AFRICA 2016 – Journal fifteen – last for now!

DAYS 88-91. MARCH 5th – 8th, 2016. DURBAN TO DEVON.

Friday and Saturday were days of little new, just relaxing with my old friends – friendships strengthened by my five visits to southern Africa on which they have provided me with a base and home from home. Now, early on Sunday, the 48 hours of the journey back to Harberton by Tuesday lunchtime has begun. I am writing on a bus from Durban to Johannesburg, a bus on which I will sit for eight hours, about as long as tomorrow night’s flight from Kenya to Amsterdam. But all I have to do now is sit and wait.

*

So what of this trip? And where next?

South Africa… One of the strangest countries in which I ever travelled. A place full of beauties and some of the most wonderful natural pleasures – completely overshadowed by its contemptible social issues. On Saturday morning we were up early to drive to a large outdoor market to the west of Durban. I think it started as a sort of farmers’ market but appears to have developed into a food and ‘stuff’ market. Breakfast was good and the chocolate brownies worth going for but the rest was somewhat unattractive. The market exists in a semi-formal setting on a hilltop in the lovely Shongweni Valley, with shaded stalls and large grass car parks. There were perhaps a couple of thousand people there – it is a popular weekend event.

Yes, you’ve guessed what I am about to write! There wasn’t a black person there, except for a few employees of white stall holders, assisting in serving coffee and food, and a very few black stallholders selling a very few things that actually looked as if they might have originated somewhere in Africa – some wooden carvings and wire sculptures and the like. There were plenty of Asian faces, this being Durban which has a large Indian population, but NO black people! This country is NINE TENTHS black. But you wouldn’t know it, so invisible is the majority and so very visible the tiny minority.

I can’t take it any more. I have become so sensitive to this issue that it colours my whole view of South Africa. I am so conscious of it that I ascribe virtually all my reactions to it. I mean, I am sitting on a bus as I write. It’s filling up as we travel. There are no other whites on board and the seat next to mine looks as if it will be the last filled, since all the passengers are black. I do think South Africa really works at such a damaged instinctive level, I really do.

“They still blame everything on apartheid! It’s time they got over it. Apartheid has been gone more than twenty years!” Someone said a few days back – a common cry amongst the whites. (’They’, you note).

But such grossly immoral, appalling injustice, that coloured this land for half a century in law and a lot longer in practice, is not overcome in just twenty two years! Most social and economic faults of apartheid are still firmly in place; it’s only the legal framework that has gone, nothing else. All the privileges cling to the whites, as does so much of the wealth, ownership, land and assets of the nation. They may complain about positive discrimination but I don’t see many of them living in shacks made of old rusty corrugated sheets, recycled timber and old plastic that surround any town and city here, sprawling across dusty miles always way out beyond the flowering trees, razor-wired gardens, security-gated bungalows and smug coffee and gift shops of the inner towns.

There is a growing black middle class, it’s true, and the whites always tell me this. So there should be. Blacks outnumber whites by nine to one. It seems to me there should be nine black-driven gleaming 4X4s on the road to every white one. The converse is probably no exaggeration.

I have to work hard, and create a lot of surprise, to make South African black people look me in the eye and return a smile. They are conditioned not to make eye contact with white people, not to be familiar, not to expect equality. If this is my imagination (as I am sometimes accused), why is it the opposite in surrounding countries that did not have the disgusting social engineering experiment of apartheid imposed upon them for several generations? National characteristics are a product of nurture more than nature and 100 years of undermined national psyche will probably take another 100 years to grow out of the communal memory and myths of the people.

South Africa is the only country where I am conscious of, and embarrassed by, my skin colour. The black South Africans assume that as a white I share the prejudices of so many of my colour – and the white South Africans also assume I share their prejudices and see me as an ally.

*

So, for a while, I have been in South Africa enough. Beautiful country; wonderful climate; very economical to travel – it’s just too unhappy and too far from my liberal principles for me to ignore all that I see as injustice. Recently I have more enjoyed South Africa for its proximity to its neighbours than for itself. Maybe someday Mike will find me a project and maybe I will be lured back by the delights of Lesotho. But for now, it’s time for new travels. My only disappointment on this trip was not to return to Zimbabwe, but maybe I will find equal though different pleasures in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia – all of which open up with the acquisition of the new Kenyan piki-piki (motorbike)!

*

I appreciate the old comfortable friendship with Yvonne, now almost forty years, and with Mike, with whom I have bonded happily in these trips. We’ll meet again sometime. And for the two Stevens I have a warm fondness. I’ve loved the freedom of my red motorbike, but that’s over now as it became more of a liability than an asset. It’s been great to be warm for three months and to have so much stimulation and sunshine. Another 900 photographs, another 90,000 words, a lot more stories if I can find listeners, a wider view of life and apart from a swollen knee (hospital next week…) I’m as fit as ever – and thoroughly cheerful.

*

I’m booked in a guest house near the airport tonight, with a free shuttle service. Then tomorrow I fly north once again until the next time I return to this remarkable and fascinating continent.

I’ll be back!

*

Now I am in a high flying sardine can once again, somewhere over Egypt. With a slight limp and a good deal of charm I managed to blag my way into a full-stretch exit row seat thanks to the sympathy of the cabin attendant. KLM is good that way! By strange coincidence, my neighbour is Ghanaian; he lectures in English literature and maths around Africa for the Cambridge examination board (always pronounced ‘Cammbridge’ in Africa). I’m grateful for the extra space, minimal though it is even now, since my right leg has swelled uncomfortably to about half again as big as my left. It’s the cabin pressure; the attendants warned me about the probability of it happening.

Only by insistence am I here at all. It appeared that when I changed my ticket someone somewhere didn’t issue me the new one for Kenya Airways and the first leg. “We can’t do anything. You’ll have to go to KLM office.” said all the Kenya Airways check in people. “But KLM office doesn’t open until two o’clock. You’ll have to wait!” Fine, but the flight was at one o’clock! It took 25 minutes on an attendant’s private mobile phone to sort it out temporarily – by me paying another 150 Euros, on top of the £114.81 pence that they seem to have no record of taking out of my bank account last week. So that’ll all have to be sorted out later. Happily, I arrived at the airport an hour earlier than I planned.

*

Flying over Kenya inspired me about my next journey! Doubtless I’ll start counting the days soon. And I’ll put myself through all the indignities of air travel again for it. To think that air travel used to be exciting and romantic. Huh. Those were the days.

*

So, another journey over. There’ve been so many. And every one of them had their hardships, highlights, trials, difficulties and, above all, rewards. Experiences, stories, lessons, friendships, fun and diversion. It’s all just become a way of life – my life!

My thoughts already begin to travel to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda! Watch this space. That’s it for now!

MARCH 8th 2016

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