MULTIPLICITY 2019: Meet The Man Who Walked Across Africa

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For our third speaker, we welcome adventurer and explorer Mario Rigby. Mario’s most recent adventure involved a 2 year, 12,000 kilometer across the entire continent of Africa. We couldn’t be more excited to have him for our signature event MULTIPLICITY. Get your tickets here and read the article to get excited for Mario’s talk. -ML

Hi, Mario! Tell us about yourself.

My name is Mario Rigby and I am an explorer. The last expedition I did was crossing Africa. It took me two and a half years and spanned over 12,000 kilometers.

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I’m sure much of the audience is thinking the same thing…why walk across Africa?

I was raised on adventures in the outdoors. My stepfather, he was in the military and he always wanted his kids to go out and explore the world. He was really into a minimalistic lifestyle, and travel was always in my blood—it was something we were raised into. Every Sunday we used to watch the Discovery Channel, so travel and adventure was something that was always close to us. I think it’s important for families to do that—go back to nature and the natural world. I think that’s important to understand because then you can ask—where do I fit in?

My whole life I had been working as a fitness instructor which was great, but something was kind of missing. I didn’t have a full grasp on what I really wanted to do with my life, and that was to explore the world, go to remote places, and meet people who most don’t have the opportunity to meet, and be able to share those experiences in a way that is authentic and also represents the people in the truest form.

Why Africa?

I chose Africa for many reasons. I think it is one of the most spectacular places in the world. The diverse ecosystem, the ethnic groups, and the terrain is all over the place. You can find some of the greatest lakes, rivers, mountains—it’s kind of all there. Then you have these animals that are spectacular. Game animals like the lions, buffalo, rhino and so on. So I asked myself, what’s the most exciting place you can go to in terms of wildlife, terrain, and Africa was that. But I also wanted to trace back my ancestral lineage. I’m not talking about ancestral lineage in the last 500 years, but in the last 20-70,000 years when humans first decided to leave Africa and expand to the rest of the world. I wanted to retrace those footsteps in eastern Africa, where we believe it all started.

At one point, Mario switched to Kayak to paddle across Lake Malawi, the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world. Photo: Mario Rigby

Those are some pretty good reasons. What surprised you most on your walk?

A lot of things that I found is that there is a big difference between how people in the west think in terms of sharing culture. That’s really prevalent in eastern Africa in terms of the their ability to share whatever resources they have in a very ecological way. The same way that during a drought, zebras and lions would share one particular pond and they wouldn’t fight each other because they know they are both a necessity in the circle of life. So, you know it’s funny how that was the case finding that throughout Africa.

In the West, we have the opposite. We are trained and learn how to make wealth, but not how to make community. This was one thing that surprised me a lot about what we see in the mainstream media about the state of Africa and all that kind of stuff. But you know there are 54 countries and they are all in different states and phases of development. There are places that are even more developed than say, Toronto in some things. For example, renewable energy in Rwanda is a lot better than in Toronto. They just banned plastic completely, made it illegal. Their streets, everything is very clean. All of that surprised me. The community based lifestyle, as well as their push for a cleaner future. And not only because they want a clean future, but because renewable and sustainable energy for them is the way to go.

The global narrative usually leads to us thinking Africa is behind in a lot of aspects. But it sounds like there is a lot they can teach us as well?

One hundred percent. I came into Africa thinking with my university degree I can influence or teach a few villages a couple things, but it was definitely the opposite way around. I was the one who learned the lessons: Whether that be lessons of life, lessons about whether I want to make the maximum profit, or the maximum richness in life.

What was it like walking into a random village in Africa? How did people receive you?

Depending on what village or tribe, or kind of cultural backgound I walked into, people would treat me differently. I never really encountered bad scenarios except for a few situations with authorities. When it came to the general public, I basically never had to raise a finger. Never really had to raise my voice, it was an incredibly peaceful walk besides all the things happening with wildlife, environment and authorities. In general, the people were really kind.

There were times where I would walk into a village and people would be completely scared. They wouldn’t know what to think of me because I’m not the colonial looking white man who typically does the backpacking across these countries. So when they see a black man, they can get confused sometimes. The best way to treat hostility is by avoidance—or putting me in jail. I had an Italian friend walk with me while in Malawi, I was kayaking and I was a few days ahead of him. This one time I was arrested and I was put in jail, and they had such hostility towards me that I was in handcuffs the entire time I was there—a few days. I’m in jail with other inmates, so Francesca my Italian friend shows up and he just says “You have my friend, you need to free him” and within minutes they freed me because of his word. So there is still this colonial complex which is very harsh and a bad reality. It basically teaches local Africans that if you aren’t the way your master or who used to be your master is, then you aren’t worth anything. So there is this battle right now in Africa between converting to a Western society, or do we want to keep Africa the way it is but take advantage of the technological advances the West has created.

The local people were both fascinated, and intimidated by Rigby. Photo: Mario Rigby

It sounds like that cultural barrier was pretty strong. How would you compare navigating cultural differences to the language barrier?  Where did the communication breakdowns come from?

I would say the biggest communication breakdowns wasn’t necessarily the language, but the way people express themselves. For instance, if you go to most parts of eastern Africa, you can hold hands with other men and it is shown as a sign of endearment and friendship. But you wouldn’t see men holding hands with women. When I was in Mozambique, a police officer took my pinky finger and started swinging it. That was my sign that I was like “Ok, he’s not gonna arrest me”.

In Ethiopia, strangers would feed you. I had women literally put a handful of food in my mouth. That came as a surprise, but in that tribe it was a sign of endearment. I feel like with language you can always do sign language, or learn the fundamentals of a certain language. That was never the issue. The barrier was learning what the right thing to do was—like not shaking a womans hand in public in Sudan—that could lead to dire consequences for the woman.

