Ordering From Amazon in South Africa, Take Two

May 2, 2016

My 2012 blog post Ordering from Amazon in South Africa is in 4th place among most read stories on Joburg Expat. Because so many people seem to rely on it, and because it's already four years old, it needs a makeover to reflect changes since then.

The thing that's not changed, just to get that out of the way: There is still no Amazon.co.za.

However, ordering from Amazon.com (or Amazon.co.uk, for that matter, but for reasons of simplicity I will stick to Amazon USA) is now easier than ever before, even in such far-flung and postal-service-challenged places as South Africa.

How to order from Amazon in South Africa


The way it works is through a service called AmazonGlobal, and here is what Amazon says about it on its own website: "Amazon.com ships products internationally with AmazonGlobal. Available product lines, shipping rates and fees vary depending on the delivery address for your order."

To see a listing of countries under the AmazonGlobal umbrella, click here. As stated, not all items are eligible, but many of them are.



To place your Amazon order from South Africa, simply go to Amazon.com and add the desired items to your shopping cart, then go to checkout and enter your address. At this point you should see if any items in your cart don't qualify. Once you proceed, Amazon adds in all your fees and import duties up front and delivers your package via courier (Aramex), bypassing the slow and wildly unreliable South African Postal Service (SAPO).

How long will it take for my Amazon order to be shipped to South Africa?


I've interviewed several South African readers and they've all confirmed that the average delivery time with AmazonGlobal is 8 days.

8 days, people! This is mind-boggling to anyone who's ever used SAPO for any mail going to South Africa. The standards are so low that you'd be happy to know it arrived there AT ALL. Some of you might remember my experiment with Christmas cards - nothing valuable in them - which confirmed that South Africa is dead last when it comes to international mail delivery.

The fast delivery time is possible because sending the goods via courier and paying the fees and duties upfront ensures that your package will not be held up in customs. Neither will it be held up in one of SAPO's holding centers. I've seen pictures of one of those and it's not a pretty sight, especially at Christmastime. It reminded me of our school's lost-and-found bins, only a few thousand times as big (although, I'll grant them that, perhaps a bit less smelly).

How much does it cost to ship Amazon orders to South Africa?


Given that there was a time when Amazon refused to deliver any packages to South Africa at all, due to the fact that a large number just disappeared, this is a HUGE betterment for South African Amazon customers. The only downside is that of course it isn't free*. If you've been spoiled by years of Amazon Prime will living in the U.S. or Europe and are now moving to South Africa and expecting the same, you better undergo a reality check. It won't be cheap. However, it will be vastly better than having no Amazon at all and having to source all your hard-to-find items from Johannesburg street vendors. And AmazonGlobal prices are actually lower than what I would be willing to pay, given the alternative. For instance, an acquaintance recently ordered a household good for $25 and paid shipping of $14 on it. That's a pretty good bargain for secure and fast delivery.

The other piece of good news about ordering from Amazon in South Africa is that you can use your South African credit card for payment, which wasn't possible in the past. Even if you choose to have your goods delivered to a U.S. address with a friend bringing it over when they visit, you can still use your SA-based credit card instead of having to use dollar-based funds.

All in all, placing your Amazon orders from South Africa is as easy and convenient as it's never been before. If you're moving to South Africa, this is one item not to worry about.



*AmazonGlobal actually does offer free delivery to a few select countries; currently, those are Singapore (orders over $125) and Mexico (orders over $65). South Africa, as of the writing of this article, isn't one of them.

***

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My son in England - birthday - Please can I order Nespresso coffee capsules for him soonest

April 25, 2016

Please excuse the rather strange headline, but I thought I'd come right out with what this blog post is about: A collection of the most outlandish questions and requests I get through the Contact Me page on Joburg Expat. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and sit down - this one is going to be fun!
Seriously? THAT is your question?

Don't get me wrong - I get a ton of lovely comments from people all over the world, thanking me for the helpful info and asking more in-depth questions about their pending move, which I'm all too happy to answer. I also get many comments from South Africans who love how I view and write about the country they love. This blog post is not about those. It's about the "other" comments and questions I get, and you wouldn't believe how many of them there are. This is just a small sample.

Let's start with the not so far-fetched. If any readers think I'm a travel agent, I'm actually flattered a little bit. Travel writing is what I take pride in, and I do respond to most travel-related inquiries:
Greetings
we intend to go to cape town next year as a group of 15.
can qoute us please
But a large number of visitors seem to think that I'm an online store. The fact that my site doesn't list any products and has no buttons to add items to shopping carts doesn't seem to detract them. They figure they can just type up their order and I'll gladly do the rest. What I love about the inquiry from the headline is the insertion of personal details, presumably to make me more sympathetic in my quest to jump to the rescue:

My son in England - birthday - Please can I order Nespresso coffee capsules for him soonest
Of course! I wouldn't have, normally, but knowing it's your SON, and Oh My Gosh it's his BIRTHDAY, of course I'll gladly oblige and get the Nespresso capsules to him posthaste!

Some requests frankly freak me out a little bit, like this one:

How do I go about ordering the following:
Lysine Powder,
L-Proline Powder, 

L-Arginine Powder, 

L-Citruline Powder and 

Pycnogel Powder.

I have no idea what all these powders might do - for all I know they're bomb making ingredients.

Mostly, however, it's books I'm asked to supply:

Please provide quotations for the following books:
1. Microeconomics Theory: Basic Principles & Theory (2008) by Snyder & Nicholson 10th edition
2. Intermediate Microeconomics: A Modern Approach (2006) 7th edition by Varian H.R
3. The Structure of Economics: A Mathematical Approach by Silderberg (2000) 3rd edition.
4. Microeconomics (2005) by Pyndyck & Rubinfield 6th edition
5. Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics (2005) 4th by Chiang.
6. Statistics for Business & Economics (2004) 6th edition by Newbold & Carlson

How very thorough a list! I was really torn by this one. I'd hate to kill what promises to be a brilliant corporate career before it even takes off by not providing the requisite reading material to this budding business student. Such potential - the writer certainly has what it takes to reach upper management in terms of his or her ability to delegate tasks to minions!

There seem to be other items of interest on my website:
Swatch Lekker SUOP102
To whom it may concern:

Kindly advice if you have the above watch and how much is it.
Kind regards,
Lizzie

To which I want to respond: Dear Lizzie, I know how important timely delivery must be to you, seeing as you have such a keen eye for a good timepiece. Which is why I'll respond to you with more information JUST NOW!

