Saturday, August 23, 2008

My summer was wonderful, but I was feeling really insecure and messed up inside and it was hard to relax and enjoy it. That is one of the reasons I have been procrastinating updating this blog. Honestly, the past 4 months have been quite emotionally painful. Thankfully I'm finally snapping out of this funk and I'm taking care of myself better and improving. But during the summer it was simultaneously wonderful and yet hard to see so many fantastic friends from different parts of the world and different eras of my life, and pretend like I had everything together while inside I was constantly falling apart. Now that I’m back in Majuro I feel like I’ve turned a new corner and started afresh. To all of you who cheered me up this summer (if you’re reading) thankyou ever so much! You don’t know how much it meant to me!
I had a layover in London en route to Johannesburg, and had the chance to catch up with my good friend George in Bristol. He was so kind to me and showed me a really good time. We attended a BBQ with his former roommates, took a motorcycle ride, chatted about life and the unexpected course it always takes, attended church, and then he delivered me to the train station on Sunday night to head back to Heathrow for my Monday morning flight. I stayed at “Yotel” which is a very cool, small, capsule hotel (see pictures). I grabbed a few winks of sleep and then boarded the flight to Johannesburg.
I arrived very late that night (11pm) in Joburg and took a taxi to the hostel I was staying at. It was dead of winter and I thought I would freeze!! The blanket they gave me was not enough, but the next day when the sun came up, the temperature rose a bit and I thawed. I walked from my hostel to Melrose Arch, where Mbuso works at Stanlib Financial group and met him for lunch. It was fantastic to see him again. Our lives have changed so much in the 4 years since we saw each other last, but everything was just like old times again. We made plans to go to his mom’s house in Newcastle, Kwa-Zulu Natal for the weekend and then head to Durban to see other friends (and some warmer weather!) for the weekend.
In order to get to Newcastle, we had to take a taxi, which involved carrying our luggage through the taxi rank in Joburg which is big and chaotic. I was the only white person for miles, which meant I was a huge target for violence or theft. I was relieved when we stuffed ourselves into the VW minibus taxi. While we waited, many young men selling everything from socks to superglue to cellphone airtime came to the taxi window asking us to buy from them. This is the scene everywhere you go in Africa. People trying to eek out a living, and the taxi rank is a place to look for customers, but it’s a rough spot to spend your time. Soon our taxi filled up with the 18 people we needed to fill it, and we began our scary 3-hour journey. The driver wanted to get home faster, so he drove at least 100 miles per hour on 2-lane rural roads. Oftentimes he would veer into the other lane and hardly slow to take a turn. Seriously, we feared for our lives. The more experienced passengers knew what to expect and drank a lot of alcohol early on in the trip so that they weren’t bothered by the near-death experiences toward the end. We were so glad to reach our dropping-off spot!
Lindiwe, Mbuso’s mom (my adoptive South African mum) came to pick us up from town. It was so good to come “home” to Newcastle. She had faked illness at work (she’s a nurse in Zululand) in order to make the 4-hour trip home to “see her doctor”. It was so wonderful to see her again; she was in such great shape (much healthier than last time I saw her). After staying in Newcastle a couple days, we took Lindiwe’s extra car and drove down to Durban, where I stayed with my Zimbabwean friend Thamary and her two teenage boys. She is an amazing woman of strength. She has been through so much in the past 3 years: the disintegration of what seemed to be an ideal marriage, suddenly supporting her kids alone, finishing up her degree on a wish and a prayer, and getting a job as a social worker at an alcoholism clinic. God has really been good to her but it hasn’t been easy. I spent a week with her there and visited several other friends in Durban. It’s such a gorgeous city on the Indian Ocean. I went to Amanzimtoti on the South Coast (where I used to live) and spent some time walking on the beach that I once lived next to. I also spent some time with my friend Roberta, who lives in Durban North.
