African-isms & favorite quotes

In Nigeria, I was a “fresh fish,” or JJC – Johnny just come, the affectionate nickname of newly arrived ex-pats. “Wahala” are all the problems you have to deal with, and you often need to complain about wahala or ask for no more wahala. But if you want a cheaper price, you ask to pay “small money.” Annoying people are called “goat“, and everything else bad are “bastads,” but all things good and wonderful are “sweet” or “sweetah.” Everything is said to happen “now now,” and repeating “yes” or “now” or “yes now” at the end of all your sentences is commonplace.

I met a Turkish guy couchsurfing in Lagos, and it turns out he was there to avoid mandatory military service back home. He explained religion like this: “It’s like cheap alcohol – first it makes you blind, then it makes you fight… And then it kills you.

One of the workers at the German embassy in Lagos said “If I nah fite and I nah tief, then I’m gonna be somebody. And I neva fite and I nah tief so I’m ok.”

There are a lot of other sayings and gestures that have become so natural that it’s hard to think of them as local “-isms”, but then for all the other far-out, unexpected, crazy or chaotic happenings, there’s always “TIA”, This Is Africa, which explains and forgives the rest. In Senegal, they have a similar saying, “Senegalaisement“, or “the Senegalese way”, to explain the silly mistakes or illogical happenings one always seems to encounter in Dakar.

A friend of mine was asking a lot of questions about traveling in Africa, how it was, the cost of things, and the hassles I encountered. I responded to his questions and questioned back how it was to live in Africa, and he said “Life in Africa is easy, and it gets easier if people like you. Life in Africa is cheap too, but it’s even cheaper if people like you.” And that pretty much sums it up right – same story goes for traveling in Africa.

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Wierd things about West Africa

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I’ve been slowly adding to this list as time goes by, but I think it will continue to grow…

Wierd things that happen in West Africa

1.) My alarm clock is a guy singing Arabic over a micorphone. There are 5 calls to prayer every day, but since schedules vary, there are usually more than 10 calls every day, starting as early as 4 am.

2.) Women tie their new born babies and all the way up to 5 year old children on their backs with a cloth, and theyre forced to follow them around everywhere they go and usually you dont even notice them.

3.) People brush their teeth with sticks… like small, wooden root things that they chew to pieces.

4.) Horse drawn carriages collect the garbage, and the horse working are always calm stallions.

5.) Taxis have horse tails and buses are painted with horse heads

6.) People are usually dressed really well, everyone has a cell phone, but still they usually live in shacks without water or electricity

7.) People can’t count or add very well. Have exact change and buy one thing at a time.

8.) Touristy places, like hotels and restaurants, are usually empty and expensive, so its like paying for a private pool party wherever you go.

9.) Every country is scared of the next and advises you to stay within their borders

10.) People hit eachother alot, in a very violent way, to show affection and tease eachother.

11.) Goats live on the roof and patios of peoples houses

12.) Childre like to be given pens or candies

13.) Africans can see perfectly at night, and recognize faces in the pitch dark

14.) Buses always take 2x longer

15.) The guards job at every residence is ironic since they’re actually doing most of the crime… They end up knowing too much, earning too little, and I guess give in to temptation.

16.) People here really like my hair, and I get asked if they can touch it or if I would sell it.

17.) Africans are afraid of water and dogs, especially big, barking dogs.

18.) Oxen herds roam the highway, and everywhere else actually.

19.) Celine Dion is always on the radio. Her French songs play in French West Africa, and her English songs in the anglophone countries.

20.) Sitting cross-legged is impolite. Sit with your knees together and a straight back anyone in front of any official.

But, these wierd things have all become less and less wierd as I get used to them, so now their just regular normalities Ill probably miss when I leave this place…

East Africa Travel Advice: how to normalize

Learn to squat for hole-in-the-ground toilets, and always carry toilet paper.

Exercise patience (people talk and work very slowly), and learn to talk and do things slowly yourself.

If you’re going to Tanzania or Kenya, learn some Swahili. If you’re going to Burundi, Congo or Rwanda, learn a lot of French.

People speak quietly, unintelligibly even, so practice focused listening, and never yell or raise your voice to be better understood.

Expect variations on the English words used in different countires. For example, public tansport can be called either taxi, bus, matatu, or special car, but they all refer to slightly different things, ie. A mini-bus, a coach bus, a local bus or a private car. A hotel can refer to a bar, restaurant, or an actual hotel, and I haven’t quite worked out what hostel refers to since there’s lots of them, but the most hostel-looking hostels are usually called guesthouses or backpackers.

