Before we even left Lusaka for Vic Falls, we’d heard the road had a bad patch. It was really more like 2 bad patches: one ‘diversion’ from the under-construction original road which consisted of a lot of rocks surrounded by a little dust, followed by a return to the original but not-yet-repaired road which was about 50-50 potholes to tarmac.
It was all a little too reminiscent of my first trip to Zambia…
On Monday morning, we left Vic Falls to head back to Namibia. We didn’t want to go back the way we came through Zim because the election results were due to be announced any time, and because the visas are ridiculously expensive. Since the Kazungula (Zambia-Botswana) Ferry was still down, we decided to head to Sesheke, where there’s a ferry directly back to Namibia. We’d heard the road was bad but we had a 4×4 so we decided to give it a shot. It took us about 5 hours to go 200km (or about 25mph the whole way). We finally made it to Sesheke, only to discover that this “more reliable” ferry was also not running.
The locals insisted: It’s not broken! Just that someone forgot to tie it up and now it’s stuck on the other bank, run aground.
Sure enough, we could the ferry beached on the other side of the river in Namibia. No one seemed too fussed since dug-outs canoes continued back and forth. No one but us -3 American girls- and an 18-year old Afrikaans trucker driver.
We stayed the night at a restcamp run by a man I can only describe as the reincarnation of David Livingstone. An aging British doctor married to a young Zambian, he lived out his days catering to those trapped by the ferry in a place that couldn’t have seemed farther from everything.
The next day we stopped by the police station to see if they knew wo we could speak to about the ferry.
“Ah, yes. There used to be a ferry manager who was very good. The ferry was always running” Nodding from the others. “But he died.
“And then the next manager. He was also very good.” More nodding. “But he also died.”
“Do you know who’s running the ferry now?”
“Oh, he just walked past!”
“Do you know where he went?”
“Ah, not sure. But you know today’s a public holiday…”
Right. Public holiday so of course, no one works. As one of my companion’s pointed out on more than one occasion, it was like the beginning to a bad movie. Fade out, fade in and there we were sitting in Shseke 10 years later…
We slowly headed back to the riverbank and back to our Afrikaans trucker driver friend. As it turned out, he had the number for the Kazungula Ferry which was suddenly up and working. A little sorry we had to leave our new Sesheke friends and wouldn’t be around to see who would finally get the ferry off the Namibian rocks, we made a mad dash (as mad as it can be at 25mph) back to the other ferry before it closed for the day.
I’ve heard the Sesheke road was done up a few years ago and they’re working on the Vic Falls-Lusaka road now, though it’s unclear when it will be done. But at the end of a long and bumpy road, Victoria Falls is certainly worth seeing.
Susan Cheever’s column “Drunkenfreude” opens with an intricate portrait of the drunken party-goer everyone remembers: can’t quite stand up, slurred speech. It all sounds so familiar until Cheever admits the party was nearly 10 years ago and comments that people “all still drink, but no one gets drunk anymore. Neither do they smoke.”
I know Cheever has a few years on me but I can’t help notice that she got it both totally right and totally wrong. My friends in the US hardly smoke and binge drinking isn’t quite what is was in college. But when I look around me here, I can’t help but think I know that drunken party-goer. The one who stays out all night, has a glassy haze in her eyes from about 9pm onward and seeing her sans liquor or hangover is a rare occurrence. She bums fags and lights and laughs at everything.
Welcome to expat country where open bottle laws are worth a giggle and a snort and smoking is only banned in hospitals (if you’re standing near the oxygen machine). Cheever doesn’t mention it but the fact that you can no longer smoke anywhere in New York, where cigarettes run at least $6 a pack and winters are unpleasant, is a big deterrent. But here in the tropics where smokes are cheap, terraces are plentiful and the rain never lasts, smoking is easy.
Are we such weak creatures that an enabling environment brings bad behavior?
I can only hazard a guess. It’s a little bit of enablement and a little bit that most of us won’t be staying so our legacy can only last so long. But then, one could say the same of the liver.
Those of us here chose this life, whether it’s because we believe in development, hate the winter, want cheap household help or just like to see the world. So do we chose ourselves? Should job announcements ask alcoholics to step forward? Or do we make ourselves, once here in foreign land?
Surely, it’s not all of us but I do wonder how it’s so many of us. Do we magically revert to healthy lifestyles when we leave or is the transformation permanent?
