Touched by Africa

Traveling across Africa has never been without its rigors. But no matter how gloomy the situation, this extraordinary continent and its people never fail to enthrall, amaze, and entice. Africa is a compelling land. Once you have been touched by its vast beauty and innocence, you can never let go.

For the great 19th-century explorers, penetrating the depths of Africa could hardly be described as anything less than mind boggling. Out of touch with their families and their more modern societies for months, even years, they faced the hostility of warring tribes and Arab slave traders, coupled with the hazards of dense bush, steamy swamps, and malaria.

As a reporter who recently completed a 20-month journey by Land-Rover across much of northeastern, eastern, central, and southern Africa, one does not wish to sound flippant, nor in any way belittle the perseverance of these intrepid latter-day voyagers. Yet the 20th-century itinerant may well wonder whether overland travel in Africa has really become easier.

A great deal has changed - but it is all relative. Today, civil wars, poor communications, fuel and spare-part shortages, banditry, corruption, and perhaps the most incapacitating of all, stifling government bureaucracies, have replaced some of the obstacles faced by past travelers. When all fails, one can only smile with resigned acceptance. ``A.W.A.,'' as the old hands say: ``Africa wins again.''

Setting out

The journey began two years ago amid the crowds and gunshots of Sudan's short, tumultuous April 1985 revolution that overthrew the military dictatorship of President Jaafar Nimeiry. From Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, American photojournalist Tala Skari and I traveled some 14,000 miles by road, a few thousand more by air, camping out in the bush, staying with families, house-sitting for friends, or putting up in hotels.

When possible, we set up a base, and from there undertook excursions. We spent weeks, sometimes months, in each country, encountering again and again examples of that patient, warm, and often carefree hospitality that characterizes so much of Africa today.

Only occasionally did we encounter real hostility. One had to avoid Nairobi streets at night or watch for panga (machete) gangs in regions on the East African coast. At one point, my companion was mugged in broad daylight while photographing an old German cemetery in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There were also confrontations - not unique to Africa - with border officials angling for bribes.

Scheduling: a lesson in futility

Our original plan was to spend 12 months trekking from north to south. Dutifully, and no doubt optimistically, I sent my editor, friends, and family a detailed timetable of arrival and departure dates stretching up and down the continent.

One quickly discovers, however, that timetables in Africa are open invitations to frustration. Governments and other ``outside elements'' have a nasty habit of throwing delays into the works of even the best-intentioned plans. Unable to enter South Africa because of visa problems, we were forced to abandon the journey in Zimbabwe, already a good six to eight months behind schedule.

Our failure to end the trip in South Africa was not entirely unexpected, given Pretoria's clampdown on the news media. Yet having come so far, one felt cheated. From Somalia to TanzaSwaziland, one could see only too well how South Africa, the continent's dominant economic, military, and political power, affects virtually every nation south of the Sahara desert. A firsthand view of both sides, one felt, was vital to understanding Africa today.

Flexibility is the key

To survive a journey through Africa, one has to be ready to alter plans, sometimes drastically, at a moment's notice. One friend, expecting to travel with us for 10 days from Dar es Salaam to Lilongwe, Malawi, ended up at a tea plantation in southern Tanzania where our vehicle had broken down. With no functioning telephone or telex, and desperate to return to the United States, he eventually wangled a ride to Dar es Salaam on a bush plane.

We waited six weeks for spare parts.

Taking the time to really see Africa

The idea of an African journey brought on a dilemma that confronts many journalists: the wise use of time.

I had already reported from different parts of the continent - Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola. More often than not, however, it was a matter of flying in from London or Geneva with only a few weeks available to cover a handful of countries - usually during crisis situations.

Somehow, I felt, I was never seeing Africa.

Too often, such whirlwind tours yielded a haze of impressions and inconclusive facts, leaving little time even to begin to understand a country and its people.

As one Sudanese friend dryly noted: ``You Westerners do not really care about who the African is or what he thinks. Your concern for famines or development programs is only a way of easing your guilt. You never make the effort to know who we are.''

By foot is best

Ideally, the only way to see Africa is by foot. For the rural African, distances are measured by the hours or days it takes to walk from one village to another. As a correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan, where most of one's reporting is by foot, I had long realized the advantages of traveling at the same pace as one's surroundings, stopping for chats with local farmers, sleeping in villages.

Walking from Khartoum to Cape Town was not particularly practical. The year at our disposal could provide little more than an essential overview. So we purchased a Land-Rover in London, packed camping gear, books, tape recorders, cameras, and computers, and set out.

Because of fuel shortages and civil war in southern Sudan, we shipped the vehicle directly to Kenya. From Khartoum, we used local transport and caught rides with relief vehicles to report on the 1985 coup and refugee situations along the border with Ethiopia. Not until we drove over land on our own did we begin to appreciate the vastness of this continent, and the logistics of cross-country travel.

On our itinerary, casually drafted in a Paris caf'e, we had planned to roll up through Somalia to Djibouti and then swing around through Ethiopia back down to Kenya. Not until we had studied the map and had our first taste of Somali roads did we realize this could well take four months. And even with 80 gallons of gasoline in our reserve tanks and extra cans, we faced problems. Somalia ran out of fuel and we barely got back to the Kenyan border.

Of villages and leaders

The journey only scraped the surface of Africa. Nevertheless, getting out from the capitals and into the villages provided a perspective that few foreigners, or Africans, for that matter, ever experience. Though residents tend to know their own country well, they often understand little of the conditions in neighboring nations.

Perhaps most pertinent is that one is repeatedly struck by just how out of touch African leaders are with their own people. The one-party dictatorship, whether in Kenya, Zambia, or most of the other countries visited, may provide for a certain degree of political stability. But few such governments tolerate any real criticism or political opposition. It is often at great personal risk that citizens can condemn, let alone throw out, self-serving and corrupt politicians. Sometimes, revolt is the only way.

Donor countries, too, are partly at fault for the oppressed lives of many of Africa's people. Many squander resources on totally inappropriate projects, or cater to corrupt and repressive regimes.

It is no news that much of Africa lies in a sorry state. Burgeoning population growth, inefficient economies, tribal conflicts, and political repression do not bode well for the future.

Room for hope

Nevertheless, there is room for hope. A new breed of educated and public-minded Africans seems to be emerging. Whether the young business manager in Nairobi, the British-trained horticulturist from Tanzania, or the agricultural extension worker in Zimbabwe, all were aware of Africa's challenges.

While the new Africans may be a mixed bag of free-market entrepreneurs and socialists, they at least seem genuinely concerned by the need for more responsible development. They also see the need for more inspired and selfless leadership, with policies better adapted to Africa's present conditions.

It may take a few generations for these Africans to put their house in order. But they are people to be supported as they choose for themselves what they want.

The previous articles in this series appeared on the following dates: May 24, 1985 May 31, 1985 June 11, 1985 July 8, 1985 July 29, 1985 Aug. 8, 1985 Aug. 26, 1985 Sept. 9, 1985 Sept. 18, 1985 Oct. 10, 1985 Nov. 4, 1985 Dec. 3, 1985 Dec. 26, 1985 Jan. 13, 1986 Jan. 27, 1986 April 10, 1986 May 16, 1986 May 20, 1986 May 27, 1986 June 9, 1986 June 19, 1986 Sept. 8, 1986 Sept. 24, 1986 Dec. 12, 1986

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