April 30, 2009

“Xa sibambisene singenza lukhulu”

Things have been different these last few weeks in Itipini because Jenny is away, raising money and visiting family. That means Dorothy and I are left to hold down the fort and keep the clinic and general Project area functioning. So far, so good.

Each day, when I check to see how many patients we’ve seen, I’m surprised to see it’s above average. The days go quickly and relatively easily. Dorothy and I are like a smoothly-oiled machine, mowing through one sick patient after another after another.

It’s been a pleasant affirmation for me of how far I’ve come in my time in Itipini. I can actually do stuff now! I find myself marveling at how much Xhosa I understand and how easily it comes to me when I need it. I can handle fairly complex situations without it consuming my entire day. A patient has defaulted on TB treatment and wants to start again? There’s a post-ictal man on the stretcher outside the door? There’s a hysterical woman screaming and covered in blood? A TB patient can’t make it to the clinic for her daily injection? A young woman wants a pregnancy test? A patient needs to have her prescription for psychiatric medication refilled? All these patients are in the clinic at the same time? Check, check, check, check, check, check, and check! (The hysterical woman only had a bloody nose it turns out.) Meanwhile, I’m finding medical files, dispensing medication, counting pills, and keeping track of our supplies to ensure we don’t run out. I’m also continuing to deal with education and micro-credit-related issues.

That’s one interpretation of the situation. Another is that I am just barely hanging on. In Jenny’s absence, most of my job is simply maintaining current operations. That sort of routine maintenance should be pretty easy, right? It is anything but. The language barrier may be less now than it was but it is still significant. Working in a second language is exhausting! Patients are still demanding. I still struggle when I see the difficulty of the lives people here lead every day. I reach the end of the day and am ready to keel over.

But Dorothy and I carry on and still seem to finish each work day in good spirits. I’ve been telling her a lot lately, “xa sibambisene singenza lukhulu.” She laughs because it was the ANC’s campaign slogan. Loosely translated, it means “working together we can do more.” We’re doing fine now but we’ll be able to “do” more when Jenny gets back. Hurry!

April 29, 2009

A long, hard wait

Here's another good election-related article about the Transkei region:

So what has changed for Bhonani and her family in five years?

"Nothing," says the old woman. Dressed for our visit in her Sunday best -- a too-big brown melton jacket and a peach dress -- Bhonani Mayixhale is emphatic. "They are just promising and promising." She voted ANC during the last election, but shrugs her shoulders when asked why. "The councillor said we must vote ANC."

April 27, 2009


There’s a Xhosa expression that is, alternately, “nguBold” or “nguDays.” They are rooted in the names of soap operas. Both mean, essentially, “it’s a long and complex story” and is used when you don’t want to or have time to tell someone all the details of a particular narrative.

I thought of that expression on Wednesday when I invited my friend Noxolo over for lunch. She is probably my closest friend in Itipini but it had been some time since we had had time to catch up with each other. Plus, I wanted to tell her I am leaving Mthatha in the not-too-distant future and didn’t want to do that in the midst of a busy day in Itipini.

Noxolo is a self-identified born-again Christian, who is devoted to her small church in Itipini. She once told me that she gets so tired and frustrated living in Itipini, mostly with its crime but also with the people and their pettiness. But she said she isn’t making plans to leave (even though she probably could pull it off) because she thinks the best thing to do is to live her life in Itipini as an example for everyone else to follow.

But I have never heard from her the story of how she became Christian - and left behind what she frequently describes as a dissolute lifestyle - and so before I broached the subject of my impending departure, I asked, simply, “How did you become a Christian?”

The floodgates opened. For the next 90 minutes or more, she sat and quietly told me her life story. I prodded her along at times but mostly it was just her talking and talking and talking. It is a remarkable story and my head was spinning by the time it was over. I don’t think life is reducible to individual experiences or moments but if the only thing I take away from two years in Itipini was Wednesday’s conversation with Noxolo, I think it alone might have justified the entire struggle of these past two years.

Here’s the thing: I’m not going to tell you what she told me. It’s not my story to share and besides, nguBold. It would take more space and time than I care to spend detailing all the nuances and details of a story that drew me in fully and completely.

I hope you’re not offended. I’ve told you a story about a story when the story itself is much better. (For those of you saying now, “But you’ve told us about other people in the past!” I want to note that in those posts I was primarily writing about my interaction with those people and not their backstories. Here, the story is all Noxolo and no me.) But I think my experience illustrates a couple of important things.

First, Noxolo’s story is not unique. I am sure there are many other similar stories among people in Itipini. I’m fortunate that Noxolo chose to share hers with me. A Xhosa-speaking Studs Terkel could do wonders in a place like Itipini.

That leads to a second point. This is not a story that Noxolo would have shared with me the day after I got off the plane. The time we shared together on Wednesday afternoon is the fruit of a relationship we have been building the last nearly two years. I’m fortunate that Noxolo is now comfortable enough to struggle with English around me. I notice she is unwilling to speak English with other, newer white people even though by the standards of Itipini her English is quite good and didn’t really hinder her story-telling. With most people in Itipini, I probably don’t have enough vocabulary in common to hear their stories the way they deserve to be heard.

