Monday, September 27, 2010

The Trouble With Africa

I wrote on this blog after my first week in South Africa, on why I am here and what I had seen in my first days in this country. It has now been five weeks since I arrived in East London, and after these weeks of cultural study and immersion, I am again looking at what it is that separates this country, and the African continent, from the rest of the world.

Africa as a continent has long been recognized for its scale: huge African skies; tall, far-reaching African grasses; large African cats and long-necked African giraffes: animals and lands worthy of exploration, study, discovery. To visit Africa has been marketed as an opportunity to leave the concrete maze of modern life and find something huge and real and wild, something that connects to the inner part of the soul which is constantly, quietly yearning for uncultivated earth and endless skies. People come to this continent to see what exists beyond office buildings, shopping malls and landscaped yards; they come to find the unconquered and unconquerable wilderness; and they come with the illusion that they will be the ones to conquer it.

These people look over East London. This city has shopping malls. It has paved roads and office buildings and landscaped yards and telephone wires and nine-to-five jobs and pigeons eating trash on sidewalks and KFC on the corner. But they don't understand that this is still Africa, that if you stop and breathe deeply, even in the middle of the city, you can feel the strength, resilience, and interconnectedness that is the unique essence of the continent. You can see it in the people: wherever they live and whoever they are, the people who live here all have Africa inside of them. As Vic Guhrs says in his book The Trouble With Africa, "The trouble with Africa is that once it is in your blood, like malaria, it is almost impossible to get rid of." South Africa has exemplified this concept in the whole of its history. People from all over the world have come to this country for their own reasons: missionaries from Germany, dockworkers from England, labourers from India, wives from Ireland, colonizers from the Netherlands -- and all of these have become Africans, just as the Xhosa and Zulu people are Africans. Instead of turning the country Dutch or English, the country turned them. You can only be in this place for so long before it adopts you as its own.

Though the city may disguise them, the big open spaces are here as well. Drive six kilometers to the beach and you’ll find yourself on giant cliffs embedded with ancient life, coated with recent life, crawling with new life, overlooking huge untamable waves crashing in from an endless blue ocean which, far in the distance, touches an equally endless, arching blue sky. Drive an hour inland through the dry, cow-spotted fields and you’ll find yourself suddenly surrounded by a thousand shades of green, climbing over immense moss-covered boulders beside towering waterfalls, staring toward ghostly canopies floating in a near-impenetrable mist, becoming engulfed by the hums and clicks and warbles and shrieks and croaks and drips and whoops that create the symphony of the forest, feeling small and foolish standing there with your worn tackies and half-filled pack and diminishing fantasy that you could conquer all this greatness, realizing the indifferent acceptance and quiet invitation that the land offers you and losing the feeling of self-importance with which you entered the forest. You may be an outsider now, it says, just as the people say, but you don't have to be one for long.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Prehistoric fish, footprints, and a dodo egg

Images: Above - the Coelacanth at the East London Museum. Below - the Nahoon footprints.

I was at the East London Museum early in the morning (7:35) to go with Kevin to meet Yvette, only to find out that she had to cancel. I’ll have to find another time that works for her. Since I was already there Kevin offered to take me on a tour of the museum, which I still hadn’t seen despite the hours I’ve spent holed up in their upstairs library. It’s a great museum with a lot of natural and cultural history, which really shows how richly diverse this small section of the country is in both those areas. The museum also has a few famous highlights that really make it something special. First and foremost is the Coelacanth, the prehistoric fish believed to have been extinct for millions of years, but which suddenly showed up in the East London harbor in 1938. It was like finding a dinosaur. The actual fish is housed at the museum, along with photographs, newspaper clippings and models. Then are the Nahoon footprints, which were made 200,000 years ago and were discovered in an outcropping of rock at Nahoon beach in 1964. They were made when a small child walked across a wet sand dune, and somehow conditions were perfect enough that they maintained their form as new sand blew across them and turned to stone, allowing these footprints to remain for hundreds of thousands of years. Finally is the rather controversial dodo egg (pictured in my post on Kevin), which the museum is struggling to keep possession of, as the family who first donated it to the museum is trying to take it back. At this point they’re not even certain that it is actually from a dodo – Kevin wants to do genetic testing, which he says would be relatively simple, but the family is worried that it could damage the egg. Of course, I would be nervous that it would turn out to be the egg of an ostrich, which some have argued over the years, and which would make it worthless. Because of its value, fragility and legal controversy, the actual egg is kept locked in a safe upstairs, but Kevin took it out to let me see it – a bland white egg encased in a clear perspex box. It looks like it could belong to any large bird. Our final stop, and one of my favorites, was the budding meteorite collection Kevin keeps in his office. It was maybe a little cooler to me than I’d like to admit: I know they're not terribly rare, but think about it - they’re actual rocks from space! And I touched them! One was sliced cleanly through and you could see the very unique and intricate crisscrossing structure in the metal. It was neat. In all, it was a very interesting and enlightening morning at the museum, despite having to postpone the interview I had been hoping for.

