Bozongi na Kin

January 3rd, 2014

I’m back in Kinshasa after five years, and was planning to revive my blog.  Since I arrived - almost a week ago now! - I’ve had a hard time formulating what to say.  In most ways, the city is the same as when I left it, and the experience is very similar: lots of heat and noise, mosquitoes and delicious food and beer, the poise and style of the Congolese amidst the incredible bustle that is Kinshasa, amazing music and crackling energy.  There have been, however, a lot of changes.

Among the most obvious are the traffic lights on the major roads, especially in the centre-ville and on the way to the airport.  The signals actually count down both red and green lights, so you know exactly how long you’ll have to wait.  Those same major roads (the boulevard that runs through the central downtown area, as well as a few others) have been completely redone, and most of them are perfectly smooth.  It isn’t limited to the major thoroughfares either: Oshwe (the road at the center of my old stomping grounds in Matange) has also been completely redone, and is harder for me to recognize.

One major difference in my experience is transportation.  I’m staying with a friend, not too far from where I used to live.  I can see the big stadium, my old neighbor, from the window here, as well as the tall downtown buildings faintly across the airfield that is just across the street (the smaller Ndolo municipal airport, not Ndjili international airport). We’re on a large street, which means the sound of traffic is almost constant, and there’s a new layer of soot on things every 24 hours or so, and although many taxis are passing by, they tend to either be already full, or heading towards the market (and thus away from almost anything useful to us).

The solution my host has found for himself is to walk a few blocks down (through the neighborhood, not right on the big street), where there are motorcycle taxis, and take one of those to Victoire, where other taxis are easy to find.  He claims that there are more motorcycles in Kinshasa, which seems to be the case, although I’ve also become a motorcyclist since I last came, so I can’t tell if I’m just seeing them more!

Anyhow, the moto-taxis (as we called them in Cameroon), or “wewes” (I was told that this comes from the Tshiluba word for “you,” since the first motorcycle taxi drivers were predominantly Luba) cost about double a normal (i.e. shared) taxi.  This is still only 1000 Francs, just over $1 (when I left it was 550 Francs to the dollar, now it’s more like 920).  However, they get you there much faster - mostly because they weave precariously through stopped traffic, can choose to go onto the sidewalk if necessary - and instead of being crammed into a back seat with two other people, you’re out in the open air.  That said, the open air on Kinshasa’s busy streets means a lot of sand in your hair and a lot of exhaust filtered by your nostrils!

I have run into a few old friends/acquaintances here and there, and spent New Year’s Day “en famille” which was an absolute delight.  In general, though, I feel like a stranger, and at first I felt kind of melancholy about no longer being a part of a Kinshasa neighborhood.  After a few days and some conversations, I’m feeling more like this trip is a reminder of how much time it took to reach the level of intimacy I was able to accomplish on my first trip.

Last but not least, I got to play with another guitarist for the first time yesterday, which was awesome!  Maybe I’ll write more about that later, but I think this post is long enough for now.


August 10th, 2008

This is our third night staying in Gorongosa National Park.  It’s a pretty amazing place.  The park was destroyed in great part due to Mozambique’s civil war in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and an enormous restoration project is underway here since 2004.  I won’t give too much away because it has been written about quite a bit (see this article for starters), and will be written about more soon!

At any rate, the drive from Vilanculos was - what shall I say? - long.  But we’re here, and the countryside is radically different.  Very hilly, an incredible diversity of trees.  And from what I hear, this park is known for its amazing bird life.  We’ve noticed that amazing bird life is supported by a pretty remarkable level of insect life - less pretty and fun, but still interesting.  Last night we went on a game drive and saw tons of animals - warthogs and baboons (the most common animals - the baboons are everywhere - even near the camp), several kinds of antelope (including waterbuck, reedbuck, impala, nyala…), and lots and lots of birds.  Yesterday morning we had walked down to the Pungwe river and taken a poled boat across to the village of Vinho.  This was pretty cool - a decent-sized but very traditional village, we visited the relatively new bakery, a former crocodile farm that is being converted into a cinema (they’re not on the grid - I’m assuming a generator will be involved, although there are also lots of solar panels around), a clinic that was built as part of the park restoration project, and a school.  This last was the site of a really magical experience: I was staying behind as members of our party went to visit a farmer’s field nearby (I was tired).  I was left with an English-speaking Thai woman and her two-year-old daughter (who speaks Thai, English and Portuguese), and a crowd of local kids who had gathered as we walked around the village.  This group of spectators grew to probably almost twenty children (all under the age of eight, I’d say) sitting around us, watching.  We were doing absolutely nothing - just sitting and resting - but they were undeterred, and seemed to be waiting for something to happen - wordlessly, without expression.  After an almost painful forty minutes of this scrutiny (inspired, I suspect, by the little girl from our party walking away and sitting far away by herself), the children started talking to each other, laughing, and started to get up and entertain themselves.  They were joking, playing an amazing game with a ball and four pairs of girls’ sandals, just chatting, rolling a broken bicycle tire around… what was magical was the long period of total and uncomfortable silence and alienation that gave way to what felt like a village scene from anywhere: children playing and talking.

