Archive for February, 2009

2008 Malawi Human Rights Report

February 27, 2009

The US Department of State released its 2008 Malawi Human Rights Report yesterday.  The top line was that government “generally respected the human rights of its citizens; but problems remain in some areas,” which include unlawful use of force, arbitrary arrest and detention, harsh prison conditions, societal violence against women, and corruption.  The full report can be found here. It’s an interesting read for me, but probably more detail than those of you in the US care to know. There are two things that I find noteworthy about the report, though; one, the Malawian reaction to it, and two, the relevance of the “women’s rights” section to my previous post.

Let me say that my gauge of Malawian reaction is not at all objective, it’s merely what I’ve gleaned from comments on a related article on the Nyasa Times website.  To summarize, there is a lot of outrage that the US published the report, given its own record of human rights abuses.  Interestingly,  however, no one seems to be refuting the facts presented in the report.  This seems to me to miss the point.  I would never claim that the US human rights record is unmarred, but that doesn’t change the fact that serious human rights abuses remain in Malawi.  Is it hypocritical?  Perhaps.  But does that make the facts of the report suspect?  I would say no.

I also find the reporter’s representation of the report somewhat suspect.  Notably, the article contains almost no reference to the section about women’s rights, focusing instead on the use/abuse of police and security forces.  While I understand the need to condense the issues presented in the long report for an article-length story, the only place women are mentioned is in the introduction.  In contrast, the report presents a lengthy section on women’s rights (or rather, lack thereof).

Perhaps the report section on women was not included in the newspaper article because it had few sensational examples.  In fact, this section of the report has little concrete data at all; the government apparently does not record statistics about violence against women.  Whether this reflects an administrative or a legal gap, I’m not  sure.  But if you have a culture that silences women, then of course there will be little calculable evidence of their struggle.  The legal system, despite whatever laws are on the books, is only as effective as it is accessible.  Women’s rights are enforceable only when they are culturally recognized by both men AND women.  The reporter’s choice not to represent this section in his article, whether conscious or unconscious, is illustrative of the lack of Malawian recognition of and attention to these issues.

I’ve excerpted the relevant section of the Human Rights Report below (and even bolded the main ideas for you skimmers!).  If the Malawian media does not cover these issues, they should be published somewhere – and even my blog seems like a place to start.

From the Department of State’s 2008 Human Rights Report: Malawi:

The law specifically provides for equal rights for women, forbids discrimination based on language or culture, race, disability, or social status and provides for equality and recognition before the law for every citizen. However, the capacity of government institutions to ensure equal rights for all citizens was limited.

Women

The law criminalizes rape with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Spousal rape is not explicitly mentioned but could be prosecuted under the same rape laws. The government generally enforced the law effectively, and convicted rapists routinely received prison sentences. Data on the prevalence of rape or spousal rape and conviction figures were unavailable; however, press reports of rape arrests and convictions were an almost daily occurrence.

Domestic violence, especially wife beating, was common, although women seldom discussed the problem openly, and victims rarely sought legal recourse. Legal experts and human rights workers attributed victims’ reluctance to report their abusers to economic dependence on the abuser, lack of awareness of their legal rights and fear of retribution and ostracism. The law provides a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for domestic violence. The law also recognizes that both men and women can be perpetrators as well as victims of domestic violence. Police regularly investigated cases of rape and sexual assault but did not normally intervene in domestic disputes.
Police victims support units provide shelter to abuse victims and deal with human rights and gender-based violence, but officers’ capacity to assist and document cases was limited.

Prostitution is legal and prevalent around hotels and bars in urban and tourist areas; however, the law prohibits living off wages earned through prostitution, owning a brothel, or forcing another person into prostitution. Loitering is the main charge under which prostitutes were arrested, resulting usually in small fines.

Sexual harassment is not specifically prohibited by law, but can be prosecuted under existing sections of the penal code such as indecent assault on a female, which carries up to a 14-year prison sentence, or insulting the modesty of a woman, which is a misdemeanor punishable by one year in jail. There was no available data on the extent of sexual harassment or effectiveness of government enforcement.

Under the law women have the right to full and equal protection and may not be discriminated against on the basis of gender or marital status, including in the workplace; however, discrimination against women was pervasive, and women did not have opportunities equal to those available to men. Women had significantly lower levels of literacy, education, formal and nontraditional employment opportunities, and access to resources to increase agricultural productivity.

Women often had less access to legal and financial assistance, and widows often were victims of discriminatory and illegal inheritance practices in which most of an estate was taken by the deceased husband’s family. Women usually were at a disadvantage in marriage, family, and property rights; however, awareness of women’s legal rights continued to increase, and women began to speak out against abuse and discrimination. Households headed by women were represented disproportionately in the lowest quarter of income distribution. Fifty-two percent of full‑time farmers were women; however, they had limited access to agricultural extension services, training, and credit. Gender training for agricultural extension workers and the gradual introduction of rural credit programs for women have increased; however, few women participated in the limited formal labor market, where they constituted less than 5 percent of managerial and administrative staff.

The law provides for a minimum level of child support, widows’ rights, and the right to maternity leave; however, only individuals who could utilize the formal legal system benefited from these legal protections. In a few isolated areas, a widow was sometimes forced to have sex with in‑laws as part of a culturally‑mandated “sexual cleansing” ritual following the death of her husband. In some cases, she was “inherited” by a brother‑in‑law or other male relative. Although there were no laws specifically prohibiting these practices, the government and civil society continued efforts to abolish them by raising awareness concerning the inherent dangers of such behavior, including the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission.

The government addressed women’s concerns through the Ministry of Women and Child Development.