Nature Guides

Image credit:
(Monday, 20 September)

I was able to meet with Kevin again and he was once again very helpful. He talked to Yvette, who trains tourist/nature guides, and she said she would be happy to talk to me about the role of guides, the process of becoming one, their connection to ecotourism, and so on. Kevin says he can take me out to meet with her at Nahoon next week. Nature guides provide one of the essential components of ecotourism, which is environmental education. According to Ecotourism and Sustainable Development by Martha Honey, which I've been reading, “essential to good ecotourism are well-trained, multilingual naturalist guides with skills in natural and cultural history, environmental interpretation, ethical principles, and effective communication.” I’ve been thinking of specific questions I should ask Yvette. Outside of the basic background (what do you do, why do you do it) and my obligatory questions (what do you think of ecotourism?), this is what I have:

1. What is the purpose of guides at Nahoon and other Nature Reserves and parks? What do they teach, and what are they hoping to accomplish?

2. How much demand is there for trained guides?

3. Who benefits from the guides, and how available are they (are they mostly for school groups or tours or individuals, etc.)?

4. What is the process of becoming a guide? What is the focus of the training and the requirements for certification, if certification is required?

5. How important are guides to a reserve, park or tour?

If anyone has input on these, or other questions I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them. Kevin also talked to the owner of the Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve, which is about 30km away, who would also be happy to speak with me if we can find a time that he’s in town or Kevin has business out there. I have a lot of questions I could ask him, as an owner of a successful private game reserve, but haven’t written them out yet. These will both be really great people to talk to for background about ecotourism and nature tourism around East London, and I’m very excited to see what they can tell me.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Road Trip History

(Thursday, September 16)

Cornelius decided to take us all out to Fort Hare in Alice, which is about an hour and a half away. I was really excited to take my first venture outside of the immediate vicinity of East London. As we passed by Mdantsane and the other townships, moving into rural countryside dotted with goats and cows, Cornelius told us stories and histories related to each place we drove past. It's amazing how much he knows. I hadn't realized how complete the segregation of people was under Apartheid government until he started to explain it: how everyone was restricted to their own "homeland," designated by the government, and could not move between them or enter white South Africa without a special pass. And it's always so strange to me how recent it all was - it's not ancient history like it seems it should be. Mdantsane was huge - the second largest township in South Africa - and is made up of old shacks and new RDP housing. The RDP housing is government-subsidized, part of the promise to give every South African family a home, but still substandard. These are identical (but differently colored) block houses, placed in neat rows, shaped like kindergarten drawings (rectangle, door, two windows, roof). The rest of the dwellings are old shacks of scrap metal and wood, some sturdier than others but all looking unsteady and undignified, scattered haphazardly across the dry ground. There are no yards or paved roads - the shacks and houses just look as though they were dropped from the sky.

We drove through deep Xhosa country, where Cornelius said 90% of people would be unable to speak or understand any English. Here were the same solid rectangular brick houses, plastered and painted bright pastels, that I've become very used to. Some have fences of sticks stuck in the ground with a few wires strung around them - none of the high walls topped by spikes, electric wire, or barbed wire that are all through the city. Everywhere are the small white goats and brown, furry, horned Nguni cattle. We could see the Amathole mountains in the near distance: big, green, rolling mountains. Out here government rules and regulations don't matter much, their loyalty is to the tribal chief. Don't start imagining people out in the bush, wearing grass skirts and carrying spears, because I know some of you are; they dress just the same as they do in the city.

When we made it to Fort Hare we were given a tour of the campus by Cornelius, who used to work there as historian and curator. The main attraction was the De Beers Centenary Art Gallery. It's filled with incredible and powerful art by South African artists. The paintings and photographs were beautiful and very intense - they really reflected the very colorful, culturally rich, and often painful history of South Africa. It was really a great exhibit.