This morning, we headed into the town called Gorongosa (along the western border of the Gorongosa park).  I was planning to just sit at a restaurant, read (perhaps blog) and do some academic work, but while I was picking up a couple of things in the market, I heard some amazing music from the distance.  I was hungry, too, so I set off to find either a place to sit and eat or the source of the music.  I ended up at a house on the edge of a soccer field where a few small groups of people were sitting around.  I couldn’t tell if it was a party or a bar, but as soon as I greeted a group of young men (in Portuguese - aw yeah), they invited me to sit.  I did, and was immediately offered a glass of palm wine, the first of something close to ten glasses I accepted throughout the course of the morning.  I had a great time chatting, drinking, and tasting some bits of pork that were served up at some point.  The music, it turns out, was Zimbabwean, but it reminded me a lot of Congolese music.  When the guys found out I was a music scholar, they had the hosts put on some local music in the local language (Chisena or just Sena).  It was a really cool experience.

On our way into town this morning (while still in the park), we saw a HUGE herd of what we think was sable.  All I know is they were huge, majestic creatures, I’d never seen anything quite like them in my life, and there must have been two dozen adults and probably twice as many young.  It was amazing.

I should mention that on our last night in Vilanculos I was asked to perform in the resort bar (I brought my guitar along this trip), and did.  It was pretty fun!  As usual, some people were really into it, some people didn’t care at all, and most people preferred my music to silence…

I should also mention that the food in the park is great!  From what I’ve heard, it has improved a great deal.  Also, the place is fully booked.  Pretty amazing, considering that there was pretty much nothing here just a few years ago…

More soon!  Thanks for reading, and don’t be shy about leaving comments.

On the road again… already!

August 7th, 2008

I’ve been so busy I didn’t even get a chance to write about the end of my last adventure until a few days into the next one!

I’m just outside of Vilanculos, Mozambique now.  Since my last blog, I flew from Kinshasa to Johannesburg, where I spent a few nights, and this is the first day I haven’t been on the road Mozambique in four days.  We arrived in Maputo after dark on the first day after a surprisingly easy border crossing, and stayed in our favorite guest house from the last trip, called Palmerias.  The breakfast there is the main selling point (along with the internet connection).  We had a very interesting dinner experience that night in the “Feira Popular” which is basically a permanent fairgrounds - full on with rides - right next to downtown Maputo.  I’ve never seen the rides operating, but the dining ambiance is quite nice.  The next day we walked around quite a bit, and later met up with a Mozambican colleague of mine from Johannesburg, then had dinner down by the water at a pretty fancy marina club.

The next morning we drove north, past Xai-Xai (where we had stopped last trip) and into untread ground!  I got a speeding ticket for going 72 km/hr in a 60 zone.  For the metrically-challenged reader, that means going 45 in a 37 zone.  I’m not saying I didn’t do anything wrong, but it was kinda lame.  I did chat and laugh with the arresting cops, though.  We were actually quite lucky (knock on wood) with the police - I got pulled over another time for a “random” documents check (we have South African plates, which means $$$ here) and didn’t get extorted.  I think trying to speak Portuguese and appearing nice and relaxed helps quite a bit in these situations.

