Celebrate Africa With Chioma and Oluchi Ogwuegbu
Travelling by any means necessary, from mules to bikes and lorries may not be your ideal adventure but for sisters, Chioma and Oluchi Ogwuegbu, this is the only way to make the dream a reality. I spoke to the formidable sisters whose adventure around Africa made headlines they did not expect when they set out on their journey.
Africa was and is still romanticised as the ‘dark continent,’ an image which has been reinforced on our minds through decades of war, famine, corruption and political turmoil. This is the image Chioma and Oluchi Ogwuegbu, two sisters from Nigeria wanted to change when they set out in 2008 on an adventure to discover Africa for all its gory and undiscovered glory. Their aim is to take people deep into the heart of Africa as they journal their experiences on their website and blog, Celebrate Africa, which is dedicated to their journey. You could say they have set themselves an arduous task of re-branding Africa to a generation lost to the Western ideology of Africa as that place where terrible things happen.
It was an idea they had toyed about with as Oluchi, 28, the younger of the two sisters and an economics graduate thought it would be fun to travel the world. While Chioma, 30, a law graduate who worked for KIND, a non-profit organisation felt it was possible to travel around Africa based on a conversation she had had with a friend who was travelling the world. however, they wanted to travel with a goal in mind, “We realised it would be a good idea if we actually travelled for something and not just travel for the sake of travel and I thought it would be a great idea to celebrate Africa,” says Chioma.
Spurred on by the strong desire to change the negative stories and images Africans have been bombarded with over the years, they quit their jobs respectively and packed their bags. “We felt this was something we needed to change in our own little way and it was hard to leave family, work and stability behind and go on the road to the unknown but we eventually realised that we did have a purpose and it is something worth doing.” However, their journey to date has not been a jamboree of first class treatment or anyone waiting on them hand and foot. They made it a point to travel by road and seek out good Samaritans who will host them for the time frame they are in each country.
Despite their initial fears of leaving home and the conflicting advice of different people who went as far as suggesting they would be raped, this did not dampen their determination. The Ogwuegbu sisters say they started with West African countries due to the ease of getting around the West African block without visas as Nigeria is a member of The Economic Commission of West Africa Sates (ECOWAS.) The sisters who have been travelling since July 2008 have visited over 14 countries including Ghana, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote D’ Voire, Togo and Cameroun.
In spite of the excitement which surrounds them, supporting themselves on their journey has not been a thrilling experience. Chioma admits to the financial difficulties they have encountered. “When we were travelling in West Africa, friends gave us money and getting this trip started has been a challenge. Though it has been everywhere in the news, we are really not getting the funding for it. So, it is a bit of a challenge to keep going but what we have decided is that we will go with whatever we have.”
Put the euphoria about their adventure aside, Chioma and Oluchi admit to being afraid of the unknown in front of them. “I would say my biggest fear or our biggest fear was that we would not finish or get it done,” says Oluchi. But Chioma had a totally different fear and that was the very fact their being Nigerians might become a hindrance and work against them. It seems she was right to be apprehensive because they were awakened to the fact that it is wrong to be Nigerian or present a Nigerian passport at some border controls across West Africa. She recounts her experience at the border of one of the countries they have visited and says it made her question the functionality of ECOWAS. “For me, this has been really frustrating in light of the goal which is to celebrate Africa.”
The sour experiences at the hand of immigration officers and language barrier have contributed to a varied number of emotional highs and lows on their journey. “One minute you are so frustrated with the border crossing and the next, you are like wow! Dakar is so beautiful and it’s the fact that I’m alive to do this. Who would have thought that I would be able to do this?” says Chioma. They agree their travels have re-enforced how hospitable Africans are to strangers. Oluchi said this makes it worth their while. “All the mothers want to feed you and they are calling you in their language to eat something. The people are fantastic.”
