Thursday, October 16, 2014

Paris to Dakar to Harare

As is par for the course these days, I am at a loss for words and for time to encapsulate the worlds I am passing through....

I barely know where to begin these days.  First I was in Sarajevo, then I was in Suburbia, and immediately thereafter I was in Paris, joined by my girlfriend Marianna.  Yes, I have a girlfriend now.  A Greek one at that.

And she met me in Paris, and we did it up Parisian style over red wine and stinky cheese and steak tartare and Rodin and the Mona Lisa and La Tosca at the Bastille.  But that isn't what I am updating about.

And then I was in Dakar.  The former capital of French West Africa was a treat.  Hanging out under baobabs and banyans.  Wonderful people, and surprisingly great food.  I am now a huge fan of poulet yassa, a grilled leg and thigh of chicken covered in a rich sauce of grilled onions, olives and a lil peppery spice over rice.

Dakar reminded me of an African Morocco, and has an incredibly vibrant hip hop scene that I visited for the upcoming NL program in January.  The people were incredible, and so friendly and kind.  I truly loved it.  We found partners to work with, and a wonderful seaside paradise to stay in come January.  I even took the morning ferry to Goree Island, the infamous slave island but the pastel colonial island was not quite open yet in the morning hours. But that isn't what I am updating about.

What I am updating about is my return to Southern Africa, and the surprising wonderfulness of Harare.  For starters, the fact that I was coming from Senegal gave the Zimbabweans pause as they were convinced I had Ebola or was coming from an outbreak area.  It doesn't matter that Senegal has had exactly ONE case of Ebola, and they quarantined the shit out of that fellow--unlike the U.S. which sent their case home and told him to take two aspirin and come back in the morning.  But they did ultimately let me in.

Harare is surprisingly tranquil, with wide boulevards covered in purple jacaranda canopies.  I even spent a little time in a building designed as a termite mound.

I expected that gritty Jo-Burg feel, and actually was anticipating even more precariousness, but thankfully I was wrong.  Instead, I found a nostalgia for the 1990s, when Zim was booming and was a poster child of the "African Renaissance" before the economy went off the rails in the early 2k over the appropriation of land from the white Zim farmers.  Not a bad idea in theory, but for the "breadbasket of Southern Africa," such willful and capricious takeovers caused the farming industry to tank and FDI to shrivel.  And then the currency, which had been one-to-one with the dollar went turboed.  I had a Trillion Zim Dollar note in my wallet for years.

And of course, I should describe the food.  At a great grill, I had a wonderfully rich beef stew with corn meal and collards.  The Zims say their beef is better than South Africa, which I find hard to believe but I am will to test.

But the place still has a placid charm to it.  It feels like a suburban American city, like an African Tulsa or Phoenix without the mountains.  Salisbury.  And a surprisingly decent skyline that harks back to better booming days,

And it has an easy going spirit so long as you don't get into the politics.  I spent the night at a fun club called "Pariah State," which sums up the sardonic sense that the Zimbabweans have.  It was a posh lounge of which I was among the handful of whites, and made me hopeful for Zim's future--if only it can get through its present.

But Zim was always different than South Africa.  Even during the Rhodesia years, while the racial system was off, it was not as fragmented as apartheid South Africa.  It didn't have the same meanness that the Apartheid system possessed, albeit it was still not good.

I asked my Zim friends why Harare was not like Jo-Burg, and the basic answer I got was that the disparity in wealth is not as profound.  Many of my friends in Harare mentioned how precarious South Africa felt even to them because of the crime situation.

I had such misconceptions of Zim and Harare borne out of skewed imagery and media distortions. I am not saying this to downplay the problems it has, they are manifold.  But it is not remotely what I expected.

As usual, I wouldn't know if I didn't go.


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