That night we stayed at a camping spot in Maxixe, which was absolutely spectacular (and very cheap - Mozambique tends to be on the expensive side).  We set up the tent just up the hill from a beautiful bay, right across from the city of Inhambane.  Although the idea of taking a dhow (dug-out traditional boats) across to Inhambane was considered, we decided instead to move on the next morning, as we’d heard the road ahead was very rough.  It was indeed very rough, and made for a long, exhausting morning of driving the next day.  This was yesterday, and it was particularly exhausting because we’ve had a hard time getting the food we’re looking for here, for what seems to be a combination of reasons: restaurants tend to serve a disproportionate amount of fries/rice/bread for the amount of meat or seafood (or vegetables) on the plate; this, combined with my special dietary needs (low-starch) and my overactive appetite (and it gets worse when I “fall behind,” as I already have here) make me pretty much perpetually dissatisfied; the hotels where we stay don’t have kitchen facilities, and so far, when we’ve camped, by the time we roll into town and set up camp and get oriented, it’s late to go to the market.  This was a bummer yesterday because we actually had struck our camp, had coffee and started driving by 7:30 AM, and made it to our destination (here in Vilanculos) by just after noon, but were distracted until sundown.

The distractions, however, were not unpleasant!  We’ve met some really interesting people - there is a huge community of white South Africans and Zimbabweans (we’ve mostly fallen in with the Zimbabweans, who came after they were kicked off of their farms) who are running tourist businesses.  Among them is a horseback tourism group, and our first act (after having a drink at the bar) was to go on a horseback ride.  This was really cool and special, although quite uncomfortable and a little scary for yours truly.  I was thinking, after I’d given up on trotting (or, I should say, after the region between my legs had given up on trotting) and was trying to just relax, that I would love to know how to ride a horse.  I think it would be way cool.  However, I really have no interest at all in going through the process of learning to ride a horse.  They just scare me.  I guess it’s like guns - you can see that it’s useful and quite cool (depending on who you’re talking to) to know how to use them, and obviously people who are comfortable around them had to learn to be that way, but it’s just scary until you’re comfortable.  I should note, just to point out what a big wuss I am, that actually, the risk to me was quite small, as my horse was being held the whole time by a very nice Zimbabwean on foot.

Anyhow, the coast here is absolutely spectacular, and I’m hoping to have some delicious seafood.  I must admit that even the huge plate of prawns I had last night was not that great, although it might have had something to do with my physical discomfort.  We camped again last night, with the sound of ocean waves rocking us to sleep.  Tonight we’ve been invited to stay in the guest room of a quite nice lodge in the resort next door to the one where we stayed last night, where I’m sitting right now!  We spent the late morning at the local market in the middle of town.  After weathering some overly-friendly boys and men on the way in, we wandered deep into what turned out to be an enormous market.  After finding some beignets for 1 Meticais each (something like 5 U.S. cents), some peanuts, and walking by some amazing produce for sale, we found a place to sit.  The woman there - named “Anna” - served us big helpings of beef and fish with rice.  It was delicious, and with a Coke only added up to 45 Meticais (the equivalent of about $2).  This was the springboard for quite a bit of reflection about the economy here - the tourist places where we’re staying charge prices that seem somewhat more “normal” to the Western outsider ($8 U.S. or so for an average meal, and about $2 for a beer), but exist almost completely independently of the local population, apart from a few employees (mostly cleaners, it seems - the more skilled jobs seem to go to English-speaking black Zimbabweans).  This kind of contrast in adjoining spaces (the market is about a 15 minute drive from the resorts, but the resort’s immediate neighbors seem to be a part of the “town” economy) is totally baffling to me.  And the big question for us is this: if there is such attractive fresh produce available, why do the restaurants only offer bread and fries with a tiny bit of meat?  Do they intentionally avoid serving vegetables for some reason?  Is it a question of taste?  Practicality, like the potatoes just don’t spoil?

Some other random observations: tons of people speak English here, even in the markets - I’m assuming that’s because a lot of the money coming in is from anglophone tourists (especially South Africans); as in other places I’ve been in Africa, it’s HOT in the sun, and quite nice and cool in the shade; the people we’ve met are almost embarrassingly welcoming and generous - I’m not sure if that’s how they are to everyone, or if it has to do with us being American, or being a potential source of publicity; the birds are amazing - beautiful and diverse; I was able to call from a cell phone to wish my nephew a happy birthday - as a friend and blog-reader wrote to me recently: “ain’t technology grand?”

