Thursday, March 27, 2014

Africa’s O.J. Simpson

One of my favorite things about spending time in foreign countries is watching, and reading, the news.  I find it fascinating what other societies value and how they go about reporting (or spinning) those stories for their followers.

Since I haven’t been in the U.S. in over nine months I am out of touch with what is important in American media.  There have been occasional mentions of the recent Malaysian Airlines plane disappearance and the Russia-Crimea-Ukraine situation has been reported twice in the past two weeks in Botswana’s national newspaper, but for the most part international news coverage is typically very limited here.

However, one recent news topic is eerily reminiscent of a similar U.S. story.  Twenty years ago the ex-wife of former football star, O.J. Simpson, and her boyfriend were found murdered.  As the primary suspect, O.J. Simpson was sought by police, but was unwilling to go down without a fight.  Nearly 100 million people witnessed police chase Simpson down I-405 in his white Ford bronco before he surrendered.  Domino’s Pizza reported their highest sales ever during the two hours the chase lasted, which comes as no surprise considering more people tuned in to view the police pursuit than watched the Super Bowl that same year (only 83 million).

Africa is currently in the midst of its own “O.J. Simpson” media circus.  There is one thing and one thing only dominating the news here in Africa: the Oscar Pistorius trial.  I’m not sure how much media coverage this is getting overseas, so if you are unfamiliar with the story, a year ago Pistorius (the two-time Olympic gold medalist from South Africa, a.k.a. the “Blade Runner” because both his legs are amputated) shot his girlfriend who he allegedly believed was an intruder.

Originally, the trial was expected to take up to three months, but it appears after 16 days that the prosecution is confident they have proven their point, as they elected to “rest their case” today.  Similar to O.J. Simpson, Pistorius will take the stand, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.  Unlike Simpson, there is no bloody glove.  Pistorius also doesn’t have a jury trial like Simpson did.  Popular opinion here is that regardless of whether he is guilty he will be convicted.  And everyone wants that.  As one South African friend told me recently, “Everyone thinks South Africa has no real justice system, so this is our opportunity to prove them wrong.”  I guess there is nothing like a high profile case to make a point.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

When I found out I would be moving to Botswana, several acquaintances back in the U.S. asked me if I had read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series.  At the time I hadn’t but prior to my move I did manage to read one of them.  Presently I believe there have been about a dozen published and I think I’ve read about half of them.  Alexander McCall Smith, the author, was actually a former law professor here at UB.  He was originally from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), but spent several years in Botswana before moving to Scotland.  I must say that he embodied Botswana perfectly.

A few weeks ago I discovered The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency had been made into a television series AND all the episodes were available on  I watched all of them over the course of one weekend.  At one point I was Skyping with a friend back home and mentioned I was watching the series which was entertaining, “but it’s kind of like watching my life here in Botswana.  It is a funny, but slightly tragic at the same time.”

Mma Makutsi is the secretary at the detective agency.  In the first episode as the detective is setting up shop, two typewriters are delivered.  Mma Makutsi asks “what decade are we living in? A typewriter?” but that is overshadowed by the follow-up question: “Why do we need TWO typewriters? I am the only secretary here.”  The delivery man explains he had to bring two typewriters because some of the keys didn’t work on both typewriters, so she would need to use both of them.  Mma Makutsi subsequently puts a piece of paper in one typewriter and begins to bang away on the keys.  She finishes, puts the same piece of paper in the second typewriter (to fill in the blanks from the missing letters) and then continues her work.  When she completes her memo on the second typewriter she removes the paper again, examines it and declares, “Apparently the ‘H’ does not work on EITHER typewriter.”  And that explains perfectly how The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency represents my life here in Botswana.
I absolutely love the books and the TV series.  If you would like a quick, easy read be sure to stop by the library.  Otherwise here are the links to the youtube episodes.  I consider these shows to be an almost 100% accurate view of Botswana.  They were all filmed here, so everything you see is real.  The ONLY critique I have is that the character of the hairdresser is culturally unrealistic:

Friday, March 21, 2014

Grand Opening!

