``You're writing travel pieces?'' inquired the British-trained Zimbabwean university lecturer. ``It must be nice to spend so much time touring Africa. A sort of year-long holiday, eh?'' I paused. Somehow, I never quite thought of myself as writing travel pieces or touring Africa on holiday. Far too much time is spent repairing one's vehicle; trying to find petrol; dealing with bureaucracies; or waiting at borders.
But then, traversing the continent from Khartoum to Cape Town by Land Rover must seem romantic and sort of like a holiday to many people. As an American journalist who has lived and traveled most of his life abroad, reporting an ``African journey'' and researching a book has proven to be one of the most fascinating experiences so far.
Yet, more than one year and eight countries later, and with a few more months to go, it is also proving to be one of the most frustrating.
Crossing the badlands of Somalia accompanied by armed soldiers in case of bandits, or camping out in the open bush of southern Tanzania with lions lurking nearby may at times, as some suggest, reflect the romanticism of Isak Dinesen's ``Out of Africa.'' Yet trying to fathom the contemporary realities of this vast and extraordinarily diverse continent takes patience and concentration.
The more one sees of Africa, the less one understands. One finds oneself only dabbling -- scraping the surface. Africa requires total immersion. And, even if that were possible, it would not be enough.
Sitting in front of a log fire one long evening in the Malawi highlands, a European resident and former police officer reflected: ``I've lived in Africa almost all my life. You think you know it all. But then something happens and you realize you know nothing.''
Journalistically, spending two or three months in each country may seem an eternity as one travels south. Yet, one wonders how it was ever possible to write stories based on three days here or a week there -- if one is honest. Rare is the outsider, capable of fully grasping the African way of life.
``We just have to accept that Africans see things differently than in your country,'' noted Willy Musarurwa, former editor of the Sunday Mail in Harare, Zimbabwe, while discussing the role of government and news media in his country and others. Nevertheless, one tries to understand, to absorb as much as possible.
To an extent, the foreign reporter who has seen other parts of Africa has a certain advantage. Many Africans, whether black or white, often have little knowledge of their neighbors. Government efforts to restrict or filter information both at home and abroad are often the cause of such a lack of knowledge. Rarely is it a lack of interest or curiosity on the part of the Africans.
As a traveler, one is constantly questioned by villagers. Farmers, students, even police at road blocks question the newcomer about conditions throughout the continent. Sometimes they even ask about their own country: ``What's it like in country? How are we doing?''
Overall, however, one is confronting a society caught between two basic value systems: the European and the African. If one looks at either, in order to judge the other, one gets nowhere. Yet, not to judge at all invites chaos. A reporter should not stand by if governments, be they Ethiopian or South African, Tanzanian, or Malawian, abuse and repress their people.
On this trip, I have met with comparatively few politicians, the idea being to see as much of each nation and its people as possible: farmers, primary schoolteachers, urban laborers, nomads, missionarys, an astute woman ambassador representing her muslim country at the UN, and many others.
These are the people who must live under their governments' policies, and who are in the best position to see whether or not the system works. They can judge whether their lives are better -- and easier -- than before independence. They have a direct stake in the prosperity of their homelands and are the ones who have shown the most commitment.
One's assessment of many of those in power is necessarily harsh. No matter what the sytem -- scientific socialism, apartheid, humanism, freemarket, or other hybrids -- one often hears the complaint that leaders are out of touch, having entrenched themselves in power or allowed themselves to be shielded from every day realities.
``Those people who build a Berlin wall around the leadership are doing so because of vested interests. They want to make themselves indispensable. They will tell you [the leader] only what they want you to hear,'' said Mr. Musarurwa -- ousted from his editorship last year for not conforming to party line in Zimbabwe.
Other people, too, express resentment at the growing disparity they see between their lives and those who use power to enrich themselves.
Commenting in Moto magazine, a Zimbabwean socialist publication, on this growing gap, economist Belson Moyo argued:
``These kind of people cannot provide good leadership, because they cannot afford to lose power. Their jobs are the source of privileges they enjoy. So they will repress all opposition to their rule, to ensure that they perpetuate themselves in power.''
To disguise such actions, liberation, socialist, or -- in the case of South Africa -- apartheid propaganda is often used. The local press is muzzled and critics, depending on their political ideology, are branded as enemies of the state -- dissidents, terrorists, and rascists.
Yet, it is no easy task to gauge the mood of a country. In many places, people are hesitant to talk to strangers for fear of government or party reprisal. Often, too, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. Thus, careful probing without leading questions is best.
Traveling by vehicle has advantages. One can stop where one likes, leave the road, or head off to some distant mountain or farm. But one is only seeing the land as an outsider.
In some parts, such as Sudan, I have traveled by bus -- mixing with local people, pausing for tea at roadstops, and sometimes being honored with an invitation to the home of a new acquaintance. True African hospitality knows few bounds. But even unlimited hospitality bows to the inefficiencies of bus schedules and fixed itineraries -- if they exist at all.
Perhaps the only effective way to see Africa is to walk. ``This dual system of values goes right down to the roads,'' said a West Germany development manager coordinating rural enterprises in central Africa. ``The colonials are the ones who built the roads and communications sytems. But the true African highway is the footpath.''
Indeed, if one sets out along these paths, one encounters a different world: a world linked to old tribal customs -- the migrations and trade routes. One passes through villages, across farm plots, along rivers where women wash clothes, and before holy mountain caves, some decorated by centuries-old rock paintings.
Even then, much remains beyond understanding. David Lamb, journalist and author of ``The Africans,'' says: ``Africa is a continent of surprises; nothing is ever quite as it seems and nothing ever happens quite as it is supposed to.''