Room to breathe

July 25th, 2008

Well, it’s been quite a hectic trip!  In mostly good ways.  I’ve spent much of my time here with another visitor from Canada who is launching his new book, which I highly recommend to anyone who is interested in Congolese music.  It’s called Rumba Rules, it’s written in English, and published in the U.S. by Duke University Press.  The author is Bob W. White - a spectacular scholar and a top-class human being.  But don’t take my word for it!  Check out the book!  It is the fruit of a research project much like mine: different in that it took place when the Congo was Zaire and Mobutu was still in power, and that Bob actually performed with a professional Congolese band - he was an atalaku with Defao and his Big Stars.

So I’ve been having the opportunity to sit in on research group meetings, attend events at several universities around Kinshasa, and even sit in the studio for a TV interview with Bob about his book.  It’s been non-stop action, and has been very enriching (and fun, I must admit)!

I’ve also had my own itinerary - seeing friends and visiting my old haunts to see how things have changed; my old guitar maitre Gianni is actually in North America now to do some concerts, and he is sorely missed.  The U.S. Cultural Center organized a two-part lecture series where I spoke to local journalists, artists and academics.  There were some very interesting conversations, I made some good contacts, and apparently I was on TV the other day playing the guitar and singing (part of my presentation).  I know this because a man approached me while I waited for a taxi yesterday and said, “hey, aren’t you the American who sings in Lingala?  I saw you on TV yesterday!”

Today I’m attending the final ceremony of a two-week English immersion program.  Yesterday I gave a brief presentation to this group, which was really fun.  The program is quite similar to my “alma mater” of sorts - Concordia Language Villages - although here the camp is only a day-camp, not an overnight camp.

What else?  I’ve made some friends in my new neighborhood, which is always nice, and had some nice chats with the “grown-ups” around my old stomping ground, as well as my former next-door neighbor.  The most common question I’m getting this time around is “how did you choose Congolese music and Lingala?”  I haven’t quite found the perfect response yet, actually, but I’m working on it.

There’s also the usual mix of annoyance and hilarity that goes with the various random strangers that approach and try to “make a connection” using different tactics.  Last night I was explaining to a group of Congolese friends in the car that in our (western) culture, people tend to be quite solitary, and that personal space has very well-defined and well-defended limits.  They were asking me why people are so afraid of Kinshasa, and it was the first time I took this tack in answering.  Usually I say that it has to do with people being very attached to their material possessions (it’s true that people have things stolen very often, but violent crime is very uncommon for a city this big), but this time I was talking about this idea of the violation of an unspoken personal space (which I really experienced to a high degree for the first time in Morocco) as an act of aggression.  In other words, in some cultures, there are actions that are considered acceptable and are in no way a prelude to violence, but to someone from another culture (a more “private” one, perhaps), these actions not only feel aggressive, but actually constitute an act of aggression or violation.  How about an example, eh?  What about a stranger starting to walk next to you while you were alone, minding your own business, trying to talk to you, and then opening another car door as you start to step into a car.  Sound scary?  Sound like a prelude to violence?  For me, it’s hard for it to not feel that way.

Another thing I’d forgotten about Kinshasa is that most people here (especially children) address me as mundele, even the first time they see me.  This just totally couldn’t happen in Johannesburg, I think.  A friend yesterday said, when I pointed this out, “but in the U.S., when a black person walks up to a group of white people, aren’t they surprised to see him?”  The answer, obviously, is often “yes,” but I was trying to explain that calling out someone’s racial category when you see them just isn’t socially acceptable in the U.S.

OK I feel like I’m meandering now… more later!

Back in Kin!

July 18th, 2008

I arrived on Sunday in Kinshasa, leaving behind the chilly Johannesburg winter months. It’s actually the cool season here too, and it is much more comfortable than when I was here before. The sky is constantly hazy, which weakens the sun a bit and also makes for an absolutely amazing full moon. Some impressions:

I’m shocked by how little I seem to have forgotten of Lingala or of the city. I can still get around without a problem. As friends in Kin have been telling me, it does seem to be more “orderly,” especially on the roads: no more crowding two or more people into a single seat, the taxis only stop where there are designated places to stop, front-seat passengers wear their seat belts, and I saw a working traffic light last night that was obeyed.

