Money & Business Lessons Learned Backpacking Across Africa


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Photo By John Makanga

In Dec 2007/ Jan 2008, my siblings and I took a gruelling backpacking adventure across eastern and southern Africa. The most intense and demanding experience I have ever undertaken. What felt like a punishment at first departure, travelling through countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe (brief entry), South Africa, Botswana and Namibia with a lot of uncertainty, insecurity and palm greasing- the lessons I learned from this encounter I have come to treasure years later in life, business and minting money.

I will share some of these lessons with you today –

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step

Approximately 6883.8 Miles, 30 days

The idea of backpacking down south all started with the goal of getting to Cape Town and back within our December holiday break on road exploring Africa. With this goal alone, we built a plan around it.

Lessons Learned

Much like in money and business, setting goals is crucial for a successful journey to success.

Dig the Well First Before You Are Thirsty – Seth Godin

Even before we could get full consent from our parents to embark on this potentially dangerous and taxing journey, we had to satisfy their minds with a great plan – filling every gap, and question, paying attention to every nook and cranny and hopefully, giving them the peace of mind that we would get back safely.

It took us two months to plan the 30-day trip, set dates, buy/book tickets and prepare accommodations for our stopovers. Having a thorough plan was crucial for the success of the trip but nothing quite prepared us for the actual situation on the ground.

On our way back home, we got to Tunduma (Tanzania- Zambia Border) and we had no transport as the road network and bus schedules in this town were not easily available. This made it difficult for us to plan our trip meticulously. You had to be there to know the real situation on the ground. Hence, we were forced blindly travel to the border town and try our luck. We found no transport and we literally had to start walking towards the next town as we had come to learn that the border town was a very unsafe place to be. Luckily or should I say, unfortunately, on our way we found a road accident along a steep narrow hill blocking both sides of the road. It had just started drizzling and being remote, the situation could not be resolved quickly so passengers decided to exchange vehicles. By God’s grace, we fell into luck and got transported to the next town.

Lesson Learned

Planning can save you a lot as you walk along your journey, be it in life, business or financial planning. With a plan, fewer problems crop up and contingencies can be put in place to handle any foreseen problems.  But, when it comes to unexpected problems, learning to deal in the moment and follow through is important. Goals provide tunnel vision but accompanied with a plan, it puts into perspective the bigger picture providing flexibility and enabling you to bear any difficulties.

Because Answers Only Exist to Questions…

We learned the value of seeking advice from the people around us, from the people who have been there before us and from the people who live in those places. You will discover things you never knew and learn things you could never imagine and even get out of problems you could not foresee. Being stuck at Tunduma was the toughest part of our Journey as in that border town there lived people with hopes of getting down south for a better life and future. Being Kenyans, with South African Visas placed us in a dangerous situation as theft of passports and harm to travellers is not tall common in this border town.

All kinds of people approached us and blending and being courageous in our ways in was crucial. There were no hiding spots (no good hotels), and no one to trust as word got around that we were four young Kenyans. Good Samaritans warned us of our potential danger and offered us help for whatever we needed. Those were the longest 24 hours of my life. At a time life that I learned that life in general is a daring adventure and without courage being alive becomes even more painful to bear.

Lesson Learned

It never hurts to ask.

Gratitude Turns What We Have Into Enough

The most difficult aspect of backpacking for most women like me is travelling with little to nothing. Surviving with very few clothes, money and stuff for the entire duration of the journey. The more you carry, the larger the burden. Travelling light and selecting what is necessary was the hardest part of all.

Lesson Learned

Budgets are merely tools used to achieve goals. Additionally, learning to distinguish between wants and needs is the first step to it tall. When everything boils down to Food, Clothing and Shelter – and during those moments you find yourself unable to distinguish between a want and a need you will end up not accomplishing anything.

Balancing Your Money is the Key to Having Enough ― Elizabeth Warren

With everything in place, the success of the entire trip hinged on adhering to this plan. We had to be very disciplined about how to go about our business while on this trip. Not spending more or less than we should for the entire trip was important to keep everything on track.

It Was Not Raining When Noah Built The Ark – Howard Ruff

As we embarked on this trip, there were instances we could not foresee what could happen and it those moments we really wanted to turn back but there was no way. How would we explain it to our parents? Things were hard but we had to shoulder on and find a way out of any conundrum we found ourselves in.

There was a time we shares these sentiments when we got marooned at the Tanzania-Zambia border – Tunduma on our way down south,  we could not go back into Tanzania neither could we go forward into Zambia. The only transport to and fro was the bus we came in – which we could not board because the border patrol officers did not want to issue us with a transit stamp – reasons: we did not give the $400 bribe money ($100 for each of us) and we looked very young to be travelling alone. They searched for other reasons to prohibit us from entry but could not find any – we had complied to the fullest with all immigration laws of each country we intended to travel to.

So apparently palm greasing at Tunduma was quite common even with the large posters hanging everywhere notifying all that ‘this is a corruption-free zone’, but because these officials did not out rightly ask for the money. We just got hints of what was the norm at the office – we had the money but we decided to play ignorant, I mean we were very young and pure – so why not? Eventually, after 6 hours of waiting and pleading, we got a sit down with the head of the post who granted us entry within just 5 minutes. Thankfully, the bus had not left yet.

Lesson Learned

In Personal Finance it’s the same. You have to be prepared for any emergency by having emergency savings and insurance as the basic foundation for building wealth. Failure to do so, it can threaten the success of the entire plan.

Not Everyone has Your Best Interests In Mind

I learnt this the hard way back then. The feeling of having criminals circling your life a vulture circling a carcass out in the open. This is a lesson I am still learning today. Losing ‘friends’ and having ‘friends’. Strangers feel closer than those that pretend to be ‘friends’.  Being alone in foreign land will teach you this, but that is just the basics. Being betrayed by someone even closer is much much more painful and nothing quite prepares you for this.

As the sunset in the Kalahari Desert, we got stopped by enforcement, screaming asking us to step outside. As we produced our identification cards, sniffer dogs did their job sniffing out illegal contraband. Back then there were rumours that smugglers would place these things in your luggage secretly and request for it later. Therefore, we had to take care of our luggage every step of the way. We travelled light, learned how to protect ourselves and followed through to avoid such things from happening.

Lesson Learned

It is the same with personal finance – always read the fine print of every agreement and always ask questions until you understand everything.

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Irene Makanga
Irene has an MBA in Finance and is an avid businesswoman, passionate about financial literacy.


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