Leg 2: Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya
Claude Marthaler left his native Switzerland in March 1994 with a plan to cycle around the world. His journey has taken him through East Europe, the Baltic States, India and Nepal (he loves mountains!), China, Japan and from the northern-most point of North America through the length of South America. He is now travelling north through Africa on his way home. Claude travels under no fixed itinerary or schedule. His mission was simply to travel the world, and to meet people along the way - something made easy by cycling. In a series of four letters to Travel Africa readers, Claude is sharing his thoughts on the African continent and its people as he progresses through his unusual African safari. This is his second such letter.
The smelly tropical torpor, more than the invisible border politically contrived between Britain and Portugal, brought me into Mozambique. It was over a huge bridge which spans the Zambezi river and serenely ignores the human snobbery of chronology.
Under improvised huts, smuggled fuel in jerry cans and soda bottles was sold. Shortage compensated by excess was everywhere. Quality and reason are luxury when the stomach cries. Baroque-style art decorated single-geared Indian Hero and Chinese Flying Pigeon bikes. Damaged loud speakers were pushed to their full volume and potholes, huge as craters, stopped fast, fully-loaded pick-ups.
Both sides of the road had been burnt to produce woodcoal and still resembled a landmine terrain. If tourists come to Africa for the sun, locals and cyclists look for shade; 35oC on my shoulders was enough to visualise a Mozambique turning into a desert-like the rest of Africa.
I had no watch and only a two-day visa to cross the 250km Tete Corridor. My wheels turned well into the night as, exhausted, I reached the Malawian border. Precise as a Swiss watch, the official started to ask me for money for his extra half an hour of work. A bit furious at my prompt negative reaction, he had to stamp twice on my passport to print the full date of entry. I slept outside, at the entrance to the police station, but this supposedly safe place turned out to be a hang-out for mosquitos. By chance, my tiredness that night proved to be good protection against malaria.
A wide, new road, out of proportion to the non-existent traffic, crossed a tender green carpet of tea plantations and Malawian cedars, the national tree. I camped at the foot of the Mulanje mountain range and eventually climbed it. A dense forest brought me to a vast plateau. Above, huge basalt blocks had stopped their run as the Rift Valley marked Africa forever.
In almost any circumstances, a conversation between an African and a White man hardly ever finishes without "Give me your address!", "Give me money!" or, more elaborately, "I give you my address, send me money!"
Sometimes simply using the "backdoor" version:
"Where are you from?"
"I want to go there!"
"What do you know about Switzerland?"
"Switzerland, good country!"
If a lifetime could be enough to fill the gap between my dreams and reality, it could never do it between our two different worlds.
Two days in Mozambique, then only a week in Malawi, gave me the illusion that Africa was not that big after all.
The asphalt world disappeared and an army of cyclists passed, carrying anything impossible to carry: wooden planks a few metres longer than their bikes, masses of sugar cane, wives and children.
In Mozambique, as I filled out my entry form at the immigration office, all the employees went outside to welcome my "portable home". I was Latin and felt closer to the Mozambicans who, turned towards the sea, were far warmer people.
The British, unlike the Portuguese, had left behind them a communication, educational and administrative infrastructure. At some 10,000km from Europe, this isolated border post was a perfect reproduction of the differences between the south and the north of the Old Continent.
I changed US$20 dollars and was already a quarter of a million Meticales richer. The smiling employee made me wait an hour to give me back the missing 3,000 Meticales-the equivalent of 50 cents. I passed broken houses with no roofs-Mozambique had been through a 24-year-long civil war but, strangely enough, here nobody asked me "Give me money!"
In Africa, one starts always to stop, to sit down and to talk anywhere, anytime. Among a handful of my pictures, a grandfather who kindly brought me towards his mud hut kept looking at one picture showing goats in the Russian winter. He said: "Before the war there were plenty of goats here; now you can't find a single one left". (Later on, in Tanzania, people would associate the goats with Australia, although there is no snow there.)
Children wore adults' T-shirts, showing one naked shoulder. Clothes with English slogans of urban life, like "Everything I learned I learned from my dog", arrived here through charity collections, senseless in words, but warm for their cotton. In fact, the T-shirts often had more holes than fabric. Women were naturally topless.
Mozambique, having suffered enough, has forgotten anything about looks or puritanism. Small huts along the wet trail reminded me of fragile Bangladesh; they had only soap, transistor batteries, glucose biscuits "Made in India", tiny dried fish, three packets of cigarettes, bananas and salt.
Most African languages (with the notable exception of the Bushmen ones), with their limited numeration up to five (if not simply "one, two or many"), were enough to define the sum of articles sold in the stores. For one dollar, I could buy eight coconuts or 116 bananas. As my stove had collapsed, a teacher kindly offered me his fogao (fire). As Martin Buler writes in Moses: "The tradition of the campfire faces that of the pyramids". I prepared a full pot of pasta and gave him half of it. In Africa, food is always welcome and eaten quickly.
Apart from a few capitals, Africa is dissemination. A huge network of trails. Villages along the road seem at first tiny, but extend widely into the forest, among mango and coconut trees.
