Catching a train for Zambia in Dar es Salaam proved to be an adventure in itself. There is only one a week with "first class" sleeping cars. I use the quotes to alert you to the special use of the phrase to describe the four person bunk compartments people here consider first class. The only things which distinguished first from second class were a) 4 instead of 6 bunks in a compartment, b) a 24 hour guard in each car, c) dingy toilets and sinks cleaned a little more often, and d) a free bottle of water for each passenger with a handful of hard candies and a roll of toilet paper to share. Like second class, too many people were sold tickets for our car and for two hours I worried how we were going to sleep 7 people on the four bunks for two nights.
They did eventually get things straightened out, but then I discovered that two of our companions were merchants who planned to fill every nook and cranny with boxes, bags and baskets of goods they had brought with them. I insisted that the floor between our bunks remain clear for my nighttime forays to the toilet and a re-shuffling got everything stashed under or at the ends of the other's bunks or in the overhead storage spaces.
One of the guys in our compartment had just retired from working for a French oil company and had an excellent command of English. As it turned out, Ferdinand Mutanda delighted in frank discussions of a wide range of sensitive subjects. We spoke as equals: similar economic situations (relatively), similar educations, both liberally oriented, but old enough to appreciate the conservative perspective (Ferdinand Mutanda is 60).
He made it clear to me with examples that any American who could afford to travel would probably make more in a month than the richest African could make in a year. This reality explains a lot of the deference I encountered with many people during my travels. White traveler equals economic superiority. It is just that simple. Explaining that I certainly didn't consider myself rich did nothing to change the reality of cultural differentials any more than did my conscious efforts to treat everyone of whatever means with respect.
Ferdinand described how any African person who happened to make good would be obligated to help members of his extended family whenever possible. And, his extended family turned out to be huge. He himself only has five children, all of whom he has been able to college educate.
His brother, on the other hand has 21 kids and all of them are "good-for-nothing." With hindsight his brother now admits his misguided expectation that his large family would represent "wealth" for his old age could not have been more wrong... about forty years too late. His sister also has a large family, 12 kids. Some of her offspring "are doing O.K." with his financial help. Ferdinand assured me large families are the norm rather than exception here on this continent, and the central cause of the intractable poverty keeping economies from blossoming. Too many people see their situations as hopeless. We talked for hours, looking for possible solutions, examining the efforts of foreign NGO's, donor nation governments and religious organizations. None of the present or past strategies seem very promising to either of these two armchair philosophers representing the richest and poorest of nations.
I came to the African continent to experience first hand the nature of tribalism and the "green lines" created by tribes with opposing perspectives living in close proximity. My naive understanding of the problem before arriving has been clouded by images of feathered savages banding together to dominate some other group with which they had historical enmities.
Of course there are elements of "family feuds" in some of the conflicts, but the real problems of tribalism have much deeper historical roots. A man like Ferdinand who does well and tries to help people close to him commands respect. When people are called on to elect a representative to Parliament or other local office, they naturally look to respected members of their clans and tribes... not that different from the reality of American politics!
The trouble starts when the newly elected individual is called on to "pay back" those who have put him into office. A long tradition dictates that he is naturally expected to favor them with all manner of patronage. Ferdinand told me of one election where the successful candidate immediately designated his tribe's language as the national preference. No one is surprised or considers it corruption in the common Western sense. However, the favored tribes are the subject of envy and resentment as long as they retain power. Traditionally that resentment has flared into violence at regular intervals, often leading to civil war. That in a nutshell is my present over simplified understanding of Tribalism as Ferdinand explained it.
Efforts at election reform, or attempts to breed a new generation of statesmen have been to no avail for the most part so far. There are too many people scratching for a bare subsistence living ready to take advantage of any opportunity, which presents itself. And, the successors to the old colonial power brokers constantly exacerbate already unstable situations. The United States is always suspected to be involved in any violent shift in the balance of power here.
