Thursday, 5 July 2012

A Woman's Journey Through North Africa

This article was published in South Africa's Management Today E-Magazine in August 2011.

A Woman’s Journey Through North Africa

Christy Henchie, from African Hoofprints, has spent the last 5 years traveling
on horseback through North Africa with her partner Billy Brenchley. She tells of
her experience as a woman, traveling through culturally-conservative Africa.

Dare I admit that the main reason I started this horseback journey from the most northern point to the most southern point of Africa, was not my lifelong love of horses or my desire to see more of the world but the thought that if I didn’t go, I would never see him again. Him being Billy, boyfriend for the last six years and avid horseman and adventurer! On embarking on the journey at the end of 2005 in Tunisia, I thought little more about the trip other than, this should be fun… and I haven’t let this one get away! I had no idea of the lessons I would learn, the amazing experiences I would have and the inner strength I would discover.

On arrival in Libya
The first lesson I had to learn, and admittedly one that after all this time I am still trying to get to grips with, was to accept that, as a woman, my journey would be completely different to Billy’s even though we are in the same places, seeing the same things and talking to the same people all at the same time!

Spending years in North Africa gave us a chance to learn about the Arabic people, their cultures and traditions and of course Islam, their religion, which dictates a moral way of life. It was refreshing to realize that the portrayal by the West of the Muslim people as terrorists and fundamentalists is so far away from the truth as to be purely fictional. It did not take us long to fall in love with these people, their kindness and embarrassing generosity and to feel completely at home with them. We were treated as kings while at the same time invited to be part of the family. I found it difficult at times to get my head around some Islamic beliefs and do feel that to a certain extent it is an out-dated religion, but it does teach people good morals in an age where they are sorely needed.

Sexism is rife in these countries. At first I thought it was a Muslim thing but having since traveled through Southern Sudan and Uganda which are Christian countries and seen it there too, I have come to realize it is an African thing. It is not really religious at all but due to tradition and a lack of sophistication. Africa is simply behind the times! Billy left me to my own devices and did not protect me from these male chauvinists! I soon had to learn how to garner respect for myself even though I am but a mere woman!

Some fellow South Africans we bumped into in Southern Sudan
In Tunisia, even though I spent hours on horseback and covered about 50km per day, most men we stayed with would remove my horse from me as soon as I dismounted with the belief that I had no idea how to look after him. I am actually a very shy person. The routine of feeding, watering and caring for the horses was my comfort zone and helped me to relax at new places. I always felt agitated when these responsibilities were taken from me. Normally, I won’t even let Billy care for his own horse!

In Libya I learned about men being allowed to have as many as 4 wives which made me so emotional that I felt sick! I discovered that most of these women had arranged marriages and thought it strange that I wish to marry for love! A man informed me that one man is equal to two women. This left me completely speechless! It did not take me long to realize that he was not the only one who believed this. At most Libyan homes, Billy would be taken to the men’s lounge where a translator was generally provided. I would be ushered into the house to face 3 or 4 generations of women who soon gave up trying to have a conversation with me and took to dressing me in traditional gear instead!

Christy in traditional Libyan attire with Billy
In Egypt, men seemed to undress me with their eyes everywhere I went. They seem to believe that all women from the West are porn stars and are up for anything. I, being blonde and blue eyed, was viewed as fair game even though it was obvious I was attached!
In Sudan, both the men and women thought it funny that I would take care of the horses and Billy would do the laundry and make the tea!

After 6 years on the road, I have learned to deal with ablutions in the bush. It still irritates me no end how much simpler it is for Billy. It is the difference between standing and squatting, merely opening a zip or getting half undressed. At times I have wished I was born a man, purely for the mechanics of performing ones ablutions! Traveling through Uganda, however, presented new challenges. Very few people in northern Uganda have ever seen a horse, or a foreigner, or a tent, and they are a very curious people. Within seconds of us stopping anywhere we are surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, wide eyed in wonder at this strange phenomenon. It is lovely to meet all these people and to cause such excitement but where do you go for a wee?!

Billy is welcomed in Kampala!
These are but a few of the challenges I have met but they pale in comparison to lack of food or water, injuries to the horses, the typhoid and malaria that Billy got in Southern Sudan or the leukemia he is fighting now. Both the trials and triumphs of this expedition have taught me patience, perseverance and appreciation of the small things in life – a perfect sunset, smiling faces or a happy horse. It has given me faith in mankind and confidence in my abilities. I have experienced the amazing people of this continent in a way most people never will. This is the University of Life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Christy Henchie

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