A few times in your life, if you’re lucky, you read a book that totally changes the way you view the world. One such book that is life-changing is entitled Africa Trek (actually, two volumes), by Alexandre and Sonia Poussin.
An eloquent tale of a very long walk (years), from the tip of Cape Hope to the Sea of Galilee, it is a powerful story of humanity – our differences, and moreso our similarities. I was so impressed (and deeply into these books) that our 6-year old daughter begged to be allowed to read along. So, every day, together we get a bit more of a glimpse into Alex and Sonia’s incredible journey.
One thing that stands out in this journey is how patient and loving Alex and Sonia are – as well as how flexible and open to new experiences. This is an important model for travellers today, as we explore the world and bring our hectic, two-week vacation world views to new places. Alex and Sonia also have Africa Trek as a DVD series, on PBS. After seeing a short clip online, we can’t wait to further see Alex and Sonia’s trip. This book truly is a classic of our time – and a must-read for any traveller, real or armchair.
We were lucky enough to sit down and talk with Alex about Africa Trek – and its impact on the authors - and people and places they saw. Here’s what Alex had to say...
WE: Please tell us about Africa Trek...
AP: Africa Trek was the first attempt to walk the entire length of the continent unassisted. Some other guys had done it running… but followed by a truck, or a British colonial officer did it in 1901 to survey the Cape to Cairo railway project but he was carried along by people and had to shoot a couple on the way…. Not our cup of tea ! We did it my wife Sonia and I to symbolically retrace the first journey of early men. As Africa is considered by Scientists as the cradle of mankind. I know this is a sensitive subject in the US, but our walk wanted to think the Revelation and the Evolution in a non-antagonistic way. As most of the hominid and paleo-anthropological digging sites are found along the Great African Rift Valley, we wanted to link all these places in one (slow) sweep, to enter the third millenium walking. That’s why we left January the first, 2001. And the northern end of the Rift is the Sea of Galilee, where our Christian era and history has started, so this was a kind of walk from Australopithecus to modern Man, from Ape man to God man. Simple, isn’t it? But this aspect of Africa Trek, very theoretical, and a bit brainy I must confess, appears more in our books than in our series. Because you might know our story has been recorded in two volumes, because it wouldn’t fit in one…We also shot by ourselves a 12 episodes series that is being broadcast on many PBS stations throughout the US. So Africa Trek has been our life for 1200 days, and ever since our return, as it’s now about sharing other perspectives about the continent as a whole and the individuals we’ve met on the way.
WE: What led you to undertake this journey?
AP: You know, it was altogether a personal, professional, and spiritual undertaking. Three years of our lives and the next ones following were at stake. First, personal because it was our honeymoon! Yes! I had previously cycled around the world and walked the entire length of the Himalayas with my best friend, so this time I wanted to accomplish it with my newlywed wife. She had to cope with a “million star hotel” every night. With a couple of bugs, ok! Second, it was professional, because we are free-free-very free-lance journalists and travelling is our way to reveal the world with a slower approach, more intimate, more human. Without writing and filming it, we would never have been able to make it: it kept us alive with a cause during the hardships. Finally it was a scientific and spiritual with this quest of humankind origins, the Great Rift, the cradle, as well as reflection and a pilgrimage towards our cultural and religious roots in Israel. Whooo! Sounds brainy, but we had plenty time to think about it!
Our approach was the exact opposite of the common one. Most people approach Africa with fear, a lot of organization, and little time. We had faith, confidence and no prejudice on one side, no organization, tour operator, back up team of any kind, on the other, and no time limit to be as free as a walking bird can be. We were not in total autonomy, but in total reliance. We shared every people’s lives for 1200 days to better understand them, and understand the issues of their lives. To share their fate, we had to walk, because they all walk a lot, to go the fields, to the market, to town, to school. To take their path was to take their pace, their pulse, their problems. Our approach was then everything but sophisticated: one footstep after another, for almost ever... and let it be. Let adventure be.
WE: How has this changed your lives?
AP: We don’t complain any more. For that we are not very French any more I’m afraid! We enjoy life as is comes, day after day, even in our sedentary and busy western life. We enjoy simple things and simple pleasures. We don’t travel… We have become more ecologically concerned (but who isn’t?). We are proud to be the western people to have polluted the less in the whole world between 2001 and 2004. Try to prove me wrong! We are not stressed about the future or materialistic conditions. We know we’ve been so happy with a 7kg bag and a budget so small you wouldn’t believe it… Definitely, this walk has deepened our love for each other.
