Monday, March 31, 2014

Lilongwe to Lusaka

We began our westbound journey to the Zambian border today. We arose to a clear sky and and a long, straight road through fields of corn, sunflowers, squash, ground nuts. As we departed Malawi, we expect that the Imcumbent government will be challenged notwithstanding the rhetoric of her excellency Dr. Joyce Banda: unity, equity, development. 

The capital has some of the trappings of western society, including some private schools (often aligned with a denomination). There is an elite who can send their children to institutes with grand facilities. By contrast, the village schools are simple brick structures with shabby classrooms. The fee-paying schools can advertise and promote themselves whereas the local public school takes whomever can fill the seats. Notice the draw of an international school.

Our next destination is another capital, Lusaka. It is apparently more advanced and the Zambian economy is more robust due to the mineral wealth. The currency here in Zambia is also the Kwacha; the greenback is worth 6 Kwacha here whereas the same US dollar was worth 400 Malawian Kwacha. 
Prices for our desired food items are noticeably higher here in Zambia. 

The coming days will be onerous in terms of distance. Fortunately, the road is paved, not too hilly and the wind may be at us backs. The board tells the story. Today was a mere 152 kilometres. The next two days will be centuries (100 miles or 160 kms.+).

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Machetes and Footwear

When one cycles through Africa, one sees many folks wielding a menacing blade. Though the purpose of the "cutlass" is to crop grass or unwanted vegetation, the thought crosses one's mind that said blade could be used as a weapon. The marketplace in Lilongwe offers one an array of sharp edges. The collection here gives you an indication of the size of these implements.

Further into the commercial district, one comes to the artistes who carve and/or market the wares of their brethren. The latter specialists tend to pander to the foreign audience. 

And the there is the Canadian story of sensible footwear. May Thomas Bata and his family be proud of their drive to provide decent shoes for the unshod. Not bad for a family from the Czech Republic that aspired to make durable boots for all.

Democracy in Malawi

Malawi votes on May 20th to determine new leaders of its public administration. Her excellency, Joyce Banda, is the incumbent. On my way into town, her image was prominently displayed on billboards. She is a woman of the people. Citizens supporting her reelection were bussed into Lilongwe yesterday to show their allegiance. Orange was the colour of their contingent. Please not the rhetoric: unity, equity, development. It is virtually impossible to argue against such noble principles.

Imagine my surprise when I happened on the men in green, from the UDF, trumpeting a different tune. They were quite animated and convincing as opposition to Joyce's rule. Though I do not purport to know the niceties of their policies, their dances were compelling.

After visiting our Mabuya camp to attend to the mundane task of laundry, I sauntered back to town and came across more more detail about Ms. Banda's rhetoric. Let us see how these democratic exercises unfold. Perhaps, Toronto can learn from such practises.

Diplomatic Enclaves and My Homeys

Lilongwe is Malawi's capital city. An enterprising colleague of mine found lodging in the embassy row of this sprawling community. For the first time in several nights, I managed to sleep through until daybreak. The Burley Guest House is sequestered in a sleepy, remote, leafy suburb. The street on which it is located has no name, let alone address numbers. When we caught a cab back to this swanky venue, the cab driver was at a loss to find it. Several Kwacha later, the joint was found through a series of phone calls.

This Sunday morning I decided to walk into town, an activity which is extremely rare in Area 43, the ex-patriot gated zone of Lilongwe. Equipped with an umbrella to shield my sensitive skin from the sun, I sauntered into the city centre. What follows is a montage of what unfolded.

One after the other, massive estates girded by brick walls topped with barb-wired appeared. I imagined the lifestyle of the Norwegian ambassador behind this gate.

Then the bamboo groves and corn reminded me of the fecundity of the soil.

Closer to town, the new convention centre, built by the good people of the People's Republic of China, stood out. It is an impressive structure, to be sure. There is enough parking for an army. 

Once I arrived in the hub of the city, some home boys accosted me. Hey, I was the only white guy in the hood. They engaged me, tried to sell me some hub caps and I insisted that I was not a customer. After explaining what the Tour D' Afrique is, I offered to take their picture and send it on to them. Here they are. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Roadside Attractions

The majority of our riding day is spent on the African roads. The sights are, in turn, spectacular and banal. From lush foliage to ordinary corn fields, there are hours of passing views and, almost always, people. In Malawi, cyclists share the road with pedestrians, especially school children, and livestock herders. Villages appear randomly where a community has coalesced. 

The signage is often amusing. Shops claim to be supermarkets and they resemble ramshackle huts with a variety of stale biscuits and the standard array of beverages. The concept of one-stop shopping is alive here with local emporia offering everything to the discerning consumer.

