13 May 2009

Lifting the Veil of Ignorance

Philosopher John Rawls wrote much on the topic of justice and in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, Rawls describes a "veil of ignorance" that blinds representatives from seeing the individual characteristics of the represented. This lack of information about traditions and culture, religion and beliefs, results in a breakdown in leadership. And as George Kimble, an early 20th Century geographer so rightly stated, "The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it." So many of our leaders, President Obama included, have the best intentions of helping my new, second homeland, Africa. And what I learned here in Botswana is that as much Africans appreciate our help and acknowledge its necessity, they desire to help themselves and develop their own homegrown solutions above all else. They worry that we are all to willing to disregard what distinguishes Batswana from the Shona from the Luo when creating development plans. Ignorance still describes most Americans' relationship to Africa and I can only hope that my semester here as poked a few holes in my own veil.

On a lighter note, today is my last day. Tonight I will go to bed and wake up tomorrow morning, jump in a cab and head off to the airport, America bound. I am going to miss all of my friends, local and international. I will miss, perhaps most of all, speaking Setswana with people who think I am still wearing a veil. A special thanks to my fellow CIEE comrades. They have put on a bold face in this new country and have truly carped some diem. Batsi Chidzodzo, our program director (pictured left) has made all of our lives here in Botswana as carefree as possible so we have the confidence and freedom to try new things, be them dried caterpillars for dinner or a road trip to South Africa.

As sad as I will be to leave this beautiful continent and country, I am excited to share so much of it with you. My summer will be quite busy and it will be a nice change of pace from Botswana time. I will be working for my uncle's new food recycling company, a financial literacy center for Somali immigrants in Minneapolis, as well as Matt Entenza's gubernatorial campaign. Once I am back in my ancestral home of Carver County on Friday, I look forward to seeing and talking with all of you, so make sure to be in touch.

I will still have some more thoughts and facts to share with you on this blog before I finish the Botswana chapter of my college career. So keep checking back over the next couple weeks.

Go siame, boRra le boMma!

11 May 2009

Stranded comfortably in the Kalahari

A long time ago, in a post far, far away (check my January archives), I mentioned a Kalahari sunset. This weekend I saw one for the first time, and then again for a second (unforeseen) time. It was so serene out there in the veld. After a long day of driving in a stadium-seating safari vehicle, setting up camp, eating and a game drive, our last vestiges of daylight were too short.
My roommate Alex decided he wanted to go out into the "bush" one more time, and when he discovered it was going to cost more than a small herd of goats if he went alone, he invited all of us to split the costs. Our safari company took several groups of international students from UB in recent weeks, all of whom gave the guides high marks but lamented the lack of wildlife. In any case we got very excited at the prospect of traveling one last time before the mammoth flight back to the US. Four of us went and we were joined by seven UPenn medical students and residents working at the local hospital, Joe the trusty Motswana guide, and Tim, the gregarious Rhodesian safari operator.

Joe picked us up on campus right around 9 am on Saturday morning, followed by the UPenn students. The three-hour trek up to Khutse Game Reserve, adjacent to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) transitions from national highway to a seemingly endless gravel road crowded with feral donkeys. Another hour of slow driving in the reserve brought us to our campsite, one of a handful huddled together, all complete with rudimentary shower and bathroom facilities.

While Khutse itself is an amazing place, the CKGR offers up the most incredible stats: larger than Switzerland or Denmark, and even larger than Swaziland and Lesotho combined, and is the second-largest game reserve in the world. For those interested, Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve is the largest. Our Saturday afternoon game drive included a sojourn into the CKGR. The landscapes found in the Kalahari Desert are not the sand dunes of the neighboring Namib Desert nor the barren stretches of the American Southwest. Instead it can be called verdant at times, as it is covered in hardy plants and grasses. The soil is very light, most likely from the high concentration of minerals (especially salt) that manifest themselves as pans.

These flat expanses of short grass are perfect for viewing game, and we saw more than our fair share of ostriches (or ostrii, as Alex would prefer the plural to be), red hartebeest named for their heart-like shape formed by their horns, springbok, steenbok, bat-eared fox and wildebeest.