Some tempt me just because I'd like to figure out what exactly it is people want to purchase:

WISH TO PURCHASE NANCY COFFIN CHAIR YOGA FOR SENIORS PAYMENT CREDIT CARD [Address deleted] PLEASE ADVISE PRICE AND METHOD OF DELIVERY SOONEST

I picture an ancient lady dictating this, telegram-style, to a hunched-over employee in suspenders and cap tapping away in morse code. All it needs is a few "STOPs" in between sentences, which would also make it more readable. Like, is her last name Coffin, or does she want to purchase a coffin? Or a coffin chair or chair yoga, whatever those might be? I almost responded, just because the curiosity was killing me!

This one is along similar lines:

Hi would like to buy beast/big gaint fist (cooler)from amazin, can you hep me im in SA Cape Town

But my all-time favorite request is this one:


I have a wall deviding my yard from my neighbour and in their side they have a huge tree with diversed roots,which has caused a mess on my side.I would kindly want to know who to contact and which Insurance is liable of such damage.I will greately appreciate your advise as soon as possible if you can.Thanking you Regards Vickey

Holy cow, how in the world did Vickey end up at Joburg Expat and then somehow divine that I could help her on insurance questions regarding a neighbor's dispute? Perhaps I should pair her up with this contractor who thought it important to advise me on his no doubt capable services, which might very well include tree removal:

nkulani management do tennis court repair,painting,electrical,paving,renovation and other related project.for quote contact Willies @ 0827401521
I am helpfully including these phone numbers - who knows, somebody with a cracked tennis court might read this and be grateful not to have to do further research.

If you think the insurance question came from left field, then scratch your head with this one:

I was involved in an accident last night another car road into me and I think my car is a write off , I have no insurance as well as the guy that road into me
I'm still deciding whether this is a plea for help or a very bad attempt at landing a pun - twice. Get it?

Having written about Amazon in South Africa - or, rather, the lack thereof - I get why some people think I'm their extended customer service:

I have 2nd. Generation Kindle Model D00701.
The devise is frozen.I have tried re-booting, no luck!
Can you help?
This next one I actually responded to, because I liked the writing style, I could commiserate with the guy - it IS, in fact, not easy to contact Amazon directly - and I loved the respectful tone. I mean, who doesn't like being called "Mr. Expat?"


Hi Mr Expat. I am an American but have lived and worked here for the past 20 years. Perhap I should have known better, but that's a story for another day.Here's the problem. I signed up for Amazon Prime free trial. Shortly after that I was billed - and paid by my soccer crazy bank - R1000.00! = $99. Horrified, I am now trying to establish if that is for a yearly membership, as I read it, or monthly. It is not easy to contact Amazon directly, then I found you. I sure as hell cannot pay R1000.00 every month! Checking my account i see it appears to be monthly! How do I stop it now?

Something tells me this guy, the coffin lady and the "gaint fist (cooler) from amazin" guy might find common ground:


Hi am john
west Johannesburg 
I wanted to buy greenhouse plastic polyethylene
so please give me information
thank you 
kind regards john

I kind of like John. He deserves bonus points for proper spelling. And he seems to like plants.

This is what I want to do when I get too many stupid questions.

What baffles me is how little time people seem to spend on my blog, yet determine with absolute certainty they know what it is I am offering and hence what I can therefore help with. For example, don't you think you should notice, as a reader, what language the blog is written in? See this Afrikaans lady needing help:

Hi middag ek is rerig dringend opsoek na die CD van Gail Seymour met die die van Just Relax Kan ek dit by julle bestel of kan julle vir my cod aanstuur Laat weet my asseblief Belinda

The funny thing is, I could understand all of what Belinda wants, without the help of Google Translate. I much prefer being addressed in written Afrikaans over spoken Afrikaans. When I go to my "Friends of South Africa" Tannies Teas here in Nashville, invariably I'm accosted by one of the lovely ladies who spills a torrent of Afrikaans on me without taking note of my confused face. I always have to gently tug at their sleeves and let them know I don't speak any Afrikaans. Other than Lekker and Kak. I must somehow look Afrikaans. Good Germanic stock, I suppose.

Martin here sounds kind of sweet:

good morning I will like to be one of your customer but you are far away from south Africa.i wish one day you can think of bringing your business to south Africa.and I will be the first customer or I can even work for you.hope u find this well.
regards
martin

Well, thank you Martin! I hope so too, and you'll be the first person I'll look up when I do return to Africa, my prosperous business in tow.

And here, my pet peeve, people who want to contribute to my blog:

Dear blogger,
I sent you a proposal of collaboration a few days ago, I have no received response from you yet, so I think you have not received the previous mail, that’s why I am contacting you again:
My name is Tatiana Amin and I work for an online marketing company in Spain called SMARTUP, nice to meet you 
I am writing you on behalf of a client who would like to appear in your blog by means of an advertorial. Your task would be to write and publish a post in exchange for an economic reward.
If you are interested, please write me back and I will tell you more about the project.
Best regards,
Tatiana A.
Don't hold your breath, Tatiana, I' not going to respond. You lost me at "Your task would be..." No thank you, I have enough tasks on my plate. At least she's offering an "economic reward," whatever that may be. I can't tell you how many would-be writers offer me free content for my blog, as if I'm sitting around twiddling my thumbs going "Dang, I got this great blog, if only I could think of something to write on it... Oh, goody, here is somebody willing to write something for me! Whew! What would I do without these people?"

I should also add that such offers of "great content" are typically written in really bad English.

Others turn to me for their last-minute homework assignments:

I am in urgent need for input for my Master Thesis research.  I am writing it about successful travel blogs and I tried to focus on german and arabic travel bloggers but I am not getting the response I had hoped for, so I am extending the scope now (very last minute!!) to include all travel bloggers.
If you could just spare 30 mins of your time to answer this questionnaire {link} for me, I will be very very grateful.
Thank you very much in advance, I appreciate it!

Sorry, dude, about your Master Thesis, but honestly: I have enough procrastinators JUST like you in my very own house (read: teenagers). And you have the gall to tell me I'm actually not even your first choice?

I must say, I did help a boy with a similar request the other day, just because he was the same age as my son and asked very nicely. I thought that there must be a mother behind him somewhere who'll be thankful for my cooperation. He was writing about life in South Africa and needed quotes for an interview, which I helpfully supplied. Of course I never heard back, not so much as a thank you. That makes me want to strangle the mother for not teaching better manners.

My blog post about volunteering in Johannesburg also spawns quite a few inquiries from people wanting - or perhaps more accurately "needing" - to volunteer, and can I please fix them up with an outfit:

Hi, I'd like to know if you can contact me on my email or my cell phone number - 076 323 2199. Myself and three other friends age from 16-18 are involved in the presidents award. We want to get involved in volenteering work as soon as possible. So would you please contact me with more detilas on how we go about it and when can we start. Thanks

Ah, the President's Award! (I took the liberty of improving your spelling.) What world-moving work you're about to do! Of course, I'd love to jump in and help you volunteer (there, I did it again) - your, whom I don't know from Adam - to receive this prestigious award! I'm going to list your phone number on my blog so hopefully many other people can call you too and help you on your very important quest! I'm so excited I can't stop with the exclamation points!

