#19 heading south again: Nairobi – Lilongwe

Hi friends,

I am writing this on the 26th of April 2018. Today I’ve been on the road for exactly 285 days. I’m sitting in a computer store & cyber cafe in downtown Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi. As always, I’ve been cycling a lot recently. No detours around great lakes this time. The trajectory since the last update is a straight line from Nairobi, across Tanzania, and along Lake Malawi. It’s time for some rest before going to Zambia! Taking a break generally means eating and drinking things that are unavailable in rural areas, mostly coffee. Until yesterday afternoon I was cycling on sand roads that could easily feature in next year’s Paris-Roubaix, if they were located in Nord-Pas-de-Calais of course. I have cycled a total of ±16000km to reach the capital of Malawi. However, I can no longer report the exact distance because my odometer has been stolen.

I estimate that I have another ±5000km to go to Cape Town, taking into account the detours I will surely do. I could not be more excited for what lies ahead. The Namibian desert has been on my mind for years, and I’m curious to see what Zambia has to offer cycling-wise. As for my mental health, I still get excited to kick one leg over the cross bar every morning. I love it, and I’ll never get enough of cycling or Africa. Lately I choose not to think about life after Cape Town too often. Jean-Luc Dehaene, a belgian statesman, famously said: “we lossen problemen op wanneer ze zich stellen”. Or freely translated to Swahili: “hakuna matata”.

So what has happened since the last update?

Highlights:

– I was pulled over by girls with AK-47’s.
– I stayed with a group of Germans who live in tents near the border with Tanzania.
– I cycled along Mt Kilimanjaro, and tried to go as far up as possible.
– I visited Femme International office in Moshi.
– I showed off my bicycle to Masai men.
– I cycled & camped in Tarangire national park.
– I saw a lot of wildlife, and even had wildlife on my bicycle.
– I discovered “chipsi mayai” – an omelette with chips. 
– I met Elias and sat at the honor table during a game of the Tanzanian premier league.
– camped wild in Malawi – lake side.
– I met Alessandro, also on his way to Cape Town. 
– We cycled in Dedza-Salima forest. On dirt roads filled with excited children.

the view along Kenyan roads

From Nairobi I cycled east to Mt Kilimanjaro. Prefect roads, lovely hills, and a rather uneventful 350km later I arrived at the border with Tanzania. Uneventful, except that I was pulled over a couple of times by the police. This is not new, the police set up road blocks on most African roads. Since Morocco I’m used to being stopped daily, generally without issues. Sometimes they fish for bribes (not pointing at any country in particular), sometimes they want to know what I’m up to, sometimes they just seem bored. My favorite stop was by these two ladies. 

Kenyan high way road block

Just before the border with Tanzania I spent the night with a group of Germans who live in tents. They are involved in hydrosolution, a German NGO that provides sand-based water filters to schools. I liked the hippie-vibe that dominated this German enclave in the Tanzanian plains.

Sunday morning laundry.

I learned a lot about water that night. For example that water around Mt Kili is contaminated with E. coli bacteria from cow dung. I bragged about being able to drink tap-water and water from wells in my previous posts, but now I avoid wells with cattle around. Secondly, on a more positive note, the water around Mt Kili naturally contains fluoride. One of the effects is that people have very white teeth.

one of the oldest games in the world

The next day I entered Tanzania. I was determined to cycle close to Mt Kilimanjaro, and cycle as high up as I could. It rained a lot that day and I had to drag my bicycle through mud for hours. Because of the rain I didn’t get a clear shot of Mt Kili, and I was stuck in the clouds when it was getting dark. I couldn’t go back down because it was too slippery, but luckily Vincent invited me to stay at his house for the night. The next day we had tea before I cycled back down.

Vincent (right)

From there I cycled down to Moshi, a small city south of Mt Kilimanjaro. I visited Femme International’s office, the Canadian women’s health organization that I also visited in Nairobi, and rested for a couple of days.

Femme’s Moshi team
the best pic I have from Mt Kili, seen from the old train station in Moshi

After enjoying some rest, and hanging out with my amazing hosts in Moshi, I hit the road again. I cycled towards Tarangire national park, and pedaled on dirt roads for four days. Even before arriving in the park, there was a lot of wildlife to spot. I saw wildebeests, zebras, ostriches, giraffes. Most of these animals were to scared to be photographed though.

