8 August 2021 – The Third World as Seen From the Saddle

Day 25 of the Old Legs Silverback Tour – From Kigoma to Makere, somewhere near the Burundi border.

Distance- 76 km
Climb – 628 m
Time – 5 hr 37 min
Ave Heart Rate – 112 bpm
Max Heart Rate – 172 bpm.

I am blogging to you from a police station, complete with heavily armed policemen, somewhere near the Burundi border. Today’s ride was epic, one I will remember for years. Unfortunately, epic doesn’t always translate into fun.

In the harshest reminder that Africa is more than just forever views, game reserves and sunsets with Ice cold drinks on white sand beaches, we were able to blunder into an area with one million plus desperate refugees, all looking to flee the despair and hopelessness of which ever of Africa’s shit-hole failed states they hail from. In just 5 days, we have been able to ride from heaven to hell.

The day’s ride started out fun. We rode through busy little market towns, colourful and vibrant. Normally riding in traffic is horrible but dicing and bantering with tuk-tuk and motorbike riders was fun and exciting. Adam was back in the saddle after his fight with the lurgy, but CarolJoy is now man down.

This part of Tanzania is more poor than where we have come from, with more bicycles transporting heavy goods than motorbikes, moving heavy loads of furniture, charcoal, bananas, firewood, sugar cane, overhanging 3 to 4 meters on either side. Passenger transport is all by motorbike, often 3 or 4 up, because the guys on the bicycles ride even slower than us.

I got off my bike to help push a guy with a huge heavy load of firewood up a steep hill. He was all smiles and grateful, until I got back on my bike, leaving him to tackle the next steep hill on his own.

Church is a big deal in Tanzania and on Sunday mornings families get all dressed in their best and most colourful frocks and dresses. There were lots of mosques nestled in amongst the churches. The two religions seem to get on just fine but the competition must get quite noisy, I saw some massively large sound systems on top of church belfry towers, to counter the early morning wailing from the Imams next door.

Our ride stopped being fun when we got out of town and the busy road turned to dirt and corrugations. I don’t know why we bothered to shower on our rest day, or wash our bikes. We were covered in inch deep dirt inside of the first 5 minutes.

I got dust in my good eye leaving me panicked and able to see bugger all more than a few times. But after three weeks on Tour, Jenny’s roadside eye-drop stops are quick like Formula One pit stops.

For the most part, the truck and bus drivers we share the road with are courteous and they slow down and give us lots of room. But easily the worst offenders are the speeding Aid Agency Land Cruisers. It is amazing how fast donated cars are able to travel over bad roads.

Because the Burundi border is close by, there were fleets and fleets of Aid Agency vehicles rushing around looking to uplift lives and save children, most probably run over in the first instance by other speeding Aid Agency vehicles. For those who don’t remember, Burundi, and Rwanda next door, are where 800,000 unfortunates were hacked to death in 100 days of genocide not so long ago. Burundi has never recovered and continues a failed state, and a burden on her neighbours, Tanzania included.

For the record, easily the fastest drivers out on track were those from World Vision and Save the Children.

Burundi lurked malevolently in the distance to our left all morning.
I felt like a hobbit, skirting passing Mordor, with a sense of foreboding. The young men walking with machetes came across sullen and threatening. We stopped next to a village for tea and the poverty was in your face, and the sense of hopelessness pervasive. Only the very smallest children had laughter in their eyes, those slightly older came across frightened, and not just of speeding aid agency vehicles. It felt wrong being there as a tourist.

I am sure there was some decent scenery out there but it was impossible to see past the despair in villages that lined the roads.

Whatever the European countries are pouring into failed states like Burundi, it is not nearly enough. From what I could see, the only lives they are uplifting are the people who work for the Aid Agencies they fund.

Without any prospects for a normal, peaceful life or employment and entirely dependent on aid and charity, each and every one of those sullen young Burundians we rode past today was scheming how to get a seat on a dinghy heading across the Mediterranean. Alas.

We were blissfully aware of all of above and rode into a sprawling shack town at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, tired and filthy dirty, and asked a policeman manning a one-man police post if he knew where we could bush camp for the night, as is our want.

The lone cop looked at us like we were certifiably and suicidally bonkers. Apparently we were less than 10 kilometers from a massive, full-to-overflowing refugee camp and any happy campers would have the life expectancy of a free-falling lemming hurtling halfway down a cliff.
Oh we said, how about we camped next to his police post?
Very anxious to get rid of us in a hurry, he told us better to go back 10 kilometers to Makere, a much larger police post we’d passed earlier, with a fence and more policemen to guard us.

On the way back to Makere, we tried our luck at a splendid United Nations compound belonging to the International Organization Migration with high walls and barbed wire to keep the refugees out, and rolling green lawns and air conditioning for the UN staff within.

We asked the army of private security guards at the high security gate if we could camp inside on their lawns. He spoke to his boss inside. Who spoke to his big, big boss. We were in luck. The big, big boss was Chaminorwa, a fellow Zimbabwean, and my home boy. I told Cham all about the Old Legs being a charity and all about the amazing hospitality we’d enjoyed from other Zimbabweans everywhere we’d been.
So could we camp in his compound I asked?
Not tonight he said, only tomorrow night. He wasn’t being inhospitable, it was just that the United Nations required notice in advance. I reminded him that I was a global citizen and part of his flock, and if I got murdered during the night by desperate Burundians it would be his fault. Come back tomorrow, Cham told us.

Because of Cham, I’m with Donald Trump on the United Nations being a bloated, parasitic bureaucracy . And wasteful. Chaminorwa ran his generator all night long, just so he could water his green lawns through night.

Instead we camped outside the Makere Police Station and all’s well that ends well. Thanks to the heavily armed policemen, none of us were murdered during the night, which is always good for Tour morale, and we were able to sleep despite the Chinese road gang next door that worked through night, despite the dogs that barked at them non-stop, despite the hurrying trucks and buses late into the night, despite angry policemen shouting loudly at God knows who. An epic ending to another epic day on the Old Legs Tour.

Tomorrow we are going to load the bikes on the trailer and drive the 120 kilometers needed to get Burundi and the refugees behind us. And then we’ll get back on our bikes and continue pedalling to Lake Victoria and Uganda beyond.

Until my next blog from somewhere nearer Lake Victoria, stay safe, avoiding refugee camps if you can – Eric Chicken Legs de Jong.

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