Misc Africa

I didn’t know that…

I always thought that Afrikaans was the African language. I never realized its one of eleven official languages in South Africa, descended mainly from the white Dutch settlers and mixed with some Bantu, Khoisan, Portugese and Malay. Much of the South African signage is written in English and Afrikaans.

It seems that everyone in South Africa speeds! I went the speed limit because I didn’t want to risk getting stopped. Many people we talked with said the traffic police weren’t very honest, stopped motorists unnecessarily and took bribes. We also heard that no one pays e-tolls!

Johannesburg has the third best drinking water in the world.

South Africa is the only country that imprisoned three major world leaders at some point in their history: Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and of course, Nelson Mandela.

We met many people and everyone had strong opinions about what has happened and what is happening (both socially and politically) in South Africa. In response, I like this quote from Nelson Mandela, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Finally, I didn’t know that we would come to enjoy South Africa as much as we did — the beauty of nature, the fascinating cities, the history, the conflicts, the friendliness of its people. They say Africa gets in your blood and I tend to agree. It touches you. It makes you think. There are so many new places I want to go but one place that I want to come back to is South Africa.

Feeling at home at Mass

“If you ever have any problems on the road, remember, you can always go to a church.” That advice was given to us by someone we met in Christchurch and it got me to thinking, no matter where we’ve gone in the world, regardless of the language of the local people, we always felt “connected.”

This trip was no different. We saw many beautiful churches, synagogues and mosques but going to Mass was special. That hour each week connected us to the locals, our fellow travelers and the world at large.

For the most part, the prayer responses were always up on a screen, making it easy to follow along. (We’ve seen that occasionally at home and it makes so much sense. Why waste paper printing it out each week?) Participation and size of the crowd varied. Some sermons were better than others.

In Australia, our usual parish was Sacred Heart Mission, just down the street. It was an older church and had a small congregation — everyone seemed to know everyone. Although we were the ‘strangers,’ no one asked us who we were or where we came from but that was OK. We were happy to anonymously watch the middle-aged lady run the liturgy like a general, positioning the small choir, complaining when the pianist arrived late and correcting the older priest if he missed something. There was a young blind woman, whom they all seemed very protective of, who read the readings by braille. The hymns were older and traditional.

We also attended large cathedrals in Melbourne and Adelaide. Again there were fewer people and voices echoed in the cavernous spaces. A suburban church in Melbourne had more kids but, overall, we didn’t find that the Australian parishioners or their pastors were overly enthusiastic.

New Zealand was better. There were many more people at masses – the typical older people with a lot of young families – and the participation was livelier. Although the Mass was in English, on the North Island, we were delighted to hear many hymns sung in the Maori language by whites and Maoris together. The schools teach both languages to help preserve the Maori culture. We went to many different churches on the South Island and will never forget the eeriness of experiencing an earthquake at Christmas Eve Mass. Again the music was more traditional and the Christmas hymns the same. New Zealanders were much more curious about the “new people” in church, often asking us for our story.

But South Africa? That’s where we found the most spiritual enthusiasm. We attended a couple different churches, with two being especially memorable. St. Patrick’s in Port Elizabeth was in an upscale, beachside suburb. When we arrived, many people surrounded us but the small church was dark. The “load shedding,” however, did not dampen the spirit of the congregation. Although the organ was silenced and the priest had to shout (in broken English) without a microphone, the congregation was one of the most engaged of any we had encountered. In Johannesburg, at Our Lady of the Wayside Maryvale, we were treated to the choir of “church ladies” who sang like angels! That and seeing the women and children dressed in their Sunday finest really made Sunday mass feel like a special occasion, which it was for us as it was the last of our adventure and a truly beautiful “send-off!”

Visit to a South African township: Soweto

Soweto is a township outside of Johannesburg. It is a must see for visitors to South Africa as it is ground zero for the anti-apartheid movement. I was adamant about having a “local” guide and was pleased to find that Big Ben (or BB as Frank called him!) had lived there all his life. Our day with BB was a day we won’t soon forget.

