Sam Manicom recommended this to me at the NEC Show this year and I’m very glad he did. You might think there are no more tales to tell of the ‘biker takes on Africa’ variety but of course there are as many stories as there are bikers. Rice & Dirt is the story of Stergios Gogos and his faithful Vespa, Kitsos, who carries him through 19 African counties including the DRC, though with a bit of help from the occasional truck.
For me, what makes Rice & Dirt such a good read is Stergios’s personality and the perspective he brings as a Greek traveller.
What difference does being Greek make?
One issue is empathy. Stergios set out from Thessaloniki in 2014, when Greece was in danger of declaring bankrupcy and crashing out of the Eurozone. Savage austerity measures saw the economy shrink and unemployment rise to 25 per cent. These hard times at home, during which Stergios was a union activist and environmental campaigner, seem to give him a real sense of solidarity with the citizens of the African states he travels through, who are also struggling to get by on very little, sometimes more hindered than helped by governments. He writes: “I had no illusions of us being extraordinary explorers, or that we had any special abilities whatsoever. It would be ridiculous of me to think that, when the locals’ daily lives consisted of undertaking what many foreigners considered achievements worth bragging about.”
Being Greek also allows for a different persepective on the political problems that have challenged African nations. I haven’t travelled in former colonies (unless you count Australia!) but I imagine that being British in those states that we colonised and exploited, and from which we traded people in chains across the Atlantic, must surely stir difficult emotions. Perhaps I am wrong. A former friend proudly told me that he never gave to NGOs working in Africa because slavery had ended a long time ago and it was surely time for Africans to stand on their own two feet. (This is why he is a former friend). During his journey, Stergios travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo. While staying in Ilebo – a place where there is no running water in the hotel but you can charge your mobile phone in a shop – he reflects on the history of the country. In the twenty years it was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium, men, women and children would have their hands amputated if they didn’t work hard enough in the rubber plantations. Half of the population died before the Belgian government intervened – only a little more than a hundred years ago. How does a country come back from such an experience, let alone thrive?
Stergios maintains good humour and an affinity for the underdog throughout his epic journey.
It’s a great read, and I recommend it even if you don’t have the flu.