The best direct-to-market sites are the roadside vegetable and fruit displays. Farmers bring their produce to the shoulder of the main road and artistically stack the fruit. 

And the local marketers seems to be able of carrying phenomenal loads of their wares. Women are masters of the art of balancing such weight on their heads.

People in villages wait for buses, socialize and watch the world go by. Simultaneously, the businesswomen ply their trade while the idlers hang out and kibbitz. In this village, flying ants were being sold to the bold. I gave them a miss.

And, invariably, there is a toddler who walks around ingratiating himself to the onlookers. This child was outgoing and engaging with anyone. There is no pretense here.

Friday, March 28, 2014

San Mateo

We bid farewell to the court jester tomorrow. His departure merits mention as we will be bereft of his daily comic relief. Mateo is a jack of all trades and, as he will hasten to add, a master of none. I reckon he has mastered the art of being human. Camera-shy, he refused to be in the group shot as we left Khartoum. Here he is applauding the Tanzanian children who he serenaded.

Soon after we headed north from Khartoum into nasty headwinds, he and another cyclist bumped into each other in a mini-peloton. Henceforth, he referred to himself as Crash. He later contracted some heinous parasite that would have tested the humour and patience of lesser mortals. Though he was on meds and presumably feeling like death, he has always been quick with a one-liner. 

In camp, Mateo would jam with our cook Yanez and anyone who can carry a tune. He even convinced me that I am not tone-deaf (which I am). His skill as a cartoonist is exceptional. His compiled works will be a hot item for everyone on tour. As he jets back to San Francisco, we all wish him a safe and humourous journey. Thanks for the ride and our daily laughs.


You may appreciate that this part of Africa is hot and humid. In order to slake one's thirst, a cold beverage is needed. Some riders sensibly rely on water. Others support the bottom line of Coca-Cola which is ubiquitous. Indeed, the oases where TDA participants refuel are referred to as coke stops, whether or not Pepsi is the bottling corporation. My drink of choice is beer.

A friend on tour informed me that some Germans refer to beer as liquid bread. Ever since that revelation, I have justified my suds consumption by referring to the time-honoured tradition of monks brewing their own lager during fast periods. When I saw this sign, I had to have a cold one.

Outside the establishment, a young man on a bicycle was doing business on his mobile. 

Beyond the roadhouse, a cowherd minded his livestock.

I inquired about local food at the counter of the bottle shop. The woman at the counter said she could prepare a meal for me. This appealed so I waited and anticipated a fine lunch. Indeed, that was what I received in the living room adjacent to the shop. Rice, greens, and an omelet constituted the home cooking. When I pulled out Kwacha, the Malawi currency, to pay, my host said "No. You are my friend now. I cannot charge you." Despite my best efforts, the family would not take money for this kindness.

Statistically, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The GDP per capita is the lowest among the nine countries on the TDA route. Curiously, the majority of citizens greet us with a smile. Their gross national happiness appears to be high. Again, there is not a necessary correlation between material wealth and quality of life.

Mzuzu Musings

This town is midway between the Tanzania-Malawi border and the capital of Lilongwe. It has a robust market, a university, and an outgoing population. One can indulge in the local produce: tomatoes, avocados, ground nuts and cassava. The last item is apparently a staple. It can be seen on the roadside drying under the sun. Here, it is ready for sale. 

Yesterday, we had a rest day at Chitimba Beach, a resort area that overlooks Lake Malawi. The site of our lodging is operated by a Dutchman and a crew of local staff. Due to its location far from markets, the cost of meals tends to be rather high by Malawi standards. However, its raison d' etre is the sand, the waves and the peaceful waterfront.

On the eve of our arrival, a potluck was organized by our leader. Each person was asked to bring a food item to share with the whole group. Given the fact we could not cook, the spread was heavy on processed junk. Randy concocted a fruit punch that was laced with booze. A sloppy game of unlit night beach volleyball ensued. 

The following evening featured a pig roast. The swine was procured in the morning and cooked all day on a spit. Those who do not observe kashrut could pay for their fill of pork; the vegetarians had a delicious pasta salad. The chef and his comrades kept vigil by the fire. Check out the fellow on the right: fast asleep. In the heat of a Malawi afternoon, napping is a good use of time.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Sunflowers and Muddy Campsites

The so-called Masai Steppe section wound up, literally, in Mbeya, Tanzania yesterday afternoon. The TDA is divided into sections. We opened with the Pyramids of Nubia, climbed Biblical Ethiopia, and entered Kenya on Meltdown Madness (a reference to the lava rock desert). The latest experience covered the path from sprawling Nairobi to Rift Valley town. 

Rainy season is upon East Africa and we copped a torrent in Arusha and cycled out of the mist into lovely skies on the steppe. The landscape turns green and some fields greet you with a smiling colour.