Everyone in our compartment plus several visitors agreed that the CIA had been behind the recent assassination of the elder Kabila in the Congo. When I pointed out that American law forbids the assassination of heads of state, I was treated to a recounting of "documented" circumstantial evidence closely linking members of the CIA with other known co-conspirators in the plot to get rid of Kabila. It appears to my informants that he had become much too chummy with the likes of Castro of Cuba and political leaders in China.
About two hours after we left Dar es Salaam the train passed into the Selous Game Reserve. For the next three hours, herds of animals came into view every ten minutes or so. We saw Wart hogs, Zebra, Wildebeest, Giraffe, Elephant, Gazelle and others. While there were far more animals during the Serengeti drives, nothing can compete with a train that slowed for every animal (to avoid spooking them, I assume).
The first night on the thinly padded bench, wrestling with the package of two thin blankets, two tiny sheets, and a dingy pillow plus a train that jerked me to attention every five minutes, proved to be more than enough to keep me awake most of the night. The temperature inside the train stayed uncomfortably high until well after midnight when it plummeted to near freezing. Leaving the compartment with my three sleeping companions meant un-latching two noisy locks. My nighttime strolls down the weaving corridor to reach the little room at the end of the car made me appreciate comforts of home like no other experience.
I had been trying to eat nothing or very little in order to avoid the frightening prospect of facing that seat-less toilet on the bouncing train. Trying to direct a tiny stream at the moving target proved challenge enough. I drank my complimentary bottle of water plus the liter and a half I brought with me and still craved more liquid about half way into the 46-hour trip. In the restaurant car the waiters served warm Coca-Cola and set meals. I finally relented during the second day and ate one of the meals.
Later that afternoon my body demanded that I relieve some of the internal pressure it had built up. So, complimentary roll of toilet paper in hand I staggered my way down the corridor and locked myself in the little seat-less room during one of the relatively less bumpy stretches. The designers of this torture chamber had anticipated some of the problems we might face on the rolling, jerking platform and had provided a handgrip on the wall in front of the porcelain funnel. I think that is enough details of this typical African experience. I'll leave the rest to your imagination. There are children in the audience, after all.
The second night I took more time getting my Spartan little nest ready and managed to enjoy fitful sleep for a few hours. The train got into the New Kapiri Mposhia station about 09:30 that morning. Outside the train were the usual waiting throngs of transportation touts, each shouting the virtues of their particular product.
I had been unable to find Kapiri on my maps and so had no idea where we were. There were no clues around the station. We appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. I found the matatu vans where conductors were pushing people and their bags into the lead vehicle. I spotted the next one in the waiting line and told a conductor that I wanted to buy both front seats. He hustled me into the van and immediately began a heated argument with some of the other touts and conductors.
From watching the activity around matatus it has become clear that no one (except mzungus) are aloud in the next waiting van until every cubic centimeter of available space in the first one is filled. Sensible people hang back feigning disinterest until some poor soul is squeezed into the last non-seat space and the first van door slides closed so the driver can at last speed off. That is the signal for others wanting a reasonably decent seat to surge forward from their hiding places for the next van which is immediately half filled.
Mzungus are always given preference, though well-dressed ladies can often be seen eyeing the front spaces jealously. This strategy works for me as long as I am willing to wait an often-considerable length of time for the process to play itself out. The last "seats" are always hard to sell. People are dragged over to the waiting van and sometimes physically shoved in, struggling to get free of the aggressive conductors when they see the already overcrowded condition of the nearly full van. The driver pretends to be about to leave by inching forward and urgently sounding his horn until he has moved too far out of position, then sometimes backs up to repeat the process, if still not full.
This vehicle bound for Lusaka had a particularly hard time getting its full compliment of passengers. We played the almost ready game for nearly an hour before finally bouncing out of the staging area along the non-road to Lusaka some 200-300km further on south it turned out. Eventually we reach a very fine highway and the rest of the trip passed in comfort (for me at least). Several of the people in our van were trying to reach Lusaka in time for some pre-eclipse festivities and yelled at the driver about all the delays. Actually, we had plenty of time as the time of totality occurred several hours after our expected arrival time of 12:30.
