Wandering and Wondering

Sunday, September 16, 2007


The first leg of my overland adventure from Cape Town to Livingstone was relatively smooth going in African terms. We spent most of our time in Namibia, which seemed to be a relatively prosperous country with good roads and infrastructure. The second leg of our journey from Livingstone to Nairobi, however, has been a bit more of an adventure. To account for this, a new phrase has been added to our daily vocabulary on the truck: "this is Africa", or TIA for short. Whenever we run into a problem or crazy situation, the frustration can be reduced just by accepting that "this is Africa", so you can't expect things to be the same as you are used to in developed countries. Some examples:

- When a distance of 100km takes 5 hours to drive because instead of being flat, the road is a continuous series of bumps, rocks and potholes: TIA.


- When it takes minutes to call up a single web page on the Internet: TIA.

- When a minibus with 7 seats can hold 14 passengers: TIA.

Dhala Dhala

Fully loaded

- When everytime we park the truck in a town, we get at least several people trying to sell us all sorts of stuff we don't need or want: TIA.

Street vendors chase down a bus

- When your waiter at a restaurant can't understand English, even though it is a touristy restaurant with the menu in English, and after waiting for your meal for 40 minutes, you realise that he didn't even place your order: TIA.

Not that we complained too much - after all, this is what we came to Africa to experience. Looking back, these are the things you actually remember the most. Probably the funniest TIA moment of the whole trip was when we went to a restaurant for dinner at our campsite in Karatu. The restaurant itself looked really flash, with the waiter even bringing us hot towels to wash our hands before dinner, so we were a bit surprised by how cheap everything was on the menu. The cheese burger that Helen ordered, for instance, was only 3000 Tanzanian shillings, which is about AU$3. When the meals arrived, however, the cheese burger turned out to be just a bun with a big hunk of cheese and no meat. Needless to say, Helen was a bit disappointed. 30 seconds later, however, all the lights in the restaurant went out and we all burst into laughter, realizing that it was just another classic TIA moment.

Feeding starving kids in Africa

When I was a kid I was told not to waste food, because it could "feed a starving kid in Africa". Ironically, while travelling through Africa we have had the opportunity to donate some of the food that we can't eat to hungry kids in some of the villages we have passed through. Here is Mel dishing out some oranges to some kids in a village in Zambia:

Dishing out oranges

While we haven't seen any really severe poverty on this trip, there have certainly been lots of kids with their hands out begging for money. The amount of begging increases dramatically around touristy areas. Unfortunately, however, the people who are the pushiest in asking for handouts are often those who need them the least (eg after asking for money, you'll see them pull out their mobile phone or pack of cigarettes), and the people who are the neediest often don't ask for anything. My general policy is therefore to only give when nothing is asked for, although it can be hard to stick to this all the time.

One place where we were hounded quite a bit for money was at Kande Beach on Lake Malawi. As soon as you walked outside the gates of the campsite, you would be approached by someone trying to sell you something, whether it be a tour of the local village or a wood carving of some sort. You could usually determine quite easily if they were after your money, because they would introduce themselves with a name such as "Donald Duck" or "Julius Caesar". If you keep on walking away from the campsite, however, the people you meet are more genuine and aren't just after your money. I met Gloria on the beach doing some washing:


I discovered that she works for an orphanage named "We are one". She continued her washing while I was given a tour of the orphanage. I was then taken to the Kande Care School, which was setup 5 years ago as an NGO. The kids were having lunch when I arrived. They were very well behaved, and stacked their dirty plates in a pile when lunch was over:

Kids at Kande Care School

In giving the tour of the school and orphanage, they didn't once ask for any money, so I was happy to make a donation.

Even after travelling across Africa for 8 weeks, it is hard to fully appreciate the difference in the level of wealth between western tourists and local villagers. Sitting safely in the back of the truck and listening to my MP3 player as we drive through villages and farmland is quite surreal - almost like watching a documentary on TV, with the windows of the truck as the TV screen. It is only when we get the chance to visit the local villages on foot that the difference in the level of wealth becomes more apparent. While we were staying at Kande Beach on Lake Malawi, for instance, I decided to upgrade to a nice bungalow for a few nights, because I was a little bit sick of sleeping in a tent every night:

Beach Challets

Most of the locals in the nearby fishing village, however, live in simple mud brick houses and sleep on the floor every night, not just when camping:

Mud bricks make mud-brick houses

The fact that I could just whip out some cash to upgrade to a nicer room whenever I wanted made me appreciate how different my life is to the lives of the local villagers. Still, money isn't the be all and end all in life. Even though they don't have much money, they live a fairly simple life so they don't actually need that much money. And even though I may have had a nicer bungalow to sleep in, we still shared the same beautiful beach:

Sunrise, Lake Malawi

As a local, you also have the advantage of being able to buy stuff at much lower prices than tourists. National parks in particular are one area where tourists get stung a lot more than locals. The entrance fee to the Arusha National Park, for instance, is US$35 for tourists but only 1500 Tanzanian shillings (which equates to about US$1.20) for locals.

In most of the places that we have visited, the kids for the most part seem fairly happy and carefree. When you don't know any better, you don't have anything to complain about. Whenever we drove or walked past a group of people, it was pretty much always the kids who were the first to say hello ("jambo" in swahili). While on a 3 hour hike through the Usambara mountains, we must have heard "jambo" yelled at us over 1000 times. When driving past a group of kids in the truck, the kids always wave, and sometimes do a little dance:

Strike a pose

So although I did see a lot of people in Africa who are struggling to get by, I also saw a lot of people who are actually living quite happily.