The track eventually became dirt. Until the rain resumed, we had the good fortune to navigate some country roads with well-established, packed "lines" in which we could direct our tires. Our campsites were school soccer fields by the roadside of the village communities where we could stroll and interact with the locals. In one such hamlet, I brought my device and explained the reason for muzungu (foreigners) on bikes in the midst of rural Tanzania. The boys in the hood were impressed.

Around the tents and vehicles on the football pitch, children gathered to gawk at the crazy folks. Unlike in Ethiopia, there was a greater level of engagement with the kids. On the whole, the Tanzanian school-aged students appeared more open to us. Some of our creative participants taught them how to do the hokey pokey.

It was so popular that some of the standing-room only crowd had to climb to get a view of the action.

The day of this camp was wet. Yesterday, on our approach to Mbeya, it was indeed cold and wet. The track became slippery with mud. Suffice to say that we now need to clean our gear, our bikes and take advantage of the brilliant African sun.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


The internet café in Singida is a happening place on a Sunday afternoon. The boys are outside watching football, English Premier League. It is the sport in Africa and the world. The gathering is rapt. You can see that one Arsenal supporter is wearing his team's colours. Presumably, the heroes on these teams are the African players who do their country proud.

A note on currency is warranted at this point. We started with pounds in Sudan, shifted to birr in Ethiopia and the last two countries use the shilling. Whereas in Kenya, one receives a mere 83 shillings for a greenback, the Tanzanias give you twenty times that amount of their shillings. Here are a few notes on the table adjacent to a Serengeti beer.

Notice the elephant and rhino on these denominations. Julius Nyerere and other Tanzanian luminaries also grace their coins and bills. Tourism has to be the top industry with Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, Ngorogoro, Tangarire, mention a few. Safari hawkers will hustle you anywhere. Alas, in my view, some poorly educated folks survive off the petty scans that are subsidiary to the actual safaris. 

My cursory impression of Tanzania is that it is a country rich in resources with extraordinary potential. The land is lush and one infers that it is self-sufficient in food. Fruit is abundant, especially bananas, mangoes, pineapple. While it has a comparable population to Kenya, about 44 million, it seems to distribute wealth a bit more evenly (though that may not be the case).

We head south from here to Mbeya, our next rest stop before entering Malawi. The road is dirt and it could get filthy with the forecast rains upon us. Our last night in Arusha, most campers, including me, got virtually no sleep due to a biblical downpour that submerged our tents. We took refuge under any sheltered place that was dry. And proceeded to cover 330 kilometres over mostly tarmac roads yesterday and today. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Administration of Justice

Having grown up in a family where the rule of law was discussed, it interests me to learn about the judicial systems here in Africa. From Kenya down to South Africa, the vestiges of British colonizatio are evident in civil administration. The common law is, in theory, practised here. While I walked into town, I noticed the top court, quite a contrast to our Supreme Court.

We have cycled by correctional facilities and yet it is unclear how many convicted criminals are incarcerated or what the sentencing biases are. The crime rate in various countries is the subject of some discussion in the press. Likewise, instances of government corruption or misconduct are publicized as they are in the west. On the surface, it seems as though most citizens have a modicum of respect for legal authority, whether it be in the form of a constable or an armed soldier.

What confronts one daily is the income inequality. As I write this, there is a beauty garden outside the hotel and the patrons are well-heeled foreigners. My guess is that the ordinary Tanzanian subject would not be able to afford a night in such a place let alone take her or his family on vacation.

The notion of socio-economic justice is in one's consciousness when travelling through these gorgeous locales. The juxtaposition of tourists on safari to impoverished children on the roadside begs a lot of questions regarding human development. To understand potential solutions to the economic problems faced by Africans, I am reading Moyo's Dead Aid, the book to which I was referred by my peace corps acquaintance in Yirge Chefe, Ethiopia. The author grew up in Lusaka and makes a case against traditional aid as the answer to Africa's economic woes.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Arusha Leisure

This city is the midpoint of our tour. While the staff use the three day layover to attend to the vehicles, banking, and myriad chores, the riders disperse to safaris. Our base is at Masai Camp in a green area at the bottom end of a valley. Having spent yesterday in motorized vehicles getting to and from Moshi, I opted to stay a few nights at L' Oasis, a comfortable spot down some dirt alleyways. This is the entry point to the hood.

Navigating it in the dark was an adventure but it was well worth the wait as the accommodations are clean, quiet and spacious. There is a shower and a flush toilet. The restaurant has libations and standard Tanzanian fare. And breakfast is a feast. 

