Sunday, January 10, 2010

January 8, 2010: Most Probably From Somewhere Over the Atlantic

It’s time to start writing what I promised to so many of you.  A blog.  I set it up a while back,  as some of you know.  I even wrote a bit, but I haven’t really started.  It’s none too late.  Our journey has already started.  We’re actually in the air, at least some 35000 feet above sea level and 5 hours out from San Francisco.  That should put us somewhere over Nova Scotia I should think, and just about to hit the North Atlantic skies.  The air outside is about -70 degrees Fahrenheit.  My awareness of the fragile nature of my protected existence seems eerily appropriate given the nature of our planned overland trip from London to Capetown, South Africa. 

The planning for this voyage has been at least 2 years in the making, though the thought of it really started many years ago when I lived in Kenya in the 1970s.  In those days, I saw so many travelers pass through Kenya who had braved the roads across the Congo, as it was commonly referred to.  The stories were sometimes harrowing.  Mostly I heard about breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, forging rivers by wenches, and getting bogged in mud, the extraction from which sometimes required a good fraction of local villagers.  Occasionally I’d hear stories about encounters with hostile Africans, but more commonly I’d hear of magical moments with pigmies in the Congo side of the Ruwenzori mountains, a favorite stop over in those days.  A spark of wonder is created when one hears of adventure.  It must be a universal response. The child within a deeper psyche emerges.  The adult who hovers above in the more cerebral regions of our cortex warns of dangers and concern.  So many people have told me they would love to join me on this trip, but very few, most notably, Lorrie Fair, a young female soccer player of extraordinary talent persisted with her determination to go.

Back in my day in Africa, the seventies,  I was Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in Kenya.  I had time to read much about travelers to Africa.  The great ones are well known: Livingstone, Speke and Burton. They were very unusual men with rare instincts and dogged determination.  Richard Burton was a remarkable man.  It is said that he could speak 26 languages.  He had traveled all his life and had adventures everywhere in the unknown world. There was a Scottish man named James Bruce, who walked from the Red Sea coastline of Ethiopia, modern day Massawa,  to Lake Tana, then followed the river from Tana, now called the Blue Nile to it’s junction with the White Nile at Khartoum.  From there he followed the Nile by foot all the way to Cairo.  It took him four years and he was credited with discovering the source of the Blue Nile.  He did this decades before Livingstone’s journeys into Nyasaland and Tanganyika, now called Malawi and Tanzania.  In 1772, he even discovered Meroe, a heretofore mythical civilization of black Africans, the ancient Nubians who ruled the whole of Egypt for over a century, long before the birth of Christ. If this brief intro captures your imagination, read the Blue Nile by Alan Morehead.  It’s well written and captivating.  Get a volume with the photos.  They’ll wow you.

Nearly one hundred years later, in the era of David Livingstone, John Speke and Richard Burton,  the continent of Africa was still the “Dark Continent” and the source of the Nile was still “undiscovered.” One should discuss  the idea of the discovery of the Nile advisedly and with some sense of political correctness. Africans will frequently remind you they always knew exactly where it was long before Europeans were much more than a group of unruly tribesmen dressed in skins and sometimes nothing at all.  Check out one of the most famous marble sculptures preserved from antiquity, that of the "Dying Gaul."  He wore nothing but a gold torc around his neck.  It’s a refreshing reminder. Eurocentric talk is a pathway fraught with difficult roadmaps, alarms, stop signs and pits big enough to bury oneself in the dishonor of unfetterd arrogance.  The ancients of Europe knew little of Africa.  They were hardly interested in the land beyond the Nubia, named by the Egyptians because the word meant “gold.” Egyptians and Romans also wanted slaves, of course.  Everyone wanted free labor.  Wild animals were important for skins and the circus of the time, the amphitheaters of Rome, where they killed the animals for the pleasure of their patrons.  There were a few attempts to penetrate the Africa that captivated the imaginations of the ancients.  However, their success was limited. No one, not the Egyptians, not the Asyrians, not the Persians, nor the Romans ever got beyond the 4th cataract and Meroe was never conquered by the West or the East.  Caesar Augustus, who lost few attempts to expand his empire,  was thwarted by a woman, Amanirenas, who led the Nubians in war against the might of the Roman Empire.  Augustus had to come to terms with her and never bothered her again.  Nero, it is said, tried to  send an expedition of Romans up the Nile to explore Africa.  However, they never came back. Today there is still talk that they morphed into the Maasai because of the similarities of weaponry, warfare, and a few cultural practices.  The Mountains of the Moon, interestingly, were first described by Phoenicians over two thousand years ago.  Today we call them the “Ruwenzoris.” These are the headwaters of the Nile, so maybe someone from ancient times actually made it to the heart of unknown Africa.  There’s no record of it beyond a brief reference.

