The Conversation

“Hey Sammy how’s it going my man?”

“Eyy wassap wassap, smoke?”

“No thanks I’m fine.  [I sit down next to him in his shop as he lights up a cigarette]  How’s business?”

“Ahh business.  Is okay.  Need money for rent.  Due tomorrow still short.”

“I’m sorry to hear it.  You sure have a lot of stuff to sell though, where do you get it all?”

“We make! Good with wood.  Take many years.  The rest… I collect.”

“What does that mean, “collect”? Who do you collect it from?”

[He avoids the question and changes the subject by calling to his brother] “Eyy Eddie! Huya Kumba Kwedu!” (Get your ass over here). 

“Eddie’s your brother right? How many other siblings do you have?”

“Sibling? What sibling?”

“Sorry, I meant how many brothers and sisters do you have?”

“Don’t know.  Too many to count.  Lots everywhere.”

[Eddie sits down.  Sammy leans forward, reaches into one of the pots that are on display, and pulls out a large bag of marijuana]

“Smoke?”

“No thanks I’m still fine.  I’m guessing this is your best-selling product huh.”

“Ya ya is great.  Malawi Gold.” [He starts to light some incense]

“I see some cops walking around outside, won’t you get in big trouble if they catch you?”

“Oh yeah I be careful I can’t get caught.  BIG fine at least 5 dollars.” [He takes out some marijuana and rolls up a joint in less than 15 seconds.  He lights it, inhales, and then does the last thing I’d expect: he asks me a question]

“You got kids boss?”

“Uhh no I don’t.  I’m only 20 and just got out of a relationship.  How about you? How many kids do you have? Do you have a wife?”

“No wife.  Not sure how many kids.  I think two.  Some died.  Not sure how many left.”

“… I’m so sorry. [Extremely awkward silence follows.  I try changing the subject] You like TV? What shows do you watch?”

“No TV, can’t watch shows.  My eyes can’t see.  Can’t take the shine.  Instead I smoke and listen music.”

“You’d fit right in at my school.  What music do you like?”

“Reggae.  My favorite Bob, Bob Marley.  He a legend. You like?”

“Of course I do!”

[I pull out my phone and start playing “Three Little Birds”. Eddie immediately grabs a nearby guitar for sale and starts strumming the melody.  Sammy gets up with a laugh and begins dancing.  He starts with a slow twist that builds up into one of the most frenzied and passionate dances I’ve ever seen a 200+ pound man attempt.  It was then that I really understood the beauty of music for those who can’t afford anything else.  The song ends and the men go quiet.  I decide its time to leave]

“Alright guys I think its time for me to go.  Thanks for having me over and hopefully I’ll see you soon!”

“Okay okay boss. [We fist-bump] I see you soon.  You come back and tell me about America okay? You come back… please?”

The Smoke That Thunders

 

First I saw the spray.  I was still more than 20 miles away when I realized that the solitary cloud penetrating the horizon was in fact an eternal plume of mist rising over 1400 feet into the air.  It was but a teaser of the great power that lay ahead.  Next I experienced the sound.  As I stepped out of our air-conditioned jeep into the muggy Zimbabwean heat, I not only heard but felt the deep resonance of over 200 million gallons of water falling over 350 feet every minute.  As we walked closer and closer to the falls, that everlasting rumble grew into an all-encompassing roar that shook me to my core.  Then I felt the spray.  This isn’t like the mist at Niagara Falls that tickles your skin and moistens your hair.  It is more like stepping into a torrential downpour that can hit you with the force of hurricane.  I was drenched before I even had time to open my umbrella.  I struggled through the gale and a few steps later I came upon a gorge more beautiful than any I had ever seen.  The falls themselves lay shrouded in the mist barely 100 feet away.  As I stood there in the punishing rain gazing across this great expanse, I was left at a loss for words.  Then, without warning and as I least expected it, the deluge faded away.  The mist cleared.  And then I saw them.

Of all the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls deserves to be in a class of its own. Niagara Falls is 167 feet high and, with both the falls included, just under 4000 feet wide.  What I saw before me was well over twice as high and stretched on for more than a mile.  It is a sight that brought me to my knees and compelled the first white explorer who set eyes upon it to name it after his queen.  I assume that he imagined she was the only one majestic enough to christen such an unbelievable force. The only name I believe even comes close to giving it justice is the one affixed to it by the native Dbelle tribe when they first gazed upon it hundreds of years ago: Mosi-oa-Tunya.  The Smoke That Thunders.