But it’s not just us expats. The US military also has a high numbers of smokers, but then they also have ready access to cheap smokes overseas. Nurses too have been tagged as smokers, despite their professional training, probably due to stress.
Stress isn’t something most of us think about in a place with blue skies and little traffic, but it does sneak up on you. Perhaps there’s more to the drunken laughter emanating from the expat bars than we think.
When the Malawian dust alongside the road fades to the Mozambican, it’s hard to notice the difference. But as soon as you pull into Mocuba, the first town on the Mozambican side of the border, the mud road widens into a dilapidated boulevard and the once-graceful Colonial Portuguese buildings lean their roofless walls into one another. Only the cathedral survived the war in-tact.
Mozambique is like a cross between Lebanon and Congo, with trees growing tall out the tops of long-abandoned buildings amongst the empty remnants of a polished town. The fingerprint of post-Colonial war is the common thread, with handicapped children playing the parts on this mock-up set of a thriving settlement.
Once you reach the coast though, all bets are off. The Mozambican character is so unbelievably unlike the Malawian. For as much as the war played a role in this place’s development -or lack thereof- the Mozambicans are full of life, music and style. Both men and women wander the streets on a night out with a background of Portuguese dance music lulling the body into a smooth glide over the customary jaunt.
The war feels farther away here though supposedly there are still landmines in the surrounding hills. There is a generation who missed school and literacy rates are staggeringly low.
That being said, Mozambique has one of the fastest growing economies in the region. With broad freshly-tarred roads expanding before the eyes, you can’t help wonder what the Malawians have against street lamps that the Mozambicans don’t.
It’s a whirlwind of cultural collision;, making it difficult to believe two places could share such a lengthy border. But Lake Malawi, the pride of the western shores, is hardly heard of in Mozambique, where the Indian Ocean glitters for over a thousand miles. It’s hard to say what has formed the diverging character of these two neighbors: the sea, the Colonial powers that occupied them (a culture of modest tea-drinking Scottish missionaries versus one of stained glass cathedrals with Mediterranean wine), or simply the innate differences that form the character of two siblings, close in age but nevertheless, far apart.
The dust of the road crossing back into Malawi obscures the lingering taste of fresh prawns and it’s not long before the smell of the sea is gone from the nostrils. It’s only the fingerprints whose touch remains, with a Cathedral standing tall, amongst the battery around it.
In the beginning, when I was new to Africa, I was filled with awe and discovery. Writing about my experience was easy because I needed an outlet, somewhere to set pieces out and turn them into the logic of a puzzle. I was challenged to get outside myself, out my comfort zone and reach into the world, discover how to be somewhere other than what I knew.
But that was nearly ten years ago. I no longer live with an African family, eat their food, watch their television in the evening. I no longer spend my Saturdays wandering through markets for the sheer enjoyment of the experience. I am in my comfort zone, sheltered in an expat community, eating pizza, choosing my own music, never learning more than a few words of Chichewa, with Malawi all around me. Like nested Russian dolls in the surrounding shell, I am completely enclosed within another culture. We expats carry pieces of home with us. Cheese-Its. Black nail polish. Organic coffee. We hoard them, share them with members of our tribe. We stretch to see how many pieces we can fit in our Russian doll. We return to the motherland to resupply.
A few years ago, I went to visit some Congolese friends who’d emigrated to South Africa. I ate pondu with them and listened to Koffi, making jokes in French, hanging out at the Congolese internet cafe. I shared in my friends’ pride in their non-South Africanness. It was the only time in my life that I have had the privilege of an outsider’s look at someone else’s expat community. What do you chose to bring with you? What do you leave behind? How long are you away before where you are is more ‘home’ than where you have come from?
My view of my own expat community will never achieve that same level of objectivity or even introspection. In daily life, we tend to ignore the opportunities to step back and examine our interaction with the world.
Last year, the Washington Post ran an article about the world-renown violinist Joshua Bell who played in a Metro station at rush hour in ordinary clothes and behaved as any street musician might. His performances were filmed to see how many people would pause to hear his playing. Of the 1,097 people who passed him, only 27 people paused or left money in the opened case on the ground. The rest continued on with their day unmoved.
