Reflections on Africa

We’re not out of Africa yet, we’re in Egypt, which has a distinctive Northern African/Middle Eastern feel. And so it feels as though we’ve left Africa behind us now, although the continent will surely stay with us for years to come.

We’ve covered roughly 20,000 km overland, across 12 different countries (excluding Egypt), not really knowing what to expect as we moved from one to the next. We enjoyed every country we visited, but a few definitely stand out in our minds, namely Namibia for its spectacular desert scenery, Malawi for it’s warm and friendly people, and Ethiopia for it’s unique culture and breathtaking mountains.

Here are some of the small things that will remind us of our time in Africa:

The sight of children walking home from school in brightly coloured school uniforms.

African animals are every bit as cool as you’d imagine them to be.

Our consignment clothing appears to end up in Africa. We’ve spotted people wearing old school hockey jerseys or Tim Horton’s shirts or Green Day tour shirts, circa 1994. They actually sell these clothes in the shops, which is interesting considering we supposedly gave all these clothes to charity.

Churches are everywhere. I never knew there were so many denominations of Christianity.

It’s amazing what passes as housing. Mud and straw huts are the most prevalent form of housing in the countryside. There are also many stick walled huts with grass roofs. Concrete homes are prevalent in Namibia and Botswana while they live in stone homes in northern Ethiopia. The outlying areas of many cities, such as Johannesburg and Nairobi, are slums. Tarps, tin and twigs are what their structures are made of. These are peoples permanent homes. Much worse than the temporary shelters we were building as volunteers in Indonesia.

Meanwhile, on the other divide, there are walled compounds. Great big houses, or even tiny bungalows surrounded by 10 foot high walls, some with jagged glass and barbed wire on top, manned by security guards.

Women are remarkable at balancing things on their heads. We’ve seen everything from water jugs and firewood to chickens and bananas.

International Aid agencies are everywhere. After reading Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa, I’ve learned that they account for the majority of many countries GDP.

At times, we felt like walking dollar signs. This was especially true in areas where other seemingly generous tourists have passed through. They give out a few pens and then BAM, they’ve created monsters of the local children. Children aside, for the most part, people were pretty fair with us, even in the markets.

Store signs are creatively and colourfully painted. Sign painting is a lost art I hope to see make a resurgence in the Western world. There’s so much character in these hand-painted signs. Beautiful typography. Even the Coca-Cola branding on shops is hand-painted.

Many shops and homes lining the roadsides are painted the garish colours of the local mobile phone companies. The shop and homeowners get a fresh layer of protective paint for free, while the phone companies hammer in their branding and make ugly buildings, even uglier. In Uganda this was especially noticeable. Ten shops in a row would all be painted the same flamingo pink.

Mobile reception is great and people are on their phones all over the place. Internet, however, is not great. I’m sure it’s better than 5 years ago, but it still has a long way to go to catch up, even in South Africa. Connections are SLOW. That being said, we were surprised at some of the places we actually found internet – small shacks in small towns with ‘internet café’ painted on the side. Although more often than not, the computers at these ‘internet cafés’ were broken and so were the connections. The best connection so far was in Sudan. We were invited into an oil man’s office to use internet in Khartoum. He was an excellent and gracious host. Thanks Hussein!

Homosexuality is illegal in most countries. Men and women do not show signs of public affection. But men love to hold hands with other men. They’ll parade proudly around town holding hands, swinging them back and forth.

Road intersections are a popular spot for people to sell their things. Anything from newspapers and snacks to ironing boards and fly swatters.
They call toilets ‘ablutions’ in Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

I’ve never seen bigger avocados in my life. Melon-sized.

Men and children appear to love playing billiards. There are tables outdoors, under tarps in many different countries. Fooseball and ping pong are more popular in Ethiopia.

Although there are many more disease carrying mosquitoes in Africa, they have nothing on Ontario mosquitoes. While they don’t carry malaria, I still think that Ontario mosquitoes and blackflies are the worst in the world when it comes to sheer quantity, itchiness and annoying-ness.

After a short while, you become numb to the sight of men with shoddy looking rifles and machine guns. Goat-herders and cattle-herders carry them in the countryside, as do police officers and military officials in the cities. Sometimes they’re held together with tape or elastic bands. Sometimes the safety switch doesn’t work. Most of them look like they wouldn’t shoot even if the trigger was pulled. You become numb to these sights, but it still is unnerving and I wish they wouldn’t carry them.

Tourists in full safari gear is a common sight in the parks – khaki pants and vest, Tilley hat, heavy duty hiking boots, binoculars and digital SLR with telephoto lens. Most of them travel by very new, air-conditioned 4x4s.

So much of the land has been stripped and over cultivated/grazed.

Whiteys are referred to as ‘mzunga’ in Kenya, as ‘give me money!’ or ‘give me pen!’ in Uganda and as ‘you you you!’ in Ethiopia. I’m sure there are various other names as well that I didn’t pick up on.

We were genuinely welcomed most everywhere.

I love a nice South African pinotage.

Most larger buildings are made from concrete and are in some sort of shoddy looking state of construction.

The tokolosh, a Zulu mythological creature, is very disturbing to look at. YIKES!

Ablution = toilet in Tanzania.


    Your recollections of your adventures never cease to amaze me. What wonderful stories…Take good care of each other and safe travels. xox

    Aw, thanks Aunt B!

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