As 2015 starts, it is as good a time as any to look to the future – the next 15 to 25 years in Africa.
Today, a combination of necessity and want have slowly begun to shape several of Africa’s industries. These industries, although negligible now, promise to mushroom and boom within the next decade or so. They will make some African countries famous for them and a reference in conversation towards those specific services or goods impossible to de-link from the continent.
The fine stone carving shows a wide-hipped Nubian queen triumphant over Romans and other foreign pretenders to her throne. Beyond the chapel are the remains of the pyramid that was her royal tomb. In immaculate silence, dozens more ancient pyramids dot the landscape where, as Shelley put it, “the lone and level sands stretch far away”.
This is Meroë in Sudan, a country that boasts more pyramids than Egypt. The road to Meroë was built by an unlikely entrepreneur – Osama bin Laden, who later relocated to Afghanistan. This is just one example of the weird and wonderful experience of being a tourist in Sudan. That so few make the trip is, critics say, an indictment of the government’s failure to exploit its fabulous potential as a destination.
“Announcing that this year you’re holidaying in the Sudan has an effect on bystanders akin to expressing a liking for punting on the Styx or arm wrestling with alligators,” notes the Bradt travel guide to one of Africa’s most enigmatic lands.
A rare privilege In the mid-6th century BC, Meroë became the central city of the Nubian Kushite dynasty, the “Black Pharaohs” who ruled from Aswan in southern Egypt to present-day Khartoum. The Nubians were variously both rivals and allies of the ancient Egyptians and adopted many of their rituals, including burying kings, queens and nobles in pyramid tombs.
More than 200 pyramids have been discovered in and around Meroë. Several were decapitated by the 19th century Italian explorer and zealous treasure hunter Giuseppe Ferlini. Finally, in 2011, they gained world heritage site status from Unesco. Darker in hue than those 800 miles to the north in Giza, Egypt, because of the iron-rich rocks here, Meroë later became a centre of iron production and has been dubbed “the Birmingham of Africa” – not necessarily a slogan that will bring British holidaymakers flocking.
Untouched by commercialism, the pyramids are also smaller, drastically less crowded and free of the touts and hustling “guides” who pester patrons of Giza. A ticket seller at the site in Meroë said it usually receives around 10 visitors a day, meaning there are good odds of exploring them entirely alone – a rare privilege at any historical monument in the 21st century.
David Belgrove, deputy head of mission and consul-general at the British embassy in Sudan, likes to go camping there and has run into a few German and Japanese tourists, but no Britons. “I remember vividly the first time I saw it,” he said. “We arrived at night so the first I saw was the sun rising on the pyramids. I felt immensely privileged to have the site all to myself. Nothing beats it.”
He added: “A lot of the sites in Sudan are great tourist secrets. The beauty is that you just can pitch up and there are often archaeological teams who will explain to you what they’re doing. The history of civilisations here goes back millennia, but many Sudanese themselves are not aware of it.”
The Islamic government’s lacklustre efforts to promote this heritage could be partly due to distractions that include waging domestic wars on various fronts, the breakaway of the south in 2011 and an economic crisis. But some believe there is also an ideological reason. A Meroë expert, not named here to protect his safety, commented: “Politicians are foolish. They want only Islam. If we talk about the ancient god Amun, they think we believe in it. They say there can only be one religion.
“Also, they are paranoid that all foreigners are spies. They should be open minded but they are closed.”
Sudan has fitfully applied hardline Islamic laws and president Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup 25 years ago, has vowed that the next constitution will be “100% Islamic”. Apparently this includes sightseeing.
One Khartoum-based analyst said: “When the government have occasionally talked about tourism, they talk about Islamic tourism. You don’t get the impression they celebrate the history and things they’ve got on their doorstep. I think there’s a reluctance to embrace what they would regard as heathen worship.”
Gaddafi’s Corinthia Hotel
Nor could Sudan’s government ever be accused of making this a user-friendly destination. For those undeterred by the ongoing conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere, or by last year’s violent protests in Khartoum, a visa is required in advance and can be bureaucratic even by African standards. Travellers to Meroë are also obliged to hand over photocopies of their visitor permit at checkpoints along the way.
On arrival in the country, iPhone users who link to gmail may be disconcerted to find their contacts and emails wiped from their handset. Further investigation elicits the message: “Unable to sign in from this country. You appear to be signing in from a country where Google Apps accounts are not supported.”
