The story of the colorful people in Joburg, Lusaka and Livingstone and a couple of stray thoughts

The reason I like to stay in backpacker’s is of course monetary. But another strong reason is to meet cool people, have fun and make friends.  Lebo’s place in Soweto is full of fun, particularly in the evening. In this winter months, a fire in the outside sitting area keeps it warm and cozy with a very good selection of jazz and reggae.  I met here a playful and pretty German girl with strong Aussi accent. She works in Soweto with HIV infected kids and is trying to break the societal inhibition against HIV by bringing together HIV and Non-HIV kids. She’s planning a documentary to be made by these kids. I gave her some ideas how she could raise fund for this project. She seemed excited!  

Then there’s this Manchester guy who took a long bus trip from Malawi to save some money. He too, like me, is a “development practitioner”. We chatted by the fire about Jeffry Sachs, Paul Farmer, state of the word, sustainability and the hypocrisy of the development practitioners, so and so forth. We chatted about our hard luck in finding a job in this tough economy where development money is quick to dry out. We don’t need Wall Street salary, but come on, at least we need roof on our heads, food to eat and couple of trips here and there. We sincerely empathized with each other even though we did not even learn each other’s names!

We saw this beautiful giraffe in the Lion and Rhino park in Joburg.
We saw this beautiful giraffe in the Lion and Rhino park in Joburg.
The gorgeous Victoria falls in Zambia
The VIC

It is hard to forget the captivating African dance of the beautiful and carefree French girl by the fire. She works as a waitress in a part of France and when she could save enough money, she quits her job and travels around Africa. With a cider in my hand, I watched her body move with the ancient African beats as I talked with the sweet-nature German girls who worked in a rural part of South Africa for one year after finishing their high-school. They just finished their volunteer job and are travelling a bit.

The German gentleman in Lebo’s was little reserved in the beginning, a stereotypical demeanor befitting a German. But then he started talking. Slowly but with lots of wits and humor.  He is a leftist politician from Germany, traveling to Johannesburg with a comrade to organize an African youth leadership conference.  He does similar activities in Nepal too. After few hours of conversation, he asked me whether my marriage was a “love marriage” and if it had an arranged component. I laughed hard and we became very friendly.

His name is Thomas. He shared numerous stories – techniques of drinking beer from a five-litter boot shaped glass, getting lost in the rural Nepal with his wife, and his grandsons aged 2 and 4. I don’t know the truth behind, but Thomas and his comrade Iyrin, (and I believe many other leftist Europeans, too!) are convinced that HIV was accidentally created by USA while they were secretly trying to develop biological weaponry! Is that funny? I don’t know. I felt that this serious-looking gentleman was actually warm and child-like who liked to have several servings of Ice-cream after dinar. When we departed, my friend Le gave him a hug and said to him that he was the funniest German man she ever met! He began to smile and she said “not so quick. You are the second German man I ever met!”

While we found the Joburgers to be friendly and fun-loving, Lusaka people in the beginning seemed a little somber and aloof.  The people at the Kalulu backpackers seemed little less enthusiastic. But despite this and the lack of hand-washing soap in the bathrooms, I had a great evening talking with a Harvard PHD student of applied physics who is doing his research on developing low-cost rapid diagnostic medical assessment technologies. I also met a KIVA volunteer working on how to have high impact on the lives of the borrowers of KIVA fund. Who knows why these backpacker’s hostels are the meeting places of liberals, leftists and those apparently concerned (like me!) about poverty and sustainability? May be because they don’t have money! Whatever the reason is, it is fun.