Seriously, what irks me abut these requests in particular:

a) my blog post is very clear on what volunteer projects I recommend, why one might like to do them, and WHO TO CONTACT if interested. To then send me a note requesting more details is so strange - didn't I just give you all the details you need, with links to the appropriate websites?

b) volunteering, by definition, means giving your time to a cause. To then turn around and ask someone else to use THEIR time to come up with the perfect package so that you might not have to work too hard yourself flies in the face of any notion of what charitable work should accomplish.

I hope this excursion into the strange workings of some people's minds has been entertaining to you. If you're a fellow blogger, you're probably nodding your head so hard that you're starting to get dizzy.

If you're NOT a blogger but rather a reader who might feel compelled to ask me a question, don't be discouraged by my tirade. I won't rip your head off.

I'm quite tame if you don't ask me lazy questions.
That is, not if you take the few steps I ask you to take before you pen that tempting request to me:

a) Read my blog. And by that I mean not just the latest post. I've put quite a bit of time and effort into designing a menu across the top that features the most popular topics, and there is also a "Browse Joburg Expat" box in the right sidebar. I can spot a lazy reader from a mile away, so if you ask me "My new job will be in Rosebank, where should we look for a school" then I know you haven't done your part yet. If you had, you'd have seen my awesome color-coded map in Private Schools in Johannesburg and figured it out on your own.

b) Use the comments section. It's much quicker for me to answer a comment than draft an email, so I'm more likely to do it. It also shows me that you've already read up on the topic at hand and have an additional question. If there are already comments under a post, you're more likely to get advice from one of the other readers too.

c) Like my Facebook page. I discuss a lot of expat topics with other like-minded people on my Facebook page, and more often than not someone there can answer your question better than I can.

Okay, end of rant. Now ask away:-)
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Top 5 Joburg Expat Stories

April 18, 2016

Like every blogger, I like to look at my blog stats. Not nearly as much as I used to when - ironically - there weren't many stats to look at, but I still glance at them occasionally. This is how I discovered that last month Joburg Expat surpassed 1.5 million pageviews.

But that's not what I was actually looking for. I'm more interested in what brings people to my blog, which countries they hail from, and what they like to read the most. In this blog post, I decided to list my Top Five most-read blog posts for you, and then take a look at some other Top Five stats.

Top Five Blog Posts


To be sure, these are not my Top Five blog posts in terms of quality of writing by any means. And they seem to be the most boring of all in terms of uninspired headlines. But precisely because of that, and with the help of my friend Google, these are the most SEO-friendly blog posts I've written, meaning they match up with what people search for the most, which helps them rise to prominence in the Google rankings, that oh-so-important metric in the world of Internet.

  1. Private Schools in Johannesburg -
    Going to private school in South Africa
    recently edited with many updates and additions, including a really sexy hand-drawn Joburg suburbs map, if I say so myself. I've written much more about schools as that is a perennial topic of concern to expats, but the private schools list is by far the most widely read.

  2. Tips on Buying a Car in South Africa - one of my first blog posts ever, and for the longest time the most popular. Not sure if that's because I give some good advice as to how to first buy and then register your car in South Africa, or because my readers love to witness my two-step-forward one-step-back tango with the car registration authorities. Or was it one-step-forward two-steps-back?

  3. Six Things to Know about Renewing Your Vehicle License Disk -
    Car-related questions are always hot
    topics on Joburg Expat
    also recently updated to accommodate one irate reader who claimed I ruined his life by stating a 30-day grace period instead of a (correct) 21-day grace period. Note to future readers, especially those of the procrastinating kind: Do not take my writing for the gold standard. Do not gamble all your wealth and children and grandchildren on any statements in my blog, even if I speak with a most convincing and charming voice. (If you DO want to stake your fortune on my blog, I have a donate button somewhere).

  4. Ordering from Amazon in South Africa - which, good news, is entirely possible, except this top blog post of mine doesn't explain it. Things have changed. Amazon does deliver to South Africa, and quite quickly too, bypassing the dreaded postal service. You just have to be prepared to pay for shipping. What is really needed is an Amazo.co.za. Wake up, Amazon! Take an example from Starbucks - they have taken the plunge and recently made their grand entrance into the SA market. I'm sure it was my blog post about how to find Starbucks coffee in South Africa (which at #6 barely missed this list) that prompted it!

  5. 10 Tips on How to Write a Good Blog Post - this one baffles me, since surely there are a bazillion other bloggers out there offering advice on how to write blog posts. I'd actually like to know if anyone ever reads the entire post. My guess is people check out after three lines when they realize that it's not just a simple list to check off.

Now that we've established the top posts, here are some more statistics:


Top Five Countries


  1. South Africa - barely, but proudly, edging out #2

  2. United States - together with #1 makes up about a million of those 1.5 million pageviews

  3. United Kingdom - since I don't know a soul in the UK, this one gives me particular pleasure; it also makes sense, because of a) language, and b) every other UK citizen wanting to emigrate to South Africa*

  4. Ukraine - I find this one extremely curious. Ukraine, of all the countries that could have been #4, edging out France, China, Russia, and Canada? Then again, maybe there is a big contingent of Ukrainians looking for a better  place to live. And South Africa, compared to Ukraine, might very well look like paradise, warts, corrupt politicians, and all. Heck, it looks like paradise to all of us!

  5. Germany - I always attributed Germany's early success to my relatives who are all loyal readers. But at 41,000+ pageviews, I can no longer assume that all of those are relatives. Only in the sense that we are all descendants of Charlemagne, one way or another.

And finally, the search terms people most often use to find Joburg Expat:


Top Five Search Keywords


Joburg Expat - the prime (if
unlikely) source of advice 
on weaver bird matters
  1. amazon south africa

  2. best schools in johannesburg

  3. weaver bird nests

  4. starbucks south africa

  5. "now" vs "just now" vs "now now"

The last one makes total sense to anyone who has ever lived - and waited for someone or something - in South Africa.

Nothing exciting or even entertaining in any of this, I'm sorry to say. But stay tuned - I've got greatly amusing stuff in an upcoming blog post about Joburg Expat reader inquiries. Stay tuned!



* ...and half of those who don't want to emigrate to South Africa only staying in England because they are former South Africans who don't want to admit that they, too, on second thought, might rather live in South Africa.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly claimed you could not order from Amazon from South Africa. Amazon does deliver to South Africa, however there is no Amazon.co.za.

