Thursday, November 6, 2008

The aptly named Big Hole

Again... I'm far behind on blog entries. This one should be dated September 15th

I smsed my friend. Indeed to my right, a large wetland area appeared covered in places by a pink sheen. Flamingoes flying, flamingoes standing, fishing. Incredible.

I had been on the road for six hours and switched Khumbis four times to get here, but in a few moments I would arrive in Kimberly. The large wetland area is a tourist attraction here and one of the largest gatherings of these oddly elegant waterfowl in the world.

This past weekend I took a trip to a neighboring town/city, which is where two volunteers are stationed. The town, Kimberly, is immersed in the sort of quirky history that the English are exceptionally good at telling.

Kimberly’s birth came from diamonds being found in a nearby field. This is the town where the De Beers mine is located and where the headquarters of De Beers mining company is located. It was here that John Cecil Rhodes literally drew the modern map of southern Africa, though now Northern Rhodesia is called Zambia and Southern Rhodesia is called Zimbabwe.

The McGregor museum is Kimberly’s largest, so a fellow volunteer and I decided to scope it out. It was particularly interesting in both what it contained and what it did not contain. Though extensive effort had been made to incorporate the history of the native Africans into the museum, it seemed the history stopped when the diamonds were discovered. This is by no means the fault of the original curators, as the English are notoriously good at recording history, making even some mundane activity noteworthy of extracting from a diary and placing on a museum display. The Africans were not as good at this or at least it didn’t seem so from the exhibit, and so the exhibit was fairly Anglo-centered.

The building itself, an old Sanatorium (fancy word for old fashioned health retreat) was wonderful in all it’s Victorian splendor. Altogether quintessentially British. The town itself retains trappings from that era, from beautiful cathedral that I was told had the longest nave in Southern Africa... or was it the South Hemisphere... regardless, it was a massive structure built a century ago- stepping inside it is like taking a step back to those times, to the parks and buildings, all steeped in English charm.

But Kimberly is not British, it is South African. While I was there I attended the finals to a province-wide cultural dance contest, which was incredible. to be continued

Saturday, October 4, 2008

So I'm in Africa

After a year in South Africa, I have finally been on my first daytime safari in the Pilanesberg National Park in Northwest Province. It was awe-inspirinig. We left Johannesberg at five in the morning to arrive at the park shortly after it opened. At first, we saw nothing, then in the distance a few wildebeests appeared in the early morning sunshine. The trick on safaris is not to look at the bush, but to look through the bush.

Our next sight was a warthog who decided that it liked to travel on the dirt path rather than the bush. It's family was a little bit further on, little wart-hoglets? following a larger hog. The car slowed and we caught glimpses of zebra through the high grasses. Little did we know how many more zebra we would see.

My first sighting were three kudu on a ridge, which was magnificent because there were no trees in the way and we could watch them adeptly manuever up the mountainside.

After a turn, we stopped as my friend has seen an elephant. Upon closer examination, there was an entire herd of them, including two calves being lorded over by there aunt.. or so I was told.

And nearby in a place called predator world:

Monday, September 29, 2008

Pain beneath the surface

This weekend I was reminded that though I live in a relatively peaceful country, the rest of Africa can be brutal.

“[The rebels – Lord’s Resistance Army] would come into the mission and say, I want food. You had to give them food. They would kill you otherwise and take your food. If they saw you had a car they said give me the keys to your car and I will let you keep your lips. There would be times when you would see a beautiful woman who had her lips cut off and you knew that this wasn’t just a threat.” He went on to describe other atrocities that I would not like to post online. The conversation had not started like this, it was I who asked him about his experiences in Uganda.

“Do you see these scars?” He said, showing me marks on his legs. “These are from bullets in Uganda. We were praying rosary when raiders came and started shooting. One of the women with me was shot through the buttocks. I crawled on hands and knees through thorns.” He paused to examine his hands. “The wounds from the thorns have since healed. I don’t remember how I ended up in my bed, just remember the gunfire and crawling, but somehow I made it there. Luckily no one was killed. The bishop allowed me to rest for a week to recover.”

