/ 12 July 2005

Africa on two wheels

What began as the “insane adventure” of “a boy from the Cape who loves rugby and boerewors” has transformed into a plea for Africa and its people. And as Blair and Bush and Bono debate the salvation of the continent from war, famine, debt and disease, Riaan Manser (30) has some advice for them: “Africa needs tough love.”

Manser is in a unique position to comment on Africa and its assorted afflictions because the adventurer has “lived Africa” since he left his Gordon’s Bay home on September 9 2003 on a quest to become the first person to circumnavigate the continent on a bicycle.

He has survived capture by rebels high on drugs in Liberia, imprisonment in Equatorial Guinea, attack by tsetse flies in Angola, assault by Mauritanian children enraged at the United States’s war on Iraq and serious injuries sustained in heavy falls on mountainsides in Gabon and Djibouti.

But, instead of reinforcing the apparent hopelessness of Africa, Manser maintains that the 28 000 “painful but beautiful” kilometres he has covered so far have imbued him with an unbridled optimism and admiration for the continent’s “spirit of survival … a total refusal to bend”, even as parts of Africa lean towards “self-destruction”.

His love for the continent is all about its people, he insists. Etched on his overflowing mind is his visit to a camp crammed with 40 000 survivors of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. “These people had no hands, no feet. When the United Nations officers explained to them what I was doing, all the people applauded — I mean, literally, they tried to clap for me using the stumps of their amputated arms,” he says. “These people, who had suffered horrific mutilation and survived, were honouring me, for peddling a bicycle …”

The former marketer relies on dwindling savings and donations from well-wishers to fund his record attempt, like an Algerian man named Nadir. “This guy was really poor. I had no money. And he said to me: ‘Are you hungry? Just hold on,’ and he came back with a pizza. He watched me eat and said: ‘I apologise, I could not get you a Coke because I have no more money.'”

He recounts many similar stories about Africa’s poor, dark and ragged people showing charity to him, “a crazy white ou on a bike”. But his passion for Africa doesn’t extend to the authorities that Manser disparages as “mini-politicians drunk with power”.

Nevertheless, he is a “great fan” of Thabo Mbeki … No surprise, considering the South African president once saved his life. “Those rebels who held me in Liberia, they laughed and sang: ‘We are going to kill you.’ I could see my blood in their eyes. I thought: ‘This is it, I’m gone, today I’m going to die.’ And I started praying.”

But then Mbeki stepped in. “One of these boys found a magazine in my backpack,” Manser explains. “Mbeki was on the cover. This boy smiled and said: ‘I have seen this man before.’ I told them who [Mbeki] was and that I was also a South African. This chap suddenly shouted: ‘Go! Before we kill you!’ So I got on my bike and rode!”

Yet, despite experiences such as these, Manser is angered by the perception of Africa as a “basket case”. “Of all the countries I’ve seen, Ethiopians seem the most gifted to be able to achieve the most with the resources they have. And the country has got great agricultural potential. The highlands of Ethiopia are the most fertile land I’ve seen in Africa.”

But, in the face of abundant natural resources, Ethiopians, like most Africans, remain poor. “It’s the same story from the bottom to the top of Africa. In Angola, the elite control the diamonds. In Egypt, the elite control the water. In Sudan, the elite control the oil. In Ethiopia, the elite control the agriculture. And the people hardly see a fraction of the profits.”

Manser is adamant that Africans abhor charity. “Africans detest hand-outs! All over they’ve told me: ‘Give us jobs, we want to work.’ They don’t want to live in UN camps. But the world perceives them as beggars, because all they see on TV is aid organisations distributing bags of food to ravenous, poor Africans.”

He considers Eritrea to be a “lost cause … when I was there, the president [Isaias Afewerki] put UN guys in jail, he kicked South African businessmen out. He’s a dictator, but he still gets funding and his people still suffer in poverty.”

Now on the final leg of what began as a search for adventure almost two years ago, Manser exclaims: “My eyes have been opened … I under-estimated [Africa’s] people, their courage … we’re not useless, we just need a chance — and we just need freedom from our internal oppressors.”