African Journal - Report 8
this is my final Africa-Report, even though you will have noticed that it doesn't come from Africa anymore. Yes, I am back home in Germany - at least for now. When my plane landed in Berlin about a week ago, another chapter of my life closed. Not permanently, I am sure, for I will certainly return to Africa at some stage in my life. But after one-and-a-half years in the "wild", it was the first world I needed to be in. I wanted (and still want to) work on my career for a while, earn some money to get off mom's supplementing pocket, and lay a foundation for "later".
Before I tell you what I've been doing since December '99 (whoa, the OLD millennium), I want to share how I feel here, and now:
Weird. That summarizes things pretty well. In Southern Africa I had become used to truckloads of SPACE, ABSENCE of most forms of organization, HEAT and SUNSHINE (ok, the last couple of weeks were very wet - rainy season). I had become used to constant ATTENTION by everyone, being stared at. Being, in some respects, PRIVILEGED, at least compared to the majority of people there.
At least the latter two I had become thoroughly sick off. I wanted to blend in again, I wanted the color of my skin to be insignificant, to walk down the street without being noticed.
I have that now. In fact, society doesn't give a damn about my presence. Germany, home sweet home, is as self-absorbed and busy as it has always been. Everything is organized down to the second, everyone knows their place in the big system. Find your slot and do the 9 to 5. Change? Dynamics? Multi-culture? New Millennium? I'm still looking.
There is MUCH of everything here: people, cars, houses, money. 30 types of yoghurt in the supermarket. It engulfs you, tucks at your wallet. I am tempted to buy things I don't need, eat things when I am not hungry, in the simple absence of dominating "bigger" things to ponder. Sure, I am not working at the moment, and applying for jobs doesn't necessarily fulfil you - it's just stress. But I am beginning to miss the breathing space of South Africa. I feel caged.
I also had developed the delusion that "ordinary" people here ("us Europeans") were somehow more sophisticated than people in South Africa. Well, the may be less prone to violence, and more committed to law and order. And I certainly DO enjoy the safety of the place. I walk anywhere, anytime, and feel completely safe. Good riddance to guns, high-jackings, and shoot-first-then-talk attitudes.
But on close inspection all to many people here worry most about the TV program, and what to buy next with their saved money - not about philosophy, politics, literature. It starts in my own family, with my dad leading a life between a job he doesn't like, and the TV remote in the evening. His TV is his life. And he's not alone out there. I look into the dull eyes of people trudging through the rain with plastic shopping bags, and my heart sinks.
I pray that better weather (yes, I haven't seen the sun for 4 days in a row now) and some good offers for jobs will better the destructive mood I'm in.
Just a short update to the state of the re-entry culture shock, since some time's passed since I wrote the above:
Things are better. Much better. I feel fairly integrated here again, and am actually quite happy with the idea of STAYING in Germany for a while (*Whooaaa!!*). Guess it mattered that I got back in touch with a lot of old friends, some of whom I hadn't seen for years. Getting back into that group was simply great, and made me feel at home so much more. Just after I returned, I felt that need to get out of Germany, I went on a long friends-visiting trip to Belgium and the Netherlands. I was on the verge of taking a job in Brussels, even though I have never liked Brussels (and it's francophone!). But I communicated with the people I visited in English, and felt so much more comfortable with that than speaking German. Also, my most "recent" friends were in that area, and I had such a need to re-connect with a community that I would have done anything to get me there.
But then a friend explained to me that, in our brain, we associate experiences and memories with the language we used at that time. Since many of my good experiences in life were "lived in English", she said, I naturally felt much more positive about myself and life in general when using that language. In contrast, many of the negative experiences of my childhood I "lived in German", so when I was using that language, a lot of negative background noise was clouding my state of mind. Funny enough, as soon as I had accepted that theory, things began to brighten up. I felt less of a need the flee the Germans, and embrace "anything but". I returned home to Dresden, and felt a lot more relaxed from one day to the other.
Consequently, I have seriously started to job-search in Germany, and will with great likelihood move to Berlin soon, where I will work with a New Media agency. The city's got the vibe and I'm looking forward to it, especially since I am totally broke and need the income! :)
But now for the travel report:
I finished up work in Atteridgeville at the school late November. The kids wrote their final exams, quite successfully. Sally Currin, our interim principal, left to work for DSG Outreach as planned. A new principal, Mr. Nhika from Zimbabwe, took over. No new labor strife of conflict emerged with the change, mostly because the new man didn't make changes so far. He's feeling into the situation, and things are quiet. Unfortunately, the money for upgrading the computer lab still hasn't come around, and no work has been done on that project. Worse yet, when I said my final good-bye at the school in late March, my kids told me that the lab had been closed since the beginning of the year. My co-teacher Cornelius was only giving theory sessions, telling the kids that the lab was "being upgraded with a network". Which is bull, since I know there is no equipment yet, and a network is not top of priorities anyway. Cornelius locks himself into the lab frequently, and nobody know what he's doing. I can take a guess (he's probably playing games).
So the kids are not taught efficiently. I talked to the kids, telling them that THEY must exercise pressure and demand to use the lab since their parents pay fees for the school and hence, for that lab! But they said they're afraid of the new principal, and challenging authority is difficult in African culture, so I doubt they will do anything. I talked to Mr. Nhika, but although he's a nice man, he didn't seem willing to confront Cornelius over that issue (yet?). I hope he will eventually, because if he doesn't, things will go straight back to where they were before I came.
It's out of my hands. I do feel a bit guilty for "abandoning" the school, but at this stage in my life I just don't think it is a realistic option to be an overqualified teacher at a monthly salary of less than US$ 100. I just can't do that, considering I also have student loans to pay off, and to get off mom's pocket!
At Outreach, things haven't been great either. The program is slowly but surely falling apart, and only a collection of incoherent single-effort programs is likely to survive. Sally has started an assistance program for the high schools, which she runs basically independent from Outreach, and the Atteridgeville Office is working also, though pretty disconnected from HQ in town. Only time will tell what comes of that. Contrary to the school, I have no problems with leaving Outreach. Most people I cared about have left, anyway, the program has done a lot for the schools, most of whom must take it themselves from here, anyway. I feel little loyalty to the current boss.
I did not get the chance to visit Mohau Center (sorry, Dineo!), or Ubuntu Center (never mind, guys), before I left. I called some people from Mohau, though. But it seems so long ago that I was there, I feel already disconnected from both places.
So my work in South Africa ended on a slightly sour note, overall. Yes, I did make a small difference while I was there. How much of it will last after I have left difficult to say, though it seems not much will. I don't regret anything. I have learned more than in any other 15 months in my life, and I would not trade it for anything. But as for making-the-world-a-better-place visions, it has been a rather sobering experience.
So what have I been doing since early December?
Yes, that's right: after I finished my National Service in late November '99, I travelled throughout Southern Africa, until late March. Almost four months of vacation, the longest (and most straining) trip I've done so far in my life. Overall it was a great experience.
In fact, I did two trips: one organized, one on my own. The former turned out to be seriously flawed, but the latter compensated for that.
Inexperienced in African travel, I started with an organized trip. After all, I really wanted to see Botswana and Namibia, and there are only a handful of roads in both, let alone anything like public transport on them. So I joined a group of people on a so-called OVERLANDER. And overlander truck is a 4x4 truck that has been converted to carry about 20 adventurous people, plus tents and equipment, and to navigate the notoriously bad African roads. A three week trip, covering Botswana (Chobe National Park, Okavango Delta), Namibia (Ethosha NP, the coast, the Namib desert) and the western coast of South Africa -- food, camping, national park fees etc. inclusive -- starts from as little as US$600. The truck goes to places where one can't go without a rental car, better a 4x4. On that kind of budget, it's basically impossible to do a similar route by yourself. And the catalogue promised "life-long friendships formed" and an "experience of a lifetime".