The third point is that as I spend more time here I became aware of all the many complexities influencing lives in Itipini. That is paralyzing and it has been making it really hard to write for this blog lately. It reminds me of The Dude’s line in “The Big Lebowski”:
"This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, a lotta outs, a lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder's head."

By the time it came for me to tell her I was leaving, it all seemed kind of anti-climatic. And she heartily approved of my post-Mthatha plans, which eased the potential pain of the moment.

April 26, 2009

It's all over

The results from the South African election are official. Here's an article that caught my eye. It captures the class dynamic I saw at work in the election.

Jacob Zuma and the ANC ran a brilliant campaign that successfully framed the 2009 election as a face-off between well-off blacks and whites on the one hand and the poor black majority on the other -- rather than on an examination of the government's record in power.

Zuma was voted in by the majority of poor black South Africans, for whom little has changed since 1994. To win elections in South Africa the support of the black poor and working class in townships, rural areas and informal settlements, more than 60% of the population, is crucial.
There's also this piece, which addresses an issue no American president-elect, for instance, has ever had:
The voters appear to have made their choice abundantly clear in South Africa's election. Now the president-in-waiting, Jacob Zuma, must make a delicate diplomatic choice of his own: which of his wives will be the country's first lady?

Reports conflict on how many times Zuma (67) a Zulu traditionalist and unabashed polygamist, has married over the years. His first wife is Sizakele Khumalo, whom he has known for 50 years and married in 1973.

He wed Ntuli last year, and reportedly was married again in January to Thobeka Mabhija, a Durban socialite with whom he is said to have two children.

April 22, 2009

“Give me money - that’s what I want”

I’ve noted before that I’ve received a number of e-mails in response to my two previous posts about the proposed change in the church canons of the term “missionary” to “mission partner.” A common theme in those e-mails goes something like this - “I don’t care what we’re called so long as they don’t cut off our funding.”

That’s a legitimate concern. The Episcopal Church - based on the news reports I read - is facing a financial picture that could be described as bleak. General Convention this summer will no doubt be asked to approve a budget that has substantially less revenue than anyone would like.

But already the mission program has felt the impact of budget cutbacks. The Church Center has apparently already made the decision to stop sending new non-YASC missionaries. There haven’t been any regional retreats for missionaries in several years. There’s ongoing discussion about how to fund a pension for lay missionaries.

So again, concerns about funding are legitimate and deserve to be treated seriously.

However, what I reject is the idea that the quest for more funding is divorced somehow from how missionaries talk about themselves. Indeed, thinking about funding without thinking about how we talk about ourselves amounts to putting the cart before the horse. The former is a fruit of the latter.

I say this based on my own experience as a missionary. I almost decided not to join YASC because I was worried about raising the necessary $10,000. I’m glad I overcame that hesitation because raising the money proved to be far easier than I ever imagined. I sat down, thought about why I wanted to be a missionary, how to communicate that idea in the best way, and then wrote letter after letter telling different versions of the same story: I wanted to be a missionary to experience the Gospel overseas, learn from my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, and attempt to share my gifts in a new setting.

When I opted to return for a second year, it was much the same. I sat down and thought about what I had experienced and learned and how best to relate that. In my travels last September to different churches, I told a series of similar stories that communicated, I hoped, the same message: mission is about reconciliation but before reconciliation comes a process of reification and relationship-building. I again had less trouble than I imagined raising money for my personal support and, this time, for African Medical Mission.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because Jenny is in the U.S. right now raising money for AMM. I don’t think she’ll mind if I say that before she left she was nervous about the trip. I tried to reassure her with one piece of advice: just tell the truth. What you do every day, even if it is commonplace to you, is important and profound and unusual to the people you’ll meet. Together, we reflected on the cast of characters we encounter and identified a couple individuals whose stories best exemplify the work of AMM. I have no doubt that she is doing superbly on this trip.

As I see it, the thought process goes like this. We figure out who we are, what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it and then we figure out how to communicate that in the best possible way. Funding will be one fruit that flows from this process. And, as I’ve noted, language is a first-order commitment for me; our descriptions shape our reality. So by using the phrase “mission partner” - an anodyne, legalistic, and constricting phrase, lacking in any euphony - we rob ourselves of some of that important self-definition and hinder our ability to communicate and thus secure funding.

If missionaries did have more funding, I would dearly love to see retreats reinstated. I think many missionaries know deeply and intrinsically who they are, what they do, and why they do it. I know Jenny does. But fewer missionaries can communicate those deep truths as well as they need to be. In my relatively brief time here, I’ve noted how the unusual and outrageous quickly becomes commonplace and it becomes difficult to find new ways to tell what is essentially the same story. Or you conclude that the story isn’t worth telling anymore, even though it clearly is. If that’s happened to me in two years, imagine what it must be like for a missionary who has been overseas for decades. I think retreats would be a great forum to help missionaries reflect on their experience and encourage them to share it in new ways.

I’ve been told many times what a “great” missionary I am and how valuable my blog is. Thanks. But I’ve been fortunate to meet and see “in action” a half dozen or so Episcopal missionaries around Africa. Their experiences are all different than mine but no less fascinating, important, or valuable. If all of us could tell our stories in the way they deserve to be told, I’m convinced I’d be receiving fewer e-mails noting our lack of funding.

Election Day

It was Election Day today in South Africa. That meant a day off work for me. What a great idea!

Driving around, I felt simultaneously excluded from a process I couldn’t take part in and swelled with pride at the sight of so many South Africans making democracy work. I saw some pictures of long lines in news reports but all the polling stations I passed were less busy, which I take as a sign of increased efficiency. (Or it could be I slept in and so missed the morning rush.) Let’s face it: after the ’94 election, it’s impossible for Western media to write a story about a South African election without putting in a picture of a long line somewhere. I don’t know how representative those pictures are.

Many of the people - in fact, virtually all of them - who had told me at some point in the last six months that they weren’t going to vote evidently changed their minds and voted today. That surprised me and impressed me. Unlike in the U.S., where people talk about their vote all the time, there is a strong social norm not to disclose who you voted for. And you definitely don’t ask, as I found out the hard way.

Towards the end of the day, I stopped at the ANC election headquarters in Mthatha. There were a lot of supremely confident folk sitting around, basking in the glow of an anticipated victory. I asked for - and received - a t-shirt to commemorate the moment. And I took the opportunity to remind them about Itipini and told them not to forget its existence. (Though in the mental fog of Xhosa, I neglected the negative and so ended up reminding them to forget Itipini.) I am sure that virtually all the people in Itipini I know voted for the ANC. It’d be nice if they saw something for that.

The talk among most white people and middle-class Africans I know in South Africa has been largely anti-ANC, particularly anti-Zuma. I’ve heard repeated sighs of, “How are we possibly going to elect him when he is such a flawed candidate?”

Briefly, I disagree. I’m no great fan of Jacob Zuma, think he’s said and done some dumb things in the past, and think the ANC has many other capable people who are not, unfortunately, in positions of leadership. Regardless, it’s a mistake to think that one election will change the course of history. I don’t fear that Zuma will pull this country (any further) off the rails. Elections are just one part of the overall fabric of democracy and we make a mistake when we invest them with so much significance.

What I’m hopeful will happen in this election is that the ANC will be held below the two-thirds super-majority it currently enjoys and that the results will further encourage the formation of the kind of credible opposition this country needs. That will amount to an encouraging - and realistically achievable - consolidation of South African democracy in this election.

The Hebrews wandered 40 years in the wilderness before reaching the promised land. This election only marks 15 years for South Africa. But the results can move the country closer to that promised land and I hope they do.

April 20, 2009

Moving (Back) Day

I’ve written before about Nolizwi, one of the students in my after-school English class. To re-cap briefly, her mother is quite sick with AIDS in a rural village and she moved to Mthatha in January to live with extended family and go to school. The extended family lives in Itipini and that is how our paths crossed. She is a bright and curious young woman. If she just had the opportunity to apply herself to school, she’d do great, I’m convinced.

But she had trouble with the extended family, moved in with some even more distant family, was robbed because she had a longer walk to school, and broke her arm, among much else. She asked for help and we eventually set up a situation where she could live with the children of one of our pre-school teachers. About two months ago, I helped her move there.

The new situation was not ideal from the get-go. There are about seven people living in the house and all younger than me. The pre-school teacher lives in Itipini but the house is in a government housing project, called Zimbane, some distance away. So there really isn’t any adult supervision by our standards but this kind of arrangement is fairly common.

Beyond that, Nolizwi had been informing me about how difficult it was to live with these people and how difficult they made her life. They always wanted her to provide her own food, for instance, even though that was explicitly not the carefully-crafted arrangement we had agreed upon. It was difficult for me to know what to do. Obviously, I could have helped her buy food or stepped in and “solved” some of the problems and once or twice I did that. But a) that kind of thing isn’t sustainable especially if I’m leaving in a few months and b) I didn’t want Nolizwi’s housemates to think I would always be there to bail them out. The whole arrangement had to work without my continual intervention. The trouble is that since my intervention brought the arrangement into existence, everyone had come to depend on it. I had several difficult conversations with Nolizwi in which she said, basically, “I’m hungry” and I said, essentially, “Sorry, but you need to work this out without me.” That wasn’t easy.

I saw Nolizwi for the first time in a few weeks on Thursday. I had been away and then school had been on its Easter break. I asked how she was. She handed me this letter, which I reproduce verbatim here.

Dear Jessy

There is nothing more that I want to tell you the place you gave me I’m no longer living in it because of the behavior of the people I was living with. I thought I must live at Corana [with the very distant relation that requires a long walk to school] for a while just to relieve some stress they cause during the holiday. Now I find it hard to go back there because of the way they make me feel. I feel it is over my dead body even you cannot solve it because they are critticising and discriminating me.

When you gave me food that I must go and prepare it for myself they ask me if there it is going to cook itself or I will eat it raw because you give me no paraffin. I didn’t bother by answering them but they kept on bulling me even wearing my clothes and my school clothes and even the blanket you gave me is their mat. Nontombi uses it as her babies blanket when I am at school and I find it hard to use it at nights because of the smell of a babies feceases.

When I think about the situation they are putting me trough they break my heart and make me think about where I came from. Even though they bully me I can have a place to live and my soul rest because at Corana I am not bullied and they care about me and my education.

When I go to school in the morning I use my legs to walk all the way to school [a 5-km walk; she leaves at 6am when it is quite cold and dark] and when I come back I borrow R5 [for a taxi so she won’t get robbed again] from anybody whom I find that day and go back to Corana because my fear is to go back to Zimbane Valley and these people they bully me again.

This situation is hard you will also find it hard to solve it too but I hope that you will find a plan to solve it for mi because I am desparette and I’m sure that I can not learn anything good while I still leave with them.

The things that happen in these last months makes me think nothing good about my life. Its not my intentions to leave school before time because there’s nobody at home who is educated and I want to be a good example but according to the situation I think I will drop out of school. And the fact them abusing me is also adding to the stress of my mother lying in a bed useless and has nothing to do for her children.

Not exactly the kind of pick-me-up I was looking for on a Thursday afternoon to make me feel good about myself and my efforts. (I was pleasantly surprised at how good the English is.)

I told her she absolutely should not drop out of school and that she needed to keep devoting her energies to that. And I told her that Corana seemed like the best place for her right now and she should keep living there. On Friday, we went to Zimbane, picked up her things, and drove back to Corana, the same place I’d helped her move from two months ago. (I’ll have more to say about our arrival in Corana in another post. It wasn’t exactly warm.)

We were literally right back where we started. All my energy and effort these last few months has amounted to nothing except heartache and trouble for Nolizwi. It’s a clear example of how one’s best efforts and intentions to help - when mediated through cultural and language barriers - can actually end up doing more harm than good. It’s an example of how misplaced people’s expectations are when they expect me to solve their problems for them. I can’t do it. And it’s not my job! I’ve found myself asking if Nolizwi wouldn’t have been better off if I had just stayed out of her life altogether.

Ultimately, I’ve taken comfort from the idea that the relationship Nolizwi and I have is of some intrinsic value. It certainly is to me. I hope it is to her. The situation then becomes an example of the folly of measuring ourselves by our results. We don’t have any control over those!

And yet… the results of my actions in this situation - however unintended they may have been - clearly did some serious damage to Nolizwi’s emotional health and I can’t help but feel responsible for that somehow. The intrinsic value of the relationship pales in comparison to the emotions expressed in this letter.

People here look at me as a problem-solver. I wish they wouldn’t. It’s completely unjustified because I haven’t solved any problems. But there becomes this temptation, and it’s a sinful one I think because it puts you at the centre of things, and you say, “Hey, if they’re looking to me for this maybe I can do it” and you give it a shot. And then you get a letter like this one.

Really, the better option is to turn it back on them and say, “Where is grace in this situation? How can it help you help yourself in this situation?” But that takes time and more energy and effort. And what would Nolizwi have done for herself when she showed up in February in tears, recently robbed and with no place to live?

Hitting the big time

Time Magazine made it to Mthatha! I swear, it is not as bad as this makes it out to be.

Which makes it all the stranger that the ANC has done so little to improve the region. Today much of the Eastern Cape is still typified by mud-walled, grass-roofed huts without running water, where boys ride horses, girls carry babies on their backs and families subsist on cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and maize. A new power grid has reached most homes — but supply is erratic. Most roads remain unpaved. In Mthatha, 74% of the population earns less than $150 a month and 43% are unemployed, according to a June 2008 report by the South African Medical Journal. In 2007, East London's Daily Dispatch newspaper revealed that poor maternity care at the city's Frere Hospital was resulting in around 200 stillborn babies every year — and that the corpses were being buried in mass paupers' graves. A tour of Mthatha General Hospital suggests conditions as grim: paint peels from rotten ceilings, the floors are filthy and in the casualty department, an old woman lies slumped in her wheelchair in a lake of urine.

Then there is the violence. Parents in Mthatha don't let their children walk to school for fear of robbery, or worse. The South African Medical Journal noted Mthatha's murder rate was 133 per 100,000 in 2005, twice as high as that in Colombia, and nearly three times the South African average. Walls and streetlights in the town's main drag, Nelson Mandela Drive, are plastered with posters offering "Safe Abortion, Same Day," "Quick and Safe Abortion, 3 Hours," even a free lottery ticket with every "100% guarantee, 2-hour" procedure. Nobu Sipoka, director of the Mthatha Child Abuse Resource Center, says there is no precise data on the incidence of child rape, but says she founded the center because anecdotal evidence from doctors suggested it was unusually high. "It's symptomatic of the unemployment and the poverty," she says. "This is not a happy town." An hour away in the village of Mvezo, where Mandela was born 90 years ago into a small gathering of huts on a narrow, windswept spur, the Mandelas' immediate neighbors are outspoken about their disillusionment with the ANC. "My life was better during apartheid," says Vincent Ntswayi, 53, who held a steady job in Johannesburg during white rule but has only been intermittently employed since. "Freedom turned out to be just a word. Real freedom, real power, that comes from money — and I haven't got any money."
I was driving through town today behind a convoy of trucks bearing "Vote ANC" signs. Most people were wildly cheering as it drove past. I'm not sure how many people like Mr. Ntswayi are out there.

The article also fails to note that Mandela very publicly endorsed Zuma.

Curtain Raiser on the Election

The Economist puts Jacob Zuma on its cover and raises the curtain on Wednesday's election:
WITHIN weeks, Jacob Zuma is set to become the most powerful man in Africa, a continent of a billion souls that is still the poorest and, despite recent improvements, the worst governed on the planet.... As the party’s candidate, Mr Zuma is unquestionably Africa’s next “Big Man”. But it is a phrase that goes to the heart of the continent’s troubles. Too many African countries have been ruined by political chiefs for whom government is the accumulation of personal power and the dispensation of favours.

But his flaws are just as patent. He has been entangled for years in a thicket of embarrassing legal cases from which he has only recently been extricated—on a technicality. His financial adviser was sentenced to 15 years in prison for soliciting bribes for Mr Zuma. He has also been tried, and acquitted, on a rape charge. At the least, he has sailed perilously close to the wind. To put the kindest interpretation on his financial dealings, he has been naive and sloppy, not the best qualities for looking after Africa’s biggest economy. During his trial for the rape of an HIV-infected family friend, at the height of the AIDS plague in a country which has the world’s highest recorded rate of rapes, he showed gross chauvinism and staggering ignorance, notoriously explaining that after having sex he had showered to stave off the disease. He is an illiberal populist, sneering at gays and hinting at bringing back the death penalty.

There's a longer article about South Africa as well.

The election is Wednesday. It's a holiday and I'm intrigued to see what it will bring. As I've noted before, I'll especially be watching the turnout.

April 18, 2009

An Ethiopian Excursion

After Djibouti, I headed for Ethiopia, a country that is like no other in Africa or, I imagine, the world.

Ethiopia has a unique history in Africa - it was never colonized and actually defeated the Italians in the late 19th century. They use a unique language (Amharic) that has its own alphabet. They use a different calendar and keep time differently (that was endlessly confusing). Unlike the rest of Africa, they have an indigenous Christian church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, that traces its lineage to the fourth century. They also have (or had) indigenous Jews, a remnant, they believe, of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to King Solomon. And the people themselves look different than many other sub-Saharan Africans. It’s hard to describe how but many women, for instance, have straight hair and everyone has higher and more-pronounced cheekbones than I’m used to seeing in South Africa.

All this difference adds up to a unique people who take great pride in their heritage: they’re different, they know it, and they’re proud of it. In my brief experience in the country, I’d say Ethiopians are more nationally solipsistic than any other Africans. Naturally, as an American, I fit right in!

While they are indeed different, that doesn’t obscure the fact that the country is quite poor. The back of the 10-birr note has a picture of a tractor plowing a field on it. I did not see a single tractor in my entire time in the country. I did see many oxen-pulled plows, however, plowing up huge tracts of land in the rural parts of the country in preparation for the rainy season. There are so many beggars on the streets of Addis Ababa and many of them are profoundly crippled, with appendages bent in unnatural directions. Several times, I passed distributions of food aid, primarily from the U.S. government. Paul Theroux, in his book Dark-Star Safari, likens Ethiopians to “a family of aristocrats who’ve pawned the family silver.”

In transit between Djibouti and points in northern Ethiopia, I ended up with three nights in Addis Ababa. It is a gigantic city. I know this because I’m thrifty and walked most everywhere, including to and from the airport a few times. There are fancy hotels, like the Sheraton, overlooking sprawling slums. All the road signs are misspelled (including, incredibly, “Hale Silasie Drive”) because the Chines re-did them several years ago. I tried several times to see a movie in one of the theatres but I kept getting stymied by the different time-keeping methods Ethiopians use. Their 10 o’clock is not my 10 o’clock.

I visited Holy Trinity Cathedral, one of the holiest sites of the Orthodox faith. It is also where Haile Selassie is buried in a gigantic tomb. Selassie has clearly been rehabilitated in the eyes of Ethiopians and he is in several paintings in the cathedral, including one that shows him making his famous (to Ethiopians) plea to the League of Nations when the Italians were threatening the country.
I also visited a museum in Selassie’s old palace. The museum had some interesting exhibits on the many fascinating aspects cultures in Ethiopia but what I liked best was you could see the Emperor’s bedroom and bathroom.
But my main destination was northern Ethiopia. There are a tremendous number of world-class historical-tourist destinations there and spending a week among them is liking reading the first chapter of “War and Peace.” It barely hints at the entirety and leaves you wanting more. But a week is all I had. I saw this trip as a down payment on a return visit.

I went first to Bahir Dar, a good-sized town on the south edge of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. (In Uganda, I went to Lake Victoria, the source of the White Nile.) It is a huge lake and on many of the islands in the lake are monasteries, still active and hundreds of years old. I couldn’t find anyone with whom to share a full-day journey on the lake so I only spent the morning on the lake, visiting three monasteries. They are remarkable places - old churches with beautiful paintings, libraries with ancient translations of the Bible, simple living quarters of mud and sticks, prayer caves half-way up cliff faces.

I went out in a 15-foot motorboat but locals ply the lake in small craft made of papyrus. That’s the stuff that is used to make paper. Used another way, I guess, it’s watertight.
That afternoon, I rented a bike and rode along the Blue Nile to Haile Selassie’s old palace. It is through beautiful countryside, agrarian and obviously poor. The road was once paved - the only paved road in the area, I am sure - but is now cracked and returning to dirt. There are more horses and donkeys on the road than cars. The palace is not open to visitors but the view from the hill over the river and Bahir Dar is great. It was easy to imagine Selassie being driven to his life of luxury in the palace while his people toiled and starved around him.
What do you think American tax dollars are being spent on in this sign?

