Sonia & Alexandre Poussin: One step at a time

On 1 January 2000, French journalists Sonia and Alexandre Poussin set out on an incredible journey. Alone and unassisted, they walked from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee in a quest to retrace the footsteps of mankind. Their adventure, they say, belongs to us: the Africans who taught them what it means to be human.

What was the idea behind your journey?

For us, the new millennium was a time to think of our origins. Since Africa was the cradle of mankind, it was a sort of survey of our ancestors. When you look at a palaeoanthropological map of Africa, all the dots are in the Great Rift Valley, so we just linked them together.

Australopithecus africanus, with Mrs Ples in Sterkfontein, is first in the link. At the other end of the Rift, Jesus appeared at the Sea of Gallilee. We found it interesting that there was a theme from ape man to god man, retracing the process of hominisation and humanisation. On our way, we interviewed scientists who explained to us what made these fossils, these hominids, human or not.

Your journey was the lightest undertaking of its kind. What did you carry?

Our bags weighed seven kilos each, including three kilograms of video and camera equipment. It was the opposite approach to the traveller who goes with a Land Rover with two spare engines, four spare wheels, two tents on top, ready to face anything. Our strategy was to be light enough to be able to travel far enough to meet someone.

So you purposefully made yourselves dependent on strangers?

Yes, but we paid a high price for that: 40 kilometres a day of sweat, pain, uncertainty, thirst, starvation, disease. Malaria – many times. This is the price you avoid when you pay money. But we decided to pay with reality.

What other equipment did you have?

A watch is vital, otherwise you lose track of time, and a pedometer is important to know how far you have gone. But we had no maps, no GPS, no compass. We followed people’s directions. The other travellers we saw were so busy trying to find out where they were that they were not really there.

Has this kind of journey been done before?

The first attempt was by three South Africans – Bruce Lawson and two others – who were walking for the Guinness World Records. We met them and their story was depressing: 24 times malaria, nose broken in the Tete corridor, attacked by Somali Shifta in northern Kenya, everything stolen. They suffered like hell. They held the world record for reaching the border of the Sudan. And we were only in Nelspruit. We thought, what’s ahead of us? But we were blessed. We never had anything like that.

Why do you think your experience was so different?

They told us. They were very heavy, carrying 80 kilograms and pulling a cart. They were three men, big guys. As a woman and a man, that made a difference for African people, because we were not a danger for them.

How did people react to you – two white walkers in the middle of nowhere?

We realised straight away that this spirit of walking was appealing to people who spotted us on the road. Whether they were millionaires from Constantia or the poorest from the bush, we received the same welcome. Our poverty and our vulnerability became our strength. We made it possible for people to stretch their hands out to us – not to beg, but to rescue.

What about money? Did you pay your hosts?

In Zimbabwe, we were staying with people who were so impoverished, devastated by the turmoil. We wondered, ‘Aren’t we stealing the bread out of their mouths?’ I remember one man – a policeman, not paid for six months. He had a last bag of maize and he shared it with us. In the morning, we held out a $10 bill. He turned white and said, ‘What do you think you are doing? I thought we were friends and now you want to steal the only thing I can offer by paying for it.’ We learnt a lesson that day.

We never tried to compensate with money from then on. Money isn’t evil, but it impedes true relationships. These people were offering us the best of their culture and their generosity – and that is something you don’t buy. We understood that the last dignity of a human being is the power of giving and you can’t steal that from the humblest man on earth.

How many people took you in?

We met 1,200 African families along the way. It was heart-breaking each morning when we left our hosts. They would ask, ‘Why don’t you stay an extra day?’ We’d say, ‘But if we had stayed the day before, we wouldn’t have met you.’ We told them about all the other people, so they knew we would remember them and that they were a part of a chain. We didn’t walk Africa – they carried us.

And you had no sponsorship?

It was a South African who became our sole sponsor. The Nikes we had at the beginning were terrible, lots of blisters, lots of pain. All the farmers would say, ‘Ag nee man, ons dra Hi-Tecs hierso.’ (‘Oh no, we wear Hi-Tecs here.’)The man at the shop (Valencia in Nelspruit), Naeem Omar, wouldn’t let us pay. He said, ‘Each time you need new shoes, send me an e-mail and I will send them to you.’ It was incredible.

What kind of story came out of your journey?

Our story is not about us. We don’t speak about the sweat of the track, technical problems, mechanical breakdowns and so on. We interview our hosts and they teach us their Africa. It is about their lives, their hopes, problems and vision of the world. That’s why this story is so different from the usual Cape to Cairo report.

For example, Wicus Leeuwnar, one of our first hosts, was a dairy farmer, but he’s also a blue crane conservationist and a world famous photographer. We discovered that South African farmers cannot be just farmers, as in France. They must be divers, ultralight pilots, painters, dancers. We met 253 families in South Africa. It took us eight months and 3,333 km to cross your country.

