listen to africa

an audio adventure through africa

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Has nothing been posted here for a while? We're probably away from internet access - check the microblog for short updates from the road by mobile phone.

Geotag Icon Huw’s health, and an unexpected homecoming

Blog posted by on Jan 25th, 2010
Huw and the District Chief, near Shenge, Sierra Leone. © Listen to Africa

Huw and the District Chief, near Shenge, Sierra Leone. © Listen to Africa

[Update (6th April 2010): The diagnosis was eventually confirmed as Blackwater Fever and Huw’s recovering in the Yorkshire Dales, doing well.]

When we said we were going to take some time away from the blog, we didn’t plan to take seven weeks away – sorry about that. But then we didn’t plan to get quite so ill and get evacuated first from Liberia and then from Ghana. I’m going to write the long version when things have calmed down a bit but, for now, here’s the short version:

We got stuck in Freetown for far too long, got moving, got a few kilometres before Huw’s bike spontaneously imploded, got moving again, got blown away (in a good way) by Sierra Leone and (in a bad way) by its poverty, got close to nature (primates and green mambas, most memorably), got to Liberia and, on New Year’s Eve, got engaged (in a brothel).

A couple of days later, we got malaria and / or E Coli, depending on which hospital tests you believe. I mended very quickly but Huw deteriorated and developed jaundice, among other things. With our (excellent) insurance company (and us) worried about organ damage and the quality of medical care in Liberia, we were evacuated from Liberia to Ghana by air ambulance. At excellent hospitals in Ghana, Huw got a bit better and then a lot worse, suffering acute renal failure (the doctors suspected Black Water Fever, a (rare, nowadays) complication of falciparum malaria that can be triggered by quinine). After two days of dialysis in Ghana, we were evacuated by air ambulance to the UK last Thursday.

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Our homes for the night, in pictures

Blog posted by on Jan 17th, 2010

Well, we’ve been on the road for over ten months now and, during that time, we’ve made ourselves at home in all sorts of places, often thanks to the kindness of strangers. Although our plan to photograph every place we sleep has predictably fallen by the wayside, we have taken quite a few photos of the places we’ve slept along the way so far. Here’s a selection (for larger images, visit the “homes for the night” gallery):

Right, I’m off to find more ways to procrastinate over writing the long overdue update about our last two months on the road (too much to write!).

Geotag Icon The Times They Are A-Changin’! (The Hobo Blues)

Blog posted by on Dec 4th, 2009
We're planning to use these more. © Listen to Africa

We're planning to use these more. © Listen to Africa

Over the past nine months, we’ve travelled through some spectacular lands and feel privileged to have seen and heard what we have. We’ve also slowly come to realise that there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things we want to do. We’ve spent considerably more time in front of computers than either of us envisaged (for example, the only serious injury I’ve sustained is RSI in my mouse hand…). So we’ve decided to change our working practices.

We’re going to spend more time:
1. Cycling
2. Recording what we hear
3. Photographing what we see
4. Doing nothing
5. Enjoying life

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Geotag Icon Guinea: a dash through a dashing country

Blog posted by on Nov 22nd, 2009
The ferry to Guinea. © Listen to Africa

The ferry to Guinea. © Listen to Africa

The day after I last wrote, a bright orange Land Rover rolled into Bissau, carrying Lynn, Tim and Will of Atlantic Rising – an excellent 32,000km journey circumnavigating the Atlantic, creating an educational network and documenting what will be lost if climate change predictions come true.

We’d previously been in touch with Atlantic Rising about the precarious situation in Guinea and our dilemma in common, and they’d tentatively mentioned the possibility of giving us a lift across the country if they decided to go ahead and traverse it. When they arrived in Bissau, they were still waiting to hear back from a shipping company before making their decision.

In the meantime, the obvious thing to do was to all go to a stunning, white-beached island in the Bijagos archipelago in search of salt water hippos.

