Thursday, December 29, 2011

arriving in soweto

My arrival in the township of Soweto was greeted by an incredibly adorable six-year-old boy named Friso running excitedly to me. He had been playing by himself with the broken bumper of a car in an empty lot, but when he saw me, he dropped it and ran right up to me. He just wanted to say hi. I said hello back to him and let him walk me to Lebo’s. I started thinking about maybe having kids one day.

At Lebo’s, I met two young guys named Phil and Timo who live near the hostel and work at the after-school program for Soweto that’s connected to Lebo’s. They were going to grab a bite at Maponya Mall. Even though I generally feel like malls are the ultimate opposite of culture,I decided to come along. I’d been spending my entire afternoon in Soweto napping and drinking beers while watching MTV (Lebo’s has satellite) - if I did that any longer, I was going to get drunk by 7PM.

Maponya Mall

Maponya Mall is the biggest mall in Soweto, and was still open and full of people when we arrived. The frantic shopping days before Christmas is pretty universal around the globe. Club music was being pumped throughout the mall, with the occasional shopper dropping their bags to dance (I told you, people here really love to dance). The boys walked right past a McDonalds and this awesome looking restaurant called Tavern specializing in “African soul food” like lamb stew, and into this chain restaurant called Spurs.

They have the Spurs chain in Namibia too. It’s found throughout South Africa and specializes in steaks and stereotypes. It basically could not exist in North America. Even though all the meaty ribs, wings, and filet mignons would suit a more Cowboy theme, for some reason the chain decided to immerse itself into the “Indian” side of the theme, decorating the entire interior with fake totem poles, dream catchers, and smiling natives with feathers in their hair.

I mean, just look at the place mats.

Having a lifelong passion for First Nations issues and having just finished working for an Aboriginal judge, it took my strongest sense of tact and hipster irony to keep a straight face. I mean, nobody else saw any cause for discomfort, not the black waiting staff, or the German guys I’d come with, who were adolescent boys craving steak. So I struggled to build my bridge to this cultural iceberg, and ordered a chicken mayo toastie, trying not to think too much about the loaded ironies of spending my first evening in the world’s most famous black township with two white boys in a vaguely racist restaurant in an affluent mall. At least the dessert was delicious, and our South African wine came in a bottle shaped like a Christmas tree.

The next morning I went on a bike tour of Soweto which showed me another side of the township. Because I am freakishly short, I was given a child’s bike. I was guided by Thomas, a twenty-one-year old Soweto resident with a rich knowledge of his place of birth.


me and my kid-sized bike

Soweto is a township of Johannesburg, but it has a population of 3.5 million people, which is almost twice the population of the entire country of Namibia and more than three times the population of my hometown Ottawa, so really it could be a city on its own. It has 38 suburbs, all sprawled out as far as the eye can see, as there are no skyscrapers to block out the sky.

soweto sprawls out as far as the eye can see

In Namibia, white people always warn me about being careful going into the black township of Katutura. They paint a picture of the black townships being full of misery, poverty, and people waiting to rob you. Going through Soweto with Thomas was a different experience, however. Obviously the crime and poverty was certainly present, but what I had not expected was the friendliness of people. As I sailed down the streets of Soweto on my kid’s bike, children ran out into the streets to greet me, waving out their hands so I could give them a high five, and breaking out into beautiful song.

I also had not expected the rich cultural and artistic history of Soweto. Being North American, I’ve been used to believing that nothing culturally revolutionary comes from the suburbs. But it was Soweto, and particularly the artsy neighbourhood of Orlando West, that brought the world stirring political poetry against apartheid, kwaito music, and the song made famous by the Lion King as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. We saw children playing soccer in the streets, referred to by the locals as “indoor football”, because the “field” was surrounded by houses. There is so much feeling of life and energy that you could sense it everywhere, even in the poorest parts of the township.

