Our privileged network through Africa
Updated: Nov 3, 2019
It was in the fairy-tale-like bubble of little Oxford in the land of the North, that an idea to journey home through Africa – and to what I had learnt to be known as part of the “Global South” – was sparked. Queen Elizabeth House, where I did my MSC in Economics for Development, is a hub of wonderful people doing interesting work for development in Africa. As wide-eyed students, passionate about development we heard data-backed stories of poor people’s lives being dramatically improved - or sometimes not - by a myriad of development initiatives. I’d seen poverty and hardship in South Africa and other parts of Africa too. But I’d also come to know many “poor” African people as strong, full of wisdom and hope. Many lead lives that are beautiful in some aspects that ours in the “Global North” are not. I wanted to meet more people living in low income communities and hear their side of the story. And so my brother and I decided to spend a year cycling from Cairo back home to South Africa. And, luckily, some friends decided to join.
Why ride a bicycle? We grew up with cycling being a natural way to experience a new area. It’s slow enough to properly get the feel of a place. Slow enough to hear different perspectives from people in the same area. Doing it on a small budget means shopping for food, finding water and making cooking fires in the same places as the locals. This allows for a very special connection with people along the way. With the decision made, the planning began. It was when we had a list of the countries we would pass through, that the breadth of the Oxford network fully sank in. I could write at least one person’s name next to each country on the list. This network has been a great blessing throughout the trip: granting us connections with people doing development work on our way, warm hugs from friends far away from home, and very kind hospitality.
Most of the planning completed, in January this year, we found ourselves in Cairo – a music student and three fresh graduates of engineering, landscape architecture and development economics – about to embark on a journey home. We assembled our bicycles in the airport lobby. Looked out the window to see which side the traffic was driving on and then fixed our rear-view mirrors on the left-hand side of our handlebars. We pushed the first peddles of a journey that would be about so much more than the bicycles. People who don’t know Africa often ask, “But, is it safe? Aren’t you scared?”. We were scared that first day. Navigating the broad roads in Egypt’s giant capital is nerve wracking. We felt small cycling on the system of massive highways with fast flowing traffic. There aren’t bicycle lanes, like in Oxford. Unused to the weight, I nearly toppled a few times. Safe at last, we found ourselves at the entrance of a friend’s friend’s apartment. Crossing those highways in Cairo remain the least safe I’ve felt on the journey thus far.
Our first host – with her motherly warmth, genuine generosity and pride for her culture – gave us an early glimpse of type of people we would be meeting all the way home. These people would make us feel safe and at home when home was very far away. They would share with us many of the simple joys of life. It wasn’t completely unexpected that Heba, our host, was so so wonderful – if the only other Egyptian I knew was anything to go by. Selim grew up in Egypt and was a class mate at Oxford. When I told him about the plan to cycle through Egypt, he first told me I was mad (as did many other Egyptians we subsequently met), and then invited me for coffee to help with our route and tell me, with great excitement, about the wonderful history and culture of Egypt. Unfortunately, we were pretty much the only tourists visiting some of the ancient and deeply spiritual places he had suggested. Egypt has seen a dramatic decline in tourism as the threat of terrorism has been seemingly exaggerated in the media.
Consequently, as we soon became familiar with, a special Tourism Police Unit exists to ensure the safety of foreigners. For cycle tourists, this means driven behind at snail’s pace as we go about our business. Having experienced how friendly the locals were before we bumped into the police – who were naturally reluctant for us to waste their time stopping to chat with locals on the road – it became a game to find the back roads to avoid the police. This took us on donkey cart tracks along the canals feeding off the Nile, the ancient life blood of the country.
We cycled past families sitting on canal banks, eating delicious meals straight from their own farm. We were invited into homes where we saw the strong hands of loving mothers and grandmothers and sisters prepare the food. I vividly remember watching a grandfather on his veranda, looking lovingly at his grandchild on his knee. I remember marvelling at the wealth that these people have, these people who have been told that they are poor by one development agency after another, struck me. A wealth of time to be with loved ones. To really be there, their thoughts focused on nothing but that present moment.
