Capetonian photographer, Yasser Booley, recently set out on a rough and ready adventure from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, using ONLY public transport.
Supported by international engineering and design group Aurecon and local innovators Where is my Transport, his journey was all about capturing the essence of the ‘real African Union’ and showing South Africans how easy and affordable travelling to the rest of the continent can be.
We caught up with him to talk African trains, buses, cities and people.
Can you explain – in your own words – what the Afrikanist in Motion trip was all about?
My journey was basically about raising the profile of travelling within southern Africa by capturing my experiences through photography. Along the lines of showing people that it’s doable, it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful and that people are friendly. And to remind South Africans that we are indeed part of this vast continent that we often feel disconnected from.
South Africa is a very tricky kettle of fish because everyone was brainwashed during apartheid. Not just the whites or the coloureds or the blacks. Everyone! And it’s something you actually have to recover from – as an individual, in your family context, in your community, your city and your nation. Transformation is who sits at your table and eats with you, but we often get stuck in our immediate communities and forget to look further.
In many ways, we’re caught up in small world syndrome in South Africa and I want my photography to play a role in the inspiration phase of this vision.
That’s so interesting. Can you explain a bit more?
I only realised this after I’d gotten back – but this is very much psychological residue from our past. Much of the apartheid state’s existence was bound to the fact that it wasn’t a part of Africa – it formed a big part of the subliminal messaging and indoctrination: the idea that there’s this dark continent and we’re the only beacon of light. I eventually had to ask myself why I thought it was going to be difficult and challenging and dangerous to do this journey. And also why everyone I spoke to seemed to think so.
What really drove the strangeness of this attitude home, was when I got to Lusaka and found these two tiny Japanese girls with their big bags, taking public transport everywhere – they didn’t seem afraid or uncomfortable, yet as South Africans, we often feel intimidated to do this.
Apart from taking public transport, I also stayed in backpackers and met people from all over the world as I went – from South America, Europe, North America. I mean people are travelling in Africa!
Did you meet any fellow South Africans?
I met one other South African and she really impressed the socks off of me. She’s got her own online marketing company and she’s been travelling for a couple of months and will still be travelling for another year – all the way up to Egypt and using public transport all the way.
I think the thing that fascinates many people about your trip is, of course, the fact that you were making use of public transport exclusively, as it’s something many South Africans tend to avoid as far as possible. Do you have any thoughts about this?
That’s very true. Public transport still seems to have this stigma attached to it, due to the fact that, culturally, it was only the working class and the poor who had to make use of trains, buses and taxis. It’s a psychological barrier you don’t really find anywhere else. I mean, you don’t find it in Europe, for example; there everyone takes the tube, the bus and the train and it’s not a thing. And this is also why – when you look at the traffic in the mornings – you find that 80% of the cars have only one person in.
So, that does call into question the notions we hold about public transport. As far as public transport is concerned everywhere else around the world, it’s just the way people get around.
So, what was your experience of public transport in other African countries then? Did you face any challenges/difficulties?
Overall, it was a really pleasant experience – I never struggled to find the correct bus or train I was supposed to board and got a lot of help from people along the way. Look, my preparation wasn’t the best, but I did actually build in a good couple of extra days into my itinerary – just in case of delays or something going wrong. What surprised me was that, in the end, this wasn’t really necessary.
During the entire time, there was only one delay – when the bus I took from Bulawayo to Vic Falls broke down and it wasn’t even for that long.
While the buses were pretty great, I was especially impressed by the overnight trains I took – the one from Vic Falls to Lusaka, as well as the Tazara from Kapiri Mposhi to Dar es Salaam. Both were so clean you could eat off the floor, there were showers and the staff were friendly and efficient.
And finance-wise? How affordable is it to travel this way?
Here’s a quick breakdown of the travelling costs:
Cape Town – Joburg (by train): R610
Joburg – Bulawayo (by bus): R400
Bulawayo – Vic Falls (by bus): R300
Overnight train from Vic Falls to Lusaka: R300
Yeah, all the trips were between R300 and R500, which isn’t bad for the distances covered.
My other greatest daily expense was accommodation and I paid about $14 a night at a backpackers, which is just less than R200 a night.
You passed through a number of African cities. What was your impression of each of them and how do they differ, specifically from Cape Town?
Look, we are luckier than we know and more fortunate than we can guess in South Africa. We have hospitals we can go to, we have great infrastructure. I’m not saying that everything’s great here and that nothing’s wrong, but I’m saying that compared to other places, we’re years ahead.
In terms of the people, however, I was blown away by the hospitality, by the friendliness, by the willingness to help. There’s a lot we can learn from them about ‘menslikheid’.
Cape Town is often labelled quite a cliquey city. Do you think this is true?
See, this is why South Africa is so complex because it really does depend on which segment of the population you encounter. I mean, I used to bring strangers home to my house in the Bo-Kaap all the time. And while Cape Town can be cliquey, maybe it’s more like – in a way – Cape Town guards her secrets.
I think Capetonians are actually quite friendly. Maybe they won’t invite you home, but they will tell you a quick joke or tease someone to show that they’re fond of them. If you engage a Capetonian, they will certainly open up to you. It’s always about the energy you put out there as a visitor – if you show you’re interested, you won’t be turned down.
And would you agree with the statement that Cape Town isn’t a truly African city?
I’ve heard people referring to Cape Town as ‘Africa for beginners’ and while there was a time that I agreed with that, I no longer do. Now, I think Cape Town is Africa in one of its myriad expressions. We can’t escape the fact that we’re on this continent!
And, maybe the most ironic thing of all is, that the Cape peninsula (which is generally the popular tourist destination), is connected to the rest of Africa through the Cape Flats. I really find it so ironic. If it wasn’t for the Cape Flats, we would have been an island.
Can you explain a bit more about the name Afrikanist in Motion?
Afrikanist – the name – it just arrived. The only place I found the word was online and it’s a denotation for a scientist in German. So, it’s a scientist that studies African languages and culture. And I thought to myself – good shot! I like that.
So, in my adaptation, being an Afrikanist is about introspection and turning inward. In that turning inward, is a recognition of the intrinsic value of what there is. Also on an individual level – to have a good sense of self-worth as Africans, because in the end, we all have a lot of insecurities we have to deal with – especially coming from the complexities of apartheid.
I believe Africa has tremendous potential, but something has to be done about the traditional, the existing and the prevailing power dynamics. But how do we start having these conversations?
I mean, as African countries, why aren’t we trading with each other instead of with Europe, the US etc?
So, an Afrikanist is basically a person who has belief in the vision of a prosperous, united and safe Africa and a continent that plays a leadership role in the future of the world.
If you want to check out some of Yasser’s work, head to 6 Spin Street in Cape Town for the current photography exhibition.
Featured image: Yasser Booley/Afrikanist in Motion