How did you get past places that are considered dangerous?

We were warned by South Africans that the Marsabit – Moyale road in northern Kenya was dangerous and we listened to them. We made a plan to go another way, a much harder way though the Sukuta Valley, called the Death Valley, north of Lake Baringo. After the last village, it’s 128 kilometres to the next village. We had three to four days walking without any assistance possible.

One guy told us of a well we could reach by eight hours’ walking. To find the well, we had to look for a tree with its branches outstretched like a cross. So we walked in anxiety all day looking for this Golgotha and we finally found it.

After that, we had to walk 50 kilometres to a British colonial hand pump lost in the desert. There was no village, just this pump on the side of the road. We didn’t even know if it worked. We found it, completely exhausted, almost dead. We started turning the handle and finally water came out. It was hot and salty, but we knew we could make it then.

So this journey became an adventure in itself. But we had to listen to what people told us.

Except when they told you it was impossible?

Oh yes, then we never believed them. Crossing the Sahara desert – it was impossible. Zimbabwe – oooh, so dangerous. People cried at the border. They said, ‘They are going to kill you.’ But we stayed with war vets, we even stayed three days with Morgan Tsvangirai. It was a crazy story.

Crazy stories are the best…

We were at a shebeen that was also a shop. Sonia said to the big mama, ‘Please, it’s a bit embarrassing, but I need new underwear.’ The mama repeated this many times so that everyone could hear and came back with this huge parachute. We laughed about it so much and stayed to drink African beer. And while the women were discussing lingerie, a guy says, ‘Do you want to meet Morgan?’

‘Morgan? Who’s he? Captain Morgan?’

‘No, he’s the future leader of the country. His homestead is near here. It’s guarded by the police, but I know a way in.’

We said, ‘Let’s go!’ and we met and interviewed him and his wife, Susan, who was the most loveable, amazing woman. He proved to be so wise, so calm. The way he has suffered, the way he remains peaceful. He said, ‘I have already been rescued five times by God. I should have died long ago. So my life is not in my hands. I am just a tool for the betterment of my people and this country.’

Every day we met someone who taught us brilliant things – because we let it happen. For us, that’s the meaning of adventure. You mustn’t have a plan. You mustn’t be expected. You must accept what comes to you. We’re not so naive to think that crime, rape, death couldn’t have happened. But it can also happen if you’ve planned everything.

What was your most frightening experience?

We were stuck in Tanzania in Rungwa, in a village where lions attacked and killed seven people in a week – one a day. We had malaria at the time and this actually saved us. For 12 days we had been walking with lions’ footprints everywhere. Sometimes they had been there just 10 minutes before us, so we were very scared.

People weren’t worried for us because they weren’t worried for themselves. When we asked, ‘But aren’t they dangerous?’ they said, ‘Don’t worry, lions never attack in daytime or on the track.’ And they were wrong.

How did you deal with fear?

Most of the time, you don’t have a choice. When you are in that spot and there is one month of walking behind you and 10 days ahead, you make a plan. You watch what the people around you are doing and you do what they do. Providence always provided a solution.

Sonia, what was it like walking through Africa as a woman?

It felt very natural. I had a good relationship with the women, the ‘mamas’, who welcomed me. Of course, there were two of us. Because I was a married woman, people were respectful. I never had a bad gesture, a bad look or a bad word. Sometimes in Paris in the Metro, I am more afraid than I was travelling across Africa on foot.

How did you resist the temptation to opt out when things got tough?

We never thought of cheating. We were offered lifts every day. But as we walked, we became more and more African. We understood the people; we could live like them. So it was normal, for example, when we crossed this area with the lion attacks. People were living there, among the lions. If they were able to do it, why were we not able to?

It was the same when I fell pregnant in Egypt. I walked 1,800 kilometres pregnant. I didn’t want to stop. Because do the African ladies stop? Can they? No.

What do you think of people who do things to make or break a record?

They are necessary for society, to push the limits of humanity. The question from South Africans when they met us was always, ‘Is it for some kind of record? Is it a race?’ Yes, what we did is a world record: we crossed Africa, unassisted, without sponsors and without a gap, as a couple.

But that was not our quest. For us, it was another way of being journalists. We wanted to try to be like the people we were interviewing and spend time reporting good news. And the good news is that these 1,200 families taught us what it is to be human – because they were resilient, hopeful, faithful, generous and hospitable – even when they were completely alone in the world.

First published in the January 2010 issue of Getaway Magazine.

Sonia and Alexandre’s award-winning book of their journey, Africa Trek, is an International Herald Tribune best seller. 

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