Bob Geldof: My Africa

Africa still holds Bob Geldof in its clutches after more than 20 years. Why? It's the variety, the exuberance, the happiness that belies the negative images...Interview by Nick Coleman
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The Independent Travel

The place in Africa I know best is Ethiopia, and that is the first destination I would suggest for anyone interested in going to that continent. But you could be completely exhilarated by most places. There is an otherness to Africa that I imagine everyone gets - except Africans, who just happen to live there. It is such a vast continent. Consider the fact that the Sudan alone is half the size of the United States. The Sahara is the size of the US. The Congo is the size of Western Europe. That's three places out of 52. And there is no easy way of getting round the place. To get to Dakar [in Senegal] from Cotonou [round the western coast in Benin], you have to fly via Paris. You have to leave the continent. There are few internal flights; there are very few usable cross-continental roads.

But no matter what country you pick to visit, there is an exuberance to the experience. The impression you get from the news is that when you go to Africa, you go to watch people keeling over in front of you. It's there in spots: war, famine. But only in spots. And that's one of the troubles with both tourists and investors: they see Africa as an undifferentiated whole. Which is a bit like seeing Europe as one place. So if there's trouble in Sierra Leone, investors think they won't invest in Mozambique - which just happens to have 10 per cent growth per annum and a peaceful, democratic changeover in government. The same is true of tourists. If they see on the news that there's trouble in Sierra Leone, they won't go to Africa. That's like seeing there's trouble in Belarus and deciding not to go to Spain.

Once you're there, the people are fantastic. You have 2,000 separate cultures in that continent. That means 2,000 languages, 2,000 theologies, 2,000 philosophies, 2,000 different ideas of jokes, theatre, song, politics, economics, all fantastically intricate and all amounting to a fantastic example of the fecundity of the human mind. And it'll go. It'll all be wiped out through famine or war or Aids or whatever - because those symptoms of poverty afflict the entire continent. However, the great anomaly is that, despite the grotesque, unnecessary poverty, there is great human warmth everywhere and great - and I'd like not to use the word because it's so corny - great happiness. The entire social structure is based on the idea of the collective - it's a survival mechanism.

Travelling is difficult but it's also great fun. If you're hiring a car you need to check out that it's in good nick. Everything must work. You can't afford to have it conk out in the middle of nowhere. The doors must lock, the windows must work. If you're travelling in an iffy country, roadblocks aren't something to be scared of - but don't get arrogant or impatient. Be humble. Turn your headlights off, let them see who you are. If some halfwit starts giving you grief, smile. If there's a curfew, observe the curfew. The police and the army haven't been paid and they're trying to make a buck, so you slip them a quid and off you go.

Ethiopia is a paradigm country for me. Simply because it's huge, it has many geographies - from salt flats in the Danakil depression to the highlands known as the Arizona Buttes, where people live on top of the plateaux and can't get down even when famine hits. They've developed their own discrete societies up there. Interesting people. We've landed on some of these plateaux and they've never seen white guys before and are suitably unimpressed, I have to say.

Then you've got vast mountains up around Lalibela - I mean, beautiful. Then you've got rolling Swiss pasture lands. Huge ones, vast. People in togas with staves, shepherds. Then down south you've got jungle. Proper jungle. Serious stuff. And there's millions of different peoples down there towards the Sudan/Ethiopian/Kenyan border. The Mursi, the Bode, the Nuer. And there's the Tigrayans who've moved there and the Harrars - millions of people dislocated by war and famine, banging up against each other, both close cousins and ancient enemies, raiding each other's cattle. And rather like in the Wild West, if you take someone's cattle, you're dead. The people who've lived there a long time profoundly resent the intrusion, which echoes our own concerns with immigration. And it kicks off sometimes, big time. AK47s are six bucks in the markets, and they'll all go round with one bullet in the AK. Instead of carrying a spear, they'll have an AK. Sometimes they'll have both.