This is not the only way in which international sanctions make themselves felt. Credit cards are useless in Sudan and only cash will do. Barclays bank used to be here but not any more. Familiar US fast food chains such as Burger King, KFC and McDonald’s are nowhere to be seen, something that many independent travellers may welcome. Instead of Starbucks, there is Starbox Coffee & Restaurant.
But Sudan did have a friend in the slain Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, manifest in the five-star Corinthia Hotel, built in the 1990s on what used to be the city zoo and resembling a giant glass and steel Easter egg by the Nile. One recent evening, an oil company was hosting a send-off there for one of its executives, while Chinese guests shopped for art and craft souvenirs and glass elevators shot up 18 floors to the Asian-themed Rickshaw restaurant. A receptionist in the gaudy lobby explained that rooms cost $295 a night, while a sign on the desk warned: “Credit cards are not accepted in Sudan.” Outside, a giant photo of The Muppets advertised a children’s cinema.
The Corinthia is part of the jumbled patchwork of architectural styles in dusty, diffuse, sprawling Khartoum, where public spaces are few and far between. The intrepid who come here can view stupendous ancient temples and early Christian paintings at the National Museum, stroll through the colourful Omdurman Souq, find echoes of British colonialism in an old Anglican church, visit the tomb of the Mahdi who famously defeated general Charles George Gordon, watch “whirling dervishes” at the Hamed al-Nil Tomb on Fridays, survey British war graves at a pristine cemetery and sip hibiscus tea on a grass bank by the Nile.
Bin Laden the construction worker One spot the government is definitely not promoting, however, is the former home of Osama bin Laden in the upmarket al-Riyadh suburb. The future al-Qaida leader moved here from Saudi Arabia in 1991 and invested heavily in agriculture and construction – hence the asphalt road that cut the journey from Khartoum to Meroë to about three and a half hours. But under pressure from the US and Saudi Arabia, Sudan forced Bin Laden out in 1996 and seized some of his personal assets. He moved to Jalalabad in Afghanistan.
Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani, a prominent politician who recently quit the government, met Bin Laden once, in 1993. He recalled: “He didn’t have al-Qaida around him then. He was a construction worker. The main thrust of our discussion was the economy. He talked a lot about the potential Sudan has and the restrictions on investors. We never discussed international politics.
“He was very charming, very charismatic and very softly spoken: you could hardly hear his voice.”
Atabani notes that Sudan lacks the hotels, transport and infrastructure for mass tourism and suggests such development would not entirely be positive. “I saw the pyramids in Egypt in the 60s and there were no tarmac roads,” he said. “When I went back, I was disgusted.”
Every summer, a new energy engulfs Maseru and its surrounding towns. There’s an influx of people who come around for the holiday season, and entertainment is in high demand. Camping chairs and cooler boxes – staple accessories for many Basotho during these months – are unpacked and get their chance to bask in the Lesotho sun.
The unofficial kickstarter to all summer activities is the Kome Caves Festival, which was held over the weekend. The three-day event blends the outdoors, tourism, cuisine, and beer tasting with musical entertainment. Organised by Tangerine Inc, a boutique marketing and programme management company, it aims to promote the village and attract tourists to the region. Now in its second year, the festival has already improved by leaps and bounds from last year’s inaugural event.
Nestled in Lesotho’s lowlands, Ha Kome and its caves of the same name are etched into a plateau of the Berea Mountains – one of Lesotho’s ten districts. The caves were built in the early 1800s by Chief Teleka and his followers for protection from the cannibals in the surrounding area. As if painted into the rock, descendants of the Chief still dwell in these caves which offer cool shelter from the November sun; however, one does worry about their warmth during Kome’s cooler nights and Lesotho’s brutal winters.
The majority of people arrived on Saturday and there was a plethora of activities – from horse rides to volleyball and paintball. For those who could stomach the curving dirt road which puts San Francisco’s Lombard Street to shame, there was quad biking too.
Besides the actual caves, the main attractions were the music and the beer. The afternoon’s soundtrack was mellow sets by local DJs which did not detract from the oral sensory overload.
With over 30 types of craft and macro beers mainly from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and including Lesotho’s pride – Maluti Beer, beer lovers were spoiled for choice. The wine tasting stall was a hit this year, and the locally brewed ginger beer, which is the more fermented version of the already popular drink, was a delicious treat even for non-beer lovers. Paired with the various food stalls, attendees were able to enjoy the different beverage offerings well into the night without having to retire early – although for a select few it would have been better if they had.
This year’s musical offering was stupendous from start to finish.