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The Menfolk

February 25, 2009

It turns out that my concerns about security in Lilongwe are not unfounded:  another friend of mine, who lives not far from my house, was robbed over the weekend.  (This makes four households I know that have been hit.)  Needless to say, we’re beefing up security around our house, too.  But on to the subject of today’s post:  Malawi’s Men.

While this is a topic I have privately complained about to many of you, I decided it was time for a public posting.  Let’s start with a little story.

Yesterday I took my car to the mechanic (yes, again – that is another blog post).  Since I left my car at the garage, I needed a ride back to my house.  The head mechanic assigned someone lower on the totem pole to deliver me back across town.  In the 15 minute ride, this mechanic managed to spill his Fanta Orange all over me (and the passenger seat), asked a series of questions about why I was in Malawi, if I had a boyfriend (the answer, in these cases, is always yes), if the boyfriend was in Malawi, if I liked beer and if I had been out to the nightclubs.  Unsurprisingly, this conversation ended with him asserting (not asking, mind you) that he should take me out this weekend to Chez Ntimba [a Lilongwe establishment that only really gets going around 3 AM].  I told him that wouldn’t be necessary, and fortunately he dropped me at my house without pressing the issue.

I think it’s really a testament to how much I’ve adapted to Malawi that this little exchange didn’t even phase me.  This is the sort of thing that happens all the time in Malawi, and when I first arrived, it really freaked me out.  (I’m from the midwest, where people who DO love each other rarely say it aloud.)  Instantaneous declarations of love and men who persist despite one’s clearly stated disinterest are basically outside the realm of my previous experience.  While I’ve gotten used to this behavior, though, it is also illustrative of how (little) women are respected here.

Needless to say, Malawian cultural norms surrounding “dating” are different.  Yes, I’ve had men I’ve only just met declare their undying love for me.  I’ve given out my contact information for professional purposes and then received phone calls at all hours of the day and night (which I don’t answer), and opened emails with a variety of terrible, stolen-from-Xanga poems.  Frequently, short conversations end with a request for my phone number.  In the event that I give it out (rarely), I am likely to be “flashed” (whereby my would-be suitor calls and hangs up, because he has no prepaid phone credit) incessantly for at least the next few days.

Note that I have never expressed interest in ANY of these suitors.  Though, like any good feminist with a liberal arts education, I have lobbed critiques of subjectification and objectification at American pop culture, I have never felt more like an object than I do in Malawi.

The fact that I “have a boyfriend” seems not to phase anyone, even though they always ask.  If anything, a boyfriend on another continent only increases the challenge.  (Perhaps it would do me well to come up with a few burly friends here in Lilongwe.)  Having polled my other female friends here, this sort of treatment is widespread.  And it’s not just us:  it’s a reflection of greater cultural forces.  For example, while I’m sure that some people here believe in monogamy, there is certainly a culture of infidelity; this is one of the biggest factors in the spread of HIV/AIDs here.  (An acquaintance, Mike, has an informative post here on a study of inhabitants in Likoma Island in Lake Malawi (population: 10,000), which found that 65% of the 1,000 people interviewed were connected in a giant sexual network.)

Women are generally not empowered, economically or culturally, to leave their husbands, though it’s perfectly acceptable for husbands to leave their wives if SHE is unfaithful.   And women are disempowered more generally, in their everyday lives.  Women work side-by-side with their husbands in the fields, and yet it’s also a commonly accepted practice for men to take the tobacco crop to market, sell it, and then disappear into a resthouse for a month of booze and prostitutes.  He goes home when the money is gone.  (And people wonder why there is perpetual poverty here.)  Many of the NGOs I’ve interviewed try to target their projects toward women for this very reason, but because of the aforementioned norms surrounding financial control, they are met with limited success.

While sexism certainly exists in the US, it is largely invisible.  Overtly sexist treatment of women is, at the very least, politically incorrect.  Here, it is overt, rampant, and something I experience everyday.  While it’s impossible, or at least unhealthy, to be angry all the time, I’m not sure if I should be happy that it doesn’t bother me so much anymore, or unhappy that I’ve become so complacent.  A college friend of mine used to have a bumper sticker that said, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”  I’m paying attention; I’m just not sure what my outrage can do when it’s up against such solidly built cultural norms.

Safety v. familiarity

February 20, 2009

I knew I wanted to do a post on the differences between South Africa and Malawi, but I hadn’t gotten motivated to start writing until last weekend, when I received a blog update from my friend Nate in Cape Town.  Here’s the short version of the story:  he was mugged.  Now, he didn’t make the most intelligent of moves (sorry, Nate), but his story made me think a lot about the differences in safety and familiarity in Malawi and South Africa.

I should preface this by saying that I felt safer traveling in South Africa than I feel in Lilongwe.  Not that I feel particularly unsafe in Lilongwe, but my spidey sense is usually pretty attuned to my surroundings, because everything in Lilongwe is unfamiliar.  In contrast, the urbanized parts of South Africa I visited were much more similar to the United States than to Malawi. There was a visible police presence, lots of people walking on the streets, working streetlights and stoplights, and (relatively) clear signage.  (And yes, having information makes me feel safer – but that is the subject for another post.)

The irony, of course, is that I imagine Malawi has a much lower crime rate than South Africa.  I tried to find some statistics on this, but only managed to determine that crime rates are convoluted, and, at least in a developing country, probably not a very reliable measure of crimes actually committed.  Certainly, crimes in Malawi are less violent than crimes in South Africa; most assailants have panga knives rather than guns, and most crimes are property-driven.

