Congratulations on completing the 2009 Tour d’Afrique! Quite an accomplishment. I am so envious. I wish I were with you.
Instead I have had almost two months to readjust to a world not dominated by rolling on two wheels for hours on end; a small cubby hole in the truck to hold all one’s gear; daily tent assembly and disassembly; rider meetings; and James’s cooking. Two months to readjust. Be prepared, it will take that long or longer.
Perhaps you will find the world you return to as Jean-Paul Sartre said in his book Nausea: “Nothing has changed and yet everything exists in a different way.”
If you are like me, you will struggle to find meaning to what you experienced as you traveled across Africa. A colleague here at the University recently asked me “what significant incite (or is it insight – or both?) did you gain from your trip, especially as it pertains to your work?” I stammered a bit and realized I had real trouble articulating what I had gained that is of value to me and to the University I work for. It is there, but not easy to articulate. It is easy to say it was a great experience, that I met a lot of nice people and saw a huge diversity of agriculture. But that seems less than the full story. Perhaps I just need more time to digest the experience. Perhaps, if I don’t make the effort, I won’t take the time to fully digest the experience. I should take the time to make the effort, and so should you. (Some who read this will get ruffled about me ‘shoulding’ other people. I do too much of that.)
So how does one narrow down an experience of riding a bicycle across Africa to a three to five minute sound bit (or is it bite?) that will hold the attention of someone who routinely hears too many sound bits to care?
How does one convey convoying out of Cairo;
swimming by pipelines and oil rigs on the Red Sea;
Randy demonstrating how to ‘hit the hole’ or duct taping the tender ass;
John belly dancing with the belly dancers;
the Muslim call to prayer in Idfu;
the beauty of squat toilets;
an astronomy lesson from Werner;
the majestic Nile and the people dependent on it;
boxes of Hostess delights being loaded on the boat on Lake Nassar;
the sands of the Sahara and camel corps;
the Lonely Planet teams;
convoying into Khartoum;
the brothel shower at Metema;
Ethiopian stones and sticks;
the grandeur of the climb into Gondor, and Lloyd – need I say more;
the smell of Frangipangi (Plumeria);
the taste of Maracuya (passion fruit – Passiflora edulis);
piles of teff yet to be threshed by circulating, muzzled oxen;
mango-avocado-papaya juicies in Bahir Dar;
the ancient terracing at Konso,
the Kenyan lava rocks in the rain;
violent diarrhea and vomiting and not knowing which will come first, then next;
the stars when no other light exists;
the sounds when it is only you and miles of road in either direction;
the corrugated gravel roads north of Isiolo;
and this is called the Trans-African Highway!;
baboon poop and Claire’s tent;
vast fields of wheat in the Kenyan highlands;
Wilson, my favorite fruit (behind passion fruit);
the Maasai cattle herders;
the snows of Kilimanjaro in the clouds;
Indaba and the Indaba staff;
the white board and riders’ meetings;
‘five minutes to start time’ followed by ‘the lunch truck leaves in three minutes’;
‘last call for dinner’ and ‘open kitchen’;
the departure of Andrew;
the endurance of Craig – ‘the ole’ man’ who truly rules;
the stamina of Allan and Taryn;
Nick wanting to dance with the bride;
Nick riding the morning after;
the iron will of Lone Star, the Queen;
Anne leading the peloton into lunch;
another flat; a broken stem; a broken arm;
Carola – the flat queen – or was it Anna?;
the ‘skinny-ass tire club’;
the three Cans – Hinchie, Frankie, and Svend – and Hinchie in a thong;
‘gloves off before you eat lunch’;
orange tape marking the route;
orange tape on a kid’s head running down the wrong path;
donkey love (or lust) in the kitchen and Wimpie with the shovel;
foods such as falafel, biltong, bobotie, Mopani worms, njera, and fufu;
James the chef, and James’s ability to keep us well fed;
and the full moon tonight over Table Mountain?
So, sum it up Paul, what did you learn? About myself I learned I can persevere. I can push, hard. Maybe I know when to quite. Maybe not. I know how to be quiet, perhaps less so when to stay quiet and when to speak up. I am a fairly slow learner. I know sincerity, integrity, honesty, and humility are virtues. I know I am not always virtuous, but I try and tri. I know agriculture somewhat better than my fellow riders, but they are quick learners. So was it a goat or a sheep?
I saw acts of humanity toward me from fellow TDA riders and from the many Africans we passed. I am, however, growing more apprehensive for our collective future because I see what we are doing to our land, water and air. Farming is hard on the land, water, and air. I saw a lot of farming and a lot of people. Literally millions of people. They all eat. We, as in the ‘all-you-all’ Southern sense, are hard on our land, water, and air. Africa is not all desert, savannah, rainforests, mountains and wildlife. It is full of people, more full each passing second. Many people are poor and starving. There is reason for concern, and action – better, more efficient and effective action than in the past.
I went to a ‘Minnesota premiere’ of a movie earlier this week that tries to make meaning of aid organizations in Africa. WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? is a documentary film that explores why the charity given to Africa over the last five decades has been largely ineffective and often harmful. It chronicles the thoughts of three brothers and a cousin as they traveled from Cairo to Cape Town by public transport over a six month period. Very poignant and well done. Learn more about the film and see excerpts at: http://www.whatarewedoinghere.net/ The film is not all that upbeat, and it screams for more efficient action than in the past. At the end of the film there was a question and answer session. I so wanted to raise my hand and tell the joke I had heard while on the ride: In most any African language there is a new word – spelled ‘ngo’, pronounced ‘ngo’. It means essentially worthless. This need not be true, and we have all seen good NGOs. Fortunately I was wise enough not to recite the joke to that movie audience.
I liked how one sectional rider (Robin Stott, who was born in Kenya and is retiring from a long successful medical career in England) stated it: “I am optimistic in spirit, but intellectually a pessimist.” Harvey Milk (former county commissioner in San Francisco) learned – after several election defeats – that you’ve got to give them (the people) hope. Well, after having been through Africa over a 30 year span, I still have hope for the continent and its people. We will learn. We are learning, but still have a long way to go.
About the same time that my colleague asked me about my insight from the bicycling experience in Africa I came across an article in Nature (Volume 458:837, 16 April 2009) of an interview with author Tom Wolfe. In the article Wolfe uses the term ‘gnostic’ as referring to someone who has had a revelation and is convinced of seeing things the rest of us can’t see. ‘Gnosis’ is the Greek term for knowledge. Most of us have heard of agnostic – not knowing (whether or not God exists). Gnostics know! – something anyway.
So perhaps that is it: you – my fellow TDA riders – and I are gnostic. We have seen things and experienced things others haven’t and/or can’t see. Perhaps it is not unusual that I still struggle in attempting to convey what important lessons can be learned from the TDA experience. I know I have hope for Africa and the people of Africa, but it is hard to explain why other than to say I am optimistic in spirit. While in Africa I met lots of people optimistic in spirit. By and large you TDA riders are all optimistic in spirit – otherwise it would have been darn hard to mount the bike day after day after day. That is one good reason (in addition to learning and teaching about agriculture…) for me to return for the second half of the 2010TDA ride.
OK, enough seemingly disjointed ramblings. Please keep in touch and contact me if you can assist in helping make sense of it all.
Congratulations again for your arrival in Cape Town. All the best in your return and readjustment to a world what will exist in a different way.