Be grammatically flexible: prepare for misspellings, ie. You’ll stay at a ‘resourt’ and buy meat at the ‘butcer,’ get used to different pronunciations, ie. Bon-shuu for bonjour, and some phrases like “hello” are often replied with wrong responses like “fine.” The internet is called “network,” as well as cell phone service, and  you won’t have either “network” in many places outside of urban areas. When you do have network, you’ll realize how much you took for granted the fast internet connections we’ve grown used to.

Bring a book to stay away from your ipod, and buy an unlocked cell phone from 2004 to avoid standing out with a fancy smart phone.

Passerby, independent travelers aren’t the norm yet; people will as where you live or work since East Africa is full of expats, so be prepared to explain your story of why you wanted to backpack through East Africa.

Be prepared for missionaries and their prophecies; many will ask if you are Christian, so either say you are with some evidence to back it up, or learn to enjoy spontaneous bible lessons. These can come from white, American Missionaries from Kentucky, or your bus driver from the Serengeti. Even the most indigenous tribes are often Christian, and Masai’s are often renamed at baptism, so get used to meeting a lot of James’ and John’s.

Throw your East Africa Lonely Planet out the window. The Africa shoestring book as more pages on the Congo and Burundi than the East African book (7 pages on Burundi, and 5 pages on the Congo, a country 40 times the size of Rwanda). My East Africa journey was the first solo-trip I’ve ever done without a guide, and although Frommers and Bradt may be ok, Id still say throw you guidebook out the window – facts and things are so variable and dynamic that by the time anything is published on prices or times or places, they’ve most likely changed, and one person’s recommendation for how, where, when or why to do anything is always different from anothers.

Embrace the beauty of chaos and revel in the disorganization of freedom. You can talk your way in or out of almost anything, remember that no never means no, and become friends with the hard working African mindset that anything can be done, either with enough time or money.

Get used to walking between countries, and always crossing two borders to get across. One to leave the country you’re in, and one to enter the county you’re going to, that will have a $25-100 visa payable only in US dollars.

For Rwanda, most countries need to preapply online for a visa, atleast 24 hours before you arrive. NOTE: this may only be true for a little while, or only true of some borders, but there is no way for me to confirm or deny what the real truth is since the transmission of knowledge seems to act like a skipping stone – only some are privy to the truth, others can only speculate what the next skip is as they sink out of sight. Most visas are around $50, and you can only pay with fresh, new US dollar bills. It’s a different year for each country, but I remember cut off mint dates being 2000, 2004 and 2006.

There’s supposed to be agreement between Uganda/Tanzania/Kenya to offer an informal East African Visa, but Ugandan authorities don’t seem to know anything about it and it only dismisses you from paying a single entry visa more than once while not having to preapply for a multi-entry visa when moving between Tanzania and Kenya. There is still rumor about an actual East Africa Visa among all the Lake Victoria bordering countries, but who knows if and when that will be available.

US Dollars in denominations of $5, $10 or $20 get worse exchange rates, about 25% less, than bills of $50 or $100. ATM’s often give you about 5% less than a cash exchange rate, so come with a lot of US cash, especially since ATMs aren’t so common anywhere but large towns or capital cities.

The entire country of Burundi is off the international banking grid, so no ATMs exist and you cannot use any type of debit or credit card.

I still cant remember straight, but some East African countries drive on the left, others on the right, and both right and left-hand drive cars are used in both environments so it gets very confusing if and when you’re on the wrong side of the road.

You can skip the malarone and other slightly-anti-malarial pills, but sleeping without a mosquito net is not ok- so bring your own for the hotels and homes you stay in that don’t have one. It won’t protect you from the sound of creepy, heavy crawlies around or under your bed, but it will keep small bugs from buzzing around your ears all night and biting up your forehead.

Theft is unusual, if there’s any chance of being caught, since stealing is a big deal, even punishable by death. There was an incidence where a farmer in Tanzania walked to Burundi and stole some cows, and 3 days later, had been found by the Burundian farmers and hacked to pieces with machetes, and another where a young man stole a motorbike, and once caught, was doused in fuel and burned to death, right in the middle of the street.

