Africa under my fingernails

August 19, 2008 - Cairo, Egypt

(Warning: Parts of this entry may cause distress, especially for kids, but I think it's important not to censor my experience. For the rest, sorry it's so long!)

A man with a gun sits quietly next to a road patrol police officer in Kruger National Park. The police officer is stopping people from speeding, and the man with the gun - well he's there to protect the police officer from the big five (lions, leopards, buffalo, elephants, rhinos) and other wildlife wandering around the park. Welcome to Africa, where the only way to start to understand the place is to get out into the natural environment, and what better way than a couple of overland camping tours.

I've been in Africa for more than two months and have just entered my ninth country. Each one has its own feel, and there are stark differences in the south, north and east (I don't have time to visit the west on this trip).

South Africa is a land of contradictions. Only half a generation since the end of apartheid, this often first world country has many pockets of poverty and poor living standards that make you question where you are - this is a country still hurting and coming to grips with its new era. The race divide is bubbles below the surface and is often very apparent, especially in the service industries, although there are many people who have been able to take advantage of the end of segregation.

Cape Town is easy to navigate and geographically beautiful, with Table Mountain and the rugged coastline providing endless photographic opportunities. It's very progressive, but not as lively as Johannesburg, where I didn't find safety an issue provided I took the necessary precautions.

Both cities have their townships where much of the black community lives in often rambly houses and buildings coupled together with not much more than a few bits of sheet metal, but the way people approach the slums is quite different. I was in Cape Town for the 16 June Youth Day Public Holiday, but there was barely a mention of it anywhere, even on the SABC news. Johannesburg, and more specifically, Soweto, was the centre of the 1976 student protests against education being taught in Africaans rather than Bantu, and the Hector Peterson Museum proudly stands a few blocks from the intersection where the young student, the first to die in the demonstrations, was shot. Just down the road, the Apartheid Museum presents a range of views about how and why South Africa became a segregated society, and how it affected the population. This difference in attitudes - ignorance and acceptance - are admittedly huge generalisations, but they start to explain the character of the two cities.

Moving further north, the small country of Rwanda has been facing its own demons. Only 14 years after the main genocide (there were many others before and after the mass killings that made world-wide news), the country is focusing on building a bright future and becoming an information technology hub for Africa. It's got a long way to emulate the success of Singapore in Asia, but it's a positive start in a country where there are very few dogs because they had to be destroyed after they started to eat their murdered owners whose remains laid in streets and bushland, sometimes for many days and weeks.

The psyche of the nation will take several generations to heal, but the grieving process has been aided by several memorials. While the Genocide Museum in Kigali puts the mass killings into context and presents other case studies from around the world, while the Nyamata and Ntarama churches provide a much more personal account. Both churches were havens-turned-killing sites, where thousands of people, mostly women and children, were murdered because of their tribal genetics. Piles of clothes draped on the pews or hanging from the roof, and leg bones and skulls in neat rows are constant reminders that this is real, that the blood on the alter and bullet and grenade holes in the church walls are signs of what mankind is capable of destroying.

Although I felt uneasy about a mass grave being on show, it was done in a delicate manner and ensures that these people will not be forgotten. The sign outside Nyamata Church, the larger of the two, with more than 200,000 people in a mass grave, simply states 'never again'. Meanwhile, the smaller Ntarama Church where several thousand people lost their lives includes a mostly blank honour wall with only a few score of names because most bodies could not be identified, and a banner flying that is translated to read: "If you knew me and if you knew yourself, you would not have done this to me". Hard to keep the lump from rising in your throat as the words sink in.

The scars go to the core of the country, but Rwanda is embracing its citizens and moving forward. Once a month, everyone gives up a few hours of their Sunday to pick up litter in the streets - it's just one of the signs that this is a strong-willed country that has big, positive plans for the future.

Small mud brick houses are the norm in many rural areas, where banana and tea plantations are the main crops. Green bananas are the national food across the border in Uganda, where prosperity appears to be on the rise, with some mud brick houses giving way to more western-style brick structures. However, roads appeared to be better in the west; as we drove from Rwanda through Uganda to Kenya they got progressively worse, which is quite amazing considering the dilapidated state of some of Rwanda's roads and footpaths.

Rwanda, the beautiful country of 1000 hills, lived up to its name with gorgeous green scenery that appeared to grow in stature when we entered the misty Ugandan mountains. It was a stark difference to the often barren, dry land of the Masai Mara in Kenya's south, although there were still green patches and ample food for the thousands of migrating wildebeast and zebras, along with the regular wildlife such as lions, elephants, antelopes and buffalo.