The funniest thing to happen while I was in Durban was the trip that I took with Thamary to the Maintenance (Child Support) office at the courthouse downtown. There were people sitting in the waiting area with two types of tickets: one for the complaints office and one for the new claims office. We spent a long, long time sitting there, just observing the Maintenance office comedy hour. It was primarily women in the line, from all types of backgrounds and walks of life, complaining and comparing child support and matrimonial mishaps. There was a pretty, young Indian girl in her 20’s complaining that her ex refused to pay for their child, yet somehow found money for the other kids he fathered. There were several African women whose partners needed a bit of coercion to take responsibility for their offspring. But the craziest was a white lady with her 26-year old daughter who were there to complain that the father had stopped paying for the 26-year-old’s cell phone bill and BMW. They were all talking up a storm and getting worked up about their situation, when in walks a middle-aged colored man whose son had turned 20 and was ready to stop receiving child support. The angry women all interrogated him and spewed man-hating comments in his direction, but then a few of them stood up for him saying, “at least HE paid his ex!!” He told us about how he’s now dating a girl who is the same age as kids he’s paying child-support for, and I just though to myself, “Wow, I’m the only one who is not a parent in this whole place, and after listening to these people, I guess my life’s not so dramatic afterall.” Thamary got her court date set, and I dropped her back at work.
At the end of the week, I picked up Gugu, Mbuso’s sister who is loads of fun to be around and we drove back to Newcastle for the weekend, listening to South African hip-hop and dance music. Gugu, Lindiwe and I went shopping for Mbuso (since he doesn’t care about fashion, those of us who do have to take care of him). We got him some smart new clothes for work. While at the second-hand shop (Lindiwe and my favorite!) we discovered some lovely taxidermy on display and took some photos. Lindiwe thought that the hyena was a dog until she saw it from the front side, but by that point, it was right in her face! I snuggled up to the zebra, while getting positioned in just the right spot to channel my inner springbok. At the end of the weekend we said our goodbyes and Mbuso and I headed back to Joburg while Lindiwe went back to Zululand and Gugu to Durban.
While Mbuso was at work, I drove up to Limpopo province to see my Malawian friends Kenny and Ireen, who were staying in the small town of Modimolle. It’s beautiful country up there, and I enjoyed staying with them. Ireen had accompanied Kenny on a big-rig drive from Malawi to South Africa (he was working for a trucking company), when he found a job as a police mechanic in Modimolle and they stayed. It had been 4 months since she had seen her kids, and she needed to return to Malawi to them, so I told her I’d buy us tickets and we would go. Next day we traveled back to Joburg to buy bus tickets at Vaal Africa and start shopping for things to take to the family up in Malawi. Shopping in the markets in downtown Joburg was no picnic. Again, I was a big white target, and we spent hours down there fighting crowds. Eventually I volunteered to be the bag-holder while Ireen dove in and out of shops. I enjoyed watching the looks on kids’ faces as they were strapped to their mother’s backs with blankets or towels, meanwhile the package atop her head was about to fall on them. Finally Ireen filled her own back so heavy with clothing and shoes that it was too heavy to carry, so she put it up top.
The next day bright and early, we went to the bus station to start our trip. The bus was packed so tightly it was about to burst! All I have to say is it’s a good thing I’m not claustrophobic, because in Africa, there’s no such thing as personal space!! The bus left at 9am, but then we had to wait at a rest stop north of Pretoria for about 3 hours to wait for some passengers who had missed the bus. It should have taken us about 5 hours to get from Joburg to the Zimbabwe border, but instead, night had fallen by the time we made it there. I was on board a bus full of Malawians who were returning home after the horrible xenophobic violence against them in South Africa. We sat across the aisle from a sweet young mother named Grace and her adorable 5 year old son, Griffin. Grace had watched her neighbor’s house being burned in a Johannesburg suburb where lots of Zimbabweans, Malawians, and Mozambicans live. She was pregnant and decided that she couldn’t stay in South Africa with her son, so they were heading home. The timing of our bus trip was also on the eve of the run-off election in Zimbabwe, and things were desperate there! There was so much political violence being carried out by Mugabe’s henchmen, many of whom are Zimbabwean Police and Army members. There was no hope of a fair election. Meanwhile the ordinary people in Zimbabwe were (and still are) starving and unable to keep up with runaway inflation. I bought a cucumber on my way back through Zimbabwe which cost me $1billion. We got stuck at the border (leaving South Africa) for about 3 hours since almost every single person on the bus had overstayed their South African Visa. I loaned Ireen 400 Rand to pay her overstay fee, but that left me with only about R200 and no ATM machine in sight. After waiting there for a long time, we crossed the river with alligators below into Zimbabwe. The Zim side of the boarder (in the dark) was scary, with people clamoring to get out of that country and find a little hope for survival. I was informed that I had to pay for a Zim transit visa, costing $20 or R210. I had $14, R200, 10 UK pounds and 10 euros on me, but I was not allowed to mix currencies. I almost missed the bus because I lacked the extra 10 rand. Grace came to my rescue and loaned me R10 in exchange for my $10. That night we made our way through Zimbabwe, stopping every so often for police road blocks. When dawn came, we were nearing the Mozambique border. Zimbabwe is an extremely beautiful country, with awe-inspiring rock formations, kind people, and rich farmland. But all of Zimbabwe’s resources have been squandered and stolen by the current government regime. I sincerely hope to go back and stay a while if/when things calm down there. I pray for the people there often. Things don’t seem to be capable of getting worse and yet they continue to.
