A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Farewell to the continent, for now.

Africa. It sounds quite whole really. Whole in sense like ‘France’, or ‘Holland, or ‘Australia’. People sometimes say, ‘I’m going to Africa’, or ‘I have been to Africa’, or even worse, ‘I have done Africa’.

But the longer I’ve been here, the less ‘Africa’ as a static description, one which conjures notions of stability, uniformity, or completeness, makes any sense to me.
The more I have travelled, the more I have seen how varied it is. How stable in parts and fragile in others. How politics effects governance, and how governance effects boundaries. How those boundaries have been shaped through want and warfare, peace and promise.

The place, if anything, is complex.

Many of the South Africans I have met do not consider themselves to be part of ‘Africa’. The North Africans I have met do not consider themselves to be part of Africa. They are Moroccan, or Egyptian, or Algerian. But that is not Africa, not the real Africa at least, is it? Some Mozambicans tell me they are the real Africans. But they speak Portuguese and some sip espresso in fancy street cafes. That is not African, is it? Some Tanzanians I have met were headscarves and pray to Allah five times a day, is that African? The white Zimbabweans I have met have been kicked out of their country for not been African enough. The black Zimbabweans I have met have fled their country and can’t get a visa to live in ‘Africa’. I have not met any Nigerians en route, but some ‘Africans’ I have met told me they wish the Nigerians were not African, for they give them all a bad reputation. I have even met some African Americans, who tell me that coming to ‘Africa’ is like coming home. But where and what they mean, I have no idea.

Very quickly I stopped trying to reach a definition of Africa, because it does not, can not, and nor do I think should exist. Definitions limit. They put boundaries on things. ‘Africa’ is a place which does not need to be contained.

Africa is everything.

It is music which makes your soul come alive.

It is life which seeps into every open pour.

It is death which hangs over cliff edges, so close, always too close.

It is colour, bright, shocking, glaring colour which adorns every inch of clothing.

It is stench dark smells which rise from the gutters and hover like omens.

It is sunsets which give new meaning to orange, to golden, to red, to amber.

It is the woman who carries a baby on her back, laundry in her arms and a bucket on her head.

It is a group of grown men playing a giant game of Ludo.

It is a child, naked and bare, carrying a younger child in her arms, sharing a piece of chewed maize.

It is houses of mud, which look like they would either crack in the sun or disintegrate in the rain.

It is mansions overlooking lakes, with east and west wings full of empty rooms.

It is knowing that every third or fourth person you see probably has Aids. It is knowing that the life expectancy of some is 27. It is knowing that there are men in power lining their coffins with gold-leaf. It is knowing that in some places there are no longer enough trees to make coffins.

It is laughter, resounding around street corners.

It is spontaneity, now.

It is hotels with four poster beds and crisp linen. It is hotels with no doors, no beds, no guests.

It is giraffes and elephants and a myriad of multicoloured butterflies. It is nasty ants, termite hills, mosquitoes. It is malaria and the constant fear of malaria. It is mosquito nets being used as fishing nets. It is condoms being used for making footballs.

It is 5000 year old baobab trees.

It is early rises, early nights, dreams of better times past, and better times future.

It is music blaring out of speeding buses. It is buses with holes in the floor. It is buses meant for 14 people which pack in 24. It is BMWs covered in red dust. It is 4 wheel drives with no suspension.

It is when you know you are stinky and dirty, but you really don’t care, because there is always someone smellier and someone dirtier.

It is smiles, huge gaping genuine smiles, which never seem to end.

It is children, lots of them, shouting, ‘MUZUNGU, How are you?’ Then repeating it again, and again, and again, and again.

It is people who care. It is people who don’t. It is some who try. It is some who don’t know how to try.

It is a million angry emotions about to erupt, because they have to go somewhere.

It is hope, despair, frustration, bureaucracy, enchantment, history, death, more death, life tottering on the brink of death, life, more life, and life erupting with potential.

It is all these things, and that is just the beginning.

I have to leave now, but I will return. Not to Africa. But to Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa.. and who knows, I may even get to some other parts of the continent and discover a few more pieces of the puzzle.