We have come to know this wealth of time ourselves over the year. Not that we aren’t busy. Most often our hands are busy on the handlebars. Sometimes they prepare food. Sometimes they shake hands. Because that is where they need to be that moment, we don’t have to worry about what needs to happen next or what has happened before. We can enjoy the sounds of the birds around us. The breath-taking view over mountain tops in Ethiopia, the sparkling blue of lake Malawi, the glint in a clever child’s eye. When it is time to stop for lunch, we know there will be a village nearby. There will be wholesome food and an understanding restaurant owner who doesn’t mind us dirty cyclists exploding (ontploffing, as we’ve come to call it) all over her clean tables. If she doesn’t have something we are looking for, she will ask the restaurant next door to bring it over. Of course, life is much easier for us than many people we have met along the way. We have cash to meet our basic needs and more in the bank if something goes horribly wrong. This simple way of living is an impermanent phase. Yet there is this beautiful middle ground we have found between meeting our needs and living away from fast-paced consumerism. I so wish that both rich and poor could find some of the joy we have in this in-between-space.
One of the first meaningful conversations we had about development was with the farmer we stayed with in Luxor, Egypt. Ashraf offers his services as an agricultural consultant for free to those who cannot afford them. He taught us many, many things in the few days we spent with him. Two stuck out. First, farming brings him and those around him true joy. The loving interaction he has with his plants is something he thinks everyone in the world would benefit from – “even Barak Obama”, he told us. Second, development organisations need to listen before they do. Three years are enough to understand the complexity of a community before they can try and help, Ashraf reckons. Otherwise the consequences are quite often disastrous.
With his refreshing insights and zest for life in our hearts, we cycled on to Aswan. Here, for the first time we meet Black Africans, descendants of ancient Nubia. Since 2000 BC the Nubian people have experienced periods of flourishment as an independent civilisation. They have also experienced complete devastation. Most recently, as they were forcefully removed to make way for the building of Lake Nasser. The young men we met in Aswan exemplified the strength of character and cultural pride that comes from such a history. Ali, an entrepreneur and tour guide, along with two of his friends took us riding on their camels over the sand dunes. A gift, he told us, for fellow Africans. They explained to us how sick people heal themselves by spending days submerged beneath the pure red-brown sand. We lay in the dunes, listening to music and trying to soak the goodness in.
We then crossed Lake Nasser on a ferry to arrive in Sudan. We had high expectations for this nation. Over iced coffee on a rare summer’s day on Banbury road, Sudanese Abdelrahman had told me that we’d only have one problem in Sudan. Too many people would invite us for food and rest. We did all put on weight in Sudan, but otherwise this problem only brought us joy (and once a bit of confusion as two families tried to host us in one small town). All the way from Wadi Halfa, where fisherman fed us their fresh catch and played us their music, to where we left Sudan for Ethiopia, people called us in for food and rest in their lovely clay homes.
Sunset rowing, music from the local Youtube star and fish for dinner from our friendly hosts
Hospitality in Sudan - beautiful homes, farms and people, water for everyone on the side of the desert road
Abdelrahman, a medical doctor and public policy graduate from Oxford, was out of the country when we arrived in Khartoum. He was busy with his work for an NGO that works to improve Sudanese policy, as a response to the governance challenges facing Sudan. Still, he phoned his family in Khartoum who welcomed me in for a week as I recovered from a lingering cold, spoiling me with their superb cooking and a quiet airconditioned space.
Abdelrahman’s father is a minister of health and kindly took me along to work one day. His colleagues patiently answered my questions and told me passionately of their successes in health care around the country. In the midst of political crisis, they are getting on with their good work. A family of health professionals, Abdelrahman’s sister introduced us to two exceptional medical students who are also women’s rights activists. We were privileged to spend an evening with two role model African youths – putting all their energy into making positive change for what they believe in. We left inspired by their ability to maintain the beauty of feminine gentleness while drawing on the depth of strength that all African women possess to activate changes in gender norms.
