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In the mind of a cyclist crossing Africa

The continent traverse


Text and photos by Samuel Roy

Traveling by bicycle is the ultimate freedom. Not only do our physical and mental health rejoice, but our wallet can also be spared, it's good for the environment, and the pace of this mode of transportation allows us to experience each place we pass through with our five senses.

If it's uphill, our legs will feel it; if it rains all day, we can't escape it; if the lavender fields are in bloom, our noses are delighted. This low speed and vulnerability that represent us as cycle tourists make us apt to meet locals in the countries we visit, people we would probably never have spoken to if we had passed by car. These individuals are often curious and amazed by our adventure. While cycling, we let our hearts guide us, living a pure, minimalist, and rewarding lifestyle.

A cycle touring trip is also an opportunity to reflect; suddenly, we find ourselves with all this time, freedom, and mental space, resources that are too often limited at home. Hour by hour, as we pedal, the mind wanders. During this journey across the African continent, from Cairo to Cape Town, this was certainly the case for me. When I wasn't distracted by the "click clack" of my friend's gears or the dozens of camels crossing the road, I thought about Africa, the countries we were passing through, all the encounters and challenges, but most importantly, I compared this beautiful continent to our Western world.

What struck me most were the perspectives, opinions, and misconceptions detached from reality that we, Westerners, have regarding Africa. First of all, geographically speaking, Africa is a continent, like Europe or Asia, and not a country. Too many people treat the African continent as if it were a single entity, yet it comprises 54 countries with cultural and environmental differences as varied as comparing Sweden to Vietnam.

In the Western world, the limited knowledge we have about Africa is often due to the way news is handled by the media or non-governmental organizations operating there. Who hasn't seen or heard about children suffering from famines, women walking miles to find water, and maniacal, bloodthirsty dictators? These images are not false, but Africa is not only that. Pieces are missing from the puzzle to reveal the full identity of this magnificent continent. In many respects, Africa is doing better than we think. Unfortunately, we rarely hear about countries that are stable politically and economically, like Botswana, the extraordinary and unique gastronomy of Ethiopia, or the farmer cooperatives of Malawi. The reason is simple: it doesn't sell. This information does not have the potential to make the front page of the newspaper. So, the media talks about genocides and atrocities to make headlines, and NGOs solicit us to help communities in difficulty.

It was in Sudan, the country on our itinerary about which most people warned me, that I witnessed a reality opposite to my initial expectations. Not only did I feel safe at all times, but I also met happy, warm, welcoming, and generous people. A young man in his twenties and his little brother whom I encountered on the road invited me into their modest family home to share a delicious local meal and talk to me about their lives and Islam, a memorable human experience.

Of course, Africa is neither all gray nor all rosy, and to understand the current issues, one simply needs to delve a little into its historical past. Initially, several African ports primarily served as stops for ships traveling the spice route between Europe and Asia. Later, interest grew in the continent's abundant resources as well as the lucrative slave market. Inhabited by local populations for centuries, the African continent was colonized, much like America, by powerful European countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Portugal, and the Netherlands. The European empires then drew borders arbitrarily on a map, creating countries and territories divided by resources and not by the ethnicities already present. That's where the trouble began.

Today's Africa consists of countries that themselves contain several different tribes, think of Nigeria or Congo, for example. These tribes were present long before the arrival of Europeans and have completely different cultures, religions with nothing in common, some are nomadic, others sedentary, their respective languages do not allow them to communicate with each other, and some tribes have long maintained fierce rivalries against each other. It's quite challenging to create a solid nationalist sentiment when suddenly these many ethnic groups are supposed to coexist in the same country, under the same government, and all identify and recognize themselves as Somalis or Zimbabweans.

Even today, the impact of these poorly established borders is felt. Many governments are divided vertically, by ethnicity, rather than horizontally, by ideology. Thus, even in a democratic country, it's often the government originating from the country's largest tribe that is elected, and the other ethnic groups are thus oppressed, hence the reason for the countless civil wars.

Finally, the fate of Africa lies in the hands of Africans, those who know and understand their continent. Now independent, these many countries are gradually recovering in their own way from the consequences left by colonization. It is, in fact, a continent infinitely full of positives; one only needs to visit to experience it, no matter the country. Africans possess qualities and values of humanity. You will be struck by how warm people are and their sharp social skills. Here, people still look each other in the eyes, everyone greets and shakes hands. Everything is more felt and immediate; love, war, family, life, death, nature. This is what you experience while traveling by bicycle across Africa. #thisisafrica


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