Thursday, December 20, 2012

About Returning from Africa

Paul Theroux ended his epic trans-Africa journey while riding the commuter rail from downtown Cape Town to Simon’s Town.  It was a route that I mimicked when I was in Simon’s Town.  It was as far south as anyone can travel by rail in Africa. Completing his journey, Theroux boarded the ultra-plush five-star Blue Train and rode it from Cape Town back to Johannesburg.  The Blue Train website says this about the train and its service:

The Blue Train is unique – it is not merely a train.  It combines the luxury of the world’s leading hotels with the charm of train travel.  Think of it as an all-inclusive luxury rail cruise with an opportunity to view South Africa’s spectacular landscapes and visit interesting tourist attractions along the way.
The opulence of South Africa's Blue Train
The website goes on to say, while discussing the Blue Train’s rates “… on this all-suite train the rates are ….inclusive of all meals, high tea, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and off-train excursions.”   Excluded from the rates are “French champagne, caviar, and external telephone calls.”

All of this costs a paltry $1,500 US one way per person for an overnight trip.  Meanwhile lesser mortals can follow the same route for $60 US one way on the regular train routes.  About everyone on the Blue Train is white.  A similar contrast exists with airline travel. South African Airways flights are full service with both Business Class and Coach Class cabins.  Low cost airlines like have one class of service (a seat) and it’s all in coach. Fare differences are striking between the two with much cheaper.  When you sit in a South African airport watching planes board for departure, South African Airways passengers are almost entirely white; those on the low fare airlines are almost always black.

Many of the inequalities created and maintained by apartheid still remain in South Africa. The country has one of the most unequal income distribution patterns in the world: about sixty percent of the population earns less than about US$7,000 annually and two percent of the population has an income exceeding about US$50,000.  The haves and the have not’s of South Africa maintain the same unequal distribution of wealth as what is experienced in the United States.  Poverty in South Africa is still largely defined by skin color, with black people constituting the poorest layer. Despite the African National Congress government having implemented a policy of Black Economic Empowerment, blacks make up over eighty percent of the country's poor at the same time they are eighty percent of the population.

Eighty percent of the farms remain in the hands of white farmers; the requirement that claimants for restoration of land seized during the apartheid era make a contribution towards the cost of the land "excludes the poorest layers of the population altogether while a large number of white farmers have been murdered since 1994 (roughly 313 per 100 000 annually) in what campaign groups claim is a campaign of genocide.  Human Rights Watch contends that the publicity given to these murders and attacks removes attention from the plight of rural black people, and contend that they are purely criminal in nature. Regardless, crime against white farmers receives strong media coverage. Opposition against land reforms created fear that by removing commercial farmers from their land and dividing up the land to urbanized people with no comprehension of agriculture or agricultural management would lead to a state of famine.  South Africa sounds a lot like Zimbabwe.

Birds and other wildlife were the major reason for my trip to South Africa but so too was a desire to learn about race relations in a country that was a living laboratory for a college course in Race Relations 101.  What I discovered, in my view, is that South Africa just like the United States has many miles to travel before either country can say with a straight face that there is racial equality.  It’s true that apartheid has ended legislatively in South Africa but on the surface it has ended only because some politicians somewhere enacted legislation that some guilt ridden white person signed thinking that everything would be different when the ink dried.  That ink dried twenty years ago; the mentality of apartheid failed to dry with it.

Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves in 1863 and oversaw the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Yet it took more than eighty years, until 1947, before a black person could play major league baseball in America. As late as the mid-1960s there were separate rest rooms and separate store entrances and separate sections of public buses for black people in America.  In 2008, exactly 145 years after slaves were emancipated in America the country elected its first black President and when it did look at how American’s responded. The Tea Party Anarchists almost rioted in the streets calling themselves “patriots” out of one corner of their mouths while out of the other side of their mouths they called the black President every nasty name they could concoct.  As they did, Rush Limbaugh went on his hate-filled radio program and begged for the black President and his policies to fail.

America looks like that after 145 years of the evolution of race relations and an attempt to consider everyone equal.   South Africa has had only twenty years of evolution.  Neither country will be rid of racial animosity until every person in both countries follows the words of the black gas station attendant in the township near Port Elizabeth who reminded me that if my skin was cut I would bleed red just like he would.
East Africa - Where We All Began
 We are all the same through all of our differences.  We all began from the same place and we adapted to fit our local environment.  In ecology it’s referred to as “adaptive radiation.”  It works for birds and it works for fish and it also works for human beings.  If you think pragmatically about the origin of human beings all of the evidence suggests that we first appeared in East Africa.  From there human beings radiated out in all directions until we have occupied virtually all of the earth except the rapidly melting poles.  However, at the level of our DNA, everything is the same no matter where you are or from where you came.  What is curious to me about that observation is the realization of what color skin was on the first hominids.  Most probably because our first ancestor arose in East Africa where the bulk of the population today is black, there is a very good chance that our original ancestor was also black.  From those black beginnings we changed with time into white people who lived in colder climates where there was less intense sunlight. We also evolved into yellow people and red people and brown skinned people because we adapted to the environment into which we moved.  We all came from the same place and we all looked the same. Then evolution took over and everything changed.  One of my biggest pleasures is explaining this theory to xenophobic racists.  White’s may be the dominant race economically, but they are not the dominant race at the population level and they were not the dominant race when evolution made homonids stand upright.   Still at our core we all remain the same.  That is something that can only be learned by travel and by exposing ourselves to things and places and people who make us feel uncomfortable.  Eventually if you learned from your experience all those things become a part of who you are.  It’s a lesson more people need to learn.
Air France Business Class Lounge at Johannesburg.  I Love Air France
Check-in for Delta’s nightly nonstop from Johannesburg to Atlanta was scheduled to begin at four in the afternoon.  Because my reservation was in Business Class I was given access to the Air France Business Class lounge where I read several newspapers and news magazines and I caught up with some of what had happened in the world while I was away.  The juxtaposition between where I had been and to where I was returning was stark. 

