Two Africas

We are currently spending some time visiting the Centre ValBio near Ranomafana National Park (slow it down and repeat, then you’ll get it: Ra-no-ma-fa-na; see?). It is impressive for both the scientific work done here as well as conservation and community support. Before this, we stayed on the SW coast in Mangily, where Jenni and Audrey got PADI certified for open water dives. Oliver and I had planned to surf, using skills we picked up in Muizenberg, ZA, but the surfing turned out to be on the reef break nearly a kilometer out. No place for beginners. To get down to Mangily, we took a drive that was 500 km in seven days, due partly to stops to see sights but largely due to road conditions on the “National Road” or N7. We’ve seen lemurs, chameleons and baobabs, bazillions of freaky bugs, birds, frogs and snakes and plan to see more. Also, traveling across Mada, unavoidably, we’ve encountered extreme poverty. Really incredible, ‘are there really people living like this’ kind of poverty. We knew Mada was poor, but had not realized it is one of the poorest countries on earth not embroiled in civil conflict. The people are hospitable, friendly and quick to smile. But it is a world apart where many people toil with manual tools to eke out a bare subsistence.

Strangely, cell phones have penetrated where no phone or power lines run, and where a water well is an unusual sight. It is unclear what impact they will have on mores, customs, or the economy. So far, the Orange and Telma signs everywhere leave the picturesque tranquilly regnant. Everywhere there are beautiful views: women carrying impossible loads on their heads, adolescents driving their zébu in the road, endless rice paddies, dusty and dingy Catholic churches put up in the time of French rule, stick and mud huts, and a roadside rum operation that skates by its legally dubious status for want of an energetic enforcement of law. The camera loves Mada. And yet, one cannot help wonder what life is like for those inside the frame of this picturesque wonderland.

Before Mada, we were in South Africa for a month, including a safari in Kruger, a week around Pretoria, and two weeks in the Cape Town area, all of which was splendid, albeit with the historical scars there to be seen if you cared to look. Cape Town was especially nice with its position between mountain and sea, and a robust selection of culture and recreation, from surfing to concerts in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In Kruger, we met a couple from Cape Town who invited us to join them and some friends for a braai. Once we had made our way to Cape Town, we joined Lyn and Alan for dinner, which was a delightful evening and a highlight of our trip. We were jealous they had spotted a leopard; they envied our lion encounter, but we all relished the good fortune we had to see many extraordinary animals in their natural habitat.

Interestingly, while we were in Cape Town, a minor crisis erupted when a minority party (EFF, Economic Freedom Fighters) interrupted President Zuma’s State of the Union speech, and ended up having all its members forcibly ejected by police. This, after already opening the session with a discovery of jamming devices in place to block all kinds of info in or out of the Parliament. So for the next two weeks and more, we heard recriminations, new daily disclosures about who ordered what, whether the Prime Minister or President knew, and so on. South Africans we talked to were mortified, and worried about how all this would seem to the outside world. We assured them that Americans were by and large mainly interested in domestic affairs. Woven through all the press fall-out were accusations that the ANC was reverting to apartheid style rule (think about that charge for a moment!), seeking a one party state, and about to destroy the ‘rainbow government’. The country is full of hope, and justifiably proud of overcoming apartheid and transitioning peacefully to a new Constitution. At the same time, as we learned, the language of political controversy is loaded with the most extreme images and emotions. There seems to be a real concern that  what was achieved in 1989-1995 will all fall apart. Earlier, about a week before all this, Prime Minister Mbete had referred to the EFF leaders as ‘cockroaches’ which was apparently a term of choice for the victims in Rwanda during the genocide. So the use of that term also brought intense debate with calls for the PM to step down from her post. She issued a full apology, but stayed in office. The people were neither satisfied nor stupefied.

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