Thomas took me down to the Mzimhlophe informal settlement area, one of the poorer parts of Soweto. Even here the little kids ran up to me to say hello and to throw their arms around me in a heart-melting hug.

the communal toilets

cow heads

I watched a man sit on a bucket, getting his head shaved in an outdoor barber shop. Thomas also took us into a shebeen, which was no more than a dark shack full of flies and old people drinking at eleven in the morning. I felt a little claustrophobic in there. It certainly made the shebeen that Tshuka took us to seem like a luxury hotel bar in comparison.

trying out a locally brewed beer in the shebeen

Thomas spoke of the persistence of apartheid attitudes even after the regime fell. The blacks and the whites are still quite segregated to different areas of Johannesburg. He told me how often when white people see a black person approach them, they nervously hide their purses and wallets. He told me one story when he had gone to Sandton City to buy designer shoes for his uncle. As he browsed through the shoe section of one store, the white manager came after him and told him, “Boy, this is not a place for you to play. Get out.” When Thomas explained that he wanted buy a pair of shoes, the manager laughed and told him there was no way he had enough money. Rather than arguing with the manager, Thomas simply left, found another shop selling the same shoes, and brought the shoes back to the original store with the receipt, just to prove to the manager that he really had meant to spend his money there.

We also biked down to the Hector Pieterson Memorial. I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog entry about how personally moving it is for me to think about the 1976 Soweto Uprising, where the high school students of Soweto decided, in the words of Thomas, “To hell with Afrikaans in our school, to hell with a Bantu education” that was designed to keep the blacks uneducated and enslaved to their white employers. In the midst of this demonstration where hundreds of students, mere teenagers, were shot and killed, thirteen year old Hector Pieterson died. The Memorial was full of thoughtful symbolism and once again I felt my eyes filling with tears. There was a row of olive trees planted in a line from where Hector was shot to where he finally died. There was a water fountain, symbolizing the tears that were shed by Soweto parents who lost their children during the protest. The fountain contained stones, the students’ only defense against an army of policemen wielding guns.

olive trees

This was a more upper-class area of Soweto. It also contained the house of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s house.

We finished off the tour back at Lebo’s where we were served a “Soweto burger”, known as a kota, consisting of sausages, processed cheese, some sort of abnormally bright pink processed mystery meat, and fries, all stuffed between sandwich bread. It was the beginning of a long series of meals where I would not touch anything resembling a vegetable for days.

vegetables are what food eats

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

from sandton to soweto

After doing five countries in five days, not to mention catching a nasty case of bedbugs and unmerciful mosquito bites, I was ready to lay low for a while in Johannesburg. Johannesburg has kind of become my break from “Africa” in quotation marks in a certain way: it’s a land where businesses take credit cards, where there is an abundance of McDonalds, where there is public transportation, where skyscrapers blot out the sky, and many parts of it are virtually indistinguishable from, say, York Mills in Toronto. It’s a pretty good place to lay low after trekking around waterfalls getting robbed by baboons. Especially with Joseph, who seems to share the same idea of laying low.

Deep down inside Joseph and I are actually forty-something-year-old rich white housewives, as is evidenced by our activities in Johannesburg:
  • going for refreshing runs in the morning
  • enjoying Joseph’s signature breakfasts of nutella-banana-bacon-beans and Lebanese salads
  • mending our sore backpacker backs with a Thai massage
  • eating a healthy lunch of Moroccan wraps and mango juice at Benmore Gardens
  • getting pampered with facials (Joseph’s facial was done by Luna Lovegood herself)
  • going shopping at Sandton City, a huge luxury shopping centre which is where you would go to get your Louis Vuitton/Chanel/Gucci fix (I bought some sunglasses at Mr. Price)
  • sneaking into the fanciest hotel we've ever seen
  • complaining about our maids
  • having a laundry party with a bottle of wine.

shopping at Rosebank

nelson mandela square

joseph also likes dinner for breakfast, like me

fancy hotel!

Sandton city: more shops than you'd know what to do with

As you can see, I’ve been enjoying the more luxurious side of Johannesburg. As a major contrast to Sandton though, I decided to spend Christmas and my birthday in Soweto, the famous historical township where blacks were relocated to during South Africa’s apartheid. It also became the main headquarters of resistance against apartheid, culminating in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 where hundreds of teenage students were killed while protesting apartheid policy in their education. I’d learned about Soweto while visiting the apartheid museum the last time I was in Johannesburg, and thought it’d be a fascinating place to visit. Over the next little while I'll be posting about my adventures there.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

