Friday, November 25, 2011

Cycling the dirt road to Mbeya

These days if I were cycling through Africa, I would probably have an Android phone and I could connect to the internet almost everywhere. The resolution on google maps has gotten so good as well. In Tanzania you can zoom in and see the individual trees. It's hard to explain to people that all those things weren't available just a few short years ago. Instead, what I had was a scrap of paper with the following towns listed on it: Kigali, Nzega, Tabora, Mbeya.

I was surprised, when I reached Nzega, to learn that the road to Mbeya through Tabora was a dirt road. There are two main reasons to avoid dirt roads. First of all, when you're remote, there is less help around if you run into trouble or get robbed by bandits. Second, the road could be bumpy or sandy. But there was no internet in Nzega, so I wasn't sure what the other roads were like. And you stand at the end of the tar and stare into the distance and maybe the road looks solid and smooth but there are 700 kilometers until the other side and it's a gamble. And perhaps that's a metaphor for life. So you start off down the lonely dirt road.

And it is lonely. There are few people and fewer still who speak English. The first few hundred kilometers on either side have bus service, but I don't think there are any buses which go all the way through. At times, I'd arrive in a village and have to resort to sign language to find something to eat. Children are better than adults at sign language. Adults just stare at you sullenly and refuse to participate in your game of charades.

It's a surreal thing to cycle on and on, alone. It's just a series of disconnected events that have no meaning or story or sometimes don't make sense. Like the abandoned construction site, way out in the middle of noplace, where a mad homeless man lives by himself. Or the village with the megaphones set up on poles which blare the sound of a child and a woman weeping. And you cycle on from there until you catch up with a man carrying his four year old daughter on the back of his bike. And she keeps falling asleep and almost falling off until eventually he secures her on with a piece of cloth. She doesn't look sick, it just the rhythm of it putting her to sleepy. You can't talk to him, but it's companionable to cycle on and on together with him and his sleeping daughter until it's after dark and you reach the next village.

Traveling that is a dream like thing. And it does infect your dreams eventually. Sometimes I dream I'm cycling through the forest and there are woolie mammoths chasing after me. Or sometimes I'm exploring a city made of white stone by the ocean. Or sometimes I dream that I'm just a small dot crawling slowly across a big map.

My favorite part of this section was the bike paths. There were long bike paths to avoid the sandy or bumpy bits of the road. You could travel for twenty kilometers with just occasional glimpses of the road here and there. When you're cycling on the road, you're constantly looking up ahead and counting kilometers. It is a fun change to go barreling through the trails in the forest. Or through the fields and through the villages, scattering the chickens with a flurry of feathers and clucking.

Then on the last day you climb and climb until you are get to the crest of mountain range. There is a constant breeze here and someone has made a windmill using the old side panels from a car. You can see the city laid out far below you in the valley. You look out and you can see for miles and miles until everything is fuzzy and blue.

You want to savour the moment. To breath it in. You know that soon you'll be racing down the hill and you'll never be back, to this place and this glorious view. Then you get back on your bike and you follow the road, but instead of going down it keeps on following the the mountain ridge, up and up and up. And each new view is amazing and wonderful. Then the road goes behind the back of the mountain again and you cycle up and up and up. Until at last you reach the very tippy top where the radio antennas are. There is a sign which tells you that you're on the highest road in all of Tanzania.

And the view from there is ok and you feel slightly guilty because you're too tired and don't actually care. So you coast downhill into Mbeya.

Friday, July 15, 2011


All my pictures from this point in my trip were destroyed by hardware failure so here is an unrelated picture from Ethiopia of a guy plowing.

Rwanda has the highest population density of any country in Africa. It's to the point where they can't feed themselves and they don't have minerals that they could sell for food. But then you cross the river into Tanzania and there is just empty forest for miles and miles.

It turns out there are bandits in the forest. The young soldier told me this when I went through the road block. They like to rob people bringing stuff from the coast to Rwanda. It's quite hilly and the bandits attack the lorries when they are moving slowly up the hills.

I'm not an idiot, so I obviously told him that in the light of the bandit situation, perhaps I should take the bus. But the soldier told me, "No no. You'll be fine. I'm just saying that if you see anyone with an AK, then if he's wearing a uniform, that's a police man. He's your friend. But if you see someone with a gun and he's not wearing a uniform, be very careful with him because that's a bandit." He smiled cheerfully, and waved me on through.

I would have taken the bus despite his reassurances but I couldn't afford it. Someone had written on their blog that there were ATMs as soon as you got into Tanzania, but I had taken it too literally and not changed enough money at the border. I had less than $10 in local currency on me.

The good news was that the government of Tanzania evidently was serious about dealing with the bandit problem. I was passed two times by a police patrol. They were in a pickup truck. There were four skinny guys with AKs at each corner and a fat guy in the middle with a high calibre mounted machine gun. They all had uniforms on, so I knew they were my friends.

