Travels in Southern Africa

By Margaret Selig, Servas UK ( Dec 2007)

  I have long thought about returning to Africa, where many years ago I spent two years in Ghana with Voluntary Service Overseas. Last year I became involved in the Servas Britain - Servas Malawi link, so when I heard about the Southern Africa Regional Meeting which was being held in Livingstone, Zambia, in December, it seemed to be the moment to realise my dreams.

I arrived via Windhoek, Namibia, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I stayed with the local Servas host co-ordinators. In fact there are very few hosts in Johannesburg, which I thought was going to be a problem; however my hosts very kindly invited me to stay on. My first impressions of Johannesburg, driving in from the airport, were of the networks of highways in this huge city, frighteningly fast and dangerous driving. Nearly all white residents live out in the suburbs, and there is virtually no public transport.

My first full day, 1 December, was World Aids Day, interesting for me as I am a Trustee of a UK charity supporting African Families affected by HIV. There was a lot going on in Johannesburg; I wasn't able to get to the main rally, but met & talked to some interesting people, and picked up some useful material, including a free T-shirt!

The next day my hosts had arranged with a near-by back-packers' hostel for me to join their mini-bus trip to Soweto. At first thought it seemed a bit voyeuristic to do this, but the size of the place, about 1 million inhabitants, and the distance from Johannesburg itself, make this the only practical way of getting there. Our driver had been born in Soweto, & still lived there, as do many of the new black middle class. Soweto, built to house mine workers under the strict segregation rules, has been transformed. We saw the original basic houses, which had no electricity or water in the early days, and the infamous hostel buildings where single males were housed, away from their families. But we also saw the 'modern' Soweto, houses now owner-occupied, some extended, some newly constructed, and facilities, including a large modern hospital & a new shopping mall which I was told is the largest in South Africa.

We visited the house that Winnie Mandela & her family had occupied during Nelson Mandela's period of incarceration on Robben Island, still owned by the family, who have turned it into a small museum. Without a doubt, however, the most moving part of our visit was the Hector Pietersen Memorial, a National Heritage Site. Hector Pietersen was the 13-year-old schoolboy who was shot by police during the Soweto schoolchildren's demonstration on 16 June 1976, now National Youth Day. I do remember the photo of him being carried by a friend, with his sister running alongside, which appeared on the front pages of newspapers across the world, and was one of the turning points in international condemnation of apartheid in South Africa. The focal point of the museum is this photo, enlarged to cover one wallll; most of the rest of the display consists of news reports, eye witness accounts, both visual and audio; in many ways it was all very muted, but really nothing else was needed. Only one other of my group, a Canadian woman about the same age as myself, actually remembered the incident. The rest of our party were a group of young English people, none of whom had even heard of this particular incident, but when they emerged from the Memorial building, all were visibly moved.

On leaving Soweto I had asked to be dropped off at the other museum which is an absolute must - the Apartheid Museum. The outside is plain but beautiful, with water & columns representing justice, peace & reconciliation. Inside this too was in many ways quite muted, but stark and shocking; the materials and documents on display spoke for themselves, no need for explanation or exaggeration. One feature of the visit was however significant - when you purchase your ticket you are also quite randomly given a 'pass' to get into the museum - "Blankes" or "Net-Blankes". I happened to be given the latter; I therefore had to walk past the entrance for "Blankes" and enter by the door marked "Net-Blankes". This might seem bit contrived, but the arbitrary absence of any choice over this, and the feeling that I was being treated in a different, possibly inferior, way, did have an effect.

A couple of days later I set off with my Johannesburg host, Christine, on the first part of our journey up to Livingstone, Zambia, for the Servas Regional meeting. We drove up to the border with Botswana, and had only a few miles to go to reach the outskirts of the capital, Gaborone, where we spent the night at the home of Sheldon, who is both National Secretary of Servas Botswana and the Regional Secretary. Next day we loaded up his car for the next stage of the journey. We were also accompanied by his 19-year-old adopted daughter, Stella, and we picked up another Botswanan Servas member, Dorcas, near the start of our journey. Botswana, the former British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, is huge & completely unspoilt, often referred to as the 'original Eden'. There are few large towns. We drove more or less due north along the scrub of the edge of the Kalahari Desert on a good road, skirting by Francistown, the second largest town. Sheldon had booked overnight accommodation at a lodge at Nata. All five of us squeezed into the cabin designed for four (!), but it was a beautiful spot.

