Travel Log: Southern Africa

Aley Hasson travels with the Global Sojourns Giving Circle to Southern Africa for the first time. Read her 2008 travel log below…

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The driver had just told us of his recent trip to Malawi to show his wife what real poverty looked like. ?Looking out the van?s window, during the first moments after arriving in Johannesburg I came across the first of many questions during my time in southern Africa.? Right in front of me, the poverty was as clear as day, an arm?s length away as we drove through the city.? The surrounding unfamiliarity had suddenly hit me?unsettled, I wanted to know more.? It was a proper welcome to Africa.

The following is a summary of my impressions from my first trip to the African continent during May 2008. During this time, I traveled with five other women through four countries on safari and visited charitable organizations supported by the Global Sojourns Giving Circle in Livingstone, Zambia.

Getting to southern Africa is an endeavor in itself.? There is a degree of commitment few would be willing to give a relationship.? In retrospect, having to question tropical diseases, liability waivers, wild animals and a host of what ifs is the first step in the Great African Shake-Up.? As a modern American urban dweller it is easy to become disconnected– from nature, its inconveniences and, well, inconveniences in general. In our comfortably controlled environments, we worry about things like the health risks of plastic; however, when preparing to leave for Africa you can?t help but to clue into how disturbingly artificial our surroundings are. There may be some risks exiting our climate controlled bubbles but once you realize the bubble exists, can you choose to stay there, completely content?

When traveling to Southern Africa for the main purpose of safari, arriving in Johannesburg threw me for a loop. As the financial capital of the continent, it is an expansive city with a landscape fractured by fortifications, gold mine dumps, freeways and segregated neighborhoods of drastic economic disparity.? The city itself sits on the very land where gold was discovered late in the 19th century, forever marring its history by greed and the racially exploitive practices that followed.

Although I would be back for my departure, my time in Johannesburg was only long enough to experience a sketch of a landscape twisted by struggle and the hopes of equality but ultimately overshadowed by disconcerting violence.? I left the city knowing there was a lot more I needed to understand, about South Africa in general? time had its constrains though, as we had a plane to catch, headed north to officially begin the trip.

Two days previous to our flight to Livingstone, Zambia, the carrier Nationwide had gone out of business or bankrupt or just mysteriously closed operations.? We were lucky to get seats on Zambian Airways, which happened to be their inaugural flight to Livingstone?so, we shared mimosas onboard with the photojournalists covering the story and did a few extra swoops around Victoria Falls before landing (Note: champagne and airplane swooping don?t mix).? I get the idea that something like airlines potentially folding out of the blue is a reality when traveling in this region.? Of course you can?t completely prepare for these things?whatever obstacles they may be, but it is a good reminder that if you can?t bend to the pace and workings of life here, you most definitely will become unduly frustrated and miss the bigger picture.

From the small outpost that is Livingstone Airport, we were met by our driver and taken on a short drive through the town, headed in the direction of Victoria Falls, also aptly named the smoke that thunders.? The size of the town is somewhere around one-hundred thousand people, with one main thoroughfare. It is a provincial place, with its tallest building being about seven stories high, rundown from a bygone era. ?People were out, milling about, between the array of banks and small shops. Bright traditional fabrics started making an appearance, wrapped around women who were out with their babies, contrasted with the dusty, worn-out setting.

Due to the undo turmoil in neighboring Zimbabwe (the country who shares Victoria Falls with Zambia), Zambia has been able to take advantage of its tourism ? all the thrill enthusiasts who come to bungee jump and whitewater raft the Zambezi are now staying and spending money in Livingstone. The possibilities to boost the local economy has unfortunately come at the expense of Zimbabwe, but one goal of the Giving Circle was the help uncover niches in the tourism market for local artisans and the non-profit Livingstone based charities we were already supporting.

IMG_0490Depending on the season, the water levels can be drastically different at the falls, for us, being there at the end of the rainy season meant we got a good laugh at the ridiculous sensation of having a tank of water continuously dumped over your head while walking along the park?s scenic trail. The enormity and power of the falling water obliterated most views and completed soaked us, putting us right in the middle of the thundering smoke that can be seen from miles away. ?Before we could dry off in the hot afternoon sun, we were off to Islands of Siankaba, forty-five minutes away for the night.