MsKelle, the German-born Mosotho songstress began our musical journey. Just before her set there were few people seated in front of the stage; however, as she sang her first song many began to gather and were mesmerized by the purity of her voice. The sun setting behind the mountains gave her set the added magical touch.
Local Kholu Jazz Band, better known as the band for Lesotho Jazz legend Budaza, who gave a beautiful performance on Sunday, followed with a more up-tempo performance.
Wearing a mokorotlo, the traditional Basotho hat, with a metallic shield covering his face, and with dance moves straight out of the Karate Kid, DJ InviZable gave one of the night’s more memorable performances.
Mozambican group Gran’Mah was another pleasant surprise – not many knew of them before their performance, but they left with a solid fan base by the end of their set. The “reggae fusion” band was fun to watch, and had many people dancing to their dub-inspired tunes. And, even though he was set to perform later that night, Pedro from 340ml blessed the stage for a collaboration.
340ml gave the crowd something a little different from their regular performances. This time Rui and Thiago replaced their guitars for some turntables, and Pedro belted out some of their popular tracks, leaving the crowd wanting more.
However, the musical highlight, and the reason most people came to the event, was to see the USA-based international touring act Tortured Soul. By the time of their set, the warm day had turned into a bitterly cold night. They played as if the cold air was part of their magical spell. The audience was transfixed by their performance; they swayed and sang along in awe, many in disbelief that their beloved Tortured Soul was right here in their country.
And as the cup of coffee to end off a great musical meal, Lesotho’s hip-hop collective D2amajoe closed the show in front of some of their more loyal fans and those who stuck around to brave the cold weather.
The evening eventually turned to dawn, camp chairs were folded, now emptied cooler boxes were carried off to the camp sites, and the courageous few who decided to make the drive up the curved dirt road returned to warmer destinations. One thing was clear: they were already plotting their return to next year’s festival.
A dozen singers belt out Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle in a classroom at the Pedagogical University in Mozambique. The country has just two professional opera singers; this year, the duo are training young Mozambicans to perform a new show based on a book by the country’s most prominent author.
International opera performers Stella Mendonça and Sonia Mocumbi, the daughter of former prime minister Pascoal Mocumbi, have returned from careers abroad to teach Mozambicans from all walks of life how to sing.
Leaving her home in Africa to study in Europe at 15 was difficult for Mendonça, but in Mozambique at the time an aspiring classical musician’s only option was to go abroad. When she studied at a conservatory in Lyon, one of the directors insisted she could not sing opera because the shape of black Africans’ heads affected resonance.
“I was very happy to prove him wrong,” Mendonça says. Her outrage at his comments pushed her to work even harder.
After 30 years in Europe studying then performing across the continent, Mendonça returned to Mozambique to share her skills at home. Last year she launched the Musiarte music school in Maputo. In addition to offering classes in piano, violin and guitar for children and adults, the school is training a choir to perform Terra Sonâmbula, a new production based on the book by Mozambican novelist Mia Couto.
The dozen or so singers come from a variety of professional backgrounds. Those who can’t afford to join pay a token fee for vocal lessons and instruction in music theory.
Mendonça is a commanding figure in front of her students, and she conducts the choir with panache.
“My big preoccupation was that I don’t want to keep this for me,” she said of her skills. “I have a responsibility to be a mirror for young people here.”
Gizela Mangaze joined the choir in July 2013 after learning of Mendonça’s return to Mozambique. “We heard Stella Mendonça was putting a choir together. She’s quite famous among the music scene.”
Mangaze says the choir mixes formal technical coaching with traditional Mozambican styles, producing a unique sound that differs from European operas. “We love rhythm and our voices are stronger and have more body. It sounds different,” she adds.
Terra Sonâmbula – translated as Sleepingwalking Land – is required reading in Mozambican schools. The novel chronicles the journey of an orphan and an old man during Mozambique’s civil war and illustrates themes such as the discovery of national identity and making the best of a bad situation. One day it occurred to Couto and Mendonça that the book title sounded like an Italian opera, and they enlisted the Swedish writer Henning Mankell, the creator of the Kurt Wallander series of mystery novels, to transform Mozambique’s most famous novel into the country’s first libretto.
Mendonça believes nurturing music and the arts is essential for Mozambique’s future. The country became independent from Portugal in 1975 and plunged into civil war after just two years. It emerged 15 years later as one of the poorest countries in the world. Today the economy is booming thanks to the recent discovery of gas fields in the north, but the growth has benefited only a small section of the population and underscored social inequality.
