Books & Literature

Interview: Pamela Watson: Adventurer, Entrepreneur & Humanitarian

Pamela Watson

We caught up with the extraordinary Pamela Watson, an ex-pat who embodies courage, joie de vivre, and the willingness to say ‘yes’ to any opportunity that life offers her.

Pamela Watson is an Aussie adventurer, entrepreneur, author and humanitarian who embodies courage, joie de vivre, and the willingness to say ‘yes’ to any opportunity that life offers her.

She worked extensively for over three decades in Europe and Africa as a strategy and change management consultant. She fell in love with Africa and has travelled to 32 of Africa’s 54 nations. She has backpacked the length of the White Nile and undertook an 18-month solo 14,500 km bicycle journey from west to east Africa in the early 1990s. Her account of that epic cycling adventure is told in the bestselling Esprit de Battuta: Alone Across Africa on a Bicycle, re-released by Hardie Grant Books last month.

On a recent tour of Australia to promote her book, we caught up with Pamela for lengthy chat, asking her how she would describe herself amongst all those labels.

I’ve had a lot of labels, and they all apply. The trouble with labels is that we create them for ourselves (or have them created for us by our studies and work). Then we limit our aspirations and how we behave to conform within their stereotype. I am a human being with wide interests and passions, I enjoy the unexpected and get bored if things become too predictable.

I run my life as a series of projects and am prepared to take on the unknown and untried. For those reasons, I think the labels that are “truest” for me are adventurer and explorer. I love to understand and be challenged out of my own way of seeing and thinking, whether on a bicycle by villagers or in a social enterprise by my employees. Sometimes the consequences of that exploration change me, surprise me, even hurt me – but that is my drug of choice.

I started out as a management consultant, specialised in strategy, working for large private sector enterprises helping them with investment decisions. To get my career to Africa (where I wanted to be), in the late 80s I took a turn into privatisation work in Madagascar and east Africa. It exposed me to the world of international politics, aid and development. I saw a game being played in which the interests of those employed by a parastatal or their shareholders – the people – were not a priority of either donors or governments. It was depressing. That was when I realised that the private sector with 2-5 year time horizons was my spiritual home. Eventually, I also discovered that my impatience for change in Africa, for improving the options for women and for creating livelihoods could only be harnessed as a for-profit and social impact entrepreneur.

You spent the late 1990s on a marathon 15,000km through seventeen countries in Africa. What makes someone decide to embark on that sort of journey?

Honestly, it was a mid-life crisis, come early. Dissatisfied with privatisation work in Africa, in my early 30s I returned to mainstream strategy consulting in London and worked extremely hard. Professional women still faced a glass ceiling and when one of my most senior female colleagues was overlooked for a well-deserved promotion, my female colleagues and myself wondered at our choices. Within six months, most women had left that firm. During that period, I wondered what had happened to the person who had backpacked down the Nile. I wanted excitement, freedom and time to explore. One rainy evening, I attended a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society by a man who had cycled the length of South America. A lightbulb went on; I would cycle across Africa! My mind was made up. It seemed a small detail that I had not actually done any cycle touring before.

Did it change you or your perceptions of Africa?

Absolutely. I had broader shoulders so that my business suits didn’t fit anymore! Otherwise, I couldn’t see a difference. However, within weeks, I made different choices about how I spent my time and who I mixed with. I never went back to the consulting career ladder, and that marked the beginning of my entrepreneurial career – firstly back to Australia, then to Ghana, and then to the biggest and most challenging megacity of all: Lagos, Nigeria.

Lagos from the air
Lagos from the air

My perceptions of Africa changed more noticeably as I rode through the continent. How could one not notice that rural women were constantly working in the fields, in the markets and in the homes, while during the day many men drank palm wine under a shady tree? When I enquired of one man resting with his friends: “What do the men do here?” I was told: “We make decisions!” During my ride, I learnt that women are the backbone of Africa, and despite many efforts to improve their position, after a quarter of a century, most are still waiting for access to running water, let alone access to power, wealth and decision-making.

