Friday, August 19, 2011

Johannesburg Reborn

"To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." ---Nelson Mandela

It felt good to be back in South Africa. We flew from Victoria Falls into Johannesburg mid-day Thursday, and spent the afternoon catching up on emails in the hotel lobby. Dinner was at the hotel restaurant, an Irish Pub with outdoor seating, on a nice summer evening. We had Bass ale and more spicy curry stews--a clash of cultures that worked in this local cuisine.

The clash of culture works on a broader scale too, though South Africans of all stripes seem to have trouble believing it. They point out their differences, which are really great strengths. There's a colorful, powerful energy in this new country--its people just need to believe it.

Much of the country's success certainly comes from its tremendous early leadership. South Africa was lucky to have both Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk at the helm when apartheid crumbled--here were two men from opposing sides, working together for common purpose. They led the country peacefully through the rocky transition from apartheid to full democracy for all of South Africa's citizens. And they certainly earned their joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

"There can thus be no real peace without constant effort, planning and hard work. Peace, therefore, is not an absence of conflict or a condition of stagnation. Peace is a frame of mind."---F.W. de Klerk, from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. (Read the entire speech here--it's beautiful).

Their Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a revolutionary method of conflict resolution, went a long way toward defusing the pent-up anger and resentment from 80 years of apartheid. If Mugabe was an example of extreme tyranny in Zimbabwe, De Klerk and Mandela were the radical opposite. Twenty years later, there is tremendous hope and progress in South Africa, while over the border Zimbabwe is sliding into anarchy. There could not be a greater disparity between two otherwise similar countries.

Our last days in South Africa were lessons in conflict and what can happen when justice is finally served, so that the people can move forward together. Know the past, be clear about what happened, but then leave it behind--this seems to be the theme of the new South Africa.

Friday we hopped in a tour van and made our way around Jo-burg, as the locals affectionately call their city. The tour had an apartheid theme, and we learned a lot. We started in Soweto. What a fascinating place! This is where the anti-apartheid movement was born--where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu lived, and where many prominent black politicians still keep a home.

Soweto isn't all slums. Many little homes were lovingly maintained, and construction for newly minted black professionals looked just like American housing tracts. Our tour guide, Sizwe, grew up and still lives in Soweto. He joked about the streets of mini-mansions, affectionately called 'Beverly Hills' by township residents.

Soweto today boasts good public services. Nearby is the largest public hospital in the world. The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is a good quality teaching hospital. And affordable too.

Nearby, the University of Johannesburg's Soweto campus provides excellent teaching in modern classrooms:

Our next stop was the Hector Pieterson Museum, a permanent exhibit on Soweto's student uprisings.

In June 1976, schoolchildren marched to protest newly minted education laws. The kids had many grievances with the government at the time, including forced instruction in Afrikaans. Older children, preparing for college and previously taught wholly in English, were suddenly being tested in Afrikaans. Good students were 'flunking' their college entrance exams.

Even children could see how unfair that was--it was the final straw.

The kids marched, and the government freaked out--if they couldn't control the children here, how could they pretend to control the blacks and coloreds in the rest of the country? They went in with tanks, dogs and live bullets. 500 people died in protests that day--Hector Pieterson, a 12-year old boy, among them.

We visited Regina Mundi church, famous as a gathering place for anti-apartheid politicians, and for sheltering kids from gunfire during the student uprising. You could still see the bullet holes in the walls, from the military crackdown in 1976.

The church is a symbol to many in the world of non-violent resistance--Bill and Hillary Clinton visited several years ago to honor the place where the end of apartheid began.

Beautiful stained glass tells the story of the black struggle for freedom. It all started here, in Soweto:

Mark made a vendor lady outside the church very happy with his purchase:

Our last stop that day was the Apartheid Museum. Here we got a thorough history lesson--compelling, and condemning. In the end, it was obvious to the rest of the world that South Africa had gone down the wrong path. The country was ostracized by the modern world with boycotts and international protests. To their credit, the South Africa's leaders made a conscious choice to change.

In 1886 gold was discovered on a farm here, and a gold rush was on. The mines were what brought the population to the region in the beginning--they're the reason for Jo-burg's very existence. And they still mine gold within the city limits:

We learned that, though so much has improved in South Africa in the past twenty years, some problems clearly remain--AIDS and crime are stil major issues here. But there's a surprisingly positive feel to the place.

People smile, they mix and mingle, they treat each other outwardly with a respect that's surprising. The country hosted a wildly successful World Cup tournament in 2010, with few speed bumps. It's clearly ready for the big-time.

Many people asked whether I felt safe while I was in Johannesburg. The city definitely had its problems in the '90s, as poor people flooded to the city center from the townships, and refugees from other war-torn African countries came for work.