It was about 80 km to the next town. There was no bank, so I decided to press on. I asked the policeman at the road block if the next section was safe. He had to think about it for a minute before he answered me. Finally he smiled and told me, "Well, you've come from that side; this side is exactly the same. You'll be fine!"

Monday, July 11, 2011


Rwanda is a small country and I don't have many stories from the place. But I feel like I should write something. So I've just cut and pasted a bunch of stuff from Wikipedia. Even today's picture is from Wikipedia.

The story of Rwanda has to start with the Hutus and Tutsis and the genocide.

Back in the ancient times, if you had ten cows then you were a Tutsi otherwise you were a Hutu. If you were a Hutu but you somehow collected ten cows, then you became a Tutsi. There were lots of poor people and fewer wealthy. Sometimes wealthy people married poor people although mostly they married from their own circle. The king was obviously a Tutsi and the country was run by the wealthy.

When the colonists--the Germans and Belgians--arrived, they thought the Tutsis had longer noses and paler skin. In other words, the wealthy people were sort of white-ish. There was an Atlantis type myth at the time about a tribe of white people living in the heart of Africa. The early colonists thought maybe the Tutsis were descended from that white tribe.

The problem is you couldn't tell Hutus and Tutsis apart just by looking at them. In fact, if you take away their cows, it's almost impossible to tell the difference. They don't have any language or cultural differences, for example. These days scientists are doing DNA research to settle once and for all the debate whether there even is a difference, perhaps at the microscopic level. It might be that scientists discover it's something similar to England where some people are more Norman and some are more Anglo Saxon. But for now lets just say they're exactly the same.

Initially the colonials tried to tell the Hutus and Tutsis apart my measuring their noses but that failed. So eventually they just just gave everyone an ID card which said what race they were. In the new system it didn't matter how many cows you had, you kept your Tutsi or Hutu status. If you had a Tutsi ID card, that meant you could go to school or hold a position in the government. The colonials kept the same basic framework with a Tutsi king and Tutsi aristocracy and Hutus being conscripted for unpaid labour and so on.

I'm sure at first the Tutsis thought it was pretty cool to learn they were descended from a mysterious group of Atlanteans, but probably you've realized by now that this story is not going to end well. Historically it sucks to be an ethnic minority.

Up to World War II the Tutsis had all the money and power and the support of the Belgian colonists but after the war, things became progressively worse and worse for the Tutsis. Their king implemented reforms and programs of land and wealth redistribution. At independence, their king was replaced by a Hutu president. The president implemented a program of jobs redistribution. Under the new system having a Tutsi ID card mean your kids were kicked out of school to make room for for Hutu kids. Lots of Tutsis fled the country. Some fought back. Then the president was replaced by a military dictator who used the government controlled media to spew racist, anti-Tutsi propaganda and vowed to stamp out the Tutsi rebellions.

The whole situation festered for decades with Tutsi exiles funding small rebellions and worsening persecution for the Tutsis who remained. Then in the early 1990s it came to a head.

The population in Uganda was tired of playing host to the Tutsi exiles and they were jealous of the Tutsi wealth. But the exiles had played an influential part in the Ugandan Bush War and the president of Uganda owed them a favour. Plus it would be good to have an ally in charge of the neighbouring country. So one night all the Rwandan soldiers in the Ugandan army mysteriously ran off into the forest and went home to fight for freedom.

France, on the other hand, armed and supported the Hutus. Rwanda was a French speaking country and the Tutsis had been gone so long they now spoke English. The question was raised, could you even consider them Rwandan if they had forgotten the language? Non.

The war intensified until eventually the Hutu dictator was forced to sign a cease fire and form a power sharing government. Then almost a year later his plane was shot with a missile and he died. No one knows who did it. The Tutsis say it was Hutu extremists and the Hutus together with France say it was the Tutsis.

The next day the voice on the radio said it was Tutsis who did this. Kill them all. About 10% of Rwanda is Tutsi. In the next three months the Hutus butchered between 10% and 20% of the Rwandan population. If you had a Tutsi ID card you died. If you were friends with a Tutsi then you died. If your nose was too long, then you died.

The corpses floated down the rivers into Lake Victoria where the Nile perch grew especially fat that year.

With the start of the genocide, the Tutsi rebel army went again to war. Led by Paul Kagame they captured the capital and the country and finally chased the Hutu army into Congo. They ended the genocide.

These days Rwanda is peaceful. The remnants of the Hutu army is still out there in eastern Congo but they're not powerful enough any more to pose a serious threat to the government.

Paul Kagame is the president now. He's a thin man with glasses and ears that stick out. He's always on twitter arguing with journalists. It's easy to forget that he was the general of a rebel army, but people say he's a bit of a tyrant. He doesn't like when the refugees from the Congo have protests. Some opposition politicians have ended up in jail for being racist. He's apparently not a big fan of press freedom.