The flying varieties were equally incredible. Bustards are the heaviest bird able to fly and secretary birds seem capable of pecking a lot more than an Underwood-5 typewriter. Our great hope for this trip was the rarity of spotting a lion, not literally of course, but our trip was feline-free: no lion, no cheetah, not even the faux type, the meerkat. The closest we got to realizing our dream was a herd/pod/armada/colony (oh Lord, the confusion of animal collective nouns) of ground squirrels who looked like little Timons with long tails. It was an incredible change of pace from both Gaborone and our other game drives in northern Botswana. The medical students told jokes around the campfire with punchlines like "And so he gave him Vitamin K!", which were met with roars of laughter from medical students and distant jackals alike.Our morning driving went off the hitch, not without one. A bolt on our tire broke during the trip and the safari vehicle was deemed to unsafe to drive back to Gabs. The plan was for the UPenn students to head back first in Tim's Land Rover while we (Joe, CIEE students and one (un)lucky Penn student) were to drive the ailing truck to the lodge right outside the reserve and wait for a rescue car. The caveat was that the rescue car was coming from Otse, at least three and a half hours away. We got to the lodge just before noon and were not "rescued" until half past seven in the evening.

I say "rescue" because we spent the lazy, hot afternoon tanning around the lodge's pool reading ancient National Geographics lying around as well as novels like my handy volume of Henry James. Tea was served all afternoon and two meals were on the safari company. We made out like the fiscally-strapped college bandits we are. Finally, around 11 pm we arrived back on campus, fully rested and yet extremely tired. It must have been the crisp, untainted Kalahari air.

The Kalahari weekend was a perfect note on which to end our Botswana and indeed, African, travels. I have one more final tomorrow afternoon, followed by a Wednesday packed with packing. I will have just a couple more posts up before I get home, so keep coming back for a bit longer.

Thank you for following my semester in Africa and see you all soon enough!

30 April 2009

And there were bishops from Zimbabwe and other phantasmagorical things . .

While I still need to write a post about my stay in Cape Town, I thought I would continue first with my religious thread. This last Saturday, the 25th, I was invited and accompanied by my "cousins", who live here in Gaborone, to attend the ordination of the new Bishop of Gaborone. These are the cousins of my host family in Mochudi. My female cousin, Lapo, has been a big fan and great friend of mine here in the city. She is currently on the job hunt, whereas her brother, Tshepo, is studying graphic design at Limkokwing University. The best part about visiting my cousins is that they live on the railroad tracks, and I get to walk along and over rails frequented by aging, blue-and-white passenger cars and, occasionally, trains heaping with coal.

My uncle, their father, is a foreman for the railroad and he showed me the massive, outdated panels used. They looked like the command center in Apollo 11. As for the rest of the family, I don't exactly know their names, occupations, or even their relation to me. My aunt (pictured with me, left) is a reserved, but cheerful woman. Every time I visit my cousins' house in Gaborone, all the neighbors (whom I've never met) yell from their respective "backyards" (read: hardened red dirt with the occasional weed, which is merely a plant out of place, as my boss always told me), "Michael is here!"

On more than one occasion I have been asked in Setswana if I am Lapo's boyfriend/husband/soul mate . . . to which, I answer dutifully in Setswana, "Nyaya, rra. O ntsalake." No, I am her cousin. Very believable I'm sure. In any case, the issue was raised at the grocery store "Choppies" in my home village of Mochudi, where I was explaining myself to half the customers and workers. They laughed and cried when I tried my darnedest to talk my way out of being the best marriage prospect my cousin could have.

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog: the ordination of Bishop Valentine Tsamma Seane. It was a beautiful Saturday morning, and I took a cab to the bus station and after getting completely lost for twenty minutes, found my way to home base. In true Botswana fashion, I was told to be there promptly at 8 am and we left around 9:30 am. Thankfully, there was two small breakfasts scheduled in that time.

Shortly before the start time of 10 am we arrived at what appeared to be an airport hangar-cum-cathedral. Rough estimates put the audience at 7,000 to 8,000, a healthy number for any Catholic event these days. The crowd, as I discovered, came from all over southern Africa: Botswana, a very large contingent from Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. Representing every parish and diocese south of the Congo, the mass commenced with a parade of priests and prelates.

The singing was lively, although in perfect Catholic form, dancing was kept to a simple step-slide-step-slide back. A great boon to my religious Setswana vocab was the thirty-page guidebook to the ordination, which contained all the hymns. Morena, Lord; Modimo, God. For four and a half hours, we stood, sang, sat, sang, stood, sang (207x).