But things seemed quite settled during our visit. I read later that the economy grew nicely through the 2000's. We saw the big commercial centers, with big banking and many mining companies headquartered here. It's also the largest 'dry' port in the world--I learned that half the country's imports arrive in Jo-burg for processing, after they leave its big seaports. There's a strong retail sector here (we visited one of the huge upscale malls that dot the suburbs when we saw 'The King's Speech' before our evening flight home). And the roads are well-lit and nicely paved.

Jo-burg is definitely grittier than Cape Town. It reminds me of New Jersey--bustling, traffic, people rushing off to work, colorful faces, power lines, highways, skyscrapers. In a word, robust.

The cooling towers of Soweto's own electric power plant:

To me, much of the beauty of Jo-burg lies in its strong economy, which creates a healthy standard of living for all. There's a sense that there's enough for everyone. The city isn't scary, it's exciting. There's so much change, and hope here--I expect to come back in twenty years and be startled all over again by the changes that I see.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Aardvark to Zebras---Going Wild in Africa

Southern Africa's people are fascinating. You could spend 20 years trying to wrap your mind around the complicated history here.

But Africa is just as famous for its wildlife. The Big Five grace book covers and wall hangings and jewelry in every gift shop we stumbled across. People come from all over the world to experience a safari. So a trip to southern Africa just wouldn't be complete for me without checking out a zebra or two in the wild.

I found that first safari trip was just the beginning. Because like Doritos, you can't enjoy just one! Once you try it, you're hooked. We were lucky to spend nearly two full days traipsing after wildlife on this particular trip. And it just whet my appetite for more.

During our stay with the Blessmans we visited Legend Wildlife and Cultural Center near Mokopane, Limpopo Province in South Africa:

Here game keepers and naturalists care for a special strain of lion. We learned that inbreeding has made each generation of white lion more vulnerable to malformation and disease. But through careful cross-breeding with healthy normal lions, it's possible to strengthen the entire white lineage.

White lions are popular on game preserves, and with hunters too. And since wildlife tourism is big money for South Africa, you can see why they'd work hard to keep these animals healthy:

That afternoon we visited Entabene, a private game reserve near the Blessman ranch. An incredible afternoon melted into evening on the enormous preserve:

Looking forward to a great game drive:

You can see the Entabeni ridgeline for miles around:

Ant hill, or aardvark den?

Now you see him, now you don't. A black-backed jackal scuttles through the bush:

Amazingly, some of our best sightings came after dark. Toward sunset our driver, Simon, got a call over the shortwave radio from another jeep in the field. They had come upon a grand old male lion lying asleep by the trail.

He'd been seen eating a fresh gazelle carcass early in the day, and now looked three sheets to the wind. We raced to the spot--then slowly, quietly Simon cut the engine and we sat in awe, watching that big old boy sleep off his meal:

We came upon these rhinos in a ditch by the road. One of the Big Five, rhinos can be aggressive. I felt a bit safer sitting in the center of the jeep when we came up on them:

The next week, we dipped over the border from Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls to spend a full day in one of Botswana's best parks:

In Chobe National Park we expected to see elephants. There were said to be over 60,000 of them. They don't cull the herd, and the elephants have no fear of humans. We got our wish--and then some:

From Elephant bath at Chobe National Park

From Mud slinging baby elephant at Chobe National Park

Some of the best wildlife viewing at Chobe was from the river:

After seeing only the snouts of hippos peeping from their watering holes all day, it was fun to see this (whole) hippo grazing in the marsh:

Watching a warthog family jostle and play:

A scene right out of a National Geographic special--a dung beetle doing its thing:

Traveling to Africa for volunteer work I didn't expect to see so much of the natural world. But maybe because it came as a surprise, I loved it all the more. Like I said about Doritos, you can't try just one--on that last day in Chobe I vowed that someday I'd be back.

Mixed Feelings in Zimbabwe

If our three days in Cape Town were magical, Zimbabwe was a different story.

Zimbabwe is beautiful in its own way. It's scenery and wildlife are extraordinary. But our group was strangely uneasy the few days we were there. Something just didn't feel right, and I didn't understand the reason until well after we got home.

In Johannesburg airport, we reunited with Ollie. Together we boarded our international flight to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on the next leg of our adventure:

The wait at customs was agonizingly slow. There were two desks, side-by-side, with two disdainful clerks stationed behind them--languidly perusing our passports, (pausing to chat casually with a colleague), collecting fees, (going to use the men's room), and (finally) issuing our 30-day visas.

Outside, we ran a gauntlet of oversolicitous porters. I must have spent $30 in tips just getting from the plane to our hotel room door.

Our travel agent in South Africa originally suggested hotels for us across the river in neighboring Zambia, which shares Victoria Falls. Since the rooms on that side of the falls were billed as luxurious, and we were on a charity trip, we opted for more modest lodgings in Zimbabwe.