I also spent some time in Bahir Dar’s market. It is much like markets all over Africa, I am sure. What is fascinating is spending time in the clothing section. All the clothes we donate in the rich world get packed up and re-sold in places like Bahir Dar. As a result, you can find all kinds of brand-name clothing for pretty cheap. And you see Ethiopians wearing random t-shirts, like “Marist Cheerleading” or “Smith Family Reunion 2003.”
From Bahir Dar, I flew to Lalibela, truly a wonder of the world. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Zagwe dynasty built 11 churches out of stone. When I say “built,” I should really say carved. The kings looked at a cliff face, I imagine, and said, “Let’s make a church.” And they did. The workers set to it, carved away the excess rock, and left behind these churches that are hewn completely from stone. The craftsmanship is remarkable. What’s even more remarkable is that the churches are still in use.
I went through the churches with a tour guide and then on my own. The most memorable part is a 50-meter or so tunnel through a cliff that connects one church to another. It didn’t matter if my eyes were opened or closed as it was pitch black. The guide encouraged me to turn off my head lamp and, guided by his voice and hand, I made my way through, thinking of all the people over the centuries who’d been through this passage before me. (In several places, especially on the stairs leading into the churches, the stone is worn smooth and slippery from centuries of use.) I have never been so relieved to see the literal light at the end of the tunnel.
There are priests in each of the churches, prepared to show you some of the artefacts they have there, mostly finely-worked crosses. They’re happy to let you take their picture but they put on their sunglasses first to guard against the flash.
If the Lalibela churches were in the U.S., they’d be roped off, with cautionary signs and railings everywhere. As Lalibela is still developing as a destination and the churches are still used, there is none of that. It was fun, then, to roam freely around the rocks and churches, peeking into caves where monks once lived and finding out where various passageways lead. It reminded me of what Tolkien’s Moria might have been like or Aragon’s journey through the mountains. Apparently, some people still live there; wandering off the usual guided route, I came across a woman sleeping in one of the hideaways. She was not happy to see me.
We may be nearly a millennium removed from the construction of the churches but the way of life in the area is still largely similar to what it was when the churches were built: rural, agrarian, feudal, and poor. It strikes you as soon as you drive out of the Lalibela airport. The homes are made of sticks and stones and mud and straw, making the rondavels I know in South Africa seem like mansions and reminding me very strongly of how Rohan was portrayed in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. I was there on a Saturday, which is market day. Because Lalibela is on a mountain, you can see people streaming into the market from all the surrounding villages.Coming home from the market with her purchase.

I took a morning trip out to Yemrehanna Kristos, one of many churches scattered around the area that surrounds Lalibela. This one is built into a cave, high on a mountain, and is made of wood and marble. How’d they get the marble there, when there is no obvious source nearby and it’s up a steep mountain? I asked my guide and he said it came from Jerusalem on clouds. Works for me. At some point, you’ve got to start believing in miracles to come to grips with what you see in Ethiopia. As it was Sunday morning, church had just let out and people milled around outside in an Ethiopian version of Coffee Hour.

In the back of the cave, there are thousands of skeletons, just thrown helter-skelter. People just wanted to die there, I guess, and the priests granted their wish. There are skulls everywhere, some partially hidden so you keep stubbing your toe on them. Some of the faces have fascinating expressions on them.
From Lalibela, I went to Axum. I hadn’t intended to stop here but that’s how the flights worked out and I was glad they did. Axum was the capital of an ancient empire that spanned the Red Sea and was known to Rome and Greece. As a tourist destination, it’s now known as the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant (if you believe Graham Hancock’s “The Sign and the Seal”) and for the tombs and obelisks left behind by the Axumites. (And no, I didn’t see the Ark.)

I didn’t have much time but I made the most of it. The obelisks are stunning. They are carved granite, taken from a quarry a few kilometers from town, somehow transported to town, and then erected… all more than 15 centuries ago. There are several that are beautifully carved and quite tall. Others are smaller and plainer.
The biggest one collapsed, likely when it was being erected, split into several pieces and crushed the tomb it fell on. That, it is theorized, was the end of that.
The obelisks are in all the tourist pictures of Axum but what I really liked was the old tombs, scattered all over town. They’ve all long since been raided but the craftsmanship is quite impressive. And they are located right in the middle of ongoing life. To find one - it dated to the time of Jesus - I had to walk down a side street in a residential neighbourhood. After exploring the tomb, I looked around for a few more burial sites the tour book said were nearby. I found them and then saw a similar-looking rock structure 10 feet away. I poked my head over it only to find it was someone’s cooking area, clearly still in use. On my way back to the main road, I played soccer for a little while with some of the neighbourhood children.
Jesse Zink, tomb raider.