“I think none of the country can develop without developing the culture here,” Mendonça says.
The choir’s repertoire extends beyond the Italian classics. In addition to staging shows at the end of each trimester, they have performed the German national anthem for German Unity Day, and sung at a farewell for the ambassador of Switzerland.
In spring 2010, Mankell lost the only copy of the Terra Sonâmbula libretto when he was arrested aboard the Gaza flotilla. “That libretto is still in the hands of the Israelis,” Mendonça said. “He had to rewrite it.”
Opera is a far stretch from popular entertainment for most Mozambicans, but Mendonça insists the combination of two favourite national pastimes – storytelling and music – will ensure its public appeal.
Twenty-year-old Suneida Gizela Maquito was one of the original members of the choir, in which she learned to read music. She is optimistic that opera will gain popularity as a genre in Mozambique. Her dream is to perform in the United States, perhaps even for Barack Obama. “I want to show them that even in Mozambique we have beautiful things. There is something good, and there are talented people coming from Africa.”
After driving a tractor the length of Africa, Dutch adventurer Manon “Tractor Girl” Ossevoort is setting out to fulfill a decade-long dream of chugging her way to the South Pole.
Asked whether people think she is crazy, the 38-year-old actress replies with a wide smile and bubbly confidence: “Only if they haven’t met me.”
She’s at least partly right.
“The world needs people who are a little crazy like this,” a burly South African tractor mechanic says as Ossevoort clambers onto a huge red Massey-Ferguson in a shed north of Cape Town.
Wearing a mini-dress in the summer heat, the ebullient new mother of a 10-month-old baby girl perches on the seat and chats about her epic trip as mechanics put the final touches to her beloved tractor.
Ossevoort will spend about 12 hours a day in that seat – having swapped her summer outfit for Arctic gear– as she heads for what she likes to call the “end of the world.”
She will make a 4 500-kilometre round trip across the largest single mass of ice on earth, from Russia’s Novo base on the edge of Antarctica to the South Pole and back.
When not pushed to the limits by the hostile environment of frozen mountains and deadly crevasses, she will have plenty of time to admire the scenery.
“Ten kilometres an hour would be good,” she says. “Fifteen would be nice, 20 lovely.”
Ossevoort travelled alone through Africa, but in Antarctica the tractor will need to creep forward day and night, so French mechanic Nicolas Bachelet will share the driving.
That way, they hope to make 100 to 200 kilometres a day and complete the trip in four to six weeks.
“I think I’ll love the experience, travelling the last leg in relative silence over this vast and white continent,” she says.
“It’s a beautiful last phase in a long pilgrimage.”
In total, she will be accompanied by a team of seven, including crew who will film the journey for a documentary.
‘Belly of a snowman’ Ossevoort began her trip in 2005, taking four years to drive from her home village in Holland to Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa – and then missed the boat that was due to take her to Antarctica for the final leg due to delays.
Frustrated, the former theatre actress spent the next four years back in Holland, writing a book, working as a motivational speaker and desperately trying to get back on a tractor.
With sponsorship from Massey-Ferguson and other companies, she and her tractor will finally fly to Antarctica from Cape Town this week and set off for the pole around November 20.
While fulfilling her own long-held dream, Ossevoort will be carrying with her thousands of ‘dreams’ collected from people in Africa and around the world.
Scraps of paper and emails have been converted into digital form and will be placed in the belly of a big snowman she plans to build at the pole – to be opened only in 80 years’ time.
“I want to turn them into a beautiful time capsule of the dreams of the world so that in the future children and people can read something about our dreams and not only about politics or war.”
Fear holds people back from pursuing their dreams, she says, and many believe that “putting them into reality is as impossible as driving a tractor to the South Pole”.
“The tractor for me symbolises this very down to earth fact that if you want to do something, maybe you will not be so fast but if you keep going and keep your sense of humour you will get there.”
The pull of her own dream is so strong it has trumped being at home for her baby Hannah’s first Christmas.
But she has the full support of her partner, airline pilot Rogier Nieuwendyk, who will look after Hannah while she is away.
“We’ll be there to meet her at the airport when she comes home,” he said, cradling Hannah in his arms as she phlegmatically watched her mother prepare to leave.
Ossevoort’s tractor is named Antarctica 2 in honour of legendary explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, who travelled to the South Pole on a tractor in 1958.
His vehicle was equipped with full tracks, however, while Ossevoort’s has normal inflatable tyres which have been slightly modified for better grip on the snow and ice.