A grand tour of Africa? Yes

With a huge impetus from the African Union, an epic journey covering the length of the Mother Continent is going to become a practical reality in 2018.

Back in the 1600s, when Europeans were busily “discovering” lands already populated by peoples of color, well-to-do families would send their kids on on a journey through Europe lasting several months.

These weren’t extended vacations, but extensions of their formal education. The kids were expected to absorb local cultures, art, history and languages along the way — even if it meant stopping in one city or country long enough to — gasp! — take a class or two.

Now, the African Union isa putting its own spin on this practice with the official debut of the Grand Africa Tour, announced last month at the Africa Travel Association’s annual World Tourism Conference, held in Kigali, Rwanda.

In distances alone, the GAT leaves the original European version in the dust. It covers the length of the African continent, seven destinations from Cape Town to Cairo — more than 8,200 miles.

And with a total of 55 sovereign nations in Africa, there’s also an awful lot more to learn — especially for those of us on the western side of the Atlantic who have been kept in the dark — either through oversight or malicious intent —  about the reality of Africa, its natural beauty, its history and its many cultures.

The first of these tours is set to launch in October 2018.

What might you see on such a grand tour of the Mother Continent? Here are some of the possibilities listed by the African Union:

  • South Africa’s world-famous Blue Train, from which you might catch a glimpse of Table Mountain.
  •  Robben Island, where Nelson MAndela was imprisoned in isolation for 18 of hiis 27 years of incarceration, only to get the last laugh as the first president of an apartheid-free South Africa.
  • Botswana, where a safari will give you an up-close look at wildlife found nowhere else on Earth.
  • The ruggedly beautiful deserts of Nambia.
  • Zimbabwe, home to the Zambezi River and to Great Zimbabwe, the largest ancient ruins south of the Sahara, second only to the Egyptian pyramids in size and grandeur.
  • Victoria Falls, “the smoke that thunders, so immense that it straddles two countries, Zimbabwe and Zambia.
  • The Serengeti plain, extending from Tanzania to Kenya, scene of the never-ending Great Migration.
  • Mount Kilimanjaro, “the roof of Africa,” the tallest mountain on the continent — all 19,341 feet of it.
  • Rwanda and Uganda, where you can come face-to-face with Africa’s fascinating and endangered mountain gorillas.
  • Ethiopia, home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other African country, including .
  • Spectacular religious sites, from the incredible rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Cote ‘dIvoire to the Grand Mosque of Hassan II in Morocco and the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

For those with the time, stamina and adventurous spirit, there’s already an 8,200-mile highway running the length of the Mother Continent, from Cairo on the Mediterranean Sea to Cape Town on the farthest reaches of the South Atlantic.  So theoretically, you could make this epic journey on your own, right now.

But what will make GAT unique is the direct involvement of the African Union, which mans that you won’t be on your own.

Your epic African tour will actually start in Washington DC, where you welcomed and personally briefed by H.E. Dr. Arikana Chihombori Quao, the African Union Ambassador to the United States. 

When you set out on your epic African journey, the AU will assign a continental guide who be with you for the entire tour as you roam from one country to another. In each of those countries, you will be met by a country guide giving you their personal introduction to their country and its cultures.

What makes the AU’s involvement so critical is that they will be arranging all your needed visas for you before you leave, taking an immense amount of hassle out of your trip before it even begins.

The Grand Africa Tour is meant to be but one of the steps toward that goal. Follow IBIT for more Tour details and pricing information as it becomes available. Use the form below to send in your questions about what is about to become the world’s greatest odyssey.

The driving — and I do mean driving — force behind The Grand Africa Tour is Amb. Arikana Chihombori Quao, a no-nonsense physician with ambitious goals for Africans, whether you were born on the continent or not.

One of those goals is a passport.

Dr. Arikana Chihomburi Quao, African Union ambassador to the United States
Dr. Arikana Chihomburi Quao, African Union ambassador to the United States

“I’m going to demand African passports for my Diaspora. Because we can’t be running around all over Africa looking for visas. We need an African passport.”

She also wants to create a Professional Diaspora Registry, to enable Black-owned businesses on both sides of the Atlantic to connect and cooperate on joint ventures.

“We want companies to come and talk about what they do on a platform that we have created, so we’re creating ways that Diaspora can begin to dialogue, so we can bring about these obvious marriages that need to take place that are not happening because we are so disjointed.”

