This Is Africa – What It’s Like

Disclaimer: Please take the ten minutes to read this blog. It is the culmination of six months of observation and experience. If you like it, please consider a donation or forward it to a friend. I need the support! This is Part 1 of a two-part blog. Part 2 will be out next week.

By Coach Brian:

It is the end of my six months traveling around Africa and volunteering for Coaches Across Continents and the question I get asked most from friends back home who haven’t been here is, “What’s It Like?” Well, it’s different from home. A lot different.

Africa has its own way of working. It has evolved with little infrastructure or investment, and it has its own sense of timeliness. Africa is still a continent of very young countries trying to establish their own identities after centuries of colonial influence and rule. Africa does not operate like Western societies, nor should it as it navigates past its own unique obstacles on a daily basis. But Africa does work in its own way. If you try to judge Africa by your own standards, past experiences or expectations you will be endlessly frustrated, dejected and ultimately defeated. But if you see Africa for what it is and embrace its people, its ingenuity in the face of adversity and accept its rhythms of everyday life you will find a rugged beauty that does not exist in the Western world. This Is Africa, or my descriptions of it as I have experienced over the past five and a half months in South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Zambia.

For most people in Africa daily life means doing enough to survive the day. In the West we take these tasks for granted. Things like drawing water from the community borehole (water pump) to do all the cooking, bathing, laundry and cleaning, gathering firewood or purchasing illegally made wood-charcoal in order to cook and keep warm in the cold months, and finding something to eat for dinner. After that it’s about trying to do a little bit extra to get ahead, but that is hard to achieve. There aren’t many business opportunities that allow people to get very far ahead. At every corner you see people selling tomatoes, onions, maize flour (for nsima) and 2nd hand clothing. In the village markets (which are really just makeshift wooden stalls with plastic tarps/bags for shade) you can also find toiletries, electronics, more vegetables, and more 2nd hand clothes.

Selling Vegetables on side of the road

To me the second hand clothes are a refreshing break from the USA. I have never been into fashion or accused of being fashionable. Here the business people dress up as expected, the women wear colorful sarongs and shirts, but if you don’t need to be dressed up you wear what is cheap and convenient. It does not matter if your t-shirt makes sense as everyone is wearing something from somewhere else, compared to home where every t-shirt seems to be selected for fashion reasons. Here I have seen adult men wearing shirts that say “Princess”, kids sporting bar and beer logos from North America, and girls can be seen looking dapper in “Grave Digger Monster Truck” attire. Every gimmick and novelty t-shirt ever made has found its way to Africa, and as long as it is clean it is ok to wear. Nothing goes to waste here.

The biggest noticeable difference to home is the poverty that is evident everywhere. Unfortunately the poverty seems to be the result of an endless vicious cycle. Whatever product anyone wants to export from Africa takes extra long because of poor roads, trains, airports, and shipping ports. Because of this foreign investment is minimal and there are few factories for production. And since each African country is in poverty the majority of the citizens have little to contribute in terms of taxes. Which means that services that need to be upgraded or installed continue to be neglected. Things like sewers, running water, electricity and garbage collection. Without structural improvement foreign and domestic investment and exports will continue to suffer. Which means more poverty.

And this is before I describe the rampant corruption that exists at all levels. It is very hard, if someone has a position of authority, to hold it against them in Africa for trying to get a little bit extra on the side. After all they grew up with the poverty I spoke of above. And even though they are in a position of authority it does not mean they are well-paid. This corruption is ultimately hurting business and development in the long run but in the short term everyone is just trying to survive the day. Which is why it is hard to hold it against anybody in Africa if they just try to make their own lives a little better. In the US I have either been pretty naïve or not involved in anything too shady. However in the past six months I have been directly involved or witnessed corruption or bribery with traffic cops in Zambia, policemen and taxi drivers in Malawi, an embassy official for Mozambique, and an airline official from Tanzania. I even had to coerce some of my own volunteer coaches with gifts to get them to do extra duties outside of their normal responsibilities. There are also daily reports in every domestic newspaper (regardless of the country I have visited) alleging corruption by past or current government officials. The citizens and governments of Africa know corruption is a problem, they know the long-term consequences, yet it does not seem to deter it from happening at all levels. It is the current cost of doing business in Africa.

