15 Myths of Bicycling and Travel In Africa
by David Mozer
International Bicycle Fund
It is interesting to watch the reaction of people when they pickup literature on bicycling in Africa. Many react like it is an oxymoron and ridicule it to their friends. A few react like it is the greatest idea they have heard in years and you see the urge to sprint and buy an airplane ticket sweep across them. Hundreds of Westerners have bicycled in Africa: some were so emotional moved by the experience they cried when they had to leave. Many have returned in subsequent years to take additional bicycle tours in Africa. It doesn’t have to be “one of the world’s most dangerous places.” Why is there such a range of reactions to “bicycling in Africa”? Which reaction best reflects the facts?
Myth of the Void
Certainly bicycling in Africa is not for everybody. It is not for those who aren’t interested in bicycling or interested in Africa. But there are those, who might really appreciate it, who because of preconceived notions, or false information, have prematurely dismissed it. This is not to say that Africa does not have its problems or that one should not be a well informed traveler. However, there are huge areas where bicycle touring is practical, enjoyable and highly rewarding. Bicycle touring in Africa is for the good natured realist who can appreciate the rewards of not being confined by barriers of glass, steel and speed. The potential participant doesn’t even have to like dirt roads and rustic accommodations.
Myth of Wilderness
Myth number one: “Africa is (dangerous) wildlife”, and the most compelling reason to travel to Africa is to see the wildlife. Most wildlife is not dangerous. One can safely see zebra, giraffe, elephants, kudu, sable antelope, impala and dozens of other varieties of animals from a bike seat. More importantly, Africa is more than wildlife and the bicycle is an extraordinary way to experience it. Wildlife constitutes a very small part of Africa and only a very small portion of Africa contains wildlife. Africa is about people and culture: people with a long history, a multiplicity of complex cultures with sophisticated governmental structures, elaborate artistic expressions, diverse religions, ontology and colorful traditions. The land itself contains everything from modern cities with the latest in telecommunications to highly efficient, low consumption, small scale, sustainable rural communities. Within its borders are a full spectrum of micro-climates and geological formations from glaciated mountain peaks, to verdant grasslands; from arid deserts, to dense tropical rain forests. As a footnote: Bicycles have limitations for seeing wildlife and often are restricted from the national parks with the main concentrations of wildlife.
A related set of myths is “Kenya is Africa,” “Africa is Kenya,” “Kenya is wildlife,” and “Wildlife is Kenya.” Recently South Africa has been being substituted for Kenya. Kenya and South Africa are only two of more than fifty countries in Africa. Each country on the continent has its own political, economic, social and physical profile. Kenya and South Africa are not the only noteworthy destination in Africa. Neither is the most politically stable, most socially unique or diverse countries. Additionally, they are not particularly unique in their wildlife endowment and physically there are dozens of other countries that can rival their beauty. What Kenya and South Africa probably can claim is the most comprehensive westernize tourist environments in sub-Saharan Africa. But this masks Africa, not introduces it.
Another associated myth/behavior here is going to “Africa” to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. While the ecology of Mt. Kilimanjaro is fascinating, most of its visitors are hardly there long enough to learn much about it, and there in nothing very African about the climbing culture on the mountain, except the birth of the guides, porters, cooks and fee collectors.
Myth of Violence
Myth Number Two: “The people of Africa are violent and dangerous.” The exact opposite is probably closer to the truth. It is safer in many African capitals to take a late night stroll than in many North American cities. That is not to say that Africa is not without its problems and that one should not be “city-wise” in all countries, but when leaving the US for Africa one is going from one of the world’s most violent countries to some of the most gentle and hospitable. Granted people must be selective about where they go, however there are more choices than one can manage to get to. The violence associate with Africa is tragic, but it is also isolated to specific geographical pockets. A report of instability in one country has absolutely no implications about the quality of life in any adjacent country. It is similar to riots in North Miami or South Los Angeles, which have no implications to the scene in Coconut Grove or Santa Monica. And similar to a riot, violence in Africa is generally the actions of a wayward minority.