British high tea in a Zimbabwean dream

I have been reading a few interesting novels about Zimbabwe, including Robert Mugabe and the African and Douglas Rogers' The Last Resort , which was especially good at describing the situation that has been unfolding in Zimbabwe for the last few decades. For a complete history of Zimbabwe you should look elsewhere other than this blog (like maybe read those novels), but to over-over-oversimplify it, Zimbabwe gained its independence from British colonial rule in the early 1980s, and were pretty unhappy about what the British colonialists had done to them in the past and so implemented a policy of expropriating land from white farmers, some of whom had been living in Zimbabwe for many years. Much of this process was quite violent. SADC even released a judgment condemning these actions. Meanwhile, as time went by, the Zimbabwean economy plummeted and inflation reached ridiculous levels, to the point where people needed to carry around suitcases full of money just to pay for groceries.

I feel like I’m not doing enough to explain the situation in the country, but maybe you get the idea of why I was a bit nervous at first about visiting the country. The Last Resort was published in 2008, so it’s not like these events were ancient history. Street vendors still sell ten billion Zimbabwean dollar bills to tourists for the equivalent of three US dollars (Zimbabwe’s tourism industry basically runs in the US dollar). But the Zimbabwe border is just a stone’s throw away from my hostel, and so many tourists go there, and we’ve been told that Victoria Falls is most beautiful from the Zimbabwean side, so we decided to go check it out. Also, I once had a fever-driven dream where I met Robert Mugabe and asked him, “So if you hate white people, how do you feel about Korean-Canadians? Would you consider me to be white?” Given the fact that I’d had a dream about the death of Kim Jong Il the day before he died, I wondered if this dream had some meaning too.

On this trip so far, I’ve crossed the border from Namibia into Zambia by bus. I got from Zambia to Botswana by boat. Now, we were crossing the border to Zimbabwe on foot. We had a shuttle drop us off on the Zambia side of Victoria Falls, and we walked across the bridge into Zimbabwe.

The bridge at the border

The country has something against Canadians. Zimbabwean visas are pretty cheap for most people, except for British citizens, which, I guess is because Zimbabwe was a former British colony and they’re still not too pleased about that. But what surprises me, and this is where my knowledge of foreign affairs fails me, was the fact that Zimbabwean visas were most expensive for Canadian citizens. Why?

Once arriving on the Zimbabwe side, many Zimbabwean vendors tried to sell us wood carvings and bowls. I wanted to tell them that they should be selling After-Bite and mosquito spray, as that is what tourists truly need here. Joseph bought me ten billion Zimbabwean dollars for a few US dollars, for me to give to Rob. Which would make my fiancé a billionaire right?

Then we hiked along the main trail in the park that allowed us to view the majestic waterfalls of Victoria Falls from various picturesque vantage points.

We also got a good view of the Devil’s Pool, where we had swum only a few days before. Unbelievable.

It was hard to take good photos because there was a lot of mist – I could see why the place was also known as the Smoke That Thunders. I welcomed the mist – it was really hot and humid. I enjoyed walking through the forests though. There aren’t a lot of green forests in Namibia, just savannah and desert, and I’ve been missing Canadian forests a lot, so it was kind of nice to have all these tall trees surrounding me, even if they were full of monkeys.

This one didn’t rob anyone.

Gloria loves trees!

The fences along the cliffs were interesting – makeshift fences created by spreading thorny branches along the ground. It worked, I guess. The thorns were sharp.

The smoke that thunders

After we’d hiked the whole trail, we decided to relax by doing high tea at the fancy Victoria Falls Hotel.

I found the whole hotel setting to be an odd experience for me. It had such a distinct colonialist feel to it, as though it was stuck in time in an era from a century ago when the British still ruled and lived an easy aristocratic life. I guess it was a combination of the architectural feel (it was, after all, built during colonial times), the rich white guests, the black serving staff, and, undoubtedly, the very British tradition of high tea in a former British colony in Africa.

“Doesn’t it feel like we’re white?” I asked Joseph and Allison as we were seated at the hotel restaurant by the host. Allison pointed out that she actually was white.

