Written by Stergios Gogos & Alexandra Fefopoulo. Posted in Rides
The experiences of riding our own bike in a region, country, or entire continent is what makes life worth living. You may think that’s an exaggeration, but when my scooter’s wheels rolled onto African soil for the first time, I realized I was no longer in my comfort zone; I felt like one of the great explorers of the world.
Every explorer has to eat and it wasn’t long before I was thinking about my next meal. I was in Morocco, a typical North African tourist destination for Europeans. The food was exactly as I had imagined—yet… not quite… with similar ingredients I was accustomed to, but not the health regulations. Or rather, the lack of them. And as I was on a budget, I couldn’t afford the fancy restaurants, which meant eating where the locals did.
I realized food isn’t just sustenance for survival; it plays other significant roles in any culture. Not only what people eat—such as religious dietary restrictions—but how they eat. Do they share their food? Do they use utensils? Do they have some ritual related to the social relations amongst a group? I had no idea then, but as I would be riding the west coast and central Africa to the southernmost tip of the huge continent, I was about to discover these answers.
Morocco is heaven on Earth for foodies. At first it was off-putting to see slaughtered animals hanging in shops, but those feelings faded as the irresistible smell of seared meat emanated from small restaurants lining the streets, forming dense, aromatic clouds and making me forget their dubious hygiene. As for dessert, in every market I could pick from a pile of nut, filo dough, and syrup-based sweets.
Riding further south to Senegal and Mali, the influence from the colonial era was still present on my plate. Here, women in tiny food stands sold delicious freshly-baked French baguette-like bread, mixed with West African tastes such as sandwiches stuffed with green salad, meat, fried plantain bananas, and spicy sauce. The fear of food poisoning tapered off as I delved deeper into the local cuisines….
Things became more complicated as I rode toward the heart of sub-Saharan Africa. Far from the Mediterranean and all things familiar, another question arose: How is food preserved without the slightest hint of electricity, or refrigeration? Well, for the large quantities of fish I saw on the coast of Mauritania, sun-drying was the best option. I also came across the same practice in the remotest regions of the DRC, with dried fish from Lake Tanganyika and the other great lakes of the region, or even dried monkeys in some small-town markets.
The other option was freshly-slaughtered game or meat from domestic animals, such as hens and goats. And then there were the very-alive worms and larva—a common source of pure protein. Although at first the killing of an animal before my eyes turned my stomach, I gradually realized these people hadn’t lost the connection with where meat comes from. And there is little waste, as every part of an animal is eaten or used in some way—including the hooves, bones, guts, and skin. As well, they don’t slaughter young animals just for their tenderness and flavor.
Since meat is a luxury in these regions, and by no means an everyday option, then what is the food mainly consumed by the “ordinary” people? Well, rice of course! When I first tried Jollof rice—a typical West African recipe with rice, tomatoes, and various vegetables—I couldn’t imagine it would accompany me throughout the biggest part of my journey. Then, crossing the border from Cameroon to the Congo, I reluctantly tried another staple: fufu—a dough-like staple made from cassava flour. Both rice and fufu are widely consumed in West and Central Africa, but at first the white mush boiled over charcoal black pots wasn’t exactly appetizing.
One day, as the sun was about to set, I still hadn’t found a place to sleep. The forest was pitch-black, so I chose a random spot and started setting up camp. Out of nowhere, two locals appeared and invited me to their home. They lived with their families in a small settlement nearby and were more than happy to host me. After a cold shower—with a bucket, as there was no running water—they offered me a seat among them at the family table. However, the only food available was fufu with tomato sauce. But I was so happy being surrounded by such hospitable people, that the food was no longer an issue. At that point, I had one of my most important realizations: food becomes tastier when shared!
When I rode deeper into the jungle and the remote areas of the DRC, the absolute lack of infrastructure offered up another unforgettable experience. After leaving Kinshasa, the capital, I headed south to Lubumbashi, a distance of 1,440 miles. This route was difficult, with sections that can only loosely be defined as “roads.” It didn’t take long to burn the clutch of my scooter; I had to load it on a truck and travel like a local for the remaining miles. Despite these problems, these ended up being the most amazing three weeks of my life. Along the way, no one seemed to know when or even whether we would arrive at Lubumbashi. We traveled at a painfully slow pace, dealing with the inevitable breakdowns with what seemed to be indifference as to if or when we’d reach our destination.
With my supplies of canned food and spaghetti long gone, I had to do what locals did. We spent the nights in random local settlements, ate whatever was in the baskets women carried on their heads and repeated these actions daily. At one point, I realized there is one great difference that comes as a result of complex historical and cultural processes: the Western World lives for the future while the non-Western lives from day to day. Even the climate plays a significant role in some areas, as there is always something that can be hunted or harvested. And in that period, we ate fruit—lots of it—along with nuts and beans for breakfast, the main meal, and dinner.
When we finally saw the first signs of urban development, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d made it to Lubumbashi safe and sound, and miraculously hadn’t suffered food poisoning. Exhausted but healthy, I found a room, took a shower with running water and found a Western-style restaurant for a celebratory meal. When the waiter brought a glass of clear water with ice, I just sat there observing it for a while—just enough time to acknowledge the fact that access to food and water can sometimes be a privilege.
Stergios and Alexandra first met in 2014 in the Democratic Republic of Congo while Stergios was on his RTW and Alexandra was doing Ph.D. fieldwork. Since then, they’ve been traveling together. They write, film, photograph, and ride their vintage Vespa scooter around the world, combining their passions—and have recently released their first book “Rice & Dirt: Across Africa on a Vespa.” WorldVespa.net