Turtle
Zebras

This area lies on a plateau, and the altitude hovers around 1000m in the plains, and up to 1600m on the surrounding hills. I enjoyed the short steep climbs in the sun, as well as the surprised looks on the faces of locals.

hills
Masai men, always well dressed (and curious)
wild camping
Making my way across the plains

After a night of wild camping two men on a motorcycle rushed towards me. I didn’t immediately get what they were trying to tell me, until one of them said “simba” and made a strangling sound. Another bike arrived, and the driver explained that a pride of lions had just killed a buffalo where I was going. Lions only kill buffaloes when they are hungry and desperate. I took a different path.

The men warning me about lions
Unexpected sun flowers

After those four days on sand roads, I arrived in Dodoma, and followed the main road south. 750km to the Malawian border laid ahead. This is one of the most scenic highways I have cycled on so far. Because it doesn’t connect any major cities it is relatively calm. I cycled for days in the middle of the road, waving at children and enjoying the ever changing scenery of hills and african plains.

Classic fun – this road goes up to 1800m. 

My favourite street food, available in every village, is a dish called “chipsi mayai” (chips with eggs in Swahili). Chips are rarely up to Belgian standards, but eggs and hot chili sauce turn it into a great meal, and there is no better fuel for cycling.

Chipsi mayai
Some hills & clouds
Wildlife climbing my bicycle (on its own free will)

One thing that is always entertaining in Kenya/Tanzania is the art on busses. The majority refers to religion in some way. “God is able”;”allah akbar”… Others refer to music stars, but everything goes really. This bus apperently promotes a Tanzania first policy.

In God we trust

Along the way south I stayed in guest houses and camped wild. In one lodge I met Elias, a business man from Dar-es-salaam. He is the chairman of Mbeya prisons football club. He invited me to stay at his house in Mbeya and attend a football game of Mbeya prisons.

Elias is one of the most well read people I’ve met in my life. Generally I have the impression that Africans are either very well informed about the world or not at all. I only meet these two extremes. Some people know all about Belgian foreign policy since the second world war, others think the US dollar is the official currency in Europe. Knowledge and education, as is the case with wealth, tend to be unevenly distributed.

After two days at Elias his place/office, Elias received a call and had to fly to Dar-es-salaam for urgent business. Meanwhile I headed to the Malawian border, and started to ride along the northern tip of Lake Malawi.

Malawi is a magical place, and the lake is stunning. During the weeks covered in this post, it rained almost daily. Some of the small streams that flow into the lake flooded the dirt roads around it. I had to carry my bike multiple times. My clothes were soaked despite these efforts.

Fishing boats

Street food in Malawi is limited to chips and fried goat meat. There are specially equiped food stalls on every corner. The frying pan is heated by wood fire.

In restaurants “sima” (also referred to as “ugali” in Tanzania) is always served. It is a dish made of maize flour, cooked in boiling water to a stiff dough-like consistency and served with salad. I like it best with fish from the lake.

Along the lake there are fishing communities. Children with nets on the beach, and men in small fishing boats, are everywhere.

I camped by the lake twice. It’s quite a challenge to find a suitable spot that is safe and out of sight. But it is worth it. During the night the small lights of fishing prows move on the water, and the sun rises out of the lake at 5:20am.

Halfway down Lake Malawi I ran into a flamboyant Italian, who resembles Jesus Christ, called Alessandro. He is also on his way to Cape Town, and started from Dar-es-salaam. Alessandro and I have so much in common that it is almost creepy. We’re both left handed marathon runners. We both belong to the 2÷ of people who prefer Ubuntu as operating system for PC, and we’re both cycling across Africa.

Alessandro and I are now cycling together. He teaches me about his vegan food, and I show him the art of camping wild. 

The last two days we cycled away from the lake, and rode on dirt roads towards the capital. Every village along the way seemed fascinated by our passage. Kids ask to take their picture over and over.

Malawian kids fascinated by their own pictures
Outburst of excitement
Hilly landscape
 
We cycled, and dragged our bikes, through Dedza-Salima forest. 
 
 
We met locals who do this every day, on single speed bikes, to sell potatoes on the market. Some of them up to 35km to Salima, and 35km back to their village.
 

After crossing the forest we did another 60km on the main road to Lilongwe. There’s not a lot to say about Lilongwe, it’s a little dead, definitely by African standards. In a few days we’ll cycle towards the Zambian border. I’ll keep you posted!

