Biking through Africa
Christian Ghammachi has guts. The Beirut-born photographer, who lives in the UAE, isn’t satisfied with simple still-life shots. In the pursuit of art and self-discovery, he undertook a 19,000km solo journey through Africa, from Cape Town to Djibouti, on a motorbike.
The resulting pictures are part of an incredible exhibition, Mzungu, The Aimless Wanderer, showing at La Galerie Nationale, from May 25. We spoke to him to find out the story that unfolded behind the lens.
What inspired you to make the journey across Africa on a motorbike?
A combined passion for traveling, Africa, photography and desire to help out, mainly with wildlife conservation and charity work for children.
It must have involved a lot of preparation?
With the assistance of friends and family, I spent about 6 months planning the route, studying the requirements in each country for visas, motorbike documents, vaccines etc.
I also did two test runs. The first was a road trip across Namibia, camping every night, to make sure it wasn’t just a nice, mystified idea and that I wouldn’t be able to handle. The second was travelling through South Africa with a dear friend of mine on motorbikes. I took the opportunity to shoot a pilot for the documentary I planned to shoot during my crossing of Africa, Two Wheels Across.
What kind of challenges did you face on the way?
Some of the roads were difficult, either because they were sand, corrugated, muddy, or flooded. Finding shelter on time was a challenge a few times as well. I also got sick, mainly because of what I had eaten.
We can imagine a trip like that having some scary moments! Did you get into any difficulty?
My first attempt was aborted after I crashed in the middle of the desert because of deep sand I hadn’t seen. I dislocated my shoulder and the bike suffered great damage. The road I was on saw very scarce traffic, I had no GSM signal and no satellite coverage. It could have been catastrophic but I was very fortunate to have an old South African couple pass by in their pickup truck. They had a radio and were able to call for help. It took me a while to lick my wounds, fix the bike, and muster the courage to try again.
Of the 16 African countries you visited, which was your favourite?
I get asked the same question often and always find trouble answering. I love each and every one of the countries I crossed, and each for different reasons. South Africa probably still hold the first place, but I am biased because I lived in Cape Town for a while and have amazing South African friends.
What did you set out to demonstrate through these images?
That there is something very powerful about the strength and resilience of people who have very little material things yet seem happier than many. I also wanted to show Africa to those who don’t know it, other than through the lenses of media, and therefore only see conflict and danger, which is far from reality. I never, for one second, felt unsafe.
Did this trip across Africa teach you anything?
I learned that trusting your gut is crucial. When something doesn’t feel right, it usually is not; I understood that when you are unhappy and you can’t explain why, it is because you are not where you are meant to be, and by the same token, if you are happy and feel light, it is because you are where you are supposed to be, doing what you are supposed to be doing.
I learned to face my fears, and conquer them, be it by jumping off a bridge, free falling for 114 meters and swinging, or by finding myself face to face with a gorilla muck charging me and keeping my cool, or at least the appearance!
Why did you call the exhibition Mzungu?
MZUNGU is a very common word in Africa, used by the locals and means “white man”. It originates from the time of the first white men arriving in Africa and also meant “he who wanders without purpose”, which is why the show is called MZUNGU, the Aimless Wanderer.
I was called Mzungu throughout my journey. It ended up feeling like a term of endearment, especially considering the number of children who called out my adopted name as I rode across the continent.The title of the show is my way of winking back at them and remembering them with great affection.