After arriving back in East London we headed off to Auntie P.'s, where she served us samp (sp?) and beans and a kind of porridge with maas that I won't even try to spell. The beans were really good, and the maas porridge was very sour and somewhat inedible, but better with a lot of sugar. Auntie P. is going to give us the majority of our food-related cultural experiences; she cooks us all the traditional dishes. We chatted for a long time, watched SA's Got Talent with all the kids and cousins who were there, then headed home laden with leftovers.

Friends and Sindiwe Magona

(Wednesday, September 15)

I had hoped to meet with Kevin from the museum again today, but had to shift it to Friday, which means I have more time to think of insightful things to say and meaningful questions to ask. It's hard work. I ended up going to Friends, a cute cafe next to the Fruit & Veg, to do some writing. They had a good grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. After sitting there writing steadily for an hour or two one of the servers, a friendly little British woman, approached me.
"Everyone keeps wondering who is this girl, who's just been writing away for hours! We thought you must be writing exams this week, or someone said you must be a journalist, and I said it's a good thing then that I wore my purple blouse today and not an older one!"
She went on and asked the usual questions, to which I gave the usual answers. Then she told me about a gentleman who used to frequent the cafe, who had traveled all around the world and wrote about each place. He had given her a copy of his complete writings, which she now showed to me: hundreds of pages of places, people, conversations and events, all around the world.
"I don't have nearly as much to say as all that."
"Don't worry, you're still young. You still have plenty of time to find things to write about."

In the evening there was a presentation on the author Sindiwe Magona at Wendy's, the book shop that Kathy and Cornelius own. It was given by an English professor from Canada who recently completed her doctorate and currently teaches at UNISA (The University of South Africa). It was a wonderful presentation. Sindiwe was born in a rural village in the Transkei in 1943, and while working as a domestic servant and raising three children on her own, she completed her BA by correspondence, and managed to get a scholarship to Columbia University in New York where she earned her Master's in Social Work. She became a very influential political activist, worked for the United Nations, and then finally began to write, with her first book published in 1990, when she was 47 years old. Her books sound absolutely amazing. They describe the life and struggles of South African women, facing Apartheid, AIDS, poverty, and oppression. I plan to get out and read them as soon as I can. It's really amazing just how much Sindiwe Magona has been able to accomplish in her life, and how much she had to overcome to make it to where she is now.

Radio Language

(Tuesday, September 14)

"You can only really follow anything in places where you speak the language. That limits you of course. . . . When you can't overhear it's no good. All you get are handouts and sight-seeing."

As I was reading Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway this line really made me think about my own limitations here in South Africa. Although most people in East London and much of the country, apart fro mthe very rural areas, can speak and understand English, only a small percentage of them speak it as their primary language. Around the city, the majority of people are Xhosa, so walking around town, in shops and on the street, this is the language that is spoken. So although I can speak to most people, I cannot overhear their comments or conversations, and I am an outsider to them, so I, according to Hemingway, just get "handouts and sight-seeing." No one talks to an outsider the same way they talk to each other. Of course all my conversations are valuable, and as I build relationships with people I become less of an outsider, but there is still that true insider perspective missing.

One way I have found to at least partially fill this void is by listening to the radio. I pick up about eight radio stations on my Zune, including a couple in Xhosa or possibly Zulu and one or two in Afrikaans, which are fun to listen to but of course don't make much sense to me (Afrikaans is interesting; for some reason it reminds me of a reading of Beowulf in its original Gaelic that I once heard, which is a very strange connection) and about four in English, which broadcast to a more diverse audience. I love this because on the radio it is South Africans talking to South Africans, which I cannot hear otherwise, and this has given me all kinds of great new insights. It's also interesting to see what kind of music is popular today in South Africa, though it's disappointingly dominantly American: Rihanna, Beyonce, Chris Brown, Jay Z, Katy Perry, John Meyer, and so on. There is local music as well of course, notably a Braai song that could only be South African and some stations dedicated entirely to music by South African artists, but for the most part the popular music is American.