The next morning we resumed our journey, passing traditional villages & grazing elephants & giraffes & reached the border town of Kasane on the banks of the Zambezi River. There was a long queue of lorries waiting to cross, goodness knows how long that takes, but cars went to the front of the queue and after a few formalities we drove on to the pontoon/raft to cross to the other side. Here four countries meet - Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe & a narrow corridor along the northern edge of Namibia. A few more formalities, visas etc., a bit of hassle with motor vehicle papers, then the heavens opened to torrential rain. It was the rainy season after all! With a bit of difficulty getting the car out of the deep mud, we were on our way again, and soon reached Livingstone. We made our way to the home of Clare & Vimbi Mateke, the new National Secretaries of Servas Zambia, who were hosting the meeting. Servas Zambia had been started by Clare's father Denys Whitehead, an Anglican missionary, who sadly died a few years ago, and is now continued by his wife Margaret, Clare & her husband, & other daughter Ruth who farms just outside Livingstone with her American husband. Clare is a curator at the Livingstone Museum & Vimbi is the Headmaster of a local secondary school. Delegates were arriving from other countries in the region. It was lovely to meet the three young men from Malawi, who knew me from my involvement with Mary Boloweza during her stay in UK, and also the Ugandan delegate, who brought greetings from Moses Kigozi who had also attended our youth event in Yorkshire last year. Clare & Vimbi have worked extremely hard to increase Servas membership in Livingstone, and we were all able to be accommodated with local Zambian hosts.

Servas Regional meeting
The following few days were taken up by the meeting & activities, and there was too much going on to report it all here. There was some discussion about the name of the region - Southern Africa, Southern & Eastern, or even 'Anglophone'. However in addition to the countries already mentioned, there was one delegate from Congo Brazzaville, who had just set up Servas there, & I translated for him occasionally. I had gone intending to be very much an observer, but inevitably was drawn into discussion. It does become clear that the countries in the region function very differently, and face situations & problems that do not affect us. Sheldon had prepared a discussion paper showing how, from the point of view of travelling & hosting, the world is very much divided into what he called the 'Dominant Minority World' & the 'Subordinate Majority World'. What does come across is that with all the difficulties facing members of the latter if they wish to travel, they are generous hosts, and participate in national & local activities as a way of maintaining the Servas ethos. We already know from Mary about the work that Servas Malawi does to help disadvantaged people in Malawi.

We did have one afternoon's break from our business, and all crammed into Vimbi's school bus to drive the short distance to the 'Smoke that Thunders', Victoria Falls. Although the cascade was not at its fullest, it was nevertheless an awesome sight. The other side of the falls is in Zimbabwe, and the bridge built by Cecil Rhodes (well, not literally!) is still there, and forms one of the crossings between Zambia & Zimbabwe. We finished off by driving through a game reserve, seeing some of the wild-life there. Finally on the Sunday morning, some went to Church with their hosts, some visited Ruth's farm, for the rest of us Clare had arranged a tour of the Livingstone Museum, where she works. I also took some time out of the afternoon's activities to meet up with an organisation I had heard about in the UK - 'LIWOMADI' - 'Livingstone Women Make a Difference'. The organisation was set up by two very enterprising Zambian women, originally to help women who were HIV+ to remove the stigma of being HIV+, to work & make a contribution to the community, to prove that life goes on. The organisation has now extended its work to helping other vulnerable women & children in the community through schools, self-help groups etc. It was particularly interesting for me, as my HIV+ charity in the UK has now formed a link with them. Some of the Livingstone Servas members are also involved with them.

Then it was time to move on. I had decided that I really wanted to visit Zimbabwe if at all possible, to see the place for myself, and especially because I work with so many Zimbabwean Asylum Seekers in the UK. I had contacted some of the dwindling number of Servas hosts in Harare, who all told me that it would be 'challenging', but that they felt it was important that travellers did go to Zimbabwe, & how much they looked forward to having a visitor. I had arranged my first stay, although I became rather worried when I couldn't get in touch with my host to confirm when I was actually arriving. It is not as easy to make travel plans as we are used to - fewer flights, problems with phones & generally getting around. I had planned to fly to Harare from Livingstone, but discovered that this is not possible. I would have either to go by road across the afore-mentioned bridge to the 'twin-town' of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side & fly from there to Harare, or go via Lusaka, the Zambian capital. In the end it was clear that that was the most practical way, so my Zambian host, who work in the tourism business, helped me to book my tickets. I left Livingstone in a tiny 18-seater plane to fly up to Lusaka, managed finally to call my Zimbabwean host, & flew into Harare. The plane was full with Zimbabweans, white & black, who had been 'shopping' in Zambia or South Africa. I myself had two bags of groceries from the supermarket in Livingstone, with items my host had requested - tea, coffee, sugar, flour, cooking oil etc., & butter(!), which survived the journey amazingly well. I did wonder if I would get it all through customs, but encountered no problems. I had not obtained a Zimbabwean visa in the UK, because I hadn't been entirely sure of my plans, so got it when I arrived. I wanted to keep the US$ I had, to give to my host for petrol etc., the Immigration Officer couldn't change my sterling notes, so I paid in Euros.

My Zimbabwean host, Sue, was very resourceful. A retired teacher, she still gives private English lessons to eke out her pension. There is no doubt that everyone in Zimbabwe, black & white, is suffering real hardship, but as ever it is all relative. I contributed to food & petrol whenever possible, with a mixture of Zim$ & US$. We even found a relatively short petrol queue one day, and Sue had managed to buy some petrol coupons. Petrol is often in short supply, not actually rationed, but you have to buy coupons for the petrol, rather than pay for it in cash, as the total amount of notes needed to pay would be impossible to handle. I also travelled around in the local minibuses.

