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July 05, 2005

Reflections on East Africa

Over the last six months travelled through East Africa visiting 4 different coutries, 10 national parks/protected areas, and crossing the equator 7 times. I have slept in 34 different towns, 4 national parks, 3 trains, 1 ferry, and 1 airplane. I have eaten elephant in Itete, grasshoppers in Bukoba, and more chicken and chips than even I can guess. I have travelled by plane, train, land rover, bus, dala-dala/matatu (van taxis), regular taxi, share taxi, mountain bike, bicycle-taxi, motorbike taxi (boda-boda), motorcycle-taxi, dhow, ferry, canoe, and foot. I have seen valley and mountain, savannah and beach. I have stayed in modern cities, tiny villages and everywhere in-between. I have viewed wildlife on game drives, from bicycle, in the rainforest, and under the water. I met many, many people from all over the world and have communicated (and failed to communicate) in English, Swahili, French, German, Arabic, and Chagga. It has been absolutely amazing and before I begin to write about Southern Africa I would like to take some space here to reflect on a few my experiences and observations in East Africa:

I have had many, many wonderful experiences, but a few stand out above the rest. First among these would be my safari in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. It was truly magical, seeing the large African mammals, the giraffe, hippos, impala, zebra, elephants, lions, in the wild for the first time. It is impossible to describe how wonderful it was. Other highlights include: snorkelling in the Indian Ocean--it is an amazing underwater world down there; meeting and making friends and listening to wonderful music and the music festival on Zanzibar; my dhow trip on Lamu; riding a bike through the beautiful landscapes and herds of zebra, antelope and buffolo in Hell's Gate National Park; meeting other travellers in the hostels of Uganda; gorilla trekking Parc National des Volcans; and biking through Ukerewe Island on Lake Victoria and learning about the traditional culture.

Africa Time
In the West, you have watches. In Africa, we have time. Now go sit down and wait. This is one of the first sayings I heard upon arrival in Africa. And how true it is. Waiting in Africa is not just an art, but a way of life. I have waited over 2 hours for dinner and over 3 hours for a matatu to fill up and leave. I don't even ask where my food is in a restaurant anymore unless I have been waiting over an hour. My patience has definitely increased since I have come out here, but I find that it is often still insufficient. I often get antsy and impatient while waiting when the Africans around me (even the children) are still waiting patiently. It amazes me how patient they often are -- they generally don't even have boooks to read to pass the time and they don't generally ask what the delay is or when things will get going again. On the one hand, I admire their patience, but on the other hand it often seems that they don't even try to make things better. They just accept a bad situation without question, even if things could be fairly easily improved. And not just with waiting. I have seen so many places that with just a little bit of care, maybe a coat of paint on a hotel room's wall, could be so nice. But no one cares. It is a very different attitude from at home where most people continually strive to make things better.

At joke I heard shortly after arriving in Africa: A man has just arrived in Africa. He goes into a bar and orders a beer. There is a fly in the beer. He calls that waiter over and has him replace the beer. He then spends a month in the bush. He goes back to the bar and orders a beer. There is a fly in it. He fishes it out and drinks the beer. He goes back into the bush for six months. When he gets back to town he goes to the bar and orders a beer. He gets it and calls out: "Waiter! Where's my fly?" I'm not quite at that stage yet. I still fish them out. But I can't even begin to guess how many times flies have come with my food. That said though the food out here is pretty good. The typical food is chicken, beans, beef, or fish with ugali/posho (maize meal), chips, or rice. But it is generally also pretty easy to get really good Indian food and on the coast: Swahili food. I love Swahili food. Lots of seafood and yummy coconut sauces. Even various kinds of yummy rice cakes. In Uganda they make a very tasty peanut sauce and I am rather fond of matooke (mashed bananas -- like mashed potatoes, kind of.) And the fruit and juices in East Africa are spectacular. Passion fruit juice must easily be the best tasting juice in the world. Of course, one eats way too many bananas because they are difficult to avoid and not enough vegetables, because outside of Indian restaurants they are difficult to find.