One must also distinguish between political violence and personal violence. A closer examination of the violence finds that it is; rivalry between factions in a country, the extension of Western violence through a proxy war, or the legacy of social dislocation stemming from the havoc brought on the culture during the colonial period. All of this is easily circumvented by a traveler. While personal violence exists, the frequency should not be exaggerated. The people of Africa, even amidst vortexes of absurd violence have a gentleness, humbleness and optimism that we could all learn from. They do not run through the forest chanting and carrying spears, nor do they boil foreigners in large kettles. More often, those Westerners who do brave the myths of Africa are disappointed at the lack of “tribal rituals” in Africa. Most Africans retire early for the evening so that they can begin working at daybreak.
Africans are generally friendly to and interested in meeting foreigners, and American tend to have an exceptionally good reputation in rural Africa. Most Americans that rural Africans meet are Peace Corps Volunteers — people who have come to live in the community, learn the language, participate in the economy and take an interest in the well-being of the society by helping with development projects. Even if Africans have qualms with a foreign government, they very clearly separate governments from citizens.
Myth of Disease
Myth Number Three: “I’ll get ill in Africa.” Travelers to Africa need to know that there are a number of serious diseases there, but that does not mean not eating, drinking, and breathing the stay. While the list of diseases is long, most are easy to avoid and the chance of contracting these is minuscule. Of those with higher infection rates easy effective prevention is available. One will be ninety-five per cent of the way by being current on their immunizations: Tetanus-diphtheria, polio and measles are pretty routine. For yellow fever a vaccine is available, as for typhoid and several other diseases. The most serious disease a traveler is likely to encounter is malaria. While it is serious, the threat is not uniform in all locations nor all seasons. Even at its worst steps can be taken to avoid it. Number one, consult your travel clinic or physician about prophylactics for chloroquine-resistant malaria, effective preventative drugs are available. Second, wear long sleeves, long pants, shoes, sock and insect repellent in the evening. Third, sleep under a mosquito net. It is an easy routine. Ironically, the most common health problems have been: colds caught on airplanes flying to Africa; sun related problems like not applying sunscreen and getting burnt, and short term traveler’s diarrhea which is associated more with the change of environment than any specific item. There is a lot of other information that can scare you, but in fact our program has had many 100 per cent healthy tours. Illness is extremely rare and vigorous health is the rule.
Myth of Pollution
Myth Number Four: “The water in Africa is unsafe.” Generally Africa is less industrial and uses few or no chemicals in their agriculture methods. The ground water in Africa can be as safe or safer than that in industrialized countries. In the last two decades there has been a massive effort in water resources development. Boreholes for water have been drilled by the World Health Organization, aid programs from the Scandinavian countries, Canada and the U.S. Safe drinking water is now widely available in Africa. For those who want to be sure, small, light and efficient hand pumps with filters are available to further purify the water.
Myth of Sanitation
Myth Number Five: “The food is unsafe in Africa.” Again one’s attention needs to be properly focused. I know of more cases of travelers have become ill from over eating and eating dressings and desert creams in fancy hotels than they have from eating local dishes in small restaurants. As with travel anywhere, one must make wise choices. Cultural development has served African society well: most Africa cuisines involve a sauce or topping with meat, chicken, fish or vegetables, which is thoroughly boiled or sautÃ©ed at high heat. This is then serve over a carbohydrate like rice, millet, corn or a tuber that is similarly boiled. The meat, chicken and fish were probably killed and dressed that day and the vegetables are fresh from the farm. Personal experience with thousands of such meals, is that they are tasty and wholesome. By getting good regular exercise, eating fresh tropical fruits, carbohydrates, vegetables and the proteins of choice, sleeping well at night and being away from the stress of our Western lifestyles, one can return from Africa healthier than we left. Some of the cuisines that have been particularly big his among Westerners are: Senegalese, Swahili, Uganda, Tunisian, Liberian, Ethiopian and Ghanaian. By getting good regular exercise, eating fresh tropical fruits, carbohydrates, vegetables and the protein of choice, sleeping well at night and being away from the stress of our Western lifestyles, one can return from Africa healthier than one left.
Myth of Pestilence
Myth Number Six: “There are swarms of snakes and insects.” I have been in more snow storms (two) and earthquakes (two) in the last couple years in Africa than I have seen live snakes. There is the occasional dead snake on the road, but even these are not seen on every trip. Like most wildlife snakes are shy and do not seek encounters with humans any more than humans want to encounter them. As for insects, they are largely a function of time and place. Because it is preferable to do most traveling in Africa during the dry season, one bottle of insects repellent has lasted for ten years and it should last another ten. If one does not like insects, avoid them, but do not let that be the reason to miss experiencing Africa.