The buses will always say their leaving soon, but they aren’t. They’ll leave the engine idling so you believe they are, and despite high fuel costs, they make the sacrifice as a tactic to try and get the next passengers onboard, which will make their bus filled first, and thus, their bus leave first. If you ask how long a bus takes, seven people will tell you different times, and all will be telling you driving hours not including stops, or they’ll tell you the distance. Knowing the kilometers unfortunately doesn’t tell you anything, because it depends on the road quality, weather, type of car, and if they have to fill up on fuel or wait for a paid passenger after leaving the bus station.

You’ll miss mzungus, and at the sight of one, stop yourself from pointing/waving and yelling “MZUNGU!” like everyone else does to you since you start to think this is a normal reaction. Then when you do see one, you’ll feel strangely intruded, wondering “what are they doing here?” Other times youll feel relieved, have someone to talk to at a more familiar level.

Know you’ll be experience such intense sensory overload that you actually start becoming desensitized. One may also call this a normalization: Normality shifts, time slows, your reactions mellow, your hygiene standards vanish, your comfort boundary expands, and your tolerance for everything and anything increases. One may also call this transformation a rite of passage, since this is the one piece of advice that you can only really understand after having travelled through East Africa yourself.

 

 

What I miss most about East Africa

The kronur may be cheaper than it once was, but I still miss the prices of things. A pound for a hostel bed, a euro for a bus ride, a dollar for a beer, and 25 cents for a coffee. Its nice when the coffee is fresh, local coffee, but more often than not it was instant Nescafe. You have to order your beer warm or cold, and though they cost the same, only the tourists or elitists order it cold (though it warms up very quickly) since locals are used to drinking beer warm.

I miss the feeling of the equatorial sun heating my back and browning my face, accompanied by the endless sweat dripping from my forehead. Then the dust and grime in all public places collects on your sticky skin and every shower I take ends up in brown water running down me and forming a muddy pool at my feet.I miss the humidity of the air, keeping your skin moisturized and the nights warm.

I miss the gratitude I felt for shade, to get out of the sun for some relief from the heat, and the lottery I felt I won when sitting on an all-day bus on the non-sunny side. None of the buses were air conditioned, so I miss the bus routes, stopping every 500 metres, that speed up to go again, creating the most wonderful breeze through the open windows. I miss the risk factor of every bus, taking the one which looked least likely to break down, and checking out the driver who would soon have your life in his hands.

I miss the coziness of the buses, filled with twice as many passengers as they’re supposed to be, and each passenger carrying a bucket of flour, a jug of water, a live chicken, or an infant child on their lap. The convenience of never having to get off the bus to shop for whatever you needed was a lazy luxury – bottles of water, grilled corn, meat brochettes, gigantic avocados, the redest tomatoes or bananas of all sizes would show up at your window every time the bus stopped, for sale for a few cents.

The frequent lightning storms made the weather exciting; I miss the sight of electrifying blue lightning bolts with a hundred arms visible from miles away in the midday grey or lighting up the dead of night, and the awe of thunder so loud it shakes the building you’re in.

I strangely miss the bugs – the constant buzzing and cooing of hundreds of insects, mostly at night. The sign of life everywhere you look, even the cockroaches in the filthiest of corners. Little flies often shared my beer, drowning in glory in the foamy, alcoholic bubbles. One hotel room I went to look at in Mbale seemed to be ok from the outside, and the hallway leading up the room was newly painted, but upon opening the door to my room, a massive spider scurried past. The woman showing me the room put her slipper on it nonchalantly, and when a cockroach scurried past she did nothing, since he would be my roommate. Two more cockroaches inhabiting the bathroom made me decide I’d rather not intrude so they kept the room to themselves.

I miss the taste of street food, the little bits of grit you feel between your teeth as you chew gristly meat and under-ripe corn on the cob. Watching the transformation of fresh planted veggies into a delicious vegetarian dishes, and silky roosters slit, plucked and cooked into tough, chewy chicken. However, I have to admit I don’t miss the smell of freshly plucked chickens, or the chicken poo they sit in waiting, tied up, for their death sentence.

I do miss the general assortment of smells, the strength of stenches that ensure you your sense of smell is working just fine, and make you appreciate when you’re not surrounded by the stink of urine or the smoggy traffic exhaust that leaves you gasping for oxygen.