The lack of development has made the people of Africa self-reliant to a large degree. As I mentioned before in terms of clothing, nothing goes to waste here. Africans must come up with solutions we would never dream up to problems that don’t exist in the developed world. Like transportation. I have walked for hours for small errands, taken planes, boats and automobiles and even hitch-hiked. But nothing is as African as the minibus. I am convinced that you can travel the length and breadth of this continent jammed into a minibus. The vehicle is smaller than the 12-passenger vans back home but hold four rows of back seats which hold four people per row. To this number (16) you need to add the driver (17), two more passengers in the shotgun seat (19), the conductor (20) and any babies or small children that are sitting on the mothers laps (??!!). To make maximum profits no minibus will leave until it is full. The conductor’s job is to negotiate fares with passengers, collect money and maybe provide change, make jokes with the driver about any mzungu who are on board, and lean out the window or side-door constantly to attract and shout for more potential passengers. But the payoff is that anyone can travel for extremely cheap prices within a town or between towns anywhere in Africa. The equivalent of a few US dollars will get you 100km or more in most countries.

One of the saddest daily visual reminders of the poverty is trash. It is everywhere. Plastic bottles, bags, and debris are literally littered anywhere and everywhere. Some of it gets swept into piles or thrown into a pit for burning along with paper and biodegradables. There is no trash collection that I have seen except in large city centers and even those are polluted. The rule you learn growing up in Africa is that trash gets burned. And then the ashes are used for compost in the gardens. Nothing goes to waste here. That will continue to be the case until the governments have enough money to change it (which won’t be soon). Here is a trillion dollar industry if someone can come up with a solution: Figure out a profitable way to recycle and reuse plastic. Not only will you save Africa, but our oceans and Earth as well.

This burning trash and plastic is therefore part of the smells of Africa. It combines with dust during the dry-season, outhouse smells from each house in the villages (again no running water) and from various livestock which we will get into later. This combined smell is not nearly as bad as you are currently imagining because all of the parts are in very small portions. It is not the overpowering stench of the dump back home which has the refuse of thousands of people; it is just a lingering, barely noticeable but constant odor from town to town. Except when the rains come. I didn’t appreciate the line from Toto’s song “I saw the rains down in Africa” until this month. The cool, wet clean smell of fresh rain over a dusty and dirty landscape is one of Africa’s unexpected pleasures. It also brings out the pleasant smells of the eucalyptus and jacaranda trees, the ripening mangos and guavas, and until the next morning eliminates the burn piles.

It is these moments of pure natural beauty that are in stark contrast to the pollution I have discussed. Africa is a rugged vast landscape that stretches endlessly towards the horizon. The Earth endures months of scorching temperatures before being deluged with the rains. Rivers can stretch for kilometers across and the lakes are some of the oldest and deepest on the planet. The majestic animals have also endured despite poaching, land encroachment, and poor management. Fortunately many people seem to understand the income that safaris can bring by attracting tourists from all over the globe. I have been lucky enough to see national parks in South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia and spoken to many natives and travelers about other parks in Africa. They seem untouched by man except for all the land cruisers and single-track roads and it is the Africa I pictured in my dreams. I have seen a pride of lions, elephants, hyenas, giraffes, hippos, water buffalo, herds of antelope and wildebeests and all the other creatures (except leopard and rhino 😦 ). The traditional beauty of Africa has been preserved in a patchwork of parks across the sub-Sahara and hopefully this delicate balance of conservationism and tourism can bring more people and money to Africa without disrupting the fragile ecosystem.

However these majestic animals are the not the real animals of Africa as I see it. The real animals of Africa are the ones I see every day in unusual circumstances. I have seen a cow being driven in a pick-up to the police station to get its papers and medical clearance (I wonder if a bribe was necessary?). I have seen suicidal goats play a game of chicken with 18-wheelers going 100km/hour on the highway. I saw nine people and two hogs in the back of an open-end lorry pass my coach bus on the way to Livingston and Victoria Falls. And I have seen roosters and chickens everywhere. I finally asked my friend Chembe who owns all the chickens that roam free and how do you know which chickens are yours when you want to eat one? The answer I received was typically and perfectly African. “The chickens know where they live and will come home when they need to.” You can’t argue with infallible logic like that.