The key to making these and other great things happen, she says, getting together and getting organized, because “as long as we’re talking as individuals, we’re going nowhere.

“When you’re organized, I can represent you. When you’re organized, I can speak for you. But until we start doing that, and think like that, like the rest of the ethnic groups…we’ll forever complain. We’ll come here next year and talk about the same issues. I don’t have time for that.

“So for me, it starts with unity. It starts with us coming together. It starts with us decolonizing ourselves. Us getting rid of the legacy of slavery. It’s us realizing that our sheer survival depends on us working together and looking from inside. Because we’re on our own as Black people.”

ETHIOPIA: Africa’s Jerusalem


The rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia are solid proof that Black people have always been more than “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

Lalibela is a village of maybe 30,000 souls, wedged into the steep, rugged mountains of northern Ethiopia.   If it’s not at or near the top of your bucket list of destinations, you need to stop and re-do the list.

Now.  Right now. Before you read another word. Before you take another breath. The place is that special.

It’s easy to get caught up in the history of Ethiopia. It has so much:

  • The only country in Africa never to be colonized by a European power (though not for lack of trying, specifically by the Italians).
  • Defeated a modern, invading European army (see the Battle of Adwa).
  • A dozen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any African country — and probably deserves more.

Further, as a travel destination, Northern Ethiopia has enough attractions to wear you out:

But if you have time to do justice to only one of these places, Lalibela should be the one — 11 of the world’s most extraordinary churches, each one carved down the equivalent of three to four stories into those same mountains some 900 years ago.

Full-fledged structures with artful supporting pillars and arches, all cut and chiseled from the inside out over the course of 23 years, by hand.

23 > 600
Compare that with the great European cathedrals, many of which took a century or more to erect (one, the Cologne Cathedral, took more than 600 years — and it wasn’t carved into solid rock).

So if you’re interested in architecture, you need to see these churches.

Unlike the great Egyptian pyramids, these aren’t abandoned relics. These are active churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith, and worshipers go there every day.

King Lalibela, the Ethiopian ruler who created the famed rock-hewn churches
King Lalibela

During major religious festivals like Timket and Meskel, pilgrims wearing prayer shawls of thin, white cotton may walk here over miles of stony ground — barefoot.

So if you’re interested in Ethiopian culture and Christianity, you need to see these churches.

The man who conceived these structures is also the one who gives their location its name, King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, part of the Zagwe dynasty.*

(*NOTE: For sheer drama,  Shakespeare would’ve loved Ethiopian royalty. If rival rulers weren’t trying to kill you, your ambitious relatives probably were. Lalibela’s brother and uncle forced him into exile, and a half-sister tried to poison him — all before he ever took the throne.)

Many Ethiopians traveled to the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, until Muslim Arabs captured it in 1137.  After that, Ethiopian Christian pilgrims trying to make the pilgrimage risked death.

The king’s solution — create his own Jerusalem. He chose the site — originally called Roha — organized the labor force and went to work, settling on the designs one by one, learning from each.

Once a single massive block of pink volcanic stone had been cut out from the rest of the mountain, the interior had to be carved from the top down and the inside out.  One mistake and it all would come crashing down on anyone beneath.

When it was finished, Africa had its own Jerusalem.  Now, Ethiopians had 11 mighty sanctuaries where they could freely and safely worship.

Almost a millennium later, they still do, walking for miles every day through the mountains, in all weather,  to get here.

The most iconic of the 11 is Beit Giyorgis, St. George’s church. It was the last one built, and the most impressive. It also is the only one carved in the classic shape of a crucifix.

The UN granted Lalibela’s churches World Heritage Site status in 1978. They erected gigantic canopies over several of them to shield them from the erosion of winter rains.

A somewhat less popular UN protective move was to move scores of Lalibela residents into new, modern homes, well away from the churches.  For the residents, that meant modern conveniences like running water, but a much longer –and steeper — walk to church.

Certain European pseudo-experts have suggested that Ethiopians could not have conceived, much less, built these structures themselves.  They must have had help, their theory goes, possibly from the Knights Templar.

This fanciful notion is roundly rejected by the legitimate scientific community — and virtually every living Ethiopian.

