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Zambia & Malawi

Colonialism is nothing new to me. I come from a country founded on it, I’ve spent some of my tertiary curriculum studying it, and I’ve quite literally cycled past it. Africa has no shortage of horrendous examples of western imperialism, with Ethiopia being the only one to escape the colonial vice. Whilst ‘old school’ colonialism is perhaps a thing of the past, ‘new school’ colonialism is displayed in many different ways

Zambia and Malawi have shown me an Africa that I wasn’t expecting. One in which foreign interests and tourists take precedence over the local issues. Take Livingstone for example. Westerners equipped with selfie sticks, bible scriptures and plain old ignorance have captured Zambia’s main tourist city.

I’d originally planned on spending only a few days here, but a stomach bug that rendered my excrement to the consistency of water had naturally delayed my departure. In those seven days I sat back – clenching my butt cheeks - and took in everything that modern day African tourism had become.

My hostel nearly exclusively catered to evangelist school groups and volunteers, with the former often wearing t-shirts embroidered with their favourite bible scriptures. The majority seemed to be on a ‘mission’ of redemption and conversion. Most annoyingly, groups of girls with freshly braided hair would break out into Christian hymns by the pool, oozing with rapture that clouded any thought of how the other guests were feeling about their impromptu performances.

How divine.

Outside wasn’t much better. Everywhere I walked my newfound ‘friends’ would just like to ask me a few questions before trying to sell me the same wares you can find in every tourist haven.

“My friend, do you want to buy some necklaces? My friend, why aren’t you talking to me? My friend, why are you walking away? Boss?”

On my penultimate day I took the shuttle out to Mosi-oa-Tunya “The Smoke that Thunders”, otherwise known as Victoria Falls. David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, is believed to have been the first European to view Victoria Falls on 16 November 1855, from what is now known as Livingstone Island. Since then, missionaries and tourists have been flocking to the area ever since.

After forking out US$20, I made my way past the hoards of baboons and tourists (often behaving similarly) and tried to find a cathartic solitude watching a resource that I hadn’t seen for over three months – falling water. The Long Term Mean Annual flow at Victoria Falls is 1,100 cubic metres per second, and whilst I was there at the wrong time the flows were still like nothing I’d seen before. Any chance I had of solitude evaporated with the water itself, when Chinese tour groups and helicopters began battling for audible supremacy.

I spent a solitary hour at the falls and returned a defeated man. Is this a sign that I’m getting over the whole travel thing, or was it something else? Perhaps I’m getting old, or perhaps the highs and lows over the last five years have altered my views on what is worthwhile? Travelling by bike certainly changes you; it changes you in a way that thinks Victoria Falls is nothing more than that - a waterfall.

I rode out of Livingstone on a sleepy Sunday a week later, thankful for my dorm mates, another Australian guy and an English girl whom had managed to offer me some comedic relief. The EU funded road gave a perfect vantage point to see rural Zambia. There was a hive of activity in contrast from remote Namibia and roads were filled with men riding bicycles loaded with charcoal sacks hoping to profit from selling their load in another town. Their overloaded bikes made my plight look pathetic and I often felt embarrassed when shouts of encouragement came my way. These men were doing it a lot harder than me.

Thatched straw huts lined the road and gave a refreshing air of simplicity about African life. Chickens and goats roamed freely, men lazed under trees and it seemed the most important task was living day to day. This simplicity appealed to me and was concurrent to life on the bike - taking it one day at a time and worrying only about the essentials; food, water, shelter. I could have moved out here if it weren’t for every child under ten trying their hardest to make me snap.

“HOW ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU? HOW ARE YOU?”

“WHERE ARE YOU GO? WHERE ARE YOU GO? WHERE ARE YOU GO? WHERE ARE YOU GO? WHERE ARE YOU GO? ”

These questions, no matter how many times I answered, echoed from every orifice of African savannah. From the beginning of the morning when it was barely endearing, to the end of the day when it was downright annoying, I found myself never wanting to have kids - the unrelenting, remorseless bastards that they can be.

After six days I reached unassuming Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, and settled into the usual routine a cyclist finds themselves in big cities. Foreign influence was rife with Chinese businesses and aid agencies overrunning any charm the city perhaps once had. It hardly felt African. Bank of China advertising sprawled across large billboards and the synonymous new, white Toyota Landcruser universally used for aid agencies ferried expats to all corners of the town. I was never far away from the unmistakeable American Accent, “Could you believe that waiter didn’t even know where New York City was?” one irked. At first it was nice to be anonymous, but I soon tired from it and moved on.