But everyone acknowledges that he is a genius as well. He has curbed government corruption. He has implemented various reforms to help the poor. He has built infrastructure. He has cut government red tape and made it easier to run a business. When it comes time for elections, he has to fake some votes for his opposition because foreign investors who haven't lived their whole life in a warzone don't believe you can get over 90% of the vote without cheating.

I very much enjoyed my time in the Rwanda. It's a beautiful place. And clean. You aren't allowed to bring plastic bags into the country. They're very strict about litter. The people are likewise exceptionally beautiful. The food is good. The roads are good. The drivers are law abiding and considerate. It's hilly and rainy and green.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The photo is a hotel from Ethiopia but this story is from Rwanda.

The front of the hotel had a small restaurant, but there was no one around. I dragged my bicycle through to the open area in the back and called out for the receptionist. After a minute a woman arrived and I asked her how much it was for the night. She looked confused.

I studied French in high school. You know how French has those gender things, right? Perhaps I had gotten one of them wrong. Nothing offends French speakers more than grammatical errors. Or perhaps it was her French that was bad. The genocide made people flee to countries that don't speak French. The country is officially transitioning to English. The kids who graduate from high school after 2020 are supposed to known English.

Regardless, I try again slowly and distinctly, "How. Much. Is. It. Per. Night?" This time she tells me to wait here while she goes to get the person in charge. When the next lady arrives, I'm still in my slow and distinct mode of communication. "How. Much. Are. Your. Rooms?"

"Oh. You want the hotel. That's next door."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mortuary man

“Let's go! I want to show you those dead people.” The man talking to me is clearly stoned. He has to take a break between each sentence to gather his thoughts. He leans against the wall drunkenly for support.

“I work at the mortuary,” he assures me. “When the bodies come in, I get the coins” He looks at me, evaluating. “Pickpocket you.” He pauses. “Yes, and take your shoes.”

For the previous ten minutes, he has been asking me over and over for $0.25. But now he is settling in for the long haul. “You never know,” he beams optimistically. “You could die tomorrow. Only God knows that.”

He is wearing a blue hoodie. It is threadbare in places and layered over with grime. There is a plastic water bottle stuffed down one sleeve. Curious, I ask him whether his bottle has glue or embalming fluid. He covers his nose and mouth in his sleeve and huffs. It is embalming fluid.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


I guess the reason I stopped writing these stories is that all my pictures from Rwanda, Tanzania and most of Malawi were destroyed by a hardware failure. I'll try write up some entries sans photos though. Maybe I'll just post pictures of flowers that I took along the way.

A couple weeks ago, the rest of my pictures were almost lost as well. Thieves broke into my hotel room while I was at supper. They took pretty much everything except my clothes and my backup harddrive. They stole my camera, laptop, phone, ATM card, passport, and money. But those things are easy to replace. I already have a new passport.

I am in Naivasha, Kenya now. Most days I hang out at a barber shop nearby. I like chatting with people there.

The barber shop also charges cell phone batteries for people without electricity in their homes. The other day a lady came by with a new LED flash light still in the box. She asked how much it would cost to charge it (25 cents). She started to take it out of the box, but then decided to take it home first. She wanted to pray over the flashlight and to ask God to bless it.

After she left, the barber told me she was going to use the flashlight to raise broiler chickens. Broilers need a light on at night to keep them awake. Those things have to eat day and night. They eat a lot. People often underestimate how expensive it is to feed them and are forced to sell them at a loss before they're fully grown.

Life is full of everything. We all pray for God's blessing on us.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Christmas 2010

I'm in Uganda at the moment.

Dad came up here to spend Christmas with the grandkids. Mum couldn't make it because they have a limited travel budget and she's planning to travel to the States next year.

Anyway, Grandpa Bob (as he is known around here) was remarking to me that the grandkids made out a great deal better than we did in Zambia. I turns out I was already aware of this. Because I remember what it was like growing up in Zambia. Because I was there.

We had almost no toys at all. My favorite toy was a prize from sports day. I always came dead last on the real races but I did OK on the novelty races like the Egg Race. For the Egg Race, you have a spoon in each hand and you balance a hard boiled egg in each spoon. First you race 100 meters without dropping the eggs, then you eat the eggs, and finally you work up enough saliva to the point where you can whistle. The third place finisher gets a Knot Twitch String.

Basically imagine if you took a jump rope and chopped it in half and then tied a wooden bead to the frayed end. The game was that you held the handle so the bead was hanging motionless, then you gave it a very specific kind of twitch and the bead would jump up and loop around and form a knot in the string on the way down. I got to the point where I could make seventeen knots in a row. After that the rope was too short and knotted, so the bead didn't jump properly and you had to stop to untie it.

Jason's kids are too young for a Knot Twitch String but maybe that can be their Christmas present in a couple years.

The picture is of Grandpa Bob and a grandchild at Lake Nabugabo. We went camping. I hope you enjoyed the holidays as much as I did.