Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why Did I Hide My I-Pod During the Stop-over in Dakar?

I pulled the complementary gold-striped red blanket closer and shivered in the fake cold. It was midnight local time, 2 AM according to my biological clock and 7 PM back home. Outside the tiny portal windows I could see the halted construction of the Dakar airport.

The stewardess came on the loud speaker to let us know ground crew members would be coming onto the flight to perform a security check and clean the cabin. We would be departing in one hour. I took out my I-Pod and selected Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty in celebration of my 40 plus hours of travel from Botswana, where I had been studying abroad for four months, back to my home in Minneapolis.

A crew wearing blue vests, speaking to each other in French and Wolof, swarmed onto the plane. They called to each across the aisles as they vacuumed the floors and patted down empty seats in an attempt to find explosives. One with a garbage bag walked passed my aisle seat, and I silently slipped my I-Pod underneath my blanket.

Immediately, I was ashamed. I like to think of my self as a liberal person, or at least rational, but this quick concealment was surely one of bigotry, the result of a newly-discovered racism that made me instinctively hide my valuables whenever poor black people were around. The perspective gained after spending a semester away from the American mindset had already began to fade. No one noticed my act of prejudice, especially the ground crew, but it didn’t matter. With a movement of my wrist, I revealed my true nature.

I recognized the error and absurdity of my ways, yet I kept the I-Pod under my blanket. The reasons behind my action became more complex. Even if I was inherently distrustful of those around me, I knew there was no way someone could steal it from my lap, get past the others patting down headrests in search of liquid nitrogen, and make it onto the tarmac with the freedom to listen to my 15 gigabytes of music.

Maybe, I thought, I hid it not for my benefit, but for theirs. In Botswana, I had seen Western culture permeated throughout every facet of life. I talked to people about how their way of life was fading, replaced by something foreign to them, something they could not understand. I saw the collective identity of the Batswana being crushed by the shear weight of American influence. Some accepted it readily, for its association with prosperity, contrasted to the poverty around them, but that did not make the destruction of Tswana culture any easier to bear or witness.

I had never been to Senegal before my one-hour stop over in Dakar, so I don’t know if it’s similar to Botswana, but maybe, I thought, I hid my I-Pod not because of a racist instinct, but because I wanted to keep the Western influence out of Senegal a little bit longer. It was just a small something I could do to help stop my culture from extending further, into places it didn’t belong.

This was the real reason, I thought. Of course I’m not a racist. I settled back into my seat and tried to get some sleep. But my wondering continued. The explanation of my action as an attempt to stop Western hegemony may be a nobler cause than bigotry, but still just as ignorant. Most likely, the ground crew already had I-Pods nicer than my own. And why not? If I can listen to an I-Pod, why can’t the Dakar ground crew have the same opportunity, even if it comes from outside their society? One of the few positive realities of globalization is the sharing of ideas and technology that occurs between countries.

The biggest problem that I saw in Botswana with outside influences was not necessarily the influences themselves, but the pace at which they entered into society. It seemed as if Western culture and Western capitalist development had been dropped right on top of that landlocked, arid country, leaving its citizens scrambling to make sense of it all. While trying to figure out what to it all meant, what was useful, what was not, their culture was slowly breaking apart in pieces. By hiding my I-Pod, I was just trying, in a small way, to give the Senegalese some time to make up their minds about all that globalization offered.

Again, a nice and noble explanation, but still slightly misguided. It’s like the Coke bottle in the movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, and the confused San people who fight over its purpose, no one really understanding what it is. That story line is now outdated. When I visited the San, they had Coke bottles, and they were drinking from them. Africans are not as blinded by the light as some like to think, they understand what is going on. Some might not like what the West is doing to their culture, but that doesn’t mean they cannot enjoy Coke or listen to an I-Pod.

