Sunday, October 28, 2007

African Nights

[This entry has nothing to do with children or HIV. It does have to do with travel--lots of travel--5,300 miles of travel.]

When our Johannesburg flat was sold two months before we were to leave for overseas, it seemed like a good time to pack the car and visit theological schools in Southern Africa associated with our organization, SIM.

We left Johannesburg for the Zimbabwe border-town of Beitbridge, taking our own pillows in an effort to make the many beds feel a bit more like home. We were armed with a guaranteed internet reservation from Holiday Inn International. Zimbabwe is disintegrating as anyone who pays attention to African news knows. (We saw last night that they are now out of toilet paper. Fortunately we did not have that problem.) There was no guarantee on the price of dinner however--US$30 per person for the buffet. No options. As Steve said, with 1500% inflation, they have no concept of what thirty US dollars means.

I don’t think Holiday Inn International knew about the air-conditioner in their Beitbridge hotel. If the rattling had been constant, we could have lived with it, but it kept going on and off. Every time the banging stopped we woke in the sudden silence. Every time it started up again, we were jolted back to consciousness. Steve turned it off, and we slept in our sweat.

Nights two and three of our trek were at Rusitu, a Bible College an hour off the asphalt in the Eastern Highlands overlooking Mozambique. (See the entry “Zimbabwe.”) We slept the sleep of exhausted travelers, only vaguely aware of roosters and of RJ boiling water at four A.M. before the electricity went off so we could have hot water from a thermos flask for morning coffee.

Nights four and five found us in a guest flat at Theological College of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. A few years ago they were able to buy a former hotel for a very decent price. How many theological schools do you know that have dance floors in their auditorium? I think they are still using the old hotel sheets, most of which were about 18 inches shorter than the beds if not rotted through. Our second night we spent more than four million dollars on a pizza and three cans of Coke with a friend. The friend had to go home to get more money because he hadn’t brought enough. Of course, that was Zim dollars. The pizza was surprisingly good. (Now if they can just solve the toilet paper problem…)

The next day we waited an hour and a half in line to cross into Botswana. The little border post has its hands full trying to cope with crowds of Zimbabweans crossing daily to do their shopping. (I hope the Francistown shops have stocked enough toilet paper.) Nights six and seven we relaxed in a comfortable hotel in Maun on the edge of the lush Okavango Delta. The air-conditioner worked without banging, and the bill for dinner did not run into the millions.

Steve didn’t need much convincing to take a small detour to see game, but he regretted my encouragement to follow the signs to the giant baobab tree in Namibia’s Caprivi National Park when our Toyota Corolla got stuck in the sand. It took two lots of German tourists to pull us out. At least we didn’t spend the night. Do you have any idea how hot and dry that part of Africa is in October? Let’s just say we didn’t need any of that toilet paper Zimbabwe doesn’t have.

In Rundu, Namibia, we spent nights eight and nine in the house of a retired school teacher from U.K. who has come out to teach teachers. She has a PhD in education and is no doubt turning Namibian education up-side-down with her creative methods. One evening we ate dinner and watched the sunset at a restaurant overlooking the river that divides Namibia from Angola.

Night ten. Etosha National Park. We should have stayed five nights. We saw nineteen lions--more than in all our twelve years in Africa put together. Our home away from home was a short walk from the waterhole overlook. The bed was heaped with a white, feather-filled duvee and surrounded by gauzy white mosquito netting. It was all very romantic by candlelight when the lights went out. Somewhat less than romantic was the incessant beep of the air-conditioner resetting every time the current flickered as they tried to get the generator going.

In Windhoek we had twelve-year-old Caitlin Gunning’s room. The walls were plastered with magazine cut-outs and photos of her friends. The house was lively with five children plus a cousin studying for exams.

Our thirteenth night was definitely not bad luck. We relaxed in a room filled with antiques, and enjoyed a private dinner of bobooti and roast vegetables on a vine-graced veranda overlooking a river valley in Western Cape. I wondered about the choice of burnt orange for the sheets and towels until I opened the tap in the claw-footed bath and saw the iron-rich water that came out. Burnt orange. Good choice.

With more than five thousand kilometers under our belts, Cape Town seemed awfully tame. We stayed, as we always do, with Brazilian friends in Parow. Five nights in the same bed felt like luxury. Steve thought he was going to get all his reports written. Yeah, right. He and Lucio spent more time talking than either one of them spent writing. The night South Africa played the rugby World Cup final Steve stayed up to watch. It was past my bedtime, but I followed the course of the game with the rising roar from every house in the neighborhood, and there was no doubt who had won when the car horns and fireworks began.

On the twentieth day of our journey we loaded the car and headed across the southern strip of the continent to Tsitsikama National Park. I was a bit hesitant when Steve announced that the only accommodation available was forest huts with shared ablutions. They did have toilet paper, and the toilets flushed, so I can’t complain. The huts were tiny A-frames tucked under a tangle of vines with only room for two beds, a built-in table and counter, and a little braai/barbecue grill on the front porch. The rain held off while we cooked our boerwors and warmed our can of beans. We turned off the lights by seven thirty and were lulled to sleep with the roar of the surf a hundred meters away.

