As I write this, sitting on a bed in a hotel in Lilongwe, a massive thunderstorm is slowly gathering and crossing the city towards us, and the sky outside our window is a dark gray.
We have just a few days left in Africa, the continent that has been our home for the past sixteen months. It has been a long sixteen months. We covered 12,302km by bike, from Nairobi to Cape Town and then back up to Northern Mozambique. If we were a little disappointed not to peddle the last stretch into Malawi, it is a small disappointment and one that we’ve all but forgotten now. We have no regrets over anything that has happened over the past sixteen months, and the opportunity to cycle and travel on this continent is something we will never forget, that we will forever be grateful for.
“Africa changes you, it can’t not change you.”
That is what my step-mother told me a few years ago when she returned from working in a hospital on the Tanzanian shore of Lake Victoria. I don’t think I appreciated the truth of it at the time; I had never been to Africa.
Now I think I understand it, and I had hoped to write about that for this last post from Africa, though I find myself unable to now that I am typing. Or no, that’s not quite right: I find myself unable to relate it succinctly. A fifty page incoherent rant I could muster, but a 2,000 word blog post I cannot.
I suppose in the end it is something like a list of all the good things and then a list of all the bad. For the good, there are the people, the culture, the natural beauty. For the bad, the corruption (foreign and domestic), the inefficiency, the infrastructure.
It’s somewhere between those two lists that Africa changes you. Such wonderful people, such a beautiful continent, and yet there is such bullshit going on all around, everyday. Whether it’s on the part of governments, development workers, or even just the local guy driving the minibus and stealing from his boss: all of them treat those same wonderful people like such nonpersons, like they are nothing but children. And then those people respond with such patience, such quiet dignity.
Injustice is like air on this continent, you cannot go five steps without breathing some of it in. It leaves you wanting to help people: the motivation behind all the NGO’s and volunteers sprinkled through the continent.
And yet, after sixteen months, I can say with no sense of shame that I do not truly understand any of the countries we have passed through. The cultures are too different, the histories too long, the racial/political/ethnic dynamics too complex for a foreigner to piece together. And if you don’t understand a country, you can’t help it, that’s just a fact, something we see proven with every disenchanted NGO fieldworker we meet who seems ready to pull his hair out because his colleagues don’t seem to care about helping their countrymen and are stealing from the organization, or because local people only come to events to take their cash handouts, or because they can sense that they are really there for nothing more than to spend the budget they have been allotted and to take some nice photos so the office back in New York can do more fund-raising.
Which is not to pick on NGO’s, it’s just an example. And it’s not to say we shouldn’t try to help, that we are totally powerless to make a difference. We can help, but the question is: how?
We have been wondering this for some time now, and it was only in Mozambique that I think we came to an answer. We had been reading more about climate change (Eaarth by Bill McKibben to begin with), about the fact that it is no longer something for the future that can be avoided, but that it has become something for the present that we must learn to adapt to.
At the same time, we were taken (by our fantastic couch surfing hosts) to a beach outside of Beira to swim. As we drove to the shore, we passed along a dirt road squeezed between long green recently-planted rice paddies, with women out among the plants, bent at the waist and working with their hands.
“This whole area was flooded in a storm a few years ago,” Jorge, one of our hosts, told us. “They had to let the fields lie for two years to get all the salt out before they could use them again.”
We parked the car and climbed a small sand dune to the beach. From the top of the dune, the whole country’s future was clear. Those rice paddies were basically at sea level, protected from the ocean by only this two-meter high sand embankment. The same could be said of most of Mozambique’s agricultural land, lying in the vast eastern plane that lines the Indian Ocean, along with the country’s major cities (Maputo, Beira, Quelimane, Pemba…), its major tourist sites (Ilha de Mozambique, the Bazaruto Archipelago, Tofo…), not to mention its ecological treasures (the Zambezi delta, the Quirimbas Archipelago…).
All of this will be lost to rising sea-levels, ocean acidification, and increased extreme weather.
