Tour d’Afrique, COVID-19 and A Sputnik Moment
“The answer is dreams.. Dreaming on and on. Entering the world of dreams and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time.” – Haruki Murakami
It was on October 4th, 1957 when the first ever object, an artificial satellite, left Planet Earth and went on a little voyage around the world. Sputnik, which in Russian means ‘travelling companion’, orbited the planet for two months, most of it in total silence – as its batteries went dead after three weeks. This event ignited tremendous anxiety and fear in the Western World and prompted the Americans into a hyperventilating activity. As Roger Launius, curator of the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution put it “a ‘Sputnik moment’ is a trigger mechanism, an event that makes people collectively say that they need to do something, and this sets a course in another direction.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 epidemic I have comes across several articles in connection to the virus where the authors discus the epidemic as a Sputnik Moment, a possible transformation in health, climate change, the US relationship with China and others. I am not a visionary, a futurist nor a pundit who makes a living from predicting the future so I have no idea what kind of Sputnik moments (i.e. societal changes) are in store for us, whether in six months or in a decade. I do, however, recall my personal Sputnik moment- a moment when I realized I need to do something and set my course in different direction.
I was in the atrium of the headquarters of the World Bank in Washington DC, as a finalist in a worldwide competition called Marketplace of Ideas. I was competing with another 150 or so ‘do-gooder entrepreneurs’ for a piece of the US$5 million prize to be distributed to what World Bank judges deemed the best projects to make an impact on the poorest and the most vulnerable people in developing countries. I was there with an idea for a project of ecological development and a community revolving fund in partnership with the indigenous hunters of the Kalahari Desert. It was five months after the 9/11 attacks and I knew that the chances of my project receiving funds were slim, as part of the project was depended on tourism flourishing, less likely at that point in time.
And so it was. I had just turned 50 and had spent almost 20 years being a ‘do-gooder’. I was burned-out, my bank account was empty and I was no longer suitable for being an engineer, a profession I originally trained for. When the winners were announced and my project was not one of them, I knew it was time for a change to how I lived and what I did – it was my ‘Sputnik Moment’.
It was time to cycle from Cairo to Cape Town, an idea I originally thought of as part of another ‘do-gooder’ project that did not materialize, to produce a cheap and rugged mountain type bicycle for Africa for personal transport and for moving cargo. It was time, to quote Murakami, to ‘enter the world of dreams and never come out’.
In a recent email a potential future participant wrote: “Not sure why I’m sending you this note, except to say that I have wanted to do the Tour d’Afrique trip for 10 years. … So exciting!” “No better way to see the world than by bike, right? Well, thank you for creating opportunities for people like me to experience the world. I’m looking forward to seeing you in 2022. Actually, I think sometimes the anticipation is a big part of the thrill of going. I’m already visualizing the trip.”
It seems that her ‘Sputnik moment’ has arrived. All I can say is that I hope there are many out there who, whatever their life changes will be, use the experience of COVID-19 to do what they have been dreaming of. Because, as another fellow traveller from Russia, the Nobel Prize winner for literature Ivan Bunin said, “No matter how much sadness there may be in this unfathomable world, it remains wonderful.”
And yes, indeed there is no better way to see this wonderful world than by bicycle.