First, let me explain the concept of a township. In South Africa, it refers to the living areas, usually on the periphery of cities, where Blacks, Coloreds and Indians were relocated to from the late 19th century until the end of apartheid.

Soweto is an acronym for southwestern township. The area currently houses almost two million people. The new government has spearheaded plans to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to those that don’t have it. There was a mix of poor (mainly) and some very nice housing but we also saw settlements of corrugated steel shacks. Although many of the very poor live there, BB explained that it is also houses people who are in the area temporarily, as the homes are cheap and, when necessary, “moveable.” The government is trying to eliminate this type of housing but it has become a way of life for many.

Soweto continues to grow. We saw many restaurants, small businesses and plans for a big shopping center. Being Saturday, the community was bustling and there were lots of kids around. When BB would stop to tell us about an area, curious kids would often surround us. Many of the younger ones didn’t understand English but they sure lit up when we gave them candy! At one point we ran out of treats. While Frank stood in line at the outdoor candy vendor, a parade of kids soon gathered behind him. That day, he made lots of friends!

After some historically significant landmarks and lots of interesting conversation, BB asked us if we would like to go “off schedule” and visit his aunt’s nearby home. We spent an hour in their dining area, chatting with her, his cousin (BB’s best friend), his cousin’s wife and their three children. The home was one of the nicer dwellings, simply decorated and very tidy. We had a delightful visit ending in hugs and promises by us to email pictures. After hearing about their passion for soccer, Frank treated BB and his cousin to tickets for that evening’s nearby match!

The “social” part of the tour ended with lunch at a popular Sowetan eatery and then it was time to take in some local history.

Our first stop was just up the street to one of Nelson Mandela’s homes. At one point, he had lived there with his second wife Winnie and their two young children. There were bullet holes in the outside walls from when police (!) would do drive by shootings. The couple built a brick wall in their living room to protect their family from the bullets.

Nelson Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla. Like many blacks, his first teacher gave him a random white name. For a long time, it was routine in South Africa for blacks to have their names changed when they entered white run institutions (schools, churches) or went to work in homes, offices or factories because the English and South Afrikaans found it hard to pronounce their names. They also thought the names were un-Christian, un-Western. The practice seems to remain as our guide’s original name wasn’t really Ben but he said it was much easier for tourists to pronounce.

Interestingly enough, just down the same street, was the home of another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, making it the only street to house two such prestigious residents!

When we arrived at our next stop, the Morris Isaacson School, we were asked to wait as a meeting was taking place. Meanwhile, BB gave us a little background on the school. In 1976, high school (!) students from numerous Sowetan schools protested in response to the white government proclaiming Afrikaans as the new medium of instruction. The students felt it was the language of the “oppressor” and were angry at having to learn all their subjects in a language other than English. They planned a peaceful demonstration, walking out of their respective schools to meet up and march to the local soccer stadium. Police fired on the students, killing several of them. Further protests ensued with an estimated 20,000 students participating. The number of people (mostly young students between ages 13 and 20) killed by police ranged from 176 to 700. The killings resulted in the anti-apartheid movement gaining international attention.

The Morris Isaacson School was one of the high schools that marched and its students were among the first who were fired upon. Coincidentally, the meeting at the school was for a group of alumni, some of whom were actually involved in the protests. Many stayed after the meeting to talk with us and we had a fascinating discussion about their experiences during the protests — they are in the process of writing a book. One of them was holding the hand of her friend who was shot!

The group also shared their concern for the decline of their once prestigious school. Having been involved in our schools, it was an eye opener, and I promised to connect them with a stateside school so they could perhaps do a cultural exchange via technology.

The final stop of the day was the Hector Pieterson museum. Just 13 years old, Hector Pieterson was one of the first students to be killed during the uprising. He has since become a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid. The museum opened in 2002 and houses photographic and audio-visual displays. It was very informative and seeing those young faces, made it all very moving.