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Culture Shock, Take 63: Our American Fear of Germs

April 11, 2016

A recent article by an American expat in Spain about how she learned to battle her germophobia  by living in a country with a more relaxed lifestyle sparked my interest, and reminded me that I had a similar story to tell:

Chaperone without Wet Wipes


It was a few months into our expat assignment in Johannesburg. The kids had settled in at school, I had finally gotten most services installed at our house, and I was very excited to go on my first South African field trip as a chaperone.

In a bus packed with 2nd graders, all in their pretty school uniforms, we rode first through the awful early morning Joburg traffic, onto the N1, past the Soweto mine dumps (which, it is said, look so yellow because they still hold an enormous amount of the tiniest grains of gold dust), and onto winding country roads, all the way to where Boswell Wilkie, a traveling circus, had taken up camp.


Much like on any school trip the world over, my job was to see that the boys didn't pull the girls' hair or scream too loudly on the bus ride, and to make sure the same number of kids returned home as left that morning.

It was also my job, just because as an American mom I'd been conditioned that way, to make sure that all the kids washed their hands after the bathroom break and before the picnic lunch.

There was only one rudimentary tap of cold water - no soap, no paper towels, no disinfectant. Some kids washed their hands by rubbing diligently, some kids were more interested in splashing each other than washing, and some didn't touch the water at all. When I saw that none of the other chaperones or teachers seemed to care one way or another, I relaxed and enjoyed watching the kids run around wildly and generally have a grand old time.

It was the nicest field trip I've ever been on, not least because there was such little fuss about everything. I couldn't help but think how amazing it was that no one had thought to bring any wipes or hand sanitizer, which on the equivalent American field trip would have been hauled out by the case.


Many Americans, in my experience much more so than other nationalities, are afraid of germs or anything "unclean." We go out of our way to spray our kitchen counters and lather our hands with so much antibacterial soap that its effect has become questionable. We shower at least every day if not twice a day. resulting in water use double or triple that of other countries. We are often disgusted by anything even remotely associated with bathrooms.

In a book I read the other day, the author was using the fact that he washed his visitor's underwear together with his own in the same load as a token of how close they'd grown, meaning it was out of the question to do such a thing with a stranger. The author seriously meant to convey that having your underwear touch someone else's in a load of laundry was absolutely gross.

Big packets of Clorox wipes are often the first thing school kids are asked to contribute to the classroom so that all surfaces can be kept germ-free throughout the day.

And yet I don't think Americans are any healthier because of this. Perhaps even the contrary. Nowhere else, for instance, do there seem to exist quite so many allergies to all sorts of substances.

Of course basic sanitation saves lives, without debate. We need clean water and sanitary slaughterhouses, for instance, or we'd die like flies. The U.S. has pretty good regulations in place that safeguard the basic safety of our food and drugs and all sorts of other things that impact our daily lives.

But to me, the fear of germs is way overblown. While I've embraced many quirks of American culture with the acquisition of my citizenship six years ago, germophobia isn't one of them. My German upbringing was very different, even though - or perhaps precisely because - my mother was a pediatrician. I can't remember ever being told to wash my hands before a meal. We grew up using cloth tissues to blow our noses, safely stowing them away after use in our pockets until needed the next time. Germs were considered a normal part of life and nothing to be feared. Sometimes they were even welcomed. When the measles were making the rounds in my mother's practice, she'd make me sit and read my book in her waiting room amongst the other kids, so that I might catch them too and get it over with. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" was definitely a motto in our lives.

Too many of my American friends and acquaintances are of the opinion that "if only every kid was taught to wash their hands properly," colds and other viruses would finally and forever be vanquished. Quite the contrary, the way I see it: The more that kids are slobs and spread germs around (within reason), the more those germs have a chance to infect everyone so that everyone can build valuable immunity. Keeping your kids away from germs is not a way to keep them safe but to put them at risk - the risk of being vulnerable at an older age. Building immunity by catching the common cold (and yes, the dreaded stomach flu) is an important part of childhood - the more of them you catch early, the sooner you're done with it all.

When I traveled to Turkey for the first time, and later to Mexico, I was ever so careful to avoid drinking any tap water or eating fruit that might have been washed in it. To no avail - I caught the dreaded Montezuma's Revenge. But I couldn't help notice that the locals didn't suffer from any of it. Why? Because their bodies were used to those germs and had built immunity.

I have four kids who when they were little brought every conceivable virus home from preschool and Kindergarten. And yet I haven't caught any of that for years. Perhaps I have special powers because of my germ-laden childhood. There was a time, I was told, that I used to scrape chewing gum off the sidewalk and stick it into my mouth. I don't remember this but it makes perfect sense to me, because my mother, being a frugal German, considered chewing gum an utterly decadent luxury that was not to be had in our house. I sort of applaud my younger self for those problem-solving skills. 

Living in South Africa reminded me that most cultures around the world are equally unconcerned about germs as I was as a child.

America is not the norm in this regard. And we're probably doing ourselves and our children a disservice by going overboard with obsessive cleanliness.


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Great Africa Reads: West With the Night or Circling the Sun?

April 7, 2016

I don't think you can review Circling the Sun, a historical novel about Beryl Markham - pioneering woman bush pilot, horse trainer, adventurer, scorned lover, a woman much ahead of her time but also a complete product of her time and place - without also reviewing the memoir Beryl Markham herself wrote about her life, so please forgive me if I end up talking about both.

A long time ago, shortly after arriving in Africa, I read and reviewed Beryl Markham's great classic, West with the Night. A book that anyone interested in Africa should read. Here is how I began my review:

Few books capture the spirit of Africa as well as West with the Night. I won’t try to summarize it here because I won’t do it justice, but there are tales of lions, courageous dogs, horse breeding, flying, and elephant hunts, all laced with a great deal of wisdom.
Even though it was written in the 1930s and is set in Kenya (or, as it was then called, British East Africa), it brings alive so many things I’ve come to cherish about South Africa during our brief stay here – the endless savannah, the adventure, the humility of its people. I can highly recommend it, whether you’re interested in Africa or not.

This picture was taken in Botswana in 2012, some 80 years after the events of West with the Night,
but it is not that different from how I imagine the flying scenes from the book, sans runway.


To read or not to read Circling the Sun after an already nearly perfect book that couldn't possibly be topped? That was the question.

I admit at first I was skeptical. I resisted reading it for quite some time. I loved West with the Night and didn't think any other writer would do Beryl Markham justice. Also, reading some Amazon reviews, I was worried that Circling the Sun would not much get into the flying part at all, and that Beryl didn't come across as very nice or even likeable.

I needn't have worried. While it's true that Paula McLain's retelling doesn't really cover the flying (unless you count the prologue and the very end), I still loved this version just as much as West with the Night. Or as an essential complement to it. The two should be read together - I'm now motivated to re-read West with the Night with this slightly new voice in mind, filling in the holes and marveling in the breathtaking scenery all over again.

