Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Warning: Gratuitous Wildlife Photographs!

Equipped with a map, compass, full tank of gas, camera, and an overnight bag, I headed off last Friday for a weekend adventure. As usual, my three-hour drive to a bush lodge morphed into a driving adventure resembling a Gilligan's Island cruise.

I left work a bit early on Friday, with the plan of arriving at the Bakubung Bush Lodge in late afternoon. The lodge is located in the Pilanesberg National Park and Game Reserve; about three hours from Johannesburg. 

My LRC colleagues offered a variety of opinions with respect to the best driving course to take. Eventually, the N1>M1>N4>R565 course was discarded because it would take me too far east and I would have to backtrack. Despite my stated observations that I prefer the national roads because there is clear and obvious signage as a result of the 2010 World Cup, I was sent along a more picturesque series of windy back roads that was "supposed" to allow me to pick up the N4>R565 route at mid-point without the added eastern miles.

Interestingly, that never happened! Four hours later I crossed through the park gates and arrived at the lodge. My journey had crossed over the N4 a couple of times and passed through a variety of one-lane road construction sites through which most South African drivers did not reduce speed; a number of areas posted with warnings of "Stay alert! Hijacking Area;" and a few shanty towns. At one point I may have even participated in a parade of some sorts, not real sure because at that point I was paying more attention to dodging a variety of goats, cows, and donkeys that were on the road. Yes, it was a paved road with posted speeds of 80 km. It appears the ditches make good grazing areas.

It was all worth it. As I walked to my room, a small band of gray faced monkeys strolled along. The lodge complex is built around a waterhole. This is the late afternoon view from the veranda.

I spent the rest of the evening watching the animals come to the waterhole, observing the stars, and listening to the quiet of the night.  The nights in the bush are the reason that Hemingway wrote:

"All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already."

Knowing I had an early morning call finally budged me from my seat on the veranda. I want one of these in our next house.

On Saturday, I spent 6 hours seeing wildlife and the magnificent landscape. The African landscape never fails to amaze me.

The Pilanesburg park has "blinds" where you can sit and watch the animals. Most of the roads are dirt tracks that wander through the park. That is my plan for my next visit; this time I did two guided drives. These are some of the highlights of my day.

The first drive left the lodge at 5:30 am.  Five minutes later we crossed out of the lodge's enclosure and into the park. The sun is already up and "hot" at that hour of the day.

The giraffe pictures are for my mother as they are her favorite. 

 Not to be outdone, the elephants put on a little parade.
My not so good photographs of a pair of lions. I get caught up in watching instead of photographing. It is fairly obvious that I am not National Geographic employee material.

The pair were lounging in the shade until she decided to move off.
He followed right after her--it is spring here and love is in the air after all.

Even the turtles put on an x-rated show!

The baby zebras have already arrived.

Even more wildlife photos.

Similar to the prairie back home the park experiences natural burns.
Baby hippo by the water pool. Her parents were submerged in the pool.


Late afternoon landscape.

Approaching sunset.

As with any adventure, the end always comes to soon. Armed with my map I headed out on Sunday morning determined to take the well-marked, well-traveled national roads.  Fifteen minutes in I transitioned to the under-repair R565 (e.g., there were no lanes painted on the pavement.) I was immediately waived over by a man wearing a neon green vest. As an aside, if you want a business opportunity, go into producing neon green security vests for South Africa. Some days it seems every person on the street is wearing one.

After a brief discussion (read: lecture) regarding where to drive when there are no lanes marked, review of my passport, and suggestion that with my blessings (read: monetary donation) he would one day visit the US, I was sent on my way. I didn't pay anything, I just smiled a lot all the while pretending to be ignorant of the local donation policy. Another black mark against Americans.

Sadly, the rest of my adventure was uneventful. Even with my brief police interaction and the extra eastern miles, I made the trip in 3 hours.  I hope to make it back before I leave!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Literature of Place

My reading diary reflects a ten-year flirtation with the literature of the African continent. Starting with the work of Doris Lessing, the flirtation would wander from country to country, exploring non-fiction and fiction alike.