We are in rainy season and when it does sprinkle, it is usually short-lived and light. The tropical heat and humidity is conducive to naps. And cold beverages are ubiquitous. Indeed, throughout Africa there is a theme of Coke stops. Here in Arusha, there is a bottling facility. Pepsi and Coca-Cola both do a roaring trade throughout the continent.

A few sites I visited today did not allow me to take photos. One was the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda and another was an edifice entitled the Prevention of Corruption Bureau. At both sites, I was approached by officious personnel warning me of the consequences of taking shots of these government facilities. 

One note on the transit reality here. Chinese bikes are used on the roads by vendors and commuters. Vans or mini-buses offer lifts for cheap. Plenty of trucks and buses cruise over the speed bumps. However, the fashionable way to get around Arusha is by motorcycle. And young men hang out at the roadside, proudly showing off their machines. I prefer a bicycle any day. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Eye Care in Africa

The SEVA-supported services provided by the community ophthalmology organization, KCCO, are broadly eye care programs, training of personnel in communities and research. SEVA contributed $237,355 US in 2012 to the work. There are several donor organizations that contribute to the operating budget.

Trained ophthalmologists in Africa, as in the west, are located in cities. Comsequently, outreach to the communities is essential in order to identify the eye care needs of each community. KCCO sends teams, including nurses, counsellors and technicians to many sites in Africa to assess the needs and educate people, especially women, regarding the availability of eye care services, including cataract surgery. Following up with the patients who are treated is important in providing evidence of the effectiveness of the treatment.

The geographic range of KCCO extends to 10 sites: Madagascar (3), Uganda (2), Burundi, Ethiopia, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. In total, over 85,000 were screened and treated for eye diseases in 2012. The annual report for 2012 lists 7,762 cataract surgeries performed. 

Education is instrumental in encouraging more patients to access the camps and clinics. Micro finance programs targeting women in rural areas are assisted by KCCO. Eye health initiatives such as the Sentinel Project are evaluated. Teachers at African schools for the blind are given training to improve education of students with low vision. Awareness of trachoma and trichiasis is raised in the community. KCCO collaborates with other NGOs in the planning to eliminate both trachoma and trichiasis (both of which can lead to blindness).

There is more. Suffice to say that this small staff is committed to the vision (pun intended) of providing eye health training and helping Africans access eye clinics and services. The site is

Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology

The charitable cause to which many friends and family have donated is the eye care programs in Africa funded, in part, by SEVA Service Society. My partner Cathy and I became engaged with SEVA in the early 1990s and served on the board in that decade. The motto for the organization has been "A solution in sight". The mandate has been to improve vision care and, when possible, to restore sight through corrective surgery such as cataract operations.

Yesterday, I hopped on a local bus and did the milk run to Moshi to visit the KCCO. The city of Moshi is at the base of Africa's tallest peak and is the site of a regional hospital called the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre within which the KCCO office was originally housed. After being approached by safari promoters, I made my way to the hospital. 

Though I have been in regular contact with KCCO staff and SEVA, I was unaware that the office had moved. However, the medical facility is where much of the optometry, screening and surgery takes place. Below is the entrance to the clinic.

Outside the clinic, some of the services are listed.

Inside, patients queue for treatment. 

The clinic was busy indeed. A clerk directed me to the KCCO office on Boma Road in the city. There I met with staff members and had a thorough discussion of their work. The grainy image below (sorry) is the KCCO staff.

From left to right, they are: Genes Mng' a nya, Adminstrator, Peter, intern, the woman who maintains the office, Fortunate, program manager, Titus Nyange, Sustainability Planner and Elizabeth Kishiki, Childhood Blindness/Low Vision Coordinator.

In the following entry, I will explain what the mission is.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Local Cyclists

We bid farewell to our Kenyan friends today though they accompanied us here to Arusha, the epicentre of the thriving safari industry. Each country we visit seems to have cycling enthusiasts who want to share the love of the ride with us. Here are our Kenyan comrades at the Namanga border. Thanks for showing us the way.

And the man filling his water bottle is Dedan, the amazing paralympian competitor who learned to bike after losing his leg in an accident. The beauty of the backdrop was a treat as we approached the "Kili" district.

I Want To Ride my Bicycle

The tune by Queen is relevant to everyone who loves this efficient, healthy and joyful means of getting around. Today, the merits of cycling and the pleasure derived from using two wheels to push oneself from point to point was on ful display with the TDA foundation's third distribution of bikes here in Arusha. At Masai Camp, the beneficiaries gathered with us to participate in the celebration of cycling. The images below will speak for the themselves. 

And each recipient spoke to the impact of the bikes on their daily lives.

The delight was transparent. It really does make a change for one person: a parent, a child, a caregiver.

The people who have enabled this gift and the recipients are to be congratulated. Well done!