Great. So I ventured up to Victoria Falls on 4/12/99, to meet my group of adventurers. The first people I met were some nice enough guys (two Americans, one Cypriot). Then came the Australians and the British. And I knew I was deeply in trouble. The alcohol started flowing in rivers even before we started. It never stopped flowing after that. I had ended up on a Kontiki-Tour through Africa.
Every day, our core group of alcoholics opened the cooler-box the moment we stepped on the truck, and by the time we had arrived at a location, they were totally plastered. Yelling "Oi-Oi" at anyone who would listen (or couldn't run away), throwing bottle caps around the truck, and similar "fun" activities from the moron catalogue. By the time the three-week trip had come to an end, I was so down with my nerves that I needed a vacation from my vacation. In fact, the group's overall morale and spirit had deteriorated so much that we agreed to finish one day earlier than planned.
On top, some other stuff went wrong. Our guide and our cook didn't get along, creating tensions in the team. Our guide was struck by sickness three times during the trip (first the runs, then a vicious eye-infection that made us skip a nice stop to be able to get him medicated earlier, finally malaria). Consequently he wasn't guiding all that much.
Not that he would have done so if he had been ok. Like with most of the cheaper overlanders, the guides don't have a clue about the countries they are guiding through - not the local people and culture, not the geology, not the zoology. Most of the time they aren't even from Africa - they are Australians, English or other backpackers on long tours around the world who need a job and sign up for half a year or so. They know where the next campsite is, and when we will meet other overlander trucks. Meeting the other trucks is the unofficial highlight of the trip, because you can get drunk in a bigger group, and try to get laid. Which sums up the overall objective of most overlander trip.
Sure, you can get better tours with competent guys, who will point out and explain natural and cultural highlights. At twice the price of a Kontiki-overlander. Next time I'll save more.
Having said all that, we DID see a lot of beautiful nature.
* Seeing elephants bathe in the Chobe river in Botswana during a boat tour in torrential rains. Hippos watching us out of the water meanwhile.
* Watching lions in Ethosha National Park's huge, flat salt pans.
* Climbing up huge sand dunes in the Namibian deserts (and, as typically European thrill-seekers, sandboarding them down at 70 km/h, snowboarding on them, quadbiking on them, and spending enough money on a day on that then an average black Namibian family spends on food in a year.)
* Hike down Fish River Canyon, which is just as impressive as the Grand Canyon.
* Seeing the sun set in millions of shades of red over the Orange river.
The trip was beautiful indeed, and it would have been difficult to see the same, on the same budget, other than using an overlander. But next time I'll ask to be on one that serves only coke! *Sigh*
One great experience I would like to share, also, not least because it is so typical of African race relations:
One night in Swakopmund/Namibia, our truck went to town from the remote campsite to party. An incredibly German-feeling outpost amidst African dunes, Swakop is inhabited by many whites who trace their roots back to Germany, speak German, and behave more Germanic than Germans themselves. Asked about where to go to party, we were advised by the locals and our guide to go only to the "Gruener Kranz", a disco almost exclusively frequented by whites. Only here we would be safe, we were told. Yet we had met a group of colored girls in a bar before, who had invited us to join them to one of their clubs in the township, the "Oxygen". They also said they were scared of the "Kranz".
We asked your white guardians about the place, and in their usual reaction were told that we were likely to get killed if we went there. We went there anyway, throwing caution to the wind. And had a great time, with no trouble at all, and meeting a lot of nice locals. Coming back to the "Kranz" at 2 am, the meeting point for going back to the campsite, we found that our truck had left one hour before time - without us. The whites at the "safe" disco were busy fighting amongst each other with broken-off bottles. Nobody had a clue how we'd get to our campsite.
Jackie, one of our new found friends, however refused to go home before she was certain we'd get home ok. First she went to the hotel she worked at, and convinced the night manager to let us use the shuttle of the hotel to get home, against regulations and to no small job risk for her. Then we turned down that offer because it was expensive. Instead of leaving us at the spot, she continued to look for a solution, and after lots of searching found a friend of hers, whom she convinced to drive us out to the campsite, even though he had had a beer and was running into danger of loosing his license if caught driving. Jackie would not leave until she had delivered us at the campsite herself, and say good-bye with hug and kiss. This was around 4am in the morning -- at 6am her shift in the hotel started. Oh, those dangerous locals! I had not often before felt as moved as I felt that night.
After that exhausting trip, I spent New Year with friends in beautiful Capetown. I spent a great few days at a friend's family in the winelands, and saw the New Year in with another family and the Philharmonic Orchestra in the botanical gardens, with fireworks etc. After than, I retuned to Pretoria with the coolest gay couple I've ever travelled with. Upon my return, someone had moved into the "kindergarten" (which had been sold in my absence), so I had to stay in a hostel and with a friend for a few days.
I considered cancelling the "big trip" because I was tired and exhausted from the booze cruise, but I decided that I'd regret it if I'd miss the chance to do this trip. So I took a bus to Maputo.
At that stage Maputo was still manoeuvrable without a rubber duck, in fact, we had a water shortage at the city's only backpackers for 4 days in a row.
[as a funny sideline: I had planned to finish my trip in Mozambique, instead of starting it there. I would have stumbled straight into the floods. But after queuing, twice, for 12 hours each at the Mozambique embassy in Pretoria, they gave me the wrong dates on the visa. I preferred to change my travel plans, instead of queuing (and paying) again. Bureaucracy and stupidity - my saviour!]
I stayed in Maputo for several days, fighting travel fatigue. The city is ugly, in typically "new African" fashion infested with run-down 60s buildings, tons of garbage on the roads, and in a general state of disrepair. Although the war has taken more of a toll up north, one has no trouble finding bullet holes in the walls of Maputo buildings, and the odd burned-our car or ruin is there, too. But if one takes the time, Maputo has a couple of nice old colonial buildings to offer, though virtually all of them are in very bad repair. Funny detail: A house made fully of metal, which was brought to Maputo by a former governor from Europe, assembled there, and swiftly abandoned because it simply got WAY too hot inside! :)
Mozambiquen mentality though is quite nice. The Latin element is clearly there, people are less lethargic than in the former English colonies, and like to party with lots of swing. Their music is a mixture between Latino and African style, and the coolest I've heard in Africa.
After some days I joined Fatima (the famous owner of the backpackers) and some friends on the way up north. I visited Inhambane, with the great, white, long and sun drenched Tofo beach and waves so strong and powerful that they throw you around like a paper boat when you go swim. You live off fruits and coconuts that the local boys pluck straight off the palm trees, and that cost virtually nothing. And whenever you feel like real food, there are two decent restaurants. Truly paradise!
Having said that, as always in Africa there's a snag. In Mozambique's case, that is old guard South Africans who own much of the tourist infrastructure in the south. Admittedly, if it wasn't for them there's be much fewer facilities for tourists. And much less blatant racism, too. It seems that all who haven't been able to cope with "the blacks taking over" in SA, have come to Southern Mozambique to wield the whip on the "carriers of water and choppers of wood". The way these "businessmen" treat their black staff defies description, it must be amongst the worst cases of racism I have ever experienced in Africa. And they don't hesitate to educate the backpackers about "the way these kaffirs are". Yuck.
