Reclaiming the African road trip

When Ugandans Maureen Agena and Edward Echwalu arrived at the Lesotho border during their five-month road trip across east and southern Africa, the immigration officer did a double-take. “I’ve been at this post for eight years and no Ugandan has ever crossed through,” the official told the pair, as she fumbled through her records to see if travellers from the east African country could get into the country visa-free.

An African man in a trilby waits inside a border post office
Crossing the border into Lesotho, the immigration officer was surprised to see Ugandans travelling. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

“For most of the places that we have been to, that has been the comment,” the couple tweeted, as they chronicled their trip on social media.

High costs and visa restrictions have historically made it harder for Africans to travel the continent, compared with Europeans or North Americans. There is little data on the number of people making such journeys through countries, but leisure and safari tourism in Africa is still largely dominated by western travellers.

A young couple pose in front of a high waterfall plunging into a ravine
At Maletsunyane falls, a 192-metre (630ft) waterfall in Lesotho – one of the world’s highest. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

Agena and Echwalu are among the limited but growing number of Africans embarking on longer-term leisure travel within the continent. Some indications – such as a growing African middle class, and increased intra-African trade – suggest that the number of people travelling for business and leisure is likely to rise in the coming years.

We slept at some of the best campsites – that Google Maps would never show you

Maureen Agena

It took the couple, who describe themselves as lower-middle class, several years to save the nearly £20,000 they needed for the 13,700-mile (22,000km) journey through a dozen countries: Tanzania, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Malawi, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola.

For Agena, who works in development communications, the trip was an overdue career break, after “working non-stop” for eight years. She also wanted to discover what it would be like to travel on her own continent, after experiences with racism during her work-related trips in Europe, where she recalled no one sitting next to her on the train and receiving poor service at restaurants.

Agena and Echwalu began their travels in December 2022. Keen to venture off the beaten path, they found their way around using iOverlander – an app that features routes and amenities, including hospitals, petrol stations, restaurants, campsites and hotels.

A woman unpacks at a table in a clearing among tropical trees
Setting up camp in Zambia. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

“We slept at some of the best campsites that Google Maps would never show you,” says Agena.

Being black and African meant they could pass as locals in most countries, which allowed them to go deep into rural areas or eat at roadside restaurants without them becoming spectacles.

They sampled local food and drink, such as Tanzania’s spicy tea, Zambia’s grand food spread amatebeto, and a southern African delicacy, mopane worm (the caterpillar of the emperor moth).

A Land Rover parked in the shade of a solitary tree in the desert
Finding shade in the Namib desert, Namibia. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

They were surprised to find that most people they met knew little about Uganda. Few asked about the country’s famous attractions, such as trekking to see gorillas or birdwatching in the Rwenzori mountains. Instead, it was obscure quirks that drew most interest, such as the cattle-tending hobbies of the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, which a Zambian livestock farmer spoke of with great interest. One South African sent their regards to Idi Amin, the former Ugandan dictator, who died nearly two decades ago.

The couple did, however, visit popular tourist attractions themselves. They crossed the tropic of capricorn on their way to South Africa from Namibia, and tried quad-biking in the Namib desert where Agena blacked out momentarily after a fall.

Tourism has been painted white on the continent. People found it difficult to believe that we’d take time and tour without ‘a purpose’

Edward Echwalu

Inevitably, there were hiccups along the way: they spent nights at border points because of unexplained delays, weathered damp nights in their tent, talked themselves past corrupt police at checkpoints and drove along many rough, unlit roads.

Extreme weather events also threw them a few curveballs. Their entry into Malawi coincided with Cyclone Freddy, prompting them to join the relief effort with Malawi’s Land Rover Defender club – a group of 4×4 enthusiasts delivering food to Neno district. Roads to the neglected area were so severely damaged that aid organisations were struggling to make it through.

Officials with sacks of food stacked up as rural African women wait
In Malawi Maureen Agena and Edward Echwalu helped out with the relief effort after Cyclone Freddy hit the region. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

While “blending in” gave them deeper levels of access in some ways, it also meant they were not perceived as tourists, which came with its own set of challenges.

“Tourism has been painted white on the continent,” says Echwalu, 40. “People found it so difficult to believe that we could take time and tour without ‘a purpose’. We told them we just wanted to travel across the continent and know more about their countries but they would insist: ‘but why?’

“It became difficult to answer at some point because we could understand them,” say the couple, adding that the “black tax” – the financial burden shouldered by more successful Africans who provide for their immediate and extended families – means even those who are upwardly mobile may choose to commit finances to other priorities over long-term leisure travel.

A young couple stand in a passageway between two high walls of carved stones
Exploring the remains of the medieval ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a world heritage site. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

“The [black] tax is real and it’s entered every DNA, every homestead on this continent,” Echwalu says. “So they look at us and feel like we’re wasting resources.”

Sometimes the suspicion, surprise or shock turned into a pleasant conversation but, at other times, it led to excessive policing by authorities. In one remote Tanzanian town, police searched through their luggage, painstakingly removing each belonging from the vehicle and placing it by the roadside.

Echwalu, who described the experience as “humiliating”, says: “It’s like they could not believe we were tourists.”

For Agena, it was experiencing racism on the continent that was most disheartening. At a predominantly white campsite in Vrede, in the South African province of Free State, they received a frosty reception. When they checked in, the couple recalled: “You could almost feel the coldness. We were the blackest thing in that room, but we just kept a smile.”

Echwalu says the campsite owners would not talk to them except through their daughter, who worked at the reception. With nowhere else to go so late in the evening, they stuck it out and stayed the night.

Yet, they also experienced incredible hospitality. With their budget dwindling on the second half of the trip, they put out a call for hosts on social media.

“People opened their homes, families and lives to us,” says Agena. “We talk about the spirit of Ubuntu [humanity towards others] and there was no better expression of that than the outpouring of willingness from people to host us.”

Echwalu strikes a pose at the tropic of capricorn on the way from Namibia to South Africa
Echwalu strikes a pose at the tropic of capricorn on the way from Namibia to South Africa. Photograph: Edward Echwalu

Now they are back home, the couple plan to produce a photography book about their journey. Agena hopes it will encourage other travellers to follow in their footsteps. “All documentation is that of white travellers,” she says. “We said that whichever way we did it, we would document [our trip].”

“Africa doesn’t offer the movie-kind of glossiness you’d find in New York, Singapore or London,” says Echwalu. “But the interest was massive.”

Source: The Guardian