I was listening to Metro FM (107.7) and heard a really fascinating discussion about culture and language. In South Africa English is "the language of prestige, the language of education, the language of business," in the words of the radio host. If a South African is to succeed outside of his or her immediate community, they will almost certainly need to know English, and if they want to go to University they must be fluent. I believe this is really necessary because of the number of languages across South Africa - there has to be something to unify them, some language they all share. But this discussion was about the importance of the mother tongue, which is being lost to some degree as the younger generations in the cities depend more and more on English. During Apartheid, English was largely denied to black people, and it was not taught in their schools. Today schools in the city are taught in English, so the children are being educated largely in a language that is not their own.
"The most important language for a person is their mother tongue," she said, "but children are not sent to Zulu or Xhosa schools, because the schools taught in these languages are in the townships, and parents believe that township schools are of poorer quality. But why not work to improve these schools, instead of avoiding them and ignoring the problem?"
She made it all an issue of pride in who one is, pride and respect for one's culture, and placing value in language as a vital aspect of that culture. She thinks it is unreasonable and disrespectful of people to expect all South Africans to be able to speak English, even when it is not their mother tongue, and that it is a disgrace that people who cannot express themselves in English are looked down upon as uneducated or illiterate. And she fears that as children depend more on English they will begin to lose the complete understanding of their mother tongue, which means that they will lose the stories and traditions of their culture which cannot be translated with the complete meaning intact. She said that English should not be the only option for University study, that classes should be taught in both English and native African languages, and that public addresses should not cater to the English media, but should be in the first language of the speaker. The ironic part to me was that this entire discussion was broadcast in English, though it was clearly not the first language of the majority of the people involved in it. This radio station is English by necessity, so that it can reach people across the country, from different cultural backgrounds, who have no linguistic connections to each other other than English. It's an interesting dilemma. How do you connect such a diverse country while maintaining the cultural differences and barriers that produce that diversity?

Friday, September 17, 2010

7 de Laan and a Braai

Image: Macrae with members of the cast of 7 de Laan

For some reason the cast of 7 de Laan, a pretty bad Afrikaans soap opera we sometimes watch (with subtitles), was at the Vincent Park mall the other day, just a few blocks from our house. Of course we went to see them – I figure meeting South African sort-of celebrities will be a great addition to my cultural experience. It was quite an event, with a great crowd of females ranging from pre-teen to adult. Diana and Macrae got photos taken with the cast, which was fun; I waited in line with them but didn’t want to spring the R30 (about $4) for the photo. I made Macrae promise to ask them to make faces, and was surprised and excited when she actually did, and even more excited when they agreed. I've posted the proof. While we were in line a couple girls started talking to us, one who had just turned sixteen and the other who was about to turn either 10 or 11. I was thinking how 16 must be so much less exciting when you can’t drive yet, since the driving age here is 18, and how different it must make the high school experience when only the oldest seniors can drive. There must be a lot more chaperoning by parents, and much less of that independence that high school students in the US enjoy (and often exploit) once they’ve turned 16. These two girls were very silly, but it was fun having someone to talk to while waiting.

Later in the evening I was able to experience my first braai, which is the South African equivalent of a barbeque/bonfire. Kathy and Cornelius’ daughter Theresa and her boyfriend Cam were in town (they go to school at Rhodes University), as well as Kathy’s cousin, in addition to K and C’s son Marcus, his wife Thuveshni, Kathy’s cousin’s son Chad and the four of us Americans, who all live in the house. Chad’s girlfriend Erin also joined us, making it a crowd of 13 plus two dogs, Rocky and Wednesday. It was a great event, with loads of people, food and noise. I didn’t eat any of the meat or drink any of the beer, two major components of a braai, but I did participate fully in the conversation, which is the best part anyway. We spent the evening and into the night talking about books and movies (and other things) and telling stories. Cornelius told us about a time he and Kathy had hitchhiked from Capetown to a wedding in Pretoria, complete with watching a storeowner cheat clients out of their money, claiming ‘sales-tax’ if they protested (sales tax was new at this point), and getting away with it because he was white, they were poor and black, and it was Apartheid; being in a car that was attacked by baboons, trying to lure them away with bologna and watching them throw it in the trash (he swears it actually happened); and riding in a truck with rotting apple peels and cores in the back, which he learned were being delivered to the factory to make Appletizer (their Martinelli’s). We heard a lot of injury stories and boyfriend/girlfriend stories and trip stories. It was a really great night, very relaxed and friendly. I’m sad that Cam and Theresa are only around until tomorrow; I really enjoy having more college students around, and Cam has Western Washington written all over him, except for his solid South African accent.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Kevin Cole

Image: Kevin Cole with what is believed to be the only remaining dodo egg in the world, which is housed at the East London Museum.

