Heeding the siren call of Africa

2007-12-27 00:00

Dark Continent My Black Arse, Sihle Khumalo’s account of travelling from Cape Town to Cairo, has become a bestseller. Author and traveller Paul Theroux, who recorded his own cross-continental journey in Dark Star Safari, declares it “very likeable and engaging” but Khumalo’s title alone is enough to make you pick it up.

“I faced a lot of challenges during the trip but Africa does not deserve to be called the ‘dark continent’,” says Khumalo. “I wanted the title to reflect that — and also that this was a book by a darkie. Then one night as I was getting into the shower my fiancée said ‘you have such a black arse’ and the title clicked at that moment.”

The book, like Khumalo, is candid. He makes no secret of having an eye for the attractive women he meets during the trip, this despite leaving behind “the woman of my dreams” and their 16-month-old daughter.

“My fiancée read the manuscript and didn’t have a problem, but other people read the book and phoned her. It wasn’t an issue that I wanted to sleep with other women, but that I put it in the book was seen as a sign of disrespect to her. They read the book and only saw that, not the other countries.”

Quite apart from celibacy (he doesn’t act on his impulses) another self-imposed condition of Khumalo’s trip was that he would use only public transport. He was determined to avoid the hermetically sealed world of the tourist. “Take these ‘township tours’ — people staying in luxury hotels go in an air-conditioned bus and spend a couple of hours in the township then go back to the hotel. Can they really say they have been to the townships and have experienced them at first-hand?”

So Khumalo travelled “first-hand” by “bus, boksie and matola” from Cape Town to Cairo, taking in Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan along the way.

Much of the appeal of Dark Continent My Black Arse comes from it being written, as Theroux notes on the cover, from the perspective of “an African, travelling on his own money and motivation”. But Khumalo is emphatic that he did the trip as a personal challenge. “Not as a darkie doing it — I was doing it because I wanted to. As a youngster I was fascinated by Africa. I always wanted to do a major Africa trip — to explore Africa for myself.”

Nevertheless, Khumalo says he hopes his book will inspire other black people to travel. “A friend said to me ‘the best part of our travelling is going home’.”

Home for Khumalo was initially Nqutu, where he was born in 1975 — his parents were both schoolteachers — and where he did his primary schooling before going to Sukuma Secondary School in Imbali. “My personality was sculpted there,” he says. “I survived ‘the treatment’ from the older boys. I was only 11 years old and it was not an easy environment. After my first year my parents said ‘do you want to go back?’. I said ‘yes’. My resilience started there.”

Pietermaritzburg schooldays provided inspiration for future goals. “I watched guys sky-diving at Oribi and I remember thinking ‘one day I’m going to jump out of a plane’ — and I’m so glad I’ve done that.”

Khumalo likes to create such challenges for himself and they usually revolve around his birthday. “At 24 I bungee jumped off Victoria Falls; when I was 25 I ran the Comrades Marathon. That was also because of growing up in Pietermaritzburg. We used to go and watch the end of the up-runs from Durban. This was in the era of Bruce Fordyce when he was always beating Hoseah Tjale. As a youngster I thought that I would love to run this race.”

Khumalo matriculated in 1991 and followed it up with a diploma in environmental health at the then Natal Technikon, joining Portnet in Durban in 1996 where he became a risk manager. But while he was busy climbing the corporate ladder Khumalo hadn’t forgotten his childhood dream of travelling in Africa. “In the nineties I travelled around southern Africa, Botswana and Mozambique.”

The rest of the continent beckoned and in 2005 Khumalo decided it was time to heed its siren call. “I wanted to celebrate being 30. I had been in the corporate world since I was 21. That’s why I felt I wanted a complete break. I didn’t want to just take leave — if you do that you are always thinking about work at the back of your mind. I wanted to wake up and have no responsibilities.”

Preparing for the trip, Khumalo read accounts by others who had made similar journeys. One that struck a chord was Peter Moore’s Swahili for the Broken Hearted.