I was nervous about crossing into Mozambique because I was unsure of how much they would charge for a visa to cross their country. They required $18, but wouldn’t take my European or British currency (which would have been sufficient). The immigration officers were strict, straight faced, and no-nonsense. But one tall handsome officer with perfect caramel colored skin (his ancestors must have been both African and Portuguese colonists) was nice to me and suggested that I talk to the bus conductor. I explained the situation to her and she said she would loan me the Visa money and I could pay her back once we reached the ATM at the Malawi border. I was so grateful! Mozambique is much more colorful than the surrounding countries. Its architecture reflects the Portuguese colonial influence. The colors of buildings are bright, as are the marketplaces. We crossed the Zambezi River, which is vast!
After many hours on the bus, we finally go to the Malawi border. They did not require a visa, which I was relieved about. But we did spend about 3 hours at customs because everyone was bringing so much luggage into the country. Malawi customs is so corrupt. They see something they like in a bag and then they charge such a high tariff that the person can’t afford to pay it. Then the customs officer takes it home and enjoys the contents. They did it to Ireen, and she almost lost the bag of stuff we spent all day shopping for in Joburg. We couldn’t show up to her family empty-handed, so I gave her the money for the excessive (illegal) tariff and we got back on the bus. It took 2 more hours to get to Blantyre, Malawi. At Blantyre we switched to an all-night bus (which looked like a rickety old school bus, really) and traveled for 4 more hours to Lilongwe. We arrived at 3am before any taxis were running, so we snoozed in the bus until 6am and then took a taxi to Irene’s brother-in-law’s home (where her children were staying while she was gone). In total, we spent 45 hours traveling since Joburg without sleeping in a bed or showering! I was SO thankful to be somewhere I could call “home" even if it was just for 4 days.
Malawi's nickname is the "Warm Heart of Africa," and it doesn't take more than 15 minutes being there to understand why. Not only was the temperature much warmer than Johannesburg, but the people are so friendly, kind, and generous. We splept for a few hours at Ireen's sister-in-law's two bedroom house with 4 adults, 4 children, an outhouse and an outdoor water tap. It was in a part of Lilongwe where white people never go, but I didn't realize it until we got to the Market and I heard the word "Mzungu" about 45 times. The market is colorful and bright with fresh produce, dried fish from Lake Malawi, beautiful fabrics, and lots of people. Although it is hard to make a decent salary in Malawi (even if you are educated), the soil is rich and abundant and there is usually enough healthy food to eat at home. I especially enjoyed the food that my friends cooked for me while there. I picked up enough Chechewa (local language) to say "Muli Bwanji" (Hi, how are you) and "Ndili Bwino" (Fine thanks!) but not much more. It was really frustrating because I kept wanting to use Marshallese words but it didn't quite work.
The next day we took a bus out to Mchinji to visit Ireen's brother and sister. Ireen's brother's place was too far to walk from the main road, so we hired some bicycle taxi drivers to take us there. I felt terrible because my driver was literally half my size and worked SO hard to pedal both of us through the powdery fine dirt (similar to biking in sand). They were both very strong and I gave them my water bottle when we finally got there because I was so partched. I love the idea of bike taxis because it is an environmentally friendly, economically feasible way to transport people to remote places and also a good source of income for young men who would otherwise be unemployed.
We met Ireen's sister Fatima at her home in Mchinji. Fatima and her husband Rasheed are good hearted people who have been relatively successful in small business ventures they have made. They made us a wonderful meal of mealies, okra pudding, and vorst. Fatima cannot have children herself, but has adopted an adorable little boy Vincent (who helped me cook breakfast) whose mother died of aids and also Martha, Ireen's youngest daughter. Everyone in the neighborhood was so friendly and kind. They couldn't believe that a white lady had come to their place and treated me like a celebrity, which made me feel quite uncomfortable. Fatima took us to the market before we left the next day and bought fabrics for me to give to my mother as a gift from her and Rasheed sent us with some cash for sodas on our trip home. I was just overwhelmed with gratitude for their generous hearts.