The increasing heat forced me to start riding in the early morning, well before sunrise. I could see, ahead, the dusty trail rolling on an ocean of hills. It often plunged down to rivers, as most of the bridges had been destroyed during the war and had not yet been rebuilt. I crossed villages and passed suddenly from an empty horizon to walls of hands, faces and bodies. Never had Africa appeared to me so numerous, curious and dense.
Jose, a Mozambican of 34 years who worked in an electric station, made me sleep there. He summarised for me the last centuries of successive colonisations:
"When Arabs came here, there was an African culture, but nobody remembers it. Russians are racists. They brought us guns and stole our cotton. Portuguese were harsh and lazy, woke up late, doing a long siesta. They always behave as padrones (bosses), loving to give orders. British have uplifted the southern countries of Africa. The Germans are really good people; Mozambicans sent to East Germany have good memories; those sent to Russia hated it. The Cubans have been by far the warmest. I called my son Stephan in honour of my Swedish teacher in Maputo."
I reached Ihla de Moçambique some 500 years after Vasco Da Gama, whose journey changed the face of the world and created a huge African community of Portuguese speakers. Legend says he took a rest under a Kangaroo tree and met two Arabs, Musse and Ibique. He associated their names to a new island and later on to a country.
His "imperialist" bronze statue was cut down in 1974 by the Frelimo, but the islanders, facing poverty and hoping for tourism (the government even asks the Portuguese to come back with investments), wish to put the giant on his feet again. Perhaps an acceptance of the past and their most recent 24-year long isolation means they are finally ready to find a place again on the world map.
Paradoxically, the islanders, whose houses are falling into ruin despite the protection of the UNESCO, appeared to me, with their kindness and their incredible mixture of beliefs, languages and cultures, like a preamble of our modern world: cosmopolitan.
A launch brought me across the Ruvuma river, the border between Mozambique and Tanzania. The salt water was reason enough to go on board but the owner, to make sure to get the Muzungu into his pocket, added: "Crocos! Hippos!" And to start, he offered me 15 times the normal price. We eventually settled on twice the local price.
"Muzungu?" I asked. "White Man!" he mocked, his eyes wondering how I could be so ignorant about who I was. In China, I was a "long nose"; in Japan a Gadjin; in Latin America a gringo. Once again, I got the uncomfortable feeling I was riding around the world like a "masked rider", with no ownership except the only thing (apart from my bike) I felt legitimate: my identity.
I regularly joined the traditional African huts to buy sweet tea and drop my sweaty print on the table and the bench. Or I would just lie under a Banyan, close my eyes and dream about a huge meal, snow, anything which could make me pedal fast enough to escape the oppressive heat.
Finally I would just sleep in and wake up off schedule, mobbed by an entire village, a curious crowd staring at this half-dead-looking Muzungu and wondering why he inflicted himself with such bad treatment (riding a bike) when he was obviously a rich man? "Polle sana!" ("take a rest! I share all the joy and sufferings on your way") was on all their lips.
In Europe, you think more and more that you might have a serious problem if you don't travel. Simply out of the trend! In Africa, because you travel you are rich. Because you are rich and because you are travelling by bike, you must have a serious problem. I didn't dare to tell them that I had maybe an even bigger "problem"-doing the biggest circuit on a bike a kid could dream of. I could barely believe myself that I was actually riding towards Europe.
"How is the road?" I asked fearfully like a cyclist facing extinction, after hundreds of kilometres of bad trail. "Good!" said an African wearing a T-shirt of Julius Nyerere, the recently-deceased father of the nation. "Good!" he repeated, offering an open smile like a lion's mouth. He knew that in about a month this sandy trail would simply vanish. I didn't. Therefore, I felt something was missing but couldn't understand what. Was it that music was suddenly absent from the African natural landscape for the one month mourning of Mwalimu (the Teacher)?
The shadows of the palm trees were short, the heat unbearable. For confirmation, I asked the time.
"Six!" replied one villager politely.
I looked at the Japanese watch on his wrist. From my side (the outside) the time was truly six , but from his side (the inside) it was 12. The rare watch-owners were unanimous about their time-against the sun, at least I thought so. Till I realised that Greenwich and Mercator were British and French projections of the world, arbitrary for the first and even wrong for the second. Divide to rule, the time, the space. If the time starts at 12 anywhere on our planet, in Tanzania 12 starts at sunrise. 6 or 12, it was damned hot in Africa.
I had long since lost count of the number of my days on two wheels; lost my Swiss watch, forgotten about the meridians or the borders. I floated naturally on two thumbs of air over the red soil of the savannah, in complete osmosis.
Then, I climbed the Uhuru (freedom) peak of Kilimanjaro (5,892m). From the "Roof of Africa", I felt already close to Nairobi, free and united like the volcano. If I had a watch, Africans have time-and no hurry to enter the millennium of globalisation.
Nairobi, Kenya, 99,250km
Published in Travel Africa Edition Eleven: Spring 2000 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)