Walking to shore. © Listen to Africa

Walking to shore. © Listen to Africa

I’m not going to write about the boat to Bubaque, its bottles of cana and palm wine, the exuberant Sierra Leonean hair dresser who slapped all the drunk men she saw around the face, the Norwegian Boris Johnson, the camping on the porch of an environmental organisation’s building, the night swimming in phosphorescence under the stars, the jellyfish sting, the tiny wooden pirogue carrying pigs and goats and chickens and us onwards to Orango island, the running aground on a sand bank, the long walk through the shallows to shore with all of us carrying pigs and bags and panniers on our heads, the unsuccessful meeting with the village chief to get permission to camp, the expensive hotel and our subsequent lack of funds to take the tour to go and see the hippos, the walk through the mangrove forests, the warm sea, the endless white beach, the journey back to Bubaque in the same boat but with five new bovine companions, the waking up to church bells on Bubaque or the long pirogue journey back to Bissau. It will only make you jealous and there’s already too much to say in this post. But we have put up this this gallery and some sounds:

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Geotag Icon About the sound recordings part II: natural soundscapes (biophonies)

Blog posted by on Nov 13th, 2009
Lagoon in Senegal

Lagoon in Senegal. © Listen to Africa

Part I of our “about the sound recordings” series looked at wildlife sounds. In this second part, we look at natural soundscapes of living things (“biophonies”). We’ll write about soundscapes from non-living sources (like weather) and from human environments (eg villages, towns and cities) later in this series.

When we first had the idea for this journey, Huw and I were expecting to mostly record wildlife (single species) and people (interviews, oral histories etc). While the latter has turned out to be trickier to organise and more time-consuming to edit than we expected, the former has sparked a new interest in both of us: expanding our wildlife recordings to encompass a wider exploration of the natural world. As naturalist and sound recordist Bernie Krause says:

“We are beginning to learn that the isolated voice of a song bird cannot give us very much useful information. It is the acoustical fabric into which that song is woven that offers up an elixir of formidable intelligence that enlightens us about ourselves, our past, and the very creatures we have longed to know so well.”

This “acoustical fabric” or “sonic environment” (R Murray Schafer) is the soundscape.

Soundscapes, we feel, can give a more immersive sense of place than either words or photography. They can stimulate or relax the mind. They can allow the imagination free reign. And they can occasionally put a smile on someone’s face.

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Geotag Icon Listen to Africa on the web

Blog posted by on Nov 12th, 2009

Today, we finally got around to creating a Facebook Page for Listen to Africa, so I thought now would be a good time to round up where else you can find us on the web:

We can’t promise we’ll keep them all up to date (we’re still in France, as far as Flickr’s concerned), but we can promise we read – and love – all the comments and messages we get from random oddballs like-minded folk across the web. Although obviously we like the commenters here best of all ;-)

(As for where you can find us in the real world, we’re still in Bissau, working through our backlog of sound recordings, waiting to see if that small chance of a lift through an unstable Guinea I mentioned last week turns into a reality, and generally sleeping in a car park.)

Geotag Icon Into Guinea-Bissau: drug barons, dogs’ heads and difficult decisions

Blog posted by on Nov 3rd, 2009
Street scene in Bula, Guinea-Bissau. © Listen to Africa

Street scene in Bula, Guinea-Bissau. © Listen to Africa

First off, here’s a thunderstorm for you, recorded yesterday afternoon in Guinea-Bissau’s capital, Bissau:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

While you’re listening to that, here’s a bit about our last week or so on the road:

If the border crossing into Casamance was good, the crossing into Guinea-Bissau was wonderful. The immigration officer smiled at us fondly, shaking her head and repeating: “Williams [Huw's surname], Rebecca – welcome to Guinea-Bissau!” The country – ranked the fifth poorest in the world by the UN – gets less than 5000 foreign visitors a year. Not many of them, we suspect, arrive by land, never mind by bicycle.

