Sunday, October 9, 2016

African Creatures Large and Small

Before moving to Zimbabwe, a friend who once worked in the region offered me a bit of advice – no structure can completely shut out Africa.

Which is why I wasn't surprised to discover some colorful creatures sharing the grounds of our school campus.

And sometimes even wandering inside classrooms and onto desks.

Before, I had to pay to see such creatures. Now they come to see me, often hoping to partake of my lunch.

But there's an occasional downside to life with sub-Saharan creatures.

It's not uncommon for me to wake up and find a swarm of ants occupying my bedroom.

It's all just part of being an international teacher.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Not to Do in Africa

Part of the inculturation process is learning what to do in a new land. It's equally important to learn what not to do, such as my mistake of interacting with soldiers outside the president of Zimbabwe's official residence.

I moved to Zimbabwe to delve into the culture, and so, last month, set off on my bicycle to explore Harare's downtown. The center of town is what one would expect in an African capital city – crowded, chaotic, and filled almost entirely with locals, unlike the suburb where I live, which is filled with Westerners.

After an hour or so of peddling, I found myself approaching the State House, home of President Mugabe.  I'd been warned that one of the adjacent streets is closed to motorists 12 hours a day, but I understood bicycles and pedestrians are allowed, although now I know there are some crucial caveats.

On the corner, I spotted two soldiers guarding an exterior wall of the State House compound. Throughout my ride, I greeted people I met along the way. Soldiers are people too, so I slowed down for a second to say hello.

The soldiers didn't seem to want to chat; however, one did instruct me to ride my bicycle up the bike path. Friendly enough. I thanked him and continued my journey. A couple of minutes later I passed two sharply-dressed guards, waved at them, and wished them a happy Sunday morning. If I'm not mistaken, I think one laughed.

Later, I peddled back down the bike path, stopped at the corner with the original soldiers I met, and asked if I could ride down a path directly in front of the walls of the compound.

"That's prohibited," one replied, and pointed me to the opposite side of the road. I thanked him, waved, and was off.

I don't go out of my way to socialize with people guarding the residences of heads of state, but I always like to be friendly, and I assumed that a 51-year-old foreigner on a Mary Poppins bike wouldn't be perceived as a threat.

I didn't think much about my bicycling encounter until the next day when I casually mentioned it to a veteran teacher.

Her eyes grew big. "Are you crazy?" She then asked me to share my story with a Zimbabwean, who just shook her head, reiterating the teacher's reaction. Later, my principal also suggested I avoid making friends outside the State House. They all told me that the guards have a reputation for being quite strict, especially toward locals.

I didn't know how strict until this weekend when I shared my bicycle adventure with my gardener, Shadreck.

"No, no, no," he said. "Never talk to the soldiers."

According to Shadreck, it's prohibited to even stop along that section of road. "Do not stop your bike. Do not say hello. Keep riding until you get way past," he said.

To make matters worse, I've since read that waving one's open palm in a certain manner is a gesture of protest used by one of the opposition parties.

"Wave at anyone you meet in Harare," said Shadreck, "but don't wave at soldiers outside the State House. Please!"

Shadreck told me I probably managed to avoid incident because it was obvious that I was a "confused foreigner" who didn't know any better,  but he said a person can easily be "punished" for any perceived indiscretions near the State House, punishments of the monetary or physical variety.

I certainly meant no disrespect to anyone and have now learned as part of my Zimbabwean inculturation process that it's best to avoid exchanging pleasantries with anyone passing by or guarding President Mugabe's house.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Cars Are a Birthright in Zimbabwe

Since I moved to Zimbabwe a month ago, the question I hear more than any other is "When are you buying a car?"

I'm not surprised because Harare is a major metropolitan city of 1.6 million residents with a five-month rainy season. I can especially understand why a family with children would want a vehicle. 

However, I'm troubled by the frequent comment that I "need" a car, that I can't function without one. The estimated unemployment rate in Zimbabwe is around 80%.  It's safe to say most people in Harare don't own a car or ever will.

The public transportation system – consisting mainly of mini-vans – is overcrowded, unreliable, and some say unsafe, but it does exist. Bicycles are also common, and, of course, there's always walking.

To which I then hear,  "You won't be able to see that much in Zimbabwe without a car." 

True, I lose the ability to drive to any game reserve I want when I want, but there are buses – even luxury buses – crisscrossing the country. 

Cars are certainly a lot more convenient, but they aren't a necessity.  As Westerners, we are conditioned to the idea that owning a car is as important as the food we eat. Public transportation is out of the question. Alternative transportation such as a bicycle or a scooter is impractical. Yet, most of humanity will never get behind the wheel of a car. Most of humanity is inconvenienced. Still, somehow individuals manage.

Arriving in Zimbabwe with the mindset that I must have a car seems a bit odious. Worse, it creates instant autonomy and, thus, isolation. It sets one apart from and above the daily reality of the majority of Zimbabweans. 

My transportation is a bicycle. I'm easily able to ride to work, ride to the store, and socialize with friends. Yes, it's not as convenient as a car, but every day I'm greeted with a chorus of "hellos," "How are you?" and smiles from my fellow bicyclists and pedestrians as I pedal by on my Mary Poppins bike clad in my rain pants and goofy, bright-red helmet.

I'll happily take that if the trade-off is arriving a few minutes later than my motorist friends.