Last year I embarked on a trip I had been dreaming of for a long time. In February of 2006, I bought a ticket to Africa landing in Cape Town, South Africa and returning from Nairobi, Kenya. I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t bring much but my backpack, sense of adventure and curiosity. I saw so much I feel am still at a loss to properly articulate what it was like.
The five months I spent there were incredible and unforgettable. The seven countries I visited were all remarkably diverse, with distinct cultures from different colonial, political and economical influences. But the people were usually the same; warm, spirited and curious.
I had the wonderful opportunity to explore the continent a both a traveler and a businessman (living from a backpack). It was a fantastic way to experience South and Eastern Africa. We started in Cape Town, bused up to Namibia, and bused back to South Africa, then I traveled by more buses, trucks, jeeps and a few trains through Swaziland, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and ending in Kenya. I was able to buy product in Namibia, South Africa and Kenya. It was an intense and thrilling 5 months.
In Namibia, a vast desert country with relatively few people and breathtaking geographical beauty, I started my buying by rifling through handicrafts in an artisan market in the desert town of Okahandja. I discovered a Fair-Trade company that was working with farm women and purchased beautiful baskets and Ostrich jewelry.
In South Africa, I had very different experiences. The markets and Cuio shops are packed with handicrafts and art from across the African continent. The foreign merchants and artisans come to the strong South African economy with their cultural styles; but not their families, who stay home and are supported from afar. That was a story I saw a lot in South Africa. Where there is one segment of the population with massive wealth and development, and then a much bigger proportion that is poor, struggling to survive and hungry for opportunity. There are huge numbers of migrant workers who’ve traveled to S.A. with hopes of rising out of poverty. I found this dramatic economic disproportion between classes, the clash of “first” and “third” worlds, shocking. It made city life seem tense and desperate. However all the people I befriended and came to know, were very kind and hospitable. One Kenyan woman living in Johannesburg who made jewelry, often invited myself to her small apartment in the notorious downtown area of Hillbrow. I was quite scared coming and going from her building, but there was never a problem. In some of the worst places you do find the best people.
I spent the last few weeks of my journey in Kenya, where I bought and shipped the bulk of this year’s African product. Kenya was another remarkable and unique place with many cultures encapsulated in one country. Between the strong Arab influenced Swahili culture along the coast, and the Masaii cloaked in traditional warrior costumes, Kenya is home to 42 different tribes, and some very tough bargainers’. Many of the products at this year’s sale are from distinct areas and crafted by those regional tribes in Kenya like the many soapstone bowls, plates and sculptures made by the Kisi people.
When I think back on that trip it seems distant, or like a really good dream. Africa was a beautiful place, one that I felt I’m just getting to know. There is much hardship, but Africa has so much to offer and even greater potential. With marvelous scenery, beautiful crafts, soulful music it is a great place to visit, work or live. I will always love it and hope to return one day. For now I am very thankful and fortunate that I’ve had the chance to visit such a place, and experience it peoples and cultures.