Across the road, at customs, a beaming man stood and beamed at us. His beam grew broader when we greeted him in Portuguese (I grew up in Brazil). We chatted. He beamed. We chatted some more. Finally, we gently reminded him he was on duty: did customs need anything from us?

“Oh, just a document,” he said. A passport? “No, a document. Like a paper or something.” We couldn’t think of any papers he might want to see. “Oh. Well, if immigration thinks it’s OK, then I suppose that’s fine,” he beamed, and we cycled into Guinea-Bissau.

There was another customs house in Sao Domingos, the first town we came to. Outside it, another beaming man beckoned to us. Did he need anything from us? “No,” he said. “Here in Guinea-Bissau, it’s no problem.” (He wasn’t joking. Here in Guinea-Bissau, an estimated one tonne of pure Colombian cocaine leaves the country every day; this little nation has been called “the world’s first narco-state“.)

He just wanted to know whether we needed anything in town – a restaurant, maybe? A restaurant sounded great, so he walked us to a place where “two steaks please” meant two steaks, two plates of chips, two fried eggs, two salads, two bowls of rice and a big basket of bread. We decided we loved Guinea-Bissau.

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Geotag Icon In praise of… “The People’s Workbook”

Blog posted by on Nov 2nd, 2009
The People's Workbook

The People's Workbook

OK, time for a new series: in praise of random things we stumble across and like (online or in the real world) during our journey through Africa.

First up, The People’s Workbook, which Huw found a couple of days ago via the Journey to Forever website, and the pdf of which we’ve been loving ever since.

Written by a collective (Robert Berold et al) “to give people in the rural areas of South Africa some of the information they need to help organise their communities and improve their lives,” it was published in 1981 by South Africa’s Environmental and Development Agency, an organisation working with small village groups on agriculture, water supply and other projects.

The book is wonderfully written (in plain English) and beautifully illustrated. Even more impressive is its encyclopaedic scope – from breeding geese, making hand pumps and organising seed-buying groups to making a will, dealing with police and starting a library.

While it focuses on South Africa in the 1980s, it’s probably still interesting reading for English-speaking smallholders – and people working to change their communities – anywhere in the world. Alternatively, an updated edition – The People’s Farming Workbook – is available from Practical Action via Stylus Publishing. Meanwhile, I’m off to find out how to build a flyproof pit.

Geotag Icon Eight things that happened in Casamance

Blog posted by on Nov 2nd, 2009

Things started happening as soon as we crossed from The Gambia into southern Senegal’s Casamance region:

Good things, like the border crossing involving almost no bureaucracy and a large number of compliments (“You people are great!”).

Bad things, like waking up from a siesta under a tree to find 14 soldiers pointing guns at us (the incident ended in a nice chat and an exchange of email addresses).

Exciting things, like rounding a bend to see a group of wild monkeys playing on the road.

Mysterious things, like a group of machete-carrying young men chanting and dancing outside our window, one of them dressed as a lion.

Worrying things, like convoy after military convoy zooming past, carrying soldiers whose fingers were poised over the triggers of their primed M16s while the vehicles wildly careered between pot holes.

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Geotag Icon Senegal, in numbers

Blog posted by on Oct 27th, 2009
An average of 1.5 trees sat under per day. © Listen to Africa

An average of 1.5 trees sat under per day. © Listen to Africa

Another one for our “in numbers” series: how lazy and how greedy we were in Senegal (the short answer is “very”).

5411 kilometres cycled so far
2000+ shouts of “toubab!
597 kilometres cycled in Senegal
78 baguettes eaten (no baguette related injuries)
51 days in Senegal
46 kilometres – average daily distance, on cycling days
38 rest days (including a one month holiday from the bikes)
28 nights in hotels / hostels / auberges / brothels
18 “yasser” meals eaten (delicious)
16 nights in campsites / encampements
13 cycling days
12 kilometres – average daily distance, including rest days
6 nights wild camping
3 punctures (Bex 2, Huw 1)
1.5 average number of trees sat under per day
1 night staying with locals