Return to Africa, 2011
Innocent and Jamie, 2007
Innocent, Jamie & Good Hope School in 2011
Photos of the adventure can be found at this link: http://bit.ly/returntoafrica
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This journal is 8 exciting and inspriational pages so you may want to print it in draft mode on scrap papep and enjoy slowly
It was almost four years and over 50 countries ago that I adventured through Eastern Africa. I knew I would be back one day to reconnect with some special friends. One of the most impactful guest riders to pedal along with me on the continent was a man named Innocent who I picked up on his way back from school between Kabale and Kisoro in Uganda. I had no intention of spending more than a few minutes with this man but apparently God had other plans. Just as I was going to say goodbye and pedal onwards to find a campsite the skies unleashed it’s fury—a violent afternoon storm brought blinding lightening, deafening thunder and buckets of rain. Innocent demanded I take shelter in his home and his family gave me a warm, dry and extra sweet home stay expereince.
Innocent ditched his classes the next day to come ride with me. Innocent has never ridden a bike and the terrain in this region is grueling with steeps hills, muddy roads and unpredictable weather ranging from steamy hot to near freezing cold. Our 50km ride took all day—from sunrise to a pitch black arrival in Kisoro. During all the ups and downs, falls, filming and sweating Innocent shared his dream with me to start a school for the needy, especially the countless AIDS orphans, who could not afford to attend school and were mostly working on farms instead of learning.
When I heard him share his dream it was clear that he was not just another manipulating African man trying to suck out as many shillings as they could from this wealthy white man (if they only knew…). No, Innocent had already seen, felt and imagined this school. All he needed was someone to believe in him, push him, guide him and not let him fall back on the poor values of modern day African culture—apathy, laziness and “poor-me-itus”. His heart was in it, so I decided to put mine in there with it.
The rest, as they say, is history. I gave him a few dollars to open an email account and gave him his first assignment—to send me a one-page summary of his dream via email. I had given this cash and first step of faith to at least a dozen other riders who shared a vision of a more meaningful life but nobody until Innocent had done much with it. But Innocent not only took the first step but hundreds of other steps as I led him, with the help of some serious divine inspiration as I certainly didn't know how to start a school, to realize his dream.
For the last four years Innocent has turned his vision into the Good Hope School, now with over 150 students and dozens of teachers, board members & community leaders on board. And for the last four years I’ve been asked by Innocent to come back and visit him and see what we created. But I was always on the road, finishing the 60 or so countries I still had left of the expedition. Email and phone was all we could manage for staying connected. That is, until Innocent used his newly formed sales skills to lure me in just a few months after the expedition finished.
In the four years since our 3-day adventure in Uganda he not only founded the school, but also found the woman of his dreams Mariam. He’s now married and had his first baby boy just two months after our Luca was born. They named him Jamie. If that was not enough, he was going to have the 2nd graduation of Good Hope School and the Christening of little Jamie on my 39th birthday. Mamacita and I were invited to come out and be the guests of honor for the graduation and Godparents of Jamie. So, needless to say, we booked our flights. Innocent learned some nice skills from his mentor, clearly.
So on February 7th I sublet the room in our house and was on my way back to Africa. It turns out that the excitement of going back to Africa fed my insatiable travel bug and inspired the filmmaker in me so I could not just go to Uganda. I decided to make it a homecoming adventure of sorts and visit several special people who touched me on the adventure in East Africa. So after Uganda I would be roll down to Kenya to see Joseph, Malawi to see Geneco and Zambia to see how little Max & John were doing. Let the adventure begin!
I was in backpacker mode starting SuperBowl Sunday where I reunited with my friend Margo and her hubby Chris in Campbell. From there I hopped a plane to Chicago to meet up with Mamacita. Together we flew 8 hours to England, flew 9 hours to Uganda, took a 7-hour bus to Kabale then an hour ride to the Good Hope School. When we rolled in there were a hundred singing, dancing and screaming students welcoming us back home, and baby Jamie was in my arms soon after. It was good to be back!
For the next five days Mamacita and I lived true rural Ugandan style—no running water, no electricity, stinky outdoor drop toilets and farm animals as our neighbors. It was perfect, but it did take some getting used to. Mamacita, now almost 70 years young, took it like a champ and burned through a 300 pack of baby wipes at record speed. We ate the locally grown sweet & Irish potatoes, corn meal, freshly butchered goats and chickens, and deliciously fresh veggies from the garden.