As reported in the Thursday, March 20th edition of the Mmegi Newspaper:

“President Khama will be present this morning during the grand opening celebration for the Phelan Building in Downtown Gaborone.  The new Phelan Building is located adjacent to Barney’s and Macy’s, and within walking distance of Louis Vuitton.  Remarks are expected from the guest of honor, Dr. Phelan herself, along with other prominent members of the community including the Botswana Defense Force, her esteemed driving instructor, and the stranger who once gave her a ride home from her Setswana lessons.  Speeches are scheduled to last approximately 10 minutes, thus in reality they will last a minimum of an hour- if we’re lucky!”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Quest for a Phone Book

When was the last time you used a phone book?  Do you even have a phone book? Chances are, if you live anywhere in the First World, whenever you need to find a phone number you look it up online.  Am I right?

Here in Africa having a phone book is actually very important.  First of all, if the electricity is out, you can’t look up the phone number you need online.  Secondly, online technology is not very readily available in many parts of Africa.  According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency World Fact Book, 11.5% of Batswana use the Internet.  This is actually below the average of 16% of the population across Africa.  In case you were curious, 81% of the U.S. population uses the Internet, which ranks 28th in the world.  The Falkland Islands and Iceland have the highest number of Internet users at 96% of their populations.

Due to the lack of Internet users in Africa, the continent has not embraced the web.  It is excruciatingly frustrating to be a tourist in Africa because so few hotels, tour companies and even airlines have websites, and even if they do they often lack information or features which allow you to help yourself, such as making reservations or inquiries.  Instead, they rely primarily on telephone calls.  And of all the times I’ve called to speak to a customer service representative for any type of company in any country in Africa not once have I been prompted to press ‘1’ for English or anything else.  There is no such thing as automated customer service here. Hence, the importance of having a telephone book.

When I first arrived in Botswana I quickly realized the need for a telephone book and went down to BTC (Botswana Telecommunications Corporation) headquarters in an attempt to secure one.  I was told there were none available and I would have to wait until January to obtain the new 2014 book.  In mid-January I returned to BTC only to be told they had run out of 2014 phone books.  Apparently there is a run on these things immediately after the New Year.  Fortunately, I recounted my quest for a phone book to a colleague who offered me his old 2013 book, even though he hadn’t received a new one.  Here it is:
Now I can call anyone I want in the country.  Yes, that’s right, the country.  This is a country-wide phone book.  It is arranged by district, with both companies and private citizens listed together, alphabetically.  It also lists every single government office, including the Senior Private Secretary to the President.  I imagine this person to be one of the secretaries sitting outside Botswana’s version of the oval office.  I hope I am correct because I called and spoke to Mma Mogaleo and said I would like to take President Khama to lunch.  I told her I had his granddaughter in my class last semester at UB (true story) and would like to meet him.  She said she would get back to me if his schedule opens up.  Fingers crossed!

When I lived in Alaska there was a phone book for the entire state.  It was small, similar in size to a small day planner.  Each village took up about one page and not only were the names of the villagers in alphabetical order, but the numbers were consecutive.  If I remember correctly, my village of Galena was (907) 656-2112 to 2197.  And we were one of the larger villages on the Yukon River.

A friend who used to work in Equatorial Guinea told me their phone book also covered the entire country.  He also mentioned that it was listed alphabetically according to FIRST name.  “Look for me under Roberto.  I’m somewhere on the 4th page of Robertos the last time I checked.”

Now, if I could just find the number for the weather report then I would really be in luck.  When I lived in Alaska and you would call the weather hotline the report would be along the lines of, “It is -40 degrees this morning with winds at 30 miles per hour to the east.  Eight inches of snow is expected before 12pm.  Watch out for moose on the road.”  If we had a weather number here it would be excellent to hear, “It is 100 degrees and sunny today.  Load sharing will continue throughout the day, with little hope of electricity being restored before sundown.  Watch out for the elephants on Tlokweng Road east of Riverwalk Mall and beware the monkeys are biting due to the trash still not having been collected for the past month.”  Maybe if President Khama calls me back I will suggest a weather line.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The High Cost of Unemployment

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I don’t read the news very diligently.  Back in the U.S., I used to criticize my students for failing to keep up with current events.  But since moving to Africa I have become a hypocrite.  On my recent trip to Lesotho, my travelling companion read three papers in one afternoon while I was driving.  I told him, “I really don’t keep up with the news because so little of what is in there actually affects me.  But if you see anything important you think I should know please tell me.”  He did not have anything of note to report.

