ANY country you can get money sent via Western Union but this isn't cheap (similarly, even in places where you can get a credit card cash advance, you usually incur a commission plus whatever interest charges your credit card company wants to shaft you with.)
Accurate daily spend figures can be hard to come by so here are mine. These should be viewed in the context of a single traveller with a chocolate and pie addiction staying in a private room. Egypt
$24 (low because there's not much to do there that involves spending money, plus in many towns the only accommodation is in dorms) Ethiopia
$54 (inflated because I went on safari) Uganda
$37 (cheaper than this would indicate but I went on safari there) Rwanda
$35 (expensive - I did nothing in Rwanda) Burundi
$40 (expensive - I did nothing in Burundi) Tanzania
$71 (inflated because I went on safari) Malawi
$54 South Africa
$115 (includes seriously vast amounts of eating/drinking) Madagascar
$70 (inflated because of Okavango Delta trip) Namibia
$98 (inflated because of Sossusvlei trip)