I’m being squished to an early arthritic death by a Tanzanian cross breed between the dad from Fresh Prince of Bel Air and former WWF superstar, Rikishi. I offer him a freshly bought Nice biscuit, only for him to politely decline. The offer was more a Machiavellian ploy to encourage a movement of his thigh-sized right tricep, rather than a genuine attempt at kindness, and he seemed to see straight through the façade. So I lie, stuck, back lurched against the aisle side of my bus seat, counting down the minutes until we arrive at Moshi.
An elderly passenger across the aisle tells me we’ll be arriving in 25minutes. I say across the aisle – the aisle has all but disappeared, with Rikishi from Bel Air nonchalantly forcing the right side of my body to take shelter in its place. The elderly gentleman is slightly out on his estimate; 25mins gone and we’re still 10km or so outside the city centre. He hadn’t accounted for it being a Friday night – Tanzanians love to party on Friday and Saturday nights. Spend a night here and it makes your average Wetherspoons, followed my Voodoo, followed by drunken and disorderly encounter with a Subtone bouncer, seem as timid as a kids birthday bash at Ballyhoo. Sure, us Brits probably beat them hands down for number of shots downed, but if you had two adjacent Justin Bieber style mugshots of Tanzanian and British revellers, you wouldn’t need a double take to see who’s having more fun. The old bloke beside me suddenly realises his estimated time of arrival has passed, so naturally tries to strike conversation to distract me from our lateness.
“Where are you from?” he asks. I tell him I’m from the countryside, an hour or so from Birmingham and Bristol, and three from London.
“You are not from Manchester?” he ejaculates with shock, complete with eyebrows raised to his hair line. I hadn’t realised every British tourist riding the evening bus from Arusha to Moshi had to be Mancunian.
“No, not Manchester. That’s up North, I’m from the South West.” There was a glint in his eye both when he and I mentioned the name Manchester, so I presume he is a United fan. If a country’s football club fan base is to be judged by the number of ‘genuine fake’ replica shirts worn of each team, Chelsea and Man Utd are the highest profile clubs in Tanzania.
“You like Manchester United, yeah?”
He nodded his head like the Churchill dog.
“Oh, yes! In fact, I have a friend who is a director at Manchester United. His name is A-“
“Alex?” I’ve only been in the country for a week and a half, and I’ve already met scores of locals with best friends and relatives who are either first team regulars at Old Trafford, or in directorial roles there. It’s like a whole country full of blokes who prop up the bar down at your local in England, insisting they once toured with The Beatles, had trials at United and were once the Milkybar Kid. What has happened? How have I found myself here? Why am I sitting on a bus full of lookalikes, footballing connections, and strangers, with nothing more in my possession than a rucksack of clothes, a phone, bank cards and a bag full of emergency snacks?
There was no moment of revelation. I couldn’t tell you when the thought first cropped up in my mind. The entire idea was more akin to a festering intrigue than a blinding spark of inspiration. There were, though, several vital moments of progression. The first came after weeks of trawling through UCAS webpages and online Times Good University guides. Having displayed the type of heavily disciplined studiousness which may well have been better placed in revision textbooks, I decided on my higher education choices, then sent off my UCAS application. This is an important moment because of what I didn’t do, rather than what I did. It was three months or so later when I was upstairs in the sixth form study area, procrastinating from revision. I had the contact numbers for all my university choices, and in the space of around 20 minutes I called them all to request a change in my application status, switching from entry in September 2013 to entry in September 2014. Three months earlier I’d rushed over this part of my application in a hurry, without giving it any thought. Three months later, the universities had given me offers which I was delighted with, and I was hoping the deadline to apply for deferred entry hadn’t passed. After being stuck in the education system for 15 years of my life, the idea of taking a year out to do whatever I wanted sounded pretty cool. The problem was, I couldn’t say precisely that when speaking to the university admission officers, so instead I improvised.
“And what will you be doing on your proposed gap year?” enquired each admission officer. The truth was, I had a few very vague ideas about the intended gap year; largely working for the first six months, then travelling somewhere before making my way to South America in time for the Brazil World Cup. That probably wouldn’t have cut it for the rigorous robots on the other end of the phone though.