The way I look at it, there is very little which happens in the world which affects my existence right now.  My primary daily concerns center around:  Is there electricity?  If there is how long will it be available so I can do work?  If we lose electricity what ‘other work’ can I do in order to justify my salary and professional standing?  Is there water today?  If there is water is there enough so I can take a sponge bath?  Will there be enough so I can finally wash my hair?  (It’s been five days; sorry, I know that’s kind of gross.)  Is there any fresh food at the grocery store?  Nope, no fresh food.  Ok, will it be canned tuna fish, avocados and potato chips? Or should I splurge and go for rice cakes and peanut butter?

The newspapers here tend to offer a rather slanted view of reality, mostly because they tend to play to the opinions of the publisher funding the paper.  But from time to time, when the electricity is available, I do look online at the international media outlets.  There were two articles I read today which I found interesting and contradictory.  One was about unemployment in the U.S.  The other was about unemployment in Nigeria.

The U.S. article boasted that the unemployment rate had dropped in 43 states in January, reducing the national unemployment to 6.6%.  Of course, the article wasn’t particularly transparent in admitting that a significant reason for this dip was that baby boomers are retiring in record numbers.  Technically, labor force participation is at its lowest since 1977 and long-term unemployment is at an all-time high.  I guess it’s a good thing we have lots of old people who are getting ready to retire, thus allowing that unemployment rate to continue looking optimistic.

Of course, things could be worse in U.S. employment news.  We can at least be thankful we aren’t Nigeria.  However, things are pretty desperate when you compare yourself to Nigeria.

Over the weekend 16 people were killed in Nigeria during job fairs across the country.  The government opened up 4,500 jobs and directed interested applicants to report to the nearest of five designated locations to apply.  More than half a million (500,000) people showed up, prompting stampedes which resulted in hundreds of injuries and 16 deaths.

One of the job recruitment locations was the Abuja National Stadium.  According to a report, only ONE (1) entrance to the 60,000 seat stadium was open.  More than 65,000 applicants squeezed their way into the stadium, and then when people began rushing the registration area many were trampled and trapped, unable to depart the stadium as all but ONE (1) exit was blocked.  In case you haven’t read my blog post about security in Africa, please check it out here, as these types of security measures are commonplace and often more detrimental than beneficial.

Nigeria’s unemployment rate stands at 23.9%, thus I can understand the efforts made by those at the job fairs.  While I am sympathetic, Nigeria’s Minister of the Interior seemed considerably less-so when he stated the victims “lost their lives through their impatience.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Curse of Modern Technology

I know I’ve mentioned several times before that we’ve been having lots of power failures across Botswana.  Today when I went to work the campus had electricity.  Midway through my lecture we lost power.  By the time I finished teaching an hour later we still had no electricity.  Rather than sit in my dark, very hot office I decided to head home.

As I was on my way out of the building I saw a line of cars waiting at the boom gate.  Africa takes security very seriously, though in most cases I feel that the security measures are either a total joke, or more likely to threaten my well-being.  I highly doubt many students have cars, especially since it seems like all of them are currently taking their driving lessons.  But in order to keep the campus more “safe” and avoid unwanted and unauthorized cars, we have these electronic gates all over the place so only the faculty may park.  Do you see where I’m headed with this story?

So, the electricity went off and everyone rushed to leave campus.  Only to discover that…. The electronic gates won’t open when there is no power!  Thus, they CAN’T leave campus:
Some days I wish I had a vehicle here.  Today was not one of those days.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Perils of Night Driving

Yesterday a friend who is back in the U.S. told me he was planning to drive about 5 hours from his house to visit his parents.  Then he added that he would be departing after work.

“After work?!  You can’t leave after work, you need to leave earlier.  You can’t drive at night!,” I insisted.

After a brief lull in the conversation because he was confused at my reaction, and I was confused by his failure to comprehend my objection, I realized this was one of those situations in which a cultural or environmental difference precluded understanding.

When I lived back in the U.S., I wouldn’t think twice about driving at night.  In fact I did it many times, even when travelling long distances or cross-country for a move.  However, here in Africa you DO NOT drive at night.  In the heart of the cities it isn’t too bad, but you would never drive in the outskirts of town, and absolutely never on rural roads in between towns and cities.

For the most part our major roads are paved.  But not always.  Even if they are paved they are normally only one lane going in each direction.  These are our HIGHWAYS.  I once told someone here that I-5 in Los Angeles is 12 lanes across.  He did not believe me.  However, many of our major roads are not tarred.  Dirt roads create an even larger challenge, particularly when the rainy season arrives.

