We had only driven out of Axum for about 90 minutes – I was laying spread out across one of the bench seats, taking advantage of our massive luxurious van for just the two of us – when Mike told me to get up and look out of the window. This is what I saw.
Scenery right out of Axum
The geography in this area of Ethiopia is astounding. A huge pink and orange rock escarpment with towering sandstone cliffs and mountains that are reminiscent of Utah, Arizona’s Monument Valley, North Western Australia and Namibia to mention a few similar places. This is all just wonderful – BUT! They sold me this trip to see CHURCHES??????!!!!
It blows my mind that the tour company who markets this particular route only focuses on the historic churches that we would get to see. No mention is made of the views, or the trekking opportunities. All that was said was that a few of the churches on day two required a little bit of clambering to get to. This was a huge understatement, both in scope and in practical terms.
Mike ascending the vertical wall at Debre Damo
I had agreed to make our first stop the monastery of Debre Damo – which only allowed for male visitors. In fact, the monks only allowed male cows, chickens, donkeys and any other livestock they needed for their purposes to be provided for their day to day needs. I’m guessing female cows would be just too much of a powerful temptation for them, living all alone at the top of a monolithic mountain?
The fun part of visiting this monastery is that it involved a near vertical 15 m rock climb where the priest assists the person climbing via a rope around the waist. Mike is a little afraid of heights, so I was super proud of him for wanting to give this a go. Plus, I wanted everything documented on camera in case something funny or super embarrassing happened to him on the way up or down.
Fortunately for me, I got both.
Enjoy this wonderful video footage of Mike being aided down the rock, and toward the end, not even being allowed to place his feet to steady himself: https://youtu.be/xWNVzRtlYG8
After a nice lunch, our next stop was located at the end of another stunning drive through the magnificent countryside, and according to the guidebook, one of the most scenic roads in the country. There was a complex of 3 churches called the Teka Tesray cluster, but we’d been advised to just visit the most beautiful – Medhane Alem. As we approached the trailhead (because, yes, you have to hike to each of these churches as they’ve been built literally into the rock/mountain) we were swarmed by a bunch of kids wanting to make some quick birr to show us the way. We chose one competent looking enough chap and we made our way through the late afternoon sun up the steep sandstone cliffs to the church – which was about 30 minutes away.
Beautiful Medhane Alem
What made this particular location a little unique was that we were surrounded by a beautiful variety of cacti, eucalyptus trees, and green, rolling hills. It reminded me of a fragrant late afternoon in Tuscany – except without the olive trees. We entered the gated entrance with its standard issue crowd of elderly shawled folk who seemed to “live” at the church and beg for money. We were told to remove our shoes and make our way through the dirty and rocky garden area leading to the white rock-hewn church – and I just couldn’t understand why they didn’t just let us remove our shoes at the doorway – thereby ensuring we didn’t bring the dirt and dust inside the church with us. I asked this of our guide and was informed that the rocky path was already “holy land” which appeared to be more important than whether or not it was clean.
Artwork inside Medhane Alem
The inside of this 6th century church was very cool and carved out in one giant piece, consisting of 4 inter connected rooms containing mosaics, remnants of religious artwork depicting the angels and the apostles, and of course, the holy of holies that contained a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, in line with Ethiopian Orthodox teachings.
As usual, the outside and surrounding scenery was more fascinating to me than the inside of the church, where it was hard for me to not be preoccupied with how old the carpet was and how many thousands of dirty feet had walked here since it was last replaced.
Having said that, the feat of work this represented and the age of the church itself was pretty staggering. I think when you’re dealing with architecture this ancient, it is really hard for a layman to determine the actual talent that may or may not be involved in its creation, based purely on its age.
As with many of these very very old churches – the guides often claimed that the only explanation for their creation at a time when technology was so limited was that they were made with the assistance of the angels. These explanations are given entirely with a straight face, I might add.
Making our way back to the van as the sun was setting was rather magical and I managed to get some nice sunset shots. Why is it we never tire of a beautiful sunset?
Pretty sunset as we descend from Medhane Alem
That night we stayed in a small town called Hawzen. It took visiting four hotels before Mike and I found one with an available room that had hot water in the bathroom – the Habesha Hotel. We soon headed out in search of a restaurant our driver had recommended, and when we did finally find it – it turned out it was only serving fasting food. It’s funny to me how excited the restaurant staff are to tell us that their menu doesn’t contain any dairy, meat or animal fat of any kind – but it’s clearly because they don’t realize that hearing such news is an instant disappointment for me.
I settled on ordering some vegetable soup and beer. And eating some rice off of Mike’s plate, of course.
Our second day in Tigray was definitely the highlight. This is in spite of the horrendous hassle we had to overcome in locating a scout for each of the two churches we hiked to – you can read about the first instant in my former post here. Despite this, it was easily my favorite day of the entire trip – perhaps since the scenery, degree of difficulty, and the steep ledges we had to scramble over to reach these churches built on top of mountains was altogether unexpected.
Stunning landscapes and beauty of Ethiopia
Our first visit was to a church called Abuna Yemal, which, funnily enough – was featured in a BBC article about the priest having what was claimed the “most difficult commute in the world.” The route was a tough scramble, possibly a technical enough route that a harness and rope would be called for were it in the States – but I certainly enjoyed the adrenaline rush that came from trying to find foot and hand holds (and doing so in the midst of yelling at the bunch of super annoying men, dressed in SUITS I might add, to shut the hell up as they threw out constant muttered directives of how and where I should climb, assuming I was a complete idiot who’d never scrambled before.)
Me, ascending sans rope to the Rock Hewn church of Abuna Yemal
I was, however, filled with more than adrenaline when one of these douche bags (who expect tips even though you never asked for help, in fact, when you had actively told them to go away multiple times) actually down climbed right over the top of me and stood on my hand. I screamed at him, in a terrified rage, for committing the ultimate rock climbing faux pas – though I’m not sure he really gave a shit.
It did end up being totally worth it – and the views from the teeny tiny ledge that led to the church were stupendous. Hopefully you can get some idea from these pictures.
Sitting on a ledge near the church
Again, the church was a nice cherry to find at the top of this climb, but the journey was reward enough in itself.
This first church was about 3 hours return, and it was well past lunchtime by the time we got back to the van. I cursed not having known about the number of hours we’d be hiking today, and I cursed our guides/drivers for not telling us to pack a lunch with us to help fuel us for the afternoon’s venture out to Maryam Kokor – which was going to take us another 3 arduous hours to climb and return from. Luckily, Mike had some chocolate in his pack and Sneetchi gave us some bananas…so we managed fairly well despite our outputs. It’s just that this was clearly not the first time this company had brought tourists to these places – so why can’t they advise this ahead of time? SMH.
Not so happy priest at Abuna Yemal with ancient text inscribed on goat skin
The approach to Maryam Kokor was very different, as was our lovely and QUIET scout whom our driver had been kind enough to arrange for us to have after the nightmare we’d experienced at Abuna Yemal. There were sections of tunnel-like through paths of rocks with giant sandstone walls rising up either side of us. Then there were sections where we had to clamber on hands and feet on well-trodden and eroded “steps” up the pink cliffs.
Views were out of this world and I include some pictures here.
There were two small churches to visit at the top of the mountain, and the first had separate entrances for men and women. It looked rather like Medhane Alem inside, though the artwork was far better preserved. The second much smaller church had just one room with a mural going in a circle across all four walls – but we had to navigate a narrow ledge where the wind threatened to pick us up and throw us up and over the edge where we’d fall several thousand feet to the valley below. I include some pictures and videos of this exhilarating hike here.
Hanging out on ledges
I felt extremely satisfied and physically spent by the time we made it back to the van. Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EGFHA4FemY Not just that – I was rather hungry, but we opted to grab avocado smoothies and make our way to Mekele since it was already 4:30pm in the afternoon – and we would be leaving for our 4 day/3-night trip to the Danakil Depression the very next day – and probably at early o’clock.
We visited our tour agency on arrival in Mekele to pay for our trip – but alas, the credit card machine wasn’t working (shocking, I know.) So Sneetchi dropped us at a nice hotel (which was a little expensive, but well worth the little bit of luxury we felt we deserved) where we got a SEMI-SUITE, which was essentially a room with an adjoining living area. More importantly, the restaurant served burgers and fries which we joyfully washed down with large beers and toasted our incredible two day adventure visiting historical churches…I mean, trekking through some of the best scenery I’ve experienced yet on the Dark Continent.
Men chanting and singing during a church ceremony in Lalibela
I’ve now spent about three weeks in Ethiopia and one thing is for sure. This is unlike any country I have been to in Africa. It is a confounding place – it is both claimed to be more purely African than any other nation – since it is the only country on the dark continent that managed to escape the atrocities and impacts of European colonization. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like Africa at all – at least, to me. So, I must state as my opening caveat to this post – these are merely my opinions and my impressions of this – my 21st African country. Other tourists here may have totally different experiences, in fact, I hope they do. These are just my own personal experiences, and I grant you – they might have felt different if this were the only country I was visiting on this trip. Since we came here after having spent almost two months in West Africa, it was far easier to compare the people with those we had just had experience with.
Ethiopia is a staggeringly beautiful country – the geography is interesting and diverse and the history is rich and there is so much to learn and see for a history lover. It is an archaeologist’s paradise – ancient civilizations that have only just started to be excavated. The potential for tourism, therefore, is immense and from what I can tell – there is an established tourist circuit in the north, and wherever we traveled – we met a lot of tourists.
Having said all of that – I would recommend to anyone wanting to visit Ethiopia to consider coming here on a package tour that is organized and paid for by a western company – OR – be prepared to need nerves of steel. In order to fully appreciate each and every day, it is important to have a “separation” from needing to deal with local tour operators, guides, and almost any type of service staff. The reason for this is there is more hassle, difficulties, price-gouging, unfair treatment, lying and horrible service here than anywhere else I have traveled. Some of it, of course, can be attributed to the language barrier – but this does not explain all of it.
Stunning landscapes and beauty of Ethiopia
Before I launch into descriptions of the struggles Mike and I have faced, I would like to point out that we did have a handful of positive local interactions. Our driver in Tigray was a 22 – year old called Sneetchie (spelling?) and though he didn’t speak English, he was always cheerful and helpful. In the Danakil, our driver was the exact opposite of everything I’m going to describe here – but to the extreme. Sisay, constantly asked if we were okay, did we want the windows down or AC? Did we want to stop for a photo? When we responded, he would verify our answer by re-asking the same question 3 or 4 times. It was overkill – but at the very least, he was extremely caring. I will give him a great review on Trip Advisor – because these two individuals were absolutely the exceptions to the general rule.