The future of Africa is climate change. It is hard to imagine what economic indicators and governance and industry can possibly matter in light of that simple fact. Those rice paddies will not exist in forty years, possibly even sooner. The children we saw along the way, staring at us and running and screaming will spend their adulthood as refugees from famines and natural disasters. It’s too late to stop this. We can only hope to adapt to it at this point, and to help these people adapt to it since it is a problem they have done nothing to create.
Another deep breath of injustice there. They have done nothing to create any of this.
It’s enough to drive you mad, and so we have been, alternately ranting and railing against the world, frustrated as ever that none of it makes the least bit of sense, that there simply is no justice to be had, no matter how the human mind seems desperate to look for it.
To that extent though, Malawi was the perfect place to end our trip. A country overrun with NGO’s and peace corps volunteers and run by a corrupt dictator who fits all the stereotypes of the African ‘Big Man,’ his face labeled ‘Father of the Malawi Nation’ pasted on billboards all over the city, it would seem an unlikely place to find optimism.
But in Malawi, they have permaculture. We spent the past two weeks volunteering with Nature’s Gift, a permaculture center just outside Lilongwe that offers courses on permaculture and a demonstration farm for local people. The center is just over a year old, but so much has been done in such a short time. The center itself is building on the momentum from the International Permaculture Convergence hosted here in 2009, and then from the decades of work by other permaculture designers in the country, notably the Nordins at Never Ending Food who we also got a chance to meet.
We have learned a ton of course, but we have also seen a ton, visiting a local village transformed (by a Malawian acting on his own, not by any NGO) into a permaculture paradise and wells that were running full through the dry season because of intelligent water harvesting – they are the kind of sites that cannot but give you a sense of hope. We came to Africa to see what permaculture could offer here, and for the first time now after 16 months we are seeing it all in action – people feeding themselves nutritiously, caring for the land, sharing the surplus.
And of course not only does permaculture provide greater food security and health now, but it is the perfect system for adapting to climate change: polycultures are more disaster-resistant, trees protect against heat and drought, swales conserve water, mulch keeps soils moist, the list goes on and on. Permaculture cannot keep the sea levels low or keep them from being acidified or keep severe storms at bay, but if global warming can be kept to under two degrees Celsius, these techniques will have so much to offer.
And so the solutions are there – but only if global warming can be kept to under two degrees Celsius. Greenhouse gas emissions up till now guarantee us 1.4°C of warming. At 1.5°C, small island states will have to be abandoned. Even at 2°C the future isn’t pretty, but it is at least a future.
This is what we have been kicking around in our heads the past few months. How can we help Africa? We can do everything possible to keep global warming from getting out of hand. We need to stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere back in Europe and the United States – that will do more to help Africa in the future than anything else we can do.
The hour is late. Consensus is increasing that 350 parts per million CO2 is the limit of what our atmosphere can take and still ensure a climate safe for humanity and civilization. We are currently at 388ppm and rising every day.
Biking around the world feels, in light of all this, a little silly. After all the people we have met, all the families who have welcomed us, all the children we have held and all the old men and women we have passed hours in incoherent conversation with, it would feel like we were turning our backs on them to just go on with our lives now as if nothing was going on.
So we have decided to change our plans. On Sunday we fly back to Brussels, where we will see family and friends and then head to NY to do the same. Then we will leave the bikes behind, heading overland by public transportation to Rio, with the hope of arriving in time for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development to be held there in May 2012. With the Kyoto protocol expiring and other international climate negotiations seemingly locked into a cycle of failure, the Rio Summit may be our last chance to save the climate.
We want to do our part. We hope to include education about climate change into our trip, to stop at as many farms and educational centers as we can to learn better how to live ecologically, and of course how to farm sustainably. We have also contacted some organizations working with the environment or with people living in poverty to see if we can work with them for the Rio summit as well – anything, even just to hold coats and give back-rubs, we just know that for us, the time for cycling has passed and the time for taking action has come.
We will keep the site going of course, though we are sad to think that we won’t quite merit the ‘cyclists’ bit of it. We’ll miss our bikes too of course – I know I have come to love my little orange rocket like it was a member of the family or a part of my own body.
We would love to hear what people think of all this, if anyone has any suggestions or ideas about the rest of our trip we would love to hear that as well. We are still figuring out the future, but we are excited to say the least.