I could go on at great length as to how profound an experience this was but words don’t really do it justice.  I’ll be sure to post pictures later.  What I can accurately describe was my decision to jump off a bridge with only a couple dirty rags and an elastic cord tied to my ankles.  I still don’t know why I did it.  I suppose every once in a while on vacation you have to allow yourself a little fun.  If it was 2012 and I was breaking down my motivation for the typical girl at Union I might say “yolo”.  Bungee jumping was one of those experiences that will last with me for a lifetime.  I can say in retrospect that preparing for the jump was infinitely more nerve-racking than actually falling.  I’ll never forget sitting on that metal platform suspended above the fourth-largest river in Africa while a wiry African tied my feet together.  I made the mistake of asking him if anyone had ever not made it back up.  He informed me that only last year a girl had snapped the cord and plunged into the river but don’t worry she survived and it’s all good now.  With that I got up and hopped to the edge of the platform before I lost my nerve.  As I stood there with my toes dangling freely over a drop more than twice the height of Niagara Falls, I did the one thing I was instructed not to do.  I looked down.  Then I jumped. 

It takes the human body roughly four seconds to fall the 360 feet separating the bridge from the mighty Zambezi River.  Count to four in your head and see how long each second lasts.  On the way down I can only remember getting to 2.  Beyond that an explosion of adrenaline purged all thoughts from my mind as my adrenal glands prepared my body for what my nervous system could only perceive as imminent death.  Then, in a deceleration several times the force of gravity, I came to a momentary halt with my face hanging upside down less than an arms length from the surging river.  I felt the adrenaline vanish instantly as my body acknowledged that I wasn’t going to die.  As I made eye contact with my reflection in the water, I had an unusually calm and serene moment.  Then the elasticity of the bungee cord whipped me back up nearly as fast as I had fallen and after few more oscillations I was at peace.

The Dictator

He came in the heat of the night. 

After spending the evening enjoying sushi and cocktails with Nix and her friends, Ankur and I were in a world of our own.  The company we were with and the giddy excitement that filled the car reminded me of being back home in the U.S.  Far off in the distance, I saw a single blue police light flash into view.  I turned to make a snarky comment about this being the first cop I had seen actually doing something in Zimbabwe when I noticed the expressions around me.  This was no emergency.  The jovial atmosphere inside the vehicle had vanished faster than I could blink.  Nicola pulled the car to the side of the road with an urgency that far surpassed the routine courtesy given to emergency vehicles.  We were instructed to keep quiet and look straight ahead which of course prompted me to begin asking questions as I whirled around wildly.  Through the window I saw other vehicles had careened straight into a ditch as they sought to give the road as wide a berth as possible.  Even the pedestrians had ceased all movement and were fearfully staring straight down at their feet.  As I looked down the road that we had been cruising along at 60 kph, I saw a sea of flashing blue as a dozen more motorcycles flew by at well over 150 kph.  It was only then that I realized what was going on.  We were bearing witness to what was known as the presidential cavalcade.  Through the darkness I saw the blur of decoy SUVs, military vehicles and even an ambulance dart by.  Then, for the briefest of moments, there he was.

Robert Mugabe.  One of the most powerful and dangerous men on the continent was 10 feet in front of me.

His armored plated Mercedes-Benz whisked him away as fast as he had come and within moments he had vanished into the darkness.  For the rest of the ride I sat in silent awe.  Everything about what I had just seen epitomized a raw and terrible power born from decades of dictatorship.  Zimbabwe is technically a republic but it is hard for me to accept Mugabe as a democratically elected president when a vast portion of his votes come from scare tactics such as forcing dissidents and farm owners to drink battery acid in front of their families.  God help those brave souls who still choose to vote against him.

I remember as a child the excitement of traveling to Washington, D.C.  I’ll never forget standing against the fence in front of the White House amidst hordes of tourists with a deep appreciation for the man inside and all that he had done to make me safe and comfortable.  As I juxtapose this experience with observing Mugabe’s Statehouse for the first time, the similarities end with the fence.  Forget taking pictures; merely pointing at the building or looking at it funny gives the guards grounds to detain and torture you until you have something to tell them.  Unlike the unseen Secret Service at the White House, the security presence surrounding the Statehouse is strongly felt.  Scores of soldiers on edge patrol the area with AK-47’s drawn and ready to fire at the slightest provocation.  It’s hard to tell what’s more menacing, their expressions or the sunlight glinting off their bayonets.  All this security belays the subtle irony that the man entrusted with the best interests of his people must take such precautions to avoid being assassinated.  Experiencing the propaganda he must spew to uphold his political position is nearly as painful as watching Fox news.  I thought I understood the concept of evil until Mugabe educated me as to the atrocities man is capable of committing towards his own people in the pursuit of power.  It amuses me, however, to think of the legacy he can expect to leave when it is generally accepted that the best thing he can do for his country is die.  