Myth of Famine
Myth Number Seven: “Africa is full of famine and drought.” These are two different things. When there was a drought in Zimbabwe, subsistence farmers suffered because the failure of the rains caused a failure of their staple crop. As a result they had nothing to sell to buy food, however, there was still food in the cities and plenty of the kind of food that tourists eat. Moreover, the aquifer was still healthy so there was sufficient drinking water available. On the other hand, most of the worst famines have very little to do with drought. They can often be traced to political and economic policies (in tandem with other human rights abuses) and as such they are geographically distinct, often ending at national boundaries. Famine areas do not make good tourist destinations. The knowledgeable traveler should choose not to go to these regions for other reasons as well.
Myth of AIDS
Myth Number Eight: “I will get AIDS.” Similar to North America, Europe and Asia, AIDS is primarily a lifestyle disease. If you live a healthy lifestyle you will stay healthy. Traveling in Africa, one will be no more aware of the presence of AIDS amongst the population than in any Western city.
Myth of Climate
Myth Number Nine:”It is too hot to cycle in Africa.” Africa is huge and someplace on the continent one can always find comfortable cycling weather. There is a great deal of variation in the climate. If one is planning an independent trip it will require some research. Tours have encountered everything from snow storms to blistering heat. One should know how to select the weather one wants. In the middle of a hot and humid northern July, one can go to idyllic, clean, dry 70o-80o cycling conditions. Similarly, one can escape a frigid northern winter to delightful cycling conditions in Africa.
Myth of Hygiene
Myth Number Ten: “How will I stay clean?” Unlike many western cultures who bathe once a day, many African societies are not comfortable without two baths a day. Water for bathing is a standard part of the hospitality. In twenty years of experience in Africa, there have been very, very few days when a bath I was not available and these were usually well off the beaten track and not the usually destination of a bicycle tour.
Myths of Civilization
Myths Number Eleven to Fifteen: Conditions are too primitive.” “Roads are too bad.” “Hotels are infested.” “Why go where everyone is uneducated?” Africa may be less energy and resource intensive, but often it is so innovative that it is far from primitive. If so inclined, one can take tours of tens of thousands of miles on paved roads, through dozens of countries. Hotels come in all shapes and sizes. Generally one gets what one pays for, but do not assume that even an inexpensive hotel is infested. Small towns have banks and banks managers; villages have schools and teachers; and elders who worked their professional lives in the cities often retire to the regions of their roots. All of these people are far from uneducated: they may speak three to five languages, many love to tell a story and share a good conversation. There is more knowledge than any of us could possibly absorb throughout the continent.
Myth of Suicide
By reputation, drivers in Africa operate their vehicle dangerously. The conclusion is that bicycling there is suicidal. There is no argument that accident rates in Africa are high and drivers go too fast and take to many risks, which can be compounded by poor equipment, such as bad brakes, shock absorbers and headlights. Perhaps the saving grace is that the roads in rural areas, which is most of Africa, have very little traffic. While the drivers may be going hell-bent, if there is not an on-coming vehicle, they will generally give touring bicyclists a lot of room. If there is an on-coming vehicle many will adjust there speed so as not to jam you, but there are the exceptions, so you have to be prepared to bail off the road. This problem increases as you near urban areas with higher traffic volumes, before the roads change from two lanes to four lanes. In rural areas it is more comfortable to be traveling on a bike than in careening vehicles. In the city the issue is a little different — suicide by asphyxiation: Diesel fuel is common, pollution control devise are nonexistent and traffic congestion is high, so in a few cities the air-quality is toxic. Under these circumstances the best time to bicycle is first thing in the morning. Overall, African drivers don’t have as much rage and aren’t as territorial as there counterparts to the north and west. There is no indication that bicycle touring in Africa is any riskier, vis-Ã -vis other traffic, than it is in other parts of the world.
The endless stream of negative images of Africa is amazing. Even as I finish this article I have a hunch that many readers will find one more reason for not considering Africa. Whatever it is, I suspect it is not as serious as they imagine. Year in and year out, I go, I have fun and I return. I have had seen people from 9 to 75 years old do the same. We can not all be living in a false dream. If you are interested in Africa and can appreciate the best that bicycle touring can offer-extraordinary scenery, meeting people, freedom of movement and a special knowledge of the places you visit-put the two together with a bicycle tour of Africa.