Another blemish on paradise are landmines. They are still everywhere in Mozambique, outside the more populated areas. One cannot simply amble about or bush-hike into the blue. Stay at established paths, or risk being blown to pieces. There are enough victims about on the streets, having lost one or both legs, and living a life of rolling around on old skateboards, begging for a living. Still, some people take it with African stoity and endurance, like a guy I met at Tofo, who had lost a leg yet was dancing and having a good time with his crutch attached. When I took a photo with him I realized that I wanted to remember his handicap more than him, and was ashamed when I developed my pictures later and found that he had hidden his prosthesis behind my legs when we posed for a snapshot. He didn't wanna be seen as a "freak", yet I had pretty much classified him as one.
Anyway, I spent some great days there. One whole night I spent on the beach, singing around the campfire, with some local guys who had come up from Maputo. It was a great atmosphere, warm and comfortable. I crawled into my tent with the rising sun.
[I must admit that I was surprised at the smarts of the people I met there at the beach. They were university students, very eloquent, good English besides their mother tongue Portuguese. After meeting hundreds of kids whose only words are "give me onethousend" when they meet you, I had started to generalize again. I had started to believe that intelligent conversation was only possible with fellow, 1st world travellers. The African trap; even after more than a year on the continent, I had fallen into it again. Just another lesson.]
On another island up north, Linga Linga, I found another timeless oasis. Nothing but water, palm trees, some local fishermen and a couple of hammocks. Few visitors, lots of peace. An English guys I met there had been there for two months already. I met ramblers like him again and again. People who had simply stepped out of "normal life" in the west. People to whom time didn't seem to matter anymore. Africa is cheap to live in outside the big cities, so you can live for years on savings which, in Europe, would last only for 3 months. Some people just do. I spent almost a week in Linga Linga, doing absolutely nothing but eat, sleep, read, and walk on the beach.
From there, I joined a friend and we made our way to Vilankulos. Before the war, it was a holiday spot for the rich and beautiful of Mozambique. Today, it has more bullet holes in the walls than tourists -- and a sleepy, time-warped feel. Old sail boats bring fishermen out to sea, the sun is gleaming on the small lakes that the low tide leaves behind, and a gentle wind makes time seem so irrelevant.
But the real attraction of the place is Bazaruto Archipelago. A world heritage site, it is a group of islands, inhabited by rare species of animals, some fishermen, and very few tourists. Lonely white beaches, with thousands of bright green crabs keeping you company, high sand dunes reaching far inland and terminating in beautiful sweet water lakes. At the right time of the year, you can see hundreds of turtles in the process of reproduction. *aehem*
Getting there, and staying, is however quite an act. The reason for the solitude is that accommodation on the islands starts at 150 USD per day. The only concession to budget tourists is a campsite, run by greedy "new African style" businessmen, who care little about customer satisfaction, but all about your wallet. Charging backpackers a fee per bottle of water they wanna put in the fridge, on top of outraging site prices, doesn't seem feasible, does it? They made up new, creative ways of pulling money outta one's pocket everyday. Scruples? "Hey, we've got a monopoly!" Once a cheap boat operator docked at the camp site, offering snorkelling trips to us. We had already agreed, when the campsite owners accused the poor man of theft, "proved" their case with "footprints found at the site of the crime" (the man was going barefoot...) and chased him away. As a result, we had to go snorkel with the camp owners -- at twice the price. Add to attitudes like that the aggressive, sunglassed and briefcase-carrying "tourist boat operators". They will tell you that crossing over to the Islands on fisher boats is forbidden, and conveniently offer their motor boat transfers. To be paid in advance and at three times the price of a local guy's transport. Compare these flashy "new capitalists" to the people in rags on the streetside, and you know what kind of capitalism has taken root in previously communist Mozambique.
I could go on like that along the report, telling stories of short-sighted business practices I found across Africa. In fact, a Malawi fisherman brought it to the point. He said to a friend of mine: "The difference between Europe and Africa is fishing. When you pull out a big fish in Europe, you prepare it, and enjoy eating it. So do we here. When you pull out a small fish, you throw it back, so it may grow to become a big fish in time. In Africa, we eat the small fish." How true. Despite all this, Bazaruto was an experience indeed.
After a 8 hour bus ride, of which I spent 6 hours standing between sweating Mozambique mamas, 2 hours sitting and sharing space with various domestic animals, I reached my next stop: Beira. The city isn't very remarkable: a one-time pretty, now run-down, curiously mixed socialist/capitalist, bustling town with many shipwrecks on the shore and lots of decay, invalid landmine-disfigured beggars, and bullet holes in the walls. The Swahili influence from the north meant more of Indians (one of them running the second of the two Mozambiquen Internet Cafe's: A lonely PC in the back of a video rental place, connected to the net, and prohibitively expensive).
Again people were what struck me most. A young guy showed my friend and me the town, acted as our guide for the whole day. He was invaluable help, and good company to boot. And he didn't ask for a single cent in return (we gave him some money, anyway). Compare that to Bazeruto's campsite owners, and you see why it is so difficult to generalize the "African experience". The whole continent is full of harsh contradictions.
Another Beira experience were -- girls. Anyone who knows me knows that I usually don't get hit on by women (well, how many of us guys get that lucky, anyway? :) ). In Beira, all you need to be to have that experience, is white. Every night, we were talked up by several local ladies, asking us whether we had girlfriends, and whether we were in need of more. These girls weren't prostitutes, at best ambitious amateurs, who were hoping to grab a rich white, and perhaps live a life of shopping in Paris and Sailing in the Mediterranean ever after. Most were pleasant and rather smart, too. Being our risk avers selves -- robberies DO happen like that, and about 25% of the female population in marryable age is HIV+ in Mozambique -- we politely declined all offers. Yet I wonder until today how things would have gone had be joined them for a night of latin-african party. The morning we left Beira, my friend got a letter from one of his admirers, asking him for ca. 10 USD "for little breakfast", his address, and an oath to be in touch. He never heard from her again. Still, sad and charming these encounters were indeed.
Another dazzling feature were German speaking black Mozambiqens. Imagine my surprise, when my friend and me walked down the street, talking German, and we were addressed in great German, with a strong Saxon accent to boot (!), by the local banana seller!! Turns out he used to study and work in former East Germany under socialist development aid, in Pirna of all places, a neighbouring town to my home town. It's a small world! With reunification, his work permit wasn't renewed by the new authorities, and he had to return to Mozambique. Now he was trying to make ends meet with small trading. We met more people like him -- there are thousands of them in Moz. -- yet every time it struck me as pretty amazing, yet sad too for he must have led a much better life when he was still in Germany!
Our last stop in Mozambique, a small town called Chimoio, would have been little remarkable, wouldn't it have been for the most expensive night accommodation I had in Africa, and a cool NGO.
For a "paltry" 15 USD, my friend and me shared a 10 m2 room in a family's private home, without water or any other "amenities" but two beds, which was pointed out by another friendly local. Even that we were fortunate to have found, since the only hotel in town was full, and the only other place mentioned in the Lonely Planet, the "Bamboo In", was a windowless, cockroach infested hole beyond description. We were told later that that was "where people go to fuck". Ah, well.