The journey, phase two, is soon to start. Next stop. India.

I’ll see you there.

(I still have some articles to write about some of the fantastic people I have met over the last few days. It has been such a whirlwind, I can hardly keep up. But I will get to them, soon!)

Faces to remember

Monday, August 28, 2006

Champion Hipsters

I went along to the Hip Hop Dance finals in Cape Town the other day.
One ‘word’, ‘WOW’. These kids have talent oozing out of every joint, muscle, tendon, fibre and sinew. They balance on their heads, their elbows, their hands, and at times it looked like they are balancing on their eyelashes. They balance on each other’s hands and heads, and possibly eyelashes. They flip, twist, swirl and morph themselves into near impossible positions. They look rather funky too.

Hundreds had gathered to watch, cheer and aspire. Here is a group of kids, (the youngest dancer looked about 7, the average about 17) who have to focus to achieve. These are athletes. There is no space for drugs and alcohol; it only dulls their speed.

There are gangs alright but they dance out their rivalries. Want to beat someone up? Well take the aggression to the dance floor. That is where the real winning takes place. Gun free, knife free zone.

Talent free? Very far from it. I’ll say it again. ‘WOW’.

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Spores come alive. Colour bursts. Form appears. Smells ripen. The forest moves. The mountains rise in peaks, then plateaus. You thread on blooms. Bird song comes to swallow the silence. Nothing is still. Noting rests. Shadows chase the sun’s cycle. Ferns curl and unfold. More blasts of colour pierce, plunder and pillage the eyes. You feel it on your skin. Up your nose. Under your clothes. The flowers unveil their canopies of delight. Life knows itself here. Life give birth, to life.
So much it is almost too much.
Woah, let me breathe it in.


The Monkey Business

The colour almost overwhelms. The talent and skills astound. When I'll be looking back, thinking about my time visiting Monkeybiz Bead Project, I’ll think about women exploring their creativity, revitalising the craft industry and recreating their own lives in the process.

Monkeybiz is a non profit company which seeks to ‘create employment’, ‘empower women’, and ‘preserve and nurture’ the tradition of South African beadwork’. Just one step into the place, and you know that they are indeed on track.

I met up with Barbara Jackson, originally a ceramicist, who set up with Monkeybiz alongside Mathapelo Ngaka and Shirley Fintz, also artists. Barbara told me a little about her own background, and how Monkeybiz came about.

“I am a ceramicist by profession, and I had a chance meeting with Mathapelo, who is from the community of Kaileshya. That was seven years ago. During the 80s, the apartheid years in South Africa, I taught ceramics at a black art school called community arts project. It was quite a politicised art school in those days, and we were always getting hassle by the police! As a white person it was not the norm to be teaching at a black school, but it was the most tremendous opportunity to come into contact with black artists. I was aware of people’s struggles and unemployment and poverty, and also of the remarkable talent that existed.
I started it Monkeybiz because it was the right time in my life to put something back. I also felt embarrassed at what was being sold in the shops to tourists; kitch curios which reflected colonialism. They were mass producing and being exploited’.

Now groups of women artists have the opportunity to bead in their homes, and then promote their craft through Monkeybiz.

Over the years Monkeybiz has also become an outspoken advocate on HIV/ Aids issues. In 2003 they produced a HIV educational book, which showcased the women’s work, while at the same time explaining the health implications and prevention techniques around the virus. Through the profits of the business, Monkeybiz have also set up a HIV/ Aids ‘Wellness’ Clinic, which supports the women as they cope with the virus.

I popped into their Wellness Clinic to see the place in action. Among brightly coloured painting and photos, in a light, friendly room, the women were just winding down after a yoga class, and preparing for a discussion on managing their health.

‘There is a sense of hope here’, Mathapelo proclaimed. And she is right.
This really is a place which is positive about being positive.

(one of the artist's children at the wellness centre)

A Soulful One

Kim Keiser loves rivers. They literally are her life and soul. She sees them as the veins and arteries of this earth. When they are blocked the planet is gearing itself up for a massive coronary combustion!