But cities in South Africa feel like cities in the US, and there is a sense of safety in familiarity.  In Cape Town and Durban, there’s a great deal of inequality, there are places that tourists go and places that townies go, there are places that are clearly sketchy and places that are (clearly) safe.  Lilongwe is more like a series of villages than a city, and there’s far less visible police presence (except the aforementioned traffic cops, of course).  Some places are more sketchy than others, but the division between safe and unsafe – if there is one – is not so clear.  While I wouldn’t, say, carry valuables around the market here, I also wouldn’t expect for anyone to come at me with a knife.  (On the other hand, there were certainly places in DC where I wouldn’t have been surprised by the appearance of weapons.  Needless to say, I did not frequent them often or after dark.)

My neighborhood in Lilongwe is probably statistically safer than my neighborhood was in DC; it probably has a lower crime rate than the places I stayed in South Africa.  But the other places feel safer because they are more familiar:  there are streetlights, sidewalks, other people on the street.  For example, I don’t walk in my Lilongwe neighborhood after dark; I’m not sure if it’s unsafe, but no one else walks at night here, either.  (What’s worse than walking in the dark?  Walking ALONE in the dark.)

They also feel safer because it’s easier to blend in.

Since Malawi was only a British protectorate (or, more to the point, since it didn’t have significant natural resources for colonialists to exploit), it never had a large non-African population during the colonial period.  In South Africa, white families have been present for decades.  In Malawi, most white families are aid workers or volunteers; people who have permanently relocated here are far less common and generally have only been here since after independence.  As my friend Nate remarked, “In Malawi, if you’re white, you’re a stranger.  And you have money.  In South Africa, if you’re white, you’re the enemy.  And you have money.”

This has interesting implications for how one is treated on the street.  I was, for example, hassled for cash far less in South Africa than I would be for a similar period of time spend on the streets of Lilongwe.  Even if I remained a target of unwanted attention because I was white, there were more white people to target.  Anecdotally, however, it seems that whites are the target of violent crimes in South Africa, while in Malawi, whites are merely targets for property crimes.  And, honestly, the South Africa I experienced was sanitized for tourists, and segregation – by economics if not by law – remains in full force there.

I had heard lots about South Africa’s crime rate before I visited, and I was honestly expecting to feel less safe than I did.  Other than having my Leatherman stolen from my luggage (yes, I am still whining about that), I had no incidences worth mentioning.  Of course, I am a relatively cautious person, and try not to put myself in stupid places.  But it came as a revelation to me:  safety is, in large part, familiarity with my surroundings and ability to read them.

Garden Update

February 16, 2009

I apologize to my faithful readers for the lack of updates. The past week was busy, though not necessarily interesting for blogging, and I keep getting sidetracked as I try to write my next post. I’m working on a more substantive comparison of my experiences in Malawi and South Africa, which will hopefully be done soon.

In the meantime, I thought I’d show a bit of the yard. We’re midway into the growing season now; the corn is starting to tassel, and our garden is flowering nicely. Though some of our flowerbeds are haphazard mixtures of what we planted and what was there before, and all of the beds are unruly, we have some truly lovely plants out there. For those of you stuck in the dead of winter, here are some photos.

The first is of a funny little flowering shrub; I didn’t get a great picture, but its flowers look like tiny hibiscus.  The second is a flower I’ve seen in Iowa, but I can’t manage to dredge up the name of it.  (Contrary to the photo angle, it is not a disembodied, floating flower!)  The third is a nasturtium.  I think.  And the last, obviously, is the ever-growing, ever-naughtier Dude.

Flowering shrub

Flowering shrub

I dont remember the name of this flower, but I bet my mom can tell you.

I don't remember the name of this flower, but I bet my mom can tell you.

A nice nasturtium

A nice nasturtium

A monster in the garden

Only in Malawi

February 9, 2009

This weekend was a reminder of how idiosyncratic Malawi can be. I spent a while trying to think of how to link all these little stories together, but then I realized that maybe that’s the point. So, without further ado: a totaled car, an 80s prom, and more Nicholas Cage than a sane person could ever want.

The Car
My housemate’s car was in an accident this weekend. The good news: he wasn’t in it. The bad news: it’s totaled, and he’s unlikely to be compensated. To make a long and absurd story short, a few weeks ago, he took the car to a mechanic for some major engine work. After buying lots of expensive parts, the mechanic finished the job and took it to his friend for some adjustment to the fuel pump. The friend, however, turned out to be an unlicensed alcoholic with the penchant for joy-riding to the bar in clients’ cars, and on the return trip, managed to roll the car a couple times on a very straight stretch of highway. (This last bit is largely speculation, as the guy who was driving the car is nowhere to be found.) Of course, the mechanic was uninsured but assures my housemate that he can fix the car. Right, because cars with bent frames, crumpled roofs, and no windows are so easy to fix. No conclusion has been reached about what will happen now, but I can’t help thinking…only in Malawi.

The Prom
On the complete opposite end of the only-in-Malawi spectrum, I attended an 80s Prom Party this weekend. Lilongwe has a fairly large expat community but everyone seems to know each other. As a young, single person, I meet many of the same expats at social events. (Older and/or married people are more elusive.) The expat social scene tends to be separate from the Malawian one, but there was quite a mix of people at the 80s party – though not all in 80s attire!

To prepare for the event, a few friends and I hit up the used clothing market on Saturday afternoon. Fortunately for us, all of the 80s prom and bridesmaid dresses that begin with a trip from your closet to the Salvation Army end up in Malawi. We found suitable costumes in no time at all. I was quite pleased with my blue shoulder-padded number, though I did think it screamed “secretary” a little more than “prom.” Other party guests had similar market excursions; I saw more than a few dresses I had eyed at the market earlier in the day. Here’s a photo of me and my friend Anna, the prom queen, in our finery. Yes, we are wearing blue eyeshadow.

Check out my linebacker shoulder pads!

Check out my linebacker shoulder pads!