On my first morning the man who had just dropped his son off for his English lesson gave me a lift into the centre of Harare. At first sight it is a big modern city, with tall modern buildings, a large number of which seemed to be offices or banks. I was somehow surprised by the numbers of people in the city centre, which just shows how preconceptions build up on what you see on our TV. My host had 'lent' me 5 million Zim$, which were in my rucksack, no way would this amount of notes have fitted into my money-bag, but I never felt unsafe as I feel I might have done walking around the centre of Johannesburg. Nobody really took any notice of me, I think everyone is preoccupied with their own lives & problems, but everyone I spoke to to ask the way etc. was friendly & helpful. The many banks were crammed full of people spilling out on to the streets, as everyone tries to get hold of their cash before it depreciates still further under the massive inflation rate, and the banks haven't got enough cash to hand out. I did a reccy of a few shops - a pharmacy, where I discovered that my 5 million $, almost half of an hour's teaching on the part of my host, would buy me a tube of toothpaste; it wouldn't have bought me a pack of 4 toilet rolls. I found the same thing in the supermarkets - rows & rows of empty shelves, and what there was costing exorbitantly high prices. On another occasion, in one supermarket, I witnessed a large group of people fighting when bread was brought out, with children on their mothers' backs caught up in it & screaming. I have to say that I was shaking & almost in tears when I came out.

One important point of my stay in Harare was meeting up with the family of a Zimbabwean Asylum Seeker I am involved with in UK . This was a promise I had made & I was determined to keep it - despite, in the end, the inevitable difficulties caused by a 36-hour electricity strike, & phones & computers out of action. Eventually I was able to meet up with her daughter & give her Christmas presents, some photos & a copy of a documentary video made by Amnesty International on the Destitution of Asylum Seekers in the UK, in which my friend features. Like her mother, Abigail had been a school-teacher in Harare, but like so many now in Zimbabwe, had given up teaching for an office job because it is virtually impossible to live on a teacher's salary. This is a common occurrence, as a result of which many government schools are left without teachers, which in turn has a disastrous knock-on effect on children whose parents cannot afford school fees for their education.

I then set about purchasing my air ticket to Malawi for the final stage of my trip, which again took longer than anticipated, & meant that I actually had less time in Malawi than I had hoped. I left the large modern gleaming, but largely empty airport of Harare, & arrived in Blantyre, the original capital of Malawi. Another culture shock! Blantyre Airport is a small cluster of buildings with a small airfield. Once more, from Zimbabwe I had not been able to contact the Malawian hosts I had contacted earlier, & I had not made any firm arrangements. At the airport there were no facilities; my mobile phone had not worked throughout most of my trip. In the end I borrowed a mobile from a security guard (!) & 'bought' enough airtime to make one call to Ben & Demelza, the Malawi National Secretary, who live fairly near the airport. They were actually expecting me to call them. Ben collected me & took me to their house on the school campus where he teaches. Demelza had not been able to attend the Regional Meeting in Zambia, as she had just given birth to a baby boy, Tarġn. However they generously invited me to stay with them, their son Saulo & 3 daughters, whom I had met in Dalesbridge last year. I was able to meet up again with two of the three Malawians who had attended the Livingstone meeting, & who came to give their report. It was also lovely to catch up & exchange news of Mary, and to meet some of the other Servas hosts in Blantyre.

Malawi is tiny compared with some of the other countries, land-locked, but with Lake Malawi covering a large part. It is officially the 9th poorest country in the world, yet the market in Blantyre was bustling with colourful fresh fruit & vegetable produce. my impression was of beautiful scenery, very green, lush tea plantations, surrounded by high mountains.

Demelza has worked extremely hard to build up Servas in Malawi, especially in Blantyre, and I was very pleased that I was able to visit one of the Children's Homes in Blantyre that they support as a group, 'Open Arms'. The love & care given to the children by the staff was impressive. The aim is to get the children back to their families by the age of two. Sadly this does not always happen, and the Servas group support in particular Harrogate House, where some of the older children live; the group go to organise play activities for them. I discovered that the parallel house for older children is called Richmond House, after Richmond House School in Leeds, who raise funds for them. Mary had spent some time in Leeds whilst in the UK - quite a coincidence.

On the way back
So it was back to Johannesburg for one night in a B & B near the airport, & an early morning start for Windhoek by Air Namibia. This time I had almost 12 hours to wait until my evening flight, so I took the shuttle bus into the city. Namibia, the former German South-West Africa, is another huge, sparsely populated country, much of it desert. My time was obviously too short to see very much; nevertheless even the 30 mile drive into Windhoek was interesting, through desert-scrub, circled by mountain ranges rising up in the distance. Windhoek itself is still very German, with the beautiful Christuskirche, where an enormous Adventskranze was hanging. A reminder that my trip was over, home, family & Christmas awaited.

I would like to think that my journey has changed me, showed & taught me much, & that I had met interesting & humbling people. There is still so much that I didn't have time to see - so that's a reason to return one day!