When my sixteen hour nonstop was complete I would be back in a land where the daily antics of the Kardashians are more newsworthy and greeted with greater anticipation than is information about the murder rate among sixteen year olds in Chicago.  Sixteen hours after lifting off from Johannesburg I would be in a land where if you asked people to identify Robert Mugabe, the murderous dictator of Zimbabwe, the bulk of the people would guess he was a linebacker for some professional football team.  In sixteen hours I would be back in a country where the only knowledge most people have of South Africa is that some guy named Nelson something was in jail there for some reason, and that the 2010 World Cup of soccer was held there.

After five weeks in South Africa I had morphed into someone who didn’t want to return to the land of the Kardashians, or Hiltons or of Lindsey Lohan.  I wanted to stay in a place where lions dine on impala when they can catch one, and where small flocks of bontebok nibble on grasses at the edge of the ocean, and where “robots” tell drivers and pedestrians what to do at an intersection.
Dinner - Lion style
 As I sat in the departure area waiting to board my flight, a group of bible thumpers from Iowa who had traveled to Swaziland to do a week of good deed doing, sat waiting in a group of chairs next to me.  They had built one house in a Swazi village during their week and felt that their effort would cause them to get a merit badge from god. Despite accomplishing their mission, they looked dumbfounded when I asked if any Swazi people had helped them in their house-building endeavors.
Do-gooders building a house in Swaziland.  Note the lack of any Swazi's learning from them.
 “Nobody but our group from Dubuque helped us,” Benton, the leader of the group and a local dentist, told me with great pride.  “You see it was our mission to build homes for these poor people who have so little.”  When I asked why they didn’t teach the Swazi’s how to build houses so they could do so when his group had returned home, Benton said rather emphatically, “You don’t understand the mission of Christians do you?”   I think I understand the mission of Christians perfectly and that is why I long ago gave up on organized religion.
Business Class seat on Delta's 777 from Johannesburg

On board the plane I was offered a glass of wine and some roasted nuts before departure.  Once underway I was treated to a sumptuous dinner of broiled quail and roasted vegetables with a blueberry tart for dessert.  Everything was washed down with an excellent French burgundy.  Meanwhile 20,000 feet below me people were eating their daily ration of rice and vegetables washed down with water from a decrepit and probably contaminated cistern.

We passed over Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana and not long after it, there was nothing below us but darkness.  For as far as I could see in all directions there was not a single electric light burning anywhere.  Instead it was raw wonderful Africa as it should be.  We passed over the endless Kalahari Desert for several hours. That emptiness stayed with me as we passed over the breadth of Botswana and it continued until we reached the coast of Angola and we were out over the South Atlantic.  My mind was overwhelmed with thoughts and fantasies of all the interactions that were occurring on the plains of southern Africa as our plane lumbered north and west through the African night toward the modern opulence of America. 

Ambien and French burgundy did their trick and I fell asleep not long after we passed over the coast.  I remained asleep for nine hours until we were approaching the coast of South Carolina.  North America was obvious in midnight sky with the glare of the lights of Charleston prominent on the horizon even 100 miles away.

We touched down in Atlanta at the exact minute predicted by the pilot sixteen hours and five minutes earlier when we lifted off from Johannesburg.  We shuffled our way through US immigration and then on to US Customs. The agent checking my bag at Customs asked me where I had been, how long I had been out of the country and who employed me.  Saying that I was a retired US government wildlife biologist he asked what I thought of South Africa.  “I have wanted to go there for as long as I can remember,” the agent said.
US Customs and Immigration - Atlanta International Airport
 Telling him a bit more about my experiences I mentioned the leopards, and about watching African elephants tearing limbs from trees just because they could, and watching the puff adder, and the story of the man whose leg was bitten off by a great white shark, and how beautiful the Karoo desert is at dawn, and about Upington, and about Springbok rugby, and about Lambert’s Bay, and about everything I came to love and appreciate about South Africa.  We talked for fifteen minutes and finally the Customs agent said to me as he waved me on, “I think you should write a book about your trip.”

I thought about his suggestion during the one hour connecting flight to Sarasota and decided that the agent had a good idea.  If nothing else reading a book I wrote about traveling throughout South Africa would take me back there any time I wanted to return.


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