As for the NGO, we found it though my friend's contact with a local, and then malaria-sick, radio producer. In the middle of the Mozambique pampa, him and his people were running a state of the art multimedia lab, with UN donated computer equipment. They were producing newsletters, staging shows on their backyard, professional stage, doing local art exhibitions, and trying to promote tourism (despite the fact that in the local forests landmines still loom large, as everywhere outside the big cities). With all they involve local people. On top, they make the best, Italian-style, clay-oven baked pizza I have had in Mozambique, and serve it in a great little restaurant (the place was build and the cooks trained by a former Italian volunteer)!! Who would have expected to find all that in this tiny town?
Interesting to note is, as so often in Africa, that the people who frequent the pizzeria are mostly foreign aid workers, many of the German GEZ. It is they who can afford the pizza, and who drive there with their expensive 4x4 off road cars. A sad paradox, or maybe a sign that most locals don't have a taste for Italian cuisine?
I arrived in Blantyre, the capital of Malawi, after a one day bus ride from Chimoio, fortunately with a seat, a fairly comfortable bus, and a capable driver who circumvented the crater-sized potholes on the road northwards.
[Another African insight: The roads in the south of Mozambique were reasonably well maintained, the roads in the north just plain shit. How come? Well, the president Chissano is from a tribe that lives in the south. He knows his constituency. As a "big chief" he makes sure that money goes to "his people", not to the whole taxpaying nation. Democracy, African style.]
I spent quite some time in Malawi, although it left less of an impression on me than Mozambique. Even though Malawi is the 4th poorest nation on earth, its rural simplicity and its few larger cities seemed much more prosperous to me than war-ravaged Mozambique.
Blantyre is a non-descript capital, with a small-town feel and little to do. However, its only hostel offered WARM showers (there was no warm water anywhere in Mozambique), decent beds, and a pleasant atmosphere. Most white expatriates came here for drinks, and complained in usual expatriate fashion of how much Africa was going down the drain. One meeting I'll remember was with a local, beautiful 24 year old Malawi woman, who, in very unafrican fashion, was keeping herself a Swedish guy as boyfriend; SHE was PAYING for all and everything they did, including lodging in a 100 USD a night hotel! Turns out that she is married to some English businessman, who lost interest soon after the marriage, gave her a Gold Card on his account and told her to go busy herself. They hardly meet anymore, and all she does with her time is spend the dough, drink herself into a stupor and screw whomever she feels like. I had the pleasure of her company for a day, and didn't know whether to laugh or cry at her fate. In the end, it was simply sad to see her wasted.
Needing to get out of the city, I went hiking in the Mulanje massif with a German friend. Situated in a tea growing area, it is a stunning mountain range whose granite faces suddenly rise from the flat ground, almost a thousand metres high. After some trials (this is not a tourist area) we made our way into the massif. Hiking African style means that a porter, who also acts as guide, carries your backpack, while you amble on easily. He wears no shoes (or bath slippers) because he needs to preserve his only pair of decent shoes for occasions like Sunday church. He wears no shirt, for the same reason. And he costs you 5 USD per day. Talk about bargains, and about feeling silly as a western tourist. Yet since one can't go up without a guide, and the guides need employment more than European guilt, one has little choice.
We came to bless our porters when, one hour into our three hour, VERY steep ascent to the plateau, it started raining. Pouring. Crashing down. The uphill path became a river running down between our legs, we were slipping at every step, and the temperature dropped to below 10 C. We were freezing our arses off, while the half-naked, heavily loaded porters simply trudged on. Even they weren't the worst off on that day. We met log-cutters, who descended the very same path we climbed up on - with 4 meter long, massive wooden planks on their head! Some of them were carrying two, or even three of these heavy monsters down at a time. As we were told, one plank pays them 70 Kwatcha - little more than 1 USD. And it takes 3 hours to carry them down. Yet it is a popular job -- since it's better than no job in a country with 60-70% unemployment! This might also explain why the "Skyway", a cable car system that was initially build to transport the planks, had never been repaired since it broke down for lack of maintenance and spare parts, a long time ago.
Two hours and lots of H2O later we arrived at the plateau, and were shocked. What once must have been a beautiful forest had been turned into something resembling tree-Hiroshima, similar to that forest in Siberia where the meteor came down in the 80s (ever seen those pictures?). Relentless logging, both legal and by poachers, had left little but stumps standing. Numerous wildfires, caused by careless loggers, had destroyed the rest. The color black dominated the scene. For a long time, we were trudging trough this havoc, before we left the logging zone and gradually re-entered living woods.
The following days, we hiked through largely untouched, and beautiful mountains, sleeping in simple, and at 1 USD per night outrageously cheap mountain huts. Water made hot by a hut-watchmen over fire in the morning and evening, and cooking ourselves over open fire. The scenery was breathtaking, whenever we got to see it. Unfortunately, it rained most of the time we spent up on the plateau, we were freezing and never got dry, and clouds blocked the sight frequently on our trips from hut to hut. Yet being the only ones up there, we had a good time nevertheless, and the few glimpses in moments of good weather were worth the trip alone.
After another night in Blantyre, I made my way to a place called Mua, where, according to my friend, a great museum was to be found. Mua turned out to be a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere, nothing but an old roadsign off the main highway. But what a surprise when I reached the place after 15 minutes hike! Around a Catholic Mission, a big project had grown, with a hospital, a school, and the thing I was looking for: The local culture center.
It had been build by a French-Canadian priest, in order to bring young locals back in touch with the ancient myths and culture of their tribe, so as not to let the traditions die with the older people. The project consists of a wood workshop (in which the locals produces amazingly original, high quality crafts based on Chewa religion), and the museum. A result of 8 years of work, the custom-built museum documents, painstakingly and with tons of photos and text, all the rituals performed by the local Chewa, Ngoni, and Yao tribes. When you go visit it, a knowledgeable guide stays with you for all the time you spend inside, to answer all your questions. The whole place is tremendously beautifully decorated, with authentic masks and items. I spent 5 hours the first day, another 5 hours the second day, and yet failed to see and read all the information presented. I was fascinated from minute one, and learned so much during those two days, I thought I would burst with information overload. I simply had to call it quits by day three, because I could not take in any more information.
Yet the beauty of the project is immense. The frequent problem I have encountered while travelling in Africa is the lack of qualified comment, of explanation. One stumbles through culture, unaware of its meaning and origin, and hence less able to appreciate. But here, in the middle of nowhere and far off the tourist route, I found such a fountain of knowledge. I wished the example would spread far and wide -- it would make the difference between merely seeing Africa, and beginning to understand what it is all about!
After Mua, I headed for Nkhata Bay, a backpacker's resort on the shore of the beautiful Lake Malawi. Besides cheap accommodation, and the cheapest NAUI Scuba diving course I have ever seen (US$120 for 5 days, and done by qualified people), there wasn't much of interest there. I spent some quiet days, had the cheapest haircut of my life, off a car battery on the street, and lazed a lot. Oh, yes, and I keep on praying that I didn't catch bilharzia -- a serious brain disease which is transmitted by tiny snails that live in Lake Malawi, and which one catches while swimming.
Tanzania up north was the next target. I almost ended up getting a ride with a gigantic petrol truck. A friend and me had tracked down a driver in a small hotel which seemed to double as a love house. He was willing to take us, but he was ambiguous as to what to charge (yep, nothing's for free in Africa), and when he'd leave (+/- 2 days). Besides, he spoke no English. Never mind the slight concerns on combining the worst road of Malawi with thousands of litres of highly flammable liquid. So, we dumped that plan, and made it up north conventionally - with a VW bus with 20 passengers. The various burnt-out truck wrecks we saw on the way confirmed our choice of transport.