The Movies

Finally, I also discovered one of Malawi’s joys that I had previously been missing: the bootlegged DVD. DVDs are a popular item among street sellers here, and collections come with about 18 movies to the disk. While street sellers will generally get as much as they can out of muzungus like me, my friend found a place in Old Town that sells the DVDs wholesale, so we went to have a look. Oddly, collections tend to be grouped by actor; does anyone really love Nicholas Cage enough to watch all of his films? In addition to movie collections, popular American TV shows are also available, including Desperate Housewives, 24, and Gossip Girl – too bad I never got into any of those shows. The Chinese origin the packaging is obvious when you come across collections like “American College Sex Movies,” which is not porn, but includes Road Trip and at least several of the American Pies. (The Chinese subtitles are also a giveaway.) While the operability of the disks tends to be hit and miss, for $1.20 each, I can’t really complain. These are probably not an only-in-Malawi item, but they were nonetheless a welcome find. Since there are no movies theaters in the entire country, DVDs are about the best one can do for mindless entertainment!

January Travelogue (Part III of III)

February 4, 2009

Cape Town, or, maybe this should have been split into four parts

Wednesday morning dawned sunny and bright, but we didn’t notice because we were in a black bedroom. That’s right. The room we had originally been assigned in Daddy Long Legs had a problem with the sink, so we stayed in the black and white Protea Room instead. It was bigger and more interesting than the one we had to return to later that day. (Our room for the rest of the stay was called Traveldog and had a blue puppy motif – fine, but not nearly as creatively decorated as some of the rooms.) Since we had had a lot of early mornings recently, we slept in a bit, had a leisurely breakfast at an excellent vegetarian café on Long Street (Portobello), and made our way toward The Waterfront.

Protea Room at Daddy Long Legs
Protea Room at Daddy Long Legs

Before leaving Malawi, we had reserved tickets for the 3 PM tour of Robben Island, so we had some time to kill. While I was picturing the Waterfront as a collection of cute little shops, it is basically a giant, tourist-oriented mall with lots of chain stores. We tooled around for a while anyway, and I found a Moleskin planner, which I had asked Elizabeth to bring but she was unable to find in DC. Since we had a late breakfast, we went with a light lunch – I had ice cream! This was my first ice cream in months, since it doesn’t really exist in Malawi (see previous dairy lament). Then we checked out the Nelson Mandela museum at the Robben Island Gateway while we waited to be herded onto our ferry.

Far from home (Cape Town Waterfront)
Far from home (Cape Town Waterfront)

Robben Island has a long history of being a place of banishment/imprisonment from the mainland. It had previous incarnations as a colonial prison, a leper colony, a military outpost (WWII) and was a political prison during apartheid. Today it is a museum and a must-see on tourist lists, though most of the tour takes place on a bus. I didn’t feel that I really got to experience “being on” the island and I wasn’t very moved by the experience (though I had expected to be).

WWII Gun Emplacement on Robben Island
WWII Gun Emplacement on Robben Island

I couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause – it may have been the lack of historical context provided on the island, or the fact that the recounting of the prisoner experience made it seem not so bad, compared to what other South Africans face in their daily lives, or that we were rushed by Mandela’s cell in a mandatory visit.  In short, it felt like a tourist experience instead of a thoughtful reflection on the historical importance of the island.  The whole tour was very hurried, because the island tries to accommodate as many visitors as it can (at $18 a ticket). We got back to the Waterfront about 6 PM but decided that we were both done with what it had to offer, so walked back to our hotel. Dinner was at a burger joint, recommended by the receptionist at our hotel. I enjoy a good burger every 6 months; this makes me a bad vegetarian but is good for my borderline anemia. Or so I say.

Mandelas cell on Robben Island
Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

Thursday was the first “unplanned” day of our vacation, so we took the opportunity to see some of the many sights and museums that Cape Town has to offer. We started with a walk through Company Gardens, which were originally started by the Dutch East Indian Company to provide food for the Cape Colony in the 1650s. Today, Company Gardens are more flower-oriented, and a number of museums and government buildings surround them. (Think a smaller and more tended version of the National Mall.)

Pigeons roost on Mr. Rhodes
Cecil Rhodes in Company Gardens

Next, we stopped at the District Six Museum, a tribute to Coloured residents that were forced out of their city homes to Cape Town’s suburbs during the 1960s apartheid regime. (Coloured is a widely used term in South Africa, and generally refers to people of mixed heritage descended from freed slaves rather than native African people. Slaves in the Cape Colony largely came from Indonesia. Wikipedia has a decent article that explains more.) The museum mixed personal narratives with historic facts and was, I thought, a good way to learn more about South Africa’s tumultuous history, which is otherwise fairly easy for the casual tourist to ignore. I would recommend this museum over a trip to Robben Island, if one has to choose. (Plus, it’s MUCH less expensive.) We headed next to the Gold of Africa Museum – an interesting contrast to District Six, to say the least! Photos weren’t allowed, and I didn’t want to be tackled by a security guard so I abided by the rules. We saw some very intricately wrought jewelry from all parts of Africa, including earrings the size of dinner plates and a ring with a decorative mudfish the size of a fist. I guess gold doesn’t inspire modesty!

From here, we stopped next door at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of South Africa, because the door was open and I like to duck into places. A very knowledgeable volunteer appeared when we entered and told us all about the church, which is one of the oldest in South Africa. It was built to look like a barn from the outside, because religious freedom wasn’t tolerated in the 1770s, when it was built. We had a look around, and also learned that Strand Street (where the church is located) used to be along the beach. Much of lower Cape Town was reclaimed from Table Bay during the apartheid era.

From here, we were on to the Bo-Kaap Museum. Bo-Kaap is a section of the city traditionally inhabited by the Cape Malay, Muslim descendants of Indonesian slaves. The museum was small and not overly exciting; we had been warned about exploring the area on foot so didn’t see much more of Bo-Kaap. After a short break at our hotel, we headed for Table Mountain. The weather was a little iffy, with clouds (also called the “Table Cloth”) rolling in and out, but since we had plans for Friday and Saturday, we went up anyway. An up side to the bad weather was that the mountain wasn’t swarming with tourists; we had our own private cable car on the way up (and only shared with two other people on the way down).

Elizabeth enjoys the view from our private cable car
Elizabeth enjoys the view from our private cable car

It was COLD at the top of the mountain; I was definitely the chilliest I’ve been in Africa. I put on both my fleece and a nylon rain jacket, which cut the wind quite effectively. The view from the top of Table Mountain was lovely – when we could see it. I also have a lot of photos of mist! Though the view was obscured, the mountain was also a great place to see some of the flora and fauna of the region. The Cape has its own floral kingdom with a lot of biodiversity, so while I saw a lot of pretty things, my Iowa-bred plant identification skills were not very useful here. We stopped for dinner between the mountain and our hotel and retired early, as this was a day with a LOT of walking.

Cape Town from Table Mountain
Cape Town from Table Mountain

On Friday morning, we hopped on a train for Stellenbosch, one of the Cape’s best known wine-producing regions. We had looked at a number of wine tours, but since our pocketbooks were getting slim at this point, decided to use the Vine Hopper, a hop-on hop-off “bus” (that was actually a suburban). We killed an hour or so wandering around Stellenbosch, then headed off for the wineries, perched in the hills of the surrounding area. We stopped at Hidden Valley, Alto, Bilton, and Klein Zalze; Alto was particularly notable for its port and Bilton for its wine and chocolate pairings. Klein Zalze was the largest of the wineries we visited and it definitely had more of a corporate feel. Their spit buckets were black plastic – classy! The Vine Hopper dropped us back at the train station in time to catch the 5:15 back to Cape Town.

Artsy wine photo
Artsy wine photo

One thing I was really looking forward to in Cape Town was Thai food, so finding some became our adventure for the evening. We ended up at Yindees, where I had the best panang tofu EVER. Whether it was the best ever because it was well-prepared or because I really wanted it to be remains debatable, but it was delicious!

Saturday required another early wakeup for our tour of the Cape Peninsula. Our guide picked up two other students – one Brazilian, one Swiss – and then we all headed out of Cape Town. Our first stop was in Hout Bay, a former fishing village and now bedroom community for Cape Town, where a colony of seals live. No one in the group wanted to do the optional (read: pay more) tour of the seal island, so we walked along the shore, checked out the boats and the one seal that could be posed with for a fee, and then went on to a shark lookout point.

Boats in Hout Bay
Boats in Hout Bay

The waters near False Bay are great for surfing – and also for sharks. Therefore, the region employs “shark spotters,” who perch atop cliffs overlooking the water and keep an eye out for anything suspicious. Other places in South Africa, like Durban, use off-shore nets to keep sharks away from surfers, but Cape Town is a popular gathering place for whales, which would also get caught in the nets. Apparently the shark spotting program is fairly successful, but I decided not to test it after our guide regaled us with the tale of a surfer who lost a foot last year.

View from the Shark Spotter Lookout Point
View from the Shark Spotter Lookout Point

From there, we were on to Boulder Beach and its colony of penguins. I have a TON of penguin pictures; they were pretty cute! African penguins, also known as Jackass penguins, are found only along the southwestern coast of the continent. These weren’t as active as the arctic penguins I’ve seen (not in real life, only at the Henry Doorly Zoo), but they were still fun to watch. We ran into a tour of Cornell and University of Toronto alumni on Boulder Beach – so someone DOES go on those absurdly expensive trips advertised in the back of the alumni magazine!

Penguins at Boulder Beach
Penguins at Boulder Beach

We spent the afternoon in the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve. We had a little bike ride before lunch, then went on to the Cape of Good Hope – the most south western point on the African continent. We hiked over to Cape Point, taking in some stunning views along the way. The shoreline was rocky and dramatic, and though it was hot out, there was a great breeze coming off the water. Most of the climb was uphill!

Off Cape Point, currents from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.  (Can you see the waves breaking at sea?)
Off Cape Point, currents from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. (Can you see the waves breaking at sea?)

After the nature reserve, there were a few more stops on the way back to Cape Town, including at an ostrich farm and a whale sighting (from very far away), but the reserve was definitely the highlight of the trip. We took some time to chill out and shower after the tour, and then went to a touristy game restaurant to celebrate Elizabeth’s last night in Cape Town. She had an adventurous charcuterie plate, which included crocodile, springbok, ostrich, and kudu, and also had warthog as the entrée. Who knew ostrich was a red meat?

Elizabeth displays four types of meat
Elizabeth displays four types of meat

We headed out early on Sunday morning, wanting to get a nice brunch in before Elizabeth had to leave for the airport at noon. I had waffles on the brain, but soon realized that there were no waffles to be had in Cape Town – at least none within walking distance of our hotel. We eventually found a bakery that served pancakes, which would have been more accurately called crepes. Since Elizabeth was already looking for an excuse to come back to South Africa, we decided that she should open a waffle and dessert shop on Kloof St. (If anyone is interested in an offshore investment, you know who to contact.) After checking out of our hotel room, we played speed Scrabble in the lobby until her taxi arrived.

Representing the Alma Mater at the end of Africa!
Representing the Alma Mater at the tip of Africa!

I then got in my own taxi to Rondebosch and the University of Cape Town, where I would spend the next few days. My taxi driver could NOT find the All Africa House, the building on UCT’s campus where I was supposed to stay, so I saw Middle Campus about six times – all while the meter was running, of course. I spent the rest of Sunday afternoon exploring campus, doing some grocery shopping, and reading my book.