I could write ten pages of details on the five days in Uganda but I’ll let the pictures and soon video tell more of the story. Celebrating my 39th birthday as the guest of honor for the graduation of 36 proud students was an experience I’ll treasure forever. Experiencing the school, meeting the students, connecting with the orphans who are now boarded there full time, interviewing the community members and just hearing the sounds of a positive project like Good Hope School was intoxicating. The only adversity we had was Mamacita’s fall where she severely sprained her right knee. But she’s a trooper and kept on walking, dancing and limping around.
Then there was the Christening. The 3-hour church service with African drums and dancing was worth the price of the flight. Seeing little Jamie in a suit with his afro all fluffed up for the big day, all the relatives coming from every corner of the country, food, drinks, dancing—priceless. The grand finale was me burning a DVD of the graduation ceremony events and showing it to the community before we left for Kenya the next morning.
It was great for Mamacita and I to see the school with our own two eyes. It’s now that I can say with all conviction that miracles are happening over there. Children who would not have gone to school are. Simple as that. And many of them will continue on with their education and do great things for themselves, families and community. We’ll continue to support the school and help it grow. We both left feeling proud and tears fell as we finally boarded our bus for the 20-hour trip to Nakuru, Kenya.
Back in 2007 Mamacita and I cycled together from Nakuru, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda. On our first day riding I met a 17-year-old boy named Joseph who rode with me. On the bike he shared with me his sadness about being forced to drop out of high school due to a financial crisis in his family. He had dreams to be an engineer but they were fading. My intuition said to trust him and by the time our ride was finished mom and I decided he was worthy of staring a scholarship fund and helping him out, term by term, until he finished.
Fast forward four years. Joseph is now a 22 year old young man. He’s a proud graduate of high school—the first and only in his entire family of 11. His dream is alive again to be an engineer. When I told him we were coming to visit him he was ecstatic. Due to the tribal clashes after the elections in late 2007 he and his family were forced to flee their village with nothing, barely escaping death. They now rent a concrete block house for about 4 dollars a month that is about as basic as they come. Just a door, four concrete walls, an oil lamp, and a shared outhouse with an odor that made me gag breathing from my mouth.
Mom and I could have stayed in town at a hotel but they really wanted us to stay with them and we did too. Seven children and Joseph’s mother Lucy all sleep on the floor with no mattresses. I ended up buying a mattress in town so Mamacita could sleep and then allow Lucy to have her first bed in several years. As sad and harsh as this all sounds, the kids giggle and play, the older children are working or married and Joseph is now awaiting his test results to see where he can consider going to university. He’s working at the local barber shop to pay his expenses for his own little place where I stayed with him. He’s independent, committed and super grateful for the support over the years.
When Joseph’s dad came back from work as a watch repairman we had a celebration dinner ready. I treated the family to nice cuts of beef and grilled it outside on charcoal under the moonlight. We chowed down a huge meal of meat and corn meal followed by sweet tea with all the kids. I slept in Joseph’s bed and he slept on my air mattress in his one-room crib. Mom piled into the mix of kids and Lucy without the slightest complaint. Lucy got up three times with mom to help her to the bathroom and mom got to watch her get 7 children fed, dressed and ready for school in this one room house.
Our visit was short but very sweet with Joseph since Mamacita had to get back to have her knee x-rayed and to care for her dog Scooby. We made our way to Nairobi where we were met by our sweet Kenyan friend Monica who had a big dinner prepared for us before we both shipped out that night. I was joined by my friend Pon Otieno, a musician buddy I rolled with back in 2007 who was so eager to meet up once again. Pon was just back from the studio recording another CD and I got a signed copy. We were joined by sweet Kenyan friends and family of Monica as we enjoyed a massive meal of delicious meats, veggies and tons of fresh fruit.
The time finally arrive when Mamacita had to board her plane to England and begin her huge return home to San Diego. I knew it would be hard on her with her bad knee but luckily we found some strong pain killers and she was moving right along with a smile. I, on the other hand, had many more African adventures on the horizon. My flight left at 3AM, a discount flight from Nairobi to Lilongwe, Malawi the long way—via Ethiopia and the Congo. Twelve hours of zombie travel later I rolled into Lilongwe, met a few Christian missionaries to hitch a ride into town, scored a hostal for 12 bucks, showered up and passed out to get ready for my journey to Zambia the next day.