I was sitting on the grass at a community pool watching Frank swim and smiled to myself as group of cute young ‘tweens posed for selfies. As they waited for their guest of honor to arrive for a surprise party, I engaged them in conversation. They were extremely friendly and inquisitive, wanting to know about the US. Like any kids, they were excited to talk about school and their dreams for the future. Their enthusiasm darkened a bit when I asked them what it was like to live in Johannesburg. “It’s so dangerous.” “You can’t walk around with a cellphone because someone will just grab it.” “When you are driving in your car, you have to keep the windows closed and hide your purse and phone because they will grab it.” “If you don’t give it to them, they might have a gun.” They also told me they never walk around at night. And this was a very nice, upper middle-class neighborhood. It really made me sad that these young kids had to live like this but it wasn’t the first time we had heard about all the crime in Johannesburg.

Frank and I had talked with a lot of people and I don’t think one person said it was a city worth visiting. I pictured it as a chaotic dystopia, similar to that of Hill Valley in Back to the Future II. “Crime is rampant,” Businesses are leaving in droves” and “No one goes there except to fly in or out of the airport.” But we like to keep open minds. Having a few days post safari, we decided to see for ourselves.

From afar, the city looked modern and quite nice. Unfortunately, as we got closer to downtown, we found the area pretty much as described – crowded, filthy, traffic jams, with lots of pretty unsavory-looking characters. Even our driver wasn’t very complimentary, saying he had lived there but “got out because it can poison you.” We questioned the trash in the streets or the throngs walking in front of cars and he’d say, “That’s Johannesburg.” He pointed out areas even he avoided because they was full of drug dealers and “bad people who slept during the day and came out at night.” But you can walk around parts of New York, Chicago and other cities and think the same thing. Was there more to the city than this?

We were pleased to find out that there was. We dropped off a young “safari couple” in an area that they assured us was safe and a little artsy. We saw several restaurants and a lot of young people. We discovered that although many businesses had moved out of the CBD, five major banks and some other companies remained committed to the area. This resulted in at least half of the CBD being cleaned up and relatively safe. Other areas are slowly being gentrified, attracting young professionals and new businesses. And, like any other city, there are many nicer surrounding neighborhoods (like the one by the pool). Although the perimeters of the homes had those tall walls and electrified security systems, the homes themselves were lovely. We stayed in an area called Sandton, just north of the city. Many of the major businesses have moved to this area and there are a lot of fancy hotels and upscale shopping centers.

But like all metropolitan areas, the CBD is the beating heart. And Johannesburg will need to step up. New businesses won’t locate there if their workers feel unsafe. And if businesses don’t come, unemployment, unrest and crime will continue to multiply. It will take a major investment in security. (We heard many accounts of local police who didn’t respond to calls, traffic police on the take, and jails that were full so many criminals continue to walk the streets.) Who wants to move to a city where you have to fear going out at night and live life behind walled compounds? And who will want to stay there? I know those bright young girls I met – Johannesburg’s newest generation — dreamed of escaping to other places. And then what happens?

Awesome, awesome animals!!!

Our days: 5am wake up call. 5:30 3-hr morning drive. 8:30 breakfast. 9:45 bush walk. 11:00 nap/read/watch hippos. 2:00 lunch. 3:00 nap/read/watch hippos. 4:30 3-hr afternoon drive. 8:00 dinner. 10pm sleep. Repeat.

Load Shedding (and new pics)

As an addendum to my previous blog, “48 Hours in Zululand,” here are the accompanying photos.

At various times during our trip, we joined with South African residents in experiencing rolling blackouts or “loadshedding.” Traffic lights were inoperable. Lights and air conditioning went off — one side of a shopping mall was dark — although some stores still allowed customers in(!). ATMs were out of business.

The current infrastructure, much of it in disrepair, simply cannot keep up with the demand for electricity. Although these outages are “scheduled,” it doesn’t always go according to plan. It’s hurting businesses, many of which have been forced to use generators. But generators are expensive and most small businesses cannot afford them.