Development is quickly becoming focused on the individual, with microcredit and capacity building programs emerging as the most successful. Capacity building is all about giving people the option to help themselves, to make their own choices. If they want to listen to an I-Pod, I shouldn’t stop them. If they like parts of Western culture, then we shouldn’t deter that assimilation. But the problem arises when Western culture and Western development is not a choice, but something forced. That is how cultural displacement occurs. It is a fine line between forcing culture on someone and letting them pick and choose what they want to absorb. My short four months in only one African country is not enough time to figure out where that line is drawn. It exists, and finding out where is what successful development should focus on.

Eventually, I gave up my wondering, leaving the I-Pod underneath the blanket to weigh down my lap with all its complexities. Its questions would remain with me for the duration of my 40 hour journey, and probably continue to turn up whenever my thoughts went beyond American borders. After slightly overstaying their promised one hour, the ground crew left the plane and I, still not knowing why, removed my I-Pod from its hiding spot. We departed westward.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Final Adventures

The last month has gone by quick. I’m now left with two weeks in Gaborone, a week of classes and a week of finals. I sometimes get moments of realization that my study abroad experience is almost over and it’s hard to believe. I still feel like I just got here.

March was full of adventures, probably the reason it went by so quickly. My group took a weekend trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, the first time we had been out of the country all semester, and it was an experience, to say the least. After we crossed the border, and I began to watch the South African landscape unfold before me, I wondered how such a beautiful country could once support such a brutal and oppressive government.

Most of our time in Johannesburg was spent learning about its history. We visited the Apartheid Museum, which was one of the most intense three hours of my life, as well as the site of the student uprisings in Soweto. The same street that the first students were shot for protesting against the Apartheid government is the same street that Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived on. I could feel the history coming off the pavement.

I think my whole experience in South Africa can be summed up by something my professor, who did her doctorate in South Africa, said to me over lunch. We were at a McDonald’s, and I commented on how much razor wire was up all over the city. She replied “This country invented razor wire.” After spending two days immersed in its history, I couldn’t argue.

The following weekend, some of us took a trip west to the Kalahari Desert to a town named Ghanzi. This region of the Kalahari is the home of the tribe the Tswana call the Basarwa, also known as the Bushmen or the San. The Botswana government is currently in a legal battle with the San after forcing them to relocate several different times off their lands, and many human rights NGOs have formed in the region to help resist the oppression of the San. We went to a museum about San culture in the village of D’Kar, where many San have been relocated to, some through force. D’Kar was described to me as a “big refugee camp” by a Fulbright scholar here studying cultural tourism and the San.

Besides the museum, we also went on a guided bushwalk in the Dqãe Qare Game Farm (pronounced with several clicks), owned by the tribe of Ncoakhoe (also pronounced with several clicks.) This game farm is actually now the only lands the San can live on in their traditional hunter-gather way, and the Batswana government only allows this because the game farm was a gift to the Ncoakhoe from the Dutch government.

However, only the staff of the Dqãe Qare lives on the farm, and none practice hunting or gathering. Mostly it serves to house tourists, although it does host cultural events put on by the San community. We went on a guided bushwalk with the Ncoakhoe, where we followed around an old woman with a big stick, who would point to different plants, say something in Naro (the language of the Ncoakhoe) and then wait for another one of our guides to translate for us. We learned about lots of different medicines, tried a desert potato and a Bushman salad, and learned about how the San find water in the dry season. (They burry empty ostrich egg shells filled with water during the wet season and come back when they can’t find other sources of water.)

Another exciting event was our private meeting with former President Masire. Masire was president of Botswana from 1980-1998 and wrote an autobiography with the help of a former president of Carleton, which is how ACM was able to arrange our meeting. In his retirement, Masire does a lot of peacekeeping work and the most interesting part of the dinner was talking with his personal secretary. They had just been in Kenya, trying to stop the post-election violence and form an agreement between Odinga and Kibaki. They also were recently in Rwanda, and it was incredible to hear about the continuing impact of the genocide.

I also got to watch two Botswana national soccer games, one against Zimbabwe and one against a club team from Brazil. They lost both times, but it was still entertaining to watch. This week, we went to the Jwaneng diamond mind, one of three in Botswana and the wealthiest in the world, something my Motswana roommate referred to as “our lifeblood.” Botswana has used much of its diamond revenues for good, like free universal education and healthcare, so I can understand why my roommate referred to it in that way. To me, it looked like a big hole in the ground.

Now, as I end my third to last week in Gaborone, I cannot believe all my adventures are coming to an end. I still have one last big trip to go, after finals. Three other Grinnellians and I are going up to Victoria Falls for a week, and then over to the Namibian coast for another week, then I’ll head back to Grinnell for Blockparty and graduation. If all goes well, I’ll be spending my 21st birthday on the shores of the Chobe River, on the border between Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’ll be a great end to a wonderful semester abroad.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

My First Safari

The saddest part of my semester abroad was probably last Sunday night, driving from the Sir Seretse Khama airport into Gaborone. I had just spent a week up north in the Okavango Delta and the Kalahari Desert, and as I entered the city, it seemed like all the modern conveniences and achievements passing by me could not compare with all the things I had just experienced and seen.

The first night of my safari was spent in the Okavango Delta, the only inland delta in the world. We camped out in what was, in simplest terms, the “bush.” To get to our campsite, a dozen natives of the area piled me and the rest of my fellow travelers into mokoros, traditional canoes made by hollowing out tree trunks. (Later, I saw one of the trees used to make these, it does not seem like an easy task.) Two people fit into one mokoro, along with one standing poler in the back, who somehow navigated through the thick reeds that made it impossible to see anything in front of us.

Right before we reached out campsite, we started to hear grunting noises coming from very close by. The guide on my mokoro did not speak much English, but he was able to come up with “hippo,” as we looked frantically through the reeds. Thankfully, we never got close enough to see what it looked like—hippos are very territorial and cause most of the animal-on-human deaths in Africa—but we did hear it grunting throughout the night.

Luckily, I was able to see hippos from much farther away on the second part of my safari, in the Kalahari Desert. The first few nights we stayed at the Nxai Salt Pans, one part of the Kalahari, which is basically like an ocean with no water. They have almost no animals in them, because all of the salt makes the water there undrinkable. After dark, I was able to see the stars clearer than I had ever before, with the illuminating Milky Way going over my head from one horizon to the next, cutting the night sky in half.

Most of the time in the Kalahari was taken up with the ever-present “game runs.” These consisted of sitting in the back of an open-air truck, driving for eight to ten hours a day. Not exactly up to caliber with Hemingway or Kipling. Surprisingly, it was exhausting, bumping up and down on the dirt paths of the savannah. And worth it, I was able to see cheetahs, lions, hippos, elephants, and any type of antelope you could think of, some I didn’t even know existed.

The best part was that I got to see most of these animals close enough that they could have killed me if they wanted to. I did not know the power of a lion until I looked up through the windshield of my safari truck and saw one staring me in the face. I didn’t know how dangerous an elephant could be until one crossed the road about ten meters in front of the truck and turned to look at us, head on. For a split second, I thought that my life would end underneath the remains of a beige four-wheel drive, but instead of charging us, the elephant got scared, quickly turned and ran away faster than I thought an animal of that size could run.

The last night we stayed in the Makgadikgadi National Park, another part of the Kalahari. We camped on a cliff looking over a now-dried-up river, and as soon as I saw the view our site provided, I considered jumping over the cliff and living in one of the trees with the monkeys for the rest of my life. I then realized that I probably would die after four days on my own, so instead I just continued to look. The only thing I could see was miles and miles of savannah, miles and miles of trees and animals and birds and everything else I had experienced in the last week of my life. I watched thunderstorms roll over the landscape as the sun set, and my friends and I left only when we were told the lions would be coming out soon and we needed to get back into the protection of the main campsite.