I wonder how many of us are truly capable of examining the world in which we live on a daily basis. We each live in a Russian doll of our own, embedded somewhere within the bigger world around us. You may be an expat. You may simply be an urban dweller who doesn’t leave the neighborhood much. Maybe you live in a remote area with little access to what else is out there. Wherever you are, whoever you are, we all have the chance to lift our eyes and examine the wider world outside of our self-imposed Russian doll.
I recently discovered that a friend of mine who’s never been to Africa before will be moving to Malawi with the Peace Corps in a couple of months. In honor of his impending arrival, I give you The Basics: 10 Things You Should Know Before Coming to Africa.
10. There are children everywhere: in the village playing, in the city begging, in the river washing (a few of them are in school, too).
9. There are people everywhere. People live life outside from cooking and washing to socializing and working. And if you’re over 18 and still alone in the world, they want to know why you’re not married/reproducing yet.
8. Not matter how far in the bush you are, you can always find a cold beer. And 5 guys waiting for you to buy them one too.
7. The following items are considered legitimate supplies for vehicle repair: twigs, cardboard, tree sap.
6. Toilet paper in public restrooms is about as scarce as Democrats in the current administration.
5. The phrase ‘time is money‘ has no meaning. Be prepared to spend most of your time waiting for a bus/your lunch/your bill/a meeting/change. Note: change will never come. If you overpay for something, that’s your problem. The overage will be consumed by the business.
4. Never assume anything. This includes but is not limited to ‘yes’ meaning ‘yes’, ‘no’ meaning ‘no’, ‘I understand’ meaning ‘I have processed what you said and will act upon it’, a right indicator meaning a right turn, a business being open during regular hours, or a confirmed reservation meaning your hotel room/restaurant table/plane seat will still be there when you arrive.
3. Traffic laws are optional. (What’s the difference between a drunk driver and a sober one? Only the drunk driver goes straight, the sober one goes around the potholes.)
2. Electricity is optional. It generally goes out when you’re about to cook dinner. It will take between 10 minutes and 3 days to come back on and will blow out your speakers with a power surge when it does. (What did Africans do for light before candles? They had electricity!)
1. Just when you think you finally have her figured out, Africa turns around and bites you in the ass. But hell, I still wouldn’t live anywhere else — for now.
It was in the matatu on the was to Ol Kalau in the Central Highlands that I first saw the Great Rift Valley. I’m not quite sure what I expected – perhaps something in the nature of the Grand Canyon, maybe just an enormous crack in the surface of the Earth. It was so green and so vast and there were peaks that rose up from within the valley. Dormant volcanoes. As we descended down the road carved into the escarpment, there were baboons on the side of the road, lazily watching the Friday afternoon traffic go past. The winding road finally spread out across the floor of the valley. As we passed Lake Naivasha, I saw zebras grazing alongside cattle and trees whose branches reached out toward each other. Although the road was only barely tarmacked, thinking back I feel myself gliding along the bottom of the valley. It’s all a euphoric haze that cannot be matched.
Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. Rafiki zangu, don’t think I haven’t been watching.
I wrote the above on the Great Rift Valley some years ago now. It was my first trip out of Nairobi on my first trip to Africa. My first zebra sighting. And the beginning of what can only be described as life-altering infatuation. In short, I fell in love the way you do when you are 20 and seeing the world beyond your doorstep for the first time.
I lived with a Kenyan family and ate ugali and tried to speak Swahili on a good day. I drank Pilsner baridi (being sure to throw a few drops from my glass to the ground for the ancestors) and stayed out at Carnivore til all hours. I tracked rhinos with the rangers in Nakuru Park. I attended NGO meetings in Kibera slums. I went down River Road.
Daniel arap Moi was in power. Kenya was a post-Embassy bombing multi-party democracy. World Bank was still trying to reform the civil service. No one had cell phones yet and internet cafes were still expensive. Raila Odinga was the main opposition leader.
Watching Kenya’s elections and stability unravel over the last five weeks has been heart-breaking. Kenya was my first home in Africa and I still consider the people I lived with there to be jamaa yangu (my family). I have sat down many times to write this blog post, combed through horrifying and depressing newspaper articles, spoken with Kenyans and I knew then and now, and wondered how to begin.
If you ask me whether I saw this coming, I could tell you that tribalism was alive and well when I was living there (I could have easily written a post similar to this on Kenyans). I could tell you that crime and corruption has shaken the credibility of what should have been a model African government. I could tell you that two years ago, I learned that the US government was watching Kenya for signs of political fragility.