Life for women in Malawi is very difficult. Domestic violence is so common there. Ireen's sister-in-law Brenda is a well educated, attractive, hard working woman. She has a good government job and a young baby. With the help of Ireen's daughters, Brenda does all the cooking, cleaning of the house, caring for the baby, and works full time on top of that. Yet her husband (of only one year) hits her without even listening to her side of the story when he hears rumors and lies from the neighbors and extended family. Ireen says her husband does too. The day we were there, he called Brenda at work screaming about a story his sister had told him. Luckily Ireen and I were there when he came home from work, so he had to be on his best behaviour. Unfortunately, this kind of behaviour from men is more the rule than the exception. I asked my Malawian friend Chilipo about it later, and he said that he had grown up in an abusive family. He's the oldest son and tried to protect his mom from his dad several times as a boy and got the brunt of his father's wrath. He has learned from the experience and will never repeat the cycle of violence, but unfortunately many others will.
Back in Lilongwe we visited with many family members and played with the children. We made arrangments for my bus ride home the next day and went to the ATM to make sure I didn't have problems with money for all the visas I would need again. At 6am the next day I boarded the bus to go back to Joburg. This trip took only 1/2 as long as the trip to Malawi because the bus was not very full and no one was bringing excessive amounts of luggage. The man next to me on the bus had been living in South Africa for several years trying to eak out a living there and returned to Malawi to visit his sick mother and his wife and children. At the end of his stay in Malawi he was without money (after missing a month of work in Capetown). In order to leave the Malawi border you have to prove that you have at least 800 Rand. But he only had 400 Rand. He was stuck in a no-win situation because he had no way to get more money in Malawi, and if he didn't make it back to South Africa, he would lose his job there. I needed my R400 to pay for all my visas but told him I'd loan it to him to show the border guards if he would give it right back to me. He agreed and went inside. He disappeared for about 15 minutes, and my heart sank. Here I was at the border, far from my friends, alone, having given my money to a stranger. I breathed a sigh when he emerged and gave my money back to me after having paid a small bribe inside. We crossed the border on foot and became good friends during the ride. It's amazing what a struggle life is for so many people!
We made it through Zimbabwe safely, but it was heartbreaking to see. It was 2 days before the runoff election and people were scared to leave their homes, but too desperate to get a little something to eat to stay home either. The price of a small pizza in downtown Harare was $400 billion Zim dollars at the time. I've just heard about a power-sharing agreement between political parties in Zimbabwe this week (due to be announced tomorrow). I pray that it will provide some relief and change to the people suffering there!
Back in Joburg, my friend Chilipo and went to lunch at the "Top of Africa" restaraunt to catch up on life. It gave me new appreciation for what a difficult transition it must be for someone to come from a small undeveloped country like Malawi to a gigantic, harsh city like Joburg. Chilipo's doing his best and hanging in there, but a little lost about what to do with his life and future. I can relate! We went out to the Nelson Mandela bridge to join a "Free Zimbabwe" protest march. I had not slept in a bed or showered for a couple days, but it was my last day in Africa and I had to make the most of it. Chilipo had to go to pick up his friend, so Mbuso met me downtown for the Free Zimbabwe rally. We had dinner that evening an Nandos (a YUMMY chicken restaraunt that has begun to franchise in the UK, but not he US yet), and he drove me to the airport. It was so painful and hard to say goodbye again and leave. But it had to be done, and there were several other destinations for my summer that awaited.

I'll write about the rest later because it's getting late and this post is already a mammoth!! Hope you've enjoyed reading/pictures. I'll be brief about the rest of the trip.


RW said...

Wow. (I kept waiting for an update to appear in my feed reader, but it never did, so I stopped by your blog this morning.) Your trip sounds incredible! It's so amazing to me that you go all these places and experience all these things. I'm glad you post pictures, too.

Clay gave a presentation in my parents' ward a few weeks back and did a really good job. (And I mean really good, because he held my attention for 45 minutes and most people can't get more than 5 out of me.)


Honor said...

Glad to see the new post Britt. I was about to hack in and make Harry Belafonte disappear! I know we were laughing at the time, but I'm with you now - disturbing is the right word! I don't see the resemblance and clicking morph wont change my mind! Hope all is well! Love you!