But regardless of whether a road is dirt or tarred you DO NOT drive at night.  For one, there are no streetlights illuminating the path.  You depend on the moon and the stars for that.  And there is no other traffic on the road as no one else is foolish enough to drive at night.  The problem is the animals.  Despite there being animal crossing/warning signs all over the place here, the animals do not obey them.  They simply have not learned to cross at the animal crossings.  Instead you will be driving down the road and all of a sudden you see this:
That’s not too bad during the daytime, because you normally see them coming.  But you need to be able to SEE them.  The interesting thing that I’ve learned here is that most animals are completely silent most of the time.  In that picture above there were easily 40 elephants that crossed that road.  They did not make a single sound. 

But at night it’s different because, like normal, you don’t hear them, but it is very difficult to see them as well.  They sneak up on you and all of a sudden they are on top of you.  Here is a picture of an elephant on the side of the road.  Elephants are typically herd elephants, but we only saw this one.  That means he was either kicked out of the herd, or we didn’t see his 20+ relatives due to the dark:
For everyone back home, I hope you are enjoying your nights out on the town.  As for all of us here, we have a pretty strict curfew which typically begins at dusk.

Friday, March 14, 2014

When I Die…

There is a certain person I know who shall remain nameless who likes to use the phrase, “When I die….”  This is normally followed by some sort of guilt trip: “When I die, you will miss me.”  “When I die, who will do your laundry?”  “When I die, you will cry more than anyone else at my funeral.”  Well nameless person, I love you very much, but there is one thing I will NOT be doing when you die.

The press in Africa is very interesting.  There is lots of censorship because many newspapers are either state-run, or political leaders (as private, very rich citizens) hold a majority stake.  On your next visit to Washington, D.C. visit the Newseum.  On the second floor there is an exhibit which discusses freedom of the press in every country in the world.  Green countries have the most transparent media outlets, while red ones are highly controlled:
The challenge with the media in Africa is that despite government intervention they still need to make money.  This is done through advertisements.  The most prevalent revenue generating advertisement in many parts of Africa is… obituaries.  Obituary advertisements have become an art form here.  Back in the U.S. you call the newspaper to announce a loved-one’s death and write a brief (probably 100-200 words) summary listing surviving family members and funeral arrangements.  That is not what happens here.

Funerals in Africa are like weddings in India, they last for days and EVERYONE attends.  Preparations for funerals are extremely elaborate.  In the case of one friend, his aunt died in November, however she is not being buried until May.  Why?  Because the family wants to build a new house for all the anticipated guests that will visit and have special, matching outfits designed and made for the entire extended family to wear on the day of the funeral.

It is actually easier to obtain a loan to purchase an obituary advertisement and/or make funeral arrangements than it is to secure a loan to send your child to college!  And these ads are not cheap.  They often cost several thousand U.S. dollars.  But they are considered highly necessary to demonstrate social standing, legitimize political influence and exhibit continued strength of the family lineage.  The larger and more colorful an obituary ad is, the more important the person.  As you can see here, the full page spread for the man on the left means his family has more money, and thus, more societal influence, than the two women on the right who only have half page ads:
However, even after the funeral has passed that does not necessarily end the canonization of the deceased.  Here is an example of an annual remembrance of this man’s death.  In case you can’t read it, the ad mentions his family line by stating he left behind 4 wives, 46 children, 112 grandchildren, and 40 great-grandchildren:
When I die I do not expect a full page spread in the newspaper.  And as much as I love my family members, friends and others reading my blog out there, I’m sorry, but I will not be taking out a loan to purchase an obituary advertisement for you either.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory to Botswana

In 1943 Abraham Maslow published a paper which stated that all human beings are motivated by a spectrum of physical and psychological needs which are hierarchical in nature.  Basic human needs (food, water, shelter) must be met before a person can be motivated to pursue a higher degree of needs, such as relationships, self-esteem or social status.  In other words, if you have an employee who is homeless you cannot expect to get that person to work harder with the promise of a promotion.  Your homeless employee doesn’t care about a promotion because he needs a place to live.  Here is Maslow’s Hierarchy if you are unfamiliar with it:
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is typically taught in Organizational Behavior, Management and Human Resource classes in order to help students understand how people think and how they can (and cannot) be motivated.  I’ve taught this topic for years but I’ve never truly understood what it is like to be in a position to not have those basic human needs met.  When I used to teach about Maslow I would admittedly almost gloss over the bottom rung of the pyramid because my college students obviously were being fed and housed, they had families who were paying their tuition and taking care of them, and so they were at the bare minimum mid-way up the ladder.