Children in Africa are not treated the same as children in the West. They really don't have much of a childhood and are given both a lot of responsibility and a lot of freedom at a young age. It is not uncommon to see a two or three year old wandering around a village unsupervised. It is also not uncommon to see a six or seven year old girl carrying an infant or a boy of about ten selling something on the streets. The toddler is peeling an orange with a 3-inch knife? No big deal. Children here are also really patient. I have seen mothers with kids on public transport. In the west the kids would be running around, fidgeting, complaining. Here they just stand silently. Babies rarely cry. If they are crying, there is probably a really good reason. It made me realize just how coddled and protected children in the States are. This is not always a bad thing though. It is really unfortunate that many of the children here really don't get to have a childhood.

Aid Work
Before I came out to Africa, I viewed aid work as a completely good thing. The longer I spend out here, the more cynical and critical of it I become (and its not just me, but other travellers, expats, and even aid workers). For starters, a lot of the money never reaches the people. Corruption is rampant and money is just as likely to be lining officials' pockets as it is to get to the people. All lot of the money also seems to go into buying 4-wheel drive vehicles for the expats working for the aid organizations. But beyond that a lot of the work is just ineffective or not well thought out and the blame for this lies both with the aid organizations and the African people. Many a time, a community might not really need (or even want) the project that is going on -- the organizations do not always do a needs assessment. And the people are often not properly educated regarding the projects. They may not be interested in maintaining their water pumps, because they don't understand what the health benefits of clean water are. Furthermore, no one in the village may have the skills to maintain the pumps and if the NGOs train them, they suddenly have a valuable skill and leave the village to go make money in the cities. A lot of the aid workers I have met have complained that the people don't get involved with the projects. There is often no community buy in and the people don't want to help. Locals want to know how much they will be paid to dig the holes for the pipes that will bring clean water directly to their families. Certainly in some cases aid work has helped the people here, but what it seems to have done primarily is create a sinse of entitlement. The people here expect Westerners to come in and build them schools and hospital and waterlines. To bring them money and pay for their educations. I have often heard that the West just isn't doing enough for them. Rarely does one hear or read an African stating that maybe Africans should look into helping themselves. While I do agree that the west should help Africa, I believe that the ultimate responsibility has to lie with the African people and they do not seem to agree.

While the political situation in East Africa (excepting Burundi) is much better than the situation in many parts of Africa, it is far from good. In all of the countries in the region, corruption is a big problem. It is just common knowledge that politicians - all officials really - abuse their offices for monetary gain. Beyond that, however, their "democracies" often make even the United States look good and fair. Tanzania is officially a multi-party system, but outside of Zanzibar (which has its own President), the only party that matters is CCM. Many people are still happy with CCM, which was the party of Julius Nyerere the first president of Tanzania who no one disputes did great things for the country. Because CCM was his party many people support it without questioning it. Others, however, are getting fed up with CCM which is quite corrupt. CCM also controls the police and thereby stops meeting of parties opposed to CCM and CCM also controls the elections, which is a bit of a conflict of interest. Although most people think Tanzania is peaceful and will remain that way, I have met at least one person who thinks that the lack of allowed political dissent will soon lead the country to civil war. In Uganda things are worse. President Museveni has been in power for about 20 years and doesn't seem to want to give it up. Many, many people in Uganda are calling for multi-party politics, which Museveni opposes. The country is quite divided on whether or not they want Museveni to continue as leader. Again, no one disputes that he has done good things for the country, but many people believe it is time for him to relinquish power. It is clear that he will run for office again in the election next year. If he wins and it is not crystal clear that the election was fair, there could easily be problems, perhaps even civil war there (as one newspaper editorial feared). I can't help but wonder if Museveni is turning into a Mugabe (the current leader of Zimbabwe who wasn't bad at first, but who has now completely destroyed that country).

Impressions of the West
According to what most Africans believe, the West is a completely good place where everyone is rich and no one is poor. People are shocked when I tell them that there are poor people in the United States. There is also no concept that things cost more in the West. Everyone thinks that if they could just get to the United States they would get a good job and be rich. I had thought that a good number of people would have negative opinions on Western politics, particularly in along the very Muslim coast. This is not the case. No one seems to have any opinion on the Iraq war or any other aspect of Western politics other than aid given to Africa. Everything associated with the United States, however is good because it is associated with the United States. Barak Obama is especially good because he is of Kenyan descent and from the United States. California is unbelievably good because not only is it part of the United States, but, as almost everyone who hears I am California points out to me, it is the state of Schwarzenegger. They are very impressed.

Posted by Jillian on July 5, 2005 10:36 AM
Category: East Africa
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