But there is just so much to see in Ethiopia. I really don't understand why it isn't one of the major tourist spots of the world. I mean, there's the biblical thing: Petra, early civilisation and so on. Lalibela is extraordinary. And Aksum, where they say the Queen of Sheba had her capital - her bath is cut into the cliff and it's the size of a Olympic swimming pool. And Harar, a proper city with 16th-century castles designed by the Portuguese, where Rimbaud pitched up, gun-running for the Ethiopians. Or was it Verlaine? Then go south and do the jungly stuff, and drink the coffee, which comes from Kefa.

Frankly, I'd also recommend [the Democratic Republic of] Congo, even though it's what the Foreign Office calls a Category A country. Kinshasa is so happening. And it's bonkers, completely chaotic. They are staggeringly beautiful, both the babes and the guys. Unbelievably gorgeous. The music is fantastic too and it's full on, going on till three, four in the morning. And the traffic is extraordinary. The traffic cops don't get paid, so they'll open the door of your car and sit in and annoy you till you get the picture. But being European you can go to a nice hotel and escape.

That madness is sometimes iffy. But there's great stuff going on in art. And there's the Congo river. It's hard to get up to Kisangani at the top but I loved it there. That was where Bogart and Hepburn did The African Queen. Stanleyville as was. Very beautiful. The UN is up there. But if you go out into the bush, you're into madness. It's very troubled, to use the euphemism. You're into Apocalypse Now stuff. You want to watch out if you're venturing out there.

There's Stanley Falls, which are just little rapids really. They'll bring you across in their canoes. When we filmed there [for the BBC], the crews were singing work songs to get across. The coxes in the boats were shouting "louez!", so I started singing "Louie Lou-aye, oh baaay-by, I gotta go...!" and the rowers immediately started joining in: "Louie Lou-aye, oh baaay-by, a-gargle-oh!" So I turned to the camera and said, "We came to the Congo. And found. An incredible story. The roots. Of rock'n'roll!" That bit ended up in the out-takes.

Anyway, they'll take you across the rapids to the villages over the other side, where they use tom-toms still - God knows what'll happen to that when they all get mobiles. And they do that fishing thing where they set these huge scaffolding traps out in the river just below the falls and they swing from them and the kids dive in and so on. Now that's great touristy stuff and it'll all going to go, all of it. You're looking at an entire continent in a state of flux. What'll change it is communications technology, mobiles, IT, that sort of thing, because as I've said, it has no structure. So virtual infrastructure is the key. Africa is the fastest-growing phone market in the world.

Another place I'd recommend is Mali. Especially if you can get up to and around Mopti and Djenné. Mopti, which is a port on the Niger, is like walking into the bar in Star Wars: thousands of different peoples - the river people, the people out of the mountains, people out of the desert, people out of the plains. They've all got different outfits. You've got the pointy hat thing going on; you've got the whole Arab thing; the black African thing.

Timbuktu used to be the main port but it dried up as the desert moved south, so Mopti is now the main port and you can go down the river over a couple of days from Timbuktu to Mopti. You'll be crammed in with people on the boats. You can go in a canoe but it takes for ever. It's a medieval scene. You've got this hubbub everywhere and these huge canoes unloading goats and these guys tugging them off. And you see other guys cutting the slabs of salt which have been mined right out in the desert at Taodenni, by slaves and criminals.

One of the two most beautiful places I've ever been is in Tanzania, on the shores of Lake Eyasi, near the Olduvai gorge. This is where human life kicked off: the Olduvai and Laetoli gorges in the Rift Valley. The amazing thing about Laetoli is that it feels like the place where it all began. Maybe I'm super-susceptible to the romance of that, but I just can't help going fffffffuh... here, I'm standing in the footsteps of hominids. And I know I am because I can see their prints in the volcanic sludge - this little family, a man, a woman and a baby on her hip. We know she had a baby on her hip because of the angle of her footprints. The volcano is still there. You can see it about three miles away. It's not smoking but you can see where its cap was blasted off.

All around you in the Olduvai gorge are the bits: the chips of these things the first people were making. You can see evolution. Now it's dry and barren, but then it was the shores of a lake, and when it dried up they moved into the Rift Valley, moved up it hunting and gathering and got to where Somalia is now. One day 50 of them fucked off in a northerly direction - and the rest of us derive from those 50. What's more extraordinary is that the ones who stayed are still there. Exactly the same. There's only a few of them left - the Hadza - about 250 of them, doing their thing. It is a totally beautiful place.