Kenya is said to be the most progressive of the East African nations, but once you leave the well-developed capital Nairobi, it often feels very third world again. Given that many structures are made with concrete rather than mud brick, the 'roads' are often in such a bad state of repair that it's better to drive alongside them. More than one million people live in taditional nomadic huts made from sticks and mud in the Masai Mara, where the cramped two-room buildings have no electricity, are filled with smoke and only have tiny windows so the Malaria-carrying mosquitoes don't get in.

But the splendor of the Mara and the beauty of lakes Nakuru and Naivasha are worth the bumpy ride. The Masai Mara Reserve rivals Namibia's Etosha National Park for wildlife, and offers a fantastic contrast from the green jungle of Rwanda's Parc de Volcanes where I spent a magical hour watching a family of mountain gorillas. Etosha had more elephants and it was always a viewing spectacle at the watering holes, but the Mara had lions and a mother cheetah eating a recently-killed reed buck while looking after her three cubs.

Namibia also boasts the Namib Desert and huge sand dunes, but my pick for a totally unique landscape is Botswana's Okavango Delta, where the reeds are so thick it's hard to tell where the land stops and the water begins. Water lillies lie abundantly on the surface, disrupted only by hippos, other wildlife and the polers steering dugout canoes called mokoroes.

Although the geographical differences are great, social issues were often the same across borders. For example, I often felt the similarities between Kenya and Swaziland, where there were pockets of prosperity alongside areas in deep need. Perhaps visiting orphanages in these countries also highlighted some of these social issues, including the continent-wide campaign to tackle AIDS, where Swaziland and Botswana are vying for the title of the worst-affected countries in the world. I spoke to a women's group in the Langa Township in Cape Town who make beaded jewellery and dog collars to raise money for AIDS education; a local tour guide in the Okavango Delta recounted her story of being raped by her former partner because he was HIV positive and wanted her to be infected too; and in Rwanda, the genocide continues today for many women who were raped in 1994 by HIV positive men in order to use AIDS as a weapon of war. Free condoms are available at border crossings, where there are always posters promoting the importance of safe sex, and in Uganda, where whole houses and businesses are painted rather than using billboards, pictures of Mr Lifesaver are featured alongside advertising for mobile phone companies, softdrinks and chocolate. Even in South Africa, a poster encouraged people affected by the disease who were now educating others and spreading the AIDS and HIV positive messages to enter a competition. AIDS is simply a part of African life, and the number of funeral parlors in some parts of the continent suggest we've got a long way to go before we start to turn the tide.

It's taken a few months of camping for Africa to get under my nails, and under my skin. People throughout the continent have been very welcoming and friendly. South Africa is at the top of my list for amazing service; Namibia is the place for sand dunes and wildlife; Botswana's natural beauty shines through, especially in the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and Nata Reserve; Zambia's Livingstone lives up to its reputation as one of Africa's adrenaline capitals (along with Swakopmund in Namibia and Jinja in Uganda) although I personally preferred Iguazu Falls in South America to Victoria Falls; Swaziland is full of beautiful winding roads through large mountains where poverty does not seem to worry anyone; Rwanda's raw openess and friendly people make you re-evaluate life; the misty mountains and contrasting rambly city streets in Uganda are picture-perfect, especially as kids throughout the country wave as you drive by; and the magical qualities of the Masai Mara and lakes Nakuru and Naivasha in Kenya are worth the plane ticket alone. I'm now in Cairo, Egypt - too early to judge, but I wouldn't be surprised if Cairo is on my top five list of cities at the end of the year.


Sunset over Lion's Head, Cape Town
These colours are not digitally enhanced
Spectacular sunset, Cape Town
Cape Point, South Africa


August 20, 2008
Fantastic post Katie!
August 20, 2008
No Katie, you cannot save the entire baby animal kingdom all by yourself.
You are certainly experiencing the wonders of the world
Love Dad
jaci moore:
August 21, 2008
Oh You make me sooooo home sick. Beautifully narated Katie. I am so thrilled you have had all this opportunity. I can't tell you how many bum shots I have of rhino.
Just lovely. Gee and I am planning a holiday with box jelly fish. But since I have not ever been to the baririer reef I am pretty excited about going there in January.
Big hugs to you girl.
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