This particular place is a favorite of Global Sojourns and indeed, it is a unique place and setting that was quite a treat for all of us. After about seven kilometers of off-road driving in the trees off the main road, you arrive at reception and transfer to a small boat and breeze up the Zambezi before these amazing triangular tree houses start appearing along the lushly foliated banks. The staff was waiting to greet us as we docked, taking us along the rope suspension bridges and planked walkways above the water to our tents that were way too nice to call tents.

The insides? well, who would expect such luxury in the middle of the bush? ?A big claw footed tub and twin sinks took up the back half while crisp white linen mosquito-netted beds that looked upon the Zambezi took up the front– ?all surrounded by the richly colored dark wood of the simple frame. ?We hurried out on the boat again before the sunset for sundowners, for what would be the first of many spectacular sunsets.

As we waited for what would prove to be a gourmet dinner, I thought about all the times I had heard people say they just would like to get away, perhaps the farther the better–and this seemed pretty close to achieving that.? The manager came over to talk as I was internalizing just exactly where I was sitting and experiencing and somehow brought up Dr. Phil. Seriously? Yes, streaming direct to the Zambezi bush. ?He also talked about Siankaba, mentioning there were forty-six people working under him to keep the place going, mainly from the neighboring village. ?For a place with a maximum of fifteen guests I wondered how that worked, we all did. However, it is hard to imagine keeping up a place such as this one, keeping nature at bay while maintaining a completely natural look- my guess is a week off and the place would be overtaken by vines.

You don?t come to Siankaba to accomplish much, unless you count relaxation and taking in the surroundings an accomplishment- however, they do offer a village tour which we took the following day. ?Siankaba attained its land from the neighboring village under some kind of agreement and the villagers helped in its construction and now are some of its employees. ?What a striking contrast for those workers who return to mud huts, wandering chickens, no electricity and polygamy. ?It is a testament to either the villager?s contentment or strong culture that the lodge has not noticeably influenced anything in the village.? Ultimately the lodge is at the mercy of the village; with an impending death of the chief, the necessary ceremonies will decommission the workers for more than a month.? Somehow, it all works.? Somehow Siankaba has brought luxury where it seems it shouldn?t be (not to mention Dr. Phil) and the balance of the village remains, upheld by its continuing traditions.

In the mid-afternoon we departed for the Botswana border.? What we encountered next would be on our minds for the rest of the trip, our reaction an undeniable product of our American mindsets. Before we arrived at the small stretch of water that separates Zambia and Botswana, an incredibly long line of cargo trucks lined the dirt road.? Turns out there is only a ferry that can take one truck at a time, meaning some of the truckers sit in this line for up to a week with no accommodations or facilities.? We all wondered how this was an acceptable situation, why hadn?t a bridge been built?? Turns out it is complicated because of course politics are involved, but nonetheless, what a difference a small change could make to progress trade. It was gratingly irritating.

The border was a busy place with many people waiting around with supplies, especially comforters for the coming winter.? Some were hoping to get a ride, others, well, I ?m not sure what they were hoping to do.? After having our passports stamped we had a small boat waiting? if only it could be this easy for everyone. ?On the other side, the open-air jeep was waiting to take us to Elephant Valley Lodge for the next few nights.? During the drive to the lodge we encountered the first wildlife sightings of the trip; I realized I was just going to have to trust the guide from this point as we drove through a herd of elephants.

We arrived just at sunset to the extensively thatched lodge with a watering hole focal point.? There was an electric fence around the perimeter to keep out the animals and permanent tents with attached bathrooms to keep the guests in.? During the night it rained with a full orchestra accompaniment from the sounds of the bush.? However, it was all ambient noise until the early morning when lions roaring reverberated through our tents.

We had a long day ahead of us, a safari by boat and by jeep later in the day.? We spent the morning on the water along Namibia and Botswana, perusing the shore for all the wildlife happenings.? There was a lot to see, including vervet monkeys, crocodiles, hippos, impala, elephants, African fish-eagles, bee-eaters, blacksmith plovers, vultures, Egyptian geese and so on.? The boat allowed us front row seats to sit back and watch the habits of these particular animals, to see the pods of hippos carefully eying us to and a gracefully off-kilter elephant walk along the shore and eventually cross in the water right in front of our boat? it just all unfolded right there.