Which brings me to Africans themselves. With very few exceptions I have been welcomed into homes, invited to home-cooked dinners, encouraged to travel and see their countries, and been well-looked after in every degree. Monetarily they do not have a lot but they give so much more than can be expected. The local volunteers genuinely appreciate the time and effort I have made. And the kids are something else. I am constantly a novelty from my blond straight(ish) hair to my white skin. No matter the field or compound I walk through I hear alternating joyous shrieks from the younger kids of “MZUNGU! and the primary students politely asking me “Good morning sir, how are you?” regardless of the time of day. I can also count on having a few young kids run up just to hold my hand. It is not that they are neglected and are looking for attention but rather it is a society that shows much more affection. Kids and adults alike of the same sex hold hands or hug without any sexual connotations. The soccer I helped to provide seems to be sort of a day-care. In fact the whole community seems to be a daycare. The kids go to school and then run around their villages with all the other kids until it is time to go home for dinner. I have seen no adults hovering around like overprotective hens. Everyone looks out for everyone else.

Which brings me to the final question some of you must be thinking, “What do you do for fun?” Well, I pretty much do what I did back home. I have been traveling, out to bars and nightclubs, gone to restaurants, and seen live bands. The venues might not be reminiscent of Studio 54 but you can have fun anywhere if there are good people around you. There are three primary differences socially from back home. First is Chibuku (also called Shake Shake). It is home-brewed maize beer. And it is an acquired taste I have not mastered. It is a sour-tasting tan liquid with bits of ground maize grain still in the mixture which sticks to your teeth. It is very prevalent, especially in the poorer areas and people drink this 6% swill for sixty cents a liter at all times of the day. The second noticeable difference is prostitution. It is illegal but very evident. It ties into poverty. People will do anything to make money. The final difference is the noise. All stereos are turned as high as they go to the point of distortion. If your bar/store/nightclub is not loud it will not attract customers as it was explained to me. At some places rival taverns are next door to one another and it sounds like dueling stereos. This noise blends in nicely with the roosters, mosques, cars honking, children laughing and shouting and other African sounds. It’s a symphony of Africa if you will.

Finally with all this activity I have described there is still an abundance of time. Maybe that contributes to their sense (or lack thereof) of timeliness. After getting the basic chores out of the way and knowing that no matter how hard you work there still might not be an opportunity to escape poverty, there is a lot of time to get through each day. To kill time people engage in activities like sitting around, talking, drinking, and napping. It must be difficult given the circumstances to stay motivated each and every day to try to better yourself, your family, your community and your country when it seems the deck is stacked against you making progress.

Which is one of the reasons I admire the work being done here by the various individuals and groups I have volunteered with over the last five and a half months. They are staring poverty and adversity in the face and fighting back with a soccer ball. But I will get into my personal thoughts a bit more in next week’s blog.

I hope this gives you an idea of my African experience. As I said before, you cannot judge Africa by Western standards. You have to accept and embrace it for what it is. And if you do then you can have the same love for Africa as many other travelers do. The only real way to know is to come here and try it out. Leave the comforts of the society you have grown up with and keep an open mind. And after being here for half a year I can say it is worth it.

For good karma or to support the volunteering I have done with Coaches Across Continents please make a donation at www.firstgiving.com/suskiewicz. Thanks to those of you who have already donated! If you liked this blog please forward it to your friends and family, I can use the support.

Check back next week for part 2 of this blog. And for you loyal readers my November Q&A mailblog will come out at the end of the month. Submit your question(s) today by Facebook, email, or the comments page on www.getjealous.com/suskiewicz. Past mailblogs can be found here: July, August, September, October.

One Comment on “This Is Africa – What It’s Like”

  1. coachesacrosscontinents November 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    Fantastic summation Brian. You have made a real difference! Many thanks, Nick

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