We take a rest day camping at Chitimba Beach on the shores of Lake Malawi. We had had a long ride after leaving Mbeya, 162 kilometers and a border crossing into Malawi. We were looking forward to a pause. As we arrived at the turn off to the beach, about one kilometer from the main road we were greeted by young men wrapped in the orange flagging tape, the navigation aids that indicate key turning points on our daily route. We assumed they had been hired by our Tour organizers to help us find our way. It quickly became clear this was not the case. They were there to drum up business for their woodcarving or do laundry or take us fishing or a walkabout. They, like many such that we had met throughout our expedition, were sharp and had natural sales instincts. They always asked our names, where we hailed from and so on. They offered to help walk our bikes along the narrow, sandy path to the camp. In these ways, they worked quickly to establish a personal connection before starting their sales pitches, maintaining their well polished patter to the gate of the beach camp.
Chitimba is a delightful place, something like a more basic Caribbean resort. It offers some rooms (we camped), a block of showers with hot water (rare for us) and a spacious, open-air bar/restaurant under a vaulted thatched roof. The place is owned by a Dutch couple who have been running it for the past 12 years. A minute’s walk takes us to the sandy beach of the lake. We are in our own private world shutting out the bustling, teeming, importunate Malawian life beyond the gate of which we had glimpses cycling through the countryside.
In the early morning we saw men, women and children walking the roadside with primitive farming implements, hoes and scythes fashioned from rough wood and locally forged iron. (More than 80% of the population depend on smallholder agricultural for their livelihood.) We passed troops of children who run quickly to see us, the passing circus, shouting “mzungu, mzungu” (white person). They would call out “good morning” regardless of time of day or “what’s your name” or, more often, “give me money”.
We pedaled through villages with women finely balancing baskets of bananas or tomatoes or potatoes on their heads; others laid out their produce on matting on the ground. If we stopped it was to find a cold drink and a quick snack before hurrying on our way. At camp, when we talk among ourselves about the day’s ride it is most often about the features of the landscape.
In a way, our expedition is a little like the Chitimba Beach camp. We are an enclave in a bubble passing through the countries of north and east Africa. We are on a schedule; we have distances to cover each day. There is no time for side trips, school visits or stopping, say, for an extended meal with a local farmer or stall holder, although such possibilities did occasionally present themselves. We snatch conversations as we would a gulp from our water bottle as we cycle on.
In Dongola we talk to a former seaman, now a local worthy, about his sea adventures.
At a lunch break in the Tanzanian conservation area—wherever we stop we are an attraction with children and adults gathering to view our strange goings on and the wealth of our belongings—a young farmer, Jonas, watches along with others He is bright, curious and speaks good English. He wants to understand who we are and what we are doing. His life is defined by his community and his land. He grows maize and groundnuts. He also works with the Southern Tanzania Elephant Program (STEP), an elephant conservation program that aims to protect and keep farms secure from marauding. After twenty minutes we shake hands, say goodbye and are off again. It is the road that defines our existence.
In Lilongwe we meet with representatives of local community groups. They are here to receive a donation of twenty bikes from TDA’s charitable foundation. Liliane talks about her community based organization network bringing together 27 grassroots groups for mutual support. Their work is diverse including HIV and AIDS awareness meetings, visiting patients, providing feeding programs for children, and educating farmers on new methods. In a country with scant resources and a large rural population mobility is a major issue. Everyone walks long distances: to work, to fetch water, to visit a clinic and so on. The bicycles will make a big difference to these groups. After the information session, the donation ceremony and some photos, we disperse. There are our tents to set up and bikes to sort out.
Yes, we are in a bubble but we are not immune to what is around us. It inevitably pierces our protective skin. We have glimpses of lives far different from anything we can imagine. We cannot help but see that Africa is not “Africa”, a homogenous entity, the dark continent of too much of western imaginings. We have experienced countries different from each other in customs, habits, religion, topography and much else. And we are on bikes. We are not enclosed in the bubble of a car or bus We are every day physically exposed to the air, the landscape, the people. We are in subtle ways being changed by the experience of being in Africa, even as we are passing through. How and in what ways remains to be seen in the months to come.