Just last night, at our hotel in Bahir Dar, I decided to order the same dinner I’d had the night before because it had been so delicious. It was a chicken breast with a mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes. The meal arrived but it was a chicken thigh and leg served with rice. Looking at the menu, it was a totally different meal. The waiter came over and I asked if it would be possible for him to bring me some mashed potato? He said “of course” and went away. Fifteen minutes later, a woman arrived (who I presumed is the restaurant manager) and asked me “what is the problem?” I said, “there is no problem, it’s just that I got a different dish to what I ordered and could I have some potato?” She pointed at the menu and told me that I had the dish I ordered. I said, “no” – this isn’t a chicken breast. To which, she responded “Yes, this is chicken breast – it has just been flattened out.” I laughed because I thought she must be joking. “No, this can’t be a chicken breast because there are bones.” “No bones, madam.” “Yes, bones…look!” I said, holding the chicken leg up for her to see, “…this is a chicken leg, right?”
“No,” she replied, “this is not a chicken leg. It is breast.”
This went on for a few hilarious minutes while she continued to deny that what I had on my plate was a chicken’s thigh and leg. I told her I didn’t care about the chicken (I had only wanted some mashed potatoes instead of rice) but what I did care about was her lying to my face that the chicken leg was breast meat.
She simply didn’t care, and walked away. The waiter also just walked away.
I sighed and ate my meal. Then, without being told anything, 20 minutes later a fresh plate of food arrives – and it is the dish I had ordered and the one I’d eaten the night before. Of course, now, I wasn’t hungry – just exasperated. I thanked the waiter and told him that next time, it might be a good idea to TELL the customer that you are planning to replace a dish.
Traditional Ethiopian coffee being served street-side
This is an extreme example, but Mike and I experience hassle and trouble here with logistics and site-seeing on a daily basis. Vendors pester us with a persistence that is mind-numbing – you can say “no” 15 times and they still come after you to buy whatever it is that they’re selling – even super strange things like, in Axum, a round rock split in two filled with purple-looking gemstones. Or wooden flutes. Or strange-looking hats with a giant pointy bobble on top that we are told are “traditional Ethiopian hats” – yet we haven’t seen a single person wearing them other than the vendor pressuring us to buy them.
Even with the kids. We have come across kids selling items and/or begging all across West Africa. Here, they follow you, not taking no for an answer. It goes like this: “Sir, you buy? I give you good price? Please. Sir, you buy? You want this? Sir? Madam? Where you from? You have pen? Give me pen. Pen. Pen. I want pen. Money. Give me money. Hey, money! You. You. You give me pen? Money. Pen. Pen. Pen. Sweets? You have sweets? Madam, Madam, Madam….” This entire time, you’ve been walking away, fast, and they keep up with you, not tiring out. I have had to take to stopping, looking them in the eye, and yelling “NO!!!!!” to get them to stop. The other day, while visiting the Blue Nile Falls, a young girl no older than six, actually hit me in the legs with her bag of wooden flutes when I told her “sorry” but that I didn’t want to buy one. Mike had rocks thrown at him. Today, a school boy hit me in the small of my back as I rode past him on a bicycle. It is really, really sad situation – that I’m actually afraid of groups of children here.
Thank God for Mike – he saved me from most of the hassle and dangers I would have faced if traveling here solo
As for issues with money and pricing for all things needed to see this country – I don’t even know where to begin. As a foreigner, we are called “Faranji” (or even more hilariously, “China”) and everywhere you go, service providers will name a sky-high price that is sometimes 3 or 4 times what the standard price for a service should be, just on the off-chance that you don’t know this and you’re a stupid tourist who will fall for the quote. In Lalibela, I was quoted 100 Birr for a tuk-tuk ride that I knew to be 30. In Gonder, we wanted to buy a beanie hat for the mountains, and they asked us for 700 Birr. That’s over $25! We laughed and walked away.
While visiting the Rock-Hewn churches of Tigray, we negotiated with a scout who told us we needed his services to get up the steep trail to the church Abuna Yemal. Our driver had told us we should pay no more than 100-150 birr in total. This scout tried to charge us 300, but we managed to negotiate him down to 200 birr, with him explaining that entrance to the church was separate at 150 Birr each. After carefully repeating this back and confirming that there would be no additional fees or costs, we agreed to head on up the trail. At which point he asked us if we wanted him to bring a rope?
“A rope? What for? Do we need it?” we asked.
“If you want, I can bring” his response.
“But will we need it?”
“It’s up to you.”
“But we haven’t seen the trail – do most tourists use the rope?”
“Some do, some do not.”
“Ok, well, then, let’s bring it and then we will have it if we need it.”
“Then that is extra 100 Birr.”
“Oh. Isn’t it your rope?”
“No, you have to rent the rope. It’s 100 Birr.”
Mike and I look at each other, exasperated.
“Ok, but if we pay you another 100 Birr, that is EVERYTHING, right?”
So. We pay him the 100 Birr for the rope and move to get going. He then stops and says:
“No, it’s 100 Birr EACH to use the rope.”
“What on earth? Why would it be 100 each? It’s one rope! You said we have to rent a rope. You can’t charge per person for a rented rope! That’s just ridiculous.”
“You pay each…”
Me, ascending sans rope to the Rock Hewn church of Abuna Yemal
And so it went on. Mike walked away, his energy for talking to this guy having evaporated. I told the guy, we’d pay for the rope, and I would see if I needed to use it. In the end, I climbed without the rope and Mike used it, however, the whole “rope rental” cost was a total fabrication because our scout LEFT the rope up there for other tourists to use who came by. Other clients who shared our car in the Danakil told us they were charged 150 birr each for the rope going to this church. It feels like those who work with tourists simply pull prices out of the sky whenever it suits them – depending on just how much they think they might get away with charging.
So, you can see, it is quite tiring having to negotiate for each and every little thing. Everything is a discussion. Everything. Nothing is simple. Nobody ever apologizes. Ever.
We have had some very shady/incompetent/mendacious tour guides during our time here. The owner of the tour operator we booked with to go to the Simiens got into an argument with me when he claimed that almost no-one ever suffered symptoms of altitude sickness while hiking to 4500 meters – I told him that not only was he wrong, but that saying that to less experienced hikers could actually be dangerous. On our first night – over half of our camp had symptoms of AMS. The same guy who promised our main luggage would be stored safely for us and returned to us, at no additional cost per his website (our trip cost us $300 each) – had the audacity to yell at me on the phone and tell me that he had never claimed our bag storage would be free and that we would have to pay 120 birr to the hotel manager to get them back. He had never mentioned this additional cost and we were lucky that we had spare cash on hand at the end of our 4 day trek – but seriously? Why would you argue with a client who’s just paid you $600 for a four-day tour over $4? On the last day when we were scorched, dirty and exhausted?
On our boat trip to the Zege Peninsula in Bahir Dar – we negotiated to pay 1500 birr to visit two monasteries on the peninsula, then visit one of the islands, and the outlet to the Blue Nile on the way back. After we’d finished the second monastery- our boat captain informed us we were “going back to hotel now” – and when we pointed out that we’d only covered ½ of our promised itinerary, he rolled his eyes and started getting pissy. We called our hotel, who had arranged the trip, and explained that if we were going to be taken directly back, we wanted a discount (thank goodness I had refused to pay the full 1500 Birr before the trip, stating that a tourist typically pays for a day trip at the end. They finally agreed to letting me pay 1000 up front and I would owe 500 at the end.)
Me and our lovely driver, Sissay, in the Danakil Depression
At this point, the trip was ruined anyways and we didn’t want to visit any more places with a boat captain in a foul mood. The guy from our hotel asked to speak to the boat captain who proceeded to start yelling into the phone for a good five minutes while we tried to calmly enjoy a coffee at a tranquil lakeside location. After giving us the phone back, our hotel person said that there was “no problem, and he would take us to all the promised places now, no problem” to which we explained that “yes, there was a problem in that we didn’t sign up to have to listen to him arguing about giving us the service we’d agreed upon.” There was more yelling and calls back and forth, and we had to insist he just take the boat directly back to the hotel, whereupon we got out giving him 300 Birr less for the hassle we’d suffered.
In the Danakil, we stayed for one night in a hotel, and after several days in the hot dusty desert, I was eager to take a shower. I didn’t have a towel with me as we’d been told we’d be camping for each of the 3 nights. But the hotel gave us a double room, which, unfortunately, only had one towel on the bed. I took the towel to the manager, and asked if I could possibly get another towel? He said he would go get one for me.
Half hour later, I still didn’t have a towel. I went out of the room looking for the manager. I spoke to five housekeepers, showed them the towel, and asked for another towel. “You want water?” “No, just a towel. A TOWEL.”
Five women commence a long and loud conversation in Amharic. It goes on and on and on and on. Eventually, they point me to the restaurant where I see the manager sitting and eating a meal and having a beer. All five women follow me into the restaurant. I ask the manager for a towel, again. He just stares at me.
Then, his phone rings. He leans back in his chair and takes the call, completely ignoring me. I look at the women, who start to laugh. I ask them again, pleading, “Please? May I have a towel?” One of them says “Office is closed.”
I’m about to lose it, when a GUEST of the hotel who has observed this whole fiasco, gets up from his meal, apologizes to me, says something to the douchebag still on his phone, then something to the five housekeepers still standing there gawking at me and laughing, and proceeds to go behind the counter of the reception, grabs a key hanging from a hook, saying “Come with me.”
We walk down the hall to another hotel room, he unlocks the door, grabs the towel from the bed and hands it to me. I thank him profusely.
Guys being guys in Ethiopia – Friday night cuddles in the bar
These situations – unfortunately, have become very common interactions for us as independent travelers. The bigger downside, is, however, that I feel I have my back up, and I’m already on the defensive whenever someone approaches us, or offers us a good price for something we are actually interested in doing. When most of your experiences with vendors is bad, one can’t help tensing up, anticipating getting lied to or ripped off. The problem then becomes that I can inadvertently come across as hostile or nasty to someone who genuinely wants to help. I admit that – the effect of this daily hassle has been cumulative and I’ve almost reached my breaking point.
It is a real shame, because as I said earlier, this is a stunning country with so much that is worthwhile to see and visit.
That covers what it feels like to be here in Ethiopia as a tourist. Let me tell you a little bit about how it feels to be here as a woman. First, I have been hassled, ogled, stared at, whistled at, called after, yelled at, and grabbed (once) during my three weeks here. It has been the worst in terms of unwanted male attention compared with anywhere else in Africa. I get this attention even when I am out with Mike walking along the street together. If I am separated from him, it gets much worse – to the point that I would probably advise any white woman thinking of traveling to Ethiopia alone – to not. I even got hassled when riding a bike today. Almost every 20 meters, a guy or group of guys would call out, ask me where I was from, tell me I was beautiful, stare and say “hey, Baby!”, and the funniest of all…every tuk tuk would pull over next to my bike, even on a crowded bridge where driving close to a bike could be dangerous, and the driver would try and get my attention in any way possible.
It is exhausting and a little unnerving, even if it is flattering – which I’m not even sure about.
