Recently, a good friend of mine returned from spending a decent chunk of his life gallivanting around East Africa, working on various noble projects and getting to the heart of this little explored region. I myself know only a bit about East Africa and it turns out that there are are a number of things that glossy travel magazines simply won’t tell you about this amazing part of the world. And so, with much fanfare and a blaring of trumpets, I am proud to reveal to you 8 things nobody tells you about East Africa…
1. Handshakes can last for hours..
A handshake is usually the first point of contact you have with a person, so, quite rightly it’s at the front of the article. Handshakes are very important to Africans, and often you will be expected to shake everyone’s hand in the room, even if you are an hour late for the meeting! The first handshake you share with an East African will vary depending on which country you go to, but there are numerous version of handshakes used from the super formal to the super friendly. In Uganda for example, this handshake will continue as long as the conversation does, and can go on for ten minutes. It’s not as weird as it sounds! Whilst we’re on the subject of grown men holding hands, this also extends to men walking down the street holding hands, or having their arms around each other. This isn’t seen as being homosexual in East Africa even though being a homosexual is highly illegal in Uganda.
2. Your going to need some pool skills!
If you want to make real local friends, you better learn how to play pool at a bar. There is usually a winner stays on system with two payment options. The cheaper option just puts you in line to play, and the VIP option jumps you to the front of the queue, often cancelling the current game. This VIP option seems a bit unfair, but the locals love the celebrity status of beating a foreigner so will often throw down the cash to skip the line! The rules are also slightly different to UK and American systems, but they are consistent, so if you’re not sure, you’ll soon be taught their rules. If you’re good at pool, when you do eventually lose be sure to give a strong handshake, you’ll have made some good friends in no time.
3. You better learn some Swahili
Swahili is a trade language created to help communication between the countries in East Africa. Swahili was created in Tanzania, perfected in Kenya, got ill in Uganda, and died in the Congo. If you want to learn a few Swahili phrases, watch the Lion King. For example, Simba actually means lion. If you see an expat walking their dog in East Africa, there’s a good chance its name will be Simba. Ultimately, the uniting language in East Africa is English, despite there being Francophone colonies in the area. Rwanda was the first country to change its official language from French to English due to cold relations with the French following their suspected involvement in the genocide. Know your history and, where appropriate, don’t talk in French!
4. The main roads are surprisingly good
The main roads in East Africa are without a doubt some of the best roads I’ve ever driven on. Even if the roads are dirt roads they are usually, smooth, flat and straight. If you’re on a motorbike, you’ll want to be no-where else in the world, this is prime moto-touring country! There is currently huge investment from the Chinese, which means that many roads are brand spanking new. However, due to Chinese companies cutting costs here and there, many of the roads are often under repair. If you venture off the main roads, it’s a whole different ballgame; you’ll quickly find yourself bumping along some of the worst roads in the world. I remember getting off a truck as the driver lined himself up for a run-up over a dilapidated bridge. He gunned it, then slammed the brakes on. Whilst the truck waited in the middle, the slats from behind the truck were moved in front of the truck so that it could continue ‘safely’, moving just a few meters at a time.
While we’re on roads, we’ll talk about an uncomfortable subject road accidents. Despite what you may think the biggest dangers are in Africa (crocodiles, crazed gorillas, under-cooked chicken), the most common way to actually get yourself killed is actually in a road traffic accident. If your unlucky enough to get hit by a car then that’s one thing but if your unlucky enough to actually hit someone whilst driving, that’s a whole different ball game – chances are you will be pulled from your car and lynched! If you do hit someone, pretend they are alive, get them in the back of your car and drive them to a hospital – this is actual advice given to me by a doctor in East Africa!
