Sep 28, 2010

Arrival and an Alarming Actual Allegory

Our arrival to Tanzania was, how shall I put it, dramatic.

Scale of Africa
Africa is enormous!
Initially Erin and I planned to make the trek from South Africa overland.  Looking at a world map this appeared to be approximately the same distance as Colorado to NY.  I've driven that a number of a times in a little over a day, so three weeks seemed like plenty of time. I knew it wasn't precise, projecting a globe onto a 2d map skews the size of continents.  Not to mention that the US highway system has a reputation of being a little bit easier to navigate than crossing countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Before we made it to Africa, however, I found this intriguing map in a history book (the exceptional Africa: A Biography of a Continent by John Reader.) I knew Africa was big, but had no concept that you could comfortably fit India, China, the continental US, Europe, Argentina and New Zealand inside the continent.  In reality, a direct route from Cape Town to Iringa would be farther than going from NY to California.  Not only that, but the most direct route (on sketchy roads) would send us through the painfully war torn Democratic Republic of Congo.  In other words, we decided to fly instead.

When we arrived at the airport in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania the school thoughtfully had a man named Fouad pick us up.  He seemed to be a gentle man, very helpful and with perfect English.  As we stepped outside the airport, a mob of people rushed into the airport screaming. Puzzled, we asked what was going on... is Bono visiting Africa again?

Fouad paused and calmly stated "A man stole car.  I think they will kill him."        

Wait, what?!?  He explained that because people have little faith in their criminal system people here take justice into their own hands.  Instead of waiting for an arrest, court, and an appeal process a mob may simply stack tires around an alleged criminal and set them on fire.  Often it's a brutal but non-lethal beating, but one study found that in a five year period over 1,200 people were executed by crowds in the city of Dar Es Salaam.  Tanzanian mobs find all sorts of crimes to be capital offenses in Africa, including a shocking amount of  executions because of witchcraft (in the mobs defense, the witchcraft community is far from innocent).  Although many are probably guilty of their crimes, many are not.  Although vigilante justice makes great comic book super heroes it is deeply disturbing to see in reality.    

I find this all horrifying, but an argument could be made that as an American my perspective is hypocritical.  Although I don't support it, my country does have the death penalty.  Furthermore, it wasn't until 1968 that the US got serious about ending the practice of public lynching.  However, my problem is about more than the terror an individual would feel if chased by a mob.  It's also the symptom of a broader problem that hurts the prosperity of the country.  People take justice into their own hands because they fear, right or wrong, that if they went to the police a criminal need only pay a bribe to be set free.  Broadly perceived corruption, whether real or not, cripples society as a whole.  For example, if most people believe a small bribe will get them out of a traffic ticket there will be more bad drivers and more people die as a result of reckless driving.  The same concept applies on every level of society ranging from who gets elected to how businesses operate.  A just rule of law can make a society prosper.  

For example, despite this frightening story Tanzania is a far more peaceful place than the United States.  The Global Peace Index distills an array of complex statistics, ranging from wars to number of homicides, about a nations relationship to violence into a single number.  Tanzania is consistently ranked one of the most peaceful in Africa and far higher than the US.  However, concerns about justice and the rule of law inhibit development in a self perpetuating downward spiral whereas these particular problems aren't really a concern in the US. This real and imagined corruption, and the societal reactions to it, hold back this rich and kind society from profiting from its peaceful nature.    

Sep 19, 2010

Colorful Cape Kingdom Kaleidoscope

Cape Town South Africa-92
Micah in front of Table Mountain in Cape Town
    In the last post I wrote about a nation that was given independence by South Africa, until Mandela welcomed it back into the country in 1994.  For the sake of symmetry, after our visit to the Transkei Erin I went to a kingdom that South Africa, also through Mandela, gave to the whole world ten years later.  It's a fascinating place, and one that goes far deeper than stories about kings, politics, or even human beings.
Floristic Kingdoms
The Floristic Kingdoms

Cape Town South Africa-205   When studying where flowers exist botanists divide the world into six broad floristic kingdoms.  One can find many kinds of flowers, ecosystems and climates within a each kingdom but they share enough characteristics to be clustered together.  Most kingdoms span many countries and even continents.  I personally visited over thirty countries across the Northern Hemisphere before I stepped foot outside of a single kingdom.  When I finally did, on a long trip through Latin America, I was continually amazed by the strange new flowers I came across.     

Cape Town South Africa-208
Cape Town South Africa-221The smallest kingdom is the only one that fits inside a single country, South Africa.  Although tiny, it has one of the highest densities of different plant species on the planet.  Mandela declared the Cape Floral Region a UNESCO World heritage site in 2004 because of this unbelievable diversity.  To give a sense of scale, there are more plant species endemic to the top of Cape Towns iconic Table Mountain than there are in the United Kingdom. 

