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Stories from the field:
the Network members around the world

Pedal for Hope

By Ayesha Harji, University of Dalhousie

A few years ago, my father had asked me if I wanted to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with him. At the time, I had just signed a contract to work for the summer and so I refused. Staying home that summer still remains one of my biggest regrets. In the summer of 2005, when my father once again asked me to join him on a trip to Africa, this time bicycling from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa, I was absolutely thrilled and acquiesced right away. The trip turned out to be one of the most amazing things I have done so far in my life and it is an experience that has radically changed my pre-conceived notions of development, of Africa and of human rights.

Ayesha in Sudan

We joined a group of approximately 45 cyclists from around the world in undertaking this expedition as part of a group called “Tour D’Afrique.” Early on after our registration to participate in the Tour, we realized that the trip would provide us with an excellent opportunity to raise awareness and funds for important issues facing the Third World . We decided to get all of our friends and family to pledge money for our trip, which we renamed “Pedal for Hope”, and donated all the funds raised to the Aga Khan Foundation Canada . The AKFC works on projects throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa on issues of healthcare, education and social services. On the 14 th of January, at the foot of the Pyramids of Giza, having already collected more than $50,000 for the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, we took off on the endeavour that would take us through 10 different countries. We started in Egypt, and trekked through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa , a trip that lasted nearly four and a half months. We passed through some of the most rugged and most beautiful landscapes in the whole world, through deserts, through forests and jungles, crossing lakes and rivers. I can say without a doubt that there is no place on this earth as amazing, as extreme or as breathtakingly beautiful as Africa .

Africa Map

The physical aspect of the trip was extremely difficult. On average, we were biking 120 kilometres a day, depending on the conditions of the terrain. In many parts of northern Africa, roads were virtually inexistent. We were pedalling through deep sand, in mud and dirt, over heavily corrugated roadways and over rocks and gravel. When the conditions were at their worst, we were only pedalling about 50 kilometres in a day. The further south that we went, the more the roads improved and the easier the cycling got. Towards the end, distances increased to an average of 140-150 kms, with our longest day being a gruelling 207 kms.

Ayesha in Africa

Our daily routine remained pretty constant throughout the whole trip: we would get up before the sun was up, put on our cycling clothes, take down our tents, eat breakfast and get on the road. Generally, we would be on the road by 7:00 am so that we could complete as much biking in as possible before the sun and heat got to their worst at midday . The Tour organizers would set up lunch at the half-way point each day and would provide us with sandwiches and juice and a chance to relax for a little while before continuing on our way. A second truck would be stationed at the end of the distance so that we knew where to stop. Upon arrival at the campsite, we would set up our tents, eat snacks, fix our bikes if needed, or just relax until suppertime. By the time dinner was served, every participant was exhausted and would crawl into their tent just after the meal. It was commonplace for our campsite to be located right on the side of the road, with lorries, trucks loaded with people or animals, tour buses, military vehicles or 18-wheeler trucks whizzing by. Other times, we were smack in the middle of the desert with not a soul within a 20-kilometre radius. Our daily routine became quite tiring and it became difficult to continue to do the same thing day after day. Luckily, every 6 th day was a rest day and we would take the day off to visit cities, capitals and local tourist attractions.

Personally, beyond the physical challenge of biking, the most important part of the trip was the informal education I got on the African continent and the opportunity I received to see development in Africa first-hand. For so many students, learning about development and human rights takes place through academic institutions, books and magazines. Each country we passed thorough offered distinct images and lessons and served as a training ground for me. For example, in Egypt, I was able to see the effects of globalization and tourism on multiculturalism and heritage. I was so saddened to see that world heritage sites like the Pyramids and the Sphinx were not well taken care of and piles of garbage littered the sand. Across the street from the Pyramids, there is a Pizza Hut and a Kentucky Fried Chicken…go figure!

Ayesha in Africa : Meal

Our tour was organized so that our route completely avoided any areas of danger or crisis and so while in the Sudan, we were nowhere near the Darfur region. However, while the conflict centered primarily in this region, North-South ethnic tensions and foreign presence were very visible. Anywhere we went, especially in the capital, there were hundreds of United Nations vehicles providing various services. Unfortunately, I realized that for the most part, the UN workers relegated themselves to their air-conditioned 4-wheel drive SUVs and rarely interacted with locals. I thought that this was just a stereotype but unfortunately, I believe that this actually takes place. Sudan was still the country that impressed me the most. The Sudanese people were the most hospitable and welcoming to us. No matter how little they had, they shared it with us. We were all invited into several homes and offered foods, cold drinks, showers and places to sit and relax for a while.

Ethiopia made me really take stock of the complete destitution and poverty that human beings face in other parts of the world. I came across people that were really suffering and realized just how lucky we are here, regardless of what personal problems we face. In particular, I was able to witness some of the sad survival techniques people use like prostitution, which has become an increasingly popular method of making a few dollars. Many young girls my age are attracted by this quick fix. Another interesting dynamic was created due to recent elections in Ethiopia where the rightfully-elected party members were imprisoned and the party that had controlled government previously reclaimed power.

In Malawi, I was completely shocked by the toll of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. With one of the least-efficient healthcare infrastructures, Malawi has literally been decimated by AIDS and coffin-making has become one of the most profitable industries. Coffin-making companies are as commonplace as Tim Horton’s are here in Canada . When you think about what that implies, you can really imagine what types of problems are facing the African continent in comparison to here.

In the same way, every country we visited was faced with distinct problems, but each offered interesting opportunities to expand our horizons and perceptions of development and the Third World . There is so much more I could share with you about my trip but conveying it through a written piece is very difficult.

I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to visit this continent and participate in the Tour D’Afrique/Pedal for Hope. My experience there was eye-opening and challenging in many different ways. I have been forced to re-consider many of my personal actions when I think about their global impacts. For example, I try harder not to overuse water for showers and not to leave any food on my plate at meals. I also am more careful with recycling and critical of companies extracting natural and human resources from Africa . I try to be aware of where products I buy are coming from and research companies that are promoting the use of generic drugs in developing countries. This trip has impacted my daily existence in ways that go way beyond just tourism. I fully believe that for any student interested in learning more about development, human rights and the “real” world beyond our borders, a trip out into the global classroom will serve you in great ways.

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Last updated January 2008 Copyright © Mahmood Fazal 2005 - All Rights Reserved