As I struggled up muddy mountain roads in rainy season Cameroon, one evening during this time, I stayed with villagers and was led to a mountain stream to bathe. My host apologised for my bath in the cold spring water then added: “This land is so bad – the slopes are too steep, it is hard to farm.” These villagers knew there was a better life than that in the villages.

Africans are now investing their hopes in better lives and livelihoods. There is nothing romantic about village life; I learnt that during my ride.

Many people in Australia have a view of Africa as a last frontier still to be tamed. Did you find this was the case?

Africa is 30 million square kilometres – nearly four times as big as Australia! It is also the second most densely populated continent – although that density also varies widely. There is no single African wilderness, and it is certainly not to be tamed.

Africa has a long human history. The Rift Valley is still considered the birthplace of homo sapiens, and each region has sophisticated and complex history, culture and trading relationships. Ibn Battuta, after whom I named my first book, was a 14th century Moroccan who, during his 28 years of European, Asian, Middle East and African exploration, travelled into West Africa and down the coast of East Africa. He visited sophisticated and wealthy trading nations and religious centres and probably knew more about the diversity of Africa than many outsiders today.

Africa has been reduced into clichés: in the 1800s to serve colonial and religious expansion, in the 1900s to serve the Cold War, and then various interests such as the tourism, international aid, development businesses, and other vested interests like the modern leaders who wish to stay in power.

That said, the combination of rapid and unconstrained population growth across the continent and poverty, continues to put pressure on different kinds of wilderness, to the point where in some parts of Africa there is little true wilderness left.

When I started my journey, I was anxious that men I encountered on the road might have bad intentions – they looked fiercely towards me! But I soon discovered that as a white woman, alone and on a bicycle, to them I was the scary presence! They thought I was a spirit and the fierce look I was seeing was fear: they were scared of me! It became my job to build relationships with a wave, a smile and a “Bonjour!” I was welcomed into villages practically every night of my eighteen-month journey across Africa. Impoverished people afforded me security for the night; it was humbling.

Six weeks after my return, in south London, I was attacked and badly injured in a road rage incident by a white woman wielding a heavy mobile phone. To me, the urban jungle was far more dangerous than the roads of Africa!

So you feel at home and welcome in Africa?

The welcomes were universally warm – in the cities where I worked, as well as the villages where I arrived a stranger. It was humbling. In Lagos, for example, I did encounter problems due to differences in culture, “the system” and my expectations, but close friendships, people’s patience and generous mentoring enabled me to learn and adapt. My experiences stretched me as a person, but I felt always felt welcome.

As my journey continued, I realised that the difference between us as human beings was minimal. The biggest difference was about opportunity. I was on a journey to find myself and knew after it was finished, I could return to a life of hope and options. I have never taken that privilege for granted since and it drove, and still drives me, to give back.

I still wonder about how the lives of people I met in the villages turned out. In 2001 I returned to Timbuktu and spent time with a Tuareg family I stayed with during my bicycle ride. Their lives were hard and had become harder; it still breaks my heart. One of my hopes is to retrace some of my route, possibly in 2021, and look for some of the people who I remember and who remember me. I really want to know what happened to them.

Pamela Watson: Adventurer, entrepreneur & humanitarian
Pamela Watson

Gender roles appear to be still quite sharply defined in many African societies, particularly in Lagos. Was this a challenge for you when you returned to Africa after your epic ride?

The most discouraging gender issues impacting me were in 1980s/early 1990s Australia and the UK! For example, in my experience, the misogyny affecting professional women in 1980s Australian and New Zealand business was a brick wall, not a glass ceiling, and it contributed to my leaving Australia. I am pleased things have changed, although I remain frustrated by the pace and scale of women’s inroads into business leadership.

In Africa, when on my own, whether bike packing or working, I felt treated as an “honorary man”, and was not limited by the constraints or roles ascribed African women. That said, while I was with my partner in Lagos, I seemed only seen as the “accompanying spouse” and even friends could not take my separate professional roles and enterprises seriously. In my professional relationships, I was familiar with some of the cultural norms and adjusted how I interacted with people, and this probably helped, but I experienced few impediments due to my gender.

