#5 - African Sketches
Jeff Willner - 21 July 2001
(Bulawayo, ZIMBABWE) - Low on Zimbabwe dollars and
the gas gauge on empty, we circled the streets in the Land Rover looking
for money changers. With a bank rate of 57Z/$1 versus a street rate of
160Z per $1, Jody and I were highly motivated to make a black market
deal, but there were no money changers in sight. Finally pulling up to
the curb of the city park, I gestured to some local youths. “Change money?” I
“Yes! Yes!” They crowded around the truck windows. “We give good rate, 100Z/$1”
“That’s a terrible rate.”
“Good rate! Everyone happy.”
“You happy – I not happy.”
The exchanges continued, both sides making little
progress. Finally one of the guys looked at us with a sheepish smile
and asked if we wanted some advice. Of course. “Don’t go to guys on the
street like us, they are scam artists! You must find the women with white
hats.” Find the women with white hats?
We drove off around the corner, searching for these
mysterious women. I almost stopped a woman walking down the street in
a white dress but thought better of it. There, on the corner. Two women
were standing casually, chatting to each other – and wearing white turbans.
Their eyes scanned the traffic, like waitresses checking for orders.
We waved and they became animated suddenly, motioning us to drive around
the corner and park. Haggling for the rate occurred normally, but once
we’d agreed, they made a strange request – we must drive them to a particular
spot in the city. Concerned about being led into some kind of a trap,
we tentatively drove them a few blocks into the market area, turned a
final corner and gasped. Like the core of an ant hill, we’d found the
queen’s lair – hundreds of white turbaned women flocked around the intersection,
some arriving with clients, some leaving, many just sitting on store-front
steps and watching.
Our money changers told us to wait and ran off into
the middle of the confusion. We waited, uncomfortably aware that several
policemen stood on the corner eying us. From the cluster of turbans,
a large black woman waddled forth carrying a massive purse and climbed
laboriously into the rear of the truck. “Drive!” she commanded, gasping
a bit from the exertion of the climb.
“Anywhere, away from the police.”
We rounded a few corners, counted the vast pile of
100Z notes (they really do need a 1,000Z bill) and handed over our US
greenbacks. I was delighted with the novelty of the white turban system,
I’d never seen it before and haven’t seen it since. “Thank you very much” we
said as she eased herself back onto the street. She answered with the
plumby English accent only found in former colonies, "Pleh-shaah."
(Livingstone, ZAMBIA) – The
crowd pressed together straining to see, captivated by the sight. Blood
covered an area the size of a swimming pool, viscous in the hot dirt, a
nightmarish wading pool surrounding its grisly source. Beside a battered
pickup a pile of flesh gleamed wetly. White bone and gristle, tendons.
It was almost three feet high. Up on the road stood a minivan, windshield
smashed. In front of it a small tree.
It must have been a blind pass. The van overtaking
around the corner, surprising the oncoming pickup with its human cargo.
Both dodging off the road. The minivan smashing into the tree. Wide-eyed,
the pickup driver yanking the steering wheel further to the left, airborne
off the steep shoulder, crashing into the baked clay. Passengers thrown
from the truck in flight, impacting like scatter shot, exploding open.
I eased past the minivan. Its windscreen a mad, stained-glass
cacophony of flesh, grease, and glass. People pressed in and then moved
on. Today's entertainment - death in the afternoon.
(Close to the border, MALAWI) – Something
was loose on the roof. As we crashed through some of the most severe
pothole clusters yet, there was a metallic clanking sound coming from
the roof. We pulled over and searched the vehicle, Jody spotted the offender, “Is
that propane tank supposed to be upside down?” As Mike and I strapped
it back in place, a cluster of kids gathered around the truck.
areas in Africa are so empty that you can drive for hours and not see
a soul. But in most areas if you stop for any length of time the kids
will find you – eager to check out anything new. A row of mud huts was
barely visible in the dark, the kids’ village no doubt. Sally and Gulin
tried talking to them. Something you notice quickly about most Africans
is how quickly they smile and laugh – and Malawi is know as the “warm
heart of Africa”, renowned for the friendliness of its people.
I'm not sure who started it, maybe Gulin, but someone
took a flash photo with their digital camera. OOOOHH yelled the kids. "What
is that?!" asked one young man, "It makes daylight at night!" We all
grabbed the cameras and started taking photos. With every shot there
would be an enormous cheer, and then everyone would cluster around to
see themselves in the digital photo display. It was really tremendous,
like scoring the game wining goal with every photo. Almost too much fun
to stop. We handed out some cookies and shook a lot of hands. Gulin very
reluctantly hopped into her seat as the truck started rolling forward.
Africa is like that - visceral. Pragmatic, tragic, unexpectedly welcoming.
'Civilization' hasn't buffed away the edges, there are no spectator seats.
Life is real.