This week I was extremely happy to be able to meet with Kevin Cole, who I introduced in an earlier post. He's the principle natural scientist at the East London Museum and has been very involved in the promotion and implementation of conservation measures and ecotourism around East London. I showed up at the museum on Thursday hoping to set up an appointment with him through Rachel, the librarian, who I've talked to a few times. She just walked right to his office and brought him back to the library, where we shook hands, sat down and talked for over an hour. It never ceases to surprise me how willing people are to work me into their schedule. Kevin told me a lot about the natural and cultural diversity of the area around East London, which gives it an incredible but underutilized potential for nature-based tourism. He is a big supporter of ecotourism efforts and thinks they could be very beneficial for East London and the Eastern Cape, but the problem is putting the area on the map. There isn't a very widespread recognition of what this area has to offer, and it will take a lot to get people to choose it over big names like Capetown, Johannesburg and Kruger National Park. Then, if people do decide to come, there are the issues of infrastructure. There isn't very reliable public transportation from the airport or between destinations, and there aren't roads that go right along the coast, so it takes much longer to get from one place to the next. Then of course there's the question of funding - when you have schools that are horribly under-financed (thus all the striking) and many other basic quality-of-life issues to think about, it's hard to see nature parks and reserves or enhancing tourism as a high priority.

Kevin told me this and a lot more, and also told me that I should talk to people who work with marketing and operating tourist destinations in the area. Of course he has all kinds of connections, so he said he would help connect me with them, which will be extremely helpful. He even offered to take me to some of the parks and reserves where he's worked on conservation and ecotourism projects, which will be wonderful. I left the museum nearly skipping. I know Kevin will be such a big help for my project, and I'm so happy that I was able to finally talk to him.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Shaping a Field Study

As I'm adjusting to life in East London and my project is becoming clearer, I'm seeing three major pieces to make up my research experience. Here they are:

1. Cultural studies and immersion. This one is constantly present, shaping and being shaped by all my experiences. This is the part where I'm coming to understand and live within South African culture, and is what makes this a truly unique and rich research opportunity.
2. Background and experience. My study is focused around ecotourism, so it's important that I experience this myself while I'm here in South Africa, and also do my best to find out about the current state of nature tourism, environmental ecucation, and conservation in South Africa. I'll achieve the first piece through visits to parks and reserves such as the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve, and the second by talking to experts such as Kevin Cole (mentioned earlier) and volunteering with a park or organization (which I'm still working to set up).
3. My project. My actual project is to find out local young adult (18-30) perceptions of ecotourism, which I will do through semi-structured interviews. So far I'm finding contacts through Fort Hare University, and will snowball from there. Yesterday I was able to introduce my project to two lecture classes, and about 15 students said they'd be willing to participate in the interviews. I'll continue to go to Fort Hare to get more students, and will be seeking out young adults from other places as well, including my church and perhaps the internet cafe where I am now.

Maria Reiche

I've been reading a lot of Bruce Chatwin, as you may have seen in my previous post. One of his stories in What am I Doing Here that especially intrigues me is that of Maria Reiche, a mathematician and geographer who spent forty years of her life studying the Nazca lines on the Peruvian Pampa. These lines were etched into the desert by ancient civilizations, making shapes visible only from the air. Reiche labored first to understand the lines, then to get others to recognize the Pampa's importance, and finally to protect it from tourists and developers. Chatwin effectively explains Reiche's intense commitment to the land and her distress as she watched more and more people coming to see it, driving over the vulnerable Pampa and altering the figures and the landscape forever. She personally saw and fought what too often happens to incredible and unique natural places as development threatens them. She first had to fight for recognition, so that the value of the Pampa itself would be seen as greater than the profits that could come from developing it. She then had to fight to keep the new streams of tourists from ignorantly ruining the lines by walking and driving across them, or even trying to etch their own additions to the ancient artwork in the desert. She made it her life's commitment to preserve these lines, and finally in 1995, three years before her death, she succeeded in gaining UNESCO protection for the Nazca plateau and the lines. It's amazing that this one woman was able to teach the world so much about the Nazca civilization, while also preserving the evidence of this civilization for future generations.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Long Afternoon