In the 1800s, the source of the Nile was the biggest debate in Europe and the discovery of the source of the Nile was considered as big as, well, landing on the moon. Livingstone thought he found it when he discovered Lake Tanganyika; but he was dramatically discredited by John Speke, who demonstrated that the source of the Nile had to be at a higher altitude.  It was his argument that led to the naming of Lake Victoria as the Nile source.  You can read about this, too, in Alan Moorhead’s the White Nile.  Great stuff. One may ask, why all the interest in the source of the Nile?  Was it just the fascination with the unknown?  That was part of it.  Everyone wants to achieve something and make a mark.  We haven’t changed.  We will always have secrets to unveil, if within the atom, within the black holes of space, or at the depths of the ocean floor. But something was more sinister afoot.  If it wasn’t articulated by the brave explorers of the times or by the Royal Society of England, it was on the minds of men who dreamed of wealth.  The real themes were power, control, domination, exploitation of natural resources, and land, lots of land.

Certainly, the explorers who took on the mission of delving into and unveiling the mysteries of the unknown and unexplored Africa did not know what they were actually doing.  They couldn’t have.  Even the most mercenary among those who explored Africa couldn’t have imagined the extent of the consequences of their actions.  One hundred and fifty years later, a mere flutter of a bat’s wing in geological time, consequences of these explorations might cause those explorers, would they have lived long enough to witness them,  to shutter in horror and despair.   If they were obsessed with the wonder of the unknown  and revealing its mystery, many of those who followed them were obsessed with other objectives. A timely movie has just been released called Avatar.  It is a fable-like story that tells the eternal theme of exploitation by those who have and thirst unquenchably for more.  Avatar, fortunately for the make-believe characters, has a relatively happy ending. The exploiters are vanquished.  It’s the ending anyone would like, should he find himself in the shoes of the exploited. If the movie was timely for this blog, it wasn’t timely for Africa. Such a story should have emerged from the Western World a long, long time ago.  Too bad Livingstone didn’t have one of HG Well’s time machines to travel forward.  He wouldn’t have needed to travel far either. Maybe he would never have chosen his life’s work to open up the heart of the darkest part of the dark continent to bring God to those whom he assumed had none.  

Greed and lust are primal motives that so often drive men and women. Would we overpower those basic instincts with thoughts of moral and ethical concerns if we had the crystal ball to see into the future,  to understand the consequences of our own actions?  We are so simple, in the end.  Aren’t we?  We are driven now by what drove us thousands of years ago.  The one difference is that the consequences now of our behaviors have such magnitude and the impact is so much more immediate.  Now the actions of the modern world don’t just threaten others.  Now the “others” are ourselves.

The disastrous effects of global warming on Africa are in progress and as inevitable as the toll of the HIV epidemic.  These are monstrous developments that occurred because we are, sometimes by simple inquisitiveness, but mostly by a parochial desire to survive, destined to do every self destructive thing we can do to ourselves.

Adventurers will never go away.  The thrill and excitement of exploring what is unknown is too alluring for us to repeal its call just because discovery can lead to the excesses of those who take advantage of the explorer's findings.  