It’s hard to think about my week long safari, because I know I won’t be back there for a while, if ever. It was an incredible experience, going to a place I didn’t even know existed six months ago and most people still don’t know exists. I hope that one day I will be able to return, somehow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Traveling Around

Exploring the city of Gaborone in my first weeks made me forget sometimes I had left North America for Africa, which provided a very easy transition for the other Americans on my program and me. I began to think that maybe our American culture had just been transplanted to this foreign land without any of us knowing. But as I traveled around the country more, I started to see past my first impressions and began to realize what kind of country Botswana really is.

Since I am only in the country for a semester, I am trying to see as much of it as possible. The social life on the University campus is not that exciting, so I and the other students on the program have been going on a lot of weekend trips.

The first one we took was to a place called Serowe. Technically it is still a village, but it is the largest village in Southern Africa. I don’t know what makes a village a village, but this place was definitely not a city. There were goats all over the place, and we almost hit a few. The cars didn’t slow down and stop for them; they just honked loudly and hoped they’d get out of the way. There was a central area with a shopping center, but it was mostly traditional houses sprawled out all over the place. After arriving, walking through the bus rank to find a ride to where we were staying was really the first time I was complete aware of my different skin color. I know they had seen white people before, but after eight got off the bus, looking lost and confused, everyone swarmed around, trying to offer us a ride. One vendor woman just straight up asked us: “Where’s my money?”

In Serowe, we stayed in a place called Khama Rhino Sanctuary, home to thirty white rhinos and two black rhinos, as well as thousands of other animals. When I say we stayed in it, I mean we actually slept inside the park. We had to be driven around by a guide whenever we wanted to go somewhere, because it is very easy to come across a rhino or a leopard. We went on a game run while there, and it was probably the most amazing thing I have done so far, and probably one of the most amazing things I have ever done. For lack of a better simile, it was like living in The Lion King. We saw rhinos, zebras, ostriches, antelopes and a whole bunch of other animals I had never heard of.

That night, I broke the rules and walked a little ways away from the designated “camp” with some friends to an old wooden look-out post we had found earlier. It was rotting and shaky, but I was able to climb to the top to watch the sun set over the savannah. I hope I never forget what that looked like.

Last weekend, we went on another trip to a place called Molepolole. This is closer to Gaborone, and we only spent a day there, but it was still quite an adventure. We visited a cave that was believed to hold evil spirits, until David Livingstone spent a night in it and proved the local chief wrong. It smelled like bat poop and we met a Rasta-man on the way up smoking a joint out of a twenty Pula (the local currency) note who told us he was going “to kill the dragon.” After that we tried to find the ruins of the old London Missionary Society (which no one, except Lonely Planet, had ever heard of) and then the aloe forest (which no one had heard of until we described it as “the forest that scared the Boers away,” a local legend about the Boers invasion.) Once we arrived in the aloe forest, we met either a drunk or crazy—or both—woman who made us try the aloe plant, calling it the “number one medicine.” I almost threw up.

I know when I first came to Botswana, I was surprised at the level of development and influence of American culture in this country—and I still am. (In Molepolole, we got a ride from a combi that had two television screens in it, playing Shania Twain and Celine Dion music videos.) But I have also realized that this is still a Third World country. A lot of the development, it seems to me, is really just on the surface. There is not much infrastructure. For example, Botswana has not been developing its own power sector, because it could always import cheaper electricity from South Africa. Now, South Africa is facing a power crisis and has cut off Botswana. The power now frequently shuts off without warning, along with the hot water, something even the locals get mad about.

Another good example, which I’ve been thinking of as a microcosm of the whole nation, is the pool they have on campus. It is Olympic-sized, and during orientation they made a point of mentioning it as a source of pride for the campus. I was excited to start swimming in it, as it gets unbearably hot here in the afternoon, but so far I’ve swam in it only once, the first week of school. Although I’ve gone almost every day since I’ve been here, it has always been “dirty.” I don’t know why it’s dirty, but they always tell me it will be clean in a week. Now I’ve stopped asking and I just go right to the smaller, cleaner pool. One other American remarked; “Why would they build an Olympic-sized swimming pool if they couldn’t maintain it?” I think it is a good question, a little presumptuous, but an interesting thought.

