Francis Tapon is a globetrotter, best-selling author, videographer and speaker. In December 2016 – January 2017 Francis and his wife Rejoice travelled through the Gorilla Highlands of Rwanda and Uganda, on a quest to visit all countries of Africa.
Where does your love for Africa come from?
Africa for me was just a piece of the puzzle and the puzzle was the planet. I wanted to go to every single country in the world as a way to really understand humanity, nature and everything there is on the planet to know.
By 2000 I had been to over 70 countries but not Africa. At first I thought I would do Africa in a single year. I bought a map of Africa and put it in my room. I stared at it for 10 years, saying to myself each day that I’d see all the 54 African countries. But as I thought about it more deeply, I understood that If I were to spend a year in Africa, it’d be barely a week for each country. I knew the true size of the continent which a lot of people don’t even realise, so I extended the trip to three years to make it three weeks per country.
In March 2013 I began the journey, starting off with Morrocco where I spent three months and not three weeks as I had planned. A year into the trip I realised that I needed five weeks per country, capping the African trip at five years.
When and how did this whole travelling idea form?
That was in 2001, during my first long walk of 3,000 km, on the Appalachian Trail on the East Coast of the United States. While on this trail I wondered what I would do if had a billion dollars. At that point I was working in Silicon Valley, with a Harvard MBA ready to ride high into the corporate world and join the start-up environment to make millions. But then I asked myself what I was going to do after earning the money…
Would I continue to work in Silicon Valley like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, billionaires who stay in the world of technology, regardless of whether they are paid a lot or little? The more I thought about the billion dollar question the more I realised that Silicon Valley wasn’t for me. Travelling was the thing I loved.
So while on the Appalachian Trail, I came to a decision that my Silicon Valley job would be the means to this end. I kept on working for the next four years.
Why did you do the Appalachian Trail?
I had been involved in a robotics company and it was becoming boring. I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I thought that the trail would give me time to think about the decision I would take for my future. It proved to be a gateway drug for me. It became so addictive that in the end I hiked the Pacific Trail which is 4,000 km, then I followed it up with a 9,000 km round trip from Mexico to Canada then back to the US, walking for seven months in the wild alone. This is something I have found many Africans don’t understand. In the West, we go into the wilderness to get away from people, including those we love, just to focus on what we want to do with our lives.
How do you finance your travels?
I saved up a lot of money from my Silicon Valley job, living like a student. With a six figure salary, I led a very simple life. I lived in a 600- dollar room next to the Microsoft campus while my annual salary was 200,000 dollars. All this time I’d cycle to work, and cook my own food.
I invested the money I saved into the stock market and grew it very fast into what I call F*** Y** money. Then I wrote two books that continue to generate small amounts of money, about 500 dollars a month, which supplements my budget. But I have to be frank with you, for the last 10 years I have spent more than I make.
When did you meet your wife Rejoice?
I met her on the trip to Cameroon in January 2015. We connected online through a social app called Badoo.
I never really thought I would marry an African woman because of my love for backpacking and little interest in having children, both unpopular positions for most African women don’t generally like.
I have walked across America four times but on all those occasions I don’t remember meeting any black person hiking. I think regardless of where you go, black people share some things in common. For example, when they go on vacation, they want comfort.
So when I met Rejoice, I thought we’d just have fun for a few weeks and then continue on our own paths. But that wasn’t the case. As I got to know her, I really started falling in love with her and learned that she was not a typical African woman.
Another thing that is not common in Africa is Rejoice’s love for reading. Many Africans themselves, whether I was in Togo or Zambia, told me that if you want to hide anything from an African you put it in a book.
You have been disconnected from your profession for quite some time, how easy will it be for you to reconnect when you decide to go back?
You see, today’s travel is not like Dr. Livingstone’s travels. Today I’m so connected that I email my mom every day about my adventures.
What have been your highlights travelling Africa? What have been your favorite countries?
I tend to like deserts and open spaces. The deserts are clean and beautiful. I love places like Mali, Niger, Namibia and I saw a little bit of Chad.
Whenever I go to a new country, I am interested in three things: the city, the village and the highest mountain.
What do you make of Rwanda and Uganda?
Well, they are definitely different. Rwanda is an interesting experiment going on. It is unlike anything else I have seen in Africa, especially Kigali. It gives me great hope, though I am sceptical about how deep the change really is.
There is one thing about Africa… A lot of people—Africans, whites, anybody—will blame African problems on geography, racism, bad leadership, colonialism. But the most profound issue I see is the Africans themselves: their culture, their values, their way of being. Africans are part of the reason why their continent is the way it is. They don’t care enough to change what’s around them. And I see those traits everywhere on the African continent. They don’t value time as much as other societies, they care more about their families and tribes, they don’t see the larger community.
But for Rwanda this is different. I see people trying to forget that they are Hutus or Tutsis. They are not doing a 100% job, everybody still knows they are Hutu or Tutsi and they probably will at least for another century, but they are definitely making an effort to try to become Rwandans first.
And secondly, everyone in Rwanda follow the law. A police officer stopped me and did not ask for a bribe; he just told me not to overspeed.
Rwandans at all levels of society, from President Kagame all the way down to the lowly policeman and villager, seem to have a different mindset and set of values than most Africans do.
And speaking more generally, East Africa and Southern Africa are certainly more developed than Central and Western Africa, by far and in every metric.
Is there is anything you’d wish to tell a young African?
To me, Africa is a land of opportunity. I’d be blunt here: a lot of Africans are more lazy, and less intellectually curious than the average European or American, but this presents a wonderful opportunity. Because if you are hardworking and you go to Silicon Valley, good luck. There are a lot of hardworking, smart people there and you are just another person, a nobody. But if you are hardworking and intelligent in Africa, you can really do some amazing things.
And so, the challenges of Africa are also its benefits. Africa is a very communal society and nobody ends up starving.
The bottom line is, if I were a young person here, read like crazy, learn a lot, be an entrepreneur, do things pole pole (little by little) and grow them. Have a long-term vision because other Africans suffer from short-term mentality. They want something now, instead of building for the future.
If you have those long-term values and a good working ethic, you can really do well on this continent and get rich more easily than anywhere else in the world.
interview: Enock Luyonza and Miha Logar; photo: Enock Luyonza and Francis Tapon’s personal archive
Gorilla Highlands blog essentials: