Dying of thinness

As regular readers would know, a young couple that come from the next suburb are currently travelling the world. Every now and then they send me a travelogue which I post to my web site. The latest can be read here.

For those who might like to see a wider view of Africa Tarun has written about African life as she has experienced it, particularly the influence of AIDS.

July 2004 Travel in Africa

Travelling through Eastern and Southern Africa we see and observe many things. All we are looking for is a fair fare, but mzungu prices are the go, inflated for tourists. Often we will agree to a price, only to have it rapidly inflated as the bus leaves the station. So negotiations with buses consists of a constant series of attempted extortion by touts selling the tickets, us crying poor and bluffing by leaving our seats to take our bags off the bus. Them calling our bluff, by removing our bags for us, but rapidly dropping their prices as we start to walk away. When we are in the mood, we love the theatrics of the ritual, although at times it is a little tiring.

Travelling on public transport means we have grown accustomed to eating opportunistically, as you never know how long it will be before food comes your way again. Sometimes food is barbequed bananas or goat satays, maize or cashews, all purchased through the bus window as we pass through small villages of thatched-roofed mud huts. At times we are packed in so tightly it is hardly possible to move your toe, for hours at a time. When the roads are bumpy, the trick is to try and get the much sought-after front seats, not an easy task. Being in the back third of the bus can mean being launched into the air at every pot hole (and there are many in places like Kenya). This means getting to the bus early. This is also not an easy task, as the bus leaves when full, and not at a specified time. For independent travel in Africa you must remember to pack your patience and sense of humour. Getting into the bus when it is mostly full can still mean an hours’ wait sitting at the station, and then a further hour of driving around town, tooting the horn for last minute passengers before we are FINALLY on the road.

Our travel companions are mostly rural Africans, women dressed in three or four sarongs, and if they have a baby a fifth sarong will be employed to tie the baby to the mother. An average bus trip might mean 27 adults squeezed into an eighteen seater mini bus, with five children sitting on parents’ laps. In these situations, the smell of stale sweat and charcoal smoke permeates the thick air. African hair is ever-tamed, not allowed to live in its free, wild springy state. Always knotted or plaited into complicated designs, dyed copper or red, hair is a work of art here. Those who cannot afford the time or money involved in keeping this effect keep it short or shaved. Accommodation outside of tourist centres can also be an adventure, as budget places seldom have running water and showering is done from a bucket. You could pay more, but there is no guarantee there will be running water there either!

The response of the local people to us varies from country to country. In Tanzania they looked at us in a way generaly reserved for that given to a rich, spoilt child who has been given everything they can never have. In Malawi, people are quite friendly and laid back, joking with each other and smiling. It is easier to speak to people here as the people speak English. We have found African people to be very intelligent and extremely competitive for our business. We have regularly ended up in the middle of punch ups in bus stations while touts compete for our business, roughly pushing or punching eachother and yelling at us, making effective negotiation and communication impossible. Which may be the point of the exercise. We have learned to counter this by telling them not to shout at us, or putting our bags on the ground and sitting on them (to prevent someone loading them onto their bus!) until things calm down. Confused touts will shake their heads in our direction, but when the urgency on our part disappears, the price rapidly drops closer to local level until we agree to go on one bus. Other touts will tell us we have surely made a bad decision, that we will never arrive on time and that the driver is crazy. They then pat each other on the back for coming up with such a clever thing to say to a mzungu. We tell them all drivers are crazy and no one ever arrives on time anyway, and they have to smile in agreement, because it’s true.

The countryside is varied and changing. We have seen everything from jungle (Uganda) to open veld (Kenya/ northern Tanzania) to green, undulating hilly landscape (Malawi) to mountains and dry scrub plains dotted with skeletal boababs silhouetted against the sky. Huts vary also, round, square, tin roofed or thatched. The thatch in Malawi is long, almost to the ground around the hut itself. Some tin roofs are made of recycled oil drums and lids, like big fish scales.

AIDS in Africa is scary. 20 million out of 25 million people infected with AIDS worldwide live in eastern and southern Africa. In Malawi, 15% of the population have it, and in Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi where we stayed for a week, 40% of the town is affected. We see thin, weak people walking around, as drugs to treat AIDS are not provided by government or affordable for most people. Denial is more rife than AIDS itself, as it is seen to be a thing to be ashamed of. People who die of AIDS are officially listed as having died of pneumonia or ‘thinness’ to avoid the stigma on the family. We also hear that in the USA, AIDS is not listed as the cause of death on the certificates, so that the bodies can be buried in the graveyards. The catchphrase in AIDS prevention education across this part of Africa is the ABC- A for Abstinence, B for Be faithful and C for Condoms (very much an optional extra).

From what we can see, the A and B might be a nice ideal, but do not appear to be appropriate to the culture and human nature, and there seems to be an attitude promoted principally by men (and possibly churches, who are pushing for A and B) that the C is not entirely effective anyway. So this gives men an excuse to not worry about using condoms when they visit prostitutes or one of their many girlfriends. There is also an attitude that the government should solve everyone’s problems here (a bit like at home really). One guy we spoke to in Kenya actually said ‘It’s sad when someone dies of AIDS. At least if they die of malaria you can blame the government.’ So what did he think about people using condoms? He just referred to the A and B, as C ‘is not effective anyway.’ So people continue to die here. Scary stat: 35% of aid workers in Africa have AIDS themselves. There are many aid projects in Africa, and some past projects have helped to improve facilities and standards of living along the way (drinking water is apparently safe in many countries), however it has created an attitude of aid-dependency and expectance amongst an intelligent and resourceful people.

If something major needs fixing, rather than looking for a solution, they say the UN or and aid agency should fix it, and we fear the government has the same attitude themselves. A lot of foreign aid goes to the fat cat politician’s pockets, as many European countries continue to give millions of dollars in aid with no accountability for outcomes. Much aid seems to be given with the desired result of opening up African resources to foreign exploitation, rather than helping the people.

Looking in the mirror it is now eleven months since we left home and we are pretty well exhausted. We find we are being unneccesarily harsh on the people we are interacting with, especially if we feel they are trying to pull one over us, purely because we are too tired to put up with it. Which is a problem, as lying, cheating and stealing are essential parts of doing business in Africa. We are planning the rest of our trip around highlights, resting at each spot for a few extra days before travelling in another hard slog to the next place.

Our only regret about our time in Africa is that we do not have enough of it, or energy, to do the place justice. It is filled with amazing places, people and adventures, and we are already planning our next trip back…but we would not have spent one day less in any of the places we have been to, and want to visit them all again.

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