I am not an adventure traveler. Adrenaline rush is never strong enough to persuade me to take up those crazy activities like Bungee jumping and white water rafting. I like to take in the beauty of nature, the sight, sound and smell, to enjoy the local cuisine and culture and to befriend the local people. But in recent days I have sadly found that the wow factor is disappearing, particularly when I am visiting a touristy place. Now a days, before going somewhere, I do too much online research, read too many reviews, and see too many spectacular photos and videos. I guess it creates in me an unrealistic expectations about the place. And I get slightly disappointed when I actually go there.
Victoria Falls is, of course, an overwhelming experience, but not an unexpected one. It was high-water season and the sprays from the falls were so dense that it was impossible to see the details most of the times, which was a little disappointing. Besides, nearby Livingstone town is quite developed and touristy, without any particular character or charm. It was definitely a memorable trip but I probably won’t get dreamy thinking about it.
However, Ngonye falls may fit the bill. A friend suggested that we could stop by at these small falls on our way back from Livingstone to Mongu. It is a small community-managed park. And if you don’t know, you would most probably drive by the entrance without even noticing. When we arrived at the reception, we did not find anybody but a single person managing the park. He was our guide too. The falls were situated at a good half an hour walk away. Just beyond the trees at the edge of the sandy backyard of the reception, we landed on a strange terrain made up of ancient chunks of hard rocks, with water flowing underneath. The stones were smooth like butter in many places, perhaps the work of water for thousands of years. It felt like walking on the moon! We jumped over a crystal-clear stream flowing through the rocks.
The little stream, with big shadowy trees on both sides, in this exotic land gave a funny feeling in my stomach. And the sudden appearance of a Cobra completed the bizarre dreamy feeling. Our guide sprinted and shouted when he saw the Cobra crossing his path. We quickly scrambled up the taller rocks to be safe. He tried to beat the Cobra away; and we crossed the place shaking with fear.
The journey itself was exotic enough. But when we reached the edge of the river, I was speechless. Ngonye falls are not tall and wide like the Victoria. They are not even any close. But they are actually a combination of eight different small falls forming a huge half-circle, all of them joining the Zambezi with grace. It was amazing to look at every direction to find a wild waterfall. The absolute absence of civilization, the wildness of the water and the strangeness of the rocks behind were truly mesmerizing. After a very long time, I had that ecstatic sensation. WOW, really!!! And I made a selfish plea to Ngonye. Please remain as you are, an undiscovered beauty.
Though rural life is somewhat romanticized by townsfolk, in reality it can rather be nightmarish for them. In a few days they would start feeling empty to be away from all the hustle-bustle and glittering lifestyle of their cities. And if the concerned village is in an unfortunate corner of South Asia or Africa, the pain starts from the very first day. Either there’s no electricity or there are long and frequent power-cuts. Almost all amenities of modern life are absent. There’s no running water, let alone hot water. The best available toilet is a hole dug on the ground, surrounded by thatch, where people need to squat on. Forget about hygiene, squatting itself can be quite painful for a person not in good physical shape. If roads are non-existent and people have meager purchasing power, even the varieties of food available can be woefully boring.
Mapungu is a perfect example. When we arrived Mapungu by a boat, the sun was already setting. People standing at the docking point clapped their hands twice at each of us, a gesture of politeness, and murmured Muchwani, meaning “how are you”, with a broad smile. We replied “Hande” – I am fine, and clapped back. We found a vacant government house to take shelter. There was no power. The women teammates immediately started cooking in the dark; the men created a bonfire and started chatting while waiting for food. The women served food to the men first (and also to us, cause we were foreigners!) and ate whatever was left behind. Ironclad gender roles, with no hope of change in sight.
In the morning, we met the President. He tried to run for US presidential election and he should have been at least the Zambian president. But unfortunately he lives in a 10 feet by 5 feet palace that he made from scrap metal and wood he found on the street. But he neatly decorated his statehouse with papers and books he collected, and there’s a little corner where he sits down to perform his stately affairs. He lives on piecework, guarding people’s house when they are out and washing their clothes. But he is an avid reader of newspapers and talks like a well-educated person. He has a childlike curiosity and an innocent smile. He kept us amused for the rest of our stay. Every time a kid passed by him, it would shout at him, OBAMA!!!