Every time I go out, I run into someone I know. This is kind of typical for me anywhere I go (for some odd reason), but it’s a really nice and “homey” thing here. The people here are just amazing.

This trip is comfortable because of the cooler weather, but also because of my living situation - I’m staying at the house of a friend, and the accommodations are very, very nice. I’m seeing my best friends from before (Serge is here, although Gianni is in Europe performing with Kester, and reportedly heading to North America sometime soon), other friends and colleagues who are also visiting, and making new friends: I was out to dinner last night with a group of Americans, all of whom I’ve met in the last few days.

The Congolese are almost all working and living in the same places they were when I left, whereas most of the expats that I knew are gone elsewhere. I suppose that makes sense - foreigners living in a country are by definition transient. It’s just amazing to me how quickly people come and go!

I went to a Bana OK concert on the day I arrived, and am planning to go out tonight with a big group. I also have quite a schedule of presentations - I’ll be giving a couple of talks through the U.S. embassy, at least one public event at the music school here, and am also attending and participating in several other talks at Universities and other organizations.

I’m writing here, and also bouncing the ideas I’ve already written up off of scholars and musicians from Kinshasa. It’s been very affirming - I really feel like I’m on the right track with a lot of things. I’m also learning a ton from listening to scholarly debates, especially with other visitors like myself from different fields.

One of my favorite quotes so far was a Congolese acquaintance talking about getting stopped by the police for weaving in his car. When he pointed out the giant potholes he had been trying to circumnavigate, the officer replied: “dans le code de la route, il n’y a pas de trous.” (”there are no holes according to the law of the road”) I love it.

I’m eating and drinking well, although I’ve been quite spoiled in Johannesburg by the availability of high-quality steak and salad. I used to come into town from the cite just for those items, but am not at all tempted this trip. I suppose that after a couple weeks I’ll be a lot less picky. Went back to my regular spot for dinner, and it was all that I had remembered it being!

OK, that’s all for now! Back to being busy!

Home Affairs

June 12th, 2008

The trip back from Mozambique was really nice. The highlight was the two guys we picked up at the South African border: two South African guides who work at one of the game reserves here. They’d been backpacking around southern Africa for six weeks, and we drove them a few hours into South Africa. They shared many amazing stories about walking and camping their way through Mozambique, and we shared a campsite with them and a fabulous dinner, then breakfast, over the fire.

On the way back, I was hoping to get a renewed 3-month tourist visa, but had been warned that it might not be that easy. In fact, it wasn’t. So I spent the last two mornings heading down to the office of Home Affairs downtown Johannesburg. Usually people hire someone to take care of this bureaucratic work, but I went myself, thinking that I was longer on patience and persistence than on funds to hire someone for theirs…

But I have a new theory about why expats don’t go to home affairs on their own: it’s actually kind of a scary part of town. I decided to take a taxi instead of driving because I don’t know my way around that part of town to drive, and wasn’t sure where I would be able to park. I think ultimately, this was a good decision, but on foot from the taxi station to the Home Affairs office was quite a gauntlet: small sidewalks, lots of people, many of them standing around scanning the crowd, and me the only white person I saw until I got into the government building.

Now, I’m an overly-cautious and actually pretty paranoid person in general, so perhaps I was being hyper-sensitive, but there were at least three distinct times when I felt like I was starting to be targeted: sometimes discreetly, sometimes not. One guy got up in my face and started threatening me - my sense is that he was trying to “play” on white fear rather than actually intending to carry through on his threats, but instead of sticking around to find out, I ducked into the nearest store with a security guard at the door. Another time I was jostled, and it seemed pretty intentional - the guy leaned into me, and just after making contact with me shouted in the direction I was walking. I assumed this was a signal to someone further up the sidewalk, so once again, I ducked into a store and waited before continuing. The other time, I just felt like I saw too many people walking at the same pace as me - across the street, behind, in front, and decided to buy a candy bar in a nearby shop to break up my pace.