It seems like a lot of the things they do here is simply because they can do them. They build malls all over the place because they have the money to and because people want to shop, even though they are still one of the most unequal nations in the world, with huge levels of unemployment. Maybe, as Americans who are used to having things like working pools and large malls, we can have the freedom to critique. Botswana is still a young country, trying to figure out its explosive growth. So far, I think they’re doing a pretty good job, and I have been having a lot of fun, even if I don’t really understand all the time what’s going on around me.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Botswana Travels- part 1

The first two weeks of my semester abroad in Botswana have been full of things that remind me of home. They started in the Johannesburg airport, on the tarmac to our flight to Gaborone, sitting next to an Asian Muslim family as their two-year old sang “The Wheels on the Bus.” We attended a traditional dinner as an introduction to Tswana culture, where we, among other things, played an African game that was basically “Duck Duck Grayduck” along with “London Bridge is Falling Down.” At another traditional dancing performance, one of the dancers slipped on her pair of Crocs as soon as she was finished dancing.

The more time I spend in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana and the largest city, the less these reminders of home begin to seem out of place in an African country, and more like normal occurrences. Coming to this place, I had no preconceptions of the area, and I could not have been more surprised at what I would find. The main thing to do in Gaborone is go to malls. I have never been to so many different malls, so many times in my life. I think I average about one trip to the mall a day, sometimes two trips. Some of these malls are combination strip malls with open-air markets, but most are typical shopping centers you would find back home. The most interesting site so far is the road-side vendors underneath large umbrellas selling candy and food right in the shadow of these massive malls. I have also seen a few cardboard shacks advertising “Hair Cut,” “Car Wash” and even “Defensive Driving School.”

Although there are many things to remind me of home, I have seen things that I would never see in America. We had a traditional dinner the second night we were here, were I tried caterpillar and goat meat. After the dinner, the native women in attendance started to dance and attempted to teach us their songs and dances. Some of the students were more successful than others. We also spent a day at a game reserve not to far from the city, were I saw four elephants, an ostrich, some antelope-like impala, and a whole bunch of giraffes. I have been eating a lot of traditional food from the roadside vendors, which includes a giant bread dumpling, rice, chicken or beef, pumpkin, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t really describe—all for only 12 pula, about two dollars American.

One thing I have not seen a lot of here is poverty. It exists, but it is not as apparent in Gaborone. Botswana is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and with a population of around 1.6 million, most of the wealth in concentrated in the city. I have seen two very very bad shantytowns within city limits, but other than that, most people here seem pretty wealthy. The students on campus dress nicer than any other student body I have ever seen. In the coming weeks, I hope to get out and see more of the country, so I can get a better picture of what it actually means to live in Botswana.

Another thing I haven’t seen is the effects of HIV/AIDS on this country. For those of you who don’t know, Botswana has the highest rate of AIDS prevalence in the whole world, the UN has estimated that around 40% of the population is HIV positive. If I hadn’t known this statistic going into this semester, I probably would not have been able to tell. There are the occasional advertisements on billboards and in newspapers promoting safe sex, as well as free condom dispensers everywhere, although most of the time they are empty. Other than that, and the occasional side comment in conversations, you wouldn’t know the epidemic had spiraled out of control.

I do not know why the AIDS crisis is not so visible here, even though it is a huge problem, and I have been heard conflicting viewpoints about the epidemic in general. My Setswana (the other national language, besides English) teacher told us yesterday that the AIDS epidemic is really not that bad—she actually referred to the crisis in the past tense. Anti-retroviral drugs have been distributed free here since the late 90s, curbing the problem and making it less visibly apparent. She said that the 40% rate is much too high of an estimate, and that it is actually only around 30%. Even if that were true, that would mean about one in three people would have AIDS, better than two in five, but still a huge problem. On the other hand, I’ve also heard that the University of Botswana has the highest AIDS rate in the country, making it the “AIDS capital of the world.” I don’t know which viewpoint is true, but either way, it still is a huge problem.