It’s now a solid marble foundation to build our eternal life, and beforehand, to raise our family! Because Africa granted us a baby. Not to mean we walked for that, but so it happened. Sonia walked the last three months and the last 1800 km pregnant. It was about time to say good-bye. From the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, we faced south and thanked that chain of African families that led us up to here. 1200 African families who taught us Africa. 1200 links out of which if one had failed, we wouldn’t have made it. We owe them this journey. We haven’t achieved it thanks to our pride, our goals, our calves. But thanks to them. We walked it also for them. We also accomplished in Jerusalem a wish they had: to read everyone’s names in places according to their beliefs. Holy Sepulchre for Christians, Omar Dome for Muslims, Yad Vashem for Jews. It took us a day. A day to remember everyone. A day to say thank you. So we are bloody grateful to them, to life, to the world, to our readers… Happy guys in short…
WE: What was the most surprising thing about this journey?
AP: The greatest revelation is that Africa shall not be reduced to the sinister triptych of guerillas, famines, and epidemics. We wanted to walk the real Africa, beyond clichés of cheetahs at sunset, and colourful marketplaces where you fake to taste strange foods to make people laugh…. What we found out is more subtle and sensitive and concerns the beauty of the Human soul in poverty: it’s courage and resilience when it’s alone in the whole world, with hardships you can’t imagine. And still these people bear hope, have faith, are joyful. They work hard, feed their children, get organized with little means - where we would be completely lost.
They have a survival knowhow, and all about them is dignity. Hypocrisy, duplicity, mendacity, bias are not African. When they disagree, they let you know, when they love you, man, it breaks your heart! Their world is more of culture and time then material and appearance. Spirituality is very strong. The dead are not dead, your deeds are not unseen, there are high powers, everybody fears them. Surprises are at every corner of our days. Unpredictability was very exciting for us. That’s what kept us walking for so long. I sincerely hope that our surprises and emotions are reflected in our books and in our series.
WE: Africa Trek was one long intercultural journey - what was it like, to experience so many different cultures?
AP: It was the proof that we share so much with so different people, and that, they’re in fact not so different. We shared so much so quickly, by having given up almost everything what makes us “western”. Differences are used to build up fear, hatred, fury against each other, but for us they were like bread for thought, a quest, a passion, what transcends this diversity, what is Man! We can’t think of humanity uniformised, we love its’ diversity, its’ multiple ways of thinking. It helps us to change perspectives but it doesn’t necessarily lead to cultural relativism – everybody’s nice, all cultures are sweet, please have some more of my daughter’s leg! - because all these brainstorming sessions help you to know ourselves better.
There are some things we’ve witnessed that we reject and they are part of some cultures : incest, ritual rape, excision, children at work, women neglected, polygamy etc… I love this diversity but I don’t make it a funny game, or a race for collector’s items. I’m sick of these British humoristic travel writers that spend a couple of days into capitals cities jumping from hotel to hotel, making jokes and having fun with the “locals” by playing on cultural differences and writing a book about it. I find it most of the time shallow and humiliating.
WE: Were you close at some point to giving up?
AP: Only when I saw my wife dying of malaria. I couldn’t pay myself with words, concept, ideas, dreams - there was only one reality, her pain, maybe her end... But we were far away, and by the time a rescue time could have come, she slowly recovered. We were lucky, we had fallen in a mission where nice sisters saved and cured us. Why us? Because I had a malaria crisis just before Sonia, but cured in only two days thanks to a Chinese medicine that was forbidden at the time, but that I wanted to test on myself, which proved to be very efficient. And then the lions started to attack the village. Seven people were killed within a week. It was an absolute nightmare. We’ve recorded everything, but in the book we show only Joseph’s arm, the survivor of a lion attack. In these conditions you doubt, of course!
WE: When people will read the books, what do you hope they will come away with?
AP: A better image, a closer image, a more positive image of the continent in general, a love for its people and cultures in particular. And a boiling desire to go there. I truly hope Africa Trek will bring positive answers to the people ill at ease and sceptical with the continent, and fill the heart of the ones who seek personal answers there. We feel very much like ambassadors of Africa. There are not enough American people that travel in Africa. Africa needs you.
WE: Alexandre, thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your Journey. It is more than inspiring, it is a true example of living peace. We can’t wait until your show is on PBS – we’re eagerly counting the days!
For more information on Africa Trek, please see:
To Order the Africa Trek books or DVDs, or a package of all, please click on the images below:
All photos courtesy and copyright of Africa Trek.