The next picture is also from Botswana, the Okavango Delta from the air. There is a scene in West with the Night where Beryl is flying elephant hunters into remote areas of Kenya, and they end up finding lots of elephants but are cut off due to flooding. Or maybe she is called to come rescue them from the island they're stuck on without food, I can't quite remember. But this is how I imagine that scene:




I don't have any good pictures evoking Circling the Sun. If you want to totally immerse  yourself in that scenery, I suggest you watch Out of Africa again. Or just imagine Robert Redford in his younger years.

I "read" the audio version of the book* and perhaps that makes me biased in a positive way: it is read beautifully, just the right softened British accent one would associate with Colonial Kenya, and you can hear her sense of wonder and love for Africa in every sentence. Perhaps it would have been slightly less convincing in book form, I can't be sure, audio books often have that effect. But I know that I absolutely loved Beryl's story as imagined by McLain: how she grew up in Kenya, how her mother's leaving left a big hole in her heart, how her friendship with Kibii became such an important part of her life, how she started training horses and kept at it through all the failures and challenges, and yes, how she fell in love with the man she couldn't have and ended up marrying those she could have but didn't love. I don't remember the love triangle between Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen being such an important part in West with the Night or whether it was mentioned at all, but I'm glad McLain chose this to be at the center of her story. It makes the book much more of a romance (without being cheesy) than Beryl's rather matter-of-fact style ever could. Don't get me wrong, West with the Night is a literary marvel with many passages you'll want to read again and again for their pure poetry, but it is not a love story.

Circling the Sun is (a love story), and quite a good one at that.

It should be at the very center of your Africa Bookshelf.




* I cannot tell you how much reading I nowadays get done via Audible (and Overdrive and OneClick Digital - Audible's free library-supplied cousins) while chopping vegetables, unloading the dishwasher, and, lately, spring-cleaning windows. In fact, living in a place like Johannesburg with its god-awful traffic, an Audible subscription is a thing you should not live without one second longer. 

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Finding New Feet for Outgrown Shoes

April 4, 2016

I can't tell you how excited I am to bring you this wonderful outreach story. As you know, I've written about volunteering and charity work before. I pondered the virtues and pitfalls of developmental aid in Africa, and I reviewed a list of volunteer organizations in Johannesburg to make it easier for newly arrived expats to find their calling. Incidentally, the latter is one of my most-read blog posts of all time. And, of course, I've written about Alexandra Baseball too many times to mention.

But this story about finding bare feet around the world to be paired - no pun intended - with outgrown but otherwise perfect shoes puts all my efforts to shame. It had me want to root through all our closets the minute I finished reading, so that I could hurry up and find new feet for all those extra shoes in our house. Read it, and you too will want to contribute to this movement, there is no other name for it, that is living proof that one person, with just a moment's inspiration, can change the world. One step - preferably not barefoot - at a time.*

Without further ado, here comes CJ's story:

Finding New Feet for Outgrown Shoes

by CJ Bowry

There’s something wonderful about watching a child take its first faltering steps; toddling barefoot, not cramped by shoes or socks. But then, as confidence grows, there are leaves to be kicked up and puddles to splash in. And so, to their first pair of shoes. Before long, their little feet will outgrow them; and the cycle of replacing barely-worn shoes begins.

Just over two years ago, when faced with a collection of my son Sal’s outgrown shoes, I sought out charities who could donate them to those most in need. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single organisation that could tell me where Sal’s pre-loved shoes would actually end up walking again.

Sal's Shoes, Bantron Farm, Choma, Zambia
I decided to cut out the middle man. Having grown up in Africa, and with a network of family and friends scattered all over the world, I decided that if no-one was willing to tell me where exactly Sal’s shoes would end up walking again, I would arrange delivering them there myself. A parcel was sent to a friend overseas who distributed them on a children’s oncology ward in Zambia and sent back a photograph of a child wearing Sal’s first pair of shoes.

Sal’s pair of shoes had become another’s.

After collecting more outgrown children’s shoes from family and friends, and by subsequently harnessing social media for this good cause, word spread, and soon I was inundated with pairs of barely worn shoes.

‘Sal’s Shoes’ had been born.

Filling a need


There are an estimated 300 million children in the world for whom walking with shoes is a rarity. This makes them extremely vulnerable to infection by parasites, such as hookworm, while injuries to the feet and ankles can lead to ulcers and other conditions which are almost always left untreated. Without shoes, many children are not permitted to attend school, and thereby lose access to an often free education. It struck me recently, watching my own son thrive in the surroundings of his primary school, that it is not just the element of a formal education that he is benefiting from. Whilst there is a proven correlation between education and poverty, in that a lack of the first leads to an increase in the second, I don’t think this just applies to wealth in a material sense; an education received in a nurturing, stimulating environment can enrich the very well being of a child. Giving a pair of shoes a second life can give someone else a chance at a new beginning.

We are beginning to stamp our mark. In December 2014 we were featured in the Motherlode blog in The New York Times**  as a charity that inspires children. As a parent, I think we have a responsibility to teach those generations after us about sharing and generosity. As well as providing the redirection of something that would presumably otherwise end up in a landfill, we are hopefully teaching all those children who pass on their outgrown shoes to us about their peers in different cultures all over the world. I find it interesting that there seems to be a consensus that the beneficiaries of charitable work are the recipients. Assured by the handwritten notes that now more often than not accompany the shoes we receive from donors, I can't help but think the children who pass on their footwear are benefiting from their act as well. We can only understand others the more we learn about them, and seeing your shoes end up halfway around the world is bound to teach you something. I am so fortunate to have been able to have Sal accompany me to a couple of our shoe distributions in Cuba and South Africa.

How far we've come

The author's son Sal, helping to hand out shoes in an orphanage
 in Pienaar, South Africa

To date, 28 months on, we have collected over 40,000 pairs of pre-loved shoes and found them new feet in 28 countries around the world, including in the UK. For too many children around the world, owning a pair of shoes is an unattainable luxury. Sal's Shoes has got pre-loved shoes walking again in schools, orphanages and hospitals; in refugee, IDP (Internally Displaced Person) and migrant camps; and in rural areas and cities around the world. As such a young charity, the only real obstacle to what we can achieve is financial.

With your continued support we can get more shoes walking again.

  1. You can donate or create a fundraising page here:
    https://mydonate.bt.com/charities/salsshoes

  2. Visit www.salsshoes.com to learn more about us and find out how to send us your pre-loved shoes

  3. Follow us on social media:
    Twitter: @sals_shoes
    Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/salsshoes1

Epilogue


We launched Sal's Shoes in November 2013. The first place to host a Sal's Shoes collection was Sal's nursery school. One of the pairs of shoes donated at the school found themselves on the feet of Owen [blue t-shirt] in January 2014 on Bantron Farm in Zambia.