Although being white made me really stand out in the crowd, I might not have been able to so easily evade a perceived danger by walking into these stores if I looked different. (I’d also shaved, so I looked less like a bum than I sometimes do) Anyhow, I don’t want to make it into more than it is - it’s just my experience, and my impression, but I was definitely on-guard and still pretty nervous. People do warn about downtown here, and near bus stations are usually pretty sketchy areas. It was actually, more than anything, exhausting to expend so much energy watching and worrying. When I was missing one document and had to come back the next day, I thought “no problem - I know the routine now.” But the next morning, I was just not in the mood to go through it again yet… but since my visa was expiring soon, I kinda had to do it. Overall, it was not as bad as it might have been, and now that I know what I’m doing, I’ll definitely do the same routine when I go to pick up my new visa (as opposed to driving or hiring someone).

That’s all for now!

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June 5th, 2008

I’m writing from a nice air-conditioned room in Xai-Xai, Mozambique. The walls and ceiling are white and tall, the room is furnished with simple but nice wooden furniture, and I’m looking across the room to an open window and the Indian Ocean just about 50 meters away. Yesterday morning I woke up in Maputo - the capital of Mozambique. This has been a road trip from the get-go - a rented car from Johannesburg took us the 6 or 7 hours to Maputo. Two nights there in nice accomodations like these, and then about 3-4 hours to Xai-Xai yesterday. The climax of this drive was the last 30 or 40 minutes, when we descended into the Limpopo river flood plain. It was quite spectacular to pass so quickly from jungley-looking villages along the highway into an enormous, expansive, flat plain.

Mozambique has been wonderful. Right from the border it felt much closer to Congo or Cameroon than South Africa. This includes the inconveniences (very limited access to internet, a larger number of beggars/hawkers/etc, more challenging road conditions - both the physical road and the increased unpredictability of other drivers, more police checkpoints, pedestrian traffic on the highways, etc), but also some advantages: car theft is apparently very common here, but overall the place feels (and, I believe, is) much safer than Johannesburg. The seafood is amazing and cheap (as well as the beer) and the people are incredibly nice.

Speaking of people, I’ve had to make an adjustment here because my Portuguese is non-existent. I’m just not used to living places where I don’t speak the language! This is not due to a large repertoire of foreign languages, but rather to conservative choices in travel destinations. Generally, I really only go to the Francophone world. I have enough Spanish to hack my way through those situations, and although I had some unanticipated problems with the English in South Africa, I think those have been smoothed out a great deal. I just don’t like feeling speechless and helpless.

But who does? On my way into town today, I stopped at a stand that looked like they were serving food. Either the young girl there either didn’t speak Portuguese, or my two-word sentences were too mangled for her to decipher (or she was just intimidated and didn’t want to try to understand me). At any rate, we awkwardly waved goodbye after having muttered mutually incomprehensible phrases at each other (under the watchful eye of passers-by), and I got in the car and drove off, muttering now to myself. I thought, “this was a real cross-cultural experience - and this is why people don’t do it more often.” Nothing happened. No real communication took place. She wanted to understand me, I think, and I know I wanted to understand her and to be understood, but it just didn’t happen. There’s something very heavy about that experience: I guess maybe it makes one doubt in the conviction (which most international travelers share, I would think) that we can all understand each other, get along, and live together in harmony. The problems are so complex, and sometimes the barriers feel impossibly great - even for the most basic kinds of communication.

After that, I found a little restaurant on the main drag in the city (of Xai-Xai - as opposed to the place I’m staying on Xai-Xai beach, which is about 10km out of town), and managed to get pointed to the small central market. There I sat and had some rice and kidneys with a beer. Market life was swirling around me, and several people tried to speak to me: the girls who were serving me food (with whom I ended up commincating mostly through hand gestures - thank heavens for charades…), the “mama” who ran the bar where I sat to eat (I just stared stupidly at her), and some random passers-by. This felt much better - although perhaps it’s just because of the beer…

I wrote a bit the other day about the drive to Maputo. Here’s that:

The countryside is glorious between Johannesburg and Maputo. Joburg is quite high in altitude (6000 feet or so, I hear), and since it’s “winter” here it is quite cool and dry there. After an hour or so on the road east out of town, you stop seeing factories and mines and start seeing large rolling hills which are brown right now, but I’ve seen pictures of them covered in lush green during the summer months. After a couple more hours the road starts a long descent. The vegetation changes slowly, and there are more and more farms of various kinds (rice, then oranges, then eventually bananas). The air also gets slowly more heavy and moist. We received many warnings about the crossing the border by car, but it went quite smoothly, although it did take some time. It was getting dark by the time we got out, but still Mozambique’s dramatic landscape was perceptible, and other differences between here and South Africa were quite apparent (besides the language difference): many more people on the highway on foot or on bicycle; vehicles generally moving more slowly and less predictably; more small, rickety stands on the roadside… I was surprised to see that they drive on the left here, like in South Africa. This observation led me to look around and find this amazing blog post about this question, for which I had never found any satisfying answers!