Yet despite having survived this, he expressed a joy in life that was infectious. His eyes would sparkle and a genuine smile would illuminate his face, his white teeth seemingly illuminated in his dark face. His faith was in God and in people, and he truly embodied the African spirit of Ubuntu, that you are a person, and as a person he respects you, he radiated the feeling of mutual respect for one another. I was his guest at the mission and we talked as equals. As we are both aid workers, we shared our frustrations with the work and also what kept us motivated to do the work we did. It was inspiring to be with those two, sharing stories

On the way back to my own site, I sat in the car next to man who I could tell was not a Tswana. In his hands was a magazine with a script that looked closer to Arabic that anything I had seen in South Africa. We got to talking and I learned that he was an Ethiopian political refugee. Naturally, I was curious and attempted to be discreet in asking as to the reasons for fleeing his country and he went on to explain that it was locked in conflict, whether internal, or with Eritrea. He told stories of hitchhiking, running, and waiting on his long trek from Ethiopia to South Africa. He told of those in his group who were eaten by lions in Kenya, others who were left behind, others who didn’t make it.

Regardless of this, he wanted to pay for my taxi fare. I was humbled, feeling selfish, a little guilty for having it so easy in my life. I felt at fault for my initial disbelief. The atrocities that were so easy to dismiss in literature was now face to face with me, a dark undercurrent to the continent, a continent scarred over and over again, but a continent which somehow through it all has maintained an infectious, almost spontaneous joy. People who are genuinely happy to see you, who will stop time for you, because you are a person. Not all Africans are like this, but it is incredible to see this survive in the face of such atrocities.

p.s. If you click on the picture, you should be able to see a baboon running away from me.

Friday, September 26, 2008


(This entry was written after I stayed a few nights in Pretoria, one of the capitals of South Africa, and what had been an all white city, now slowly being integrated, I was in Pretoria on Peace Corps business and a rugby tournament was taking place, so the hostel was pretty full, some blokes invited me to share the warmth of their kameeldorn, camelthorn fire)

We had been gathering around a fire for awhile. As usual, I was the interesting outsider, which gave me an opportunity to share Peace Corps goals as well as my personal goal, as many of these conversations go, the talk turned to the future of South Africa.

“Where do you think South Africa is going?”

My usual answer is that it depends largely on the average South African and that it is my job to make sure that the South Africans I come into contact with, no matter the race, are both educated and emboldened to take their future in their hands.

You see, Philip. I talked to some blokes from Zim (Zimbabwe) yesterday, and they say we’re headed down that same path.

He was referring to the land repossession in Zimbabwe, where under the Mugabe government, land is taken from whites and then given to the blacks, in an effort to empower the blacks and reconcile the ills of the past, when blacks were forced off their land.

“Now let me tell you, the minute they start taking my land from me, land that has been in my family for generations, I will fight for it. That land is my heritage, my great grandfather bought it on bond, cleared it, made it productive. I want to give that land to my children and if armed men show up at my farm with weapons to take me off my land, they will have a fight on their hands. I will be dead, but so will about a hundred of them.”

“We will give up to a point. If they buy our land from us, then it’s different, but I’m a farmer, I want to farm. That’s my life. I’m good at farming, my farm is productive. Why should I have to give up doing what I’m good at?”

“It’s not that we don’t want to help. We understand what was done in the past was wrong, and let me tell you, if I were of a different race, I would be so enraged by the inequalities that I’d probably commit crimes to right the balance, but I’m not.”

“As I’ve said, I’ve tried to help. I’ve had labourers on my land who I taught how to farm and now they are doing the same on the tribal land. They’re taking a risk because the land belongs to the chief, if he wants to take it back, he can and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’ll be trapped because the rest of the society wants what they have, and they feel entitled to it, so they take it. That’s the end of that man’s time and effort. It hasn’t happened yet, but it could.”

“I’ll give you that there are some racists out there, people who don’t want to do anything with the blacks, but that’s not only on our side. There are plenty of blacks who hate the white man.”

I don’t remember when but at one point in time one of the security guards, a black South African came around the fire. The very same people who were just trying to teach me Afrikaans were now speaking a language with clicks which I recognized as Xhosa, but regretfully don’t understand. South Africa has at least 11 official languages… it’d be difficult to learn every one.

Then the conversation shifted to respect and how language, in particular, means a great deal here in South Africa. Nelson Mandela once said, “When you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head; when you speak to a man in his own language, you speak to his heart.” And it was true, once the white South Africans began to speak Xhosa, all apprehension melted away from the face of the guard, smiles abounded on both sides and I took a mental snapshot of what South Africa could become.