But none of that really matters, because I would have told you that I did not believe Kenya would be willing to let herself collapse like this. Even now, watching the country crumble, I still can’t believe it. M, an award-winning Kenyan blogger whom I admire greatly, has seen it with his own eyes and it is well worth reading his thoughtful and sage words.
As for myself, ‘euphoric’ is no longer the word that comes to mind when I think of Kenya.
I spent the holidays this year visiting the charming Emerald Isle keeping up friends from Kinshasa. First we went down the coast in search of Fungi, the friendly dolphin. He was no where to be seen.
Then we went up the coast to check out the famous Cliffs of Moher. They were no where to be seen.
We braved the Shannon River for the Christmas Day Swim to raise funds for Limerick’s Marine Rescue.
Had some close calls.
And saw some stunning spots.
But mostly we hung around in pubs.
I can now say with confidence that I’ve seen the real Ireland. Slainte!
This is what I remember:
Riding up the escarpment from Nkhata Bay in the back of a pickup with 13 other people, a few sacks of maize and a stack of jerry cans; eating corn bread and chili for Christmas dinner; reciting the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V while waiting for a hitch; seeking shelter from a rainstorm in the Chikangawa Forest fire tower hut only to find a very surprised Malawian staring down four white girls.
It was the middle of my first full year in Africa and I’d gone to spend the holidays (and the rainy season) with a friend just beginning her Peace Corps stint in northern Malawi. Next week, I will land in Lilongwe, 1400 miles from my last residence in Kinshasa, DR Congo, to stay for awhile.
A country of nearly 13 million, Malawi is about 5% the size of my previous home though about as poor with an annual per capita income of US$160. In fact, the IMF lists Malawi as the second poorest country globally. Malawi is however a lot more stable than poor old Congo and has roads enough to make the places outside the capital more accessible than the Congolese equatorial forests. I hope to be spending much of my free time at Lake Malawi, which spans the majority of the eastern border of this landlocked country in southeastern Africa.
Stay tuned for more tales from the Warm Heart of Africa.
While I’ve been whiling my time away in the US, life is Congo chugges along through thick and thin. Bemba is still in exile in Portugal but promises to return to DRC in time for the next legislative session in mid-September.
In more positive news, six new animal species were discovered in eastern Congo on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The expedition was carrier out earlier this year by the Wildlife Conservation Society (the Bronx Zoo), Chicago’s Field Museum, the National Centre of Research and Science in Lwiro and the World Wildlife Fund. The discoveries included a bat, a rodent, a shrew, and two frogs. Potentially new plant species collected are currently being classified.
Congo’s ongoing instability, particularly in the east, has created an incredible amount of human suffering and economically stunted the country in countless ways. Despite this, the war has also inadvertently protected vast swaths of rainforest that might otherwise have been logged, farmed and destroyed under a more stable government.
Here’s to looking at the brighter side of things.
Having just spent a short but entertaining stint in Costa Rica, I have to say, I’m a bit in awe of the place. Granted that even as Africa goes, Cong’s a bit the bottom of the barrel, so to speak. But Costa Rica is downright pleasant.
Some of the more fascinating bits were
- Traffic lights! Everywhere!
- Kids riding bikes and skateboards (as opposed to playing with balls constructed from old plastic bags)
- Bee-yew-ti-ful roads
- Potable water right out of the tap
- Notable absence of pushy hawkers
- Ice in beer – this one I’m not such a fan of
Even apart from novelties such as traffic lights, the country’s tourism industry is booming with 51% of the country forested, up from only 25% a few decades back. There’s a strong national health care system in place (ranked one step above the US’s on the World Health Organization’s global list), funded partially due to the absence of a national military.
Which is not to say that the thing don’t happen slowly or ineffectively. It takes about 2 years to have a phone line installed in your house, the electricity blips on and off regularly, and the government just released 3 Colombians who were arrested for plotting the assassination of the Minister of Justice as a warning against prosecuting drug runners. Bribes are still somewhat of a necessity when dealing with bureaucracy. But all in all, it’s not a bad place to set your hat.
I’m now back on U.S soil and enjoying the northern hemisphere summer. Here’s a small clue as to what I’ve been up to: