Speeding through Southern Africa

Posted by stephanie on Jun 22nd, 2009
Jun 22

I never knew I wanted to go to Namibia until I went to South Africa, but while in SA I met so many travelers who were going there that I decided to look into the country and see what everyone was so excited about.

Namibia is home to the Fish River Canyon, the world’s oldest and second largest canyon, the Namib Desert, where the landscape is a broad expanse of gravel plains and red dunes, Etosha National Park, where African wildlife roam free, and the cities of Swapkomund and Windhoek, which provide a taste of Germany in Africa (Namibia was a former protectorate of Germany).  Another interesting thing about Namibia is that it is the second most sparsely populated country in the world after Mongolia, which provides a bit of a challenge as a traveler because there really isn’t any public transportation in the country.  Getting around without a car is pretty much impossible, which is why I joined an overland tour through the region that took me all the way from Cape Town to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  I went with one of the most popular tour companies called Nomad (http://www.nomadtours.co.za/index.html), and I highly recommend them if you’re looking for a bit of adventure in Africa.  The trip took 20 days in total, and there were about 21 people in our group (some people only did part of the tour and others joined in throughout the 20 days).  It’s such a different experience going on an organized tour after fending for yourself for nearly 10 months, and there are definite advantages and disadvantages to it.  One advantage is that you can sit back and relax, knowing that all the details are already taken care of, but a disadvantage is that there is less flexibility and a tighter schedule to adhere to each day.

In addition to geographical interest that Namibia holds, it also has an interesting recent political history as it only recently won independence from South Africa in 1990 after the Namibian War of Independence.   The war of independence was begun in 1966 by the military wing of the South-West Africa’s People’s Organisation (SWAPO).  It wasn’t until 1988 that South Africa agreed to end its administration of Namibia.  Nowadays, Namibia is one of Africa’s most developed and stable countries, operating under a multiparty parliamentary democracy.

Our route to Vic Falls also took us through Botswana, another of Africa’s most stable countries and a success story economically.  The World Bank even considers Botswana one of the world’s greatest development success stories.  Our tour took us through the Kalahari Desert and to the Okavango Delta, where we had a true bush camping experience, taking traditional boats to a small island where we spent two days and nights three hours away from the nearest civilization.  While traveling through Africa I was introduced to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series written by Alexander McCall Smith.  These books take place in Botswana and are about a female detective and are hard to put down!  One excerpt from the first book really summed up Botswanan freedom for me:
In the beginning, which in Gaborone really means thirty years ago, there were very few factories.  In fact, when Princess Marina watched as the Union Jack was hauled down in the stadium on that windy night in 1966 and the Bechuanaland Protectorate ceased to exist, there were none.  Mma Ramotswe had been an eight-year-old girl then, a pupil at the Government School at Mochudi, and only vaguely aware that anything special was happening and that something which people called freedom had arrived.  But she had not felt any different the next day, and she wondered what this freedom meant.  Now she knew of course, and her heart filled with pride when she thought of all they had achieved in thirty short years.  The great swathe of territory which the British really had not known what to do with had prospered to become the best-run state in Africa, by far.  Well could people should Pula! Pula! Rain! Rain! with pride (pg. 150).

The last part of our tour took us to Zimbabwe, and interesting place to be when one is looking at freedom.  The two guides on our tour were both from Zimbabwe, one from near Harare and the other one from near Victoria Falls, so they were definitely interesting to talk to about my project.

Zimbabwe started out as part of the British colony of Rhodesia.  Nowadays, Zimbabwe is under the control of President Robert Mugabe, who has held power as the head of government since 1980 (as Prime Minister from 1980-1987 and as President from 1987-present).  Mugabe’s rule has been characterized by economic mismanagement, hyperinflation, and human rights abuses.  I was able to buy my very own (3 in fact!) 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollar notes for the low price of $1.  Zimbabwean currency has turned into a joke, and now the country is dealing in the more stable currencies of other countries, mostly the US dollar and South African rand.  Now that prices are in these currencies, everything is more expensive for the citizens, who struggle to obtain the necessities of life like food.  When perusing the BBC website, I came across something called “Harare diary:  Costly freedom,” which describes the life of a young professional woman living and working in Zimbabwe’s capital, and how her life has changed during the first 100 days under the Government of National Unity.    Take a few minutes to read what she has to say about the current situation in the Zimbabwean capital at (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8059998.stm).

The fact that my two guides were from Zimbabwe also highlights the situation of the refugees fleeing the country to live in other countries, mainly South Africa.  An estimated 3.4 million Zimbabweans have fled abroad since 2007, and about 3 million of them have gone to South Africa.

I spent several nights around the campfire talking to the cook on our tour named Norman, one of our two leaders from Zimbabwe.  At 27, Norman is responsible for supporting his family financially, so much of his paycheck goes back home to Zimbabwe, with his goal being to send his younger sister to university (an opportunity he could never afford for himself) so that she can have a life that isn’t dependent on who she marries—he wants her to be independent and self-fulfilled.  Talking to him made me really appreciate everything I’ve been given and all the opportunities I’ve been able to capitalize on, as well as how hard many people work to accomplish the same things that I too often take for granted.  When talking to Norman about freedom, he asked me “What do you know about freedom?”  This question really struck me because it got me thinking about what I do know about freedom, and lead me to the realization that in order to really understand freedom, you have to have it taken away from you at some point.  All the great icons of freedom, from Gandhi to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Mandela, have all had their freedom taken away from them at some point.  That’s why we look to them for guidance on issues of freedom.  They have seen both sides.  I have yet to experience both sides of freedom as I don’t think I’ve ever had my freedom limited or taken away.  Apart from getting myself arrested, I’m not sure how to limit my freedom while integrating back into life in the US, but learning about the struggles of others has made me realize what a gift this freedom is to me. 

My time through Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe was pretty fast-paced, and each country could easily be further explored for more than a few days, but it was great to be able to get a small glimpse into each country.  The Nomad tour was a fun way to wrap up my time in Africa.  Africa made a lasting impression on me, one that it makes on many people fortunate enough to travel there.  As Bob Geldof put it, Africa isn’t the “Dark Continent” but is more aptly referred to as the “Luminous Continent.”  Africa is such a diverse continent, but one that is full of hospitality, love, patience, and hope for the future.