One note on crossing the border Malawi - Tanzania. African border officials have a reputation of being troublesome and corrupt. Not so here. Due to a mistake when he entered Malawi, my travel companion had no valid visa for Malawi. The people at the border noticed -- and could have locked him up, demanded bribes for freeing him, etc. They didn't. Hector was called into an office, and asked to get the visa now, and pay the fee -- a legitimate demand. He refused, because the lack of visa had been the fault of the officials at the entry border. He didn't have to pay. Then we arrived at the Tanzanian side 30 minutes after closing time (because of a one hour time difference between the two countries). We figured we'd have to camp till the morning, or bribe someone to let us trough. Again, not so. The official, who had already closed up, opened up the office again, and issued our visas. No "extra charges", just a friendly "have a good trip". And that was not the exception, rather the rule at most borders I had to cross.
Across in Tanzania, our bus was immediately surround by children selling mangoes. My friend asked for the price, and since it was minimal (about 10 cents) he bought "one". To his surprise, the kid, upon reception of the miniscule amount, dumped about 15 huge mangoes into the bus -- "one" stood for one bowl. We had learned that the Tanzanian countryside was the cheapest place to live in in Southern Africa, and the passengers in our bus got to eat a lot of mangos. Passing through wild mango grooves during the following bus rides, we started to realize why the kids could sell them so cheaply -- they just picked them off the trees. That night we experienced the flipside of being in the country: no one we met spoke any English. We spent the night watching the finals of the African Nations Soccer Cup with loads of enthusiastic fans, and communication worked nevertheless (Ole, ole, ole, ole!).
The next stop was the town of Mbeya. Besides typically friendly people, the major attraction was that the TAZARA train stops there. We were to take that train, through the huge interior of Tanzania, all the way to the capital on the coast: Dar-es-Salaam. The train was only going the next day, so we had to kill some time. Since we had found out that there was a 50% student discount for the tickets, we started looking for the next college, where the desired stamp was to be had. We asked the first best person on the street for directions. To our surprise, the man ushered us into his car (with driver!) and we where whisked off to the next college. Turned out the man was an important local government official! He introduced us to the principal of the college -- who happened to be an old friend of his, and the major of the town, too!! The good man took us around town, chatted with us for a long time, and we ended up swapping addresses and shooting photos! And all because of asking a stranger for directions!
Armed with stamp and patience, we embarked on our 24hr train ride. TAZARA stands for TAnzanian - ZAmbian - RAilway Authority -- and for a cool train. Built by the Chinese in the 60s as development aid, it connects the Zambian copper belt (an important mining region) with the coastal harbour of Dar-es-Salaam. While it is still an important ore transport path, it is also important for people transport. The train has a distinctly luxurious, though slightly decayed, eastern charm. If the Orient Express had never been maintained, it would look like the TAZARA today. We travelled 1st class, with 4 people to a sleeping cabin, fresh sheets, and food served to our cabin. There is also a lush dining car for a change (though you still can only choose between fish and chips and beef and chips), and a lounge car with TVs and cool couches. The train is government subsidized -- we paid a whopping 8 US$ for our ticket. In addition to being the most comfortable transport I've been on in Africa, it was also one of the most scenic. The train passes through a large Tanzanian nature reserve, which means you can watch elephant, giraffe and lots of impalas while having your fish 'n' chips in your cabin.
There were only two other "mzungus" ("whites" in Swahili) on the train, and the people at reservations had "consequently" put us in the same cabin. So much for getting to know some interesting locals on the long trip. The English guys turned out to be fun nevertheless, and we still got to chat with a young Tanzanian, who had learned German from listening to radio "Deutsche Welle" and spoke with staggering fluency! Another one of those African things...
Dar-es-Salaam, meaning "Haven of peace", turned out to be amongst my favourite places on the trip. The African countryside, mud-hut village after mud-hut village, had started to tire me. In the interior, there was little variety, and while the basic nature of interior civilization has it's romantic aspects, I was yearning for a bit of sophistication. Here, in Dar, I found just that. A bustling, non-aggressive city, it combines Arabic, Indian, and African cultures into one big melting pot - SWAHILI culture. The place is amazingly colorful. Indians men in long white robes, Indian women in colorful saris, Arabic men in turbans and Arabic women in various degrees of veil, and Africans from all over the place in between. The city boasts loads of Hindu temples, Muslim mosques, and Christian churches, and all are next to each other. Religious tolerance crosses cultural history, and all religions have some members of the "other" races. Black Muslims, Christian Indians, etc. There is little obvious tension despite the usual minor bickering. Being woken by the muezzin yelling at full force at 5am might be annoying after a while -- for me it was the sign of a most welcome new diversity. Another sign of this is the great food. In the interior, the fare is bland. Rubbery maize porridge ("pap", "sadza", "nzima") combined with bony meat and no veggies is the standard across countries. Not so here. Wonderful and affordable Indian and Arabic were a welcome rescue from taste bud- boredom. Last but not least, Dar's sophistication is demonstrated by the abundant availability of cheap, fast Internet access. After spending one US$ for a whole hour of surfing and checking my mails from a Pentium III machine with a high-speed connection, I felt distinctly out-of-Africa. The influence of wealthy Omani Arabs and Indians makes that possible. Malawi, in comparison, had one Internet Cafe -- in the whole country.
Dar-es-Salaam was built by Arabic and Indian slave traders. Ironically, the very sophistication I admire today was paid for by the suffering and death of countless Africans. They were captured in the interior by these traders, or by collaborating African warrior tribes, and shipped off to the Middle East and India. When a slave raid hit a village, everyone able to march was captured -- the weak, the old, and the children were slaughtered on the spot. The explorer Livingstone, on one of his expeditions into the interior, reported of "rivers red of blood, and body parts floating down the streams" where the raiders had been. Large areas of today's Malawi and eastern Tanzania were virtually depopulated. On the long march to the coast, half of the captured died. After being auctioned off in Dar and the island of Zanzibar, they were stacked in layers, on top of each other, in the bowels of sailing boats. The trip to the trader's home markets could take several days. Countless slaves died of dehydration and starvation on the trip, and the survivors spent the journey between corpses and excrements. No more than 20% of all captures survived the whole ordeal - and still the slave trade was profitable.
Ironically, for all the evil they did to Africans later, it was the English colonialists who freed the Africans from the slave traders. The English public reacted to Livingstone's reports with outrage, and the Royal Navy was sent in to end the trade. After a short, convincing demonstration of the firepower of their warships, the Sultan of Zanzibar agreed to ban the trade. While there was still trade going on overland to the Mediterranean see, that route was much more difficult and less profitable, so trade practically stopped.
But enough of history. Before heading to the island of Zanzibar, our next destination, Hector and me went to a famous wood carving community, of the Makonde tribe. Their ebony carvings are world renowned, and we wanted to see for ourselves. In an obscure suburb, we found the place. Having imagined a village tucked away somewhere, filled with artists striving to express themselves, I was quite shocked.
All over in the Africa I had seen, wood carving had lost much of it's initial artistic aspect. For most carvers it is the only source of income, and the only customer are tourists. Hence carvers often only produce what they think tourists will buy, which leads to wholesale copying and little creative expressions. Across whole countries, even transnational areas, you can find very similar pieces at every roadside stall.
But here, I had hoped for something different. After all, the Makonde people are the source and inspiration of most of Southern African wood art.
