Day 1,421: Wham Bam Thank You Zam

Wed 21.11.12:

So then, Zambia, my third country in three days. Zambia has always been Zimbabwe’s poorer neighbour, even back in the day when it was Northern Rhodesia, it was always neglected by its (actually not very) benevolent overlords. The general indifference towards Zambia continued into independence, but in the past few years, things have started to pick up. After being freed from the burden of billions of dollars of debt in 2005 as a result of the successful ‘Drop The Debt’ campaign, Zambia has been finding its feet. Transport infrastructure has improved, as have literacy levels and a lot of work has been done on AIDS awareness. It never suffered the rollercoaster riches and rags story of Zimbabwe, so in the long-run, it seems as though the tortoise might just beat the hare. But there’s still a long way to go.

As we approached the border we passed maybe 100 container trucks all lined up waiting to get into Zambia. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t. This is the problem with being a landlocked country. You can shift 100 containers on a small cargo ship. The Maersk Seberok could shift 6,500 containers all in one go. Zambia has a rail line linking it with the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but trains run nowhere near as often as they should. I believe the Zambian president has just nationalised the railway in response to widespread corruption with the service. But this is the problem, isn’t it? Landlocked countries are completely at the mercy of their neighbours. If Zimbabwe is being run by a madman and Mozambique is at war, how the hell are you supposed to grow your economy when you can only get 1% of the goods in and out compared to your wealthier (and less coastally-challenged) neighbours?

Pretty much all of African’s landlocked countries – Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali – suffer from this dilemma. It’s quite telling that in the whole of the Americas there are just two landlocked countries (and Bolivia only lost its access to the sea after a disastrous war against Peru). It’s almost as if, given the choice, countries wouldn’t opt to be landlocked. But then when your borders are being drawn up over a European conference table in 1885, I guess you don’t get much choice in the matter.

We were supposed to reach Lusaka at 1200, but because of the breakdown north of Johannesburg yesterday we didn’t get in until 1400. This was most disappointing since it meant that my high hopes of reaching Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at some reasonable time would not come true. The direct buses all left at 1300. So I waved goodbye to bus buddies Abu, Mustapha and Thomas the German Guy and set off to find something with wheels that could at least take me to the northern border.

It wasn’t long before I was shepherded over to the ZAMBIA-TANZANIA BUS. Sadly, it was full, but it seemed that there were enough people to justify putting on another bus. Well, a minibus. Crammed in LIKE YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE, we set off north towards the border town of Tunduma, a good 17 hours away. And OH YES IT BROKE DOWN! Three out of three! Overheated, steam everywhere (and that bizarre fishy smell you get from hot bicycle pumps – you know the one I mean). Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, they should – I dunno – turn the engine OFF when they’re waiting two hours for passengers, waiting in a traffic jam, filling the minibus with petrol…

The guy in front of me, a South African called Peter, was hilarious, cursing the bus driver and conductor for all sorts “where do you think you’re putting that tyre? Are you crazy?” He kept the journey fun. Sitting next to me was a sweet Zambian kid called William. We chatted about (what else) African politics and came to the conclusion that *it’s all the UN’s fault*. Because it is.

Days 1,422-3: This Is Africa

Thu 22 – Fri 23 Nov 12:

I didn’t want to use this as a title, said while pointing to at the red earth, imitating Leonardo DiCaprio ’s Rhodesian mercenary Danny Archer, but bear with me on this one. We were supposed to arrive over the border into Tanzania at dawn, but as we ran out of petrol last night and the engine overheated (hey Africa! Try turning it your engines off when you’re not going anywhere OR REFUELLING!!), I didn’t get stamped in until just after midday. Incidentally, Tanzania is a portmanteau word which combines ‘Tanganyika’ and ‘Zanzibar’ into one. This is novel but not unique in the world. The letters PAKSTAN of ‘Pakistan’ stand for Punjab, Afghan Province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan and the first six letters of The United Nations stands for Useless, Nefarious, Idiotic, Tyranny-Endorsing Dickwits. (One can only presume.)

At the frontier I swapped my Zambian Kwacha for Tanzanian Shillings, bought a SIM card and took a minibus over to the transport hub that is Mbeya. From there it was crammed into another minibus for what should have been a 12 hour journey to Dar es Salaam, the largest city (but not the capital, fact fans, that’s called Dodoma, same as the beardy general what tells Luke how to blow up the Death Star). The words ‘we were supposed to reach…’ have come up a lot over the past four years, haven’t they? Today would be no exception.

We were actually making good time for the first couple of hours, but then we had an incident at the rest stop. A girl had her handbag stolen from the bus. One of the passengers saw it happen, gave a description to the people who ran the rest stop eatery and they knew exactly who it was. A group of passenger stormed over to the luckless teenager’s home, caught him red-handed rifling through the bag, and proceeded to dole out what can only be described as African justice: they beat the crap out of him. Thankfully I wasn’t there to see this, I was waiting on the bus, not really knowing what on Earth was going on until it was explained to me later. We then took the offending party to the local police station and the passengers filed a statement. This whole episode cost us two hours.

But there was more.