I turned from the Great Southern Road and continued east on the Chinese built Great Eastern Road. Zambian’s are a creative bunch. The stretch before Lusaka was annoyingly the same as the stretch after. I took a slight satisfaction in noticing the sun started rising earlier, bananas became more available and it dawned on me the slow transition from the dry south to equatorial East Africa.

I once again took up residence at the many schools that dotted the road. I’d seek the permission from the headmaster and would be shown an empty classroom to pitch the tent. I’d then be showed the water pump, be introduced to the night watchman, and then be allowed to rest in peace. Such was the ease of these nights that I accidentally slept in until seven am one morning and had a group of eager school children watching me from outside. I felt like a primate being watched from the inside. The difference in education from my own to the average African school was confronting; if a little depressing. One school had 1,200 students to 12 teachers, which suggested to me that schools are more about crowd control rather than education. I saw computer rooms with no electricity or computers, classrooms with no desks and lights. Windows were smashed and given the evening emptiness one could easily think that I was in a post apocalyptic world.

The prevalence of AIDS was everywhere, with rhyming slogans adding a playful manner to a disease that killed over 670,000 African’s last year. When compared to my private school education, in which annual tuition fees are 25 times higher than a Zambian’s yearly wage, these pupils are devoid of the many opportunities I had. In all honesty, they are still more excited, appreciative and gracious about their education than I ever was

Zambia deposited me at Chipata and gave me a parting gift of thieving moneychangers, the parasites that they are. Tired and with a mind elsewhere I went to change 20 Zambian Kwatcha (AUD$3) into 2,100 Malawian Kwatcha. One fixer changed the money whilst his friends distracted me with questions about the bike.

The guy gave me 210 Malawi Kwatcha (AUD$0.50), effectively ‘forgetting’ a zero and we said our goodbyes. Gone were the easy days of dividing sums by ten and seven. I lost a pittance in hindsight, but my dented pride was pathetically worth much more. My maths would have to improve in a country where I have to divide everything by 527.

From the sparseness of Zambia, Malawi was a breath of fresh air that filled the lungs with an eagerness of zigzagging through a country known as ‘the warm heart of Africa’. I was sceptical about a phrase mostly quoted by lazy travel writers, and my first impressions had me wondering. It was hard to imagine what’s warm and welcoming about hundreds of children as young as three outstretching their hand for money and shouting ‘give me’, but the more I stayed in the country the more I liked it. I concluded that kids are kids. Back home they graffiti trains and throw rocks onto expressways. In Malawi they beg. After a day of constant begging I became tone deaf to their abrupt demands, substituting them into something more pleasurable that in my own mind would see me get less frustrated (see below).

Give me money!! = Top of the morning to you young sir

Give me your bike!!! = Wow, you are travelling the most noble of ways. Chapeau!

Fuck you = I love you

The first night I arrived in a small village unannounced, smelling of sweat and seeking permission from the local headmaster to sleep in the school. Fifty children soon amassed, cajoling me to the headmaster’s house where I was hastily refused permission.

Gasper made me sleep in his home.

I set my tent up in the backyard as Gasper’s wife heated water over a fire for bathing. He then helped me erect my tent and we sat underneath a tree talking about life in Malawi. After noticing some caged pigeons in the distance I asked if they were pets? I swear he laughed for a good fifteen seconds.

‘No these are for eating. Do you eat pigeons in your country?’’, he asked.

After explaining that plagues of pigeons roam freely around my CBD without fear of being served for dinner, Gasper looked bemused, if a little shocked.

‘So there is free food everywhere and no one eats it?’ he genuinely asked.

‘Correct’, I replied.

His ear piercing laugh, knee slapping and subsequent translation to his wife suggested this anecdote was just another example of white people doing strange things.

‘Ahhhhhhhh Mzungu ”, he said softly before chuckling again.

I went to bed with a full stomach thanks to Gasper’s wife and rode out the next morning ready to repeat another day in the saddle.

I turned my wheels north in the direction of Tanzania, realising that there were no more diversions or meandering lines, rather a more progressive direction to Cairo. Cycling became more purposeful, more directed and more enjoyable as I passed through the rural countryside, fielding constant shouts of Mzungu from literally thousands of children enjoying their school holidays.