The reality is that an Ethiopian king, a Black man, conceived these churches, chose the sites, directed the design and construction.  And an army of Ethiopian craftsmen, also Black men, took his vision and made it real.

Some folks just can’t handle that idea — and they’d prefer that you not embrace it, either.

But that’s their problem.

We are descended from great people, and the seeds of their greatness remain in us, in you.  In Lalibela, that fundamental truth is literally set in stone.

Which is why, if you are a Black American — or a Black anyone — you need to see these churches. Your children and your grandchildren need to see them, be inspired by them, and know that these miracles of faith and architecture are part of their DNA.

So the next time someone tries to make you feel lesser than you truly are, you won’t need to repay insult with injury. Just point them the way to Lalibela.

Getting to Lalibela means flying to Ethiopia.  Several international airlines fly to the capital, Addis Ababa.  The national flag carrier, Ethiopian Airlines, is Africa’s largest airline, and highly respected worldwide.

You reach Lalibela by road or air.  The drive from  Addis will take 13 hours to two days, and is recommended by almost no one.

The flight from Addis  takes two hours, with a stop in Bahir Dar or Gondar (the return flight is non-stop.) From the airport, it’s a short, gorgeous mountain drive to Lalibela.

Hotels in Lalibela are Motel 6-basic, but if you can score a balcony room, you may not care.

The site is open daily 6 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is US$50 for adults and $25 for children ages 9-13. Your ticket is good for five days, so no need to try to see all 11 churches at once.

Get yourself in shape — and your kids’ behavior in shape — before you visit. This site is 8,500 feet above sea level, long on climbs and uneven stone steps — and  short on guardrails.

A good guide can make your visit unforgettable. A bad one can ruin it. Go to the Lalibela tourist office and hire a licensed guide. They may cost you between 200-400 Ethiopian birr per day —  roughly $9-18.

Tours of historic Ethiopia — including Lalibela — are available through Trips by Greg LLC. For more information, contact us as info@tripsbygreg.com

Africa: The Brazilian Connection

The flow of culture between The Mother Continent and South America’s largest country runs both ways.

Wherever you set foot there and for as long as you live, Africa will always find ways to amaze and surprise you.

The latest surprise to me came as I was preparing information on a nine-day tour next year to the West African nation of Guinea-Bissau.

Adventure? The country boasts pristine forests, wild rivers, unspoiled beaches, the world’s largest continuous line of mangrove forest.

Culture? Try the Bijagos Islands, an archipelago of 88 islands, of which only  20 are inhabited. Because of their isolation, the tribal culture there has survived into the 21st century intact.

But this was what stopped me in my proverbial tracks: “Carnival is the main festivity in Guinea Bissau.”

We’re actually talking here about Carnaval. As in the Carnaval of Brazil.

Say what?

The African roots of Brazil’s biggest cultural festival are a well-established fact. But those roots have reached back across the Atlantic all the way rto Africa — some by choice, some not.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade took more captive Africans  to Brazil than anywhere else, upwards of 4 million over three centuries, many of whom were Muslims of the Yoruba and Hausa peoples.

It must have a been a bizarre relationship — West Africans, often Muslims literate in Arabic, being worked and brutalized by slaveholders who often couldn’t read or write in their native Portuguese.

Some fled into the jungles to form Maroon communities called quilombos. Others rebelled, most notably the Malê Revolt of 1835.

The revolt was crushed, and the open practice of Islam eradicated. Many of the surviving rebels were deported to West Africa.

Over time,  many Brazilian slaveowners — for commercial more than moral reasons — opted to free their slaves. Slavery in Brazil ended altogether in 1888 — partly in fear of another Malê Revolt.

Many of the newly freed remained in Brazil and develop today’s rich heritage of Afro-Brazilian culture. Others returned to their ancestral homelands.

Some returned to Nigeria, where they remain as both Africans and Brazilians to this day.  Others went to countries like Guinea-Bissau.

(At the same time, there are significant numbers of native-born Angolans, whose ancestors were a major source of enslaved Africans from Brazil to Louisiana, who today are opting to migrate to Brazil.  )

So around the time that Carnaval is being celebrated on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Salvador, Bahia, you’ll find similar celebrations going on in Afro-Brazilian communities up and down the coast of West Africa…including in Guinea-Bissau.

For more information on that, and other cultural tours in Africa, visit  Trips by Greg.