However, we were in Mapungu to conduct a meeting with the community on the progress they made on a set of “dreams” that they created a year ago. There are two volunteer community facilitators in the village to mobilize the community in working towards the dreams. The meeting started at least one hour later than the scheduled time, a usual scenario here. When the facilitators started asking about their dreams, some villagers began protesting that they didn’t know anything about it! Most of the conversation was in Lozi, the language of the Western province. So I could not catch most of it. But I had a feeling that the community mobilization was not going very well. Later on, groups of villagers made presentation about their progress. They claimed that the came up with “bylaws” for fish conservation and at least 75% of the fishers in the village stopped illegal fishing. Sounds encouraging, but I tend not to take these verbal claim seriously. Because, without proper external evaluation, it is hard to say what really happened. Besides, I felt the level of community mobilization, mentoring support and supervision to the facilitators were not enough to have such a big change anyway. But it is a research project. Perhaps the idea is to find out how such loose models actually work in the field.
I was already getting sad about the food. The tendency of the people in this region is to deep fry everything, fish, chicken, beef, you name it. Our menu was limited to a combination of fried fish, fried country chicken, rape (a kind of spinach, virtually the only variety of vegetable available here) and maize meal. I guess here people fry and add a lot of salt in their food out of boredom with the lack of variety. But I was alarmed to think about the potential consequences of such an unhealthy habit. May be development practitioners also need to focus on food habit. But who does not know that food habits are hard to die?
Next day we had a similar meeting in a nearby village named Muandi. The floodwater was receding. So the only means of communication was walking on the sand. It was an hour long walk but my feet were aching. Walking on the sand is not easy. I couldn’t imagine how people travel from that village on a daily basis. What happens if someone n Continue reading “Experiencing the Rural Life in Barotse Floodplain”→
The specialty of Mongu is sand. When we entered Mongu, the capital of the Western Province of Zambia, we did not find anything special about this place. It is exactly like a typical district town of an ex-colonial developing country; broken roads and single-storied tin-roofed houses. But when we took the smaller roads from the main roads, we found it is all sand. Even the yards of the houses are full of sand. Our office is literally a block away from where we live. But we have to walk there in ankle-deep sand. I stopped using my shoes and sneakers. I would always wear my sandals and every time I would enter the house or the office, I will shake me feet vigorously to jerk the sand away.
I guess Mongu is full of sand as it is at the edge of the Barotse floodplain. A five-minute drive took us to the harbor from where we could see nothing but water and the sky. We took a boat to meet the communities we are going to work with. As we moved along, children and adults alike, in boats and islands, smiled at us and waved their hands. Perhaps it was the only exciting part in their event-less day. The rainy season has just passed and the water is still deep and crystal clear. On both sides, the islands are green with some kind of grass and are full of different species of birds. In most islands, there are a few flimsy fishermen’s huts. In some of the islands, there were herds of cattle. Every now and then, we passed a canoe curved out of a whole tree trunk.
Everything was so pristine and picturesque, yet the grueling life of these island dwellers was apparent. Lack of infrastructure, schools, hospitals and livelihoods options must make their life very hard. I was also thinking about the challenges of working with such marginal communities in such a difficult environment. It reminded me of the marginal fishermen in Northeastern Bangladesh living in a similar, perhaps more difficult, environment. We wanted to do something for that vulnerable community there. But we failed to develop any meaningful project that would not need substantial financial support and change in government policies and politics. Eventually we gave up. I was hoping that this will not be the case here.
The first fishing camp that we landed at had a church, a few mud and grass houses, men, women and a number of children, mostly girls. Later on we learned that the fishermen support the education of their boy children as long as they can. And most of the boys live far away from the communities for their education. That is why the islands are so full of girls! It was a Sunday morning, so many people were still in the church. We met the leader of the fishermen’s camp, who was already drunk by this time. Fishermen would spend a good chunk of their income on alcohol. In the island we also met two women fish traders who trade only dry fish. They do not trade fresh fish as it needs more capital and often paddling the channels for hours to find a buyer. On average they make a profit of 4 to 6 dollars per day.
After a brief visit of the island we got on board again and kept moving towards the Zambezi. I was mesmerized by the beauty of nature, thousands of birds basking in the wetlands, small wooden canoes carrying fish, passengers and all necessary goods, and clarity of the water and the blue sky. We also came across a hippo! It was peeping from under the water. We learned that hippos create a lot of trouble for the fishermen here by tearing the fishing nets. After all, we are in Africa! Finally we reached the Great Zambezi, a vast sheet of water with islands on both sides.
Now it was time to go back. The sunset was magnificent and the dusk hovered around the horizon for a very long time. The soft mystic light accompanied us until the first stars were out. I came back home, tired but composed. I hope I can make some contribution, no matter how small, in the lives of the people living in this beautiful region.
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!
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.
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.
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.”