In the afternoon, we headed in the jeep to Chobe National Park.? Along the way, the landscape seemed intermittently surreal. The trees had a different relationship to their surroundings than I am used to, the sky darkened with purples and reds and there was an eerie stillness for an ecosystem so full of life. ?Among the highlights of this drive were the twelve giraffes we unexpectedly came across in the trees near the jeep?s path. We also saw wart hogs, baboons, puku, a jackal, a grey heron, egrets and guinea fowl and elephants of course.

We headed back to Elephant Valley in the dark, the cool air circulating as we drove through blackness. In the middle of the highway our driver spotted something and stopped; it turned out to be a puff adder? I was really hoping not to see one of the most deadly snakes in the world, which I had to inform everyone so they could be freaked out too. ?Animal viewing is a bit dangerous on a highway so we continued on, turning onto a back road along the Zimbabwe border.

Thrown around a bit in the jeep, our guide took out the spotlight and shone it into the dark landscape to catch reflections from unseen eyes. Indeed, he spotted a quiet herd of Cape buffalo, all their eyes glowing in our direction in the spotlight.? After, there was a call on the walkie-talkie and we quickly headed to the perimeter of the lodge.? The call came from the manager who had tracked a pair of lion right outside the lodge. We passed his jeep and pulled up behind the two lion just before they disappeared into the bush.? We turned off the engine and the lights and sat in the direction of the disappeared lions. Out of the darkness, the roaring began, first in front of us and then behind us. ?Whoa, intense.?

The dueling roars continued through dinner.? It turns out lion had not been seen in this area for about seven months and these were two groups of two males, calling each other, trying to establish territory. ?The manager had rated the size of their stomachs before he made the call for us to see them– about a 4.5, meaning they had recently eaten (the scale goes to five) so not to put us in the path of hungry lions.

The next morning I was leisurely enjoying breakfast and tea when I started talking to one of the young attendants.? Since I was by myself and a bit younger than their average guest, he brought up how great American music was, thanks to satellite MTV. Actually, anything American seemed good to him and the guard I later talked to.? I wondered how they reconciled the two different worlds they were confronted with, one complete fantasy? and the daily reality of working for the lodge in the middle of the bush.

For four of us, the next destination was the Ichobezi Houseboat. ?Priscilla and Linda left to scout other lodges and get a head start in Livingstone. ?We transferred to the Botswana border for an exit stamp and then onto a small motor boat into the marshes of Impala Island, Namibia to the immigration office. It was a peculiar process and place for an entry stamp. ?Afterward, we took the motor boat a few minutes to the awaiting houseboat in the grassy water of the Chobe River.

IMG_1840The boat has a capacity of eight but it is just us (and the four crewmen). On the main level there is a sitting and dining area, a deck with a dunk tub and the bar and kitchen is in the back. Below are the rooms, small but still nice for a boat, with big windows looking right over the water. We are shown our route on the river for the next two nights but we all seemed a little turned around geographically at this point. ?After lunch we headed out on the small motor boat just before dark and returned after a fiery sunset? we debated what makes the sky so different here, because we are all taken aback at this point. ?Like I mentioned before, there are surreal moments when experiencing this landscape.

Fighting off the bugs, we sat down for of all things, a pork schnitzel dinner after enjoying the open bar. We were stationed for the night, surrounded by complete darkness, almost as if the open air sides of the boat had been draped in black velvet.? Stepping out onto the deck however, revealed the clearest view of the stars seemingly possible.

I noticed the sun had caught up to my Pacific NW skin the next morning. Still, I got my blotchy self up for the full breakfast and morning motorboat ride. Later in the afternoon we headed out for a visit to a local village which the Ichobezi helps support. ?It was situated along a flood plain, making rising waters a regular disruption and finding good clay soil for the houses a little more difficult.? However, the fish they have access to is a good source of income and keeps everyone well fed.

Since soccer is strictly a game for boys in the village, I couldn?t resist asking to take a shot on the carefully constructed goal we passed with the ball made of a shirt tied up in string.? They thought I would have no idea how to kick the ball so I ended up scoring? they all started giggling, and I worried the poor goalie would be so embarrassed and teased.? But women are the ones who do all the heavy lifting and labor in the village anyways, why shouldn?t they also be able to score a goal?

