Arrival in South Africa

Hello readers,

As Xavier noted earlier, we didn’t have the technology to live-post to the blog during the Africa trip, so here it is, time-delay included for your reading pleasure.

Cape Town, South Africa

*November 7, 2007

Happy birthday to me! I have the greatest birthday gift today: my flight to Cape Town, South Africa! It’s going to be 11 hours from London to Johannesburg and another 2 to Cape Town, but only one-hour time change.  I will be joining Xavier, co-founder of Better World Books and Books for Africa (BfA) board member, and other people involved with BfA and a classroom-building organization, ECAG-USA (more on that later).  Some of the group’s goals for the trip include finding out more about the book delivery and distribution process on the Africa side, and also more about the needs and opportunities for education in the neediest regions of the country. I don’t know anyone else on the trip, but they are Minnesotans, so they must be friendly, right? Another birthday ‘gift’ – it’s almost summertime in South Africa! I can’t wait for the warm African sunshine after the month I have just spent in blustery, cloud-covered central Europe.

We are in South Africa until the 20th, and then we are in Malawi, a small country to the north, until the 29th.  We will be seeing many schools that have received book shipments and classroom donations, and potential recipient schools. I have a feeling we will learn so much…

*November 8, 2007

Unfortunately I arrived this afternoon from my overnight travel, so I missed the morning boat trip around Robben Island just off Cape Town’s V&A Harbor, where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years under the country’s apartheid regime.

The drive to Cape Town from the airport encapsulates what I expect to see in this country. There is beautiful natural scenery, with ocean view and rolling green hills (South Africa is the world’s 3rd most bio-diverse country, with over 20,000 plant species), and rich and poor communities awkwardly side-by-side. Just a few minutes after leaving the airport, black squatter camps surround the highway; tin-roofed shacks with many-colored scrap walls lean on each other amidst dirt pathways and women carrying the day’s wash.  My driver said the new government, like many recently, promised jobs to lift these people out of poverty, but thus far to no visible result.  Just a couple of miles beyond, I could see the University Cape Town, founded 1829 and still with nearly 50% white enrollment in a country that is 80% black, perched grandly up on the side of Devil’s Peak. While there is no longer apartheid, the advantage is still to the white folks here, it seems.

Cape Town itself is nestled in the lowlands of the oceanfront mountains, much like Rio de Janeiro. High rises are grouped near the Atlantic Ocean’s edge and lead up to private homes painted in rainbow colors up the hillsides. It was in one of these neighborhoods, called Bo-Kaap, where we had a fantastic, family-style Malay dinner.

The restaurant name, Bo-Kaap Kombois, essentially means the neighborhood kitchen. According to the owner, the local people historically held all family meetings, group decision-making and quality time in the kitchen, and so he wanted his restaurant to reflect the welcoming, homey atmosphere and the local cuisine. He enthusiastically told us about each dish and the sauces (think ginger, curry, tamarind and chilies), how the white landowners brought in workers from Malaysia, India, China and from the surrounding area, and how the lingua franca Afrikaans and the cuisine came out of this immigrant melting pot that is Bo-Kaap. He also spoke very highly of the generosity of the local residents (he claims we can walk into someone’s home and use the bathroom, and we will not leave without a cup of tea and having been asked about our mother), the strong sense of community and the prevalence of the Islamic faith here.  Xavier and I had a laugh at the thought of the walk-in-to-your-neighbor’s bathroom thing… I think we may try that back in San Francisco!

The view from the restaurant’s wall-sized windows was stunning; we were up on the edge of a bowl-shaped valley that poured down to the waterfront, and could see the red, pink and yellow houses of Bo-Kaap and a very curious sight—the little putting green in the empty lot below. Four boys, each with a 5-iron were hitting a golf ball up this strip of (how did that get there?) ratty astro-turf surrounded by unkempt lawn, one even wearing an Argyle sweater. I guess this was golfing Africa-style.

What a great first day! I am excited for the villages and the schools, but some transition time in lovely Cape Town will start us off right.  I’m still not over the “am I really here?’ feeling. This city is just so, well, European and modern that it is hard to fit it with my idea of Africa. But maybe that is the point: each place I will see here will stand alone and will have much to it that I don’t expect. How wonderful!

Xavier digs in to the Malay cuisine with Erin on his left; the owner smiles over the satisfied customers.

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