The cultural awareness they have been exposed to is one factor they strongly regard as a pivotal high on their adventure to date. Oluchi is quick to point out that in Senegal, family members must wait for everyone to come back home before they all sit and share the evening meal in the rural areas. While Chioma compares the similarities between a visit she made to a village in Northern Mali, where she was welcomed by a local chief and broke kola nut with him to be the exact thing a chief in her village in Eastern Nigeria, would bestow upon a visitor. “We are so similar that we are practically divided by borders. I want to keep celebrating that. For me, that has been one of the highlight, the similarities that we have,” she says.
It is to this effect that Chioma believes Africans in the motherland and in the diaspora need to become re-acquainted with their culture. “One thing I found was that we need to learn more about our culture. All we focus on are the negative things about our culture when there are so many good things about our cultural practices. For instance, when we go to places and learn new things, I think to myself, why don’t we do it anymore now that we have been civilised and we think these cultural practices should be been thrown away.”
It is very important to the sisters that they visit the rural areas in the countries they go to in order to learn more about the traditional way of life of the people. “For me, I think a place is not just about the city, great the city is the beautiful place but then you also need to go to the villages where you actually find more beauty and where more things are really going on,” says Oluchi.
“Going to the rural areas is about a balanced view of the country and not just something that is one sided. Some times people will say when you go to the village, you will see how people are suffering but we don’t go to see how people are suffering. We go to see how people live. So, that is why it is important to go to the city and rural areas,” adds Chioma.
They enthuse about the amount of fun they have had on their journeys from the different events which transpire on a day to day basis as they find their way around Africa. When it comes to surviving the different foods, Chioma simply says, “We have become expert rice and chips eaters.” The different modes of transportation have also made the sisters more appreciative of the Nigerian government and what it offers its citizens in terms of transportation. According to Oluchi, the mode of transport is “something else” as she describes a scene from one of their journeys. “You know a typical Peugeot wagon that carries 6 people. Now picture that carrying about 12 people, two people in front and 10 at the back with luggages on top the car and driving on a very bad road and its raining.” Chioma quips, “I used to think they were bad roads in Nigeria until I got on the road and realised that Nigeria has wonderful roads. I think we should celebrate our leaders some more.”
What has proved interesting to the sisters is the amount of change taking place in the countries they have been to. Chioma points out the rate of economic growth across some of the West African block. “I see so much economic growth, I see roads being constructed and I think to myself, in the next 10 years, West Africa is going to be fantastic. In most countries this was the case especially in Mali and Senegal but mostly in Mali. Liberia is recovering from war but it has great economic potential.”
In contrast to the economic growth is the attitude Chioma says people have towards their governments and the efforts they are making. “It’s funny because every time we go to a country and see things, we say wow! but when we talk to people, they say the government is stealing their money. I think people are not objective to assessing the growth in their own country. In Mali, they have constant electricity as opposed to Nigeria where we have had no electricity for the last 3 weeks. It is something to be celebrated. Yet, they were all complaining about how the government is stealing from them.”
Their journey has garnered media attention from different parts of the world. They admit they did not expect their idea to be so well received. However, they plan to make the most of it. “It’s about using this as leverage to show how to celebrate Africa. It is not about ridiculing Africa and we are not going to be part of other people’s agenda. For us, it is about using the media coverage positively.” In addition to the media coverage, people have responded positively to them and their initiative. “We have received hundreds of emails saying it is inspirational and wonderful and we are thinking but we are just travelling but now we are beginning to say it is inspirational too.”
Their future it seems is planned as they have every intention to make the most of their journey even after it ends in December 2009. They are taking concrete steps to make a documentary about their journey and intend to write a book. They are also excited about helping other people plan trips around Africa and in the process initiate a social change project. Chioma says they envision a sustainable project like building a well and when the people leave, the project continues. Oluchi adds that they would really love to see young Africans travel around Africa. “We find that young people and people don’t travel within Africa.” A testament to the lure of the West but if anyone can convince Africans about building Africa to become a super-power like the West, it seems the Ogwuegbu sisters might just be the right people to pull it off.
This article first appeared in the New African Woman. Edition 2, 2009.
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