We made an early start. Good thing. South Africa is a large country. It is a long way from Tsitsikama to Kokstad, KZN. The national road is narrow and curvy, and stops for construction were frequent. The needlepoint canvas I had stitched across Zimbabwe’s wide-open spaces, sat untouched in the back seat. Eleven hours later we arrived exhausted at a little farmhouse surrounded by flowers and filled with antiques. The spring water ran clear and cold, and a large dog slept on our porch as though our security was his job for the night.

Tonight we stay with friends on the hill above Pietermaritzburg. Their garden, bright with lilies and bougainvillea, looks very civilized after the deserts, mountains and rolling pastures we have been through on our trek. Tomorrow we are off to Johannesburg and after that...

I won’t be able to take my own pillow to Wales while I research a sequel to my novel Glastonbury Tor (Kregel, 2006), but I do intend to sleep every night in the same bed.

Friday, October 19, 2007


What is successful learning? Is it being able to parrot back the information on a test or does it imply something to do with understanding?

This afternoon I read stories at an after-school program in Windhoek, Namibia. The elementary school children were enthusiastic about So That’s What God is Like and Lulama’s Long Journey Home. They asked for more and more until my voice was scratchy. A dozen stayed, looking at books and reading them for themselves after others had gone outside with a rugby ball. When they were ready to put the books away, I moved to the other room to help with homework.

A twelve-year-old girl was studying for her sixth grade social studies test. The three types of marriage are monogamy, polygamy and polyandry. A family is a group of related people usually sharing a common home. In some cultures you become an adult through gradually assuming responsibilities. In others, like the Namibian Herero culture, a girl cannot wear the traditional Victorian dress until she has been through the ritual at age 20 of being introduced to the sacred fire and the ancestors.

The twelve-year-old in front of me could tell me all about what would happen when she turned twenty, but she kept reading ‘international’ for the word ‘initiation’ in her notes, and it was difficult to coax meaning from her rather than a series of sounds that represented her memory of the words she had copied from the board at school. “Prevent egone independent” was her remembered version of “provide economic dependence” in the list of social values of the family. I’m not quite sure what that meant either but it seemed to have something to do with the family providing for children who were not old enough to work and earn money--age 14, according to Namibian law, as I learned today.

Brazilian education used much the same rote memory teaching methods when we lived there. I remember our foster daughter, Queila, being indignant when she didn’t get any points for her answer on a test. She was convinced she should at least get partial credit for her word-for-word quotation from the book. After all, the only word she had left out was the word ‘not.’

“Will you be here tomorrow?” the Namibian girl asked me today when it was time to go home. She was a lovely little girl, eager to do well, committed to memorizing everything in that notebook. But no one has ever taught her to think, to question, to integrate what she is hearing with what she already knows. No one has given her experiences that will fix what she has learned in her mind to remember beyond tomorrow’s test.

“No,” I replied, as disappointed as she was. “I am only visiting.”


[We have been out of internet range for several weeks, and internet access (and therefore this blog) will continue to be sporadic for some time.]

My children grew up in Mozambique where in the beginning I went every day to the government store that sold in foreign currency to see what we would eat that day. The wide streets of the capitol were practically empty of traffic with so few functioning vehicles in the city. “Functioning” might mean having to push it and pop the clutch to get it started, but hey, it works!

In those days Zimbabwe was a delightful place for holiday with its gracious hotels and state-of-the-art game parks. And then Mugabe dismantled the vast commercial farms. Now Zimbabwe must import wheat from Zambia raised by the same farmers previously driven from Zimbabwe. With inflation at upwards of 1500% and fuel rationed, we saw more ox-drawn plows than tractors and more donkey carts and wheelbarrows than cars in the five-hour trip from the boarder to Rusitu in the Chimanimani Mountains of the eastern highlands. Zimbabwe still exports electricity from the Caborra Bassa Dam for precious foreign currency, but her own citizens live with rationing and sporadic cuts. In Rusitu the lights come on from about 11 P.M. to 4 A.M. Our host cooked super on an open fire. He rises regularly in the night to do photocopying for the school, use the computer, bake bread and boil water to store in a thermos for morning coffee. The seminary students got up at midnight to enjoy a video.

In Bulawayo we had dinner with a family from the Theological College of Zimbabwe. Dinner was made from canned goods brought by family from South Africa since the local grocery stores are as bare as ours were in Maputo in the 1980s. Their children attend a private Jewish school although there are barely enough Jews left in town for the minimum needed for formal prayers.

Many whites have left Zimbabwe, but those who remain are staunchly committed to their country. It is a commitment difficult to maintain in the face of foolish decisions on the part of a government that seems more intent on plundering the country than taking responsibility for its future.

It seems to me that our friends would have every right to complain about the situation and lament the world their children will inherit (if they are not disenfranchised altogether because of their skin color.) Instead, they rejoice in the marvelous opportunities their children have to learn lessons that couldn’t be learned any other way. “Our children are so lucky,” is their attitude in the midst of the trials. They read with the four of them every night and discuss history, biography and culture. Their children will grow up educated regardless of the state of the schools. May they be prepared to live for Jesus in whatever kind of world they find themselves.