What we found on first sight was a gigantic woodwork "shopping outlet", with more than 100 numbered stalls selling very similar items, and overrun by countless tourists. It was like a deja-vue with a vengeance. Fortunately, we managed to meet some carvers, have some nice small talk (during which I was offered another potential wife), and even find some extraordinary pieces in the sea of copywork. With USD 100+, we could have had some huge thought-daemon creatures. They were carved from one huge and heavy log, were very impressive and nightmare-inspiringly frightful, and most importantly, unique. So originality was to be had, though at a price, and a prospect of getting a 100 kg carved statue home. :)
After shipping off our pickings with a prayer at the Dar-es-Salaam public postal service (via surface mail -- "allow 3-6 months for delivery"), we headed for Zanzibar.
The only true mass tourist destination on the whole trip, Zanzibar was amongst my nicest memories nonetheless. While in the past it had risen though the slave (and later spice) trade like Dar, today tourism was the source of its wealth. That was obvious when we boarded transport to the island. While in Mozambique a motor dhow was high luxury, we were ushered into Australian-made jetfoil catamarans here. High tech, with video-in-transfer, and a whopping USD 20 ticket price for a 90 minute trip. In an typical African arrangement, we didn't buy our tickets regularly at the office. Upon arrival at the port, every tourist is run-over by countless "agents" who offer to get tickets "cheaper". After fighting the 19 excess wannabe dealmakers off, the remaining lucky one told us that tickets for local Dar residents were cheaper (USD 10, as we got to know later). All these guys had arrangements with the ticket offices, bought local tickets, then sold them for slightly less than "tourist price" to tourists, who were promised "no problems". The system worked for us; how the ship operators calculated I'm still wondering today.
Stone Town, the capital of Zanzibar island and former HQ of the Sultan, was pure magic. Like a town from Sherezade's 1001 nights, with palaces, labyrinths of narrow winding streets, old Arabic and Indian buildings, famously and beautifully carved doorframes, and a colorful population. I wandered around town for hours, just enjoying getting lost in the labyrinth, watching old men sit outside playing games, tea and coffee makers prepare and hawk their stuff out on the streets. I played some board games with a group of locals, and felt truly integrated after a short while. A friendly "Jambo" (Swahili "Welcome") from everyone, a relaxed live-and-let-live atmosphere, great cheap seafood... Sure, there were loads of tourists, and the usually pushy tourist salesmen, but the mood on Zanzibar seemed to make it all less important. I spent several days in Stonetown, savouring the vibes.
[Some overlander tourists (who were on a 16 week trip South-to-North) told me a scary tale from Botswana's Okavango Delta, where I had been just weeks before. A student had been attacked by a 5 meter crocodile while boating through the canals in a mocoro. The croc grabbed his arm, and pulled him out of the boat. After fighting it off with bare hands for a whole minute or so, the local boatmen who had fled the scene finally returned and scared the croc away. The poor guy had half his arm severed, and had to be airlifted to Johannesburg for reconstructive surgery. When I heard the story, he had gone through 9 operations, and still expecting more. If he's been local, without a German health insurance, he would have died there. I still get the shivers remembering that I boated right through that area, sitting in the boat no more than 10 cm above the waterline.]
I spent some more days on Zanzibar's beautiful beaches. The atmosphere was similar to Bazaruto - a little piece of paradise, with people making boats on the beach, coconut trees all over, etc. Just a bit more touristy, but the competition meant a better deal for accommodation and food, so I had a great time with some cool people, fireplaces and music at the beach bar. Just like one imagines such a vacation to be. Before heading back, I also visited the spice farms on a "spice tour" run by a Stonetown original, Mr. Mitu, who'd been doing them for 20 years. On the farms all the stuff you see only in powder form here actually grows on trees. Muscat nuts were the most impressive, so colorful and "alien" to the touch, and some fruits that made you sneeze. I got the chance to try lot of fruit I had never even seen before, and some were truly delicious (try Jackfruit!). Funny is that Zanzibar's people despise avocados, which grow there in abundance but are considered not tasty.
Oh, yes, and another interesting detail. Zanzibar is part of the Tanzanian federation, and hence received development aid from Eastern Germany during the cold war. (Tanzania used to be a socialist country). And that shows. Stepping out of Stonetown to the east, you cross a street -- and you find yourself in a typical East German style street with Stalinist-beauty blocks of flats. What a contrast to the Arabic touch a stone throw away! These blocks were actually built by East German engineers! History does indeed leave remarkable monuments. Funny enough, the flats (which in East Germany nobody wants to live in anymore because of the dull atmosphere and small flat sizes) are popular. Many people prefer them to the old historic buildings in Stonetown, since they are breezier, easier to maintain, and some sort of status symbol still. Most of the old buildings in Stonetown are totally run down. They were built by rich merchants who had the money to maintain them. When the socialists threw out the old Sultan regime, the owners got chased away, and the huge houses given over to poor families for social housing. Needless to say, they did not have the necessary funds for maintenance. Funny enough, while the building substance continues to deteriorate and women wash dishes with a bucket in the yard, virtually all of the houses (also the flats) boast huge Satellite TV dishes on the roofs. Talk about priorities.
Here in Zanzibar I decided to call it quits for this time and head down south again. After months on the road, I felt travel fatigue setting in. Sure, Tanzania's north was luring, the Serengeti, and Mt. Kilimandsharo. Not to mention Kenya. But then, one can only see so many wild animals before even that gets slightly ordinary. Bearing the costs in mind (the so-called Northern Safari Circuit and Kili are pricey mainstream tourist areas), I wasn't all that keen. I almost went to Ethiopia, but unfortunately they had to start a war with Eritrea just when I wanted to book my flight there, so I dropped that plan, too.
I left Zanzibar with difficulty, I had become quite addicted to its vibes. I planned to leave the island, and catch the Tuesday TAZARA train going all the way to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia. I hadn't calculated Africa. When I arrived at the station, I had still an hour of time before departure. The lengthy info session of two white students before me didn't bother me. Until, when I wanted to buy my ticket, the conductor informed me that my train had left 5 minutes ago. The departure time had been pushed forward by an hour, which I had been blissfully unaware of. Next train Friday.
As it turned out, that was a lucky circumstance. The two exchange students, a Norwegian guy and a Dutch girl, "adopted" me and gave me shelter in their place at Dar-es-Salaam University. I got to see yet another side of Dar and meet many locals, which would not have happened without that accident. On our first night, I helped them collect questionnaires for a survey done in the student residences. Quite an experience. Tapping through slightly decayed socialist style high-rise dorms, meeting students and seeing the Tanzanian student life. In most aspects, it wasn't all that different from, say Germany, but in one thing. There are 3 times as many students as dorm places. In an African solution, the students take SHIFTS occupying their rooms. Two students sleep during the morning, two during the afternoon, two at night. In rotation. Study happens outside, open air. I found that pretty cool. :) The students I met were quite patient indeed, and kept on going about their studies with remarkable ease.
On our second night, we visited the USA. Or better, American territory -- we went for an English-movie-party at the US Marines Base in Dar. It's quite different from what I was used to, with all the brushed marines and the expat-only party visitors, real hamburgers and hot dogs, a surreal scene in the midst of a sweltering African city. The area also inspired awe - the base was situated in one of the wealthiest areas of Dar - villas, palaces and embassies en masse. Only shows that there's more than tin shacks to Africa.