I realized Ichobezi brought tourists regularly through this village, and I wondered what the locals actually thought of us traipsing through.? A source of donations, or were they genuinely interested in us foreigners?? Perhaps the cultural divide between was too great to get a clear answer in such a short interaction. ?After walking through the sporadic watermelon and pumpkin patches, past the elderly woman weaving a papyrus sleeping mat to the drinking well out in the pastures, we were treated to a song by the children and a presentation of their goods before we headed back to our boat in the marshy mud.

We finished the day on the small boat, watching a family of baboons along the water, hearing unseen hippos snort in the tall grasses and watching distant elephants silhouetted against a pink setting sun.

The next morning, the boat started its return at six a.m. We were headed to the Namibian border to continue onto Livingstone, Zambia by van. Again, we passed the line of trucks waiting to cross the border and contradictory HIV billboards along the road. While we were waiting at the border a stink bomb was lit by police to apparently diffuse a theft situation– there was a bit of confusion and people running around and suspicious characters but we got our stamps and left in one piece.

In town, we met up with Linda and Priscilla and the staff of Ray of Hope for lunch to discuss the organization and how the Giving Circle money had been allocated.? For the next two days we would be meeting with Ray of Hope and Tusa Munyandi, two organizations that the Global Sojourns Giving Circle had helped fund, both centered on micro-finance loans and education for orphaned or disadvantaged students.? In a way, it was a way for us to check up on them, see where their needs were and to decide if continuing funding was a good option.

In an area with such need, the stories of the people who run these organizations are remarkable. The men who run Tusa Munyandi are purely volunteering their time and the staff at Ray of Hope sometimes goes without pay during tight months. ?Discussing finances and the details of operations can get a bit tricky though? as you have to navigate a less direct communication style. ?Perhaps that is the greatest disadvantage of being there for such a short time, not being able to fully connect and put yourself in the shoes of a local.

After visiting Ray of Hope?s new office, the director, Dorothy took the group of us out to meet some of the loan recipients.? Since starting the organization ten years ago after losing her husband, it has steadily grown. When I asked her why she is optimistic and does what she does, when many others would be discouraged? she seemed completely content with the answer of faith. ?I wasn?t really content with that, maybe it is that simple for her, but I don?t think I got the full story.

GivingCircleTrip 064The first person we visited was what Ray of Hope considered a model recipient, an older woman who received a loan to run a stand at the local market and who was doing considerably well with the two children she was taking care of.? We met her at her house, with a modest but very green interior; she showed us her bookkeeping records and walked us to her stand around the corner.? To have the group of us so interested, taking pictures and asking questions must have been a bit peculiar but nonetheless, she seemed to enjoy it.? For all the recipients we visited, there was a quiet pride in their faces and though it went unsaid, to have us visit and care was a tremendous source of pride.

We continued visiting recipients at Livingstone?s large outdoor market, a busy place for locals without a tourist in sight. ?The pungency of the dried fish neatly piled on vendor?s tables proclaimed it?s presence as a local staple, while other necessities like oil, beans and vegetables were also sold.? ?For the last visit of the day, we piled into the van to the outskirts of town to see a chicken farmer and his new batch of chicks. ?It was a lot to take in for one day, understanding these people?s lives, how many additional people were potentially affected by their successful ventures and the impact an organization like Ray of Hope had on its community.

To finish the day, we went to dinner at a local Zambian couple?s house who are both working artists in Livingstone. ?We arrived at dark to their house with an attached studio and talked about their work and what it is like to be an artist in Zambia.? They have plans to start a residence program for foreigners and we also discussed the possibility of hooking up with Ray of Hope to make goods for the tourist market. The dinner itself was a generous feast out on their front porch of typical local dishes. We finished the evening with a discussion of the traditional symbols used in some of the husband?s work, centered on unity and marriage and the purchasing of some prints and paintings.? I could see they had struggled to carve out their lives as artists, and were not quite content? but, there was no doubt they lived in and through their art.

We all ended up spending the night at Fawlty Towers hostel- a pretty typical hostel accommodation, or at least what I am used to– but it would only be for one night as Linda and I would move onto Jolly Boys hostel for the next night and the other ladies to a nicer hotel near the falls. The cold showers were the deal breaker for the group- but Linda was a good sport to continue on with me.