Two weeks ago, over two years on, we received a photograph of a more grown up Owen [on the left] wearing a pink pair of shoes (his choice) which he inherited from his sister (who received them at the same shoes distribution in 2014). Owen has passed on the first pair of trainers he received to Noah [pictured] who is just learning to walk . . .


And so the journey of the shoes continues!



* Title photo by Sal's Shoes in Ghana, 2015
** Note by editor: now called Well Family - I much preferred it as the quirkier Motherlode
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Hitting Rock Bottom in a McDonald's Bathroom

March 28, 2016

Writing my last blog post about expat depression reminded me of a time I felt like I'd reached the low point of my life.

It was in December of 2002. At that time we were living in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an ice storm had struck overnight. I woke up in the morning to this scenery:



As much as service delivery works in the U.S, the time it breaks down without fail is when natural disasters strike, especially in the form of hurricanes and ice storms that take down power lines. I don't know if you can see it in the picture, but the tree at the bottom of the driveway took out a transformer box. The entire neighborhood went dark and would stay so for four days.

This was many years before we would move to South Africa. Before we would complain about yet another power outage wrought on us by Eskom.Yet in all the time living in South Africa, we never had a power outage last this long. As my mother famously said, even in World War II Germany when whole cities were reduced to rubble, the power outages didn't last as long as in modern-era North Carolina.

The driveway blocked by toppled trees was only one of our problems that day. Our kindly neighbor eventually appeared, chainsaw in hand, and cleared our driveway. This is what I love about Americans: There will always be a neighbor showing up with a chainsaw when you need one. 

But our plight was just beginning. Because even with a clear driveway, where would I go with four kids in tow, all under the age of six? And honestly, at first I thought I could make it. It was North Carolina after all, same latitude as Naples or something similar, and it would warm up in due time. I just had to tough it out until the next morning.

Except it didn't warm up. By next morning the house was freezing. All I had was one smoky fireplace that didn't heat didley squat, as a North Carolinian would say. I bundled my youngest into a snowsuit and held her tightly wrapped in a blanket in front of that fireplace, as she wasn't mobile yet and I was worried she'd get cold the quickest. I tried to keep the other kids occupied with games, balls, pushcarts, whatever I could find that would keep them moving.

It worked for a while, but it kept getting colder. The three days I spent in that house were the coldest I've ever been (with the exception of summit night on Mount Kilimanjaro). Noisette, of course, cheerfully left every morning for his perfectly climatized office. He might have even told me to "pull myself together" as he is wont to do.

By the third day, when the temperature dropped to 40 degrees F inside the house, I couldn't take it any longer. I was so desperate for some warmth that I decided I would move our household into my minivan. I had called all my friends, but everyone was either in the same boat or had already left town to live with relatives. My nearest relatives were my former host parents in Mississippi, and if some other option didn't come up that day, that's where I was headed.

But first I had to feed those kiddos. I drove down the road and through a winter wonderland that under different circumstances I would have found beautiful, looking for a store or restaurant that looked open. It took about 20 minutes for me to score: The McDonald's on Falls of the Neuse Road was open for business!

I cannot tell you how happy the sight of the golden arches made me that day. I was fully prepared to camp out till nightfall at that McDonald's and have the kids entertain themselves with Happy Meal toys until Noisette would be off of work. Then HE could figure out what to do next - I'd had enough.

To give you an approximate idea of the ages of our kids that fateful day: From left to right - 
Jabulani, Sunshine, Zax, and Impatience. This was not the day of the ice storm.

We hadn't even had a chance to order yet when Impatience needed to go to the bathroom. It's funny how soon you forget, once you have teenagers who annoy you to no end by staying in their rooms all day not wanting to talk to you. Do you know what teenagers are great at? Going to the bathroom BY THEMSELVES!

Back in 2002, my only option was to take everybody to the bathroom with me. We squeezed into a stall, the five of us in our bulky winter coats, so that Impatience could do her business. Or I should say the six of us. Not wanting to part with the love of her young life, Bibi the Teddy Bear, Impatience was clutching him to her chest instead of leaving him in the car like any reasonable person would have done. Only she wasn't clutching so well at that very moment, and - horrors! - Bibi fell into the toilet, right there in the McDonald's bathroom, landing with a big splash.

We all stood around the bowl, speechless. Everyone knew, even little Sunshine at barely six months old, that something momentous had happened. First there was silence es everyone pondered this development. Then came the scream.

Just to show you how inseparable Bibi and Impatience have always been, here is a picture from
a year later when she absolutely refused to go to ski school unless Bibi came with her.
That was the time I cursed the fact that Bibi happened to be white and not brown like any self-respecting Teddy Bear. I still consider it a miracle he wasn't lost forever in a slush pile in Whistler that winter.



I suppose that was the good news when he floated in that toilet bowl. At least he wasn't lost, and all I had to do was fish him out. I can't honestly recall if it was pre- or post-pee. It didn't really matter. No roof over my head, no place to go, four little people relying on me - all that I could take. But no washer and dryer? I almost lost it then. Life seemed to have become unbearably hard that very moment, conspiring against me one too many times. I remember standing there staring down, full of a self-pity I'd never until that point allowed myself to wallow in, and crying big, heaving sobs over the injustice in my life.

Mind you, it had nothing to do with depression. I had simply reached the end of my rope after a long and frustrating day, something that can happen to anybody, and certainly someone with little children. Heck, in those days, every day was a long day that left you utterly exhausted. 

I certainly don't want to make light of or misrepresent a serious medical condition. But in a way it was a perfect example of how, if enough things pile up, you can reach a point where you don't know what else to do, where you just want to sit down, even if it's next to a toilet surrounded by four little children, and cry. 

Fortunately for most of us, we bask in our moment of self-pity and then snap out of it again, wash our hands and walk away.

If only it were that simple for everyone.


Postscript: As so often happen, things picked up after hitting the low point. I tried calling some friends again and got an answering machine I hadn't gotten before, meaning they must have power restored. I reached them on their cell phone (back in the day when people were by no means glued to their cell phones like nowadays) and lo and behold, they were on their way back home with their own four kids. I moved in with them for the next couple of days, kids, sopping bear, and all, Noisette joined us there that night, and we had a blast, all twelve of us. I've always been particularly grateful for these friends of ours and their opening their doors to our rather large family without hesitation. 

To paraphrase what I remember as Scarlett's words from the end of Gone with the Wind, when all is lost: "I will try again tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a better day."
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How Good is the Care for Depression in South Africa?

March 21, 2016

A reader asked me the other day if I knew anything about medical care for depression in South Africa. She and her husband were contemplating a move to South Africa and she had dealt with anxiety during previous moves. On top of that, she was expecting a baby and would have an infant to care for, giving her the additional worry of postpartum depression.