And for me to put our journey to Africa on the scale of exploration is silly.  We’re just a small group of simple minded souls who want to learn a little about Africa and, in the end, celebrate with Africans who must anticipate with wonder and amazement the coming of the World Cup to African soil.

Maybe my thoughts wander a bit too much for the reader who follows our journey lured by the romance of travel or simply want to join us on our journey to the World Cup.  However, the history of the initial explorations of Africa have a relevance to our relatively inconsequential, if not trivial expedition.  The closing of a full circle is nearing.  Africa, for 150 years, has been subjugated, exploited, and stripped of it’s material and human wealth by people who invaded that continent for personal gain and without regard to the human consequence.  However, there is a new Africa that is emerging.  It is embryonic, but it is an Africa that is defining itself in an adaptive way that allows it to hold onto it’s beauty and wonder, it’s magic and its majesty.  Yes, parts of Africa may look physically more and more like the world of the people who invaded, colonized, and stripped it bare, but it is and will remain Africa.  No place in Africa is more deserving of the honor of showcasing the Africa of the modern world than is South Africa.  No African country was more thoroughly and severely robbed of it’s soul than South Africa.  And no country is emerging with a greater sense of purpose than South Africa.  Even though I have been there once and only briefly I have witnessed these changes.  Even though the horrific squalor of the sprawling cardboard shanties still exist,  reminding us of the price of Western greed and the long, long road Africa must travel to better the living standards of its inhabitants, there is evidence of a new beginning.  Perhaps the personages Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu are the best of all the evidence of the new Africa.  How do these men, knowing what they know, suffering what they suffered, look at the people who created their misery and say “let’s put that behind us and move forward”?  It is, I’m sure, because of their extraordinary bravery and power of their vision that Africa will move forward, having forgiven but not forgotten that which has threatened their very existence.  

The World Cup may be the most significant event on African soil this century.  A World Cup staged in Africa is recognition by the outside world that Africa is now a part of that world.  Instead of foraging the ground for gold and diamonds and absconding with them to markets in Europe, the Americas and Asia, instead of loading the bodies of children, wives and husbands onto ships for their personal use in distant lands, images, I might add, are as relevant today as they were hundreds of years ago, foreign people are coming to Africa in the hundreds of thousands, and television will broadcast events to the billions of non-Africans, to celebrate a foreign sport that Africans have embraced made their own.  The World Cup, though just a collection of games, will help to begin to heal and nurture the damaged soul of Africa.  Foreigners will bring something overdue, but powerful, meaningful and hopeful to Africans everywhere.

So, as I start this blog and, now have started this trip, these are the thoughts that run through my mind as I wonder why in the hell am I doing this.

How many people have asked me, “Are you carrying guns? Are you afraid? What about the terrorists? What about the civil wars?  What about the hijackers on Kenyan roads? What about the children who carry guns?”  I can go on and on.  The thought of traveling the length of Africa to watch soccer games conjures up some scary concerns.  However, there’s no free ride anywhere.  I can’t drive through Hunter’s Point in San Francisco without feeling a bit concerned for my well-being. West and East Oakland scares the hell out of me.  I'm not driven towards reckless endangerment. Certainly I wouldn’t navigate the countryside of Afghanistan to see a soccer game.  I have realistic thoughts and concerns about our safety.  However, Africa is filled with beautiful, generous and honorable people, just like back home. It is truly amazing how much sorrow and pain can be created by the will of a very few, everywhere in this complex world of ours.  We’ll do our best to avoid the crazies and certainly we expect to have some encounters with unpleasant people.  However, my thoughts are not on the dangers of our travel.  I want to celebrate a great moment in history and be part one of the happiest moments to ever happen on the African continent.

Maria and I will shorty land in London.  A couple days later we will pick up Lorrie Fair and drive to Peterborough, a town near Cambridge where our landcruisers were assembled and prepared for this special journey.  We will meet for the first time  two other members of our overland expedition when we arrive:  Ashley Paguyo and Eli Sinkus. I’ll certainly have more to write about then and maybe we can introduce you to the vehicles who will take us some 20,000 miles to our destination.