For South Africans, it’s a major issue, often resulting in violent protests. For us, it was a minor inconvenience, particularly in that the outages play havoc with the already slow internet. Signals bounce around the sky and routers reboot. Thus, my photos were nearly impossible to upload but here they are now…



Frank and I spent more than just “48 Hours in Zululand.” The home province of our dear friend Magugu, Kwazulu-Natal came highly recommended for its stunning beaches, soaring mountains and great weather, as well as for its cultural and historical significance.  In addition to our visits to the Simunye Zulu Lodge and the luxurious Cathedral Peak in the Drackensberg mountains, we explored the city of Durban and relaxed for several days at the Zimbale resort. We had a car and the area was very easy to navigate. We discovered many fun neighborhoods and had some of our best South African meals. Not far from the metropolitan area is the Midlands Meander, an area of rolling hills dotted with artist studios, unique shops and cozy restaurants. All in all, we were not surprised to find out that Kwazulu-Natal is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

48 Hours in Zululand

It has been the most interesting 48 hours, illustrating the incredible contrast that is South Africa. We began in ‘heaven,’ amidst the flowering landscape and attentive service at Cathedral Peak resort– gourmet dining, poolside pina coladas, speedy internet, spa, lawn bowling(!) – all within the backdrop of the incredible majesty of the Drakenberg Mountains.

Our guide connected with a resort employee, Moses, who agreed to bring us to his home in the mountain village. We set off and after a short ride, were asked to park our car along the rugged dirt road and walk up the hill to a cluster of four small, clay thatch-roofed buildings. Three were square and one was round. Three goats and a half-blind dog wandered around the dusty plot of land. There was a grapevine terrace (a spot of cool shade!), and a small vegetable garden with maize (corn) and some cannabis(!). We were introduced to a middle-aged woman, who invited us into the largest of the square structures. We sat on small stools. Two more men, evidently the woman’s husband and another, joined us. They explained the kitchen, the roles of men and women and the process of making beer, which we tasted.

Next, we went to the round hut. The men were directed to one side of the room and the woman (me) went to the other. We were told how the purpose of this building was to honor and connect with the ancestors. Before any celebration, meat and beer are presented first to the ancestors. On bended knees, the men light and inhale herbs, calling forth the spirits as they seek advice and guidance. Evidently, women aren’t allowed inside unless all the men are gone. Then it’s the responsibility of the oldest woman relative.

I was somewhat disappointed that there weren’t any children around. They were all at school. During our travels, we had seen so many kids on the road, all in uniforms taking the often long walk to school. In the late afternoon, they’d be alongside the roads waving at the cars, hoping for some “sweets.” I was excited to find that our next stop would be a rural school. After getting permission from the two teachers (who didn’t speak English), we went into the classroom of forty three to four year olds. The kids were adorable and very well behaved. They were extremely curious about their visitors and many were afraid because they had never seen a white person before. The classroom was sparse yet tidy. Like any preschool, letters were written on the blackboard. But unlike the schools I am used to, there were few books and toys. We asked some questions through our guide. The kids learn through their own language for the first few years. They begin wearing uniforms in first grade. Meals are often provided to the kids through a social worker. Before we left, we were treated to a little song and dance! The language may be different but the enthusiasm and smiles were like any group of preschoolers. We left candy with the teachers and took down their address so we could send some coloring books when we get back home.

As we approached various villages, we encountered colorful crowds. Today was Pension Payday! Once a month, the government goes around to all the villages disbursing pension payments to those 65 and older — IN CASH! Over 16 million people are eligible for these pensions. In the rural villages and towns, markets pop-up selling produce, clothing and other goods. It’s a vital component of the South African economy. One of the towns we went through was Greytown. Juxtaposed with the crowded and chaotic town center was the wealthier side of town. As we lunched at the country club golf course, we watched local soccer moms speeding along in their SUVs after picking up their kids from private school.