The roads were surprisingly empty from motorised transport and my bicycle brethren and I enjoyed a cycling nirvana rarely experienced in Africa. Subsistence farmers dotted the landscape and sold their produce by the road. Women wore bright clothing and gave the biggest smiles whilst simultaneously balancing large loads, consisting of everything from firewood to a satellite dish.

Everyone was happy and relaxed.

I entered another village just before dusk and spoke with the chief. Expecting to be the first foreigner staying here – literally in the middle of nowhere – I was surprised to find out six years ago,, two men spent a few months here. The chief quickly scurried off and returned with a photocopy of a passport of one of the visitors. I saw an elderly white male from Texas who reeked of missionary motives. Colonialism again, I thought.

Conversations continued later that evening and whilst grilling goat back straps on a fire Isaac asked, ‘Andrew, why are you always staring into the fire?’

I tried explaining the mysticism that often arises when looking at one of human’s greatest discoveries, and how that a simple flame can lift your spirits, or take you to another place. But this fell on deaf ears, as my companions didn’t quite ‘get it’; completely understandable for a community that uses fire like we use our smartphones.

What was of more interest to the village was how I was inconceivably 28 without a wife, a small army of children and a house. They began to sound like my mother. I asked Isaac why Malawian’s have such large families and he emptily responded that many children ‘don’t live very old’, suggesting perhaps he has personally felt the pain of losing a child. The child mortality rate of Malawi fell gradually from 347.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1967 to 55.1 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016.

Over the last month I’ve noticed a gradual progression in my mental state. The comparisons and contrasts I make have started to muddy the waters of my own perceptions and reality, my own direction, and I start questioning what am I actually achieving by being here? I often find myself tired, hungry, vulnerable and alone; not fun for anyone. But, I believe in these moments, with my guard completely down, I take away lessons that I never would have learnt from my private school education or confined to Australia’s sacrosanct borders.

Some lessons are inspiring. Most are melancholy.

Our trials and tribulations are so far removed from those of Africa; the poverty, famine, AIDS, infant mortality, malaria, war, crime and colonialism. Foreign countries pillage natural resources under the guise of development, NGO’s unintentionally promote laziness through helping, and missionaries perpetuate current issues like Christian-influenced homophobia (See: “Kill the Gay’s Bill” and Netflix’s “God Loves Uganda”).

And here I am cycling past it all, thinking how fickle the world can be yet actively doing nothing about it. Perhaps by doing nothing I’m worse than those mentioned above? It’s been hard to come to terms with what my ‘mission’ is, no matter how many times I’m asked by locals, and I feel it will be a long time before I figure it out…

I continued cycling north and, whilst pushing my bicycle up a steep incline, ticked over 40,075km total mileage – the distance of the equator. Getting here wasn’t easy, but I finally felt a sense of relief knowing that this achievement will stay with me for the rest of my life. I may not have a house, car or career, but those things will come. For now, I’ll rest easy knowing my youth was spent doing something I enjoy…and wont be able to do when I’m old and senile.

Thanks to all those who have supported me over the years, you know who you are.

I reached the border crossing with Tanzania after spending a few days cycling the shores of Lake Malawi. After my pride was dented crossing into the country, I was determined to salvage some sort of pride – any sort of pride - no matter how pathetic I would become. I was stamped out of Malawi and walked over the bridge in no-mans land. Money changers licked their lips just at the sight of me. I chose the most boisterous, loud and annoying exchanger possible.

‘Are there any ATM’s across the border on the Tanzania side’, I asked (already knowing that there were).

‘No my friend, you have to do money exchanging here. I’ll give you a good rate.’, he replied.

He then continued to quote me a rate that was 30% under market value. So I had no hesitation in clawing back some pride for all the tourists and travellers that have been ripped off by this merchant.

‘Thanks so much mate, that’s a really good rate! I actually have US$500 that I want to exchange. I just have to get my Tanzania visa first so wait here and I’ll be back in a jiffy’, I said. I knew he was toast as his eyes lit up like golf balls and I’m sure he was thinking of the forthcoming partying after making a good deal of money.

I got my visa and cycled strait over the boarder, still hoping the man was waiting there, bragging to all his friends about the stupid Mzungu.

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