I tasted my first African host, although my cousin refrained, admitting she needed to confess her sins first. As most "firsts" in foreign countries require a "monkey see, monkey do" method of observation and instruction, I lost my cultural crutch. Thankfully, Catholic mass is catholic, i.e. universal, just like KFC and McDonalds. After a few platonic kisses amongst the holy men, we sang a bit louder in competition with the pouring rain. A newspaper account had this to say:

"During the proceedings, it started to rain and the masses went wild at the 'coincidence'."

Personally, I think the only 'coincidence' was that sun umbrellas suddenly had a function. A better coincidence was that of the mass's denouement and the return of clear skies. It was, nonetheless, a wonderful exhibition of Botswana's ability to put on a show replete with spontaneous singing for hours on end. Although I didn't buy any of the souvenirs (or as they say here, curios) imprinted with the new Bishop's face, I agree with the Sunday Standard's belief that "Catholics in Botswana are not likely to ever forget Saturday, April 25, 2009."

Somewhat sobering after such a ceremony was news that Bishop Seane released a statement blasting the use of condoms, saying that Batswana* should stick to the "traditional" ways. It is a large point of contention among all of the faiths here, perhaps more so for the Catholic community, but HIV/AIDS is plaguing Batswana much more than a crisis of faith or tradition.

Even more sobering is the fact I am leaving on May 14th, in the morning. Until then I only have two finals, one this Friday and one next Tuesday. This weekend four of us will go camping in the Kalahari desert, hoping to spot a lion or a cheetah, and catch a great African sunset one last time. Otherwise, this week is just a lazy week to hang out with friends and buy those last-minute trinkets.

Til my next post, cheers mates!

*Before I typed "that Batswana should stick", I wrote "that we should stick", signifying either I now self-identify as Motswana or that Catholic indoctrination really works.

23 April 2009

Genesis according to Oudtshoorn

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, with a divine wind sweeping over the waters.

God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness. God called light 'day', and darkness he called 'night'. Evening came and morning came: the first day . . .

God said, 'Let the earth produce every kind of living creature in its own species: cattle, creeping things and wild animals of all kinds.' And so it was.

God made wild animals in their own species, and cattle in theirs, and every creature that crawls along the earth in its own species. God saw that it was good . . .

The man gave names to all the cattle, all the birds of heaven and all the wild animals. But no helper suitable for the man was found for him.

This is where the narrative found in the small churches of Oudsthoorn differs. You see, many would have you believe that this 'helper' was to be a woman, and so forth. Yet, God looked in all the wrong places for a helper suitable for man (honestly, a chest cavity?). It was not among the birds of heaven, rather among the birds of earth. Namely, the ostrich. And so it was in Oudtshoorn and it was good. Man and ostrich lived side by side in perfect harmony for eons.

22 April 2009

The Klein Karoo's strange resemblance to America

While the ANC might not win over many Boer votes, it still put out its message in Afrikaans everywhere: "Working together we can do more." Check out my earlier, prosaic post for more on the election.
The mountains seemed to follow us everywhere on our journey, and there were no complaints coming from the passenger seat. Check out any map of South Africa and you will see strands of Berge criss-crossing every which way.

Plettenberg Bay only looks this beautiful from far up. Any closer and you might see the townships, precariously built upon pencils of stilts, ready to crash down at any "fresh" wind gusts.

The above three pictures are from the first mountain pass we went through, just north of George. It was also the first time we got a picture of the two of us together. Thank God for timed photos! I felt the mountains behind us were missing some sherpas, yetis, and a few Tibetan prayer flags, but I had a very Zen moment nonetheless looking at their rocky greenness.

To be honest, I don't remember where this was taken, but it is the Everytown, South Africa, at least in the interior.
Another pass, with a bit more rocky and a little less greenness. Alex gives the new composition a thumbs-up.

A sort of visual tautology. Different views of the foothills of the Klein Karoo from Alex's camera and mine. Just imagine, this was all hiding 70 miles from aquamarine waters.

Can you say straight?

The loneliest stoplight. Several times in the middle of nowhere we stopped for imaginary traffic in one-lane-only construction zones.