5. Most East African’s speak a universal language.
I mentioned earlier that English is the most common language in East Africa, well, I lied, it’s actually football. I remember crossing the border between the DRC and Rwanda – moving from one of the most lawless places in the world, to one of the strictest regimes around. As I crossed the border, the customs officer took an interest in me, spending a hell of a long time looking over my papers, never a good sign in a part of the world renowned for hustling bribes. I was running out of time and the border was just about to close. I overheard him speaking to his friend in Swahili, I didn’t understand much of what he was saying but made out a crucial phrase ‘goal difference’. I kept a cool tone in my voice and respectfully asked him who won the football game last night. His face lit up and he asked, ‘you can speak Swahili?’ I replied, ‘No, but I speak football’. He laughed, and with ambidextrous talents that I’ve never seen before, stamped all my papers and waved me across the border with a hearty handshake. I strongly recommend picking a premier league football team to say you support, even if you don’t, Arsenal is a winner. Make sure you know a couple of the players!
6. East Africa has a boogie-man: The traffic police!
Traffic police are different to regular police, and due to the high number of fatalities on the roads, are often well needed. Regardless of the level of corruption, they provide incentives to stick to the speed limit and to only have 2 people on a motorbike (when every decent explorer knows that the actual limit is 5). They are surprisingly tech savvy and will often be armed to the teeth with, well, radar guns. Luckily, East Africans have developed a unique set of hand signals to help keep each other out of trouble with the traffic police. Fellow drivers will warn you if police are around so that you can slow down/turn around. If a driver approaching you is pointing at the ground, it mean the police are lurking nearby. If their hand is dangling down with their fingers opening and closing it means it’s safe. If you think a driver is saying everything is ‘A’ ok it means there is a speed camera (a rare occurrence admittedly) around the corner – slow the hell down!
7. Mobile phones are everywhere!
East Africa has by far the most developed mobile network I have ever experienced. 4G is being rolled out across all major cities and 3G can be found in almost all towns. The rates are cheap, and there are deals for international calls. The simple reason for all this is that Africans demand quality when it comes to communication; if they’re going to spend the majority of their income on a phone, the want it to actually work! Most people have 2 or 3 phones so that they can have a phone for each of the networks. They will then try to only call people on the same network because it’s cheaper. I also found that the amount it costs to call a foreign country is dependent on the international relationships. For Example to call the UK is very cheap, but to call the Congo is very expensive. Weird right?
8. Laughter is key!
The final point I’ll make about East Africans is on their wonderful sense of humour. By far, the best way to make friends in Africa is by laughing with them, at them, at yourself and at pretty much everything going on around you. Maybe it vibes with an English sense of humour, but I think the funny things in Africa are funny anywhere. When you get used to the place, instead of being shocked at things you see, you’ll accept them, just like everyone else does. In Africa, something downright hilarious will often appear out of nowhere, if you spot it and catch someone’s eye, an unstoppable circle of laughter will begin. For example, if an over-laden truck is trying to roar through town – burning as much oil as diesel, with plumes of black smoke billowing out the back – your first move should be to dive into a shop to save your lungs. Once in the shop, be sure to catch the store-keeps eye and have a good giggle at the calamity that’s unfolding outside. Yes it’s ridiculous. Yes, it’s Africa. But if it’s funny, laugh – you’ll never be alone…
About Roger Morton: Roger is a good friend of mine whom I met whilst studying at uni. Roger has always been into his motorbikes but sadly his passion for things that go ‘Vrooooom!’ often outweighed his bank balance, at the age of 15 he received a Stihl chainsaw for Christmas and promptly attached it to the back of a mountain bike. Engineering was born out of enjoyable necessity. It soon became clear that engineering could also provide a world of travel and ‘easy’ visas. Roger first travelled to Africa in 2010 where it burrowed under his skin. Roger likes fast bikes, fresh bread, worthy problems to solve, and women that aren’t impressed (sadly, there are many). He can’t survive long without hot water and good wit. His writing tells the stories that are censored enough to be written in pen on the internet. You can follow his blogs over here, here and here! If, like myself, you think it’s high time he got a proper website to share all of his amazing stories with a wider audience, please tell him in the comments below!