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to post this, but I’ll plan to write more as the trip goes on!


April 14th, 2008

A gentle rain is falling outside. I never really knew what that expression meant. Maybe it’s just the contrast: there are some wicked storms here, and I’ve seen large hail on several occasions in my short time here. Oof! As I was writing there was just a long, loud roll of thunder that shook the house! The rain is still gentle, though. I heard the other day that lightning strikes are much more common here than elsewhere, which I totally believe. There is a reasonably-sized lightning storm most days.

But that’s not at all what I’d meant to write about. More than one person has told me that South African dogs are racist. “Even the dogs are racist,” it was phrased, I believe. But I’ve been thinking about this.

When you walk a dog here, it is very clear that most black people don’t like dogs. Some flinch away, some coolly cross the street to avoid the dog, some crinkle their nose at the dog - I heard a black woman say, “don’t bite me!” to a dog as it passed - but black people rarely act comfortable, much less affectionate, towards dogs. And who can blame them? Dogs were definitely a part of the violent and repressive apparatus of yesteryear (as they were in the U.S.), and they continue to be quite literally a barrier between the haves and the have-nots. Part of the “front lines,” if you will.

But here’s the thing: wouldn’t a conscientious dog-walker steer clear of people who look visibly disconcerted by the dog? In fact, it seems to me that it’s both conscientious and strategically sound to go so far as to lightly scold the dog if it lunges (as dogs sometimes do, even if in an eager, friendly manner) toward someone who you don’t know. Strategic because it makes it seem as if the dog could potentially be a danger, which is something you actually want people to believe about your dog here. But the resulting lesson would be taught very efficiently, especially since dogs can smell tension and anxiety, both in their owner and in others: black people are different than white people. They aren’t friendly. They don’t like you.

Most whites here actually have dogs - again, for security purposes, in addition to the other reasons people and animals get together - and so they are generally quite comfortable around them, and often fawn over them (like people in the U.S. do).

Then there’s also the question about whether or not dogs actually “see” racial difference. I don’t think that matters. Whatever sensory or social data dogs use to distinguish between groups of people - smell, voice, gait, etc - I’m sure there is plenty of it that leads them to perceive a division along the same lines we perceive them (with plenty of exceptions, of course).

But my point is this: here, you don’t have to train your dog to react differently to blacks and whites. In fact, I’m not sure how you’d manage to keep your dog from learning the differences, unless you never took it out. But isn’t that true about all of us? The barriers between us are invented, but they are also real. We make them real, despite ourselves.

Now the rain has stopped. The light is beautiful - golden. Most days I’m amazed to be here.

Home life

April 11th, 2008

I was perched on a ladder with a clippers in one hand. I thought two things: the first, “this would be a really stupid way to die.” I always think that when I’m further above the ground than I can jump. I guess they call that “afraid of heights.” The second (related) thought was, “this is a very strange variation on a very domestic scene.” I’ll explain.

Most people who live in houses here have gardeners, and therefore are rarely perched on a ladder with a clippers. The wages are very low for this kind of labor (i.e. labor that black people do), so it’s not considered a “luxury” thing, which is how I think of it in the U.S. It’s also not a “luxury” thing because there’s a security element to having a gardener. First, it’s good to have someone around during the day to deter possible evil-doers while you’re away. The second issue is the one I was specifically dealing with that day with my clippers. I was clearing the plants away from the electric fence wires, so that they don’t short out the fence. Snip snip. A strange combination of pastoral home life and high-stakes high-voltage life-and-death stuff. Although I had switched the fence off and unplugged it, and it apparently hadn’t been working anyhow (because of the plants, presumably), it was unnerving. Terrifying, actually (and not distracting me from my fear of heights at all). All around, you see signs on the fences, with a skull and crossbones (usually) and the word everyone in Johannesburg knows in English, Afrikaans and Zulu respectively: “danger, gevaar, ingozi.”