The shirt I should have worn every day in Ethiopia to ward off unwanted male attention
I was grabbed in a park a few nights ago in Bahir Dar and the guy said he wanted to spend the night with me and would I let him bite my butt? I mean, what the hell? Luckily, I swiveled around kicking him and told him to “fuck off” sharply and loudly enough that he let go – but it was in a crowded place and no one even noticed.
From Gonder to Debark, from Axum to the Danakil – everywhere we went – whether in the cities or in rural areas (though it is worse in rural areas) – men are abundant in number, be it on the street, in restaurants, bars or cafes. Men are everywhere. Women ? – not so much. Yes, there are a few, and definitely more in the markets selling goods. But for the most part there are at least 10-15 men out to every 1 woman. In Debark, we went out to the bars after our hike through the Simiens and got to witness the famous “shoulder dancing” of the north – but it felt super strange to me because all the men were only dancing with other men. Some even “coupled up” and never once broke eye contact as they gyrated their shoulders and bodies in time with one another. I asked our guide where all the women were – he remarked that since the next day marked the first day of their 55-day fasting schedule – the women were probably at home preparing food for the family and caring for the kids. Whatever the reason, women simply are not out in public as much.
Men getting it on, I mean “dancing”, on the dancefloor in Debark
Incidentally, the shoulder dancing is really something to see. It reminds me of “pop and lock” dance – which I’m sure was influenced by this very traditional form of dancing. When it is just guys – like it was that night in Debark – I find it altogether very strange. And, of course, it just looks so different to me as dancing is such a culturally below-the-waist activity (for me) – and in Northern Ethiopia, the movement is concentrated above the waist. We did go see some traditional dancing in Bahir Dar and this was far more enjoyable to watch – the movements are so intricate and fast it almost defies belief. I will try to upload some video to YouTube! so you can see what I’m talking about.
The country as a whole is predominantly Christian and very very religious at that. Women, however, are even kept seated in a whole other section of the church during mass, many churches don’t allow women inside (because they might be menstruating – oh the horror!!!) and choirs that sing during mass are all made up of men only. So, there’s discrimination even in the practicing of their faith.
In Mekele, after our trip to the Danakil, I went to get a haircut and met a group of six female students from the university there. One of them spoke very good English and asked me what my general impression of Ethiopia had been. When I mentioned this lack of women, and also how men had treated me here – she immediately sympathized and nodded with understanding. She agreed that a female is still treated as a second class citizen in much of the country – but she was positive that change was coming. She explained that a large portion of girls, especially those in the countryside, don’t get educated much past the age of 12 and often are married and starting a family by the time they are 14 or 15 years old. She said that many women just accept what men expect of them – that they belong inside the house and nowhere else. Again, she said she was happy to be getting her masters’ degree because it meant she at least had the chance of getting her own job so that she wouldn’t have to get married just to be supported. We talked about how educating girls was the key to progress – and she assured me that even though it was difficult, women were starting to be able to compete for jobs. Twenty years ago, she said there were almost no jobs available to women.
I hope she was right and that things are improving for women here.
Yummy traditional food
On a final note – I’d like to tell you about the food here. For the most part, it has been quite delicious, though typically very hot & spicy – notably our first meal in Gonder at a restaurant called the Four Sisters – it was a vast array of traditional foods like Ndjera that was served with Lamb Tibs, lots of different sautéed vegetables and a variety of side dishes. However, on the day after we completed our trek through the Simiens – Ethiopian Christians began their 55-day Fast for Easter/Lent – and this meant that many restaurants now would only serve “fasting food” – which is a paradise for vegans or vegetarians because all the dishes did not contain any animal products whatsoever. So, no meat, no eggs, no dairy, no butter. Meaning, rather bland vegetable based dishes only. As a consequence, we have had to seek out non-fasting restaurants or stick to more touristy places where we can satisfy the unavoidable cravings for food from home, such as pizza or a burger.
Oh! You can buy delicious juices everywhere here too – that has been a huge hit with Mike and I. We love the avocado, guava, mango and banana combinations!
Coffee has a very long history here, and it is served everywhere on the street and at makeshift huts lined with grass on the floor and always a little stool where a woman boils the coffee in a traditional pot over hot charcoal before pouring out an espresso sized blackest of black liquids into a tray of waiting cups. I’ve grown more accustomed to taking one of these strong black coffees in the afternoon, but in the morning, I still crave my coffee a little less strong (I just add hot water) and with some milk.
It has been quite a feat trying to get all 3 items in the morning when we aren’t at a hotel serving a breakfast buffet. I bought packets of powdered milk which I use sometimes, but even in a 4-star international hotel, when I ask for one coffee, and some hot water on the side – the servers just stare at me and begin a debate with all of their co-workers that lasts at least 15 minutes. Eventually someone brings me a coffee and then I pour it into my to-go bottle and ask again, with different hand gestures for more water? They just stare at me and laugh. What is this woman doing with her coffee? – they must be thinking. Hahahaha…I guess it would be easier for me just to learn to take my coffee strong and espresso sized.
My remedy at the end of a day being a woman and a tourist in Northern Ethiopia
The language barrier has also been difficult – moreso with guides who claim they can speak “very good English” but, as it turns out, they can speak English but they cannot understand it spoken to them, and cannot answer the simplest of questions. So, communication has been a little bit of a struggle. My favorite exchange was in Bahir Dar with the aforementioned mean boat driver (before he got mean). I asked him where he lived, and his response was simply:
The bus journey was actually quite comfortable. If you can stand the fact that they insisted on blaring loud gospel music for hours starting at 6am, followed by God-awful Benin-ois soap operas played back to back for hours on end, all of which had essentially the exact same plot. There would be a room of men shouting at one guy, the victim. He would eventually get beaten with a stick and have his shirt taken from him while all the men continued yelling. Then there would be a “romance” scene with a man and a woman in some passionate embrace, followed by them having a falling out. The woman would then grasp her face in both hands, crying, and begging the man to not leave her (am guessing here) while he loudly berates her before storming out. Then the final scene would be the crying woman seeking comfort from her father/friend about the awful man who’d yelled at her.
I swear it was the same plot every episode – and the people on the bus were absolutely mad for it and laughed up a storm.
The good thing about this very long journey was the fact that we had air conditioning. The bus also actually stopped a number of times for bush pees – and I learned a fascinating thing. The women in Benin use large rectangles of fabric, much like the material they use to tie a baby to their backs, to cover themselves while they squat and pee out in the open alongside the men! It’s ingenious! The only trick is to skip wearing panties, and presto – the woman’s nightmare of peeing in the bush in Africa in private is partially solved.
Our lovely air-conditioned bus from Tanguieta to Cotonou
Sure beats holding it in for hours, I can tell you. I made a mental note to make better use of my sarong for next time.
After weeks and weeks of public transport and bus stations – I can tell you that what Africa needs above all else – is an abundance of clean, available, usable, public toilets. We take toilets for granted. Toilets are a luxury item. And peeing isn’t a big deal for guys – though some very funny signs in Togo and Ghana warned that urination against a particular wall carried with it the penalty of death!
We got off the bus in Abomey-Cavalie, the town where there was a port where one could catch motorized pirogues (long wooden fishing boats) to the stilt villages of Ganvie. Hundreds of years ago, the local people started building homes on the lake to try and escape being captured in the slave trade. Since then, over 130,000 people now call these settlements in the middle of the lake home (and, presumably so does the raw sewage they must pump out into it on a daily basis…)
Men and women sporting matching outfits in pirogues in Ganvie
We were met with the normal swarm of moto-taxis vying for our business. Two guys who were particularly aggressive told us they knew where our hotel was and started grabbing our bags before we had negotiated a price. They asked for 1500 and I stated I wanted to pay 1200 and they started arguing violently talking about the price of gas, blah and blah as per normal. However, they were also super pushy, so I decided against going with them and walked a little further down to a nice quiet rider who immediately agreed to my stated fare. At that moment, the two guys who’d lost my business come over and start screaming at this man saying he doesn’t get to give me and Mike a ride. This escalates and Mike and I take a step back as now a larger group of men are screaming at each other and starting to fight. The whole thing is ridiculous.
A “supervisor” of sorts comes over and asks me what is going on. I state that I want to ride with my chosen moto-taxi. He takes our luggage and starts walking away and gives it to two totally new moto drivers and we are forced to leave this melee that is quickly worsening. I turn around and try to tell the poor man who is being attacked that I’m sorry – and off we go.
Not exactly what we wanted for our first 10 minutes off an 11-hour bus ride.
We arrive at our accommodation for the night and immediately order some dinner and beer. After half an hour, the driver who was attacked shows up to apologize. He told us that the two guys who first tried to take us to our hotel were drunk and it was good that I had avoided them. At first I am taken aback by his kindness, but then came the predictable “sob story/ask for help/please can I call you in the US and you can get me a visa?” part of the conversation. By this point, I was hoarse with my standard sore throat/cough and could barely speak English, let alone French. I was exhausted, but I didn’t want to send this poor guy away empty-handed.
I told him, in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t help him come to America. That it wasn’t the prized solution he thought it was – it was a tough and unforgiving place where you need to speak English, not French, to get by. I told him if he was determined to leave Benin, he should consider France first – but also to consider that perhaps life in the West was not as glorified as he imagined. I asked if he wanted the opportunity to make some money and make up for the business he had lost that evening. He said yes. So – I asked him what he would charge us to go buy phone credit for Mike and some cough/cold medicine for me. After another short lecture on how important it is for him to decide what the value is for his time (since so many Africans rely on the “pay me whatever you think my services are worth to you” mentality) we came to an agreed amount. He happily went and ran our errands for us, and we were able to pay him for his time.
It felt like a positive outcome from a negative event.
The following morning, we moto’ed again over to the port to await the arrival of our orange truck. It felt a little weird and good at the same time to be seeing our friends again, and we soon got a message from Sinead that they were running a little behind schedule. A commotion on the dock drew our attention and we wandered over, only to find ourselves in the midst of an annual Voodoo ceremony commemorating the start of the Voodoo calendar in Benin! It was quite a spectacle.
Priest officiating the Voodoo Ceremony
Woman, feeling the “spirit” move her
There was a couple hundred people all dressed ornately in white, some with face tattoos/painting. A priest, I’m assuming, was chanting over some lit candles which were, in fact, not candles at all but lit cigarettes mounted in a tall candle-holder. He was holding a pigeon that was presumably going to get sacrificed. All the while, musicians played rhythmically on drums, drawing shouts and dancing from the crowd.
After a few minutes, several women starting showing signs of contortion and flailing about, as if possessed. They pawed at their own faces and started screaming in gibberish (though, of course, we couldn’t quite tell the local dialect from gibberish, so whether or not they were speaking in tongues or not remains a mystery.) It was quite a spectacle and Mike and I were proud that we had taken the initiative of walking over and getting involved with this local ceremony – we were travelers, unlike the other white “tourists” who stood waiting for their own pirogues to show up on the docks – completely ignoring this authentic display of culture because it wasn’t a part of their organized itinerary.
Soon enough, the Dragoman truck showed up and we were greeted heartily by our friends old and new before piling into two boats that headed out into the lake.
The stilt village of Ganvie was a photographer’s dream because it was full of people going about their daily lives, so very different to any other we’d seen, because their life was on the water. It was a Benin version of Venice. In addition, since it was a Sunday, and the start of their New Year, many locals were dressed in their very best – and even better, entire boatloads of men and women passed by our chosen hotel for the night dressed in identical vibrantly colored and highly-patterned costumes.
One of our pirogues used to get to the island
Our hotel was very basic and unfortunately, not all rooms had fans in them and we were facing a very sleepless night in the bug-infested, hot and humid night air. In addition, the hotel was built out of wood with very rickety floorboards that had massive gaps/holes in them – our room being situated above the kitchen such that we also got the conversations and the plethora of aromas rising up from below. Add to that the fact that the bed was on a sloping floor, we both committed to sleeping somewhere out in the open that night – especially after deciding to move the bed clockwise so that the slope was from head to feet rather than lateral, and realizing too late that this meant our mosquito net would no longer fit the bed.
Some of the oldest structures on the lake – over 120 years old.
We passed lunch with beer catching up with friends and watching life boat by us on the water from the convenient balcony above the restaurant which afforded a great viewing platform. In the afternoon, we ventured out onto the water once more, visiting more settlements, some of the oldest stilt homes in the lake, and a few mosques/churches built on the few land masses/islands that existed at the center of this large body of water.
The oil needed for boats, generators and cooking in these villages came from Nigeria – and we were shown the giant jerry-can laden boats that make the hazardous journey via the lake across the border to buy illegal oil to bring back in the dead and dark of night. We were also lucky enough to spot some beautiful kingfishers diving for their own lunches in the water.
Offerings on the ground at the Voodoo Ceremony
On our return, we saw a huge line of boats with villagers all patiently waiting for fresh water that is presumably pumped from a spring hundreds of meters below the lake bed. The water was being dispensed by a giant pipe that one by one was filling the huge water containers that locals used for their freshwater needs.
It was a sight to see and the line didn’t seem to grow any shorter as the sun began to set.
My night passed quite fitfully and awkwardly – maybe one of the worst I’d had in Africa yet on this trip. Mike, I and Jodie all opted to vacate our “rooms” above the kitchen to place our mattresses on the second floor of the hotel in a wide open space at the top of the stairs. The air was still and hot, but at least it was cooler than our fanless rooms.
After about an hour, Mike fast asleep, I noticed I was getting bitten all over by mosquitoes. I decided to go back to the room, realizing though, that our bed no longer had a mattress on it! Thankfully, I had my own inflatable sleeping pad, but once I placed it on the bed – I faced two issues. One – the slats of the bedframe were too big to properly support my small pad, and Two – the mosquito netting only covered the pad partially, inviting my original problem back with a vengeance.
Realizing that Jodie had also left her room, I went next door and settled my sleeping pad on her bedframe which was made out of wire and therefore supported my pad. Unfortunately, without her mattress on the bed frame, the mosquito net also didn’t quite reach me, and some of the little buggers were able to fly up for their blood-feed through the wire frame of the bed.
It was 2am by now and I was exasperated and tired.
I decided to take my sleeping pad and try the other side of the hotel where perhaps additional breeze meant fewer mozzies. I found Ron, one of the trucks’ passengers trying to catch some Zzzz’s in a chair – telling me it was just too hot in his room to sleep. Sympathizing, I offered him my sleeping pad, and resolved to go back to where Mike was still happily asleep.
I doused myself in extra repellant, took an ambien, and hoped for the best. I finally managed to get a few hours’ sleep before having to awake for breakfast and our boat ride back to the mainland.
Grabbing our luggage from the hotel in Abomey-Cavalie, our guides from Ganvie were kind enough to drive us to a taxi rank and negotiate for us a ride to Ouidah – our next stop along the Benin coast. Turns out that the screaming/arguing we had observed a few nights’ prior amongst moto and taxi drivers alike – is standard practice. At least we weren’t involved this time as it took about 15 minutes for our guides to negotiate a fair and reasonable fair to the coast. I was so tired, I was glad to have someone else deal with this apparently unavoidable discussion/fight that ensues at almost every stage of navigating the logistics of public transport.
Super happy and chillin’ in our lovely hotel pool in Ouidah
On arrival in Ouidah, we found a lovely and well-maintained, clean, rather upscale hotel with a beautiful pool only ten minutes’ walk from the beach. I was thrilled, and after some lunch and a swim, enjoyed a glorious nap to make up for my prior mostly sleepless night.
We ordered a private taxi to take us back to Domango where we would pick up a minibus heading back to Tamale and then north from there to the Burkina Fasso border. We asked that he make a stop along the way to a famed mud and stick mosque that’s over 700 years old in Larabanga – and it’s still in use today!
Here are the photos. These types of structures are most famous for being located in Mali, but they do occur in other places across this latitude.
At the Mud and Stick Mosque
Once we arrived in Domango we found a minibus that was slowly filling up to take people to Tamale, but it was progressing rather slowly and something just didn’t feel right to me when I was told that this was the “only” form of public transport going to Tamale. In looking for a bathroom, I stumbled across the public bus station and lo and behold but a large bus was about to leave for Tamale for the same price!! I was so mad and told them to wait before having to run back down the road, scream at Mike to come and demand our money back from the lying minibus driver before just making it and finding seats.
Though the bus was slow going and rough going over those famous Ghanaian speed bumps, we were glad to at least be moving, and we might have been waiting over two hours for the first form of transport to depart.
Once arriving in Tamale, rather strangely in the middle of a food market (what the actual fuck) we took a cab to the Tro Tro station that served northern routes to Bolgatanga. Since the Tro Tro was full, we were offered a private car for 25 cd’s each, but we had to wait for it to fill. So, we decided to pay for 3 seats so we wouldn’t be squashed in the back and we could leave sooner.
The driver of this taxi turned out to be a total douchebag and tried to charge us mid-journey another 5 cd’s each for our luggage in the trunk. We argued that since we’d bought the middle seat in the back, we would happily move our luggage to occupy the empty space between us – and he started arguing “what IF a third person was sitting back there – THEN where would you put your luggage?” I really lost my temper at that point and told him that the time to inform a passenger of ALL applicable costs was BEFORE the journey commenced and that he could take his illogical hypothetical nonsense and shove it because he was being an idiot. If he didn’t like it – we would get out of the car there and then.
I could feel Mike cringing next to me, but I’d had enough and was unwilling to let patience and politeness rule the day with this man. Fortunately, my abrasiveness paid off – he didn’t know what to do or say to me and kept quiet the rest of the way, even showing a willingness to take us further on to the Burkina border for a reasonable fare.
I guess he wasn’t used to having a woman stand up to him.
I was initially nervous about the border crossing and traveling there as Burkina Fasso had recently experienced an enormous drop in tourism since the two terrorist attacks by the Northern African branch of ISIS in 2016 and 2017. Over 30 people had been shot at the popular coffee spot “Cappuccino” on Kwame Nkrumah avenue and the Splendid hotel across the street in Ougadougou in January of 2016, then in August of 2017, 18 people were killed just down the street at Aziz Istanbul restaurant. Both attacks had targeted westerners/ex-pats and Burkina has seen a sharp drop in tourism since then.
At the Burkina Fasso Border Crossing
As it turned out, the border crossing was simple, and the customs guy on the Burkina side was overjoyed that two Americans were coming to his country. Plus, it was nice to speak some French again.
We had arranged to visit a unique set of villages in a place called Tiabele, which was only about 60kms or so from the border. A guide named Arnaud had been recommended to us to arrange accommodation and a tour of his home, made famous for both its culture and for how they are made out of mud clay and then painted in a variety of symbolic artwork and color.
We took a very very old and rickety taxi to Po, where we would be meeting with Arnaud. Burkina turned out to have the oldest ramshackled vehicles on the trip thus far, with drivers using brute force to change gears, or even open a window (with a wrench kept in the glovebox for this purpose.) Since we didn’t have a sim and we were running about an hour behind schedule, I borrowed the driver’s phone to let Arnaud know that we were on our way.
I was hot, dusty, exhausted and thirsty when we arrived and the very last thing I wanted to do was have a long conversation in French. However, when Arnaud suggested we start with a cold large beer for refreshment, that certainly perked me up somewhat.
Arnaud seemed very genial – he explained that his village system had a royal court/family and that he was a prince (ooh la la) and we would be staying at an Auberge only 100m from his residence in a traditional style hut with rooftops where one could take a mattress on hot nights to sleep outside. He suggested we get showers and a good meal tonight and then tomorrow he would plan a full day’s activities for us.
Once acquainted, imbibed, and a guinea fowl purchased (alive and presumably for Arnaud’s family dinner) we hopped in his rented vehicle and drove to Tiabele, arriving as it was getting dark.
Arnaud driving with the shortly doomed Guinea Fowl
We showered and walked over to the restaurant that Arnaud had arranged for us. It was a couple’s home, with a few tables and chairs laid out in their garden. The host was super gracious and friendly, and fixed a candle to the table itself by pouring hot wax first to hold the candle firmly in place.
Our bed for the night was a mattress on the roof of the traditional style home. In the morning, goats were frolicking about.
Our meal could only be described as maize based white sticky paste and a side dish of brown mush that may have contained some nuts and meat. It was edible and another beer helped wash it down. It was the ambiance that was so indelible, and I joked with Mike (who is like a brother to me) that we were really missing out on this opportunity to gaze at each other, and drink some wine by candlelight in this romantic spot.
He laughed and looking around and seeing the family’s chickens, goats, cats and pigs all meandering around us, he replied, “Well, we do have SWINE by candlelight, for sure!”
On Boxing Day we were scheduled to drive west back to the main road between Freetown and Makeni and then head north-east toward Kabala, staying in a local guesthouse there. Unfortunately, the truck started making some very strange noises on the road and we pulled over several times for Sinead and Mike to get under it and assess what was going on. It seemed that it had to do with the drive shaft and some loose ball bearings (I know nothing of truck mechanics, so I apologize if this makes little sense!)
We got to Makeni and were told to take a really long lunch while they found a garage to determine what repairs, if any, were necessary. A few of us went to the Club restaurant where proceeds for our meal went to benefit the street children of Sierra Leone project. As typical, the meal took two hours to arrive at which point we had to down it in 15 minutes flat and then bee-line it back to the truck. As it turned out, the truck needed to stay to be worked on and so Sinead was going to try and arrange accommodation for the 22 of us in Makeni for the night. This turned into a rather logistical nightmare with taxis back to the truck then taxis to a hotel where she’d been told there were double beds but they were only single. Then she had to go in another taxi by herself and find another suitable hotel and then bundle us all over there. By the time we arrived, we were hot, dusty, tired and ready for a shower.