It was now March and Ethiopia was next. Addis Ababa was a destination for a rest stop, thanks to a wonderful friend from the MSC at Oxford, Emily Chai. Much needed after climbing from low and flat Sudan to the Ethiopian highlands. The landscape change brings greenery, mountain views and the best food we’d tasted thus far. A very strong culture, as well. It’s been kept alive by proud and brave Ethiopian who developed a state in 100 AD and maintained independence since then. We were spoilt with incense clouded coffee ceremonies every day – a perfect 9am break from the saddle. Between sensory experiences of coffee ceremonies and spicy njera, we were treated with moments of utter appreciation for the children who ran behind us pushing us up the hills our legs were too tired to push up on their own. The last hill up into Addis brought a glorious rain storm. We danced to keep warm with a restaurant owner under her tin roof where we’d parked the bikes to let the rain pass. We then descended into Addis where Emily welcomed us in to her home. She’d quit her corporate work to do something more meaningful and in line with her development studies. I have no doubt she is adding exceptional meaning to the Agricultural Transformation Agency where she works. Showing us around the quiet office where her colleagues were working hard on their desktops, she told us that this unit is renowned as the most efficient government operation in Ethiopia. And she is a senior project leader there. Go Em!
We delayed our departure from Addis when a shopkeeper we had come to know invited us to stay for the big Easter feast. Fully rested, we got on our bicycles and descended further down the escarpment and into the land Bantu people had migrated to and established themselves in three or four thousand years ago. We were welcomed to Kenya with steaming hot Ugali and Nyama (maize meal and meat) and the open happiness we are familiar with from the bantu people of South Africa.
A few months later, passing through Uganda and Tanzania, we found ourselves in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Two friends from the Standard Bank Chairman’s scholarship, Titus and Michael, both studied Finance and Law at Oxford and hail from this region. Titus has just started a legal practice in Nairobi and gave us the grand tour of Nairobi’s CBD and shared his excitement of new initiatives to encourage finance to flow to sustainable investment through the Kenyan central bank. Michael is working hard as a Lawyer in London but sent his best friend, Eric, to pick us up and take us on the four-hour car ride to the village they grew up in.
City touring with Titus, Michael's school and Michael's family in his garden
Michael’s old school is just like most others in Kenya. Not much more than desks, chairs and black boards. But it is beautifully situated overlooking the dry African landscape and the head teacher is making every effort to improve learning outcomes at the school. He proudly gestured to the charts on his office wall indicating the improvement in performance over the last few years. The years since he received the position. It used to be run by a missionary. It was a very good school back then, Eric tells us. But they left and so did the funding to keep the school in shape. The head teacher said we should greet the school children and issued instructions to gather them. They looked up at us, and us back at the sea of bright young bodies in their neat green uniforms. We were introduced as Michael and Eric’s friends, the two most disciplined pupils in their day. “That is why they are so successful now,” he says. Eric and the head teacher had a brief chat about starting an old boys club – an initiative to assist the school where possible with much needed resources. Then it was time to head home for lunch. Walking barefoot, as Eric said Michael had every day, we wound our way along a narrow footpath. We passed the giant fig tree that the two friends used to swing in after school. Passed the small mud brick houses where their neighbours lived and to the front door of a pale blue house where Michael’s mom wrapped us in her arms. She led us to her living room where a feast of traditional Kenyan food was waiting for us. Much of the produce was from her own garden. We video called Michael in his office in London. Afterwards, Michael said that it was the first time he’d been able to chat to his mom on video from London. This is something Robbie and I had been taking for granted as we show mom our happy faces and the scenery around us.
Two days later we cycled South East out of Nairobi, downhill but into the wind. We were lucky to be in the company of Tilman Graff, a friend from the rowing club at St Antony’s. A brilliant economics graduate, he is doing research on the interesting dynamics of cash grants in Kenya. It was a treat to cycle alongside him and hear his insights on the great potential cash grants have to empower people. We all spent the night on a classroom floor of a secondary school, kindly hosted and fed by the head teacher. We parted in the morning – us towards the Eastern Coastline and Tilman back to Nairobi.
