As someone who has yet to master more than sitting awkwardly on the back of a motorbike for a 4 day trip in northern Vietnam, I was immediately in awe of Arianna Meschia. This is a woman who uprooted her life in England to move to Malawi, then did it once again when she set off on an 8,000 kilometre motorbike journey through Eastern Africa. Yet it wasn’t only her own narrative that captivated me. It was the nuanced narratives of those she met along the way and how she shares these uplifting stories we too infrequently get to hear about many of the countries in East Africa. Countless stories and two burnt knees later, Arianna (virtually) sat down with me to share her own story, and it’s one you don’t want to miss.
Arianna started her bold adventure in 2017. Recovering from heartbreak, stressed out with her job and life in London, she took a deep breath and booked a one-way ticket from England to Malawi. Then she held that same breath for the reaction of her Italian family.
“From an Italian perspective to say I’m going to give this up and do something else, they think it’s crazy!”
Arianna, however, had done her research and was prepared for this wild adventure. She set herself up in a volunteer position for 6 months in Malawi with an organization she knew firsthand was doing impactful and legitimate work. She had first visited Malawi in 2015 and it had changed her perspective entirely.
“I think actually stepping outside of Europe was massive. To see that you were a tiny part of things. I knew it on a rational, intellectual level, but I learned it on an emotional level a lot more. And so I think that’s why Malawi stayed in my heart so much. It was the first place where I had that understanding.
It helps that Malawi is an absolute gem of a place. There is a lake, stunning mountains, loads of hikes, safari, and it is a lot cheaper than a lot of other African destinations because it is still very much off the radar. Recently there have been a few bits of rioting and unrest around elections held in May and accusations of meddling with the results. But it’s the first instance of widespread political violence since the end of the dictatorship in ‘94. They are really peaceful people. Really, really helpful. There’s a real wanting to help out and making sure the guest has a good experience in Malawi. Malawians themselves call Malawi ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’. That’s the nickname the country has gotten.”
After basing herself in Malawi for 6 months, she began to look at what she really wanted to do longer term career-wise. What she wanted her own narrative to be.
“I was going around finding stories to write on my blog. These quirky little stories, there are plenty of them out there. I didn’t have a particular aim, I just wanted to share what I saw, what I experienced. And I found that’s really what I wanted to do. Going off and finding people’s stories. Reports on real people living real lives.
In the African context I think that’s even more important because most of what you see about the African narrative is poverty, dictatorships, terrorism, and immigration. Whereas there are a million things happening in African countries that do not pertain to any of those categories. I guess in a way my little contribution, and this is something I am still working on, is trying to share these little stories as widely as possible.
So I thought obviously my blog is all well and good, there’s probably 20 people reading it I don’t know, but let’s try to do something better than that. That’s why I’m now trying to make travel writing work.”
This desire to find and share new narratives coincided with her decision to set off on a not so small overland adventure. She would travel from Malawi to Egypt on a motorbike with her South African boyfriend for four months.
“From Southern Malawi where we started to the end in Alexandria, Egypt, was according to Google Maps, 7,962 km, close to 8,000 km. But definitely we travelled more. There’s back and forth and getting lost. By the end I was quite fed up of being on a motorbike! It was 47 degrees most of the time in Sudan. We had to travel between 3 or 4 in the morning until 8 or 9 in the morning. By 5am the light would start to come up, by 6 the sun was over the horizon, and by 7 it was 38 degrees. You’re wearing a helmet and bike jacket and it’s very hot.
It was my own fault as well, I didn’t have the appropriate clothing. I was wearing just black tight jeans. I burnt my knees through my trousers. It was quite painful. I definitely went into it without analyzing things massively. I didn’t consider the heat that much.”
What do you find when you motorbike through Eastern Africa? Not what we would be led to believe, Arianna shared with me. The stories that people had shared with her inspired her and they shaped her desire to tell them even more.
“Bad news sells. If you sit at home and watch the news, you’ll think it’s the apocalypse. That we’re destroying ourselves. When actually that is one thing happening, and then there is the complete opposite of that and there are plenty of examples that just haven’t been shared as much.
In Ethiopia I had an interview with an amazing 96-year-old woman who was basically the first fashion designer in Ethiopia back in the ‘60s. She had her own fashion label and 20 men sewing for her. She was like an absolute feminist icon. We met at an event. That was it!
I go up to someone if I find their story amazing and just tell them. I don’t know if it will go anywhere, but I ask them if they want to have a chat.”
But what about the bad news? I asked her if she had any dicey experiences on her journey.
“For the most part it was really okay. There was a tiny, tiny bomb scare in Giza the following day after we went. There was a device that exploded and shattered the glass of a tourist bus and as a result 25, South Africans I think, got really scared. No one got hurt. That happened the day after we’d been there. At that point everything becomes very real. You become super aware.
I think it’s super important we don’t let them take over our lives because these things happen very rarely. Most days there are no terrorist attacks. This puts things in perspective – in the 7 or 8 years I lived in London there were 3 or 4 terrorist attacks, something like that. You have to be aware about things that could happen and make sure you don’t put yourself specifically in the situation where those things could happen. Obviously no one could predict a terrorist attack. But you can’t let things stop you from living the life you want to lead.”
So after 8,000km, two burnt knees, and countless stories shared with her of real people living real lives, what has Arianna learned about human nature?
“As much as you don’t like to think you’re the center of your world, you are the center of your world in a way. It’s normal. We’re human beings. We like to be happy. And every one of us does different things that make us happy or fulfilled. But when you travel you understand that everyone is doing just that. Everyone is trying to get along day by day, doing the best they can.”
Arianna isn’t planning to stop anytime soon on her quest for stories. She will be joining her boyfriend in South Africa at the end of October and plans to do more travelling and story hunting there. While I can’t begin to predict who she’ll meet along the way, I know without a doubt the stories she finds will continue to help us challenge the narratives we’ve come to expect.
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