Her love for them led to her setting up The Soul Foundation, an organisation which aims to clean up the rivers, and protect their banks. To do so, Kim has developed a comprehensive waste management system, which involves local communities, and generates much needed employment. The jobs come in the form of setting up community recycling centres (currently there is only about 10% of recycling being done in Jo’burg).

Kim has already proven that it can be done. The Soul Foundation initiated a river clean up, which employed 144 people and removed 12,000 tones of waste from the Juskei River which runs through Jo’burg.

‘There are no ways we can save our rivers if we do not manage our waste’, says Kim. ‘So that is the first step- to get the waste into a proper system, because what is there at the moment is chaos’.

Kim has really thought through how that waste can be managed, and crucially takes into consideration the conditions within the townships and the cities. After nine year of planning, piloting, and evaluating the resuts, Kim is now gearing up to roll the model out.

There is a long way to go yet, but with her on board the earth may not need that by-pass after all.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Some of the views...

The Wiseman Speaks

I have met many wisemen along the way, and I have even met one ‘Wiseman’. Yes, that was his name, and sure enough, he really lived up to it.

Wiseman is a taxi driver in Capetown, but he is from Malawi. He came here to earn his fortunes. The thing is, the taxi driver market is a tough world and competition is fierce. There is not much fortune to be had. Wiseman works on a 'kind of' commission basis. Each day he has to pay the owner of the taxi a set amount, about 200 rand. Then he has to pay for petrol, and once that is covered the rest is his. In the winter he tells me that it is difficult to earn the 200 rand a day, but he can make it in the summer when the crowds come.

I hailed him one evening and we got chatting along the way. He told me that there is an Irish man, a businessman, who has said that he will pay for him to come to Ireland to work in his catering business for a few months. He told me that this businessman would cover all the travel costs, and arrange for his stay.

When I first heard this I must say the little sceptical part of me kicked into action- why would the Irish guy go to those lengths and underneath all that, what does Wiseman want out of me?

But gut told me that Wiseman was a reliable driver. I needed a taxi for next day, and so we exchanged numbers.

I got home. Fifthteen minutes later the phone rang. It was Wiseman. I had dropped my wallet in the taxi and he was outside the door, ready to return it. He had driven back from Cape Town to give it back to me.

The contents were intact, including some money I had just taken out of an ATM.

The following day, I needed a taxi, and so called Wiseman. As we were driving his story unfolded a little more.

‘In Malawi’, he tells me, ‘we are taught not to steal. Honesty is what counts, and hard work. Do you remember I told you about the Irish businessman who has offered to support me to come to Ireland?’ I nod, and ask him to tell me more. ‘Well once he left a video camera in the taxi, and I returned it to him. He now wants me to work for him, so that I can earn some extra money, which means I can then return to Malawi to set up my own business’.

Wiseman it seems has learned the wisdom of returns. And when ever I now need a taxi in town, he is, of course, the first person I call.

The Waddlers

I made some friends in Capetown!

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Roundabout Revolution

I have been chasing my tail a bit. When I got to Capetown I heard about Playpumps, an organisation based out of Jo’burg.
Isn’t this fantastic! Roundabouts being used a water pumps.
The pumps have been installed in schools, where there is an abundance of play, so now all that enegy can be used to sciphon a water supply. Isn't it amazing what ingenuity in thinking can lead to!

I did not get a chance to meet anyone involved in the project, but thought the idea worthy of a mention.

Let the revolutions continue.

The Educational Alchemist

Three years ago I received an email about a university campus in Johannesburg which was set up by a young man with a vision for the future of South African education. The young man was Taddy Blecher, a financial whiz kid, who had job offers from top international actuarial firms flying at him from all directions. He had chosen one in the States, his bags were packed and he was ready to go.

He was all set to leave South Africa, when suddenly something pressed the pause button. In that pause he realised that he had to stay and be a part of making the new South Africa. And that is exactly what he did, helping to set up and grow a new model of business education, helping to create a generation of people contributing the economic and social growth of the nation, in the form of CIDA City Campus.