However, my recent experience in Africa has made me realize that I need to pay more attention to the basic physiological needs because you never know when that will be your (or your employee’s) motivation.  Right now the most basic needs are my motivation.  I don’t care that I have money because I can’t use it to buy what I want.  Very few faculty members here are professors, most are lecturers.  Everyone calls me “Prof” as a sign of respect for the social standing I have attained.  But I don’t care about that either.  The ONLY thing I care about right now is food, water and shelter.

I do have a home here in Botswana.  And it is very nice.  Much nicer than I ever expected, or than I really need.  But I’ve come to realize that having a home and enjoying your home are two different things.  I’ve mentioned before we have water rationing.  I only have water in my house on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.  Of course, I can’t drink the water anyway, but I do use it to take showers, wash clothes and clean.  Water rationing is inconvenient, but bearable because it is on a pretty reliable schedule and they seldom turn off the water on the three days we are assigned to receive it.

Electricity is different.  We have had unpredictable rolling power outages since I arrived in Botswana.  Over the past two months electricity has become even more inconsistent.  For the past two weeks we have only had about four hours of electricity a day (if we are lucky), normally between midnight/1am until about 4/5am.  But those four hours a day are not guaranteed.  We have had several days of 24hours+ of no electricity.  The longest was 74 hours with no power.  The challenge with the power is you don’t know when to expect it, so you can’t plan ahead like with the water.

The lack of power makes it impossible to cook as everything is electric.  But, even if you did cook something you would have to plan to eat it all immediately as the refrigerators don’t stay cold because they are off more often than they are on.  Of course, a lot of the stores don’t have fresh food available anyway because they can’t refrigerate it, and no one is buying it.

Today I went to the food store and was at a loss for what to do.  I didn’t want to buy anything perishable because I wasn’t sure when I would be able to cook it, I didn’t have anything to store it in until the electricity returned, and for that matter I wasn’t sure whether the food was actually good because I wasn’t confident it had been consistently refrigerated.  Of course, the options were pretty limited to begin with.

In the end I bought 7 avocados, 2 bananas, a bottle of cold water because I haven’t had anything cold to drink in I can’t even remember how long, a jar of pickled onions, a jar of pickled peppers, and two cans of tuna fish (no mayo because I can’t refrigerate it).

I attempted to follow Dorothy’s lead today, clicking my ruby red (pink?) slippers together three times and chanting, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.”  In the end it didn’t work.  If nothing else, this has been a VERY educational experience.
***For anyone out there asking themselves, “If she has no electricity how does she post on her blog?” I write them ahead of time and then pre-schedule several blog posts when the electricity comes back on. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dinosaur Fingerprints

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I was recently in Lesotho.  While the drive-thru passport control was quite interesting, it was definitely not the highlight of my trip.  That would have been hunting for dinosaurs.  Well, not really dinosaurs, but dinosaur footprints.

Sixty-five million years ago several dozen different types of dinosaurs lived in Southern Africa.  Compared to the Americas, Africa cannot boast nearly as many Jurassic inhabitants.  But most of the dinosaurs which did inhabit Africa were found mostly in the southern region, and the remains of them “abound” in Lesotho according to the Lonely Planet guidebook.  Based on this description we thought we could just walk around and look at the ground and see the footprints the guidebook mentioned.  Not quite.

Mike and I set out for Leribe, a two hour drive north of Maseru, on Friday morning.  Based on my research Leribe is the best place in Lesotho to see the dinosaur footprints.  I should mention that we attempted to visit the Tourism Information Office in town before setting off.  After spending an hour trying to find the office, then finding out the office was closed, then finally being told there were no maps of the country in print, we decided to take the horribly ambiguous directions provided in the guidebook and wing it.

When we got to Leribe we started asking everyone we could find where the dinosaur footprints were located.  The 10+ people at the gas station didn’t know.  The two police officers doing traffic security checks weren’t sure what a dinosaur was.  The group of mothers attending a school sports competition looked at one another perplexed.  Obviously NO ONE comes to see the dinosaur footprints!  Mike had the idea of asking where we could find the school, “There has to be a Social Studies teacher who should know something about this.”  So we got directions to the school.