 
 

#18 “de ommegang”: Kampala – Kigali – Nairobi

Dear friends,

I’m sitting in a cyber cafe in downtown Nairobi, Kenya. The cyber cafe is located in my favorite kind of building to get lost in: an African mall. In contrast to the western-style shopping malls in the Nairobi suburbs, most notably Westgate shopping mall, this one is a concrete and steel labyrinth of flashing neon lights, phone shops, barbers, bookshops, and cyber cafes that also offer help with visa applications.

So what have I been up to? I cycled around lake Victoria, 2000km of fun!

kids near Nyagatare, Rwanda

Highlights:

  • From Kampala, I cycled West and I ran into Wiston in Mbarara.
  • I was escorted by children on every Rwandan hill.
  • I was “caught” wild camping for the first time in my life.
  • I stayed with the “chef de colline” in Nyakibande.
  • Waziri Rwita surprised me with good coffee in Tanzania.
  • I hung out with Hussein and Grace in Isebania.
  • I attended a femme international training in a school in Nairobi.
  • Back in Kenya, I visited Masai Mara and Hell’s Gate national parks with old friends.
“de ommegang”: around Vicky lake

The first three days after leaving Kampala I followed the main road towards Mbarara. Victoria lake was always nearby, but rarely visible. The lake is surrounded by swamps and water-plants. There are small villages scattered on the shore of the lake, and fishermen selling their latest catch on the side of the road.

fishing boats – near Masaka
off-road

After three days, and a night of wildcamping, I arrived in Mbarara. I was exhausted and hungry so I got a hotel room. For the first time in Africa I bumped into a friend by coincidence: Wiston randomly showed up at a street food stand where I was buying dinner. I met Wiston two years ago during my first visit to Uganda (and Africa). We had dinner and discussed how he was going to propose to his girlfriend. Later at night, we went for drinks in a local bar with Wiston’s girlfriend – fiancee by the time this is online – Charlotte.

Charlotte and Wiston

South of Mbarara, West of Lake Victoria, the landscape changes. The kind of hills that are typically associated with Rwanda stretch far into southern Uganda. I was ahead of schedule, so I had time to ride dirt roads over the hills to the border with Rwanda.  I liked this part a lot: tea plants as far as the eye can see, fresh bananas, short but though climbs … my cup of tea.

Hills South of Mbarara
Banana trees on both sides of the road
the line at the Rwandan immigration office.

South of the Rwandan border I cycled along the Kagera river for a couple for miles before going into the hills towards Nyagatare. The Kagera river constitutes the physical border with Tanzania.

flowers on the bank of Kagera river

Rwanda is quite different from the other African countries I cycled in. Plastic bags are banned, so there are no piles of plastic waste. Cleanliness in general is taken very seriously. Kigali is a lot cleaner than Brussels for example. Secondly, there are a lot of people… everywhere. Rwanda is by far the most densely populated nation in Africa, so I was never alone. The kids in Rwanda also behave differently. They followed me, sometimes for miles – there’s a lot of  running talent out there – but they got scared when I offered them a ride on the back of my bicycle.

children in the hills around Nyagatare.

The national language of Rwanda is Kinyarwanda, and a lot of Rwandans know Swahili too. In the past French was thought in schools as the main second language, a result of Belgian colonial rule. However, the current government’s discontent with French support for the genocidal regime in 1994 resulted in a change of language policy. English became the first foreign language thought in schools. Personally, I used the following rule: if a person looks over 40 -> try French first, if not -> English.

Did I mention I like the hills in Rwanda?

The busy roads of Rwanda are always fun. Every time I stopped I was approached by 20+ people within minutes. I enjoyed this. In the picture below a group of men helped me to weigh my bicycle. 43kg apparently.

In between the hills, where there’s enough water, there are large rice fields.

rice fields

The picture above was taken on the third day in Rwanda whilst climbing Nyakibande Hill, Northern province. That evening I wanted to camp wild, because it was my last chance to do so before arriving in the capital city, Kigali. I searched for an abandoned camping spot, but couldn’t find one. I ended up sneaking into a banana plantation on Nyakibande Hill when it became to dark to cycle safely. However, I did not notice that some kids saw me go in. Those kids told their parents that they had seen a banana thief. Their parents subsequently informed village chief Dewo – chef de colline – about a stranger in the banana plantation.