I cannot conceive of getting tired of going to Africa. Europe is my favourite continent just because it's so interesting. The built environment is so beautiful, as is the natural one. Constant cultural engagement, beautiful sights for the eye, great food and so on. Would I get tired of going to the States? Yes, I would. Asia? I like it, but... But when I talk about Africa I have a feeling here in my stomach. Sounds stupid, I know. It's not a romantic thing. It's almost a physical feeling, which translates as "fuck, I wouldn't mind being there now".

'Underneath my bed a world of horror' - From 'Geldof in Africa'

I'm too old for this shit. Too many years in rock'n'roll. I want a nice hotel.

The smell of piss seeping through everywhere. The squatting hole. The individually rationed wiping paper. Watching it fall on to someone else's in the carefully calculated hole. If you get the aim right. The cracked concrete floor with a steady stream of unknown insects calmly chewing through the abdomen of a gently thrashing overturned cockroach.

The single naked bulb glows unpromisingly underpowered. It goes out, then feebly, haltingly reignites. No point in trying to read.

I stink of Deet 50, my clothes of Deet 100 - Neet Deet. Don't get it on your skin. It melts it. It melted my camera. My fingers stuck to it. It's the only thing that kills the fucking mosquitoes. And the other things battering the dull bulb like bloated bees at a bursting pear in summer. Get me the fuck out of here.

I've taken off my clothes. Too hot. The sheet's nylon. It's always nylon. Just so you can stick to it. Just so you can glide on it in your sleep. Just so your sweat doesn't stain. But it does. The outline of heads and bodies. Like antimacassars on a Victorian armchair, like the Turin shroud, like the permanent shadows of the evaporated at Hiroshima. My mind sees bits of hair, skin flakes, the stains. Maybe they're really there, I don't know, I'm not going to look. Lay the Deet-impregnated mosquito net on the bed. I begin to itch. Maybe there's no reason to itch, but my skin thinks there is. I scratch.

I've killed the mosquito I saw. They're easy to get when you see 'em, it's when the lights are out and you're almost gone... They die indifferently. I feed one to the things inside the belly of the still-pedalling cockroach. They ignore it. Indeed, they push it aside and some clone manhandles it away from the main body of workers who diligently pick at the eyes and innards of the winged black thing they are slowly dragging down into the darkness of the crack slanting diagonally underneath my bed. Underneath my bed a world of horror. Silent insect screaming.

I forgot the bottled water. Fuck, I chew an Airwave gum. Mint taste. Floss it through my teeth. Build up spittle in my mouth so I can take my Malarone. Try to swallow the pill with just the spit. It sticks and the spit's gone. Fuuucck. I'm going to get malaria. Cerebral fucking malaria. Twenty-four hours and you're gone. It's beginning to disintegrate in my mouth. It tastes horrible. It's beginning to burn my throat. Cough it up and push it into the chewing gum. Swallow the lot. It's gone. Begin to panic. Will the chewing gum melt in my stomach and release the tablet? Or is it rubber? What the fuck is chewing gum anyway? Fuuuck. I'm going to be bitten. Going to get malaria. I'm going to shit out a solid lump of gum with a fucking Malarone in it. If it doesn't stick in my gullet and I die anyway.

Above the bed new mosquitoes lunge expectantly in the thin bulb glare. My arms itch from last night's bites. My face burned from today's sun. The stretched skin of ankles, wrists and feet lies taut, blood deliciously at the surface for the nightly feast of flies. Lights out. The heat-shimmering night croaks and fizzes. I'm in Africa again.

'Geldof in Africa' is now out in paperback from Arrow Books, price £7.99. 'IoS' readers can by it for £6.99, with free P&P, by calling 08700 113369, quoting 'Geldof'. The audiobook, read by Bob Geldof, is available on CD, from BBC Audiobooks, price £25. 'IoS' readers can buy it for £20, with free P&P, by calling BBC Audiobooks freephone on 0800 136919, quoting IND2