As we pulled up to the school (I was driving) I said, “Where should I park?”  Mike instructed, “Under the tree, just look like you belong here.  You are a white woman at a primary school in the middle of nowhere in Africa.  They will be so surprised to see you here no one will care whether or not you have the right to park here.  Stay out of trouble while I go ask for the Social Studies teacher.”  The staying out of trouble was the problem.  The next thing I knew there were fifty kids all around me asking me to take their picture, and subsequently forgetting they were supposed to be plowing the fields (what we might call manual labor is more like chores here):
Mike returned with obscure instructions to keep heading up the mountain toward the next village and to ask the kids tending the cows and sheep along the way if they could help us.  This proved to me that tourism infrastructure could definitely stand to be improved, particularly given that this was one of the very few attractions available in Lesotho.

Along the path we met Paolo, who was tending sheep, and was excused from his duties temporarily by his father to guide us to the top of the mountain.  We began climbing over rocks, some of which had water coming down them, making them particularly slippery.  About thirty minutes into the climb Mike asked Paolo, “Are we almost there?”  At this point I should mention that Mike had put his complete trust in my ability to plan this trip.  He told me, “You can plan anything you want and I will follow.  You are the expert, so I trust whatever you want to do.”  When he asked how much further we had to climb I began apologizing profusely for him having blind faith in me.  At that point we were about halfway there.  Here is the view from that stage of the climb:
Eventually we reached the location of the “dinosaur fingerprints” as Paolo called them.  These pictures don’t really do it justice, but hopefully you can recognize the outline of the prints which are more of a light brown against the darker gray background:
And then here is a close up:
In the end Mike enjoyed the hunt for the dinosaur fingerprints.  After we descended the mountain he said, “Thanks for making me do that.  Regardless of what else we see here, the dinosaur fingerprints will definitely be the highlight of this trip.”  While I do believe he meant that, it may have also been a veiled complement in an effort to make sure I wasn’t going to force him to learn how to charm snakes or walk on burning coals next.  Maybe on our next trip, maybe.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Lesotho: The World's Only Drive-Thru Passport Control

Last week a friend and I decided to visit Lesotho.  Most people haven’t actually heart of Lesotho, but it is a very small, landlocked country, which is entirely surrounded by South Africa.  As you can see here it is the white country with the star indicating Maseru, the capital:
Lesotho is one of only four countries in the world which are “contained” within another country.  The other three countries are San Marino and Vatican City (both in Italy) and Monaco (inside France).

The population of Lesotho and Botswana is actually the same, just over 2 million people.  The difference is that Botswana is the size of Texas in terms of landmass, while Lesotho is about the size of Maryland.  About a quarter of the entire population lives in Maseru, but it feels as if everyone in the country lives there.  Maseru is incredibly small for a capital city, with only one traffic circle and five main streets.  And the streets are FULL of traffic, mostly combis (mini bus taxis) and TONS of people walking, EVERYWHERE.  We drove to Lesotho and I was so thankful we made it out without getting in a car accident.  We saw several and they are so common people don’t think anything of them; they just ignore them and keep driving.  Perhaps they don’t even have car insurance there.

One of the things that was really interesting about Lesotho was their border.  I’ve entered and exited over fifty countries and never seen a border with a drive-thru passport control.  You don’t even get out of your car.  The driver just hands the passports of everyone in the car through the window to the woman sitting inside the office and she stamps the passports.  However, what surprised me was that she only stamped the passports, she didn’t scan them.  In fact, there was no machine in which to scan them.  If you are unsure what I am talking about, when you enter a country, the passport control officer checks the passport to make sure it is really you in the picture.  Then he/she scans the passport on a special passport scanning machine.  This pulls up all your personal information which stores it in the system and alerts the officer in case you are wanted by InterPol (basically the International Police) because you are a criminal or a missing person.  In Lesotho they skip all steps and just stamp the passports, no questions asked.  It definitely makes the process quick and painless, but then again, I can’t imagine a lot of criminals going to Lesotho to hide out.

Welcome to Lesotho, “I’ll take a cheeseburger, fries, a chocolate milkshake, and a passport stamp please:”

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Visa to Congo

I recently decided I wanted to visit Congo.  Back in November I went to Uganda to trek for mountain gorillas.  Upon my departure from Uganda I was supposed to go to Rwanda for a two day speaking engagement at the university.  Due to lots of trouble with flights my Rwanda trip was cancelled, I was sent to Ethiopia and then went home.  Since I had already agreed to teach at the Rwanda University College of Technology for a few days, I wanted to honor that commitment.  As I was discussing my second attempt at this trip with my Rwandan contact I mentioned my desire to visit neighboring Congo.  A few days later I had a new friend in the Democratic Republic of Congo and will now be visiting in late April.