“Well, I’ll be volunteering in impoverished communities in Africa and South America, doing loads of charity work, and performing at poetry events”. It sounded convincing, and the admission officers all bought it. And so did I.
The next vital moment of progression came about ten minutes later, still upstairs in the sixth form study area. Through a combination of doing all I could to procrastinate from revision and being convinced by my own gap year rhetoric, I began searching ‘intern’ and ‘volunteer charity’ on Twitter. The results were endless. Charities like Invisible Children and AfriKids were offering volunteering placements, and companies like Adidas, Channel 4 and the Financial Times were all open to intern applicants. None of that ever materialised. I also searched for ‘poetry Africa’, optimistically thinking I might be able to find spoken word poetry events to perform at. One decent result came up, the Mistari Bank, in Nairobi, Kenya. Its CEO, a Mr Brian Trigga, was publicising an upcoming event. I sent an email telling him of my experience as a poet, my intentions to travel in Africa, and my hopes to perform at the Mistari Bank. He replied.
The final moment of vital progression came around a month later, in early April – with a change of scenery – in Ghent, Belgium. My school debating team had been selected to attend an international European Youth Parliament session, having won at the national UK session. I briefly met a Swiss attendee named Max. Little did I know that ten months later, we’d be embarking upon Mt Kilimanjaro together.
As the months, weeks and days drew closer to my arrival in Africa, my reasons for choosing this destination became clearer. I could have tried Thailand, Australia, or the French Alps, and I would have had the best gap year of my life. But choosing Africa makes this more than just a gap year of travelling, sightseeing and fun. I wanted more than a transient memory. What I was after, was an experience which in the short term could make a positive contribution to as many lives as possible, and in the long term could inspire me to direct the purpose of my life towards continuing that positive effect.
The multifaceted nature of this adventure is what makes it so worthwhile – every moment is so valuable in so many different ways. By climbing Kilimanjaro, I’ll be inspired by the splendour of nature and our environment, and I’ll be taught several painful lessons in the art of perseverance and battling against my bodily limitations. I hope it will teach me that no matter how well intentioned you are, it’s impossible to achieve all you set out to if you don’t first take care of your own health. Travelling across the African continent and experiencing new cultures and ways of life is an experience that will intrinsically develop my character and values, values which I will then live the rest of my life by. I expect to broaden my levels of tolerance and acceptance. Volunteering for orphanages, schools, conservation projects and various other good causes is a powerful way to provide assistance and support to those that need it most in the short term. By building links with such causes, I’ll simultaneously be breaking down the barriers between alternative cultures, demographics, and races. If ten Congolese children grow up with fond memories of the bespectacled, white volunteer who helped teach them English, perhaps that will be ten children and families who go on to renounce any tones of racial or cultural divide and instead promote greater harmony, oneness, and understanding. Throughout my travelling I’ll be performing spoken word poetry at schools and institutes, which will aid me in spreading a message of the values I’ll be learning on my journey. Even from a holistic perspective, this entire trip is raising donations for UNICEF, one of the most respected global charities working to maintain and enhance children’s rights by empowering the impoverished and bringing forgotten communities out of deprivation. Doubtless, there will be critiques of UNICEF, people who lament it and similar charities for an abundance of bureaucracy, high salaries and inefficiency. Not only is 90% of any criticism maliciously false, I’m striving to support comparatively more grass roots and localised charities through the voluntary work I carry out on the journey. You can’t please everyone, but I’m giving it a pretty good try.
In so many ways, this journey is a feast of learning experiences. It may sound like whimsical, lofty aspirations, or like a mash-up of the X Factor’s most sickening ‘this has been such a journey’ sob stories, but I think I’d be doing a great disservice to myself and others by not pursuing this African Gap Year wholeheartedly, and with an open mindset which is willing to embrace the thought that so much good could be achieved from this. Perhaps it may not be as life changing (for myself and others) as my ambitions are hoping, but perhaps it might. And that chance is more than enough for me.