The hotel was quite nice and afforded good views over the city of Makeni. This region of West Africa suffers from what is known as the Hamattan winds in the dry season which brings dust and sand from the Sahara and sweeps it all across this region. As such, it is quite hard on the respiratory and immune systems, not to mention it mixes not so well with cities already congested with carbon smog to create the most toxic combination of air.
After a refreshing shower, we took a meal in the hotel restaurant and had a great belly laugh listening to Kelly improvising spoken subtitles for a hilarious Nigerian soap opera that was on TV. I laughed till I cried.
The following morning we were told that the issue with the truck was not so serious that we couldn’t continue onward with our journey, but we wouldn’t be able to use four-wheel drive, and the truck would need to undergo extensive repairs, probably once we got to Accra. So, for now, it was “on the road again”!
Many of the days in the early part of this overland itinerary are spent on the truck for long distances, and this was no exception. We passed the time creating nerdy travel quizzes with each other (which is way fun when you have this many well-traveled/seasoned overlanders in one truck) such as “Name the 9 countries in the world that only contain 4 letters in the name, and “Name all the countries that don’t have enclosed letters of A, B, D, O, P, Q, R, in their name.” I think we pissed off some of the other passengers when the 3 Americans started quizzing each other on the states and their capitols. And so we went back to being quiet again and trying to stay in our seats as the truck bumped along across the rough roads.
This evening was another bush camp, and again, we managed to attract some local observers who wanted to watch us cooking our dinner and setting up our campsite with western efficiency. After dinner and whisky around the fire, I made my way back to my tent and ended up shivering all night as the temperature fell way below what I was expecting/what I was told was normal for this region and time of year. I had bought a special light sleeping bag that’s only rated to 55f and by 4am I had put on four more layers of clothing including putting my feet/legs into my light down jacket and zipping my hood up over my head. Even then it was brisk. To add to the weather – we were all awoken around 1am by what sounded like the Islamic Call to Prayer – but turned out to be a funeral for the village chief nearby. It was so loud, was broadcast from some very hefty speaker and went on for at least two hours. Very bizarre to hear this in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.
The next morning, still wearing my long sleeved shirt, fleece and long pants, we boarded the truck and drove on to our first border crossing into Guinea. Guinea has to be one of the poorest countries I’ve ever visited. We drove past village after village where several hundred families live in small communal roundhouses with one well or water pump providing fresh drinking water for the community. By nightfall, you see the smoke coming from wood burning/charcoal fires as families prepare their evening meals and people walk around in the dark or carrying battery operated torches. No streetlights, no power outlets, no running water, no tv – none of the day to day things we take for granted having within arms’ reach in our lives. It really boggles the mind how so many of the world’s people live like this and seem so happy. Having said that, if one is born into a community like this, then this would be the only reality you would ever know and it would therefore be much easier to accept and assimilate.
The border crossing was in an extremely remote section of the country and the border was literally a single rope strung across the ground between two flagpoles – there was even someone’s washing hanging out to dry on one side of the “barrier”. Though we were able to check out of Sierra Leone, our leader had to check-in at a police station on the other side and took one passenger with her since he’d had issues obtaining his visa in advance and was going to try to gain entry via a transit visa. Luckily, he was successful, but in Sinead’s words “there was no other option. It had to work and that’s all there was to it”. She really is a super smart and competent young woman and I greatly admire her capabilities and her can-do no-nonsense attitude.
Once into Guinea, the roads were so bad it was impossible to read or nap or do anything besides hang on for dear life as our bodies were jolted from side to side and up and down. The further back in the truck one sits, the worse the being thrown around action is. It can be quite funny, especially when an unexpected pothole is struck suddenly and you go flying.
Soon enough we arrived in Faranah – not exactly a tourist hub of a town, many residents had never seen tourists before and once again we enjoyed a continuing celebrity status as we drove in. Our guide warned us about the hotel and told us to keep our expectations very low as it was of not a high standard. Not a high standard? This hotel has got to be one of the worst I’ve ever stayed in – it more closely resembled a years-long ago abandoned crack den. Our room was filthy, had no running water, not even a bucket of water to wash in, no mosquito netting or screens on the windows, no fan, no electricity before 7pm (though this was pretty standard in Guinea and Sierra Leone) and the mattress was a thin layer of foam across old wooden planks. One of the guests also found a hand sized spider in her room. The staff tried to assist as best they could to the grunts and complaints from our group as everyone tried to wrap their heads around the conditions – fetching us buckets of water and answering our questions about power/fans/netting etc…most of which were answered in the extreme negative.
After doing some much needed handwashing, and a cold bucket shower, some of us walked the dusty road into town, passing by a strangely papered statue of an life sized elephant along the way. Getting to the market, we watched and observed the frenetic selling over pots of boiling vegetables, zooming motorcycles, trash and the sounds of hundreds of people bartering and going about their evening. I asked a local (in French, as Guinea was a former French colony) if she could recommend a good restaurant and she informed me that I would need to go to Konakry for that. Konakry is the capital of Guinea and was about a five hour drive from Faranah. Luckily, we found a nice street stall where a young mother, with a small baby strapped to her back, served us a very tasty and fresh meal of boiled potatoes, onions, tomatoes, eggs and mayonnaise. It was surprisingly good. While the others headed back to our drug den of a motel, Mike – the other American on the trip who happens to also be only a month younger than me – and I decided to walk a little more around town and make our way back a little more slowly. It was a hot sticky night when everything clinged to your body and just dodging traffic and people gets to be quite tiring. On our way home we were stopped, not once, not twice, but three times for photos with locals who wanted to pose with us. It is so funny having people come running up to you and asking if they can take their picture with you just because you’re white and/or foreign. One guy also insisted on planning a kiss on my cheek for his selfie.
Me and the mob of kids in Faranah
Just when we were getting close to our Ritz-Carlton accommodation, an entire soccer team of kids came screaming and running up to us to have their photos taken. Here are the results of that “mob” encounter!
That night we all sat under the outdoor rotunda drinking beers and telling stories until quite late because no one wanted to go to their room. A few people decided to stake their tents there rather than risk the unhygienic conditions of the beds. I thought It was all quite funny and decided to embrace the experience, taking a valium before crawling into my self-contained sleeping sheet and trying desperately to fall asleep despite the hot, still night air.
Our tour only included two and a half days in Rwanda, but it was enough time to convince me that it is my favorite country that I’ve visited in this continent. Rwanda was surprising and refreshing in many different ways. From how it’s people have miraculously healed from the horrific genocide they experienced in 1994 to become the happiest and friendliest of people I’d encountered on the trip, to the stunning mountainous scenery, to the biodiversity, to the top-notch, impressive infrastructure that the government has substantially invested in – all this created my impression of Rwanda as the jewel of Africa.
Of course, most tourists’ impressions of the country when they arrive are the same as mine were. I feared what had happened here only 21 short years ago. I had seen “Hotel Rwanda” and remembered hearing about the atrocities committed here on the news when I was 18 years old living in England. That type of ethnic hatred couldn’t possibly have been removed from the national psyche to any measurable extent in such a short period of time? Surely there would still be palpable tension between people? Surely people wouldn’t be that friendly?
Well, the people I met were incredibly genuine, kind, smiling and caring. I felt nothing but love, hospitality and a warm welcome.
The capital, Kigali
On arrival at the border, I will never forget seeing signs offering $5,000,000 for information that would lead to the capture and arrest of certain Rwandan citizens who are being sought for inciting the genocide and who have since fled the country and are believed to be residing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Our first stop on our entering the capital, Kigali, was the Genocide Memorial Museum. It was a sobering three hour visit – but I have to say that overall, it is one of the best museums I have ever visited. The displays were vivid, clear, and easy to follow. The most impressive detail, however, was the second floor of the memorial where they had dedicated “rooms” to each of the mass genocides of human history – and compared each to what happened in Rwanda. I found this to be one of the more fascinating and educational components to the museum.
Partial list of those laid to rest here in the mass graves
I won’t go into the entire history of the genocide, nor will I recite too much of what I learned. I will, however, tell you that I discovered I was sorely misinformed prior to my visit, and I had a lot of false assumptions about why the genocide happened in the first place.
What I didn’t realize, for example, was that the ethnic and physical distinctions between the Tutsi, Hutu and Twa people of Rwanda were largely created and propagandized by the Belgian Colonial powers. They introduced an ID card in 1933 that differentiated people based on these “classifications” but in reality, a Tutsi simply meant a person who herded cattle, and a Hutu was a farmer. These groups lived in harmony for hundreds of years before the Europeans arrived.
This quote is from Wikipedia and you can read more here:
“Belgian social scientists declared that the Tutsis, who wielded political control in Rwanda, must be descendants of the Hamites, who shared a purported closer blood line to Europeans. The Belgians concluded that the Tutsis and Hutus composed two fundamentally different ethno-racial groups. Thus, the Belgians viewed the Tutsis as more civilized, superior, but most importantly, more European than the Hutus. This perspective justified placing societal control in the hands of the Tutsis at the expense of the Hutus. Moreover, this Belgian affirmation of the Hamitic theory provided a conceptual foundation for Tutsis and Hutus to start identifying themselves as different ethnic groups. The Belgians established a comprehensive race theory that was to dictate Rwandan society until independence: Tutsi racial superiority and Hutu oppression. The institutionalization of Tutsi and Hutu ethnic divergence was accomplished through administrative, political economic, and educational means.”
Many years later, after colonial powers had left, a Hutu majority took control of the government in the country. This division that was created by the Belgians became a systematic belief system that was propagandized through radio and print – all Hutu people were systematically encouraged to oust, bully, ignore, not employ and generally terrorize Tutsi citizens until they felt compelled to leave the country.
Of course, this culminated in an all-out mass genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus on April 6 of 1994. An estimated 2 million Rwandans were slaughtered.
Incidentally, I remember walking through the museum and kept wondering why 1994 seemed so significant to me. And then it hit me. I had just spent a month in South Africa and I realized that Nelson Mandela became the first freely elected president of South Africa on the 27th of April that same year. It was difficult for me to wrap my head around something so positive occurring simultaneously as something so heinous on the same continent.
The reality of what happened here was extremely disturbing. I have included a few photos here of some of the more alarming facts I read that truly put the international community to shame for standing by and doing nothing when they had had adequate warning this was going to happen. A few things that stand out to me:
Most killings were vicious and carried out by machetes. People were forced to rape and kill their own family members and neighbors.
The number of troops that were sent to Rwanda to remove foreign nationals to safety would have been adequate to prevent the genocide – had they been allowed to stay.
There was simply not enough capacity in the justice system for every crime committed to be prosecuted by a court system in the years following the genocide. So, a community based “Truth and reconciliation” program was created that allowed neighbors, friends, strangers to face a local sentence if they were honest enough to admit to having killed someone. Often that sentence was simply labor that would be offered to the offended party, such as a wife who’s husband was murdered by her neighbor. The neighbor, upon admitting guilt, would be “sentenced” to help support the woman and her children for a number of years in order to be “forgiven”.