DRC is not the easiest country in the world to enter.  Of course, they don’t make you provide an ancestral map going back ten generations along with a blood sample like China does.  But they definitely do make it a challenge.  And then there is always the question of whether I will get to the border and they will actually let me in.  Of course, I won’t be sure of that until April 20th.

Yesterday I arrived at the Congolese Embassy with my passport, visa application, bank transfer confirmation stating I deposited the appropriate visa fees, official letter of invitation from the university, official letter of invitation from the travel agent who is arranging my trip, a detailed itinerary including all scheduled stops in DRC, a certified copy of my passport, a certified copy of my Botswana residence permit, a certified copy of my yellow fever vaccination card, and two passport photos.

When I arrived it was mass chaos.  There were easily a hundred people clamoring to gain entry into the Embassy with one very unofficial looking official deciding who he wanted to assist next.  This is when being a minority is helpful.  He took one look at me and asked what I needed.  I informed him I had already spoken to Kennie in the visa office and I had all my documents in order and needed to drop them off.  The gentleman took my documents and passport and walked away.

About ten minutes later I was about to have a heart attack.  I wasn’t 100% sure he really was someone official who worked there.  In Africa you meet a lot of people who claim to be official or employed somewhere and then they try to rob you.  Or perhaps they really are official.  But they will refuse to give you back whatever you need (ID, passport, credit card you just used to purchase a ticket with) until you give a “tip.”  If they don’t think the tip is generous enough you may have to go through several rounds of tipping until they agree to relinquish whatever they are holding for ransom.

I also realized that with so many people milling around and all the associated chaos I wasn’t confident I would recognize him when (if) he did return.  For all I knew he could have been in a back office trying to sell my passport on Craigslist.  Fortunately he did return in a reasonable amount of time (less than 30 minutes- probably a record short wait for me here) with a receipt saying I could pick up my passport the following day.  The simplicity of the receipt did not instill a lot of confidence in me:
Today I returned to the Embassy under extreme distress.  Again, mass confusion.  But, again, my inability to blend in helped.  I walked in holding my passport receipt directly in front of my face so you couldn’t miss it.  Several customers waiting to be helped flagged down the appropriate employee who took my receipt.  As I was waiting for him to return with my passport I was recommended several restaurants for my trip to DRC, invited to stay with someone’s grandmother, told what to do to avoid paying a bribe at the border, and learned that Snoop Dog has apparently changed his name to Snoop Lion.  Overall I would say it was a very enjoyable day at the Embassy.  Now, let’s just hope this thing works next month:

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Future Career I Will Never Have

As a general rule I am a big believer in the phrase “Never say ‘Never.’”  I used to say “Never.” After I was proved wrong several times in major ways I now tend to leave ‘never’ out of my vocabulary.

I also remind my students how dangerous it is to say “Never.” I get this often with my seniors.  The last week of the semester before graduation I hear a lot of, “This is my class EVER.  I NEVER have to take another test as long as I live.”  I make a point to laugh very loudly when I hear that and think to myself, “You are going to look back on this in a few years and realize just how wrong you were” (kind of like when I told the blonde study abroad girl to wear sunscreen).

I remember when I was about to graduate from Hopkins and my mom asked me if I would consider grad school in the future.  “Absolutely not! Never! I paid too much for my first degree.  I’m not going to pay an arm and a leg for another one,” was my response.  Well, in the end that was my most pivotal ‘never’ and I couldn’t have been more wrong because I completed not one, but two more degrees after Hopkins.  After making a liar out of myself twice I decided to retire the use of ‘never.’

Last week I revived ‘never,’ temporarily at least.  Two weeks ago I was in Cape Town, South Africa.  I used to live in southern California and I love the beach.  That is one thing I really miss living in a landlocked country.  In Cape Town I met a friend and we decided to go to the beach for a couple of days.  I spent one afternoon surfing.  That night, my travelling companion (who spent the day lying on the beach) looked at my legs and asked what happened to me:
The worst part was that it ruined my pedicure:
Well, one thing is for certain.  I am pretty sure I will NEVER make my living as a professional surfer.