I again rented a bike and rode out through Axum towards the old quarry. It is hard to believe Axum was once the capital of a mighty empire. Now it is just a big, sprawling, city with very few paved roads. I saw a donkey and camel talking to each other.
I also checked out the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone. It’s a big - bigger than Rosetta - and carved in Greek and Ge’ez, Amharic’s predecessor. Apparently, the stone curses anyone who tries to move it so the Ethiopians have sensibly left it where it is and built a stone hut around it. The Rosetta Stone is guarded by the full resources of the British Museum. This stone is guarded by this guy.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Because Ethiopians believe the Queen of Sheba was one of them and they share in a Solomonic inheritance, there is interesting Jewish iconography in some of the churches, like a random Star of David occasionally with a cross in the middle.
I had several tour guides at various points but I don’t think I ever heard a single one say “Jesus.” Instead, it was “God died on the cross,” “Mary gave birth to God,” etc. One repeated painting I saw depicted the Trinity as three identical old men. That didn’t seem very helpful to me.
I think there are also elements of Islam in the faith, though I bet they'd deny it. All the churches face east and the body language of people at prayer was reminiscent, though not identical, to Islamic forms of prayer.

It also has many characteristics of a pre-Reformation, pre-Vatican II church. The liturgy is conducted in Ge’ez, a dead language. The bread and wine are consecrated in a separate location (appropriately called Bethlehem, literally “House of Bread”) and then brought back to the church for distribution. The priests are obviously a separate class (and they have to be married to be priests). There’s a separate area in each church called the Holy of Holies that only priests can enter. People approach priests to kiss their cross and be lightly tapped on the forehead with it. In one airport, an obviously high-ranking priest walked into the departure area and virtually everyone in the lounge stood up and made their way to him to be blessed. He looked obviously disinterested.
It is also an established church in that I understand church and state are closely intertwined. I found myself wondering to what extent a church like this can exist only with an uneducated and poor population and thus to what extent the church is complicit in the continued poverty and under-development of Ethiopia.

Ethiopian food is quite good. If you’ve tried it, you’ll know that its major component is injera, a sort-of bread that you tear into pieces and use to scoop up the rest of the food. I say “sort-of bread” because it reminded me more of a cross between a pancake and a sponge and tasted about that way too. I was never quite sure what I was ordering because English is not widely spoken by waitresses, it seems, but it was always good. I could never finish all the injera that I was given, which turned out to be fortuitous as I always finished my meals with messy hands and had plenty of injera left to wipe them on. Its spongy nature cleaned my hands just great.
It’s possible to have too much of a good thing and I eventually had to start looking for meals that didn’t include injera. They were tough to find.

Ethiopia is a very inexpensive country, especially compared to Djibouti. I’m used to bargaining but I occasionally felt bad doing so because the initial price was so low. When I rented a bike in Bahir Dar, the first price he offered was less than 50-cents an hour. It’s hard to argue with that. (On the other hand, some people try to take you for all you’re worth. The guy I rented the bike from in Axum quoted me a price of 55-birr for five hours. I offered 20. He said, “If you want to bargain, I say 55, you say 50.” That didn’t seem like such a good way to me.)

Given the world-class historical sites in the country, the tourist infrastructure is, shall we say, still developing. You can either stay in expensive, ritzy places or down-at-the-heel hotels. Guess which I choose? But given all that I had been lead to believe about the quality of accommodation in the country, I was favourably impressed. Sure, most didn’t have hot water or toilet seats or shower curtains or any of the finer (or necessary) things we associate with hotels but they were clean and safe and cheap.

Ethiopia has trended notably authoritarian in recent years and there are lots of security people with big guns on the street. You have to go through security to get into the airport and then again to get on the plane. They are always checking your passport in the airport. It is also (relatedly) quite a closed society. Uniquely, in my African travels, the country did not have a single ATM capable of taking my debit card. (Visa is not everywhere I wanted to be.)

Obama is very popular in Ethiopia. In fact, he’s probably on more shirts than Bob Marley and Selassie combined. (Sometimes the picture is not of him so much as it is a random black guy who looks vaguely Obama-ish.) They may love him but they won’t go so far as to credit him for his work. You can still get an obviously pirated copy of his books on the street for cheap. They’ve been photocopied and rebound.
Speaking of reading, I had several flights and Ethiopian Airlines makes you get to the airport two hours early so I had plenty of time to read and rapidly made it through what I’d brought with me. To my surprise, there were actually quite a lot of books for sale in Addis. Most were in Amharic but I found several interesting English ones. Even then, however, by my final flight out of Axum, I had absolutely nothing to read and amused myself in the departure lounge reading every word in my passport twice. It was the most horrendous waiting experience I’ve ever endured.

Everything I’ve ever read about Ethiopia mentally prepared me to get the worst gastro-intestinal infection ever. Knock on wood, I’m fine!

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April 14, 2009

Whadja djo in Djibouti, Djesse?

My recent travels took me first to Djibouti and then to Ethiopia. Unlike previous posts about my travels - to Uganda and Lesotho - where I’ve written a day-by-day account, I’m just going to note some of the highlights and post pictures. This post is about Djibouti; I’ll discuss Ethiopia in a subsequent one.

The impetus for the trip was a visit to a high-school friend. This trip has been in the works for a long time and I had initially planned on only visiting them. But my friend insisted that if I was going to be so close to Ethiopia, I also had to work in a visit to a few of its many remarkable sights. Plus, Djibouti is a small place without too many tourist destinations.