Two cyclists “hitching” a ride as we drive out of Kigali into the mountains
The number of dead is purely an estimate as no accurate record of who died in the years following the genocide nor how many died in refugee camps of bordering countries has been kept
There are startling similarities between the ethnic cleansing propaganda used by Hitler and those used by the Hutu army.
After a very sobering visit, it was refreshing to leave Kigali and head up into the hills towards a mountainous region of the country close to the border with the DRC. We stayed at Fatima guest house in Ruhengeri, a small town near Lake Kivu. The following day I joined two of the other passengers on what turned out to be a delightful and quite personal tour of Lake Kivu and the town of Gisenyi.
Me and our delightful guide, Didier
Our guide’s name was Didier and he was incredibly personable, funny, and professional. His English was also outstanding and his enthusiasm for his country and all the region had to offer was infectious. We headed out of Ruhengeri early in the morning and drove to Gisenyi where our first stop was a lookout over the city that sits on the shores of Lake Kivu. We also visited the local and international border crossings with the DRC and got to observe the crazy foot traffic of local artisans trading everything from cabbages to dresses with their less-governed neighbor.
I was reminded of Lake Como in northern Italy – this place was stunning. The beach on the lake was fringed with beautiful palm-like trees, the water was clean and turquoise and there was lots of infrastructure to suggest this was the premier vacation destination for wealthy Africans. I could easily have stayed for several weeks.
Another shot of Lake Kivu
We visited “Honeymoon Island” which is self-explanatory and very romantic, a gushing hot spring where a group of village children descended upon Didier who obliged them all (and us!) with chunks of natural sugar cane to suck on. We had a delicious lunch and a locally brewed Rwandan beer and it was all so lovely that when Didier decided to tell us his experience of living through the genocide – we were all taken quite aback at his authenticity and apparent ease at relating such graphic details.
Didier told us that his father, a Tutsi, was murdered, his mother, a Hutu, and sister fled (and he presumed killed) He said his life had been very much in extreme danger because he represented one of the most hated groups of persons during the genocide – a child of a mixed marriage. Somehow, against the odds, at the age of seven, Didier lived a life on the street, scrounging for what food he could find and sleeping wherever he felt safe…for years. Eventually, a kind family took him in and he went to school and ate one meal of beans once per day for many years. He says that it was often really hard for him to concentrate on his studies because he was so hungry, but that he was determined to get a good job one day.
Eating Sugar cane
Ten years after the genocide, when he was 17, the UN performed a census of the refugee camps in the Congo and he found out that his mother and sister were alive! They had an emotional reunion in Kigali and now see each other regularly. There was not a dry eye at the table as he recited this happy conclusion to his story.
Didier assured us that the national identity, of being Rwandan, was very real now and that he was happy. He loved his work in tourism, he was close with his mom and sister, but he also asked, with a great beaming smile, how he could possibly not be happy when he knew each morning now that “I will eat breakfast, lunch, AND dinner???!!!”
On the beach of Lake Kivu
There are no words for how it felt to be in the presence of someone telling you such a vivid and personal story. This was no longer an exhibit at the museum. This was a small child, who survived against the odds through unimaginable horrors.
After lunch, we decided to visit one of the nice hotels on the lake and go for a swim. It was so beautiful and relaxing in the water, and after we all treated ourselves to a nice cocktail and shared more stories.
Man off to sell cabbages loaded onto his bike on the DRC border
Later that evening, Didier was kind enough to invite us out to hear some live local music. None of my group wanted to go, but I was game – so I hopped onto a boda boda (motorcycle transport) and met up with him to grab some beers. We had a memorable evening sharing more stories, and then ended up at a karaoke club where I ran into an American from Seattle! Small world, eh? Apparently the karaoke is what Didier had meant by “local music” – and despite having only half a voice because of my horrible cough – I roused the crowd by belting out some Bonnie Tyler and Beyonce. It was a very fun evening and put the perfect happy ending onto my memorable few days here in Rwanda.
After my emotional day in Kampala we had a long drive to the town of Kabale located near the Rwandan border and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park where we were going to trek deep into the jungle in search of the mountain gorillas.
I have been slightly obsessed with gorillas ever since childhood when I first saw “Gorillas in the Mist” with one of my hero actresses Sigourney Weaver, as the passionate conservationist Dian Fossey. She spent the majority of her life in this part of the world documenting the Gorilla’s behavior and was instrumental in creating the national parks and the facilities therein that would give them at least some chance of survival.
One of the unfortunate ramifications of the creation of these national parks was that the Batwa Pygmies, an ethnic tribe who had resided in these forests for hundreds of years, were forced to leave their homes and their lifestyles with nowhere else to go. I need to do some further reading on this topic as I’m unsure to what degree these people could be blamed for the poaching and subsequent diminishing numbers of gorillas in these mountains. Having said that, fewer than 800 are now recorded to be living in these thankfully protected areas (the gorillas that is, not the Pygmies!)
Heading into Bwindi
That isn’t to say that visiting the gorillas is absent of any ethical considerations. It’s more of a catch-22 situation. We visited the Ugandan park in May when the permits are discounted by 40%, but typically it costs about $700 USD for a day permit to visit these creatures. Without this revenue, the parks wouldn’t be able to hire the kind of manpower that it takes to protect these magnificent animals from poachers. On the other hand, selling these permits means that each of the family groups’ of gorillas gets visited by eight people + guides per day – which has lead to the gorillas being completely habituated. On top of that, I do believe that my visit to the group of gorillas we saw absolutely did cause them stress. Not that it was just our presence – but the guides were extremely aggressive in pursuing the members of the group, often hacking at vegetation with machetes to allow our group better viewing and photo opportunities.
So, as I recall this amazing experience, it is with mixed feelings of both awe at having seen them in the wild, together with regret that they can’t be kept safe from both poachers and from being hassled by daily visits.
Still coughing from my cold, I was a little worried about the arduous day of hiking in the heat and humidity that was before me. I kept my inhaler with me and managed to keep the cough under control most of the day. We were picked up around 5am from our campsite in Kabale and driven into Bwindi where we had an initial orientation and were then split up into two groups of 8 (together with some non-Oasis travelers.) We headed out up a rather steep trail and I felt myself echoing the steps of Dian Fossey as we began to penetrate the impentetrable forests of Bwindi.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
The views were extraordinary with thick blankets of fog covering the lush green slopes. The sweat was already pouring off of us by 10am and the temperature beginning to soar. It was a little over 3 hours into the trek when we were informed that a group of approximately 11 adults and a few babies had been spotted.
Me and a Gorilla in the background
Our group in the early morning mist
The next hour was filled with incredible moments. From the very first glimpse of the silverback sitting and chewing grass not more than 15 feet from where I stood, to then being charged, twice, when he sensed our group had overstepped his privacy threshold. At one point, a mother gorilla with a few months’ old baby clinging to her back rushed out of the bush and practically ran into the middle of where we were standing. I couldn’t believe how close these creatures were to us.
The highlight for me, however, was observing the group as they ascended and later descended from the high treetops. I managed to capture a lot of the action on a video sequence that I will happily share with you here.
On our return to the jeep, the heavens opened and we experienced a downpour which was accompanied by thunder and lightning. It really added to the memorable nature of the day for me, such an atmospheric element to our descent. When we got back to Kabale, the other group hadn’t returned yet, so we set about making dinner as they were obviously going to be very hungry and tired by the time they got back. A little before they arrived, however, our drive, Pete, informed us that one of our group members, Greg, had tragically died of a suspected heart attack only an hour into their trek.
That evening and the next few days were very hard for us, and there was a lot of emotion shared – the group grew closer together for support. It was such an unexpected and shocking turn of events. Later in the trip, I was very moved when we learned that his family had requested that half of Greg’s ashes be taken to Cape Town and released in the ocean so that he could “finish the journey he had started”.
I will never forget him.
The day after our emotional sojourn to see the Gorillas, we traveled as a group to Lake Bunyoni to spend a day with a Pygmy village. This village was funded and created by a group of Ugandans who wanted to help a select group of displaced individuals who’d lost their home and their land when they were ousted from the national park system in 1994.
It was a rather strange day for me. While I really enjoyed the scenery of the lake and the surrounding countryside, and watching the amazing performances put on by the people and their children, it all felt a little bit like a “Human Safari” to me. I kept asking the group leader about what the community’s long-term plans were? Were they going to be able to secure land that they could farm for their sustenance? How were they going to survive?
Well, it turns out that they were entirely dependent upon charity and the proceeds from tours such as the one we were on. That made me slightly uncomfortable. Our leader explained that the schools that they had built would serve to provide the offspring of the people an education, so that hopefully, the kids would be able to graduate and go off and get work and then help support their families in turn. I found that to be a little optimistic, but I didn’t want to judge at the same time.
Pygmy father and his baby
Th entire time I was there, I couldn’t help but think one thought – how BAD do things have to really get before people stop reproducing so much?!!! I know, I know: in Africa, one’s “success” in life is very often measured by the size of one’s family…and yet – I couldn’t help but wonder – WHY? when you have little food, and your family is hungry, and the babies you already have are malnourised, AND your women are so malnourished that they can’t produce enough milk for those babies, AND you have no means of supporting yourselves….WHY not practice birth control? At least…the withdrawal method? (if there are no condoms available) These were the reactions that I couldn’t help having.
I wanted to provide condoms for these people, not food.
Does that make me a bad, judgmental person? What do you think?
I hope you enjoy the video I took of the children dancing for us. There is one fact that cannot be denied: these people have the most incredible innate rhythm and sense of music. It warms my heart!
After a couple of long days driving on the truck, I was beginning to feel better and had purchased an inhaler to help with my hacking cough that was now a month old. We made a nice stop in Nakuru at a lovely campsite that had a nice pool to lounge next to as well as an annoying and aggressive flock of geese.
I had no plans specifically when we arrived in Kampala, but I decided to do the “Slum Tour” as I was interested in seeing how many poor Ugandans living in the capital dwell.
This day took me completely by surprise and has become the absolute highlight of the entire trip. Salim Semambo Mukasa was the director of the Slum Tour company and came to the campsite in the morning to collect myself and Emily to go visit Bwaise – the slum that he himself grew up in. I was immediately impressed by his English, his passion for creating this eye-opening experience for tourists and his selfless attitude that was demonstrated when he explained that every cent of the proceeds from the tour goes directly to the everyday needs of 25 orphans that live in an orphanage his volunteer organization established.
I was so disheartened that he’d been unable to come to the Red Chilli Hideaway backpackers the night before in order to explain this to our entire group – I’m sure more of them would have come if they’d known that $20 was going to directly feed kids and not to a “for profit” business.
