Back to Africa: the Worst of Times

Sorting through photos and reading Karmen’s stories about our Africa trip made me realize just how tough it was during that first week of travel. I honestly wasn’t sure we were going to make it. Endless days. Sleepless nights. We didn’t know or trust people yet, so we kept $50,000 worth of equipment on our backs or in our tents at night. Karmen fought off naseau and stomach upset. I felt so bad for her, especially since there was no way for her to tell whether it was something she ate or drank, traveling through winding roads or some virus. She was such a trooper! Being American, I tended to vocalize my pain a bit more. Within days, the constant sitting had made my old lady knees swell more than running on cement does. My attempts at trying to type on the bumpy ride strained my wrists and right forearm. Did I mention we got no sleep? Here are some of our experiences during those first trying days…

Nairobi, Kenya to Arusha, Tanzania

This morning we finally hit the road. The organizers insisted we be ready at 8 a.m., but we didn’t leave for Arusha, Tanzania until after 10. Speeches, prayers, group photos and sleeping bag disbursement took forever. The Africa Travel Company tour leaders, who thankfully seem extremely organized, got antsy waiting for us. We have a border crossing and a lot of people still need visas, and no one is sure how long today’s journey will take.

Arusha, Tanzania to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania
Today was hard. After listening to our fellow campers laughing and talking loudly until 3 o’clock—through earplugs and headphones playing music at full volume—we awoke at 4 a.m. to a rainstorm, packed up in the sweaty and increasingly muddy dark and boarded the truck. Twelve hours later we arrived in Dar-es-Salaam…. at rush hour. It took another three hours to drive from one end of the city to the campsite. Outside the downtown, this city sprawls into long stretches of abandoned buildings and empty space, occasionally punctuated by markets, bars and gas stations. And then more nothing. We passed an oil-lamp lit market, which could have been inviting… But after a woman yelled “I’ll hit you” in Swahili to one of the Norwegians on our truck the area lost its appeal for me. Not that we ever have time to soak in local flavor anyway. When we finally arrived at Kipepeo Beach camp, after 15 excruciating hours of driving, we still had to set up our tents, charge our laptops, do truck chores—all in the dark. Finally we collapsed exhausted listening to the Indian Ocean’s waves.

Iringa, Tanzania to… um… somewhere in Malawi
I’ve noticed that folks love to shrug their shoulders and say “this is Africa” to explain time delays and general caravan disorganization. This is really starting to get my goat. First of all, Africa is a continent, one which happens to be quite large. With so many distinct countries, people groups and languages, it’s highly unlikely that some common Africa-ness could explain away every logistical mishap we’ve experienced in the four countries we’ve been to so far.

Secondly—unless offered in response to my happy squeals and clapping over my most recent zebra sighting—“this is Africa” is only ever employed by Westerners, usually to gloss over their own lack of planning and communication. Often following a request that the listener “be more flexible”, “this is Africa” is really just a paternalistic way to pass the buck. Though it may sound culturally competent to the untrained ear, the phrase implicitly likens an entire continent to a wayward child who just doesn’t understand time or infrastructure or wi-fi and who we Westerners just need to be patient with.

But the real reason I hate “this is Africa” is because I can never, ever manage to invoke it for my own benefit. For example, “this is Africa” has absolutely no utility at 4 a.m. when we are roused from our brief slumber. It’s as if we magically left Africa during the night and washed up on European shores. Tardiness is not tolerated, water shortages and power outs are no excuse for delays, and we break camp, dress, eat and return to jam-packed trucks for another 600 km with practically Germanic efficiency.


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2 comments on “Back to Africa: the Worst of Times
  1. You are right with your feeling towards “TIA”, but don’t think you should see it so black and white.

    In SA for instance, people from all walks of life / skin colours / cultural backgrounds use it – and more in a humouristic way – one to deal with issues like poor infrastructure (which is a problem facing many African countries south of the Sahara), power failures (ditto), corrupt officials, and potholes the size of baby elephants. While using the phrase, these Africans and others do not diss their country / continent. On the contrary. I think it is more an “acceptance phrase”. As in “It is what it is”. :)

    • Ruth Terry says:

      Woof. I’m just now seeing this comment like over a year later. Mostly, it just bothers me when Europeans and Americans use the term. Maybe I shouldn’t take it so seriously. Funny, though, now I live in Costa Rica and Americans LOVE to say with a sigh, “Well, it’s Costa Rica”… Usually about things like potholes (the streets here in San José are better than the ones I had in Michigan, US.) or getting Internet set up. I guess it just depends on your frame of reference… You’re right, though, it seems like it always has to do with infrastructure not measuring up to where a person is from. Maybe I should start saying, “Well, it’s no Long Island/Chicago/Africa” here ;-)

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I'm a smart, sassy, globally-mobile freelance writer, content creator, brand journalist and nonprofit storyteller. The world is my office. Email me to find out more.
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