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4,350 miles from ordinary

By Jessie Bazan, Comm '14

Above: Marquette alum Ben Stewart sports his Aaron Rodgers jersey when he and friend Spencer McCormick make a stop in Burundi during their four-month bicycle trek across Africa. Below: A view of the African countryside from Stewart's handlebars.

April 13, 2011 8:07 p.m.
When you tell someone you're going to bicycle through Africa, it's funny. The reaction is rarely complacent. It's either "That's awesome" or "Oh my God, you're going to die."
-Spencer McCormick

Whether it's up the road to the grocery store or across the bridge to work, most American cyclists are content with a leisurely ride over a common terrain. 

It's safe to say Ben Stewart and Spencer McCormick are not like most American cyclists.

And their bike ride is 4,350 miles from ordinary.

Over the course of four months, Stewart, Arts '09, and fellow Milwaukeean Spencer McCormick, son of Marquette professor Barrett McCormick, will pedal thousands of miles across 11 African nations to raise money for Doctors Without Borders and World Bicycle Relief. Along the way, Stewart's and McCormick's mission is to tell the story of their Sub-Saharan African adventures, from Capetown, South Africa to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in a fun, modern format. The duo keeps a travelogue at and regularly posts updates and photos on their Twitter account, Facebook page and blog.

May 29, 2011 1:51 a.m.
Bicycling through Africa, excluding the big cities, I can easily imagine myself in a classic Western film. The land is dusty, sun omnipresent, buildings stout, industry absent, law more a suggestion and at every turn there's a palpable sense of both opportunity and danger.

With a year off in between graduate programs, Stewart had the time to make this trip a reality. "After half a year of work and penny-pinching, I had accumulated enough savings to travel through a very inexpensive part of the world. Although the airfare, equipment and visas are big-ticket items, I am able to get by on less than $3/day," explains Stewart.

The ride has been nothing short of adventurous thus far. Traveling by bike allows Stewart and McCormick to experience the vast, natural beauty of the African continent first-hand.

"The South African landscape is less hospitable than its people," Stewart says. "Zambian terrain consists of a series of plateaus, separated by tremendous valleys and challenging hills. The views have been as breathtaking as the cycling has been trying."

June 7, 2011 11:59 p.m.
When the trucks pass each other and you have to take a detour into a ditch, or when you're riding after dark and you have no idea what crevasse lies ahead in the abyss, riding these roads can be absolutely terrifying.

Biking 70 miles a day over rough terrain has been trying at times, and the duo have faced their share of challenges. While riding along a freeway a few weeks into the trip, McCormick took a nasty fall that sent him to the hospital. Then in early May, the bag carrying their computer, photos, videos and contact information got knocked off McCormick's bicycle. They bought replacement equipment, but all their work up to that point was lost. Still, Stewart and McCormick remain motivated to continue on.

"As difficult as some of the setbacks have been, we feel a responsibility to ourselves and to all of the people who have helped us along the way," says Stewart. "People with so little have offered us so much, and we would be letting them down if we allowed ourselves to be defeated by our relatively minor setbacks."

April 13, 2011 8:07 p.m.
People are funny. The endeavors we choose to tackle. I'm still trying to figure out why I'm here. But maybe that's why I'm here? To figure out why I'm here?

Despite the challenges, Stewart speaks fondly of the African people they have met. The most interesting, he says, is a well-educated, free-thinking Zimbabwean attorney named Shepard who gave them a place to stay in the days after McCormick's bag was lost.

McCormick also describes countless other hospitable people in his blog who opened their homes, dished out free meals and shared their stories with two American strangers. Coincidentally, the pair even stumbled upon Marquette students, Natalie Campbell, Educ '13, and Aaron Owen, H Sci '12, after stopping for directions on a southern Ugandan roadside. This extremely unlikely encounter ended with an invitation for Stewart and McCormick to spend the night at the Uganda Rural Fund volunteer house, the organization with which Campbell and Owen are volunteering.

The Marquette connection runs strong all across the world, and back at home, Stewart credits his alma mater for helping him to this point. He says Marquette's emphasis on a well-rounded and liberal arts education plays a critical role in his analysis of the African condition.

"The poverty, ethnic tension, and social ills are the product of complex social and historical forces which will take generations to remedy," explains Stewart, who will return to campus to start a master's degree in political science this fall. "My education at Marquette was critical in teaching me to take a comprehensive view."

For the latest updates on Stewart and McCormick's ride or to make a contribution, visit their blog.  


Comment by John at Jul 18 2011 01:57 pm
I wish Marquette covered men like these two as thoroughly as they do their alumni playing professional basketball. Bravo to them.
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