Readers, especially those of us that read without prescribed limits, are a curious breed. We are never at a loss for conversation, even in those circumstances where we are most uncomfortable. We simply mention we are reading a work, make a recommendation of a title, or ask what someone is reading and the awkwardness passes. We roam used book stores in any city in the world and easily justify hauling books home.

Scanning my African reading diary brings many memories and fragments of my life to the surface. Memories of the conversation about the work, the recommendation to read it, and in some cases my own hopes for finding answers in the author's words. 

Books and words are inextricably intertwined with events even as the clarity of the
memories of the events themselves fade. I don't recall the words of a friend's mother's memorial service, but I recall that Marcia D. recommended When the Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa by Peter Godwin. A library book club meeting added Ernest Hemingway's posthumous, True at First Light: A Fictional Memoir to my collection.  A librarian colleague recommended Marsha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile for a good will project and I scrounged Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town from Brian's bedside table. Traveling companions on a long flight to Egypt were reading Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone

Some of my other favorites include, 

My flirtation has become a full blown romance in the last few weeks. Two of my LRC colleagues are bibliophiles of the highest order and continue to loan me copies of wonderful works. 

My favorite to date is Aidan Hartley's Zanzibar Chest. It is an extraordinary story of a quest for place, for home, for understanding. Some of my distant relatives get a mention on page 47, when he notes the list of families who trekked north to Kenya from South Africa after the second Boer War included: "Pretoius, Van Venter, Lemmer, Visser, van Rooyen and Bekker." 

Other favorites to date include both both fiction and non-fiction.
Even those that I didn't enjoy as much and struggled through taught me something about this incredible place. Dana Synman's The Long Way Home: A Journey Through South Africa and Christopher Hope's My Mother's Lovers, were both challenging and frustrating, perhaps because both of these South African authors still struggle to understand if there is a place to be called "home."

My bedside table is weighed down by the many I still want to read, including Odyssey to Freedom, by George Bizos, Bram Fischer's biography, Christopher Hope's White Boy Running, and the classic Down Second Avenue by Ezekiel Mphahlele. 

"Politics of place" advocates promote understanding cultural environments in their totality. The literature of a people is a starting point. It is why each year I promise myself I will make it all the way through Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Perhaps 2014 will be the year my bookmark makes it past the half-way mark. How could anyone resist a work that starts: 

"Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by the beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centred army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man's creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare."
Each year with our family end-of-the-year holiday wishes I've thrown in a few book recommendations. Consider this post the 2013 Holiday Book List!

Monday, November 11, 2013

What my allowance buys.

Most have seen some version of the story of what a US dollar (or worse, what a daily Starbuck's grande coffee) buys in an emerging economy. The story becomes more compelling when you actually experience it. 

I've been working on the Legal Resources Centre library budget. The whole process is a bit mind-boggling for a number of reasons. First, due to the exchange rate of nearly South African Rand (R) 10 to $1 US means the actual numbers I am dealing with look, at first glance, to be a bit extravagant. 

Second, the library has been without a champion for at least five years. The LRC's law librarian departed for academic life just before the office, including the library, moved to a new location. That's right, no librarian supervised the packing or unpacking of the library. I know there are lots of sucked in gasps of horror from those librarians who have managed the tedious and exhausting job of relocating a print library. Just about everything that could go wrong, did. 

The current law librarian and I are still finding boxes to be unpacked in storage and other areas. I have a undying hope that one, just one box, will reveal book ends. Even the most basic library needs have gone unmet for a number of years. As a result, the budget includes many of those items most US libraries have sitting in large quantity in their storage rooms -- book ends, a book truck, superseded labels, spine labels, shelf labels, and on. You name it, it is sadly in the LRC library budget I am constructing.

The LRC library has four offices, spread out across the country. In addition to the office in Johannesburg, there are offices in Cape Town, Durban, and Grahamstown.  Each office has a library. One of the goals of this project is to automate the collection using an ILS (for the non-library folk, it is the integrated library software that inventories the items in the collection, circulates those items, and provides the search interface for the user to find materials). You have now been given the ability to impress the librarians at your state, county, public, or academic library by asking "what ILS does the library use?" when checking out materials at your next visit. 