We spent the first three days exploring the countryside outside Djibouti City. We went to a couple beaches where I got to snorkel over some neat coral reefs, marvel at the fish, and get a modest sunburn on my back. We also visited Lac Assal, (one of) the lowest point(s) in Africa and a lake saltier than the Dead Sea. I went swimming and floated across the top of the water. As I did, an Afar nomad, as his people have for generations, approached with his camel and began to mine the salt by hand to be loaded onto his camel and traded in distant parts.
The reason Lac Assal is so low is that this marks the place where two tectonic plates are pulling apart. As a result, there’s also a lot of volcanic activity and we explored a volcano and the neat lava tubes.

I also stood on the crack (maybe) where the Arabian and African plates meet and tried to cause an earthquake by pulling them further apart. It didn’t work.
The Djiboutian countryside is remarkable. It’s desert but not in the sandy sort of sense that I’ve always understood that word. It’s harsh, dry, rocky, and forbidding. I was reminded of my previous experience in a harsh climate, in western Alaska. But in Alaska, I felt like I understood the internal logic of Alaska native life. I had much less time in Djibouti but I had no clue as to the internal logic of Somali and Afar nomadic life by the time I left.
My friend eventually had to go back to work so I had two days to explore Djibouti City, where two-thirds (more or less) of Djiboutians live. This was an opportunity for me to try out my French and wilt in the heat. The city is a pleasant place with a sort of faded, shabby French charm. Je parle francais bien… kind of. I managed to order some food in cafes and buy stamps for post cards but otherwise Xhosa kept popping into my head before French did and I had to keep shoving it down.
The rhythm of life in Djibouti is distinct. Business and social life is hopping throughout the morning. Around noon or one, however, the khat shows up and life shuts down for the afternoon. Khat (also spelled qat in Somalia) is a narcotic that is legal in the Horn of Africa region but illegal in the U.S. It has to be consumed shortly after harvest so it is cut each morning in Ethiopia and exported post-haste to Djibouti, arriving mid-day and making a mockery of the idea that Africa’s lack of infrastructure impedes trade. When there’s a market (and inelastic demand), the product gets through! It is impossible to describe how different the rhythm is in the morning - pleasantly chaotic - and the afternoon - lethargic. You just see men sitting in the shade with their piles of leaves in front of them, blissfully chewing away.
Djibouti also heavily subsidizes the price of bread. Between that and the khat, I was reminded of the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome or the soma of “Brave New World.”

I bought some postcards from a guy with one leg on crutches in the street. It was confusing because I was bargaining in French and he kept trying to get me to buy more than I wanted. In the confusion, I walked away with the postcards but forgot to pay him. As I walked away, he started shouting after me and I was convinced he was trying to make a scene to get me to pay twice. So I sped up, convinced I could casually stroll and still outwalk a one-legged man. Well, he could motor on those crutches and he could also shout pretty loudly - “monsieur! monsieur!” - so we began to attract a crowd. That made me pause, think for a moment, and realize I was still holding in my hand the money I had meant to give him. I turned around, smiled, and gave it to him and our small crowd dispersed. I can’t imagine I gave white tourists a very good name that day, however.

Djibouti is just a short boat ride away from Yemen and we went out to a Yemeni restaurant one night and had some great fish, cooked on the side of a clay oven. Like all good food, it’s eaten with your hands.

Djibouti was the first Muslim-majority country I’ve ever visited. Flying in the first night, I thought to myself, “Look at all those church steeples!” Then I realized they were minarets. I was only woken up by the call to prayer one time. Djiboutian women seemed to run the gamut in terms of dress, from a loose shawl over the head to a full veiling, though I only saw a few of the latter. Oddly, I thought, for a Muslim country, in the market there were numerous stalls that seemed to be devoted solely to selling women’s underwear on full display for all to see.

I borrowed a bike and rode out of town a ways. There are camels everywhere with appropriate road signs.
I rode past homes that looked no better than what I am familiar with in Itipini. But at least in Itipini there’s a little greenery. Here, it was just desolate and barren-seeming. Oddly, for a country where it hardly ever rains, it rained on my bike ride and I got spattered with mud.
Djibouti is a major port and, given the ongoing testiness in Ethiopia and Eritrea's relationship, the only port for getting goods to Ethiopia. There’s a road between Djibouti and Addis Ababa and it is constantly plied by a never-ending stream of trucks. It takes about three to five days for the trip, depending on whether or not the truck breaks down. There’s also an old railway line connecting Addis and Djibouti and that would be the most sensible way to transport the goods except that a) it needs a lot of repair and the two countries can’t agree on how to pay for it and b) the truckers’ union is politically powerful in Ethiopia (all the drivers are Ethiopian) and stops any discussion of switching to rail. Most of the trucks aren’t big enough to handle the shipping containers, which means they have to be unloaded in Djibouti and repacked on a truck. And because Ethiopia is such a closed society they don’t have enough foreign currency to pay for all the stuff so it just backs up in Djibouti and - literally - collects dust. The inefficiency makes you want to scream. But as I’ve learned time and again here, efficiency is a Western value and is not equally valued (nor should it be) by everyone.
(Eriteria is a tragically fascinating country, colloquially known as “North Korea on the Red Sea.” They’ve now also picked a fight - there’s no other way to describe it - with Djibouti and are even more cut off the world. Check out the excellent “I Didn’t Do It For You” by Michela Wrong for more.)

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