Tour d’EAC 2016: On the Road to Integration

As EAC integration advances, the inclusion of citizens from all levels of society remains one of the biggest challenges. Despite the strides made towards uniting this community of nations, many people are unaware of the rights and freedoms granted to them by achievements such as the Common Market Protocol. On the other hand, EAC policymakers often lack qualitative feedback on the impacts of their policies.

One of the fourteen projects to work in partnership with IIDEA is the Campfire Logs Guild’s Tour d’EAC 2016. In an action packed thirty-one day cycling expedition, fifteen East African cyclists undertook a journey across the EAC with a mission: to raise awareness about integration to the citizens of East Africa.

We spoke to three of the members of the team. John Bahlono, the director of the Campfire Logs Guild, and Ahimbisibwe Conrads and Kwagala Maureen Nakajja, who would become two of the first East African cyclists to travel around the EAC.

Tell us a bit about yourselves.

Conrads: I love cycling! It is a part of me. I cycle daily, at least 20 km a day. Professionally, I am a telecommunications engineer and I specialize in Apple hardware and software.

Maureen: I am a cosmetologist. Something you should know about me is that when I joined the Campfire Logs Guild three weeks before the Tour d’EAC started, I didn’t even know how to ride a bike.

How did you meet each other?

John: We all met differently. Conrad is an old-time buddy of mine. Some we met on Facebook, some were introduced to us, like Maureen.

Maureen: I was introduced to John by my friend. She told me they were travelling across the EAC, but I had no idea they would be cycling. Joining was difficult because I didn’t know anything about riding and it was tough to learn so quickly. But when they explained to me their motivations, I felt like I could do it too.

What motivated you to participate in the Tour d’EAC 2016?

Conrads: Although we live in Uganda, very few people know what East Africa is like. I wanted to know more about East Africa and how the other people in the Community live.

How did your family and friends react when you told them you were going to cycle across the EAC?

Conrads: Because of my previous experience cycling in Sweden, my friends and family knew I could make it. But other people were very negative and told me I wouldn’t make it.

John: Tell the story about the time we went to get sponsorship.

Conrads: We went to a TV station to get sponsorship. When we had gone to Sweden, they had agreed to sponsor us. When we went back to ask to for sponsorship to cycle across East Africa, they told us we were crazy. They said we must have been smoking marijuana or opium to think that we could do this. So many people were really negative. They would tell us it’s a joke, it can’t happen, that it is a dream.

John: For sure, most people were really negative. Although some people were supportive, most thought it was impossible.

Maureen: My mum was the only person who supported me. When I first told her I was going, she laughed because she knew I didn’t know how to ride. But she encouraged me, which gave me the strength to do it. But most people discouraged me. People would even tell me that if I rode a bike I would lose my fertility.

What did you think about most when you were cycling?

Conrads: When you start in the morning, you are excited. But once you reach lunchtime, you begin calculating the remaining distance and you wish you could get there as soon as possible. But you have a target you need to reach, so you just have to carry on.

Maureen: I think it was the same for me. I remember when we were in Babati it was very windy and dusty. We had no accommodation and were very hungry. It was difficult to keep your eye on the goal.

John: In fact, I have never asked them this question: how it felt to not have any money or accommodation. How did you guys feel?

Conrads: We thought you had hidden money! Because we had no sponsorship at the time, he told us he had no money. He would show us his empty pockets in the morning. But in the evening he would have money, that’s why we thought he was hiding cash. But the reason was because we were being supported by East Africans we met along the way.

John: Every day, we started with no money. But we met people along the way that would support us. $100 here, $50 there, whatever they could spare.

What was an inspiring moment on the tour?

Conrads: What inspired me was the reception we received when we would arrive in cities, like at the EAC Headquarters in Arusha. They really encouraged us and told us they would support us.

Maureen: When we arrived in the Masaai Mara, I was really inspired by how well we were received by the people in the villages.

John: The moment when I said to myself ‘wow’ was when we reached our final destination at the Ugandan equator. We had a big welcome by the Ugandan Defense Force and they gave us a trophy. And I hugged every one for the first time.

Was there a moment when you felt like quitting and what stopped you?

Maureen: In Burundi we were arrested by the army and put in a warehouse because we were on the road when the president was passing. After some time they released us. When we met up with the others, John asked us ‘why are you late?’ I started crying and at that moment I wanted to go home. What stopped me from quitting was thinking about how far we had come.

Conrads: Actually I wanted to quit in the beginning when we reached Kisumu. When we arrived, I asked John where we would sleep and he had no answer. But then a church gave us shelter, food, a hot shower. We became Christian for that night (laughs).

If you had a superpower for one day on your trip, what would it be?

John: If I had a superpower, I would make us more visible. We would have more than a hundred cyclists, lots of promotional materials and sound systems blearing so that everyone would know why we we’re doing what we were doing – raising awareness about the EAC. Because that’s what motivated us in the first place. We want people to know about the EAC and take ownership of it.

Maureen: If I had power, I would take all my fellow cyclists to Swahili lessons. It was the biggest challenge because most people in the EAC speak Swahili. So for Ugandans it was very hard to communicate with people.

What was your biggest challenge on the Tour d’EAC?

Maureen: The biggest challenge was in Burundi when I fell off my bike and broke my helmet. John came over and asked me if I could continue. I had a headache, but I said I carried on.

Conrads: The biggest challenge was the police. They didn’t know about the EAC and we would have to explain to them what it was and what we were doing. One time the police in Kenya stopped us and asked what the EAC flag was. Another time we were chased away from a police station and were called thieves and terrorists. People really need sensitization about the EAC.

John: You wouldn’t believe how little people know about the EAC. People would ask us if the EAC flag was the South Sudanese flag, can you imagine?

What was the funniest moment on the trip?

Conrads: To me every night was funny because we had nothing. If we needed food, shelter or repairs we would just have to figure out how to get by.

Maureen: When we were in Singida, our team captain was feeling tired, and he was saying ‘how can a girl ride better than me? I need to beat her’. But he fell behind and we had to wait for an hour for him to catch up. When he came he said he had a flat tire. But when we pumped his tire there was no puncture, it turned out he had let out the air himself to save face.

The slogan of the EAC is ‘one people, one destiny’, after your experiences, what do you think about this phrase?

John: It is achievable. However, unless they involve all stakeholders – the citizens, political leaders and bodies at all levels, accompanied with a lot of sensitization on integration – it will take ages.

Most people know very little about the EAC. Even people who do say it is only a geographical location on a map. So we need to work towards making it real. It cannot just be dreams. It needs to be made real in pen and paper and it needs to be made real by involving the citizens.

If you could make one improvement to the EAC, what would it be?

Conrad: We need to improve communication. If we could communicate in a common language, it would help business, trade and our sense of community.

Maureen: I agree with Conrad, we should introduce Kiswahili to all East African schools so we can all communicate in one language.

John: I am passionate about community. Community involvement and community ownership. I am Ugandan because I own Uganda – I cannot say I own the East African Community. So if I were the head of the EAC for one day, I would let East Africans own the integration process.

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