Lusaka is a beautiful city with big trees and, now a days, big brands and huge shopping malls. I wouldn’t believe that the per capita income of this vast country is less than $500 if I landed in Lusaka without knowing it! Most of the trees are so familiar to me, they are so much like those of my homeland. But Lusaka is much nicer than Dhaka I admit. Unfortunately perhaps any city is nicer than Dhaka in recent times. I was stupid to forget my camera charger in New York. So I went to a spotless brand new shopping mall to get one and I paid about $75 for my stupidity. Most of the manufactured products are imported here and are super expensive. I wondered how people beyond the small expat communities and the urban middle-class survive in this poor country. I had a glimpse as I came out of the air-conditioned shopping malls – jobless youth sitting by the streets. Their empty eyes wrenched my heart.

Then in Livingstone, the town beside the Victoria Falls, we met a Korean girl and I learned that she worked in Dhaka for two years as a volunteer! She worked right beside my parents’ house! She was travelling alone. So we tagged her along in our falls trip. In the evening we cooked noodle and soup, ate together and became friends! We also met a couple of travelers from New York. One of them studied at Columbia! Small word, huh! I guess it is a small world for the well-connected people like us because the number of such people is not very huge. And the world is small in a different way for the people like that Zimbabwean, who was trying to sell cliché craft to me on the falls bridge. He told me that he felt like jumping of the bridge and finishing his life in the gorge in desperation. I gave him ten Kwacha and he thanked me several times for saving his life!

I am back to Lusaka again. And it’s the end of my “fun” trip and start of work. I am travelling to the western province of Zambia tomorrow where I will be based for next three months. The head office of the organization I’m working with is in a green suburb of Lusaka. I went out for lunch and found an inviting café. I went in and sat in the breezy porch for a sandwich. I don’t know why I had this strange uncomfortable feeling as the delicious Panini melted in my mouth in the very western café full of smart people, locals and expats. I wondered if I could do anything to make the world of the people like that Zimbabwean craft seller a little bigger. I hope so. I hope so.

Johannesburg- a City of Golden Hearts

It is not really my first time in Johannesburg. But the last time I came, it was not really a visit. It was just a official trip for an hour or so to a business incubator. But to have some feel of this city, rich in gold as well as history and culture, it is necessary to stay here for a while and there cannot be a better place than Soweto to be in for this purpose.

Soweto is a short form of South Western Township, which was built during 1940s and 50s during the Apartheid, far away from Joburg City center to dump the black working class people as far as possible from the withes. Soweto is the place where Nelson Mandela lived for about 15 years, where Winnie Mandela kept their children safe from bullets shot at their house by the police for long 20 years when Nelson Mandela was in prison.. She built a partition in their very small and modest living room to do so.   

South Africa

Soweto streets are where student movement originated and thrived against all oppression. Students protested against the endless discrimination that they faced in education – lack of teachers, lack of furniture, cramped schools and impositions of Afrikaans as their means of education  Hundreds of them were brutally murdered by the police. The names of those students are engraved in bricks lying in the harsh and black atrium of the Hector Peterson Museum. Hector Peterson was just a 13 year old boy who was murdered by a stray bullet and created a lot of stir in the community by giving up his life. The Museum was pretty overwhelming with large windows and cold and bare brick walls, with its hollowness and muffled sound of those angry protests captured in rare footage. Large black and white pictures had lots of stories to tell.

But nothing like the apartheid museum. Rich history and culture of South Africa, the rise and the fall of the heinous scheme, the struggle of the Africans, grueling life of the miners, sophistication in racial identifications, whites, blacks, Indians, colored and Chinese and an enormous institution to keep non-whites away from whites. The depiction of the discrimination, the disenfranchisement of all civil and human rights, the everyday humiliation and torture the native people faced is astounding. Even more astounding are the sights and sounds of the resilience, the protest and the patience of the South Africans, the sagacity and prudence of their leadership. It is amazing how they kept their hopes alive in those desperate times by singing and dancing. It is amazing how cultivated and educated South Africans were, even back in those bleak times. Coming out of this beautiful building, my heart was filled with love and respect for this fearless nation.         

 And why not, after all “Humanity was born in Africa, so all the people, ultimately, are Africans.”