I loved how the tourism industry was East Africa’s Hollywood – everyone who made a job with tourists would presumably become rich, and meet foreign friends and possible spouses who could take them to their country to visit or work, even live forever. The kindness of people may have been because of my light skin or the type of passport I held, but I miss the people, their bright smiles and friendly hello’s, and how everyone calls me ‘sister.’ I miss the moral inclinations towards Christianity, everyone spreading Gods word for his love to shower those with nothing.

Burundi

A transit visa allows you only 3 days in Burundi, and because its tiny and all travel advisories I read about it before coming suggested I shouldn’t go at all, I opted for the 72 hour sampler. Rwanda helped transition me into a French frame of mind, but I find the African-French accent more difficult to understand. Adjusting to another exchange rate is always tricky, since changing money at the border gives you a pretty good chance to getting ripped off handsomely. Its about 1500 Burundian Francs to $1US, and the smallest bill is 50 francs – you can imagine how many bills you end up with if trying to carry $20USD in small notes. The actual bills are the most well used pieces of paper I’ve ever seen, something so worn it should be taken out of circulation and put in an ancient articrafts museum.

In 3 days, I only had a few hours in the rural areas in my transit in and out of Bujumbura, the capital city. After crossing the northern border from Rwanda, things changed slowly to reintroduce me to another country. The terraced hills became fewer, a little more crooked. The language in Rwanda and Burundi is basically the same, but people spoke differently. The villages became more haggard, people – dustier, things – cheaper. Arriving from the rolling hills into the city was an unexpected site – Bujumbura lies on a flat plain bordering Lake Tanganyika.

Transitioning to French as the lingua franca was a small problem, but only for me since others spoke enough English to help me through any language failures. Feeling lost in communication was the least of my problems when I tried to navigate Bujumbura’s central market. It’s this intensely vast market, open at the sides but covered by a vaulted roof high enough to keep fresh air circulating through the congested corridors.

 

the sewing section

Arriving at one of the entrances resulted in stares and cheers, and I guessed it was from wearing shorts so I took my scarf and wrapped it around me as a skirt. People quieted once I was inside the market, and instead I heard quite “Karibu’s” and felt faint touches on my arm as I walked past each vendor, welcoming me to look in their stall. The market was overwhelmingly large, but perfectly organized, with each type of good in its designated corner. You can anything you can imagine there, from clothes to flour to pesticide and alcohol. I wandered in circles and made left and right turns that just resulted in me turning myself around so many times I had no idea where I started. I never walked the same alley twice, and only when I returned back to the raw meat butcheries did I recognize a corner of the market I’d already seen. I was totally lost for about an hour, and felt like I had been to the most dense shopping market imaginable. It was a zoo of people and things, unintelligible calls for what they sold, and I, the only person not buying or selling anything.

A night in the not-so-democratic-republic of the Congo

Most people know about the ludicrous gorilla wildlife tourism market in Uganda and Rwanda, but some may not realize those same gorilla groups wander passportless to the DRC and thus, also gorilla track in the Congo. The benefit is its cheaper and not sold out months in advance, but the pitfall include bad organization, unreliability and arguably more dangerous. I talked with a tour agent in Kampala, Uganda, who thought it may be hard to get a gorilla permit in any of the Ugandan parks, so connected me with a tour operator in Bunugana, the border town between Uganda and Congo.

His name was Jackson, aged about 30, portly and soft-spoken. He met me in Kisoro a few kilometers out of Bunagana. It took me 6 hrs on a bus the night before to get to Kabale, then 3 hours in a car taxi to get to Kisoro. You’d think the bus ride was worse, but atleast it was during the evening, since the car ride was intolerably hot, and involved the driver squishing 8 adults into a 5 seater sedan. I shared the front seat with another woman whose dress smelled like menstruation, and the driver shared his seat with a man whose legs cradled the stick shift. In the back, the four squeezed sardines looked slightly more comfortable.

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, imagine the entire dirt road under construction, with stop and go one-way traffic, semi-trucks spewing constant dust clouds on the air-conditionless car, and keeping our windows shut to avoid being coloured red by it and instead cooking in the 8 person sauna at high noon. It was fun.

Jackson making dinner while the laptop entertains us

When I finally met Jackson, he put both of us on one moto-taxi, and 3 people on an 8km ride with speed bumps the whole way to the Congo border was certainly an upgrade, but not necessarily luxurious. We sped to the border which he explained we needed to clear my Ugandan exit since it was almost 5 pm, and in the morning we wouldn’t have time to do anything but clear the Congo entry visa. The borders are only open during sunup, so we would have to wait from 6:30 am outside the congo border to get my $50 8-day visa available only at that border for that province of Congo (other entry points are more like $150-$250) and only because I had a letter of invitation by the gorilla park rangers.