Since my second week in the office I've been chasing an economically feasible ILS option. High-end platforms used by US libraries such as SirsiDynix, III, or even Follett are not on the list, much less the short list of options. I got shot down by the tech person when I passionately advanced the open-source options of Evergreen and Koha. I've run trials on in-the-box software packages from Microsoft and other vendors, all without success. 

Today, the success of identifying an easy-to-use, easy-to-maintain, and economically feasible ILS seems within my grasp. OCLC confirmed that its Web Site for Small Libraries (WSSL), a cloud based product, is available for use outside the United States. The platform is indeed a thing of beauty--intuitive, html based, easy-to-modify, and able to import records from OCLC without additional cost. No server space is needed as OCLC provides the cloud storage. Even more exciting, the $625 US annual fee charged to small libraries in the United States is scaled to a whopping $125 US for libraries in South Africa. 

Each Monday I get my weekly allowance out of my piggy bank. I receive a weekly allowance of R 1400, or about $140 US to cover my groceries, liquor, dining, leisure activities, petrol, parking attendant fees, etc. So far I've lived within my means.

Weekly allowance: R 1400

Today when I gleefully inserted R 1250 into my spreadsheet on the ILS expense line I was struck by the craziness that my weekly allowance exceeds the annual cost of WSSL. Even more so, I was saddened because the $625 US (R 6250) may have not have been an affordable option.

The work of the LRC is compelling and vital and the library valiantly supports that work without the accoutrements that many libraries in the United States wouldn't propose to operate without. Perhaps I am getting acclimated to LRC's library life, but each day it becomes less important to me that the books stagger a bit on the shelves due to the lack of book ends, that the book shelves look like they were built in 9th grade shop class, and that the afternoon winds that bring in the thunder storms blow over my feet due to the crack in the wall behind my desk. Rather I remain focused on which print and electronic resources can be squeezed into the budget and how to creatively negotiate the bills from the legal information vendors. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

One Man's Story: One Man's Advice

Today Takudzwanashe Chikoro (Takudzwa for short), a law student that the Legal Resources Centre hires for part-time casual labour, and I disassembled, tugged, shoved, and reassembled library shelving. I taught him about electric drills and he taught me about perseverance and resourcefulness as we struggled with stripped screws and weak muscles. 

Descriptions and introductions matter. I wonder what thoughts came to mind when you read "law student." Takudzwa's story is so much more complicated and inspiring than the images invoked by the words "law student" and "casual labour." 

Before I met Takudzwa, I'd read his story and seen his school picture in Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled onto a Sidewalk by Christa KuljianSanctuary chronicles how Central Methodist Church chose to help the most vulnerable when the South African government failed to do so. I'd come across the book in the LRC library. In reading it I came to learn that the LRC represented Central Methodist Church in its fight to provide sanctuary to the thousands of Zimbabwe refugees when the City of Johannesburg and others sought to shut down the church's efforts.

Cover photo: Paul Jeffrey 

During much of the period between 2008 and 2012, the church provided support to and housed over 3,000 refugees at a time. Under the leadership of Bishop Paul Verryn, Central Methodist Church remained unwavering in its support of the refugees. This support would cause political and ecclesiastical turmoil. Takudzwa and about 1,000 other refugees still live at Central Methodist Church.

Takudzwa and I have spent some time together over the last few weeks. He has an incredible sense of humor; which has made for some good times as we bundled up hundreds of books, relocated shelving, and hauled away trash. 

Celebrating Completion of Book Removal!
During that time I have come to learn his story. At age 7 be became an orphan. At age 18 he became a refugee, leaving Zimbabwe for South Africa. When Takudzwa first arrived in South Africa in 2008, he slept on the streets of Johannesburg until he found refuge at Central Methodist Church. He would go on to attend, and excel at, Albert Street School. The school, started by four Zimbabwean refugees in 2008, is affiliated with the Central Methodist Church. At age 24, he is halfway to completing his law degree. He has some financial assistance with tuition. The rest of his school costs and living expenses he earns doing part-time work.