An hour later Dewo entered the banana plantation with two other men to catch the thief. I heard them coming, and could see their flashlights from inside the tent. I stepped out of the tent, walked towards them, and extended my handed: “bonsoir messieurs”. The three men were stunned, but they understood that I did not intend to steal bananas. Meanwhile, I saw children peeping from behind banana trees in the distance. They had followed Dewo to witness the scene.

After I explained that I had set up my tent in the banana plantation because it was to dark to cycle safely down Nyakibande hill, Dewo said I could stay with his family. Here’s a pic taken the next morning.

Chief Dewo and his wife Asmuta (on my left) – Nyakibande hill

The next day I arrived in Kigali. I met Sandra, the mom of a French/Rwandan friend of mine. Sandra runs a school in Kigali, and she let me stay in her house together with Daniel, a retired Québecois who volunteers all over the world. I hung out in Kigali for five days and obtained a visa for Tanzania. Meanwhile, Daniel showed me the best restaurants in town.

Daniel and Sandra

From Kigali I cycled towards Rusomo, and crossed the border into Tanzania. The Rwandan hills continue far into Tanzania, but there are far less people living on these hills compared to the ones on the Rwandan side of the border.

a girl on her way back from school, Rusomo Tanzania

Ever since I left Ethiopia, good coffee has been hard to find outside of major cities. Although there are many coffee farms in Tanzania/Kenya/Rwanda, local restaurants only serve instant coffee. Every now and then I unexpectedly stumble upon good coffee.

Along the main road from the Rwandan border to Dar-Es-Salaam, Waziri Rwita runs a coffeeshop. His clients are mostly truckers that transport goods from the port of Dar-Es-Salaam to Rwanda. He uses locally grown beans, and only serves black coffee. Black coffee is my religion, so needless to say Rwita and I get along well.

Rwita’s and his children

After a cup or five, it started to rain. Rwita proposed that I stay the night there, so I set up the tent. 

I also stayed in guest houses on my way to the Kenyan border. All guesthouses have a standardized guest register in which one field says “tribe”. Sadly, I’m not a member of a tribe. Although I could argue that some Belgian politicians use tribal sentiment to spur unrest.  

tribe?
Rocks near Mwanza

From Mwanza I cycled along Serengeti national park towards the Kenyan border. Some great views and wildlife along the way. Even some useful advice on drinking & driving. 

After cycling into Kenya for the second time (first time coming from Ethiopia in January) I met Hussein and Grace in Isebania. Hussein has a business in repairing car parts. He replaces old clutches and renews disc brakes. Grace makes and repairs clothes. She uses a lot of bright colors to make dresses. Hussein is Muslim, Grace is Christian. He takes their three children to the mosque on Fridays, she takes the kids to church on Sundays. When the kids are older they can decide for themselves. I like this arrangement.


I arrived in Nairobi on the 6th of March, and I like it immediately. After the rest and tidiness of Kigali, I enjoyed the noise and madness that defines African cities (outside of Rwanda). Nairobi has some of the most eye-catching commuter-buses – so called “matatus” – I have ever seen. There seems to be a competition among bus drivers/operators to have the best looking matatu. Most of them look very tough, with graffiti drawings of rappers or football players covering the entire body. 

During my stay in Kampala in the beginning of February, my friends of WoMena told me about a similar menstrual health organisation baded in Nairobi called Femme international.

I had some free time in Nairobi, since the friends I was meeting there were flying in three days after I arrived. So I invited myself to the Femme international office, and joined trainer Emma for a session on menstrual hygiene in a school in the Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh. 

Emma on her way to the school

Emma spoke to the girls of a primary school (age 10-14) about the different possibilities to manage menstruation: menstrual cups, disposable/reusable pads. This was the closing session of a series of classes on menstrual health. At the end of the session the girls had to write down a unique password. Each girl can buy the product of her choice, and be reimbursed on her (or her parents’) mobile money account using this password and the applicable product code. I was very impressed by this.

For the past week and a half, I’ve been enjoying the visit of four friends. We visited Masai Mara, and Hell’s Gate national park. Besides spotting wildlife I really enjoyed seeing familiar faces, and getting an extensive update on all the gossip I’ve missed back home. Fully charged with new energy I’ll cycle back to Tanzania, and further down to Malawi, as soon as this is online!