Back in March, 2007 I rode in Zambia and passed a small village called Kamalaza on my last few days before crossing into Malawi. I had met a gal Clair down in Lusaka who was volunteering at a medical clinic and she invited me to stop by. When I arrived there were two babies burning up with late stage malaria, crying, vomiting, and screaming. Both the private and government run clinics were completely out of malaria mediation so, for the first time since passing out hundreds of free doses of the malaria treatment Coartem, I was able to watch this drug in action. And I was able to experience what it feels like to save a life.
One of the little baby’s names was Max. And by 2011 I knew he must be about four years old. And to make my African homecoming adventure complete I had to see his face. The search was on. I met a cute Zambian 12-year old named Cristina and an elder George Banda who knew what village Max and his mom were from so we charged off into the sunset. Little Cristina and her friends were an adorable addition to the fun and one person after another we finally got the word that little Max and his mom had moved out of the village about 30km near Chipata. But we managed to setup an appointment with Max’s grandmother the next morning. As the sun was going down we skipped and giggled our way back to Tithandizane where my hosts Doctor Jere and his wife were cooking up a big feast for their visitor.
But the fun ends this evening, I’m afraid. What I thought would be a fun reuniting with Max and the inspirational, positive people of the 13-year old Tithandizane community service project turned out to be yet another horrific experience into the corruption, greed and apathy so typical in Zambia. My friend John Zulu, former project coordinator and 10 year volunteer who rode with me my last day and impressed me so much, was accused by the doctor of stealing most of the assets and turned to heavy drinking. The new doctor on duty also claimed to have been contracted at a $300/month salary and “convinced” to leave his clinic in Malawi but did not have any contract to show me. He did, however, have elaborate stories and heartfelt complaints, lies and pleas for me to help him get his 3 years of pay from what he believes is a “dishonest NGO in the UK”.
I tried to keep a positive attitude the next morning when George and I went back to the village to meet Max’s grandma and find a way to find him in Chipata. The village people accepted us with open arms and his grandmother agreed to come along and show us where Max and mom lived. George agreed to come as the interpreter as well, in exchange for a bag of potatoes for his wife. Fair deal. I also had a new mission to find the accused John Zulu to get his side of the story. I’ve learned in Africa there are always two sides and they are usually very different.
We rolled into Max’s little village and Max and his mom greeted us with big smiles on the main road. It was great to see Max smiling, healthy and I even got a hug from him. However, I wish I could say it was a peaceful and relaxed visit. We were immediately surrounded by hundreds of kids and curious locals as we walked to their humble shack. It was a small yet overcrowded village outside of Chipata with trash, drunks and plenty of rif-raff running around. George was quick to remind me to watch my cameras closely and suggested we make our visit brief. It was a Saturday afternoon in Zambia and this meant heavy drinking by too many men. Max and mom lived right behind a loud bar and during our visit we were attracting one drunk around another.
After about 45 minutes the crowd, noise, dust and grime was all I could take. I felt inspired to make my way to Chipata to meet up with my buddy John Zulu and see if I could lend a hand in the healing process at the clinic. I had a frustrating encounter with a dishonest taxi driver but eventually made it to the taxi area where I heard John frequented. The drivers knew him and told me he had actually gone back to to Kamalaza to see his parents and drink in the local pub. Maybe Doctor Jare was not so wrong.
So I crammed into yet another grossly overcrowded minivan, I counted 23 people in a 15-person van, and made my way back to Kamalaza. When I arrived the first person I saw was none other than John Zulu. He looked horrible. His face had aged 15 years, his glasses were cracked, he reeked of cheap alcohol and he gripped a cigarette that was burning well below the filter. This was the man who helped me crank the pedals up and down the hills just four years ago? This was the man who was my last hope of an honorable man in Zambia after being stolen from and lied to three times in a row? My heart sank.
All I could way was, “John, you look like shit”. And he replied, “Yes, I know”. For the next hour I tried to listen to him but I could see right through him. He was devastated when the organization brought this new doctor to the clinic. They had butted heads with two huge egos for many years before he finally left town with his five children and held the keys to the clinic’s van ransom until the chief of the village heard his case about his own accusations of the doctor Jare stealing funds himself. It was, and still is, a sad mess.
Bottom line is this. You take a Zambian man and give him lots of diplomas and you have a little boy with a big man ego. You take a man like John who was the big project coordinator for 10 years and you have another boy with a huge ego. Put them together and tell them to work as a team and you have a bomb ready to explode. And explode it did. Apparently the NGO in the UK has stopped all funds until the village chief makes a determination of the accusations by both egos. And, as a testimony to the apathy of this village, it’s chief and the village headsman, this case has been “under investigation” for almost three years. How many other cases do they have?
