When the conversation of travel comes up over cocktails and I get ready to launch into my African adventures, I’m usually asked the questions that immediately kill the buzz… “Alone in Africa?! Weren’t you scared?! Wasn’t it dangerous?!” As a look of disappointment parks itself on my face, I can’t help but blurt out something to the effect of “That’s what you took from my story?!” Even more surprising is that the answer is usually “ummm, yeah.”
Well, the short answer is no. The long answer is sometimes. And they are both true.
After the last of such conversations, I got to thinking about my time there and what exactly it is about Africa that has affected me so profoundly. The media persistently portrays it as unruly and dangerous and rugged and its people as destitute and helpless and indolent. However, I have seen its beauty and felt its warmth in ways that have drowned out the stereotypes and trite inaccuracies, which has allowed me to look past its imperfections and focus on what makes it perfect.
I never gave it a second thought after I made up my mind to take that first trip to Tanzania many years ago. I signed up with a volunteer organization which provided me with some logistical help, and I met amazing like-minded volunteers with whom I could spend weekends and discover the beauty of the country. However, it was the locals that I worked with over the course of a summer that truly made my trip so significant. I was welcomed into an amazing community that stood out more for what it had than all the things it didn’t. The people were genuine and kind and exemplified resilience, and the children were carefree and vivacious and greeted me each day with enthusiasm and fist bumps in equal intensity. On subsequent trips back, I relied on some of those same locals for support of all kinds. You see, in Africa, you’re never alone or without offers of friendship and assistance.
One of the best ways, in my opinion, to truly see what others are made of is when you’re on your own and vulnerable and can find it in perfect strangers. And what better way than to plunk a young(ish) whiter than white woman on the road in Africa. Alone.
At the border crossing from Tanzania to Kenya, the bus drops you off at one point and after waiting in line, paying a fee and getting various things stamped, you walk a few hundred feet to board the bus again before entering Kenya. It can sometimes be a bit chaotic and requires thick skin as you ignore the flurry of cat calls and the umpteen sets of eyes on dust-coated faces, glued to your every move.
I wasn’t paying much attention for whatever reason, so when I went to board my bus, I couldn’t find it. There was a sea of buses but none that looked like the one I was on. I also didn’t recognize anyone from my bus in the crowds and queues and for a quick minute, I thought that the bus might actually leave without me. After what felt like hours of looking, I was practicing “help, I’m lost” in my best Swahili when a little boy who was apparently on the same bus, ran up to me with a parental where-have-you-been-I’ve-been-so-worried look and who knows what type of scolding in Swahili. After nearly hugging the kid to death, he literally took me by the hand and led me back to the bus. He must have taken me for a complete idiot and not a seasoned traveller with a momentary brain freeze because he swapped seats with my former seatmate and sat next to me the rest of the way into Nairobi, practically guarding me. I’m guessing he was no older than ten.
Later that trip I was in Uganda, riding on a motorcycle taxi, when we got caught in a vicious rain storm. We had to pull over and take cover in a store of sorts, and I soon found myself in a small room with my moto driver, the store owner and a very drunk elderly gentleman. So there we all sat, in the dark, huddled in the centre of the room as the rain streamed in through the gaps in the door and the gaping holes in the roof. I soon realized the precarious predicament I was in – me, alone, in what felt like a cage with three strange men, one of whom was highly intoxicated. I quickly surveyed the room, looking for all potential escape routes and anything I could use as a weapon should I need to clobber one of these guys mercilessly.
To my pleasant surprise, it ended up being a great experience. Incredible, in fact. The men were kind. They were serene. They were perfect gentlemen, giving me the “good” stool and the elderly man offering me first swig of his gin which he had in a zip-lock bag. I didn’t partake, but we did share biscuits and juice by candlelight and sat out the storm as newfound friends. Together. We spoke a mix of English, French, Swahili and Luganda, and talked about the simple things in life – family, weather and of course, soccer.
I then travelled solo from Uganda to Rwanda on an 11-hour bus ride, which tested my patience and bladder beyond measure. I was fortunate enough to sit next to the sweetest Rwandan man who would update me on the time we were keeping, what towns we were in and how long it would likely be before the almighty bathroom break. I shared my snacks with him and he showed me pictures of his family, which seemed to solidify our friendship because when we stopped, he waited for me outside the bathroom “hole” to make sure I didn’t fall in and got back on the bus safely. When we parted ways, our embrace felt genuine and earned, and has never left me.
So, yes, Africa has endless veldts and mountains and jungles and beaches, but it’s the people that allowed me to see its light and feel its capacity. Don’t get me wrong, all the adventure and beauty in the world is there, but it’s elsewhere too. However, the people are exceptionally kind and hospitable and will show you how to be fulfilled with what you have and not incomplete by what you lack. And if you’re as lucky as I was while there, they’ll help guide you as you journey on the bumpy roads of travel. And life.