I’m no historian or anthropologist, but I do believe, that South Africa has a unique potential to overcome the racial prejudices of the past. I don’t believe it will be easy, nor that it is certain to happen, but there, in that moment, a glimmer of the new South Africa was seen. I hope and pray to see more.

A Rugby Match

I attended a rugby match where there was no beer for sale at the stadium. I was distraught, having imagined watching a rugby match with a fine Namibian brew in my hand. Alas… apparently imbibing is done before the match. Or smuggled in.

Now before you dismiss rugby as a brutish sport that involves brawn a not very much brain power, you might want to stop by a match. These boys are athletic and look it. Unlike American football where you have several players that seem to store a lot of weight in their stomachs, the professional rugby players seem to store it all in their upper body. The game is action interrupted by a few pauses here and there when the ball goes out of play. The players think on their feet, improvise and are incredible athletes, as they sprint up and down the field, to score by kicking it between the goal posts or running it to the other side of the field. In an odd way… it reminded me of Quidditch, Harry Potter’s sport. Maybe because I still don’t understand the rules to either.

During the match it is common for them to lift each other up, cheerleader style (odd comparison I know) in order to catch a throw in.

Rugby has an incredible following, among white South Africans at least. The demographics in the stadium definitely demonstrated the opposite of South Africa’s racial composition, now it was 85% white and 15% other races. However it did demonstrate how tight-knit the white community can be as a chap sitting two rows in front, knew the white South Africans in the village next to mine.

The rugby match we attended was a mere 80 minutes long, however the fans were around the stadium, braaiing up a storm. Flags were everywhere, there was a palpable atmosphere of relaxed enjoyment, mingled with the scent of meat grilling and face paint.

In some ways, the match reminded me of American football or gridiron, as it is known here. The cheerleaders wore similar uniforms and danced like the American cheerleaders. And the fans were just as fanatical. I saw plenty of blue faces, many wearing a Viking hats with bull horns- supporters of the Blue Bulls. A cheetah costume indicated an ardent supporter of the Free State Cheetahs. Did I mention there were a lot of flags?
The first half we (another Peace Corps Volunteer, Peace Corps medical evacuees from Ethiopia, Swaziland, Mozambique) tried to decipher the rules and the cheers/jeers from the fans. We had planned on asking someone from the crowd, but the night sky opened into a drizzle in the second half and the stands cleared for the covered space, others covered there heads with their flags and signs and stuck it out. We were with the diehards… and emerged, bobbing along with the euphoria of the crowd, drenched but entertained.

It would have been better with a beer, though.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Somehow the plants know it is spring

About two weeks ago, the African scrub started to sprout green leaves, signaling the start of spring. I found this odd, as we still have yet to have any rain since autumn.

Such are the seasons here, the tail-end of winter is marked with high mischievous winds that pick up dust and make sure it permeates all clothing. The dust has an upside as well, it means you can see the winds and turn your back to them to avoid being sandblasted too much.

And now blossoms are appearing on the trees, different birds have arrived, baby animals are growing out of their cute phase and into adolescence, and the places where the veld had been burnt are turning green with new shoots of grass.

When I first saw fire in my host family's yard, I was (understandably) alarmed, but my host mother (who had set the fire) assured me that it was they always did and that it wouldn't spread beyond the yard. It didn't.

However, I have seen fires far in the veld, flickering in several spots. I doubted people could be at three places at once.

One fire of note I first saw when I was headed back from town with my host family. Town is about 80 km away from where we live. While still in town I noticed the sunset looked odd... there was a cloud which seemed to be lit from the bottom. As the sun set and we approached one of our neighboring villages, we saw that it was indeed a large grass fire. It was eerie to see the smoke rise, reddish on the bottom and then white on the top, til a point, and then get blown away. I watched for awhile, transfixed, but then focused my attention elsewhere.

I haven't heard anything more about the fire, so I assume it burnt itself out before reaching the village.

Other parts of the country have not been so lucky as fires fanned by the high winds have done some damage in Mpumalanga, KwaZuluNatal, and Eastern Cape.

But not here. For now, I'm enjoying the windy opening of spring, except when I need to turn my back to avoid the next batch of airborne sand.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A package!

This entry is to commemorate the arrival of a package of cookies and the amazing people who decided to send me them. Thanks Julie and Allan! Julie- the cookies are/were delicious and you are incredibly well liked by my host family now. Allan... thanks for being inquisitive enough about the inner-workings of the postal system to send me a box/envelope of cookies.