John's World: "Africa Is Not For Sissies"

April 27, 2013 10:21 AM
John Phipps

John Phipps
Writes from Chrisman, Ill.

Actually, the quote was somewhat more colorful than that. I was sitting with my friends in a tiny bar in the village of Ruace, Mozambique, Africa, drinking a not-too-bad local beer while waiting for some government officials to arrive. The local population streamed by—apparently as fascinated by us as we were by them.

We applied more insect repellent, an easy habit to acquire in malaria country, as I pondered the remark made by a grizzled veteran of African farming. I took him seriously as I catalogued the evidence in his favor.

¦You don’t get to Africa by accident. Our flights totaled 18 hours to Johannesburg and another three on to Dar es Salaam, with ample layovers to while away in Heathrow and Joburg (how the cool people pronounce it).

¦Until you experience it, the phrase "nine hours on rough roads" sounds unpleasant but not life-threatening. Turns out Africa has different meanings for "rough" and "nine."

¦There is a different pace to life in Africa. Apparently, there is no word for "soon" or "hurry." One evening we waited more than an hour for cheeseburgers (the only thing available on the menu) only to discover they lacked a few ingredients such as the burger and the cheese. At that point, I considered it a condiment sandwich and moved on.

¦African army ants are fascinating to watch. From a distance. A distance such that they cannot climb up your leg. Don’t ask me how I know that.

¦The famed baobab tree—the quintessential symbol of Africa—is truly something to see. It is also, I was told as I approached for a close-up photo, a favored habitat of the black mamba. And what is a black mamba, you might ask? Merely the largest, fastest, most aggressive, venomous snake in the world, capable of rising 4' off the ground to strike repeatedly. This is why they put a zoom feature on cameras, I decided.

¦Africa is beyond huge, and I’m sure the people all live somewhere, but to a casual observer at least half of them are walking alongside the road at any given moment of the day or night. Many of the women are carrying loads on their heads that I would whine about carrying from the car to the kitchen.

¦Malaria medicine can give you strange dreams. This was a hot topic of discussion in my group, but we finally decided that with the reality we were experiencing daily, how normal should our dreams be?

¦You know you look like a farmer from Illinois when your guide tells you with a straight face that you’re standing very close to where they shot "The Lion King" in Tanzania. Or,
being able to see the backside of the moon from the southern hemisphere.

¦The deep mines of Africa can reach down more than two miles with working temperatures near 130°F. The ventilation air is refrigerated, but frequent power outages make cooling problematic. By contrast, our dog won’t go for a run with me if the temperature is more than 85°F.

¦You know you’ve led a good life when your host casually says: "The first time our family was carjacked at gunpoint was probably the worst."

¦There is an odd feeling of triumph when you get through customs at Dar es Salaam. When the guard only takes new $100 bills, you get a clue about the local economy.

¦If you forget your vaccination record for yellow fever, you can have your buddy’s card smuggled back to you in the line inside a book at Pemba airport where they are checked. Or so I’ve been told.

¦When they advise you not to drink the water, seriously, don’t drink the water. Even my doctor told me to drink beer before I left. Maybe she meant only while in Africa, but why take chances?

Stories from the frontier don’t so much underplay the raw conditions as make them sound faintly familiar. That was not my experience—I could have been on another planet, only with Coke signs.
Always remember the important word in "bleeding edge" is "bleeding."

Still, I not only survived a visit to Sub-Saharan Africa, I have reconstructed a happy memory with all the pleasant bits. If I could just lose the weird dreams about snakes.

Farming in Africa

USFarmReport com

To watch the "U.S. Farm Report" series highlighting John Phipps recent adventures in Africa, visit

John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report." Visit for station listings. To view past columns, visit or

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