I spent Monday in a variety of meetings for Telluride, which sponsors a fledgling exchange between the University of Cape Town and the University of Michigan. My Tuesday interview plans were canceled at the last minute, so I spent much of the morning at the nearby Cavendish Square mall, indulging in all the consumerism I miss in Malawi. (Not really, but I did buy new jeans and a computer printer and got a haircut.) In the afternoon, I caught up with Nate about his exchange experience, and spent the evening hanging out in nearby Observatory with Nate and his friends. I even met one Nebraskan who was very surprised to learn I not only knew where Scotts Bluff was, but also had visited. (To be fair, what I remember most vividly about that Nebraska vacation is walking around some fossil beds in ridiculously hot weather, terrified that I would be bitten by a rattlesnake.)

I dont know what this flower is, but it was pretty
I don’t know what this flower is, but it was pretty

Wednesday was my last day in South Africa, and I spent my morning walking around Rondebosch, writing postcards, and buying a few grocery items that I wanted to take back (including blueberry jam and, yes, cheese). In the afternoon, I shared a taxi with another All Africa House guest to go to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, which Elizabeth and I had wanted to visit but decided a prohibitively expensive taxi ride from Cape Town proper. I enjoyed a few hours walking around the grounds and photographing South African flowers, but was glad we hadn’t blown a lot of money to see them. My last night in South Africa was spent doing laundry – with a real washer and dryer! – which I enjoyed a truly inordinate amount.  (It’s amazing, the things you miss!)

Kirstenbosch Gardens
Kirstenbosch Gardens

I was up before the crack of dawn on Thursday, and realized only after I was at the airport that arriving more than an hour early for my flight was completely unnecessary. During my layover in Johannesburg, I spent a few of my last rand on a Cosmo magazine for a friend, but was unable to find a copy of The Economist. I definitely should have bought the one I saw in Cape Town! The flight to Lilongwe was uneventful; I arrived back at home around 2:30 PM. My luggage arrived too, and this time nothing seemed to have been pilfered. (My Leatherman was stolen from my checked luggage somewhere between Lilongwe to Durban, and I am still disgruntled.) So, now: AmyinMalawi is back in Malawi!

January Travelogue (Part II of III)

February 1, 2009

Durban and Inauguration in Cape Town

Our first full day in South Africa started bright and early. We had continental breakfast at our hostel and then headed out to a Zulu village visit, arranged through Tekweni Ecotours. The village wasn’t far outside of the city, but involved driving through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a beautiful country (even if the twisting roads did induce a little motion sickness).

Looking out over one of a thousand valleys

Looking out over one of a thousand valleys

I was afraid the village tour would be touristy and invasive, but it wasn’t; we had a guide who lived in the village and showed us around. None of the cultural practices were explained very clearly for a Western audience, but it was interesting to see how the Zulu live and work now. The clash of modern South African cultural with traditional Zulu culture was clear, as most of the Zulu men work in Durban and return to their villages outside the city on the weekends. Most Zulu homesteads are built into the hillside and have several buildings; a rondovel for the kitchen, rondovels or square houses for the living quarters, and an outhouse.  Cattle have traditional importance for the Zulu, and at the center of each homestead is the kraal, similar to a corral.  Our tour consisted of walking around the village, seeing various places of cultural and religious importance, making a “love bracelet” from the river reeds, and eating a traditional Zulu meal.

Zulu cuisine is similar to what’s available in Malawi; the main component of the meal is a maize meal starch. The Zulu version is grainer and less sticky than nsima, and more difficult to clump together. I also thought it was not as highly processed as the flour used to make nsima, but it may have been a trick of the different texture. We tried an array of Zulu vegetables: spinach, a tomato gravy, a cabbage dish, and some pumpkin. I enjoyed the cabbage dish and asked how to make it. I don’t remember everything, but one of the main ingredients was an onion soup mix (the packet kind), which I thought didn’t seem very traditional at all!

Fanta, a traditional Zulu drink?

Fanta, a traditional Zulu drink?

After lunch, we admired some beadwork and watched a dance performance by some of the children in the village. They were adorable. Elizabeth and I were invited in turn to join, so we did. I somehow managed to look like I was doing the can-can instead of the Zulu kicks!

A Zulu kick?

A Zulu kick?

We spent the late afternoon and evening in Durban, and walked around the neighborhood (Morningside) where we were staying. Though Durban proper is said to be dangerous, the suburbs are somewhat safer and our hostel was in neighborhood with a mix of residential and commercial buildings. We had a glorious grocery store experience at a Super Spar, where I observed that all groceries are about 1/3 the price in South Africa that they are in Malawi. To add insult to injury, much of the food available in the two places is the exact same thing, as Malawi imports the majority of its food products from South Africa. Dinner was at a small Thai restaurant, where we were impressed with the price (less than a dollar!) and quality (pretty good) of the house wine available in South Africa.

Saturday was another early morning, as we departed at 7 AM for a game drive in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Nature Reserve, about 3 hours north of Durban. We had booked a weekend trip with Amatikulu Tours. In retrospect, we could have saved a lot of money by renting a car and doing the drive on our own, but I was expecting Malawian quality roads instead of the near-US quality roads South Africa has. Our guide was good, too, and filled in a lot of gaps in our knowledge of South African history, Zulu culture, and game animals. For those of you unfamiliar with the game reserve concept, it’s basically a large parcel of land set aside (and fenced in) for animals; ideally, the animals are native to the area and not introduced or reintroduced, though maintaining this balance within a fenced reserve is a challenge. Since the animals are in their (more or less) natural habitat, sightings are not guaranteed like they are in a zoo. One drives around, tries this path or that, and hopefully sees something good.

