Footsteps

Mount Elgon, Uganda (1998)I’m something of a walker. During my time at Stanford University my battered old trainers got me to and from most places, as they did in San Francisco and as they continue to do today in London, Cambridge and anywhere else life takes me. Walking – accompanied by my trusty iPod – is the only time I really ever get these days to think and contemplate. Classic downtime, I guess.

So it should come as no surprise to hear that three years ago I was planning the mother of all walks – across the African continent. It was a bold (and perhaps crazy) idea, and a ‘Plan B’ at that. ‘Plan A’ was to get a Fellowship at Stanford University and, as much to my surprise as anyone else’s, it came off. Stanford was the start of a real acceleration in kiwanja’s work, and since arriving there one sunny September back in 2006, things haven’t really stopped for me.

But there’s still the little matter of that walk…

Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated in exploration, and the bygone days of early African exploration in particular. John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley, Mungo Park and, of course, David Livingstone, all embarked on some incredible journeys. For someone with a fascination for exploration and adventure, a love of walking, a strong personal attachment to the African continent and a need to do a lot of thinking, following in the footsteps of someone like David Livingstone probably doesn’t sound too crazy after all.

I hadn’t got too far in my planning before the Stanford offer came through, but I had done enough to realise that the walk was likely to take a very long time and be pretty treacherous. Looking at a map of Livingstone’s mammoth 1851 to 1856 walk from the west to east coast of Africa, following it today would take you through more than the odd trouble spot.

In my very rough mock-up here, the journey would start off in Luanda (Angola) and take you east through the DRC, then south into Zambia, down into Zimbabwe (just – that would be where Livingstone “discovered” Victoria Falls), onwards through Malawi into southern Tanzania, and then on through Mozambique to Quelimane, our final destination – and time for a very long, cold beer and a good bath, no doubt. (Quelimane is a little further north than Livingstone’s finishing point, but it’s close enough).

I’m not sure how many miles this walk would total, but it’s looking like somewhere in the region of 4,000 to 5,000. At a walking speed of, say, four miles per hour for ten hours per day, you’re talking about 1,000 days (or three years). Livingstone took five but he – or rather his porters – had to walk around a lot of lakes and hack through a lot of forest. There are likely to be a few more roads around today, and sadly a lot less forest.

I still harbour dreams to do a walk – maybe combined with a kiwanja Foundation fundraiser – ┬ábut maybe not this one. For me there’s something very magical about walking, and walking in Africa in particular. After all, feet are the mode of transport we used about two million years ago when the first humans emerged from the continent to colonise Asia. On many of my Africa trips, starting with Zambia in 1993 (where I stayed in Livingstone for a couple of days, funnily enough) I’ve always taken every opportunity to head off on foot, to take in the sights, sounds and smells. You see so much more when you walk, not to mention meet many more people. Many of my Mobile Gallery photos have been taken that way.

My first ever website – dating around 2001 – was called Igisi Hill, one of two small hills in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda where I spent three months working on a conservation project in 1998. For a couple of weeks I’d take a daily walk up that hill to sit and experience the wonderful surroundings. A shimmering Lake Albert in the distance remains a highlight. Igisi Hill is the kind of place I’d like to have my ashes scattered, funnily enough.

Once I’ve taken kiwanja.net – and projects like FrontlineSMS – as far as I feel I can, I imagine the day coming when I’ll hand them over and fulfil this dream. I’ve never quite understood my fascination for Africa, but it’s had a strong grip on me for over sixteen years now. Maybe the best way to find out is to take a journey through it.