Here’s a tough one: What was your best and worst day on the trip?

Wow, that’s pretty intense. I think there might have been two occasions that were my worst days. One day in South Africa I was walking along the dirt road, and it was about 40 degrees Celsius and the walk seemed like it was going on forever. I don’t typically use time as a form of measurement because it can be self-defeating. I remember just walking and walking and the sun just wouldn’t go down. Eventually, boredom became pain. Boredom is a pain receptor and when it hits you hard, it can really hit you hard. It was so aggravating that all you do is scream and talk really loudly to yourself. Another time I had hundreds of leeches on my foot. I was on my kayak in lake Malawi and I was having a lunch break and I put my feet down on the shore and 30 minutes later I was covered in leeches. They were the tiny ones that stuck their heads into your skin, and I had to spend over 2 hours trying to peel them off.

I guess my best moment was waking up on my last day in Cairo after my last walk, and waking up the next morning and looking at the pyramids of Giza. I was staying at this hotel that had the best view of all of them. I woke up and I was just like wow, I made it here by foot. It was the most astounding feeling—how did I just accomplish this? That was a moment of human pride mostly—the fact that we have the ability to do that as humans.


Multiplicity 2019

It seems like a lot of the world is disconnected from the cultural diversity of Africa. Did you feel like you started to grasp that diversity, or is that far away?

I definitely think there is much more to explore. There’s still central and west Africa that I need to explore. If you look at the north side of Africa, it’s so completely different, the cultures and traditions, the way the people are. Ethiopia itself is so completely different—the cradle of mankind is in Ethiopia. One of the oldest skulls was found there. You can find the origin of religion in Egypt—it predates Christianity. You’re looking at this stuff, then you go to eastern Africa where there is all these different languages and different tribes,  like the Masai tribe that basically are quite nomadic. There are over 4000 tribes and as many languages as well alive in Africa today. It’s crazy we put it into a category that is one country, because there are more tribes, languages, ethnic groups, and races, than Europe times 10.

So, there is so much—some countries are desert, some are jungle and forest, some mostly a lake. Malawi is half lake. Some places are like the Netherlands—Rwanda has turned around from the genocide and has become the example of what Africa can be if we put the right resources together.

I think mainstream media hasn’t taken Africa seriously in North America in the way it should. The population of Africa is rising quite rapidly—by 2100 it is predicted to be four billion , that’s quite a large number. It will be one of the most populated continents on the planet. Africans will make up the majority of humans on the planet at some point. That’s all because of the natural process of how countries and continents go from agricultural societies to modern industrial societies. England went through the same phase where it was agricultural, then all of a sudden there were some discoveries found because they took ideas from China and Egypt, and then the Roman Empire built upon that and there was a explosion of population. They populated so rapidly that a 3rd of the population died because of diseases they couldn’t handle. In effect, all these counties go through the same process, and Africa just happens to be the last continent on the planet to go through the process from agricultural to first world. I think that has a unique opporuntity to skip the 1, 2nd and 3rd industrial revolution and go straight into the fourth revolution which means a sharing economy, using clean renewable energy as opposed to coal and oil, and creating infrastructures that are futuristic.

If you go to a Hamer tribe, one of the most remote tribes in Africa, you can go there and every person there has a high-tech smartphone. Imagine, they completely skipped the cordless phones and went right to smart phones. So, you can imagine what the next iteration is going to be. These people are going to progress so rapidly and so quickly that it will kind of throw a lot of people off.

How did your views of the western world change when you came back?

My perspective obviously lies in what is more important: A new pair of shoes or doing something for the greater cause? But you also have to put yourself in balance, you can’t constantly compare one to the other because it will drive you crazy. My first experience coming back to Toronto someone would tell me “Oh I gotta get my nails done, and I’m thinking “Wow, but people need drinking water!”

That is an attitude that won’t get you anywhere. I had to get back into my Toronto lifestyle and think how can I utilize what I know to help. Humanity. It’s not just about Africa, but also the entire world. What we put into the atmosphere affects climate change in places like Malawi, and Rwanda and these people are suffering because of us in a sense. Climate change is happening so rapidly that humanity doesn’t have time to catch up with new ways of coping with it. This is quite unique and we need to put responsibility on ourselves and try to find solutions for it. The longer we say we aren’t responsible, the more we exasperate the issue. So right now, my focus, like my project EVA is to promote a more sustainable future, and think of way we can do it so that people will invest, and the youth will want to.

Africa as a whole is rich in culture and tradition—but what will the future bring? Photo: Mario Rigby

Wow. Sounds like the opportunities are endless—so what’s next for Mario Rigby?

The next project I’m doing is called Project Eva. A team and I will be the first people to drive an electric vehicle around Africa. Our circumnavigation should take about one year. The reason we are doing this Is to show that renewable energy, and specifically the electrification of vehicles is the way to go and it is superior to gasoline. While we drive we will install solar panels for schools around Africa while partnering with local companies. That project requires a ton of  logistics and effort , and I am also currently writing a book on walking across Africa, and producing a documentary as well.

Sounds busy! We can’t wait to have you out for MULTIPLICITY—can you give a preview of what your talk will be about?

Basically it will mainly be around my experiences through Africa, and some funny anecdotes, and all the crazy stuff that happened like getting shot at by rebels, but also not losing focus of the fact that it was a human mission—to push the limits and boundaries of what a human being can do, and using myself as an example for that. I hope what I did can reflect on other people and the spirit of humanity.