Monday, September 22, 2008

Returning to Africa

My wife and I just returned home from about 5 weeks in Africa. As with many other trips we have taken over the years, this one made us realize how little we (and most other Americans) really know about the world outside the U.S.

We traveled to Africa 30 years ago and now we wanted to return once more to see how things might have changed. Thirty years ago we had been out of the U.S. very few times, and never to a “third world” country -- except perhaps a brief foray across the border into Mexico. That Africa trip was the first time I experienced culture shock – a feeling of disorientation and loss of control from encountering social conditions that were so alien and foreign to my WASP sensibilities that my familiar ways of coping and understanding were not effective. My wife and I learned to deal with this, however, and returned home with a deeper understanding of ourselves and of our limited experience with life at the most fundamental level. How hard most people must work to make it from day to day!

When we told people about our travel plans the common reaction was (a) an expression of concern for our safety and health followed by (b) clear hints that they thought we were crazy. Why would anyone want to travel to Africa? Much of this reaction was undoubtedly based on incomplete and slanted information. The only news that Americans hear about Africa is all bad – poverty and hunger, AIDs , racial and tribal conflict manifested in massacres and genocidal wars, political instability, environmental degradation, economic collapse, etc. And this is a shame, because the reality is that Africa is complex, diverse, and quite unique – and for us at least, one of the most rewarding travel experiences we have had.

Our trip involved three countries – South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. Part of the time we were doing safaris through game parks in South Africa and Botswana, and we were pleased to see vigorous conservation and management efforts that seem to be working. “Working” here doesn’t mean that animal populations and habitat are what they would be if humans had never been around to screw things up. I’m using a more practical criterion – there will probably be something to see and appreciate for at least another thirty years. In part this is because through ecotourism there are enough people who are willing to spend enough money to make it economically feasible for these countries to leave vast tracts of their land undeveloped in the usual sense. (Question – how much is it worth NOT to develop a country?)

The rest of our time was spent in a rather different way. We have friends in Zambia who have been working there as community volunteers for the past 5 ½ years. Their current efforts involve economic and social development projects in rural areas. We stayed in Choma, Zambia, and our friends involved us in their work in surrounding villages so that we got to meet many local people and see first hand the kind of problems they face in their lives. We also got a sense of the character and values of the local people. This was a wonderful, uplifting and educational experience. The people we met were living at a subsistence level raising maize, cabbage, onions, goats, and a few cattle. Their biggest challenge was to do this in a climate where it is bone dry for about six months of the year. Our friends help local villages build small earthen dams that catch water during the rainy season and store it for the dry period, allowing the people to grow more food and rise above the subsistence level. Our friends offered expert advice, encouragement, and follow up but the people “owned” the project. Note three important things about these dams: they are simple and require no special tools or materials; they have huge impacts on the quality of these people’s lives; and the people are doing the work themselves.

Other projects include helping with the installation of simple bore hole wells fitted with low-tech pumps. The availability of fresh clean water has obvious health implications, but it also has a tremendous impact on how people (usually women) allocate their time and energy. Without wells water must be carried by hand from sources an hour or more away.

Several of our friends’ projects are primarily educational in nature – running a remedial reading clinic in Choma City, and holding “workshops” in bush locations on topics ranging from simple book keeping for a home business to techniques of conservation farming. We attended two of these workshops and we were struck by the eagerness and commitment of those who attended (often having walked several hours to reach the site).

A potential irony of the wonderful work our friends are doing is that it may someday exacerbate the conflict between values of wildlife conservation on the one hand and social development on the other. This may not be inevitable, but avoiding it will require some enlightened leadership and policy making. The approach our friends seem to be taking to their work – empowering people to enhance their own rationality – may indirectly produce just that kind of leadership.

1 comment:

PaddleDoc said...

Africa is one of those places where your travel dollars can make a difference. Especially when you spend your dollar on the local tour agency so the money stays in country. The more valuable the great landscapes and animals become in tourist dollars the more likely they will become part of the economic solution. Education above everything else seems so important and your friends are commendable for their efforts.