“He had been dumped by his girlfriend and did the trip to get over it. That book inspired me” — although not enough to learn Swahili, as Khumalo found to his cost.

“Being Zulu I always thought that as long as I can speak Zulu and English the world is my oyster. That changed in the first five minutes that I was in Tanzania. They speak Swahili — and they couldn’t understand how I could call myself African and not be able to speak Swahili.”

Khumalo also read Theroux’s book about his trip, also undertaken to mark a birthday, his 60th. “He’s older than me, and more pessimistic — or at least, he’s not as optimistic as me.”

Not that Khumalo’s book provides a rose-tinted view of the continent. He happily labels the OAU an “African dictator’s club” and gives short shrift to “corrupt, inefficient bureaucrats”.

Then there’s the nightmare of trying to get a visa for the Sudan and the various permits required once you actually get there.

“It’s not all negative — and it’s not all beautiful. I’m optimistic based on what I saw and experienced,” he says.

“Africa is portrayed as a dark and dangerous continent — ‘you’ll get shot and your life will be in danger’, I was told, but at no point did I ever feel my life was in danger. Yes, I saw soldiers shooting into the air in Tanzania, and in Sudan a war was going on on the western side, but I didn’t feel in any real danger.

“At first I was always checking my backpack, then I realised that these people are cool. South Africa is more dangerous.” This realisation got Khumalo pondering the poverty-equals-crime equation. “I went to places where there are far more poor people but they don’t rob and kill; crime levels are so low. I thought ‘is poverty really the cause of crime?’”

Khumalo decided these countries were lacking a vital ingredient for the crime boom.

“There are the filthy-rich at government level, but beneath that everyone else is in the same boat. In South Africa you have the filthy rich, then a middle class and the poor below. I think maybe that’s the big difference. The poor have someone to rob from.”

Khumalo’s trip boasted many highlights — quad biking on the dunes near Swakopmund, visiting Lake Malawi, doing the pantsula at a club in Addis Ababa — but two experiences stand out, he says. The first was standing on the bridge at Omdurman where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile.

“Seeing these two massive rivers meeting makes you think there must be a supreme power, a God, or whatever you want to call it. That could never be a coincidence.”

The second high point was a felucca trip in Cairo. “Partly it was the feeling that I’d done it. At one stage the trip was a pipe dream; at one stage I wanted to give up — but I was there on that felucca, I did it, and it was definitely worth it.

“I didn’t do it to be a national hero, it just made sense to me personally — to push boundaries and get out of my comfort zone.”

Much as the self-help books, of which Khumalo is an avid reader (along with autobiographies), advocate leaving your comfort zone, reward isn’t automatic — as Khumalo discovered in 2006, the year he spent writing his book and trying to get a job. “Nobody even wanted to look at my CV because I had wanted to travel and had resigned to do so — this was seen as being irresponsible.” He briefly worked for Transnet in Richards Bay before landing the perfect job with Anglo American’s Exploration Division — “they employed me because I had done the trip, because I had been to remote places and I didn’t mind sleeping in tents and roughing it.”

This begs the question: has Khumalo any more plans to rough it and write? “Now I’m married. I’ll have to talk to my wife.” Khumalo married his fiancée Nonkululeko on his return to South Africa. He’s cagey about his future travel plans for other reasons as well. “You mustn’t tell your dreams to other people. They are negative and try to talk you out of it.

“Everybody has a dream — it doesn’t have to be a trip or a book — but some people get so demoralised they forget their dreams. You have to work on your dreams consciously every day. I was born in a rural area, but I did not see that as an excuse for not doing things.”

But Khumalo admits to wanting to write travel books on Africa with the same objectives as Dark Continent My Black Arse. “I wrote that with three things in mind: to change the image of Africa, to inspire black people to travel and to inspire black people to read.”

“I believe in the future of Africa. Africa is so addictive.

At times it was tough during the trip and occasionally I had second thoughts but once I was home I wanted to get back!”

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