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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tanzania to South Africa

We had grand plans for overland travel in southern Africa. It started with a ten-hour bus journey from Moshi south to Dar es Salaam. This trip wouldn’t take ten hours in a developed country, but the Tanzanian authorities have had the presence of mind to install almost constant “traffic calming” measures (i.e., speed bumps). Without these, Tanzanian drivers would get so excited by the prospect of a paved, relatively smooth highway that they’d drive too fast and kill each other. Which they sometimes do anyway.

The Dar Express is a relatively comfortable long-distance bus, though older and louder than its counterpart would be in a Western country. What it doesn’t do is stop. It makes a kind of rolling stop for people to get on or off, and the sliding door closes as the bus lurches away, but otherwise we had one stop. There actually are highway services along the road in Tanzania. They had the type of toilet we’d become familiar with (more than the bus had), fruit stalls, and a lady selling samosas. T. bought some for lunch. They were delicious!

Needless to say, I was ready to get off the bus by the time we got to Dar, and so were our fellow passengers—all Tanzanian except for one German gal. The three of us negotiated a taxi into the city, as the bus station, so to speak (Aix-en-Provence would be proud), is on the outskirts. I think the German got the short end of the stick here, as she ended up at our hotel and the taxi driver wouldn’t go any further. She was last seen getting a different taxi from the hotel to her hostel, wherever it was.

We were thus not predisposed to like Dar es Salaam, and probably didn’t give it a fair chance. After all, it was only a stopover. There are no doubt parts of the city that are worth visiting, but where we were just seemed like a big city version of Arusha: all the dust and things not working properly, yet none of the warmth and friendliness. It was supposed to be near the train station and the airport, but it wasn’t near anything. The only bad meal we had the entire time in Tanzania was in the restaurant of our hotel! We did have much better success down the road the next day, at “the Savoy,” which resembled a fly-ridden backyard barbecue more than the Savoy. Our hostess there said “Meat or fish?” and, when we said fish (it’s coastal after all), provided us with whole fish in a scrumptious sauce, rice, the delicious greens I’d come to love in Tanzania, and what my elementary school lunchroom would have called “soup beans.” It was the lone highlight of our stay.

So we decided to get out of town and fly to South Africa. Arriving at the Oliver Tambo Johannesburg Airport from Julius Nyerere Dar es Salaam Airport is a study in the contrasts of Africa. Dar had a cheerful chicken shop outside the terminal, with smiley faces carved into the seats, and that was about it. Jo’burg had a food court, familiar shops, and everything you could think to buy at an international airport closer to home.

Tanzania lacked traffic lights and sometimes sidewalks; the roads were often dirt and rocks, and drinking bottled water was recommended. South African roads, sidewalks, and traffic lights (“robots”) were all much more familiar, and you can drink the tap water. Taxis have meters, which is a contrast to the Tanzanian style of negotiating in advance the price you’re willing to pay the driver (he assumes, not unreasonably, that even the wildest price he asks will not seem like too much when translated into a dollar or pound equivalent). And, we could stop taking antimalarial tablets. But this is only part of the story.

Tanzania has over one hundred tribal groups who basically get along. It has not been torn apart by tribal conflicts the way neighboring countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and even Kenya have. We were told that in Tanzania nowadays, if a man and woman from different tribes want to marry, this is no big deal. It just means that their children will grow up knowing both mother and father’s native languages, as well as at least one lingua franca: Swahili or English. Puts us to shame, really.

South Africa has a much different post-independence past. At a time when a race-baiting regime is in full swing in the U.S.A., it’s instructive to be in a country that so recently defeated a racist system.

I won’t recap the twentieth-century history of South Africa, as others know it better than I do. But in cities and towns across the continent (and indeed the world), streets are named after Nelson Mandela, as they are after Martin Luther King, Jr. Mandela has become admired as a prophet of forgiveness and reconciliation, who transcended the particular time and place he was a part of. 
South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize winners: Chief Albert Luthuli (1960), for nonviolent resistance to apartheid; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and Presidents F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela

What Mandela is said to have done for South Africans is to free them, whatever their color. He recognized that an oppressive system warps the psychology of the oppressor, as well as the oppressed. Obviously apartheid crushed black South Africans. But if you are white and your society tells you that makes you superior, and that you should fear the angry black underclass beneath you, that is not healthy for you, either. 

Mandela was not always this admired, of course. During his imprisonment, many, like Margaret Thatcher, regarded him as a terrorist, and it’s understandable why. If you think a government is legitimate, then someone who advocates violent resistance to that government is a terrorist. This is an example of how history is written by the winners: to the British Empire of the 1770s-80s, the American revolutionaries were terrorists.

It is to be regretted that Mandela’s successors have not inherited his prophetic and transcendent spirit. But a U.S. citizen can hardly point out other countries’ embarrassing presidents. What I can see are South Africans of all colors who are doing very, very well—driving extremely nice cars and living in beautiful seaside neighborhoods. I can also see a new kind of fear, as those homes are all double-barred behind security gates. Many have fencing, electric wires, and security alarms that call out armed response. 

The fear is not color-based now, but crime-based. There is an extreme economic inequality evident here, in that a few miles from the lovely homes of Cape Town, other people are living in temporary tin shacks. They could be in Tanzania. But in Tanzania a very few people (in mining, for instance) are extremely wealthy and live isolated, excessive lives, and everyone else is poor. In South Africa it seems that the wealth is spread around among a much greater number of people, but the inequality is still African.

It’s staggering, actually. It seems unsustainable. But I don’t know what it’s really like to live here. I just know that we stayed in a lovely place in Cape Town and had a wonderful time. 

I’ll have more words and pictures about this but the enduring image that I have of Cape Town was not captured on camera. It was in Green Point Park, near the stadium that was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, Cape Town is not a big soccer town, so the stadium sits empty most of the time now. The big sports here are rugby and cricket. We saw a group of young people playing a cricket match, and among them was a girl wearing head-to-toe Muslim covering. If I wore that much I would not be able to see the ball, let alone run, but she was swinging the bat and running the bases (or whatever it’s called in cricket) just like all the other kids. The Rainbow Nation, indeed.
Rainbow, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
That’s the other thing about South Africa. While we were here, there was a holiday Monday, Heritage Day, which has only been observed “since democracy.” It encourages everyone to celebrate his or her heritage, no matter what it is. We stayed down the street from Temple Israel, a reminder that South Africa has one of the significant Jewish communities of the Diaspora. And far from having an invisible LGBT community, like so many African nations, South Africa has actually enshrined gay and lesbian equality in its contemporary constitution, which I don’t think can be said of any other country. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful commentary on both Dar and Cape Town. Groove & Pop