Nothing about Kwame Tapiwa Muzawazi is ordinary – not even his name. He entered the Guinness Book of Records by delivering the longest lecture in history and then became the first black African to traverse the continent in a car. He is now working on a couple of book projects. Editor-at-Large, Baffour Ankomah, tells the story of a young man’s search for his African identity and some of the rude discoveries waiting for him on his journey.
Kwame Tapiwa Muzawazi’s series of extraordinary adventures perhaps started with his decision to study for his Masters in International Law neither in Africa nor the usual institutions in the US or Western Europe. He opted for the Jagiellonian in Krakow, the oldest university in Poland.
(He was actually born Errol Edgar Tapiwa Muzawazi in Zimbabwe. He changed his first name to Kwame in 2010 while in Ghana during his epic car journey.)
Perhaps more to the point, very few Poles know anything about Africa beyond the customary wildlife and Tarzan movies. But Kwame converted this drawback into opportunity. He was free to fashion out his own identity and he did so with such panache that he became an unlikely celebrity. It also opened up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive across the continent and record his impressions.
But he first set his mark by doing something totally out of the box: he sought, in 2003 at the age of 19, to enter the Guinness Book of Records by delivering what was then the longest lecture in history – a marathon monologue on democracy that lasted 62 hours 30 minutes.
He had broken the record set by an Indian and this sparked into motion a series of attacks and counter-attacks culminating in 2009. (See bottom of page.)
Kwame’s feats not only made him a celebrity in Poland, they aroused considerable interest in Africa (the “unknown continent” for most Eastern Europeans).
Three months before the record-breaking event, Kwame had undertaken a gruesome educational trip in September 2009, driving across four African countries – Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia – to gather information for his university in Poland.
No wonder, in the same year, the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education gave him the “2009 Best Foreign Student in Poland” award, out of 17,000 international students in Polish universities, for “work that helped the people of Europe better understand Africa”.
His university, Jagiellonian, also gave him what amounted to a “Student Noble Peace Prize” for his work in cultural diplomacy and counteracting stereotypes of Africa.
The epic journey begins
But all that was in preparation for the big adventure to come. In 2010, at the age of 26, Kwame set out from Poland on his biggest adventure yet, a marathon educational tour across 21 African countries.
No black African had ever done anything like this before him. The theme was: “In search of an authentic African voice”. The intention was to collect the opinions of Africans about their own continent.
He was forced to skip four on the planned route but eventually visited 17 countries over six months: Morocco, Western Sahara, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, DRC, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – bringing his educational trips to a grand total of 21 countries (including the earlier four) in 7 months.
No black African had ever done anything like this before him. The theme was: “In search of an authentic African voice”. The intention was to collect the opinions of Africans about their own continent – views, which, Kwame hoped, would begin positive changes that would transform the image of Africa in the world, and particularly in the Polish media.
The expedition had three broad objectives: Getting to know the African cultures along the route, particularly the living conditions of the people and the level of education; gathering opinions on the level of development in Africa; and preparing a scientific publication using the material
gathered on the trip to be distributed globally to all interested in African matters.
A team from the Jagiellonian University was prepared to accompany Kwame on the trip. Unfortunately, bar one member of the team, photographer Andrzej Staron, they got cold feet one week before the trip, frightened by scary stories about Africa they were told at a send-off party!
They had fitted out a Nissan Patrol 4×4 for the trip. Kwame christened it Africanus II in honour of one of the earliest pan-Africanists, James Africanus Horton, whose path-breaking book, Vindication of the African Race, captured the imagination of the young Zimbabwean, who think the issues raised by the book are still relevant today.
Thus, on 29 March 2010, after a raucous official departure ceremony in front of Jagiellonian University’s Collegium Novum building, Kwame and Andrzej, drove from Krakow in the south of Poland near the border with the Czech Republic, and put 4,000 km on the clock in one week, driving through four European countries – Germany, Belgium, France, and Spain – before boarding a ferry at the Spanish port city of Algeciras for Morocco, where the real trip began.
Into Africa proper
For Kwame, Africanus II was to become a bedroom, kitchen, office, car and everything else thrown into one, as he never stayed in hotels on the journey but in people’s homes when they kindly invited him to stay. (Andrzej Staron left the expedition in Senegal and returned home to Poland, leaving Kwame all alone to conquer his native continent.)
But even before they arrived in Algeciras, Kwame’s battle with the atrocious African visa regime – which favours foreigners more than Africans – had started. He kept a diary on the trip, and this is what he wrote on Day 14:
“Morocco: I am an African, born in Africa, holding an African country’s passport, and my attempt to travel across the African continent through 21 countries, you will think is a criminal act due to the gruelling consular rigmaroles that I am forced to encounter as I try to get visas into most of these countries.