Occasionally Takudzwa studies at the LRC library. The LRC library is much quieter and safer than the Central Methodist Church. During his last exam period, the LRC law librarian invited him into her home so that he could rest and study in a quiet environment. Sometimes he will let me buy him lunch. 

Sanctuary details the story of how Central Methodist Church chose to help the most vulnerable when the South African government failed to do so. Chose to do so despite opposition from many of its own church members and officials. Most importantly it tells the stories of many of the people that survived because of its efforts. Takudzwa is one of those stories and even though he has a long way to go to achieve his dream of becoming a human rights lawyer I have no doubt that he will do so.  

In 2008, Takudzwa met Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general, Jimmy Carter, and other human rights workers when they came to Central Methodist Church to speak to the Zimbabweans that had fled from the choas of the Mugabe regime. In describing the meeting to author Christa Kuljian, he said, "Before they left they told us, 'We will see what we can do, but we don't promise anything.' People say that to me all the time. Visitors from Europe. Journalists from the BBC and the Mail & Guardian. I think it would be better to say nothing and then help if you can help." Wise advice from one so young.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Beauty & The Barb

Looking toward the hills of Melville
Now that the rains have come, Johannesburg is lush and green. The almost daily thunderstorms in the last two weeks have greened up the landscape in an amazing manner. I can not count the number of garden stores and plant nurseries that I have seen on my rambles. A quick pop into any one of them is a heady experience of the known and the exotic.

Jacaranda Canopy
The Jacaranda trees are incredibly lovely. Many of streets I wander down, either intentionally or due to my unbelievably lousy sense of direction, are lined with these wonderful old ladies. In the last few days, the late afternoon and evening thunderstorms have turned my street into an wedding aisle strewn with purple petals awaiting a bride. It is the privilege of the early-to-work to drive through petal-laden streets.

The Jacaranda trees are not native to South Africa. I learned on my nature reserve visit that the trees were brought from South America in the late 1800s and are considered an invasive species. Although they dominant the landscape in Jo'berg and Pretoria, there are now many restrictions about planting and maintaining them. 

As in the Brothers Grimm fairytale, Sleeping Beauty, much beauty lies behind towering walls and barb wire in Jo'berg. The term "gated" takes on a whole new meaning here. Each house is gated; and the many varieties of barb wire and razor wire is impressive. Equally impressive is the structuring of the electrified fencing that often rises above the walls and gates.

Even in my suburb, Linden, the variety of electronic gates is amazing. Linden was developed shortly after World War II. The gating and fencing came in the mid-1970s. It would be interesting to see photos of the gardens and front yards from the pre-gating days. 

My first evening here in Linden I looked down my street and thought "great, there is a small newspaper/candy hut at the end of the street." I would soon learn that it was a guard house.

I live on Second Street. The street runs a short span from 1st Avenue to 5th Avenue-a distance of about 3 kilometers; most of it is straight uphill. The guard house is at the corner of Second Street and 4th Avenue. There is also a guard on the other end, at the corner of 1st Avenue and Second Street. The service is paid for by the homeowners on the street. 

As an American I find the security, gates, fencing, and wire all a bit claustrophobic. Yet I am constantly confronted with the necessity of it all. A co-worker explained she no longer locks her car as there is nothing left to steal out of it. She leaves it unlocked so the windows won't be shattered during a break-in attempt. Every evening she removes the battery and brings it inside her townhouse to avoid having it stolen. Even the nature preserve where I've gone hiking has a 24 hour guard hut to prevent vandalism of the exhibits and property that are behind a high fence.

The debate with respect to gated communities rages here in South Africa. Residents in the most "protected" communities are still victims of crime. Oscar Pistorius is reported to have kept a cricket bat and a gun in his bedroom for protection despite living in one of the most elite gated communities.  No one seems to know if these steel and concrete guardians really keep residents and their possessions safe or if they simply perpetuate a mentality of fear.