I have been spending a lot of time with the people on my program, as well as the other Americans here. The University of Botswana has around 40 Americans currently on campus, the most they have ever had. The other 18 students on my program (organized by the Associated Colleges of the Mid-West) are amazing and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to spend four months with. I can’t remember the last time I laughed as frequently and as hard as I have been in the last two weeks. Some of us went to an Applebee’s-like restaurant in one of Gaborone’s most popular shopping malls a few weeks ago, and it could have been the three dollar mixed drink, but sitting in that restaurant talking with all of my new friends, I forgot I was in Botswana and thought I was back in the States.

The thing that amazes me the most about my first two weeks here in Gaborone is not the American influence, the giant shopping centers, or even the public transportation, which is basically made up of fifteen person, semi-broken down vans called “combis” that stops whenever and wherever you want, and holds as many people as can be stuffed in. What I find most surprising is the way I fit in here, the way I feel perfectly at home. This could be due to the prevalence of American culture, and if I was European, Asian, or from another African country, I might not feel as comfortable as I do now. I don’t know. But for better or for worse, maybe that’s what globalization is really about; feeling at home wherever you go, even halfway across the world.

It’s also hotter than hell.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Botswana Travels

Well, I don't know if anyone still reads this thing, but I just wanted everyone to know that I'm going to be heading out to Botswana this Thursday for a semester abroad and probably won't be posting much on this blog from then until I get back in mid-May. I know I haven't been posting much anyways, but a semester's worth of school work can do that to you.

What I do plan on doing is writing "letters from abroad" and emailing them to my friends and family. This seems like a popular form of communication, and I'll post them on here as well. If you want to be included on this email list, let me know at raderstr@grinnell.edu. I'll have periodic access to email if you want to contact me for any reason, but other than that, I have no idea about other forms of communication.

So, have a good four months and happy new year!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Evils of Sesame Street

Most of you probably watched Sesame Street growing up. It is one of the longest running shows in television history, as well as one of the longest running experiments in child psychology and education. It was started in 1969 and was one of the first shows to use television to educate children. Last month the first five seasons were released on DVD, and many nostalgic adults eager to share their childhood with their children were shocked to learn that these "early 'Sesame Street' episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today's preschool child."

How could that be? Have we really gotten so paranoid that we think ancient Sesame Street episodes could actually hurt preschoolers? Sesame Street has been through many controversies, from Ernie and Bert outed as gays, to the more recent revelation that Cookie Monster could be teaching children obesity. It seems like a sad reflection on society that even Sesame Street needs to be labeled as potentially dangerous to children.

I don't know the reasons the company had to issue this warning, but in their defense, Sesame Street has gone through many changes since its creation. It is constantly going through focus groups to improve its teaching capacity as time changes. The Sesame Street from the first season is much different from the Sesame Street of today, and the older episodes are not designed for children today, but for children of the sixties and the seventies.

However, the PR person that made the decision to put a warning on the Sesame Street DVD probably wasn't thinking about the evolution of the show, only about how overprotected parents might react to the old-school Sesame Street. Apparently, the first episode has a segment with a young girl going home with a strange old man to have some cookies. There is no way the producers could do that today, without lawsuit threats from a number of concerned parents.

This warning label reflects how hyper-concerned our society has become. Sesame Street was created to entertain kids as well as adults, so parents could be engaged in their children's education. Parent reinforcement of education is an important aspect of learning, either real-life or televised. These DVDs give parents the opportunity to tell their kids why they shouldn't go home with strangers, or just eat cookies all the time, even though those things once happened on Sesame Street. The warning label isn't necessary, and parents should be involved enough to teach their kids the difference between right and wrong.