If you want to understand the world and how to change it, you often need to actually get out and see it. You need to engage with actual people, visit actual projects, encounter the actual workings of the world, in all their messy complexity. Consultants call these forays into the real world "learning journeys", but whatever they're named, they're an essential tool for figuring things out.
Tom Owen and Eli Angen are interested in figuring out how technology and daily life work in West Africa. So, guided by Ishmael, a Guinean journalist, these two Engineers Without Borders Canada veterans are spending the summer following the Niger River (bicycling 700 kilometres from Kissidougou, Guinea to Bamako, the capital of Mali, then going downriver by "wooden paddle boat" to Timbuktu) and observing, as they go, how local people use technology.
Because they hope not only to learn themselves but to share what they learn with others, they've started a travelblog, Niger Currents, which Tom is promising to update every week:
"It seems to me that the picture of Africa portrayed in Canada is often of a continent that is troubled by war, famine, starvation and corruption. These things certainly exist, but the view I have after two years of living in Ghana is much more positive. I want to help paint a brighter, more accurate picture of Africa - by relaying the stories of everyday people in Africa that are struggling with dignity to build better lifes for themselves, the kinds of people I meet everyday but whose story is rarely told."
Online travel narratives are nothing new, of course, but learning journeys are not mere vacations, and the proliferation of online tools for sharing content (from blogs to Flickr to everything in between) and the spread of communications networks across much of the world makes it easier than ever for travelers in search of answers to share what they're finding. Niger Currents is a small, cool example of the trend. I plan to follow them on this trip (as it's a subject I'd like to learn more about), and wish them an eye-opening trip.
In my opinion cycling through the world (or even walking) is the best way to get to know the culture and the real conditions in the area you are in. I've been cycling through my own country (Germany), Denmark and Norway last summer and am going to cycle around France next week for a month (during the WM2006). I hope to get some impressions about the climate change in southern France where they've had extreme droughts in the last years and maybe I'll even extend my trip to northern Spain, where the water problems are even more severe.
I'm thinking about blogging for my familiy and friends but do not have a camera yet. I've bought a GPS PDA with wireless lan connection to get connected on the trip. I hope my bike dynamo will supply enough energy for the device - if not I'll get a small solar panel.
Another thing I want to achieve is getting awareness for climate change on the one side and for the peace effects of the EU on the other side (- my grandfather has been fighting against France in WW II and 60 years later I have the chance to go and cycle there and make friends in peace, that's great). I'm going to ride with a recumbent bike and so maybe even more people will get aware of the coming changes.
Another awesome post Alex! I've thought a great deal about travel/learning/participation experiences. As an example, I have been planning to travel to different eco-village spots across North-America. I would absolutely love to see what different communities are doing in their attempts to live more harmoniously with their bit of earth and community. I want to see what work is actually being done across the continent in these communities and to document it with video, diaries, pictures, maps, etc.
I'm sure that if more people could see the kind of work that is being done, they could become inspired by seeing other ways of living and perhaps would be more inclined to participate in such projects.