When we arrived I dashed away from the bus station as is my usual habit, heading in the direction where people said I would find city center. Only then did it occur to me that with the entire world focusing attention on Lusaka and pilgrims streaming in from every corner of the earth, that I might have a problem finding a hotel room. After checking three conveniently located, but fully booked houses I knew I had a problem. All attempts by hotel receptionists to find me a room in another hotel failed. Finally a call to the Holiday Inn got a positive response: "Yes, we have just one room left."
"I'll be right over." The waiting hotel cab driver wanted too much money, but finally agreed to my proffered rate. Off we went and in only a few minutes he dropped me in front of the hotel.
"I'm sorry. We have no room." I explained that another hotel had just called them, but no one there had taken the call. Only then did I notice I had been dropped at the 5 star Taj and lamented my predicament, starting to leave. At that very moment the Guest Relations Manager stepped out of his office, took me aside to say he would accommodate me, and at a preferential $110 rate for the $150 room. My life saved from a night of exposure I thanked him and stumbled into my room for a badly needed shower and clean clothes. I really wanted to take a nap, but the bright daylight had already begun to fade and I realized the time for the three minutes of total eclipse had to be only minutes away.
Down I rushed to the hotel garden to join several score of other guests staring skyward through various makeshift filters. I had only my hands and sunglasses so improvised a pinhole to watch the last brilliant moments of partial eclipse. The abrupt transition from partial to total startled me. I expected something more gradual. Even the thinnest sliver of un-obscured sun carried painful brightness before finally disappearing behind the moon. Totality lasted 3 minutes and 9 seconds in Lusaka Zambia where I viewed it, but the magic of the event made it seem much longer. Watching the sun's corona dance around the totally black hole in the sky created by the moon is an experience unique in my life... beautiful, awesome, mystical, yes magic. At the moment when totality started a large crowd of people at one of the many Eclipse Parties nearby shouted their delight in unison, kind of like the sounds of the first seconds after midnight at a new year's eave party.
When the sun re-appeared, the eerie darkness abruptly transformed itself into a metallic brilliance, giving the landscape an instant otherworldly illumination. Being in Africa, I tried to imagine how ancient people must have reacted to such rare and disorienting events. Seeing the heavenly cookie monster gobble up the sun, finally swallowing it entirely must have struck fear in primitive hearts. I would love to have been around to hear the explanations offered by those who thought they knew what had transpired.
As soon as the great event had played itself out banishing all awareness of fatigue, off I went searching for more affordable accommodations and information about transport possibilities south to Victoria Falls near the border with Zimbabwe. Deluxe buses leave everyday at 06:00 and 07:00 except that only the 06:00 is really deluxe. The 07:00 offers five seats across, each so narrow people must sit diagonally shoulder over shoulder... not my cup of tea. The acceptable Lusaka Hotel is located less than a block from the bus station and had modestly priced rooms for the following night.
Security is big business everywhere I've been in Africa. Private security guards often chase beggars and hustlers away from places frequented by foreign tourists. I watched the arrest of two guys, one a shoplifter and the other caught with an open bottle of liquor in public. In both cases the police slapped the suspect around the head as they hustled them off, behavior that would be classed police brutality in America.
Public Internet access is problematic in Lusaka: rates run $6-7/hr and the equipment is old, though the demand keeps terminals busy most of the time. I hung around exploring the town for several days and then boarded a 06:00 bus for Livingstone, the Zambian border town next to the Victoria Falls.
Lusaka Zambia: This is Ferdinand Mutanda, a 60 year old retired French oil company executive who taught me a lot about the situation in Africa and delighted in examining all sides of every issue... open minded and well educated. He only has five kids... all of whom have made it through college.
Victoria Falls Zambia & Livingstone: I walked
from the town of Livingstone to Victoria Falls, a distance of about 10km.