In any case, we took public transport to Bwaise and the experience really began there. I asked Salim how he’d come to start giving these slum tours and how he helps tourists overcome their fear of it being a “human safari” experience. He explained that he knew all of the residents of the slum – it was the slum where he grew up – and that the people are always happy to see Mzungus coming to see where they live, experiencing it, and coming away with a fresh perspective. Salim’s father had died when he was young, and it was due to a neighbor’s generosity that Salim was able to get an education through “Primary 7” which I believe is until you’ve reached 12 years of age. The neighbor had started the volunteer organization “Volunteers for Sustainable Development” and when he died, Salim felt it was important to continue in the work that his benefactor had begun. He now runs these Slum Tours for people visiting Kampala together with several other volunteer friends he knows from living and working in Bwaise.
At the orphanage
Salim was right about our welcome, and how the residents would perceive our visit. Everywhere we walked, people smiled and waved and were extremely welcoming. The children followed us in droves as if we were celebrities, unable to wipe the wide grins from their faces.
Of course, it was difficult to see the conditions that people have all but grown accustomed to contending with. Many of the residents’ dwellings were made from temporary or poorly constructed materials, trash floated on the waterways that ran through the slum, children ran in bare feet and tattered, dirty clothes, and some people sat in doorways looking visibly sick and hungry. It was tough to see, and yet, this is the daily reality for so many people – I felt a responsibility to see it for myself. This was the real side of Africa. The one that hasn’t been artificially sterilized and designed only for tourists.
One of the highlights to the tour was learning how Salim also works with donations by providing micro loans to women in the community to start small businesses. With just $50 or $100, we met with several women who between them had started a sewing business to make school backpacks, and another who had built and was running a small food stall. It was heartening to see these women being industrious and taking pride in providing for themselves and their families. Salim explained that it is always the women who show such a spirit of enterprise as all too often, a loan given to a man will be squandered on selfish temporary pleasures such as alcohol or sex.
Salim with his friends, the orphans
Salim also took us to the sex trade area of the slum which was a real eye-opener. A customer can buy sexual favors here for as little as 50c, and of course, HIV infection is a real problem. As we were walking through, a woman started talking to Salim in an agitated voice, and I learned later that she had been complaining about how he hadn’t come around in a while with fresh condoms for them. I was amazed at the amount of impact and assistance this one very industrious young man was able to provide.
(Salim, you are amazing!)
We visited the home of a woman who was sadly dying from AIDS. I learned something which up until this point I was very ignorant of. Despite the fact that the Ugandan government does supply its’ HIV+ people with free anti-retro viral drugs, these drugs are not always readily available for a person to continue their prescribed course without interruption. The drugs themselves are very hard on the body, and having balanced and quality nutrition in one’s diet is vital to their being effective in suppressing the virus and boosting the immune system. So, what ends up happening is that these drugs are being taken by people who can barely afford to stem their own hunger with maize and beans. The consumption of fresh greens and fruits just isn’t a possibility. Therefore, when a person goes to pick up their week or month’s supply of drugs and they’re perhaps out of stock and they are told to return in a few days time, this person’s body reacts violently and sometimes they can deteriorate very rapidly, even dying while waiting.
The Gadaffi Mosque
This lady whom we met had been infected by her cheating husband, who had since died himself leaving her with their three children. She was upset because she’d spent her last 3000 shillings (about $1) going to the medical clinic the day before to get her prescription of anti retro virals re-filled and was told they’d ran out and to come back on Monday. I held her hand and gave her 3000 shillings from my purse so that she could go back again, and I hoped that she would have the strength to do so.
Salim explained that her biggest fear is what would happen to her children if she were to die. I asked him what would happen, and he just shook his head and shrugged his shoulders as if to suggest children becoming orphaned because of HIV was just another reality of slum life that he had grown accustomed to, though not unaffected by.
We visited one of the slum schools and I was surprised to see that the kids were learning on a Saturday – out of choice, because they loved going to school. I was quite impressed at what the children were studying – one of the 7/8 year old classrooms were learning about the process of cell division through meiosis and mitosis (which I don’t think I studied until college!) We sang some nursery songs with the kids in the kindergarten aged classrooms and thanked their energetic and lovely school teacher profusely for introducing us.
walking around Bwaise
At the end of the tour, we were going to visit the orphanage, and both Emily and I wanted to first go to a store and buy some food supplies to give to the kids. We bought several kilos each of rice, beans and sugar and then hand delivered them. The children immediately swarmed around Salim as he sat down and tried to wrap his arms around as many of them as he could. While many of the kids were clearly smiling and happy to see him, you could also see in some of their faces the knowledge that they’d been abandoned and that they were unwanted. That is what broke my heart – not seeing them poorly fed or poorly clothed – but knowing that they were wanting of affection, hugs, and emotional security.
Salim explained that some of the kids were found abandoned in a toilet nearby, or perhaps the parent had just left them wandering the streets a few blocks from the orphanage. Without additional funding, he really can’t afford to accept any more children into the orphanage because it is already full…so the fate of additional orphans is hard to imagine.
Getting fitted for my visit of the Mosque
At this point, I was very moved to help Salim and his orphanage. I was interested in learning more, so at the end of our tour, I invited him to lunch so that I could ask more questions about how he managed his organization. I also just wanted to buy him a really good meal because it looked like he could use it – if only to bring him some good cheer.
We ate chicken curry and I had some beer. Salim seemed to be enjoying himself so I asked if he’d be willing to show me around Kampala after lunch? It turns out he didn’t have plans, so we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon together.
After lunch we visited the main market in Kampala and it was just a see of craziness and activity. Just crossing the streets of this incredibly busy city was exciting and lucky for me, Salim was there to help me navigate the crowds. After having walked in chaotic surroundings for most of the day, I was relieved and happy to find myself in the tranquil buildings of the Gadaffi Mosque. I had to rent a ha jib head covering for the occasion but actually found the garment to be most comfortable to wear.
One of Salim’s friends was also a tour guide at the mosque and his name was Ashiraf. Ashiraf has a real character and regaled me with the history of the mosque and even sang some islamic songs for me in its blissfully empty and serene interior.
I was having the most wonderful time.
Being silly with Ashiraf
We climbed the tower for a lovely view over this city that is named Kampala because it was where the British would camp with the Impala. It was a fantastic vista and again, I found myself laughing hysterically at Ashiraf as he demonstrated how warriors would welcome Uganda’s king at the palace.
Feeling a little tired, but very content with my day with Salim, I asked him what he would do, if he could do anything. “Get some ice-cream?” – was his reply. I heartily agreed that this was a fantastic idea as I am always up for ice cream…and cake if that was also a possibility?!
We found a delightful coffee bar called Javas that also served the most amazing ice cream and cakes. I ordered a white forest gateau and he had praline and vanilla ice cream. We sat, eating in silence for some minutes- both with huge grins on our faces.
I really enjoyed meeting you, Salim. You have changed my perspective for a day – and for the rest of my life. I will always be appreciative to you for that.
Whenever you travel somewhere, you tend to pick up on the social norms/mores of the people and the extent to which you do, of course, has to do with the amount of time you’ve spent there and the quantity and quality of the time you’ve spent with the local people.
South Africa is a confounding country, and I wanted to write this post merely as a way for me to catalogue the impressions that bore upon me of this land and its very complex treatment of race. The history of this land is multi-layered and contentious, you can sense that from any conversation with a South African that pertains to the stories of this land essentially made up entirely of migrants – the Dutch and English from Europe and the Bantu African tribes from the north. The only people indigenous to South Africa were the San and the Koi – and most of them were killed as the other settlers moved in ( I mentioned in a previous post that it was legal to shoot a Bushman until 1920 in South Africa).
So I make no judgment, no analysis of moral superiority or inferiority with these observations, as that is all they are. I am sure that if I could have stayed in South Africa longer than three weeks as I did, my impressions would change, adapt and deepen. However, I believe there is validity in anyone’s initial impressions of a country they are visiting and as such, I hope you will take what is written here as such.
Square in Cape Town with a monument to the slaves who built and helped populate South Africa
The first thing I noticed when I arrived in South Africa was simply how open and willing people were to talk about race and racial issues. They don’t have reservations to express themselves and their opinions, even if those opinions might be interpreted as overtly racist. This fact was interesting to me, in and of itself. Without even asking, the topic just seems to pop up in conversation. This is probably also due to the fact that I do have an inquiring nature, and I do tend to ask people about their lives, their work, their personal experience of their home, so that could also account for some of it.
When asking what it had been like to be in South Africa since it’s first free elections in 1994, a colored female taxi driver told me “Well, back then I wasn’t white enough. Now, I’m not black enough.”
Menu at Robben Island prison for different races
In an attempt to undo some of the harm inflicted by apartheid, the South African government has implemented some very rigid affirmative action laws that essentially dictate a quota for the number of blacks that must be hired by any given public or private organization, often resulting in an emminently more qualified and experienced white person being overlooked for a job in favor of a less educated, less experienced black person. A number of whites I talked with expressed extreme frustration with this situation and spoke of friends who’d already left the country because they couldn’t find work. Some even suggested that it was like a softer version of reversed apartheid.
“If you’re a disabled, black, woman…you could literally be handed any job, anywhere. Hands down without questions. That is the trifecta.”
The group that appears to have been left out in the cold both during the apartheid years and during the current newly attitude-reforming rainbow state is the colored person. The whole definition of a colored person in and of itself took some adjusting to as we simply don’t have this “third” distinction of race back in the United States. In South Africa, a formerly 11-race apartheid system has now broken down into a socially acceptable 4 race classification of “Black”, “White” “Colored” and “Asian”. Anyone, with a mix of white/black/asian in their blood is labeled “Colored”.
“It cracks me up that you Americans think you have a black president! Obama’s not black, mate, he’s colored!” – I heard this observation on more than one occasion when stating my place of abode.
“A Zulu would never mess with a colored person. He knows he would get messed up.”
Monument to the tribes that lived and migrated to South Africa
My colored Baz Bus driver helped fill in the picture for me of what it’s like to be a colored person living in South Africa. His above quote spoke to the toughness that all races in this country attribute to the colored people. His father was a South African born Indian man, and his mother was half white and half black. Here is something else he shared with me:
“I’ve been married twice before and both times my wives were white. My first daughter with my first wife turned out to be rather dark skinned like me – and she used to go around saying “No, daddy, I’m white! I’m white!” It was pretty hilarious – I’d just laugh at her, then set her straight…she won’t be popular in school talking like that. Now, I have two sons with my second wife – and they both turned out looking as white as you can get. It is so funny when I go out with my sons now and I’m in the supermarket and they’re running around giving all the white people a fright because they think they’ve lost their parents. The look on their faces when they realize that I am their father…oh man! It’s priceless.”