I have learned that a Zamani Daycare event requires the dedication of an entire day. On Saturday we went to Zamani, a daycare in impoverished Duncan Village where BYU students often volunteer, to watch their Mr. and Miss Zamani competition, one of their yearly fundraisers. It was incredibly cute – they had swimsuit, casual, and eveningwear segments filled with bewildered one- to five-year-olds, interspersed with dancing by older children. I was really impressed with the dancing – even the little kids can move in ways I could never manage. I sat in the audience next to a seven year old girl who quickly multiplied into ten, all fixing my hair, fighting over my camera, asking me questions, and singing along to Chris Brown, Rihanna and Usher (they knew all the words, which was impressive considering their limited English vocabularies). Partway through they pulled me outside and tried to teach me how to dance, which I can’t say was a success. They were a lot of fun, but bossy and “grown-up” in that 7 to 10-year-old way which is very exhausting and which I’m very familiar with, since my youngest sister is nine. The competition finally ended an incredible five hours after it began, at which point we were served KFC and Coke (I had some fries). That’s one thing about Zamani – the two times we’ve been there they’ve served us chicken, so as a vegetarian I’m left with mainly just Coke, which I don’t even like, but feel obligated to drink since I’m not eating the food. Other than this though I’ve been very happy with the vegetarian options in South Africa, which is something I was somewhat worried about coming here, as with any unfamiliar place. Vegetarian dishes have been clearly marked at the restaurants I’ve eaten at, no one seems particularly put off by my aversion to meat, and my host mother barely eats meat either, so when we eat together I can always share her vegetable curry. Even the fast food places have veggie patties on the menu, though I haven’t actually tried any of those. It’s definitely easier eating vegetarian here than in Utah. Anyway, after our meal, we sat and chatted with Mama Yoyo about nothing for a while, then finally got a ride home. I definitely still need to get used to the no-hurry attitude of South Africans, because I spend half my time lately feeling like I need to get a move on, but being trapped by endless going-nowhere chats, not to mention five-hour child pageants. Despite this it was a fun afternoon; I always enjoy spending time with kids.

P.S., I have a video of the dancing I'm trying to upload, which isn't working... but I'll try to add it in the future.

Nahoon Point Nature Reserve

This Friday I finally found my way out to the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve, which means I have now had my first true South African ecotourism experience. It was surprisingly difficult getting there, considering it’s only 6 kilometers from where I’m staying. First I had a difficult time finding the address or other information for the reserve, since it’s small, only a few years old, and doesn’t have its own website. I ended up looking at the satellite image of Nahoon Point on Google Maps to find the visitor’s center, and then got directions to its coordinates. The next challenge was actually getting there. My fellow Field Studies students and I depend on public taxis for most of our transportation, but they don’t go toward Nahoon. I’ve been wanting to get a bike, but I have to ask the International Studies office first, and I’m not sure where I would find one. In the end I just walked there, which didn’t take too long (about an hour), especially since I got a ride from a concerned Real Estate man for the last mile or so. Incidentally, he has a friend who does environmental assessment for hotels and other businesses around the world, which is something I’m very interested in. When I got to Nahoon I went straight for the Mercedes-Benz Coastal Education and Visitors Centre, which is the major pull Nahoon has for me. Mercedes-Benz South Africa funded this centre after being approached by Kevin Cole, who helped establish the Nahoon Point Nature Reserve, and is the natural scientist for the East London Museum (Mercedes - Benz South Africa Puts It's Foot Down...). This centre was praised in one article as “an environmental ‘feather in the cap’ for East London,” and provides the benefits of “tourism; community upliftment; protecting the natural environment; and education in general.” This means that the reserve not only provides protection for indigenous species, but also provides environmental education to community members and tourists, creates job opportunities, and draws people to East London.

The center was small but very informative and well maintained. The boards around the walls explained unique aspects of East London’s coastal environment, the archaeological wealth of Nahoon (including the Nahoon footprints, the oldest human footprints ever found), the histor
y of surfing at the Nahoon reef, and the importance of environmental stewardship. I also picked up a flyer on reducing personal impact, with lines like “You need to act NOW to save the earth!” and “There are times in human history where obligations to truth and the future of human society take precedence over personal wants, consumption and comfort. NOW is such a moment. Inside it described specific ways to be ‘green,’ such as using a clothesline, recycling and buying recycled products, avoiding heavily packaged products, using public transport – all the usual things. It always makes me happy to see these sorts of flyers, since I’ve made them and handed them out many times. There was also literature on the Buffalo City Municipality Integrated Environmental Management Plan, the Nahoon Estuary Nature Reserve, and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, all great resources for environmentally minded citizens such as myself.