The biological diversity of this small part of the world is matched by it's ethnic and cultural diversity.  The southern tip of Africa has been a busy since long before history has been recorded.  Ever since Cape Town was established by Europeans it has been a vital port city and embraced immigrants from all over the world.  Nearly every european power is represented, the huge Bo-Kaap neighborhood is historically muslim Malay, and it proves almost irresistible to every expat who visits.  It took all our willpower to escape from  Cape Town to the final leg of our journey to our new home in Tanzania.
Cape Town South Africa-599
The colorful Bo-Kaap neighbood of Cape Town

The National Gallery in Capetown is remarkable and worth a visit, play the above slideshow to see some of our favorite pieces!

Sep 6, 2010

Nonexistent Nation

Port St Johns South Africa-166   You just can't make this stuff up.  Imagine a tiny 'nation' that tried to secede from the brutal regime of the South Africa.  And instead of waging a civil war to keep it the South African Prime Minister (and former Nazi) declared it an independent republic by referring to 'the right of every people to have full control over its own affairs' which was just a wee bit ironic considering he also staunchly also supported apartheid.
Port St Johns South Africa-46Port St Johns South Africa-125   So this newly independent state was no longer South Africa, it became the Transkei with it's own flag, government, and military for 18 years.  The only problem?  South Africa was also the only country on the planet that recognized it.  Despite their best efforts, the rest of the world (and the ANC) refused to let South Africa give it up.  It's a peculiar situation, and one that only got stranger in 1978 when the leaders of the Transkei got so frustrated with South Africa that they cut off all diplomatic ties.  Which means they cut off all relations with the only country that acknowledged their very existence. 
This all ended in 1994.  Nelson Mandela was released, apartheid was eliminated, the constitution was rewritten, and the Transkei was welcomed back into South Africa.  Which was very convenient,  because both Mandela and the next president Thabo Mbeki weren't actually from South Africa.  They were both born in the Transkei.  
Port St Johns South Africa-151

With a history like that, Erin and I couldn't resist visiting.  We navigated some long rides off the beaten path to a little coastal town called Port St Johns.  The wilderness was lush and diverse, people were friendly, laidback and integrated.  More than anything, after a long scramble along the garden route Erin and I needed a place slow down, relax and spend our days hiking and watching the waves crash onto the beach from hammocks.

Sep 1, 2010

Galavanting around the Garden route

Storms River South Africa-62
Beautiful coastal landscape, a region of vineyards renowned the world over, high end homes, strip malls, navigating as helpless pedestrians in a car culture... our trip along the Southern California African coast was fascinating and energizing.

Cape Town South Africa-513I remember learning about South Africa politics as a child.  This proud bastion of legal racism drove my late great uncle Pat crazy with frustration.  He explained the concept of Apartheid in words simple enough that I could grasp it, but never in such a way that I have ever been able to understand it.  The task of making those laws itself proves their insanity.  When creating inhuman laws for humans, the details keep compounding complexity well past the point of absurdity.  They could make a law that said blacks and whites had different legal rights ... but what about mixed-races?  Or people that weren't 'native' but also weren't exactly aryan?  Before long high courts had to develop long list of criteria, as absurd as 'if the hair is curly enough to support a pencil then they are black.'  But when that petty distinction can have a massive impact on everything about how a person lives, one has to wonder if the high court had to weigh on on whether hair straighteners were a legitimate way to 'change races.'  At some point, I've got to believe, that even the people creating the laws realized how ridiculous it had gotten.

Hermanus South Africa-24
At the time I couldn't understand why Pat thought a man thrown in prison a generation ago would still be able to change things.  But in the final years of his life Pat got to live in a world where that man, Mandela, was released and helped rebuild South African law from the ground up.  Unfortunately, there is more to ending discrimination than law and that was a reality that kept screaming out to Erin and I while we travelled along the legendary 'Garden Route.'  The major cities along the coast are immaculate, well guarded, and look like a beautiful cross between Europe, California and an army base.  Without exception people were kind, friendly and engaging but the constant reminders of economic segregation hung in the air.  Cities the hummed with activity during the day shut down at night, when the last bus to the townships took the workers back to the townships and others barricaded themselves in each night.

Buffelsbaai South Africa-1The Garden route is aptly named as it had some of the most spectacular fauna I've seen anywhere in the world.  South Africa has barely 1% of the worlds landmass, but nearly 10% of the worlds plant species.  In some parts of the Colorado Rocky Mountains you can hike all day and see only one or two species of trees.  In South Africa, its almost impossible to open your eyes without seeing a dozen.  The topography itself is magical, we sat on top of a cliff and watched surfers and a couple whales play in the bay for over an hour.  We camped on empty beaches that looked like an artists rendering of 'the ideal beach.'  We saw dozens of different types of birds on long hikes out of the back door of our 18th century Dutch farmhouse.

Storms River South Africa-85
It was a remarkable and worthwhile trek through half a dozen destinations, but halfway up the coast both Erin and I were craving something a little more 'cultural.'  We'd heard legends about a formerly independent nation hidden inside of South Africa that only South Africa recognized.  It sounded like a fascinating place.  It was far poorer than it's "neighboring," country but also without the painful history of Apartheid.  But that is a story for another blog post....