My last effort was to call a meeting of the village headsman to lead a discussion on the seriousness of this apathy. We called and sent letters the day before to all 13 village headsman announcing a 9AM meeting at the clinic. By 9:45AM one man had showed up, the “head of the headsman”. This man stunk horribly and literally looked like he passed out in his clothes on the dirt and rolled in it all the way to this important meeting. The other 12 headsman were nowhere to be found. Oh well. I promised to record a video message of Mr. Jare and send it to the NGO in UK about his complaints. He gave me a group of documents to bring with me to send there are well. Upon review of the documents I realized that he too was a liar—he lied to me, he lied on paper and he believed his own lies.
That was that, I hopped the next matatu out of town to the Malawi border. Another squandered opportunity by a community to have better health and education was in the dust. The buildings and 13 years of energy will likely crumble after being robbed of every usable piece of metal, doors, iron. Glass will be broken, urine will soon be the permeating odor. I hope this is not the case, but it seems this is the destiny. I hope we all learn one day how to follow through with projects we start and how to properly train, lead and guide African leaders. But all this is worthless if the communities don’t really care, appreciate or have the willingness to work to protect the gifts that people bring them from around the world.
Anyways, enough bitching. I wanted out Zambia. I did not lift my head to talk to anyone until I was out of the country. Malawi would be my safe haven from this horrendous behavior. Yeah, right. My taxi driver took myself and a young Zambian woman from the border to Mchingi where I hoped to hook up with my buddy Geneco. About two kilometers into the journey the driver pulls out a beer and it’s clear he’s intoxicated. To make matters worse, he soon begins to run out of gas. To keep the car going he swerves left and right in the road to keep gas flowing on a Sunday afternoon when kids and families are in every direction. He was unresponsive to me pleas to stop the cab but when he finally did I hopped out and walked the towards town. He chased me down and I was about 6 seconds from dropping this drunken fool but luckily another cab came up and we both hopped in it and drove away. Phew!
The good news is that I did reconnect with Geneco. The not so good news is that he had not progressed in his music career as we both had hoped but rather made excuse after excuse how “hard it is when you have no money”. Luckily I had met another local Malawian named Japhet who agreed to mentor Geneco a bit. He’s got a successful event production business and turned out to be distantly related to Geneco and willing to help out a bit. So I left Geneco by giving him one more chance by setting him up with a mentor, an email account to stay in touch and a meeting with a producer named Q in Lilongwe once he got all his lyrics in a MS Word document. We’ll see how it goes. I believe in Geneco—I have heard his lyrics and he has potential. But potential without effort means four years of nothing happening. This is his last chance.
So although I was frustrated, tired, sweaty, dirty, stinky and a bit bitter I still felt a sense of satisfaction and pride for arriving where I was at that moment. I enjoyed an ice cold Carlsbad “Greenie” brew then hopped another packed minibus to Lilongwe. I landed a great seat with a window that actually opened and watched Malawi pass by and the first rains in 17 days finally arrive. Then it struck me. I was done. It was time to go see my babies Cristina and Luca in Spain. I smiled, took a deep breath, and before I knew it I was in Lilongwe.
I was flying standby from Kenya to Spain and my intuition told me to start making my way sooner than later to make sure I arrive in time for our meeting with the US Embassy in Madrid. I called Swiss Air, the airline I was flying on, and the bad news was that they were horribly oversold with 6 Swiss Air staff in front of me. Not good.
My budget flight got in at 1AM so I hopped a cab to the home of my Danish friend Vibe and her husband to be Marco in Nairobi. At 2:30AM the travel angels somehow found me a last minute flight from Nairobi to Madrid for only a few hundred dollars more than flying standby blessed me. Sold. And they also gave me an extra day to enjoy some quality time with Vibe and Marco. Nice.
So I went from living on local corn meal and potatoes to a huge steak dinner with yummy wine, great company and intellectual conversation with this lovely couple. I was able to do some shopping for some gifts and decorations for my crib in Santa Cruz too. Now I’m sitting here at the Nairobi Airport with a giddy feeling of joy ready for the last leg of the journey to Qatar in the middle east where I’ll connect to my last flight to Spain to see Cris and Luca! So stoked!
All in all, I’m grateful and proud of this return to Africa. To have five powerful reconnection experiences in a few weeks and to capture much of it on film was indeed worth the time, energy and money. It’s time to start settling in, editing, pitching and getting ready to share some powerful stories with the world. Stay tuned…
Live Big, Give Big, Love Big. I still dig these three simply messages.
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