On an overnight trip, I went to Bagamoyo - a small town close to Dar that was the capital of then German Tanganyika, the other of the two German colonies in southern Africa (besides South West Africa / Namibia). Today it's a sleepy place, dreaming of long lost glory days as capital, with some derelict ruins as proof of what used to be. I visited a famous mission, manned by German missionaries, and had a pleasant chat in German with the fathers. Then I watched boat makers practice their trade on the beach. Later I met a choir, who had come down from Dar for a practice session on the beach. The choir had split into two groups that were singing in a contest, and I just sat in the sand, listening to their great voices. Later we got to chat, and introduce each other, and I was invited to a concert. In the evening of that day, I visited a carving school right at the beach, run by a Swedish teacher, where I chatted to students and got invited to dinner. I just love Tanzanian hospitality!
The following day I left Dar, finally caught my train, and was on my way to Zambia. I had considered flying back straight to Harare before - after all I wasn't sure whether the upper Zambezi (in Zambia) was crossable, since the floods had been there almost as badly as in Mozambique and Zimbabwe. But I decided against it - it would have cost an extra 300 USD, I would not have seen Zambia, and it would have been out of sync with the feel of the trip.
My two new friends joined me on the train down south. We met some interesting people on the way, like an Indian pharma salesman who went to set up a branch of his company in Lumumbashi, in war-torn Congo! Well, sure enough there was/is demand there for medicine. Along with them I met some Indian traders, who uniformly thought that blacks were crap, and a nice, old former Anglican Church minister from Tanzania. Unfortunately, after having chatted with us for the whole day, this man of God proceeded to steal my wristwatch while I was sleeping, and left the train early in the morning before I woke up. Amen.
My friends left at the Malawi border, and I continued into Zambia, where I arrived after a whopping 36 hours. I had heard both good and bad about Zambia. Friends who'd been there had described it as their favourite country - the friendliest people, very eloquent, great English speakers. Yet Zambian roadblocks and corruption ("what present do you have for me?") were also famous. I was curious.
Kapiri Mposhi wasn't much of a town, so I continued straight towards the so-called Copperbelt area, where I wanted to visit an orphanage for chimpanzees that two girls had raved about on Zanzibar. My first Zambian expression was bad though. After luring some passengers into a nice midi-bus, and offering a reasonable price for transport to Chingola, we were dumped just 100m down the road from the station. "The bus isn't full" we were told - and hence it wouldn't go. An old, beat-up Hiace (smaller than a Volkswagen minibus) pulled up, and we were asked to all squeeze in there! Needless to say, there wasn't enough space. After endless arguments, I got to sit on the co-drivers seat, with all others compacted to 50% size in the back. After a long drive to Ndola, a large town about 100 km short of my destination, the trouble continued. The driver refused to continue to Chingola, and proceeded to demand MORE money than we had agreed on, for just the shorter distance he had driven. Another huge argument ensued, the police came, and in the end, I ended up paying and looking for other transport. After another exhausting bus ride, I finally arrived in Chingola. So much for Zambian friendliness (though I must say that, all the way, most of the passengers supported my side in the argument. Yet they had enough experience to know that everyone would end up paying anyway, and so it happened).
Chingola, then, turned out to offer a completely different experience. I had gotten off at the wrong bus station (I hadn't expected a small town to have to major terminals!), I was lost. I stood there looking rather pitiful, and immediately people came up to me, offering help. Matters whether the locals have had exposure to tourists, and up in Chingola there must have been a few a year!
So a woman knew about the Chimpanzee orphanage, and she walked me across half the town, to introduce me to her friend who worked there, whose son drove me to their office. Cool!! Two Zambian experiences the same day, and so different.
So I got to meet the people who ran the chimp orphanage. One of the few white families I had met "up north", they were a good example of post-colonialists. Great in some aspects, horrible in others. I got to know them rather well, since I had to spend a few days with them waiting for a lift out to the project (which was 70km away in the bush). Extremely hospitable if you were white, extremely patriarchal if you were black, and glorifying the times when Zambia was still run "properly" by the British and blossoming landscapes were everywhere. Still had some pleasant talks with them, as long as you don't touch the race issues.
The Chimfunshi chimp orphanage was quite amazing. Besides almost a hundred chimps of all ages, it also cared for some other animals, and best of all - a fully grown hippo! Across the river from the project, there was the Republic of Congo. The beauty of the river makes you forget that a brutal war was raging over there.
The chimps that get there are the ones that nobody wants anymore. Some of them were bought as pets and then abandoned, some confiscated from smugglers by police, others have escaped laboratories. I went out with a group of 8 baby chimps, playing with them in the forest. It's an amazing experience! They all have characters, different from each other! They play with each other, and climb on/jump on/dangle from you all the time. Considering that an adult chimp is about four times as strong as a human, you can imagine what impact it has when even a baby jumps on your back from a four meter tree!! Try keeping your balance... They all love to be carried around, so once you have one on your back/shoulders/head, the others get jealous and climb on you, too. So you end up with 4-5 chimps hanging from you in various positions, and chasing each other meanwhile, while the one on top puts his hands over your eyes just for fun. :)
They are smart, too - if you don't watch it, they will try to empty your pockets, steal your wristwatch, and escape with all you own into some tree. They usually don't like giving it back, either. One of them, Alfi, managed to steal my shoelaces and we had to chase him for quite a while before I had them back. He enjoyed himself a lot meanwhile. It's funny how humane their sounds are - you know exactly when they are sad, afraid, or amused, and the caregivers can emulate their sounds to some degree and even communicate in "ape language". Cool stuff. I was very impressed with this experience, and it was definitely worth the long trip.
Too bad I didn't get to see the hippo too much. He had been thrown at with stones by a crazy French backpacking women traveling with a suitcase through Africa, who wanted to make a picture of him "in action". The hippo disapproved, and the women was saved from being planarized last moment by the project owners. The hippo had been sulking inside a pig sty for days when I came. I didn't wanna try to see it the same style, so I had to sneak a peak from outside. Still, believe me, seeing a fully grown hippopotamus sitting next to domestic animals right there was something different.
From Chingola, I proceeded to Lusaka. Like the rest of Zambia, Lusaka attracts few tourists. There is only one backpackers in the capital, and even that one was too new to be mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide. The capital is rather non-descript - a typical faceless southern African metropolis. But the people were truly amazing. It was so easy to get in touch, the locals themselves came up to me to chat. One important feature was that they all spoke English - even amongst each other. Since there are 76 different dialects in Zambia, people commonly use English to speak to anyone but their village neighbor. The city population is also pretty sophisticated - I had a couple of deeper conversations - and there seems to be little racial tension between blacks and whites. Very different from the countryside. I meet a lot of cool people with cool stories. Needless to say, I enjoyed Lusaka a lot more than I thought I would, and a planned one-night stopover became a four day visit.
From Lusaka, I went straight to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. On the way, I met a beautiful and smart Zambian lady, with whom I spent some nice days in Harare. What surprised me was the stares! Zimbabwe has, after all, been liberated from the colonialists much longer than South Africa, and I figured that racial tension would be low. Also, during the two times I visited the country previously, there was much less tension than in SA. Yet when I and Kezia walked the streets of Harare hand in hand, people would stop in their tracks, start pointing fingers at us. We caused so much upheaval, it was shocking. As Kezia wrote, even after I had ultimately left, people would shout to her "Where is your mzungus?" in the street. It was a weird mixture of astonishment and disapproval that we felt. The fact that she was Zambian and hence didn't understand a word of Shona (local Northern Zimbabwean accent) didn't help. People would yell things to her, which she (maybe thank God) didn't understand.