Male Nyala

Male Nyala

Indeed, we did see a lot of animals in the park, including giraffe, impala, buffalo, kudu, nyala, zebra, warthog, baboon, monkey, wildebeest, rhinos and many bird species. Sadly, we didn’t see any elephants or cats; I’m hoping to remedy that with a visit to South Luangwa (just over the Malawian border with Zambia) later this spring. We spent the night at the misnamed “Hilltop Camp,” which actually involved sleeping in a very lovely chalet and eating professionally prepared meals. It was here that I had my first encounter with a hair dryer since arriving in Africa in September. (It’s the little things.)

Rhinos

Rhinos

Sunday morning started with a 5 AM game drive, but the weather was misty and then rainy – not prime animal viewing conditions. After breakfast and some more driving later in the morning, we left the park for the St. Lucia Estuary, home to many hippos and crocodiles. We took a 2 hour boat ride through the estuary and saw fish eagles and Goliath herons, as well as many hippos! Don’t worry, the boat was large and competently captained. Hippos are the most deadly animal in Africa, but apparently the most dangerous place to be is on land, between a hippo and the water. We escaped without hippo incident and headed back toward Durban. The evening was pretty quiet; we had dinner nearby and both spent a little internet time assuring our families that we were still alive.

Hippos

Hippos

Monday, our last day in Durban, was spent exploring the city itself. We started out around 9 AM with a money-changing adventure; Elizabeth had brought US dollars and wanted to change them to South Africa rand. In Malawi, this is a pretty simple process, and a lot of change bureaus don’t even charge a commission. I was expecting a similar situation in South Africa, which was obviously not the case. Suffice it to say that after two hours, two banks and one mall, money was eventually changed, and we headed for the beach. Durban is on the Indian Ocean and a popular surf location; the water is much warmer than the Atlantic around Cape Town and on the west coast. Durban is a popular holiday destination for international travelers to South Africa, but has been eclipsed by Cape Town since the mid 90s. Thus, the beach was fairly well-developed, but not overcrowded.

Indian Ocean and Durban skyline

Indian Ocean and Durban skyline

We meandered down the boardwalk until we got to uShaka Marine World, reportedly the 5th largest aquarium in the world. Perhaps there’s a big shelf between the top four and uShaka, as neither Elizabeth nor I was terribly impressed. We watched part of a dolphin show, toured the aquarium, and caught a seal show that only featured seals as minor characters in a drama about saving the environment. It was well intentioned, but are people who paid $10 to get into an aquarium really the ones clubbing baby seals, anyway? Doubtful.

Jellyfish at the uShaka Aquarium

Jellyfish at the uShaka Aquarium

Next we headed towards Durban’s city center and the Victoria Street Market, which turned out to be more like a mall for tourists than a real African market. Regardless, we bargained our way to some nice souvenirs there and tried “bunny chow,” a Durban delicacy that involves curry inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread. It’s actually tastier than it looks, and as an added bonus, cost only $1.30. We wandered the streets around the market, which mostly housed (surprise!) more markets, these targeted more to the South African population. We also saw the outside of the Jumah Mosque, the largest in the southern hemisphere, but were too late to go inside. We headed back toward the hostel and spent a few hours chilling out before we went for dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Durban has the largest population of Indians living outside India and Pakistan; the British originally imported them (under colonial rule) as hired labor for sugar plantations and many stayed and built lives for themselves.

Vegetarian bunny chow

Vegetarian bunny chow

On Tuesday, Inauguration Day in the United States, we flew from Durban to Cape Town, arriving at our hotel around noon. Our Cape Town accommodation was on Long Street, a lively area of town, in the Daddy Long Legs Art Hotel. Each room in the hotel was decorated by a different Capetonian artist, and it is both quirky and awesome. Instead of traditional mints, there were complimentary rolls of Mentos on our pillows and free for the taking in the lobby. We definitely consumed more Mentos over the next few days than either of us had previously had in our entire lives.

Hotel stairway (more interesting than most)

Hotel stairway (more interesting than most)

We spent our afternoon walking Long Street and visiting the Greenmarket Square craft market, where each vendor tried to convince us, in turn, that they would give us the best price. Actually, vendors were far less aggressive than at the Lilongwe market, which was nice and made the experience more manageable. Having more-or-less skipped lunch in favor of Mentos, we had an early dinner. Nate (previously visiting Malawi, now back in Cape Town) joined us and we staked out an Irish pub showing Obama’s Inauguration. Though it certainly wasn’t the same as being in DC, it was quite moving to watch, from the African continent, our first African American president take the oath of office. Many friends and family members have sent me links to photos and articles, and among the best were this photo spread from The Boston Globe and this art piece from The New York Times, which I think nicely captures some of the joy and wonder of the day.

Nate watches Obama take the oath

Nate watches Obama take the oath

After toasting Obama, Elizabeth headed back to the hotel and Nate and I went to a folk concert put on by an acquaintance of his.  It was nice to see live music again, but I definitely felt like an old person:  I was ready to crawl into bed when I got back to the hotel after midnight!  But a good night’s rest was necessary, since Cape Town had a whirlwind of activities in store for us in the coming days.  (Part III, coming soon.)