Africans, and Tanzanians in particular, don’t like to do things by halves. If they have 50km of road to repair, they don’t do it in short sections, they dig up ALL 50KM OF ROAD at once. And then operate the biggest contra-flow system this side of Alpha-Centauri. And so we waited. Then drove for a bit along a dirt track at the end of the road. Then we waited some more. And drove a little bit more. This went on for a loooong time. And then, just as we were getting to the end of this madness, we were the first on the scene to an accident. A truck had plowed into the back of another truck. Our passengers, possibly feeling ultra-public spirited after the episode with the bag thief, took the injured driver from his cab and placed him, broken and bleeding, on the floor of our bus. His face had been lacerated by broken glass and his left leg had been snapped in two at the ankle. I hate it in situations like this where you feel completely useless. I wished I still had that kick-ass painkiller that the doctor who I was drinking with in Lesotho in October 2009 gave me. The minibus drove the poor kid to the hospital where he was stretchered off. By now it was 4am. I knew that the buses for Kampala (my last stop on this mad dash before I hit South Sudan) left between 6 and 7am. There wasn’t any time to lose!

But that’s when we got stopped by the police. Because of the terrifying high incidents of accidents on Tanzanian roads, buses aren’t allowed to drive overnight. They have the same rule in Mozambique and Ethiopia and to be honest, it’s fair enough. Travelling through Africa on public buses is a hair-raising experience at the best of times, and I was thankful that every bus I’d been on had safety belts. I was the only passenger to use them, but then I’m probably the only passenger who doesn’t believe in an all-powerful ever-loving God. But still, it threw a spanner in the works. There’s no way I’d hit Juba by Sunday as I had originally intended.

We arrived in Dar es Salaam at 10am, ten hours later than promised. As it turned out, it was possibly a blessing in disguise as Casey and I had work to do: the press release for my final frontier. As many of my long-term subscribers have often noted, I don’t get anywhere near the recognition for doing this that I’d have hoped for. I get, on average, 300 visitors a day to this site and the [mmmmm] STILL haven’t given me the go-ahead to put my post-Jan 2010 tapes on YouTube. This has been a source of constant irritation for me – it’s not because I want or need the money, it’s more to do with the fact I haven’t raised anywhere near the amount I would have liked to for WaterAid.

So I spent the day in Subway abusing their free wi-fi as Case and I threw the press release back and forth, getting it *just right* (you’ll be glad to hear she’s just as anal as me about fonts etc.) and put together a spreadsheet of all the media contacts I’ve made over the last four years, from Antigua to Fiji and everywhere in between. In the evening, I trudged over to the nearest thing to a backpackers in town, the Juba Inn. As I was going to finish my journey in Juba, it seemed frightfully appropriate.

Happily, they had free wi-fi as well. And so I tidied up the website ready for the big day and cut together a series of visual clips to put on YouTube for the meedja to use as necessary. By 5am I realised I should have possibly got some sleep. The taxi was outside ready to take me to the bus station.

Day 1,424: Where It All Began

Sat 24 Nov 12:

Today I headed north from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, across the plains of the Serengeti, and yes Mount Kilimanjaro did rise like an empress. Crikey it’s big. Maasai tribes people in their traditional garb trotting along the side of the road, spear in one hand, mobile phone in the order. Welcome to 21st century Africa. I had nothing left to read on this trip, so instead I looked out of the window into my distant past.

In a way this is not just a return for me to this particular dusty corner of Planet Earth, this is a return to where it all began.

The beginning not of my odyssey, but of humanity’s odyssey. Eons ago, a relative of the Australopithecines stood tall on their hind legs, picked up a bone and began a journey. A journey that has taken over 3,000,000 years but now concerns and dominates the fate of every living thing on the planet. And it all started right here. We are all Africans. We know this because science. These plains are where Mitochondrial Eve once walked, possibly talked, hunted for food, definitely got laid. She was your great x 3,500 grandmother. The evidence for this is written into every single cell in your body. And your body is made up of approximately 50 trillion cells. Over the 7 billion humans who inhabit this rock, that’s a metric f—ton of evidence.

You see science doesn’t give two hoots about your ego. It couldn’t care less that we live in a vast godless universe in which terrible things occasionally happen and that there are a million more ways of being dead than being alive. Science cares not what you think, it only cares about what can be proven. Consistently. Repeatedly. Systematically. PROVEN. And how telling is it that the first casualty of war, of totalitarianism, of religion, of corruption, of fundamentalism, of dogma, of politics… is the truth. Conversely lies, propaganda and nonsense are the first casualties of science.

On the poster for The Shawshank Redemption they say that hope will set you free. But, come on, did you actually watch that movie?? Andy didn’t sit there for 20 years praying to some imaginary friend in the sky for deliverance. He dug a goddamn tunnel. But what would, what should, have set him free – in a fair world – is the truth. What brought down Nixon? What felled the Berlin Wall? What gave the families of the Hillsborough victims the vindication they had been pursuing for over twenty years? The Truth.

And the truth is this: racism is not just intolerable, not just embarrassing, not just pig-ignorant, not just a pathetic hankering for a panacea for one’s own shortcomings – it is utterly and completely scientifically incongruous. This is science, the guy who doesn’t care about upsetting people, the guy who tells you the cancer is terminal and yes you’re going to die. If there was any scientific merit in the way the horrible little rat-faced morons in the KKK see the world, science would shrug and say, “yes, I’m sorry but it’s true, some people are just born inferior.” But it doesn’t. Not because science needs to be politically correct (clue: it doesn’t), but because it simply isn’t true. While nations, culture, education and beliefs can play a huge role in the making of an individual, whether you’re a total dick or not is pretty much set at birth.

Yep, WE ARE *ALL* AFRICANS. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Oswald Mosley.

Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.