I was also afraid that I was going to inadvertently snip an important wire of some kind and create a worse, more expensive problem. It all worked out fine, though - no death, either by falling or electric shock, and no cut wires…

Another lifestyle thing that I’ve discussed with a few people here is the car culture. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many fancy cars, or in such high proportion (and it’s not like I’ve never lived in New York City…). I’m not much of a car person, but I can tell a flashy one from a more simple model, and I know that the many many Mercedes, although more unassuming and less shocking than, say, the Ferrari convertibles buzzing around, are an expensive ride. What’s so befuddling to me is the juxtaposition between a culture of fancy expensive cars, and the constant talk of car-jackings, “smash-and-grab” crimes, etc. (you can probably guess what “smash-and-grab” means, but to be clear, sometimes a person on foot will punch through the window of a stopped car and steal stuff from it). Maybe there’s some reason that these things go together and I’m missing it: defiance on the part of the “haves” in the face of car-related crime? Defiance on the part of the “have-nots” related to a pre-existing flashy car culture? I feel like there must be some symbolic struggle taking place on the battleground of the streets and cars (in addition, obviously, to the more literal battle between rich and poor).

Easy habits to break

April 6th, 2008

I was riding my bike home from the University the other day, and rode by the fruit-sellers as I came into my neighborhood. These guys are amazing - usually three or four at a time (depending on the time of day), the same guys every day, holding fruit or other small items in their hands and coming up to the car windows to sell them. They are always energetic, always smiling, and very charming. If your window is up, they’ll plead with you to roll it down a little, just to talk. At least they plead with me when I’m in the car, but I’d imagine my lack of blasé “attitude” probably makes them think they can wear me down even if I don’t want to buy anything.Anyhow, this particular day I spotted a white man in his 50’s with shoulder-length blond hair leaning out of his car with both palms to the sky, saying to the fruit guy “I’m sorry - I haven’t got anything on me now…” I just caught that snippet, but a line I use much of the time. For some reason, it made me focus on the people in the cars. As I rode by, I looked to see that every car had white people in it. This is absolutely not the rule in Johannesburg, as there is quite a large black middle class and even a black elite. It just so happens that I live in a particularly white neighborhood.

But even in my particularly white neighborhood, all of the fruit guys are black. As are all of the construction guys. And the gardners, car guards, etc. This is no surprise, and probably not news to anyone. But what struck me today was that, after only having been here for a couple of months, I had gone weeks without feeling uneasy about this fact. I can’t believe how normal it feels to me now. Although I can remember how uncomfortable it made me when I first came to South Africa, now I’m totally used to it - adapted to this reality. This day, I found myself imagining my parents visiting and what their reaction might be. I actually wondered if it would feel to them like a throwback to the U.S. when they were very young - before the civil rights era. I have no idea how things looked or “felt” back then racially, but there must have been a time where the U.S. was at least more like this than it is now.

And I wondered how long it took people to get used to the changes in the U.S., when they happened: the end of slavery, the official end of Jim Crow, etc. Because I seem to have adapted to “the way things are” very quickly. Why, then, are societies so slow to change? Is it a question of which direction things are changing? (i.e. for me, a white English-speaking male, it is much easier to get used to a segregated society where white English-speakers are on the top of the hierarchy, whereas I might be slower to adapt to a segregated society where I was systematically excluded or impeded)

Now that I’ve thought it through (and deleted a couple paragraphs worth of musings), it makes more sense: I’m only one person, and an entire society can shape me very quickly. For a small group of people to change an entire society - even if generally, on some level, that society wants to change (and I’m not saying they do…) - they are fighting the battle that I have already lost: the battle to maintain a perspective on the status quo and its dysfunction, despite a large-scale willingness on the part of the majority to not see.

I suppose I’ve always been a bit wishy-washy - “slippery” as I was sometimes called in Kinshasa - shifting easily in and out of intellectual, moral, or social paradigms. People in Kinshasa also called me “adaptable,” which I suppose is the positive spin on wishy-washy. Maybe when you’re “adaptable,” you need to be careful where you spend your time - and what situations you adapt to…

For my friends and family who haven’t given up completely on my blog, I’m doing well, and back to practicing the piano (at last)! Thankfully, after all of the years I’ve studied, that isn’t such an easy habit to break.