January Travelogue (Part I of III)

February 1, 2009

Editor’s note: I generally try to avoid blow-by-blow posts about what I’ve been doing, but since I’ve been MIA for a couple weeks, and since people keep emailing about what I did and saw in South Africa, this will be exactly that. After I started writing, I realized that a single post on my travels would be far too long even to hold my mom’s attention, so expect a few installments. And finally, if you don’t care about the minutiae, look at the photos and come back for more thoughtful ruminations next week.  So, without further ado:

Amy’s Trip to South Africa, Part I

(in which Elizabeth visits Malawi)

Elizabeth arrived in Malawi on the afternoon of January 11. Nate and I met her at the airport and we chilled at my house for a while, eating some Larry’s Cookies that she brought for my birthday treat. Around 5, we headed to Chameleon, an expat-oriented bar that has jazz on Sunday nights. Nate is studying jazz piano at the University of Michigan (and currently the University of Cape Town), so he was excited to hear some Malawian jazz. Most of what was played was actually recognizably American (including an curious remix of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”), but the highlight of the evening was when Nate did a little guest spot at the keyboard. He says it wasn’t very good because he couldn’t hear himself (the speakers faced out), but it was great to see him in his element.

Mosque, Coca-Cola, just another day in Old Town Lilongwe

A mosque obscured by a Coca-Cola truck, just another day in Old Town Lilongwe

On Monday, we bummed around Lilongwe, wandered through Old Town, visited the craft market, and had some grocery store adventures. Fortunately, Elizabeth is as enamoured with food culture as I, so she didn’t mind wandering the aisles of the various grocery stores in search of interesting things. (This came in handy once we were in South Africa and I was basking in the presence of a well-stocked cheese aisle.)  It was a pretty low-key day, since Elizabeth was still adjusting to Central Africa Time! We made a Thai-Indian fusion dinner with dal and an eggplant curry that I adapted from Fat Free Vegan Kitchen.

Lake Malawi

Lake Malawi

Tuesday morning, Nate ventured off to visit some friends in Blantyre and Elizabeth and I headed toward the lake. Our destination was the Mua Mission, which is a Catholic parish, museum, and wood crafts shop. A couple wrong turns and some rough roads meant we arrived shortly after noon, which, as anyone in Malawi can tell you, is lunch hour. For everyone. The mission does serve meals, but since we arrived at 12:15 instead of 12 noon, we couldn’t join lunch. Instead, we walked around the mission grounds, looked at the wood crafts for sale, and watched very muddy water spill over the hydro dam. I cringe to think how much topsoil is lost annually here; most sources peg the annual loss around 35 tons/hectare, or roughly 14 tons/acre, though estimates vary widely and certainly much higher losses are experienced on steeper slopes.  By way of comparison, the USDA NRCS’ level of “acceptable soil loss” (which is certainly not sustainable, by the way) is 5 tons/acre/year.

Goodbye, soil fertility

Goodbye, soil fertility

Eventually, everyone returned from lunch and we were able to purchase admission for a tour of the museum. Unfortunately, we were stuck touring with a large group of students from Chancellor College. The museum is interesting, but really not set up for large groups of people. Combined with the lack of ventilation on this very hot day, I spent half the tour interested by Malawian culture and half wondering when it would be over. This is reportedly “the best museum in Malawi.” Whether it is the only museum remains an unanswered question.

Mua is a Catholic mission, but most carvings were more religious than others

Mua is a Catholic mission, but some carvings were more religious than others

We rolled out of Mua about 3 pm, by which time Elizabeth was famished. We drove back in the direction of Lilongwe, but stopped at a lakeside hotel in Chipoka for a meal. In typically Malawian fashion, we were handed a menu and made our choices, only to be told those things weren’t available. We reevaluated, placed our order, and went to sit at a table along the water. Half an hour later, the waitress brought out a tablecloth. Excellent, we thought, our food is on its way. But no – the chicken that Elizabeth had ordered was now also unavailable. She reordered (again). And we waited. I told Elizabeth this had better be the best damn chicken I’ve ever eaten. We kept waiting. We were chatted up by some guys working for a tobacco company. And we waited some more. Eventually, an hour and a half after we had arrived and ordered (the first time), our food came. I’m not sure what quarter of the chicken my “quarter chicken” was, and I’m fairly familiar with chicken dismemberment. My piece had a wing, a little breast meat, and quite a bit of the back. (I suppose no one promised equal quarters; are fractions, by their nature, equal?) Maybe the cook wasn’t so good with math. It did taste good, and Elizabeth got to try the ubiquitous Malawian nsima, but we hadn’t intended for our late lunch to turn into supper! The drive back to Lilongwe in the dark/rain was not particularly pleasant. We borrowed a movie from my housemate and went to bed early.

Elizabeth tries nsima

Elizabeth tries nsima

On Wednesday, we had intended to swing by Bunda and then head for Dedza. Once at Bunda, however, it became clear that my packages had finally arrived – but had to be retrieved from the Lilongwe Post Office before 4 PM.  We did go on to Dedza, ate lunch and toured the pottery shop, but the trip was relatively short because I really wanted my packages before I left for South Africa and the next day was a holiday. (I was successful. See previous post on Christmas.) We hung around my house for a while, Nate returned, and all my housemates piled into my car for dinner at the Ethiopian restaurant. The electricity went out shortly after we ordered, but we received hot food anyway.

Thursday was a travel day; we spent the morning packing and left in the early afternoon. (Nate headed to visit his Peace Corps friend in a village an hour from Lilongwe; he left Malawi on Friday.) Elizabeth and I flew to Durban via Johannesburg and caught a taxi to our hostel. The night sky in Durban was fantastic – fluffy clouds on a pinkish background. I had forgotten how lovely light pollution can be.

Even in the dark, South Africa felt like a developed country:  our taxi was well-marked and metered, the roads had multiple lanes and reflective signs, and we passed a strip – a whole strip! – of restaurants and bars and cafes near our hostel.  We arrived, found our room, washed up, and tumbled into bed in preparation for our first South African adventure the next morning:  a visit to a traditional Zulu village.

(This and more, coming in part II!)

Zulu village sneak preview

Zulu village sneak preview