Far away from town, we came along a large pile (cairn) of small rocks just off the road. Our guide Paul told us there were two explanations as to what it represented. The first was that we were entering a Zulu tribal area and anyone passing through had to spit on a rock and add it to the pile “to ward off ill luck and propitiate the spirits.” The other was directed at their enemies. As they passed the cairn, they were given two hours before they would be hunted down – yikes!

Our next encounter involved rocks, as well. The police had set up a roadblock to warn drivers about trouble in the next town. He suggested we turn around as citizens were violently protesting the lack of services (water, electricity). Paul was familiar with the roads and said he knew of another road just before that town and so we proceeded. There was no protest (“Only believe half of what you hear in Africa” – Paul) but just before the NEXT town, rocks appeared in the road, then a tree, then a few more boulders. We kept driving and dodging until Paul flagged down a heath services truck coming in the opposite direction. They informed us that the road ahead was blocked and that the locals had taken out the bridge. Needless to say, we had to find an alternate route. We were fortunate Paul knew the backroads and before long, we were back on track.

The area is going through a severe drought and many of the rivers are dried up. Every once in a while, we’d pass a cluster of large barrels. Paul told us that a truck comes by and fills them with water. At one point, a young woman was filling a container to take home. Her face was covered with clay (natural sunscreen!) and she cheerfully agreed to take a photo with me.

We passed through many more poor communities before approaching an opulent, gated area of countless uniform homes surrounded by manicured grounds. Our guide said the compound belonged to President Zuma who had built it to house his six wives and entourage. Several members of the current Congress were questioning its excessive price tag.

More driving lead to what would be the day’s final destination, Simunye Zulu Lodge, and another rock story. As we pulled up to the entrance, we were met by two young men in native costume. Lackie, the manager, said that recent rains and a tractor had taken out their road. Would we mind if we left our car at the neighbor down the road? Having no choice, we drove the half mile through the sugar fields and left the car. Frank and I crammed into the front seat of the pickup with Lackie. Paul, the other young fellow and our luggage rode in the back. It took forty-five minutes to drive 4-kilometers down a rocky, extremely rutted dirt road to reach the lodge! The rooms were nice so we settled in to freshen up. Unfortunately, our room had no running water. We had wanted a place that wasn’t too polished and this was it. No longer run by a major hotel chain, this “cultural experience” had been taken over by community through a government initiative. The grounds needed much work but the young people that worked there more than made up for it. They couldn’t have been kinder or more enthusiastic.

Curiously, there were no older people on the property. We were told that the “elder” was a polygamist and tonight he was with his “other” wife. The show was in a very warm room but we were happy to participate. Paul said the dancing was some of the most authentic and best he’d experienced. We greatly enjoyed it and followed the dancers to the dining area for the simply prepared food. There was only one other couple beside us (Danes) and we ate together. That night, we sprayed for bugs and tried to sleep.

Although they forgot to bring water for toilets before we went to bed, Lackie and Henry were outside at 7am with a bucket and sincere apologies. We had breakfast and learned more about Zulu ways and history. Frank tossed a spear and I ground some maize. In their interpretation, the round room was used to connect with the ancestors, but was also the home of the most honored member of the community, the grandmother. I took lots of pictures. The staff gathered around the camera after each shot to see them and I promised to send copies.

We packed up and headed back to the pickup. Somehow the Danes had managed to drive their car down(!) so they followed us out. It was a quiet, reflective drive back to Durban. “In Africa, always expect the unexpected,” said Paul.

He dropped us off at the Fairmont Zimbale, a sprawling 5-star resort along the ocean.

Garden Route (pictorial)

We took a 5-day road trip to explore South Africa’s Garden Route, 189 miles of natural beauty with a wide range of topography, vegetation, wildlife and outdoor activities.

Walking with the Lions

Five guards with rifles,  a few tourists (us), some chunks of red meat (so they wouldn’t want us!) and two REALLY big lions!!!