I assured her that we had had a good experience with doctors in general and that the private hospitals we frequented - somewhat involuntarily, I can assure you, as is most often the case with hospitals - were of as good a standard as we knew from the United States.

Except I knew nothing about the care for depression, anxiety, and mental illness. So I decided to ask my faithful readers. 

I received a number of helpful answers and wanted to post them here for the benefit of other readers with similar questions.

I chose this picture for this blog post because we often feel depressed on a rainy day. On top of this,
it was the day we delivered our oldest son to his new home at the university, another cause for
sadness. But perhaps I also chose this picture because amidst all  the depressing rain, it shows a
sliver of brightness in the sky. 

First to answer was fellow expat blogger Clara Wiggins, who has written her own series about expat depression and also covers this topic in her book, the Expat Partner Survival Guide, which I've reviewed here before.

I think she will find good therapists and counsellors here but it can be an issue finding someone who understands expat issues. I'm currently running a series on my blog about expat depression. The next one will include links to online counsellors as this is the route more people are taking now.
There followed some disagreement about the counselors:

There are few doctors who specialized in mental illnesses and who can help her. Not sure the counsellors are helpful at all, just 'bla bla'. She needs to go to the doctor who specializes in depressions because it's a sickness and needs to be cured. And it doesn't matter at all if you are expat or not. It's not relevant.

One reader asked to be contacted as she herself had moved to South Africa with a new baby and struggled with postpartum depression, having a very difficult time. Fortunately, she was able to conquer it and is now "strong and able to deal with anything." 

The fact that I'm able to connect people like this through my blog is very rewarding to me.

The next reader sounded a very positive note:

In SA GPs are well informed about depression and anxiety. There are also psychiatrists and psychologists. Depression and anxiety are not uncommon. Medication for depression and anxiety is widely available in SA. Therapists/counsellors and self help groups in cities across the country are well educated and very helpful. I think it will be a bit more difficult in the countryside to find a therapist, you might have to travel a bit. Please do not worry. Make sure that if you are on medication, to take enough for a few months in order for you to find a good GP and a good therapist. SA is a developed country so no need to worry at all.

This was seconded by more readers:

[The previous reader] already said what I wanted to say. Excellent care is available. Just bear in mind that if you want to use a South African insurer there will be an exclusion period for pre-existing conditions.
I strongly endorse what [the previous two readers] have said. Our private health care is excellent and if depression issues arise your reader can be confident of first class care - regardless of whether they are rooted in the expat experience, postpartum problems or anything else. I know that moving overseas and having a baby are both scary in their own ways but whatever reservations she may have about taking up an expat assignment, I sincerely believe that her concerns about the quality of mental health care here need absolutely not be among them. Sending love 💕.

I know this sounds cheesy, but I can't help but think that when a South African sends love to a person from another country she hasn't even met and in all likelihood never will meet, this right there shows why there is nothing to worry about. South Africa will take care of our expat with anxiety, I have no doubt about it! 

The final comment provided more helpful information.

There is a organization in South Africa called the South African depression and anxiety group www.sadag.org, they have lists with specialists who most probably can offer help. Like others mentioned above, therapists and counselors are very well educated, and especially in larger cities there are plenty of them.

If you have come across this article because you are moving to South Africa and are dealing with anxiety and depression in your own family, then I hope this has helped you feel more at ease about your move, and given you some starting points dor further research.

If you have any additional information or experiences you'd like to contribute, as always please comment below!
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Reflections on Expat Happiness. Or: Do Germans or Americans Have Better Washers?

March 15, 2016

This country is so underdeveloped, says the American expat in Germany. Just look at the washing machines: Too small, the cycle takes two hours, and they have way too many confusing buttons!

How can people live in this country, says the German expat in America. Just look at these washing machines: The water can't be heated beyond what comes out of the tap, there are only three program buttons, and my whites never return to white unless I use toxic bleach!


These are just two examples from a recent WSJ article I read that makes a valid point, a point that most expats know intrinsically: How you rate certain aspects of the new country you've just moved to greatly depends on where you're coming from. Your own cultural background determines your priorities, and how you rate a country can be quite different from someone else living in the same country but arriving from elsewhere.

Let's stick with these two countries for a minute: Having lived in both Germany and the U.S., I can certainly appreciate the debate from both sides. I cringe at the poor building quality of my American home. I sit here gazing out the window and can see a gap - a gap a small mouse could easily squeeze through - between frame and window. There is an invasion of ladybugs in my bedroom, and this after our pest control guy sprayed all kinds of poison along the baseboards just last week. Every time it rains there is a patch of wet carpet under my daughter's window, even though we've had a succession of handymen - all of them cheerful and affordable - try to fix the problem. And I don't think you can find a single power outlet in the entire house, should you feel inclined to put a level to each one of them - that can live up to my Germanic sense for straight angles and clean lines.

On the other hand, if I lived in Germany, our family most likely wouldn't even be in a house, especially not a house of this size and convenience, because to build something similar the German way would cost a lot more. Instead, we might live in a cramped apartment sharing one bathroom among 2 adults and 4 teenagers (an apartment which, granted, would have a leak-free roof and walls that could withstand the second invasion of the Mongols) and any extra money left over would have been spent on a designer kitchen and six wardrobes, because in Germany neither of these basic conveniences comes with the house you rent or buy. If I ever did need a handyman, I might have to wait 4 months to score one and have to pay him cash under the table to help him cheat on taxes. My laundry would be sparkling white without the help of any toxic bleach, but I'd have to use the bleach all the same - sprayed into corners where pesky mold grows because the house is insulated so well that there is zilch exchange of air between inside and outside.

Of course, expats hailing from Germany and the USA are not alone in this. As a Singaporean, you might be appalled at the inefficiencies and crazy street life when first driving on South African roads, whereas as a South African you might be totally baffled why a Singaporean cab driver will not stop for you and squeeze you in, or why, if  you do find a space, he won't bloody pass the cars in front of you already, illegally on the side of the road if must be, to get you there faster.

What will you choose to see as expat in South Africa? This...

...or rather this?


One man's Expat Joy is the other's Culture Shock.

The trick, of course, is to do as the Romans do. Embrace what's good in the country you're in and don't fuss over what's not. Play cricket in South Africa and lacrosse in America. Drive big cars in the U.S. and take public transport in Germany. Go shopping in Singapore and go visit a coffeeshop in Amsterdam.

Everything is relative, and the beauty of expat life is that it rubs your nose in this truth, whether you're asking for it or not. If you have kids, be happy they have a better than average chance of growing into worldly and understanding human beings instead of insisting that the only lifestyle they've ever seen is superior to everything else.