“I am travelling with a Polish photographer, and much to my disappointment, I need more visas than he does, and in some instances, he does not even need a visa at all, where I do. Where the hell is African unity?
“Last week, I got a visa to enter Morocco after three weeks of waiting.”
Kwame returns to the visa issue again while in Mali: “Day 43: Monday 10 May 2010 – 50 years after independence, the black man is still second class on his own soil. One would think that for a black man travelling on African soil, life would be easier than for aliens from beyond the oceans. Not until you visit the Nigerian Embassy in Bamako, Mali.
“Upon inquiry, the never-smiling visa officer informed me that visas for Zimbabweans could be collected only the next day. But my German friends had been informed that their visas were collectable in three hours. This kind of second-class treatment for blacks has repeated itself in different ways throughout the journey.
“Africanus II is waiting to be cleared at the Senegal-Mali border. A whole day of waiting!”
The Nigerian visa issue might have left a sour taste in Kwame’s mouth, but it paled before what happened to him on his first day in the Malian capital, Bamako. He was looking for a motel to stay in and ended up in a cemetery.
As I tried to stop him from putting the knife to my throat, he cut deep into my hand. I gave him what he wanted and he left, literally rushing into the cemetery.”
“Nothing in the books prepared me for that experience,” Kwame recounts. “When I entered Bamako, I arrived at a police checkpoint and asked for directions to a motel I wanted to stop over at for a day or two. The two policemen manning the checkpoint gave me someone in civilian clothes, to take me to the motel.
“Against the policy of the trip, I allowed a stranger into the car. The motel was supposed to be a five-minute drive from the checkpoint, but the journey went on for 15 minutes or more as I followed the stranger’s directions. Soon we arrived at a cemetery and the Good Samaritan turned into a bad one. He drew a knife and demanded cash and other valuables from me. As I tried to stop him from putting the knife to my throat, he cut deep into my hand. I gave him what he wanted and he left, literally rushing into the cemetery.”
On Day 39 (Thursday 6 May 2010), Kwame was compelled to note in his diary the behaviour of the African policemen he had encountered on the way.
He writes: “I have challenged everyone around to show me a policeman in Africa who will not extort a bribe. In the four countries we have covered so far – Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali – we have had to pay bribe after bribe at every police roadblock or else we are stuck. Usually this is every 200km on average.
“In Morocco, the policemen ask for a ‘souvenir’ [a euphemism for a bribe] whilst in Senegal they shamelessly ask for it in diverse ways if all your paperwork is in order, such as accusing you of an offence called ‘bad management of luggage’ (it happened to us!); or in the case of some German travellers we met in Mali, they had to pay a fine to the Malian police because their spare tyre was without pressure. One can write a book, which is sure to become a humour best seller, on reasons that African policemen give if they want something from you. There were only two countries where the police never asked for a bribe from me: Ghana and Nigeria.”
Kwame, born in a city and never having experienced rural life in all his 26 years, found himself in the midst of villagers in northern Ghana who taught him how to plough a field using donkeys, and how to carry a pan of water balanced on his head like rural women do.
“Day 53: Thursday 20 May 2010, Bolga [a small village, 30 km away from Bolgatanga, capital of Ghana’s Upper East Region]. Back to my roots. Am I the African who is not an African? Having been born in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, I spent 20 years without ever tasting rural life and then left for studies to Europe. Many other urban Africans like me, apart from the passports and ID cards they hold, are more Western than African. Let urban Africans challenge me on this one!
“But having decided to travel across Africa ‘ in search of an authentic African voice’, my first rural point of study was the village of Bolga in north Ghana. Today is the day I went back to my roots, the day I lived my parents’ childhood, the day I lived the life of 70% of the African masses.
“If today these villagers who exude the spirit of ubuntuism were to ask me to marry and stay here for good, would I agree? This and a thousand
other questions run through my head as I try to save my soul by convincing myself that even without African rural experience, I am still a full African.”
Leading from the grave
Kwame had entered Ghana from Burkina Faso where he had gone to visit the grave of Burkina’s former revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara:
“Day 50: Burkina Faso, Monday 17 May 2010, Ouagadougou – Africa needs more Thomas Sankaras. The people of Burkina Faso love to love Thomas Sankara. Even from his humble grave, Sankara continues to guide his fellow countrymen towards a path of progress and integrity.
“As a leader of his country, he fought corruption with an uncommon, missionary zeal, rebranded his country and in all remained a man of modest tastes, the real ‘man of the people’. He is buried at an ordinary Joe’s cemetery with his fellow poor countrymen, and yes, there are more visitors to where Captain Thomas Sankara rests today than at many presidential palaces of sitting African leaders.”
