On the evening of Sept. 24, with only a day remaining in his crowdfunding campaign, Joshua Ellis met and then exceeded his $10,000 goal. Thanks to the support of nearly 200 backers, Joshua will spend a month traveling across sub-Saharan Africa, where he’ll pen a travelogue, to be developed into a book upon his return, about the technological ingenuity of home-grown innovators throughout the region.
So out of curiosity, what do the contents of an African tech-writing trip bag look like? What hardware and gear will you be bringing along for the journey?
I’ll be taking a Panasonic Lumix GX1 camera, which one of my backers is sending me. It’s small, light and easy to carry. Apparently theft is a really big issue in some of the places I’m going, so I’m probably going to take a crappy little netbook to write on. I’ll be backing everything up onto SD cards which I keep in my pocket, and uploading it to the cloud whenever I have Net access. Also a paper notebook, a cheap Android phone with local SIM card, a solar charger, and a big-ass knife.
How abundant are Internet cafes (or other places offering shared Internet access) along your route? Any guesses as to how frequently you’ll be able to post travelogue entries or otherwise communicate with backers?
I don’t actually know. Probably pretty widespread in Nairobi and Lagos, elsewhere I’m not sure. I’m hoping to use my phone to tether and send stuff that way, but I’m not sure if I can even get data plans where I’ll be. I’m researching that now.
While a handful of the locations you’ve outlined are clustered together, there’s a fair amount of land to cross, too. How do you plan to travel between Nigeria and Kenya?
Funny story: originally, I was gonna try and do it over land. It’s almost 2,400 miles, but I looked at Google Maps and it said it was a 50 hour drive. Sounds reasonable, right?
Turns out that there are two roads — and I’m using that word “roads” in the most conceptual sense — that can get you from Lagos to Nairobi. One of them runs through the middle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, through the areas where the internal fighting has been most fierce. The other runs way north, through Darfur. So not comfy, mellow road trip driving.
Then I discovered that, basically, nobody will rent you a car for that trip. They’ll sell you one. Because they know that, one way or another, you’re not coming back. And the actual travel time is probably closer to six weeks, because much of the “road” is basically paths through the jungle. You will probably lose your car. You will pay thousands of dollars in bribes along the way at borders. You will probably die in one astonishing way or another.
So I’m flying.
Have you set up any specific encounters or agenda items yet, or are you planning to wing it and take advantage of opportunities as they arise?
A bit of both. I’m going to try and set up meetings with startup kids and tech people in each place I’m going, but I also rely a lot on serendipity, which has never failed me. I’m good at figuring out what’s interesting around me.
If there’s one thing the press is good at, it’s over-illuminating dangers to the degree that any place can look like a war zone. With that said, some parts of Africa are actually legitimate war zones. Now that the project is underway, are there any planned destinations that you’re particularly wary of?
Christ, yes: all of them. I was counting on Nairobi being the safest place I was going to be, until those al-Shabaab assholes decided to run amok in that mall and announce that foreigners in Kenya were “fair game” for targeting, which they did the day after the campaign tipped over the goal. And there are definitely some al-Qaida dudes in Lagos as well. Rwanda’s generally safe, except when it’s not. Thanks to America’s imbecilic War on Scary Brown People, it’s dangerous to go anywhere in the world that doesn’t have a Starbucks on every corner. It’s difficult for me to realistically evaluate the danger from here. I know what the State Department travel advisories say for the places I’m going, which is basically “What are you, an idiot?”
So I’m more than a little nervous. I don’t exactly blend in, right? I’m not a small target. I look like a giant aging record store clerk. I’m tattooed and pierced. Plus, let’s face it, it’s not like I’m Jason Bourne. Thanks to a car accident twenty years ago, my knees are absolutely shot, and I’m completely out of shape. My only particular skill is an ability to generate an astonishing amount of chaos and physical mayhem on command. So if somebody tries to jack me I’ll just start screaming and throwing things and hope somebody comes to my rescue.
Of course, after all my worrying, I’ll probably show up and it’ll be like a goddamn Paul Simon video - nice people, beautiful scenery, a certain amount of wry wordplay. That’s what I’m fervently hoping. But I’d rather be overly cautious than overly dead.
Your mother was an ardent supporter of the campaign, even going so far as to offer home-cooked meals to local backers, and you’ve spoken before on your travels as a child. Has she been involved in the planning, and are the risks of the project a concern for her?
She was so happy when I called her after the campaign reached 100 percent funding that she was crying. She hasn’t really been involved in the planning, other than offering meals to local backers, which I thought was very sweet of her. She’s definitely concerned for my safety, but I think she and my dad understand that this is a really important thing for me to do, both personally and professionally. She also knows, from thirty-five years of experience, that once I’ve committed to something, there’s no point in trying to change my mind.
And we’re a nomad family: my grandfather built oil refineries all around the world, from northern China to Venezuela to Saudi to Turkey, where I lived with him and my grandmother for a year as a kid. I’ve traveled overseas fairly extensively — mostly Western Europe, but also Egypt and Turkey.
My mom was the one who instilled in me a sense of wanderlust and a basic curiosity about the universe, because she’s an amazing woman. Mainly she’s just proud of me for pulling this off, and excited for me as I go out into the big world.
CHRIS AINSWORTH is a Las Vegas native and tech dilettante. Find him on Twitter (@driph) or at driph.com.