We stayed at The Kingdom Hotel. The rooms were well-stocked with toiletries. The pool was clean, and the lawn neatly mowed. But the grounds were deserted.

And though the hotel staff were polite, no one smiled. A photo of stern-faced President Robert Mugabe looming over their front desk didn't put any of us at greater ease. I wasn't sure who felt more 'watched', the tourists or the workers themselves. The whole complex had the vague feel of Soviet Russia:

Though the hotel was clearly half-booked, the only rooms 'available' to us were way in the back. Strange.

Once unpacked we looked over the nearby excursions. That first night we took a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. Which was absolutely delightful.

A troupe of dancers greeted us at the dock:

The 'smoke' of Victoria Falls just downriver:

The boat was a pontoon, with an aging look to it. A melancholy staff served free drinks and appetizers, and we sat back to hear the softly-played music fill the night. A timeless beauty slipped past us as we cruised the Zambezi River, just above the Falls:

Our guide taught us so much about the local wildlife. He pointed out the hippo watering holes, and knew the names of all the birds passing over and around us.

A young Shona singer entertained us as the sun set:

Shona musician

From Zambezi River cruise

That night we tried fast-food, Zimbabwe-style. The Chicken Inn looked like a typical food-court joint. The young staff wore fresh-pressed uniforms and greeted us with smiles. But my chicken 'wings' were skin and bone. I ordered a watered-down smoothie and hoped it would be enough to hold me 'til breakfast.

For change, I got a wrinkled $2 US bill and we all chuckled. I hadn't seen one in 25 years! Later we would see the worthless Zimbabwean paper dollars for sale as souvenirs on the street.

Internet access at the hotel was promised, but spotty. It was in-and-out the whole time we were there. And after pestering Mark to use his laptop to email home, only to have the hotel's system go offline for several hours, I decided I'd concede to our isolation from the world. I knew we'd be back in South Africa soon enough.

At breakfast we enjoyed fresh guava fruit at the hotel buffet:

That morning Greg, Leslie and I boarded a van to Chobe National Park, in neighboring Botswana (more about Chobe in my next post). After my first taste of safari at the Blessman ranch, I couldn't wait to get back into the bush to see more wildlife. I hoped it would be a highlight of our trip to Victoria Falls, and it turned out I was right!

Later that day, Greg went into town for an inexpensive pair of sandals for the Falls tour the next morning.

The street vendors fought over him aggressively with promises of the perfect shoe for a good price. But after several side-trips down narrow alleys, he was offered only shoes too big or over-priced--and almost gave up in despair. One audacious vendor even asked to buy the sneakers right off Greg's feet! It was a strange and silly goose chase.

Finally, someone conceded in price. And though more than they would be worth at home, he took them.

That night we ventured into town to try a local restaurant. The food was delicious, but the service was slow and the live musical performance too loud for table talk. We finally headed home on foot in the dark, mobbed by hawkers and starting to feel exhausted by the unwelcome surprises of this place.

Fortunately, the next day was a treat. We spent the morning gazing at Victoria Falls, as we walked along an outcropping just opposite it. It's the largest falling sheet of water in the world.

Victoria Falls National Park--the "Smoke that Thunders":

"Dr. Livingstone, I presume?". The immortal Victorian explorer was the first European to set eyes on the falls, in 1855. Our tour guide, Alexander, told us that the local people still respect Livingstone for his role in banishing slavery from this part of Africa:

Soaking wet at the top of the Falls:

As we walked back to the front gate, Alexander talked. He told us about his family-- how his grandfather was tortured and imprisoned after the country gained independence, for speaking out against Mugabe's regime. He told us about the famine in 2008 where many people starved, a result of unproductive farming methods following Mugabe's politically motivated land 'reforms',and the government's subsequent refusal to permit food aid distribution to political 'enemies.' Many thousands of people died in Zimbabwe's interior, unlucky to live so far from the border where they might otherwise have had some chance of sneaking across to buy food in neighboring Zambia or South Africa.

Of course I had read about Mugabe. I knew vaguely that his government was dysfunctional at best, and oppressive at worst. But here was a citizen of the country in the flesh quietly, not complaining but confiding in us, speaking of the sad truth of daily life in Zimbabwe.

These days the average Zimbabwean was waiting (but not hoping, he said, as that would be un-Christian), for Mugabe to die. I learned later from the US Department of State website that "Criticism of the President is a crime in Zimbabwe." Radio and TV programming were strictly censored. Modern healthcare was entirely lacking. The roads were unlit and unsafe.

This helped explain the weariness we felt from the people we met there.

What made this country change from one of the richest and most democratic countries in Africa, to one of its poorest and most oppressed? These books helped me make better sense of what I saw and heard on my trip:

When A Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin, 2008

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller, 2003