Sunday, November 27, 2016

Zimbabwe Watery Blessing

Harare, Zimbabwe

I'd been looking forward to the Saturday outing for days when the rain began to fall, slowly at first, then turning into a downpour. My activity would have to wait. Back in America, I'd curse my bad luck, but this is Africa. I couldn't have been happier.

Rain isn't an inconvenience in Zimbabwe. It's a saviour.

Life is difficult enough in Zimbabwe under the best of circumstances – unemployment perpetually hovering around 90%, widespread disease such as malaria and AIDS, a crumbling infrastructure and economy.

To make matters worse, the country is in the midst of the worst drought in decades, putting millions of people at risk of starvation. Rain – or a lack of it – literally determines life or death in Zimbabwe.

Earlier in the week, my groundskeeper/security guard Shadreck shared his fears about whether the crops he planted behind my house would make it. Growing food isn't a hobby for most. It's a necessity.

In 2002, Shadreck and his family faced another severe drought while living in the countryside. "It was so bad we had to let our animals die so we would have enough water to survive," he said. Both of Shadreck's elderly parents perished in the drought, a fact he shared sullenly, before immediately brightening up and switching to another topic. Several Zimbabwean authors I've read say with the amount of tragedy in the country people have to learn to let things go or they'd go insane.

And so on Saturday, rather than bemoaning the rain, I found myself outside celebrating with Shadreck – two grown men chatting giddily in the rain unconcerned about getting drenched.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

African Alternative to President Trump

It became all too real as I watched Trump deliver his victory speech, transforming The Donald from real-estate mogul/entertainer/political oddity to president-elect of the United States of America, arguably the most powerful position on Earth.

Even though Hillary Clinton received, at last count, almost 800,000 more votes than Trump, she gracefully conceded, emphasizing that the electorate had made its choice and that the rules governing the Electoral College system must be followed and respected.

Even though his Democratic party would now lose control of the White House after such a tight race, President Obama – the commander and chief of the armed forces – didn't mobilize troops to block the Republican victory but, instead, called to congratulate Trump.

Even though half of the U.S. population might loathe the fact that Trump in two months will be sworn in as the 45th president, there's no question it will happen.

Tuesday's election is yet another reminder of the extraordinary way in which U.S. presidential power flows seamlessly from one administration to the next.

This often isn't the case in Africa, where several post-colonial leaders clung to power until being overthrown or buried. It's a continent where unfavorable election results are ignored, manipulated in behalf of the incumbent, or erased with violence, although elections are often just a formality with the numerous one-party "democracies."

The emperor of Ethiopia ruled for 44 years. Muammar Gaddafi remained in control of Libya for 42 years. Both men were eventually ousted by coups. Currently, nine African heads of state have led their countries for 22 years or more. 

The U.S. electoral system is far from perfect, but I'll gladly accept it over the African alternative.

Monday, November 7, 2016

What Not to Do in Africa - Part 2

I believe in public transportation because I don't believe in the notion that everyone needs a car, although in America it's hard to get by without one because most cities and states haven't made a commitment to mass transit.

The car situation is different abroad. I relish the opportunity to climb on a bus or ride the rails as my primary means of transportation.

When I decided to visit Cape Town, friends told me I must rent a car. I knew I'd get by fine without one, with the exception of visiting the wine country of Stellenbosch – a distance of about 32 miles.

Late in my vacation, I tried to find wine tours headed to Stellenbosch, but the one I wanted was full, leaving me looking at a two-hour train ride.

I've always loved trains. Normally, I'd jump at the chance to take a train, but I read that isn't the best idea from Cape Town because of widespread reports of assaults and robberies, many of them involving knives or guns.

Everyone agreed the Cape Town to Stellenbosch route at night was out of the question, but opinion varied about daytime trips. Some said it wasn't a problem, while others called it foolish, at best, especially for tourists.

Having utilized public transportation all over the world, I'm used to the horror stories, none of which ever match up with reality, so I bought a first-class ticket and was on my way.

Supposedly, I was riding in the best section, but the cars were covered with graffiti and the seats in general disrepair. No tourists or security were in sight. In 2015, such lack of security and the escalating crime rate prompted a trade union to threaten train-worker strikes if the situation didn't improve.

While living in New York City, one of the rules I learned riding the subway is there's usually safety in numbers. With each passing station out of Cape Town, more passengers departed, leaving behind just a handful of riders, most of whom eyed me with curiosity or outright suspicion. It was obvious I wasn't from around those parts.

I had taken precautions. I carried a copy of my passport, rather than the real thing; left my cellphone behind; and had little cash in my pocket. Still, I wondered if I'd made a serious mistake taking the train.

My nervousness grew. Finally, the word I longed to see - Stellenbosch.

I had overreacted. The stories of gloom and doom were, once again, overblown.

After enjoying an afternoon at the vineyards, I headed back to the station, carrying an elegant bag with my newly purchased bottle of wine. I plopped down on a platform bench, hoping to remain nondescript – a tall order, considering the wine bottle and my out-of-towner appearance.

A woman sat down next to me, murmuring some kind of tribal language. Occasionally, I heard the word "Jesus," as well as a bit of singing.

Another lesson I learned in New York City is to avoid making eye contact on subways, no matter how strange the behavior. Eye contact is likely to cause the person engaging in the strange behavior to confront the person who is staring.

I gazed into the distance but couldn't help notice she was now talking to me. Worse, she seemed to want a response. I ignored her.

She became agitated. I ignored her. Eventually, she threw up her arms in disgust, walking down the platform. I relaxed, but it was a short-lived reprieve because a couple of minutes later she returned, got up in my face, and started screaming.

All conversation on the platform ceased. All eyes turned in our direction. I waited helplessly for what would happen next, but almost as quickly as she exploded into rage, the storm subsided, and she, again, walked away.

Now, I had my opportunity to escape. I turned to a woman remaining on the bench. "I think I'd better move," I said. She agreed. Before leaving, I asked the woman if she knew what my friend had been screaming about. "No, I think she's sick."

Once the train arrived, I sprinted to the first-class car, hoping the woman wouldn't return. She never did, but soon a new oddity appeared.

By this point, I was well into New York mode – I put on my sunglasses to avoid any eye contact. I leaned my head against the window and acted like I was asleep.

My new friend sat down in a seat across the aisle. He smiled, gave a thumbs-up, shook his head up and down, and stared at another male passenger in front of him. Apparently, the passenger was also a train veteran because he, too, stared out the window, ignoring the scene unfolding in front of him.

Fonzie wouldn't be put off so easily. Five minutes later, he went through the same routine. Again, no response. The miles passed, interrupted by his unrelenting thumb-ups, head shakes, and smiles. No matter what Fonzie did he got no reactions, until he added one more item to his list – smile, thumbs-up, head bob, and ... reaching out to touch his fellow passenger on the knee.

The passenger didn't waste any time. He calmly stood up – still never making eye contact – turned around, and walked to another car. Fonzie had won, but he didn't have much time to celebrate because within a few minutes he fell asleep.

Aside from a few teenage school children running back and forth through the cars, I arrived back in Cape Town without incident, grateful for a safe journey and vowing never to take local commuter trains in South Africa again. Yes, I know nothing bad happened, but my two encounters were too much for me.

I'm still a believer in public transportation; however, sometimes, it pays to listen to the locals.