We then walked over to Congo anyway, and with a head nod at the right guard, were free to refuge illegally in the Congo til the border reopened. There was a few metres of no mans land, where French, English, luganda and a Congolese dialect all mixed together, and then I enjoyed a coca cola on the patio of his Congolese family. We were to stay in their extra apartment, which was just one big room, no electricity, no running water, and a dingy mattress on the floor that he usually shared with his 3 sons.

prepping the coal stove

At this point I was kind of reconsidering my idea, but then the other Katrin whispered “you can totally do this, this is how everyone here lives.” So I stuck it out, and the apartment slowly got cosier and cosier. The boys lit some coals and a few candles to provide light and heat, Jackson brought out his laptop and played Ugandan reggaeton music videos, and he cooked chapatti over the coals in a pan much too dirty to eat out of. Then he paired it with warm beer, and all of this I pretended to take graciously since I couldn’t even leave if I wanted to – I was already exited out of Uganda and illegally in the Congo.

Sure enough, the night was sleepless, and Jackson wanted to confide in me his whole life story and feelings of loneliness. It was awkward, inappropriate, and perhaps my fault, but by 6 am the borders had opened and I tried to start the day anew with a goal to try and choose my tour guides more carefully. It turned out I wouldn’t get the Congolese visa the next morning, since the park rangers were not at the border in person to confirm I was tracking gorillas, so Jackson suggested I stay two nights and be patient.

I literally ran away back to Uganda at the crack of dawn. The problem was I was now illegally reentering Uganda, and I actually had to escape both the Congo and Uganda to hire a moto-taxi to take me the 14 km to the Rwandan border. Thank god no one noticed that I had been stamped out twice since I would have had to reenter and pay another $50 Ugandan visa. Even more thanks to God when I finally arrived on Rwandan soil and got issued a visa even though I wasn’t eligible for one since I dind’t have local papers and didn’t preapply for one online – perhaps another piece of useful information one could take from this blog.

The Pearl of Africa

To get from South Africa to Uganda, I had to change planes in Rwanda. At Kigali International airport, I waited on the tarmac for my next plane, and was issued a boarding pass for “Kategre Ndege.” Im still not sure if that was someone else or a rough Kinyarwanda translation of my name…

the shore of Lake Victoria in Entebbe

My east Africa trip started in Entebbe, the international airport town on Lake Victoria which has a huge UN presence. Couchsurfing with a couple of them made me feel like I wasn’t too far from home or that exotic but as soon as I traveled west, the word Mzungu greeted me everywhere I went. Mzungu means “foreigner” or “white person” and thank God we’re no longer seen as colonial devils since children run up excitedly to wave and yell mzungu. In earlier times, from the start of the slave trade and into about the 60’s, children would run away from any white people they saw since it was a common saying for mothers to warn their children, “behave or a muzungu will eat you!”

Its been a whirlwind since I arrived in this beautiful place. It borders magnificent Lake Victoria, boasts the start of the longest river in the world, has snowcapped mountains at the equator, has the highest concentration of primates in the world, and amazing bird watching. Some say Uganda is the pearl of Africa, squeezing in all the African attractions you’d ever want in one, very-safe country. Funnily enough, this hasn’t caught on with backpackers yet, as the infrastructure for traveling around the country alone is pretty minimal (and insanely cheap). There is usually a hostel with a couple other mzungus in the main cities and most touristy places, but most of the tourism is high-end tourism related to gorilla wildlife tracking.

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the big boss walking past my gorilla-tracking friend Jon who took this great snap

Gorillas are the biggest driver of wildlife tourism in Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo has recently reopened their parks and begun hosting more gorilla tracking tours. They all cooperate on price (circa $500 for an hour with a group) and work together for conserving their natural habitat since it sits most of the gorilla groups live within the tri-national park. Since the gorillas are free to move between all three borders, its possible that the gorillas all slowly migrate to one or two countries, but so far, their numbers have only been increasing and many groups are totally habituated to human presence, so it looks like the gorilla tracking industry will just keep growing in all three countries. Im hoping it won’t only bring more international visitors to see these primates, but also allow travelers to discover the other hidden jewels in these sometimes misunderstood and underrepresented countries.