Assimilation

As the weeks progress here in Zimbabwe, Ankur and I have finally been settling into somewhat of a routine.  We awaken each morning at roughly 6 am to the melodious crooning of various birds courting one another.  After a quick breakfast, I weasel my way into my work clothes using only one hand as my other has been rendered temporarily useless following a brief encounter with a low-lying ceiling fan.  We are picked up by our jovial coworker Thulani and arrive at the hospice by 8 am.  Having been off Internet for the past 16 hours, I give in to my addiction and spend half an hour online reading the Concordiensis and gazing sadly through pictures of Union parties on Facebook (even from across the globe I can still smell the sweat and shame).  After concluding our workday at 4 pm, we walk a mile to a nearby gym that is comparable to the one in College Park aside from the $100/month membership fee.  After our workout, we arrive back home by 6 pm to find ourselves in one of two scenarios that shape our evening.  If we are fortunate enough to have power, we are granted the luxury of a warm shower, a delicious home-cooked meal and a couple hours of T.V. or movies before bed.  More often than not, however, we arrive home to darkness.  After lamenting our decision not to go on a mini-term study abroad/vacation, we strap on headlamps, scramble some eggs on our backup gas burner, rinse off in the shower with our limited hot water and curl up under our mosquito nets while praying our milk doesn’t go bad.

Through our discomfort and adaptation to this way of life, I have come to an important realization: the greater the hardship, the stronger the bond forged between those who experience it.  Ankur has been one of my best friends since freshman year and through joint classes, hours of studying, and “quality” time together on weekends, we have grown ever closer.  The past two and a half years, however, cannot compare to the strides we have made in just the past two and a half weeks.  There is something about struggling to open a gate while being drenched in a monsoon, dodging cars operated by drivers who bought their licenses for $10, or shifting awkwardly through the darkness while attempting to cook a meal that brings two friends closer together than any circumstance in a 1st world country ever could.

While such hardships have left a unique impression upon me, not everyone in this country experiences them equally.  Strong double standards persist throughout Zimbabwe when juxtaposing the white and black communities.  I first entertained this thought while attending a charity concert at an all-white country club that was even more homogenous than Union.  As the musician played his heart out on stage, I noticed that less than half of the audience was truly paying attention.  Many were lost in cyberspace sending texts and tweets as the musician was not worthy of their attention span.  Even more were focused exclusively on their image as they constantly bought their dates booze and loudly spit game that was almost as bad as what I’ve heard on frat row.   As I sat on the immaculate lawn feeling right back at home, young black African men were working tirelessly in the pouring rain at cutting away a fallen tree that was blocking the road just 100 meters away. Even further down the road, more black men risked their lives amidst traffic to perform voluntary road repairs for nothing more than the hope of receiving donations.  As we drove by, however, I noticed something curious: they were smiling.  Anytime I acknowledged them, they waved back and smiled harder.  Amazing how those with so little can come across as being happier without the burden of possessions than those who have it all.

Initial Impressions

Africa.  Where do I even begin.

I suppose I should start by saying that nearly every pre-conceived notion I’ve had of this continent has been shattered since I arrived.  I came expecting to be uncomfortable and in constant fear for my safety but I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Never before have I expressed myself through a blog or journal but the beauty of the country and people around me compels me to do so.  

Zimbabwe itself stands to be one of the most gorgeous places I have encountered.  Ankur and I have the good fortune of spending our time here in the rainy season where for four months of the year it rains at least once a day.  The effect of these showers on the local foliage is stunning; everything is a vibrant green and the vegetation is as lush and varied as I have ever seen.  Perhaps the most striking are the trees, as they make those that we have in America look like elongated pencils.  Here they rise over 100 feet in the air and branch off into an emerald green canopy that is often wider than the trees are tall.  My own favorite aspect of the rainy season is the climate, recently rated the best in the world.  Since we arrived, the temperature has not dropped below 70 degrees F or risen above 80, confirming that my decision to leave Schenectady in the winter was a good one (do you guys have snow yet? People here have never seen it). 

The beauty of the country, however, pales in comparison to the beauty of the people who inhabit it.  The African people are gentle and exceedingly kind, qualities I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t expected.  Despite being classified as a 3rd world country, there is a sense of community here that is depressingly absent from even America.  Rather than overcoming awkwardness and slowly building relationships, newcomers like ourselves are immediately and unequivocally trusted and warmly welcomed.  This cultural change is best exemplified by Val Maasdorp, the deputy director here at Island Hospice and maternal figure for Ankur and I.  We’ve known her for less than a week and she’s already sheltered us for a night, cooked us dinner, oriented us at Island Hospice and even had us over to play tennis with her wonderful daughter Nicola.  The 22 member staff at Island Hospice are equally friendly.  As I’ve been writing this, five different people have stopped in just to chat.

I can tell that the work I am to perform here will leave a lasting imprint on my life.  On just our second day we traveled to clinics that the hospice hosts in high-density rural areas.  The experience was horrifying and humbling all at once.  Multiple families are forced to live in thatched-roof huts that look like TDX (just kidding boys).  The villagers line up outside the clinic and wait hours to be seen, many of whom have been physically decimated by HIV/AIDS and various afflictions.  The social workers emerge from their sessions with their lips quivering under the weight of untold horrors and tragedy.  I met one girl who had run away from an abusive home seeking shelter only to be forced in a local brothel.  She was younger than my sister.  I have lost a sense of innocence and my anguish is stymied only by my burning desire to help these people however I can.

I feel that throughout my 11 weeks here, Africa will never cease to amaze me.  I look forward to detailing my experiences and I hope you all enjoy reading them!