Electrical Plants in Bloemfontein to Beaches in Port Elizabeth

Some great radiation stacks (terminology?) in Bloemfontein, our first stop. As it was mostly a place to sleep and the city was empty due to Good Friday, we didn't see much more than the city's skyline.

If I could offer the South African tourism office some advice, it would be to put up signs for lookout points. We passed so many at 120 km/hr, that it was only after hours that we finally could stop at one instead of look at it in the rearview. NB That's our trusty VW Golf. We named her "Lekgowa", or "white person" in Setswana. Because we're white. And she's white. Witty, I know.

The small pool-ette (once again, terminology?) in the courtyard of our second hostel. 1 Cora Terrace in Port Elizabeth exceeded my expectations, with its charming host and architectural splendor.

Our first drive around Algoa Bay revealed that Port Elizabeth is not just English in name, but in its eerie, Boggart-inhabited coastline too.

Who doesn't enjoy a smiley, old African? "If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness" - Nelson Mandela

My first glimpses of the Indian Ocean in Port Elizabeth. What you cannot see in the pictures is the 30 km/hr wind blasting those poor souls with sand, as well as the line fish which became my dinner that night. Needless to say, it was quite mind-boggling that the next stop from PE was Antarctica.

20 April 2009

An impossible task

The nine full days I spent in South Africa were so intense that unpacking them into a series of blogs will prove daunting. My last blog detailed our itinerary, which went off without a hitch. Our hostel reservations were correct, our route was almost unaltered (we switched our last night to the diamond mining capital of Kimberley). Therefore, not too much time will be spent on the nitty-gritty of the hours-long drives through South Africa countryside, although not at the expense of beautiful landscape photography coming shortly.

I think the best way of going about sharing my experience is to offer an analogy, which while rough and sometimes inconsistent will perhaps familiarize my (American) readers with South Africa. The analogy is this: South Africa is like the African America, not to be confused with "the African-American". By this I mean that it was colonized by white Europeans who, in the words of my wise professor RKK Molefi, "came preaching the Bible and when the Africans closed their eyes to pray, the Europeans took the best land." The native peoples and the European newcomers lived in precarious peace, interspersed by civil conflicts and British-Dutch military spats (not unlike the French and British on the other side of the Atlantic).

Those who couldn't handle the British coastal culture (read: New England), headed eastward (read: westward) and founded farms and ranches (read: Midwest and Wild West). They became people of the cattle, the African cowboys if you will. Whites thought themselves much superior than the natives and in a unique combination of America's policies toward Native Americans and blacks, simultaneously relocated them and made second-class citizens of them.

These policies of relocation and racism resulted in major protests in the townships (mostly urban, in the African context) and in 1994, political fissures in the apartheid government gave way to Nelson Mandela and his ANC party. Today marked the fourth election since the fall of apartheid and the ANC is likely to stay in power, mostly due to its large investment in improving the situation of the nation's blacks. Like African-Americans in the US, South Africa's blacks were consigned to designated township areas, usually the worst pieces of land in the country. Note: while this separation resulted from social pressures and practices like red-lining in America, they were official government policies in South Africa.

The dire situation of many blacks in SA (South Africa) can be traced back to the physical separation. What shocked me most was not the tales of the black and colored (official racial designation of mixed race individuals under apartheid) townships in Cape Town. Similar settlements are to be expected in any major city in the developing world, in Rio de Janeiro for example. It was the presence of townships in the middle of the interior, South Africa's "Wild West". Driving through towns like Craddock in the desert terrain between Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth, we saw not only the heights of mountains and depths of arid valleys, but the high class of quaint European main streets and the dismally constructed, corrugated iron shacks in the surrounding shantytowns. It was like moving West Baltimore next to Ely, Nevada.

Our gas station attendant in Vryburg (in the north) told us he lived in the township there, but contrary to our perception, there was not much crime at all. It was merely that they were poor. Crime-filled or not, the shantytowns would make any Motswana cringe with good reason. The villages of Botswana may not have much materially compared to America, but are practically oases in the Kalahari next to what we drove past.

The combination of geography and economics is very evident in South Africa and cannot be overlooked, that is why I went on at length here about it. The next couple posts will offer my light-hearted and fun experiences of mine, including the life-changing ride on a bucking ostrich. Stay tuned for more about SA and lots of pictures!