If you're an expat, I'm sure you've had to deal with (and griped about) your share of expat hassles. But you may have also learned this: The only thing that stands between despair and elation, the one thing that can turn a hassle into a joy, is that small thing called perspective.

And where it takes you is entirely in your hands.
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Best Africa Quotes by Paul Theroux

March 7, 2016

When I wrote about the role of charity in Africa, I heavily relied on a treasure trove of quotes out of Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. But I could barely scratch the surface in either of those blog posts, and wanted to remedy that with a more extensive list of Paul Theroux's best Africa observations.

Dark Star Safari is, in my opinion, as close as you can get to the bible about travel and life in Africa. In it, Paul Theroux certainly does not mince words. He tells it as he sees it, and some might find reason to disagree or be offended, particularly when it comes to the value of foreign aid organizations. But I find that overall his descriptions of Africa, all the way from Cairo to Cape Town, are spot-on.

Just to explain his background: Paul Theroux lived in Africa several decades ago, when as a young and idealistic man he was a teacher for the Peace Corps in Malawi and Uganda. When he now returns to Africa with the idea to traverse it from top to bottom without the use of an airplane, he is often disillusioned by the lack of progress in the countries whose future seemed more promising the first time around, when they were bustling with volunteers just like him ready to change the world. Nevertheless, he thrives on meeting average citizens wherever he goes, the kind of people most of us might never get to know when traveling, and he describes these encounters in exquisite detail on the pages of Dark Star Safari.

I hope that the following whets your appetite to go ahead and buy the book. If you've ever been to Africa, are planning to go, or simply love reading a fascinating memoir, you won't regret it.



Paul Theroux Quotes


Sudan


“I was reassured that the trucks [we traveled on] were full of cattle and not people, for in these parts cattle were valuable and people’s lives not worth much at all.”
...and here my kids were complaining to be double-buckled 4 in a backseat meant for 3. I can just hear them should I propose transport by cattle truck!

Ethiopia

“Scamming is the survival mode in a city [Addis Ababa] where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.”
I haven't been to Addis Ababa but I know a thing or two about thieving police officers. Although I'd say "thieving" is not a fair label. More like "eternally scheming to take advantage of people not at the top of their game." If you read one of my traffic cop stories, you might agree.

Kenya


"African cities recapitulate the sort of street life that had vanished from European cities - a motley liveliness that lends color and vitality to old folktales and much of early English literature. An obvious example was Dickens's London, an improvised city populated by hangers-on, hustlers, and newly arrived bumpkins - like Nairobi today."

"A motley liveliness" - what a great phrase to describe the street scene in African cities. Most people who've been to Africa and had to leave for whatever reason will point to that picture of hustle and bustle, of cheerful color, of simply life in all of its forms and variations, as the thing they miss the most.

On first sight you may find African cities a bit overwhelming, perhaps scary, and might wish for a more "normal" morning commute. But you soon get used to the sights and, more often than not, the daily interactions with vendors and beggars and newspaper boys, and only realize how much you enjoyed them when you're back in the Western world where city streets carry all the excitement of a convention of dental drill manufacturers.

Tanzania


"Tanzania was a tourist destination. The comrades, the Maoists, the ideologues, the revolutionaries, the sloganeering Fidelistas, were now hustling for jobs in hotels and taking tourists for game drives. And if as a Tanzanian your village was not near any lions or elephants - and Tabora wasn't - you were out of luck, and had to put up with crummy schools and bad roads and this amazingly casual railway, once called the Central Line, which had been built almost a hundred years ago by the Germans."
"The routine [of the minibus taxi] was: the driver speeded, swerved, stopped, dropped one person, picked up two, sped away leaning on his horn. Whenever he stopped there was a petty quarrel, someone with no money, someone asking him to wait, some yelling in Swahili 'Hey, I'm walking here!'"

Aaaah, minibus taxis. Who doesn't have a story or two about a run-in with one? My take is this: As much as they're reviled by other motorists, you can't really judge them until you've used one for your own transport. In which case you might resent them even more, because they often are unsafe and yet cost a fortune when measured against your monthly income. And yet without one you couldn't keep any kind of regular job at all.

As a German by birth, I cannot help but smile about the German railway line. I know in my heart about the many evils of colonialism, which Germany is lesser-known for than its European neighbors but participated in nonetheless. But the fact that the railway built by the Germans a hundred years ago still functions today - without, I'm sure, any meaningful upgrades - fills me with a sense of pride, as in "we Germans sure know how to build things that last."

Uganda


"These [foreign aid projects in Uganda like flour mills, schools, and hospitals] were like inspired Christmas presents, the sort that stop running when the batteries die or that break and aren't fixed."
"The projects would become wrecks, every one of them, because they carried with them the seeds of their destruction. And when they stopped running, no one would be sorry. That's what happened in Africa: things fell apart."
This is a recurring refrain in his book, and perhaps the most controversial one. It sounds so hopeless, perhaps precisely because we all know or have left behind just such a project. And yet my guess is that this won't stop such projects from being taken on again and again. Maybe because those of us who "help" enjoy it too much while we are doing it, without that much thought about what happens afterwards. Maybe we give these inspired Christmas presents for our own sake more than the sake of those we seek to help?

South Africa


"No other place I had seen on my trip was so well lit at night as this introduction to South Africa. No other country had been so electrified. The light was interruptive and disturbing, for it gave bright, not quite right glimpses of prosperity - tall power lines and large houses and used-car lots with shiny vehicles and the sinister order of urban life."
" 'Don't go to a squatter camp. Don't go to a black township You'll get robbed, or worse.' The next day I went to a squatter camp."
If you've only seen South Africa and no other African country, you often forget how "un-African" it is in many ways. We experienced that same sense of surprise about the electrification and modernity of South Africa, both when arriving the very first time and expecting anything but 8-lane highways, and when returning from trips to other, less-advanced African countries like Mozambique.

The quote about squatter camps is my favorite sentence in the entire book. It's as if Paul Theroux was a little devil on my shoulder egging me on that first time I ventured into Alexandra.


Anywhere in Africa


Paul Theroux has such a way with words. I found myself nodding particularly wildly at the passages below, knowing that I shared these thoughts but wouldn't have been able to put them into such eloquent prose. Maybe like me you'll find your feelings reflected in what I've shared here with you, or maybe you see the world differently.

In any case, I hope that you pick up a copy of Dark Star Safari.

"But African time was not the same as American time... As African time passed, I surmised that the pace of Western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology accomplished nothing, and that because Africa was going its own way at its own pace for its own reasons, it was a refuge and a resting place, the last territory to light out for. I surmised this, yet I did not always feel it; I am impatient by nature."
"I had learned what many others had discovered before me - that Africa, for all its perils, represented wilderness and possibility. Not only did I have the freedom to write in Africa, I had something new to write about."
"The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there?”

***

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