The rest of Nahoon was wonderful. I ate at the Footprints CafĂ© to support the employees and the center, then walked on the boardwalk, which has beautiful views of the ocean and the life on the sand dunes. Some of the boardwalk was being repainted – another job provided by the reserve. I then walked along the beach for a ways. Scattered across the sand are millions of perfect seashells, a constant reminder of the incredible wealth of life that inhabits the reef and the surrounding waters. The shore is teeming with life as well – seabirds, small lizards, and carpets of coastal shrubs, grasses and wildflowers. Geologically the area is fantastic. The cliffs all along the shoreline are perfect layers of sandstone, worn down over millions of years to make clearly defined plates. Over and around these you can see the imprints and fossilized remains of ancient plant roots. It was really spectacular. I didn’t have my camera with me, so I plan to go back and bring Diana, the photographer.

When I returned from Nahoon I emailed Kevin Cole to find out whether he knows of ways I could volunteer at the reserve, and to ask him if we could talk sometime about the state of conservation and environmental awareness in East London. He appears to be the city’s greatest authority on nature conservation, nature reserves, and everything else encompassed by those, so he would be an incredible resource for me. Hopefully he’ll email back soon, but if not I can always try to use my connections with Rachel at the museum to get to him. He is exactly the person I need to show me what’s up with the natural environment around EL, and what’s being done to protect it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What am I doing here

Most of our lives are spent borrowing truths from other people. In school we trust our teachers to tell us what is true, and we trust that the sources they borrow from are accurate. We trust the papers and the news to let us know what’s happening in the world, and we trust books and articles to give us history and science. Most of what we know about the world, we know imperfectly, because we know it only through someone else. I came to South Africa to find out some truths, first-hand. I came to experience a small part of South Africa, to move outside of the familiar, and to find new people, landscapes, and realities. Specifically, I came to do a project on ecotourism, and the perceptions South Africans have of the industry and its implications for their country. Some experts say that South African people, communities, lands and wildlife can all benefit from carefully structured tourism in protected areas. Others say that those experts are dreaming, and that tourism can only benefit the tourist and the agency. I want to know what South Africans believe, because they are the ones who will be affected, and who will make decisions for the future. This is one thing that I will not find in books or articles, so here I am.

Travel tends to be, more than anything, a search for things that have nothing to do with us. People go to far-off places to learn about unfamiliar cultures and strange people, or to get away from whatever is familiar. Tourists go on vacation to escape their repetitive jobs and lives, and to replace them, for a short time, with something new, exciting, even sublime. And some people decide to spend their lives roaming the globe, never willing to settle into the ordinary. Bruce Chatwin was one of these. This British traveler and writer was constantly traveling to new places, meeting new people, doing anything to escape normality. His book “What am I Doing Here” is a kind of autobiography, presented through a collection of fragments, profiles, stories and travelogues that are essentially miniature biographies and portraits of people he knew or met. As Booklist reviewed, “the heart of this volume rests in Chatwin’s profiles of other people – often brief encounters that, amazingly, sketch entire lives and whole personalities in one sweeping stroke.” It is amazing how much you can learn about a person in five short pages, or in a ten minute conversation.

In my first short week in South Africa, it has been the people I’ve met who have shaped my experiences. They are the ones who are showing me what it means to be South African; what it means to be black, white, or coloured; and what it means for me to be here, as a visitor, as an American, and as an instant member of a family. The overly enthusiastic man at the Telkom store; Mechaellar from church who won't walk a block by herself, and who eagerly filled me in on all the gossip; Janeke, who laughed out loud (for an indecent amount of time) at my attempt to read Afrikaans; the taxi driver who was half-deaf, and missed four turns; the man at the East London Museum who shared his life story to four American students; the tiny girl who stared at me all the way to Duncan Village; Mama Yoyo, who took a picture with my hair draped over her head as though it was her own; Janey who went on and on about her favorite Afrikaans soap opera; her mother, who is a part of the teacher strikes and spoke of them with fire and ferocity; and endless others: These people are real, and they are East London, South Africa.