As the pinnacle of this, we almost got arrested. After spending the day in town, we were saying good bye in a park in town. It got dark, we enjoyed the privacy of not getting stared at, when suddenly three uniformed guys showed up. After a rough "WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?" and lots of shouting we were accused of "Loitering in a public park after closing time". Never mind the park had no gates and closing times noted anywhere, and were not "loitering" but just cuddling a bit. Anyway, before we knew what happened we were handcuffed to each other (funny enough, how that would have kept us from running off I wanna know until today). The policemen - at least that's what they said they were - were in the process of hauling us off to the local police station.
Hearing that plan, I got VERY nervous. This was Africa, after all, and you would, under NO circumstances, wanna be in any cell at all. I had heard of another backpacker who had been arrested for "public consumption of alcohol" on Christmas day (25/12/99). After the guardians of public order put him in jail, they went on holiday! He sat in a stinking cell, with 20 people crammed into 10 sqm, until January 2nd! Then someone came to see them, and when he asked when the hell anything would be done about his case, the officer went "looking for your file". After a while, he came back and told the baffled backpacker "I can't find the file. Just get outta here!", and he was released. So he sat in for the whole holiday week for absolutely nothing!
I could not risk that fate - my bus to Joburg went at 10pm that night, and besides I wasn't eager to taste Zimbabwean prison life. So I took the leading officer aside and tried to solve the issue the "African way". "I know you are just doing your job, officer, and I am duly sorry for my error. I apologize. Now, I do need to reach my bus tonight, and cannot afford to miss my meeting in Joburg. And my friend here cannot afford the scandal of arrest, you know, the family will disapprove, it would be a catastrophe. I also know that you are not paid very well. Perhaps, if I could help you out..."
The moment I mentioned "helping out" the atmosphere changed completely. He took me aside, removed my cuffs, held me gently by the hand, and we negotiated. Fortunately, I had only about 3 USD left in my wallet since, outside of Zimbabawe, the Zim$ currency is completely worthless. So, in a dramatic gesture, I pulled the remaining bundle of noted out of my wallet, said "I'll give you all I have, if we can forget about this". He took the bundle, and after short inspection, waved us off. Whether he couldn't see in the dark exactly how much he had "earned", or whether 3 bucks were worth it to him, I wonder. Still, we were off as quick as the wind before he could reconsider, and fortunately the only thing that remained of the affair was my first near-arrest and my first classic bribery of an official. :) Gotta have done than when you've been in Africa for so long, after all.
Anyway, there isn't much to be told about Harare (former Salisbury) - a modern, post-colonial capital, with some nice areas, some colonial architecture, but nothing very special. Not as sophisticated as Joburg, for instance, but with 3km lines at the petrol stations. When I was there, resentment towards my President Mugabe, or "Bob" as everyone calls him there, was skyhigh because of the fuel crisis, and the farm occupations were just starting. Everyone seemed to hate the president, so I wonder how he will survive the upcoming elections. Besides, the locals were rather sophisticated (similar level to Zambia), but not as accessible since they use Shona as language, and I don't know a word of that. Anyway, I spent a few more days, shopping and wrapping things up.
I tried to meet up with my two friends from Dar-es-Salaam, who had planned to make their way down through Malawi and meet me in Harare, but that didn't work out. Also, I had to cancel my planned excursion to the famous Chimanimani Mountains, since the area had been torn apart by the floods and was neither accessible nor pleasant to go to. My planned journey south via luxury train also failed, since the bridge at the South African border post Beitbridge had been washed away and the improvised new bride was only accessible by bus. So, after a 24hr bus ride I returned to "home-sweet-home" South Africa, and my trip had concluded.
I spent some more days, staying with a colleague's family, wrapping things up. I said good-bye to as many friends as I could reach (too few, unfortunately), and visited "my" projects one last time. Unfortunately, when I visited Holy Trinity High, my kids told me that there hadn't been any proper lecture since I had left. My co-teacher had told them that "the network was being installed", and not given any practical lessons at all. Instead, they were going over last year's material (the transparencies I made) again. Having seen the technical state of the lab, I know that there was no network being installed. So the bullshit was flying again. The money promised for the upgrades had still not arrived, and rather than progressing, the program was regressing into previous decay quickly. There were rumors that my co-teacher locked himself into the lab again and played computer games. So much for sustainable development aid.
I told the kids that they'd have to demand to be taught, but with the authority structure in local society being as rigid as it was, I doubt that they ever will. I'll be in touch just to see, maybe I'll be proven wrong.
So, after a few days, I was back at Joburg International Airport. After I had escorted so many of my friends there, it was finally me who boarded that plane. 14 Hours later, Germany had me back, and the African chapter of my life had been closed, for the time being.
So, what about it all, now? I am not sure. I am still ambivalent as to whether SA was "good for me" or not.
Surely, one objective has been met. I went there to lose some of my "rough edges", to become more tolerant of failure, both mine and others'. So become a bit "softer", and sensitive to pain of others. I think that has happened. I was exposed to so much personal challenges, and failure; I failed myself so badly and was so weak even when others were strong, that I have grown much more tolerant towards people's weakness. I know, I've waded in shit knee-deep for weeks, I've been afraid, felt useless, so when someone is in that same situation, I won't condemn quickly. Before, I used to think that everyone is capable of success, all the time, its just a matter of attitude. Not anymore.
In another aspect, maybe SA wasn't good for me. I have lost a bit of my drive "to the top", to perform, to be the best everywhere. It all seems less relevant. Some of it seems to be coming back slowly, but I have been feeling fairly numb and devoid of orientation since I came back to Germany. While friends have told me that I have matured tremendously (and accumulated lots more gray hair *smile*), they also say I am not as energetic as I used to be. I have felt tired and insecure more often, in memory of my South African experience.
As to whether I have contributed to the "uplifting of the 3rd world", I am not sure either. I have made a difference for a few individuals, like my school kids, or the kids at Mohau (one of whom is dead now, and the others won't live long). My attempts at structural reform at the school seem to be falling apart now that I have turned my back. Ubuntu center is doing things as they've always done, and if I hadn't been there, not much would be different. And Outreach, though still functional, seems to be in the falling end of it's life cycle. I can say I have tried, at least.
What my experience has killed is the shiny image of development work. It isn't glorious, it often poses ethical dilemmas (will I be cushioned, well, paid, 4x4 driving aid worker, or will I REALLY be there in the slums, taking all the discomfort of LIVING WITH the target group of my efforts?). There is way too much abuse of volunteers and employees in the NGO sector, people being exploited, bosses aspiring to be "geniuses", or being a close second to Jesus himself. The idea of living a life driven by idealism, the idea of getting up in the morning with that spring in your step because you're doing the right thing - all that is so easily killed by the day-to-day frustrations of real life at doing good. So many efforts simply become undone the moment you pull out. So much corruption makes it all so difficult. It's a rough world out there, if you wanna do the right thing. In the end, it seems that most people start with idealism into that path, and after a while it all becomes just routine and a job. An underpaid and overstressed job, where you are exposed to much more unreasonable bosses and little recourse if you are treated wrongly (This is my kingdom, and I am the king). And in the larger organizations (UN and co.) you spend much more time pushing paper than actually helping. Not quite the glorious career I had imagined it to be.
So what remains is the insight that the for-profit sector has some distinct advantages from an employee perspective, and that you can still be a philanthropist and make some real impact if all you have is money.
Of Africa, I have had enough for the time being. I will be back to visit, but I have little desire to live there, and the often cited "Africa ache" to return I don't feel. Yet I would not trade the experience for anything else, as difficult as it has been, because I think it formed something in me which I cannot yet describe, but which I know matters. But it's time for something new.
Ingo Boltz, Berlin, 13/06/2000