Three young men, Steven, Hamish and Russell. A passion for environmental sustainability, for journalism, for cycling and, above all, for Africa. And here you are the MoJo Velo project. The 9th of April they started from Cape Town their incredible bike trip and they will end up in Addis Ababa. A 10-month journey across Africa relying on their self-sufficiency and producing impressive documentaries about African people who are doing, in their own little way, extraordinary and enormous things for the community they’re living in and the planet. The aim of this beautiful project is to overthrow negative perceptions about Africa, to show people around the world the incredible potential of the African continent, rich in innovation and perseverance, telling them stories about everyday heroes who believe that a positive change is possible.
Here below we talk with Steven while the team is in Livingstone.
How this idea of the MoJo Velo project was born and from who?
It was quite an organic process over many months.
Having worked in environmental sustainability for many years, Russell and I needed a change. I needed inspiring again after too long working on slow-changing policy and strategy in government.
We were in need of an adventure, and cycle touring is simply the best way to travel and I love it. The feeling of setting out with everything you need on your bike, not knowing where you will sleep that evening, is unbeatable. And we both held aspirations to cycle all the way back home to the UK.
And lastly, all three of us were keen to try our hand at something creative so we took the plunge and decided to make films having discovered the fast growing world of Mobile Journalism. But none of us had ever really done that before! So there it was: Cycling, Sustainability, and Film-making.
One of your objectives is “challenging negative perceptions of Africa and promoting its innovation, ingenuity and resilience”, which is similar to what we want to do with our project. What did lead you to this feeling, to this “necessity”?
For me, living in S.Africa for 3.5 years, and falling in love with a woman who's mother is from the Eastern Cape and father from Ghana, I became more acutely aware of the misrepresentation of the continent of Africa by people like me, and my own white privilege. We wanted to challenge ourselves, and others, with positive and inspiring stories from the continent - to counter the negative prejudice we often find in the media. Listening to Chimamani Adiche’s TED talk on “the dangers of a single story” was pivotal in this journey.
Is there a particular reason for choosing this route from Cape Town to Addis Ababa? Do you have already modified your itinerary for some particular reason?
This is about the journey, not the destination. So ending in Addis was a purely practical step given our time limit of around 10 months. We have indeed changed our route, often to incorporate new story ideas - for example - we will cycle through Zambia because we are to film the inspiring youth of the Children’s Radio Foundation in Lusaka. And sometimes we just get lost - a wrong turn in Namibia ended up in a detour but it was a blessing in disguise - we avoided what would have been a very busy road, and instead found a quaint town with coffee and wifi to replenish us :)
At the moment, you are in Livingstone. Until now, which was the hardest experience of your journey?
Hmm…probably we have to go back to our practice ride before we left in Lesotho. High up above 2000m, we were “cycling” on “roads” which even a 4x4 would have struggled with. Traversing up and down steep hills, it started raining and the fog came in. We got soaked to the bone, freezing cold, pitching our tents with numb hands. We resorted to drinking leftover hot pasta water. The next morning, two young Basotho herdsman woke us up, and in a bad mood, we tried to ignore their repeated requests for “munchies”. But instead of food, they were after “matches”, to make us a fire to warm us up. It was an amazing gesture of generosity which did something to make up for the night before!
On the trip proper, perhaps the hardest thing has been to balance our desire to live in the moment with the expectations of friends, family and social media. We are wedded to our phones, and are seeking as many video views and likes as possible. Sometimes the hardest thing is just to remember to focus on the day to day, to enjoy the cycling, and know that this trip exists just as meaningfully even when it’s not on our Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Youtube channels!
And which was the most incredible one you encountered?
Camping wild one night in Namibia, we pitched tent in, what we later learnt, was a private nature reserve. As we were cooking dinner, we heard the unmistakable call of hyena’s. It was our first encounter with a wild and potentially dangerous animal, and I must admit that we panicked a little. Having flung our food into the bushes as a deterrent, we watched as a hyena circled us about 30m away. We hurriedly ate what remained of dinner, urinated around our tents, and got into bed feeling rather apprehensive. Of course, the night passed without incident, though we knew that they had come up to our tents while we slept. How? Because Hamish’s tent smelt of the most horrific animal urine possible. The lesson? Never claim territory by peeing. The hyena piss has since been joined by that of a dog, and a bat eared fox. Hamish is displeased, to say the least.
What about the stories you are collecting. Are there some of them that impressed you the most? What does surprise you the most about these “ordinary people doing extraordinary things for their community and the planet” as you wrote on your website?
It’s hard to choose. I loved meeting humble young Namibians in Windhoek who, in order to make some money on the side of studies, were using waste materials to make beautiful products for the home. If that’s the future, I’m reassured! Cliff the Zimbabwean beekeeper who has trained hundreds if not thousands of farmers in Southern Africa to produce honey, had an infectious enthusiasm for bees. If he continues with his current work-rate Southern Africa will be over-run with farmers earning an income, protecting their forests and preserving biodiversity! We’re still early on in our journey - there are many more great stories still to come.
Until now, are you finding what you expected when you began this adventure?
We have met lots of very interesting people who are contributing to the sustainability of this continent - we have many more story ideas than we have time to film. We are thinking a lot about innovation: what is it, actually, and how does it happen? Genuine innovation may be harder to find than we imagined. And we’re certainly learning a lot about ourselves - what makes us stressed, what makes us come alive, and how we respond to pressures and challenges along the way. The trip has not been without a few arguments, tears, and lots of laughter too.
Is this the first “documentary cycling expedition” of a long series?
Perhaps! Our dream would be that MoJo Velo becomes an actual “thing” - as far as we know no-one’s combined these two activities in quite the same way before! MoJo Velo could become a central shared platform for cyclists who have take up journalism or journalists who have taken up cycling to share their stories. Hamish is going to University but I’m sure will keep these experiences alive as he makes decisions about his working life. After Addis, Russell is likely to cycle home to Scotland - so the Mojo Velo story is likely to continue. And I will move to Ghana so who knows - perhaps the MoJo Velo West Africa chapter will be born. We both want to use this experience to springboard into new opportunities and partnerships somewhere in the worlds of sustainability and creativity.
Continue to follow Steven, Hamish and Russell in their beautiful journey and to know the amazing stories they will document. Give them the possibility to go on telling stories about people who fight for a better place on earth. Their website is mojoveloproject.com. You can find them even on Facebook – Mojo Velo – on Instagram – mojoveloproject and on YouTube - Mojo Velo.