But in Togo, Kwame’s luck ran out. He spent a night in police cells, for trying to interview some Togolese youths.
“Day 63: Sunday 30 May 2010, Lomé, Togo: Wanting to make friends can land you in jail. “The success of any such journey as mine must be measured on how many friends one makes along the way, not how many kilometres were covered – because it is through these friendships that you can penetrate and try to understand the background of your new friends.
“As soon as I crossed from Ghana to the capital of Lomé, I met three Togolese young men, also interested in my travel as much as I was interested in making friends with them. We sat down around drinks and started discussing all matters African.
“The army on patrol grew suspicious of our conversation, which was punctuated by long and loud laughs. I was handcuffed and taken to some military barracks where I spent the night in detention for ‘conducting research without government ‘ licence’ !
“And in this brutal way great friendships were nipped in the bud. The long night in Togo turned into a lonesome philosophical deliberation. I wondered where this great continent will go. Because when I looked at it basically, I was detained for wanting to make friends with fellow Africans.”
As he prepared to leave Gabon for Congo-Brazzaville and then into DRC, the prospect of navigating his way through the dense forests lying ahead of him was daunting.
“Libreville, Gabon, Saturday 24 July 2010 (Day 118): Congo, I am coming!
“There is a general belief that when planning to cross the Congos by land, one must take with them a mechanic and an undertaker as one or both of them will be necessary. Indeed, quite a number of overland expeditions across Africa have ended in or around the Congos, thanks to ruthless environmental and human factors.
“Since I began this African tour, almost four months ago, there have been only two other groups I met with a similar dream of crossing Africa
north-south. The first, two Germans in their late teens, had their trip nipped in the bud back in Nigeria after falling prey to armed gangsters.
The second, two British adults, saw their dream shattered in DRC due to a major car breakdown as the roads were dreadful.”
He writes: “Be that as it may, this is a path that awaits me in the coming few days. I have no choice but to fire-up Africanus II and hit the road.
Alone. The question that remains for me is how to do it. Congo, open the way because I am coming. I am coming not to stay beneath your soils, but to visit and leave. Amen.”
He quickly understood why even seasoned drivers baulk at having to drive on some of the worse roads in the world. It took him three days to move from Pointe Noire, the second largest city, to Brazzaville, the capital – a distance of about 260 km. Worse was to come. Fifty kilometres out of Brazzaville, Kwame’s vehicle was shot at by rebels who disabled the tyres.
“I discovered that the world does not understand Africa, and – paradoxically enough – Africans do not understand Africa.”
“They wanted me to give them money – $500 in fact. I refused. I was angry.”
Kwame was still haggling with the rebels when a Lebanese businessman arrived on the scene with a convoy of heavy trucks, loaded with goods for sale in Brazzaville. “He slapped me on the cheek like an angry father to a son, and told me to get on my way immediately,” Kwame recounts.
“He gave the rebels $200 which they accepted and I was freed.
“A few kilometres from the scene, the Lebanese stopped me and told me that those ‘ drunkards were real cannibals who would have not hesitated to feast on Zimbabwean meat’. In fact while I was haggling with them, they were roasting a monkey.”
Kwame was lucky to have got away scot-free as in January 2010, rebels in Cabinda, not too far away from Brazzaville, had shot and killed three members of the Togolese national football team travelling in a bus to Angola for the African Cup of Nations?
“I was just lucky that the Lebanese businessman happened to come on the scene,” Kwame reminisces. “Maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here today telling you the story. He in fact slapped me and shouted at me: ‘What do you think you are doing? On this kind of journey, two-thirds of your budget goes to the police and to people like the rebels’.”
Kwame went on to finish the journey, going through DR Congo, Angola, Namibia, South Africa, and ending up in his native Zimbabwe, to a hero’s welcome.
He summed up the trip with the following diary entry:
“One of the most fascinating things about Africa is the remarkable contrasts that formulate the image of the continent. It is the richest continent in the world, but the poorest people in the world are found there. This is also the oldest human society, yet the least developed. This is why I went on a journey across the African continent, to try to understand these simple yet intricate ‘wonders of Africa’.
“It took me 174 days to hop from one place to another across 17 countries, meeting people, listening to them, becoming friends, and learning a great deal from them. During the tour, every three days I was in a different city, town or village and every 2 weeks in a different country.
“All the adventures and experiences that I went through on this epic expedition do reduce themselves to two basic discoveries: that the world does not understand Africa and – paradoxically enough – Africans do not understand Africa.”