It almost reminded me of this wedding I’d read about which had caused a worldwide scandal. A British couple had recently for some reason decided to host a colonial-themed wedding in South Africa. Perhaps they had some good intentions in wanting to present a nostalgic fond longing for the “good old days” in the past, but it was also one that was selective and clearly ignored the suffering caused by racial oppression. Maybe I felt like this hotel preserved some kind of similar “good old days” sentiment to it, which seemed so out of place given what has been happening in the rest of the country in terms of political unrest. Certainly in general I can’t help but uncomfortably notice how much privilege I carry whenever I go about in southern Africa. At any rate, it wasn’t a feeling I could shake off.

Nevertheless, it really was a beautiful old hotel, with mango trees and warthogs that would run across the manicured lawn, and the heads of many animals displayed on the walls. We enjoyed many teapots of the local Tanganda tea as well as scones and sweets. Our table on the patio also had a great view of the Victoria Falls bridge we had crossed to get here.

It was a curious experience. Zimbabwe is probably the second most politically/economically different country I’ve ever been to (the first being Cuba), and I’ve been reading about all sorts of things happening. But my entire (albeit short) experience ran like a pleasant dream. Although, unlike my dream, I never did get to meet Robert Mugabe to ask him what he thought about me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Watching tortoises duel in Botswana

When I woke up yesterday, I found out that Kim Jong Il had died, which is a bit coincidental after my dream on Sunday night of his death. It felt almost surreal. I’ve been feeling so removed from everything these days, traveling around southern Africa, while back at home young people are occupying Wall Street and back at the homeland people are wondering how North Korean relations are going to change. Meanwhile, I’m here trying to figure out how to avoid baboons.

We got up right after dawn to drive to Botswana. We were piled into a minibus full of girls (Joseph is always stuck with the girls) and drove to that unique part of land where Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia all meet.

Once we left Zambia, our minibus left us and we found ourselves in an interesting no man’s land that involved us having to cross the river in a little tin boat that made me feel a bit more like I was going fishing on a lake rather than crossing the border as a tourist.

She asks, “Is this seriously what we’re taking to cross the border?”

The border guards also made us wash our shoes in order to stop the spread of foot and mouth disease. Washing our shoes, however, consisted of standing on a really muddy mat. I have no idea how that cleaned my shoes but I hope it worked.

On the other side, the Botswana border crossing was hectic, but not in any way that, say, the Canadian-American border is hectic. There were trucks parked on the side of the road for kilometers, waiting to get over the border. There were chickens and goats wandering around everywhere, and our minibus continuously had to keep honking to get them out of the way. Various truck drivers engaged in shouting matches with officers, who kept telling them to return the next day. As we approached the border control building, we were swarmed by half a dozen vendors trying to sell us bracelets that all looked the same. Meanwhile, baboons watched from the trees. I held my handbag tight.

The streets of Botswana

Once we made it out in one piece, we had lovely little safari trucks waiting for us which took us deeper into Botswana….

..and on to another boat. I had wanted to do this particular trip into Botswana’s famous Chobe National Park because it was a very different kind of safari than the one I’d gone on in Etosha. This one involved going along the Chobe River in a boat, looking at animals that like the water, like hippos. Hippos!

It’s a hippo party! Or as I like to call it, a hippoPARTYmus

Another hippopartymus

And other animals.

Scary crocodile!

Scary crocodile approaching a boat…watch out!


In the afternoon, we loaded back into the safari truck and went on a game drive through the land part of Chobe National Park. It was a neat landscape, very green but full of dead trees that animals had stripped bare, leaving the place looking a bit like a Tim Burton film set.

We saw lions!

And so many birds.


And other animals.


Crossing in front of our truck!


More hippos! More impalas!


These warthogs are dirty.

This warthog is suckling.

A waterbuck. Looks like he has the mark of a toilet seat on his butt.

We also saw an epic tortoise battle. Actually, it started off more like a tortoise date, with a tortoise couple having a romantic date, when another jealous male decided to interrupt. The two males then engaged in the most fascinating display of male tortoise aggression, slowly charging at each other and headbutting each other’s shells at a glacial pace. One of the males eventually retreated, but instead of claiming the prize (the female), the victor continued to pursue the loser, chasing him away (if you can call a tortoise crawl a “chase”). It was actually probably the most fascinating thing I’d seen that day.

I guess we could call it a torgy?

Chobe National Park