When we arrived at Tusa Munyandi the next day, the loan recipients had gathered in new matching outfits, welcoming us with a song. The office is just far enough out of the town?s center to appear as if it were in a small village, among abandoned storefronts and playing children. ?Our first visit would be to a nearby preschool, where Tusa Munyandi had helped pay tuition for some of the students. My mom had sent along a matching game with the photos of her preschool class to share- so we spent some time in the dim inside of the one room mud classroom full of students in red uniforms that were cautious of their visitors.? Funding tuition for young children to go to preschool is important for the community because it means they are more likely to finish school in later years.

We continued on under the hot sun to visit the recipients who had initially greeted us at their various market stands. One woman had reminded us she wanted us to see her stand a few times, and eventually after lunch we got to her vegetable stand where she gladly smiled for pictures. After getting around to everyone?s stand, we sat under the eves of the abandoned storefronts near the office and met some older children who had their schooling funded by Tusa Munyandi.? They were all very quiet and reserved, making it difficult to get them to talk about themselves and their lives.? No doubt all or most of them had been affected by HIV.? They finally let some smiles show when we got them all together for a group photo.

Toward the end of the day we headed back to Victoria Falls, to the resort-like hotel after checking out the nearby market for tourists. I didn?t really want anything but went along anyways- what I found were proprietors way too aggressive for my liking and a kind of haggling I didn?t have the energy for. We all gathered for drinks at the cr?me de la cr?me Royal Livingstone Hotel at sunset along the Zambezi, right before the water drops over the falls. We were just there for drinks, as a room runs around $800– but if it is any consolation, I was served my most expensive cocktail there on their patio. We all knew this wasn?t the Africa we had come to see, but seeing our trip was nearly over, it was a nice setting to reflect on what we had seen the previous days in Livingstone.

At dark, Linda and I returned to town to Jolly Boys. Unfortunately for us, the power was down and the caf? closed? so we were left in a wood frame tent out somewhere in the dark with no dinner right after Linda had told me about the rising crime rate in Livingstone- yikes. We ended up surviving the night in one piece and met with the rest of the group in the morning and headed to the airport.

We arrived in Johannesburg late in the afternoon, met by a South African acquaintance of Priscilla?s named Gil.? Gil in is PR and it was arranged we would have dinner at her house to get a better view of South African life and politics. Looking back, this is a valuable and rare experience for travelers. So often we arrive in a country and only can speculate based on our own culture as to why people do and think as they do. Gil, who had an interesting background in the politics of South Africa and had arranged such events as Mandela?s inauguration gave us a brief but telling look into this complex place from a white, ethnic Italian, mother of three perspective.

The next day, our last, we would get the perspective of a native Soweto resident. Soweto stands for South Western Townships and is a product of segregationist planning that was first established to house black mine laborers. It has been in existence over 100 years, and in that time, its residents have continually struggled with poor infrastructure and high unemployment. We first drove through the area of Johannesburg where those who profited from mining built their gated mansions, ending up eventually in Soweto?the two as opposite as could be. There is variation, but in general the area is composed of makeshift, substandard housing built by the government that has not fared well with time.

We were lucky enough to have a guide who gave us a broader picture- Soweto did not solely exist as a place with a painful history and startling injustices?our guide showed us the community that had been built and the fact that many people now choose to live there. He held the pride of his community, where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived on the same street and of his peers who struggled with the same battles.

It was Saturday, goats had been herded together for ritual sacrifices, soccer fans were out jeering each other and preparing for a big match, men were out admirably washing their cars, funeral processions blocked traffic and all the markets were bustling.? There was definitely more than just the van that was separating us as we drove through, however, the apparent bond between Soweto?s residents was unlike anything else I?ve seen.

After quickly visiting the apartheid museum (which needs and warrants more than the hour we had), we left for the airport– it was time to head home.

On this trip, I realized Africa had not told me what to think of it? it had its own rhyme and way, leaving its visitors to construct their own meaning. Perhaps that is why so many people return- they want the secrets, the want answers to the whys, they want to change their feelings of insignificance; because it would be impossible to walk away on your travels the first, second, third (and so on) time without wanting more, without thinking you missed something– even if it had been right in front of you.

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