Where I experienced an issue was in building my social enterprise making handmade paper and employing women. Having engaged young men as my founding employees, they repeatedly blocked my efforts to engage women in paper making. It was only after these employees left that I managed to engage a higher proportion of women in operations!

It is an entirely different story for African women, not only village women but for professional women and entrepreneurs too. For example, while childcare is not a pressing issue due to the prevalence of home help, the constraints husbands can make on their wives – not wanting her to meet a client alone, being home before him, personally making his dinner – can be a source of tension in marriages. My female employees suffered this, and I learnt of more sexual abuse and other constraints through Nigerian businesswomen’s organisations I belong to. Nigerian women are strong, used to collaborating but the culturally entrenched gender issues are still a huge constraint.

As the world heads deeper into the twenty-first century, do you think Africa (or certain countries within it) will become more prominent on the world stage?

I am optimistic that some nations in Africa, including Nigeria, will become even more significant geopolitically and economically during the 21st century. I believe that African leadership and democracy will continue to mature, leading to transformational political leadership in a few countries, not all. Some countries will become more stable economic giants, and the private sector will use technological innovation, creativity and focused hard work to create homegrown businesses (sometimes in partnership with outsiders but not always), business models and billionaires that will solve serious issues and have positive impact on people.

This change is already underway; with our focus on Asia and the Pacific, many Australians just don’t recognise it. That said, positive transformation won’t be without setbacks (for example, Covid-19, collapse of oil price, cabals slowing change, local conflicts) or even-paced across all 54 countries.

The priority for every African country needs to be job creation and creating the environment that enables the private sector to grow. This is happening; for example, there are over 400 companies with a turnover in excess of US$1 billion.

A major obstacle to Africa’s rise is our own stereotypes about Africa; indeed I hope people will read my new book Gibbous Moon Over Lagos about my adventures in Lagos, Nigeria – it is where Africa’s future is being written and will introduce people to that new Africa. Unfortunately, old stereotypes are perpetuated by some foreign journalists and vested interests. There will be familiar disaster stories to tell if that is what foreign correspondents seek: from West African terrorism, climate-change driven issues, population pressure, corrupt leadership, etc. But the positive stories are already there, if they are sought and disseminated.

Other obstacles are a familiar list: population pressure, corruption, poor leadership, vested interests (indigenous and foreign), macroeconomic (mis)management, institutional strengthening and rule of law, inadequate megacity and city infrastructure and services (power, water and sewage, housing, education, health, transport, etc), food security, land title and tenure, climate-based tensions, rise of China, etc. Africa is a work in progress.

If a young person reading your books wants to follow in your footsteps, what advice can you give them?

Just go for it! And in fact, I like to inspire older adventurers, and especially women. At 20, if you don’t take advantage of your freedom to have adventure and explore the world and yourself, then you probably don’t have the yearning. But by 30, 40 or 50 we can all have taken paths that seem fixed, but discover that they are not bringing the happiness or sense of satisfaction we thought. What happened to the travel, business or social impact dreams of your youth? Can you still grab your chance for a different life? I believe you can; at any age. There is always a chance for discovery, for reinvention, for making different choices.

Perhaps the words of an African woman I met in northern Ghana many years ago will inspire you. Lydia was hand watering her onion plants using water drawn from a well and distributed in a gourd punched with holes to turn it into a watering can. It was dawn, another hot dry day begun, and her onion plants were wilted. Lydia had taken a micro-credit loan from a group I was associated with.

Ghanian women
Ghanian women

“Can you make a profit?” I asked, concerned her crop might fail and not bring enough income to service her loan, let alone give her a surplus for her family’s income.

“When you are after something, you must grab it,” she said. “You cannot say you are too tired.”

If you are after something, grab it – no excuses. And I wonder, does this disruption to our normal life give you the time to plan your new adventurous path? Good luck.

Interview by DC White

Gibbous Moon Over Lagos – Pursuing a Dream on Africa’s Wild Side, by Pamela Watson is distributed through Hardie Grant Books, RRP $35.

Esprit de Battuta – Alone Across Africa on a Bicycle, 3rd Edition, by Pameal Watson is also distributed through Hardie Grant Books, RRP $35.

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