As we neared the coast, we began to see the colourful veils of the Digo women. The Young boys running beneath the mango in their long white robes. The food becomes spicier. The Islamic influence originates from around 100AD as the locals established trade relations with Arabic people. The green leaved baobabs and coconut trees heavy with fruit piqued our excitement to reach the coast. And it was a real joy diving into the turquoise waves for the first time on Diani beach. We headed South from there and crossed the border into Tanzania where we met family and friends on Zanzibar for a half-way break from cycle touring. This is where Adam, another MSC classmate is doing his ODI fellowship. We had a wonderful catch up with him and heard about the interesting dynamics of the education ministry where he is doing his ODI fellowship. Zanzibar is aesthetically idyllic but marred with an ugly history as we saw visiting the Old Slave Market Museum. I think of the grandeur of the buildings in Oxford, built on unrecognised sweat of enslaved Africans. We chat about the unrecognised work of the Africans today. Those who keep the continent alive, with sweat and love for their families – in the fields, over the cooking pots, in the classrooms. Our recognition – congratulations from so many people we meet – for having a good time cycling down the continent seems so silly.
We missed Desmond Mushi in Dar es Salaam, a pity as it would have been a great privilege to be shown around by the founder of the African Economist and Masters graduate of Public Policy at Oxford. We cycled West, the sun setting a little later each day as we moved from the heat of the lowlands to cool temperatures in the mountains that flank Lake Malawi. Off the main road we did some of the most beautiful cycling on the continent. Often just us. Luckily it was beautiful and we met some friendly farmers along the way to buy food from because we could hardly manage more than 30km a day – walking both up and down some of the steep hills. And then, one day, the mountains gave way to a magical scene – the orange sun, low in the sky illuminating the great Lake Malawi, complete with the tranquil dugout fishing boats returning home after a long day out.
Seeing Lake Malawi for the first time, children on the beach on Saturday, view from home on the hill
Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa and the wonderful people living there are certainly the reason. The high population density, intensified by the migration from surrounding less stable countries, makes life difficult. Charcoal is often the only way to cook food and for those who make it, to earn a meager income. The once forested land looks barren. There is a sense of hopelessness and severe hardship as we travel through rural areas. As everywhere where one finds despair, there are creative, enthusiastic people instilling hope. Permaculture (a sustainable agricultural method) is the channel for passion for change. A friend of a friend invited me to a permaculture WhatsApp group for Malawians active in spreading the practice. The group is incredibly active with pictures of training events, advice on which natural pesticides and fertilizers work best and complete enthusiasm for sustainable development in Malawi. There is still much frustration with the government for not doing more and we were in Lilongwe as protests were breaking out. Katerina Kuske, a classmate of Tilman in the Economic Department is completing her ODI fellowship in Lilongwe. With the same passion for development as the permaculture group, she shared her frustration at the efforts of the government to meet their people’s needs over an Ethiopian meal in the lovely suburbs of Lilongwe.
Now we are about to cross the border into South Africa. I've recently rejoined the trip after the Standard Bank Chairman's scholarship alumni conference in Ghana. The scholarship funds nine Masters students to Oxford, Cambridge and LSE each year. Each of the alumni are completely incredible and I could write a whole blog on each of them. But for now - just knowing them and what they are doing gives me complete faith that Africa is going to keep growing from strength to strength. Some friends from this network we weren’t able to connect with when we passed their home areas, but knowing the place that someone comes from is quite incredible for deepening a bond. I understand better what Munashe means when he says life is tough in Zimbabwe but people keep going. Hilary and I can chat excitedly about how beautiful the forests, hills and lakes of South Western Uganda are. Throughout the whole trip, we have seen so much and learnt so much – yet I feel I still know so little. What I do know for sure is that Africa is bursting with potential. I am part of a generation with greater qualifications than ever before. With worldly understandings and access to global knowledge. Yet, still, a deep connection with fellow Africans who haven’t had this privilege – and great will to be part of the energy that will shape the future of this magnificent continent. The journey has strengthened my belief in the innate goodness of people. And I hope of anyone reading this article. It has also been a big lesson on privilege. Privilege on so many levels – being able to take time, to travel, having connections at Oxford, having white skin in post-colonial Africa – but most importantly, being able to firmly believe that life truly is a beautiful gift.