The road passes through an animal preserve. Tall grass bordered the path I
used and made me wonder what might be out there waiting for lunch to walk
by. The well worn path gave me confidence that local people must use it with
impunity. Later I learned that the section is notorious for muggers who prey
on foreign tourists.
24 June 2001
Greetings from Mosi-Oa-Tunya
Victoria Falls a few kilometers from Livingstone is called "Smoke that Thunders" by the San people (Bushman). Livingstone town itself is not much. There is no Mac Donald's, no first class hotel and only one "super market" which gives the word "super" a new meaning. Thirty years ago the centrally located Fairmont Hotel earned a reputation as an elegant colonial era house, but today the lack of maintenance has transformed it into a seedy second rate house, overpriced at $40. Plush five star lodges at the falls have drawn most of the well heeled out of town. plus, the falls area now hosts throngs of young backpackers. Numerous hostels on the outskirts of town tout their offerings on large gaudy signs along the road to the falls. One calls itself the Backpackers Resort with swimming pool and Jacuzzi. Overnight rates range from about $3 to $7 per person. The one fast food restaurant in town is Chicken Delight and looks vaguely like a KFC. The Laughing Dragon Chinese restaurant next door turned out to be the best food in town. A short distance out of town on the road to the falls is an extraordinary place called Ngolide Lodge. With thatched roofs, its 16 rooms are wrapped around a shady courtyard garden. The level of comfort suggests a place worth a lot more than the standard $35 per night, so I booked a room for the remainder of my stay in Zambia.
The next day I walked the 10km to the falls down the paved highway where several people warned me of frequent muggings along the more desolate sections. Three cab drivers stopped to offer their services at exorbitant rates, each parroting the dangers waiting solo walkers. At one point a harmless older man synchronized his pace to mine and in perfect English related stories of recent attacks on foreign tourists in this area, adding for emphasis that he knows because he lives right here in this area. All of that consistent advice made me a bit nervous and I picked up a broken tree limb and crudely fashioned it into a "walking stick" thinking any would be assailant might mistake it for a weapon and me an individual not to be trifled with.
Shortly, another cab driver stopped commenting with a twinkle in his eye on my unwieldy "walking stick." "I see you have a club, but if you happen upon one of the criminal gangs around here it won't do you much good. Better let me give you a ride to the park entrance." As I had been walking for well over an hour I guessed I must be near my destination. "No," he assured me, "it is a long way from here." After some negotiation I got his fare down to what I would have paid for a shared ride back in town and hopped in for the short five minute ride to the park entrance.
Adjacent to the park and surrounding the riverbank overlooking the falls is the fabulous Sun International Resort. Lodge guests may enter the park through a private gate watched by hotel security guards. As I explored the grounds admiring the lodge amenities, one of the guards offered to walk me through the private entrance to the public entrance a couple blocks distance. There I paid my $10 entrance fee and noticed most people wearing raincoats. Unprotected, I headed down the paved pathways through a lush rain forest to find the observation points. Coming upon the gushing water almost totally obscured by spray, I could see little. Others seemed thrilled to be walking in the never stopping "rain storm" looking for glimpses of the great falls. Victoria Falls from the Zambian side did not impress me, however. Having seen the other two great waterfalls of the world, Victoria ranks third in my book. I'll soon see what it looks like from the other side of the gorge on the Zimbabwe side and may have a different assessment. We shall see.
I guess that is enough for a postcard. When I leave the falls area on the other side in Zimbabwe I expect I'll be heading toward Windhoek Namibia and then on south into South Africa. As always, that might change. (cont.)
PS: If you've never replied to say "hello" or "keep sending the postcards," drop me a line. F
Livingstone Zambia: My first view of the falls themselves. The mist of Victoria Falls is visible for several kilometers. Some say they can hear the roar long before they can see the mist. I didn't hear much even here at this vantage point. Guess it is time to get a hearing aid.