Xhosa boys I met who were fishing on the Wild Coast
He explained to me that a colored person identified with the issues of the colored person. He couldn’t understand when I explained to him that an American who was born with any amount of black blood was considered black. It really left me wondering which environment was better (not that any society that affords different treatment based on skin color is ever good) for a person of color? To automatically be socialized and cultured as “black” because of a trace of black blood, or to be able to identify with an entirely separate third group that has its own unique sense of community and brotherhood that doesn’t ascribe to the ideals of either “white” or “black”?
What do you think?
This four race system and the automatic stereotyping that goes along with it is further complicated with the additional sub divisions of people based on their tribe or the language they speak. No matter what, people in South Africa willingly or unknowingly constantly ascribe reasons and motivations for people’s behavior based on their color and/or their tribe. For instance:
“A zulu was, is and always will be a violent person. They are warriors, it’s in their blood.”
“Blacks are just lazy, that’s all there is to it. All they (the Zulu in Kwazulu-natal) want is a free handout.”
“No white person will ever move back to the Transkei. They’ve all left. That is over. That is Xhosa land, its tribal land now.”
“Even when he (a Zulu musician who was performing) is being nice to you…he’s not really being nice. He’s playing you…for your money. That’s what they do.”
“Any racism that exists between whites and blacks cannot even begin to compare, in terms of hostility, to the violent racism that exists between different black tribes. They’ve been killing each other for generations.”
The most emphatic comments I heard, however, concerned the overwhelming hostility that can exist between white Afrikaans speaking South Africans and White English speaking South Africans.
“Yar. No-one can let go of the bloody past, Bru. That’s the problem. No-one can let go. They won’t ever forget the war with the English, and they think everyone should speak Afrikaans.”
Balcony where Mandela made his first speech after his release from prison, calling for forgiveness and unity among all races
“Nelson Mandela was a great president. He did a great job of bringing the people together. What people don’t seem to remember is that he killed people too. And of course, things have gone downhill since he died. The ANC will automatically win every election from here on out.”
“There isn’t a white person in this area who hasn’t had violence directed at them by a black. Many of my friends have left. I know people who’ve had their homes taken from them, or who have been shot at.”
This was said to me by a girl from Johannesburg at a bar in the Drakensburg. I asked her whether she shared the fear that had been expressed to me – that the situation would escalate into a mass land-grab like what happened in Zimbabwe?
Sign capturing historic facts concerning Apartheid in Cape Town
“Oh – its already happening, man. Even these tribal land claims that are currently being processed by the courts…Many of them are fraudulent. And then the white farmers are given rock bottom dollar for their land and told to leave – and then once the blacks get it, they have no interest in continuing the practice of commercial farming – they don’t have the skills for it. If the government is going to turn over these white farms, who is going to ensure that the farms keep operating?”
Finally, one of the more recent racial phenemenom that is happening in South Africa concerns Xenophobia. This is a racial hatred that is being expressed with outbreaks of violence that is directed towards non-south african born blacks, who have been pouring into the economic promised land for years from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and so on… Here are some of the comments are heard about this issue:
“I would always hire a black non-south African over a black South African. They will work harder, with less trouble, for less money. ”
“They’ve got to increase security at the borders. They have got to stop letting (the black non-south Africans) them into South Africa. They are taking our jobs. It’s hard enough for South Africans to find work, yar? Problem is too, they come here and set up businesses or shops, and then they arrange to have all their family and friends move down to be with them – and they’re allowed in!”
“What do I think of Xenophobia? I think we need more Xen and less phobia”.
Many of the conversations I had left me confused and saddened, most often with more questions for every answer I received. I can’t help also draw the conclusion that much of the division between races nowadays has less to do with skin color, and far more to do with socio-economic distinctions. It is becoming a country of class rather than color. Predominantly, the wealth is still with the white population and impoverished areas and townships are invariably black. It is beginning to change, but I can’t see how things are going to improve significantly until the wealth gap narrows – but the same can be said of the United States as of South Africa.
Education is the key. No child is ever born racist. It is a learned behavior and equality of all people can only be achieved through love, tolerance, and opportunity/education for all South Africans.
If there is one universal sentiment that I heard expressed from everyone I met- be they white, black, colored or Asian, it was a deep and abiding love of their country. Despite how shockingly deep racial tensions get, despite the outbreaks of violence, despite the threat of civil war that many believe is coming – people speak of their “Rainbow Nation” with great pride, passion, and attachment.
It’s Africa, the land is beautiful, it gets under your skin and seeps into your soul, forever staying with you.
I was there three short weeks, but surely felt the same pull.
I was well and truly ready for a day of rest on the bus as my body was spent from two days of hill climbing and I was well and truly hacking up a storm. We headed back up in the shuttle to Mthata where we managed to scramble a quick lunch before piling on the Baz Bus for my penultimate stop in South Africa – The Amphitheater Lodge in the Northern Drakensburg mountains.
Drakensburg literally means “Mountains of Dragons” and they are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. As we arrived at The Amphitheater Lodge, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the stunning “Amphitheater” of mountains that formed the backdrop to one of the nicest looking lodges I’ve stayed at on this trip.
The Grain Silo Dorms of Amphitheater Lodge
That’s not to say that the hotel stay itself was great – the staff were some of the rudest, strange people I’ve ever come across while traveling. For example – we bought a bottle of white wine on our arrival (the four Baz Bus peeps – Lea, Yarrick, and Amy were together again and I was glad of it because the place was kinda empty) and asked if we could keep it in the fridge behind the bar to keep it cold. Returning a half hour later to get a refill, one of the owners behind the bar bluntly told us “Yar, I don’t know where your wine is – you’ll have to go find the bartender” – despite the fact that she was behind the bar, we didn’t know where the bartender was, and she didn’t even make a single effort to look in any of the fridges! The food in the restaurant is a three course “set menu” and when we asked if we could please just buy some dessert we were told “No, you can’t.” ?!!! This is just a few examples of many I could share that would explain some of the Trip Advisor comments we’d read. So, if you go here, know this: the place is stunningly beautiful, but the service is horrendous.
The four of us enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and elected to make our own dinners that night before retiring in our converted-grain-silo dorm room. The following day, we had elected to go on the famed Amphitheater hike to the 2nd highest waterfall in the world – Tugela Falls.
Starting out on our hike to Amphitheater Escarpment
As it turned out, the waterfall was most definitely not the main attraction of the trip. In fact the waterfall was running almost dry at this time of year, and even at full flow, the hike gets you to a vantage point at the top of the falls, so you can’t really appreciate seeing it cascading down the mountain as I’d been expecting to. In fact, I wasn’t paying attention at the moment when our guide, Adrian, was pointing out the top of the falls, so I didn’t even get a picture of it – the others pointed it out to me later during our descent when I asked “when are we gonna get to see this damn waterfall?”
Trying to be Superman
The hike was really quite stunning and I can see how it is regarded as one of the best day hikes in the world. Despite it being an almost two hour drive from the lodge to the trailhead, you ascend quite a lot in terms of altitude, meaning that you start the hike in an alpine environment to start out at 2500 meters or 8,200 feet, ascending to 3100 meters or 10,000 feet at the top of the Drakensburg escarpment. The last section of the trail is a bit of a scramble up a steep grassy/rocky scree slope, but the view as you emerge is well worth the effort.
Overall it was extremely enjoyable all except for the wind which beat on us with such ferocity that it gave my lungs an additional beating alongside my cough that was already wreaking damage on me. On our return to the lodge, I was so happy that we’d elected to pay the somewhat extravagant price to get the 3 course meal – and since it included rump steak and malva pudding with ….wait for it!…HOT CUSTARD for dessert, I was well and truly in bliss.
At the top of the falls with my Baz Bus “Family”
Sadly my three friends all left me the following day, but I was luckily joined by two Germans on my day trip to the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho (pronounded Le-Su-Tu). Lesotho is its own independent country and always has been since it was granted independece from the British Crown in 1966. We wouldn’t, unfortunately, be venturing too far into the country – on a day trip from the lodge, the roads in Lesotho alone would prohibit any such journey since they are almost all unpaved in this mountainous small country that is hailed as having the highest “low point” of any country in the world.
On the “ladders” for the descent
Even so, I got a wonderful day-long glimpse into the rural culture of this magnificent place and its people. Adrian, our guide from the hike was in even rarer form on this tour and you could tell how much he loved sharing his passion for the community that we visited. In fact, what will probably stay with me the longest is the memory of his enthusiastic and loud greeting of every villager we met and his admirable attempts at the Sesotho which is the language spoken by the people of Lesotho, the Basotho. He even greeted the children with a ton of energy to which they responded, sometimes even dancing and shaking their little hips together with him and slapping his hands mid-air.
Overlook into Lesotho
The people in the village we visited just over the border from South Africa live a rural subsistence life and are very poor, in fact, most don’t even have cash and use foodstuffs, hay, livestock, and locally brewed beer in trade for most goods. They live in traditional round homes that were reminiscent of the ones I’d seen on the Wild Coast build by the Xhosa people.
Basotho wearing traditional dress
The style of dress that the locals wear is extremely unique – characterized by hats worn barely atop of the head and a large blanket that is wrapped around the shoulders like a coat. Everyone we met was extremely friendly and seemed very happy that we were there to see their village. We were shown around the school (that Amphitheater Lodge helps support) and were given the chance to buy some jewellry with proceeds going towards school supplies. I bought a lovely wooden bracelet.
Adrian dancing with the local kids
Adrian took us on a hike to view some ancient San rock art and we sat and ate lunch looking out over the stunning Lesotho mountains. A really nice custom they have in the village is that of erecting a white flag at one’s home if one has brewed beer available to sell. Not wanting to pass up on such a rich cultural experience, we visited with a family and tried the (rather putrid tasting) beer from a giant plastic bucket and took a bunch of photos. We also visited with a local shaman and learned a little about how this tiny and beautifully frail little woman was “chosen” to be a healer through a dream sent to her by her ancestors.
Drinking beer with the locals
The whole experience will stay with me for some time to come and I was very moved, emotionally, by the warmth and hospitality we encountered from everyone we met. I also am very grateful to Adrian for his passion and enthusiasm for Basotho culture in this visit to the 3rd poorest country in the world.
And the cultural experiences didn’t end there. On our return to The Amphitheater, I was thrilled to learn that we were going to be getting some live music performed by a local Zulu musician that evening. I cannot even begin to describe the incredible rhythm this man displayed. Only a YouTube of his performance will do it justice, and I promise I will most definitely upload it to my site’s facebook page as soon as I have internet powerful enough to allow me. He literally played a guitar while simultaneously singing, using his feet as drums, and doing a traditional zulu dance which sometimes requried acrobatic feats of high leg kicks and backward rolls while continuing to play with the guitar wrapped upside down around his head.
I am not joking.
I had so enjoyed my time in South Africa and was sad to be leaving for the airport in Johanessburg the next day. This country is so complex with a lot of confounding racial issues – and that will be the topic of my next post, which I hope you will find enlightening and challenging, but not offensive.