Three years ago, I read that email over and over again. I found something remarkably powerful in the story of this young man, who, against the odds, decided to remould his own life for the sake of the lives of others. With solid commitment, and a vision for where he was going, Taddy and the team he built around him grew CIDA into a place where the educational models we currently take as the norm are being reshaped, for the better. Looking back now, it was with that story where some of the seeds for this journey were sown and, as part of my own journey, I knew it would be a fantastic opportunity to meet Taddy, and get a chance to see CIDA in action. Taddy is a remarkably busy man, but I managed to get to meet him and spend an afternoon at CIDA- and what an amazing afternoon it was.

Taddy is enthusiasm in abundance. His energy is palpable. When he walked into the room, he greeted me with a hearty laugh and warm smile. On the afternoon that I visited CIDA foundation campus (a campus on the outskirts of Jo’burg where first year foundation level students are resident) he also had another group of guests visiting, and I got to tag along on the tour.

He walked us down to the new dorm rooms which have just been built for the first year girls. ‘I’m so so excited’, he continued to repeat, ‘ so very excited’. The excitement comes knowing what difference the campus and opportunities are brining to the students. Here are a group of young people with hopes, dreams, ambition and talents, who, through the opportunity to study, are being given the chance to unleash it on the world. I got to flavour just a snippet of that talent when Taddy called the students (about 250 who were resident that day) into the main hall, and asked a few of them to introduce themselves to us. These were no ordinary introductions. There followed about an hour of music, singing, dance, stand-up comedy, poetry and laughter. While these kids may have been short on opportunities growing up, they sure are not short of confidence. One young women, beautiful and brave, stood up and recited the most moving rendition of ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou that I have ever head. The audience clapped and cheered her on. Then the choir rose, singing and dancing, and raising the roof in turn. These kids know they have talent, and are ready to take the world on.

CIDA’s educational model has many interesting dimensions to it. While the main emphasis is on business skills, the model incorporates a self-management or personal development component, incorporating meditative and reflective practice. All students are required to take part in the management of the campus. They also go out into their communities and teach. In this way, over half a million people have been reached, and the students become community role models. This is ripple effect, tsunami style. ‘Our focus is socio economic transformation’, Taddy explained, ‘you don’t end poverty by giving people money, you end poverty by building people’. ‘We are trying to create a bush fire revolution of people trying to get reengaged with life again. Our approach is about building people and finding their strengths’.

I sat down with Taddy later in the afternoon and talked about his own take on what has sustained him, what has kept CIDA growing. Here are just a few snippets from the conversation.

‘When you find your niche, it is just so addictive. It is just so fulfilling, and meaningful. I often say to people, “being a social entrepreneur is one of the most selfish things you could ever do”, because it is almost like you should have to pay to do it!’

‘Have no illusions. Being a social entrepreneur is unbelievably hard. You have got to me mad, but provided you are mad, and provided that you can accept the hardship, it is just an adrenaline rush. It is the journey of a long distance runner. If you want to be a social entrepreneur, you can’t go through ups and downs. You have always got to have a crystal clear vision of where you are going. It is the long haul and any meaningful change takes time. You learn all the time, you grow all the time’.

‘To me it comes down to individuals. Every individual has to be OK if society is to be OK. If you write off any human being, you have somehow broken the puzzle of life, of what is possible’.

‘I am also a very values driven person. I think that if people can grow up in communities which have values, which are like a family, when people take care of each other, when people learn constructive values, then they end up getting a lot more than if they destroy each other. I think that if people can grow up in those ways, we will have a stable society’.

‘Every day, all around us, there are innumerable ways to make a difference’.

I asked him what it is that sustains him through it all.

‘The fact that it is absolutely possible to change the world. It is like, when I was at school we learned history, and it always seemed that history was something that happened to you. Growing up in South Africa, as a white South African, and with Jewish background, you would meet people and feel so helpless. I think that the minute I made that mind shift- that history isn’t something that just happens to us, that it is something we create, I knew that we could think in a much more enlightened way about how we do everything’.

Thanks to Taddy and the students at CIDA for a day which is lingering.

Douglas ‘Dug’ Racionzier and I jokingly agree that we should describe him as ‘avuncular’. We like the word. It has a large, lovely tone to it. ‘Avuncular’. ‘Yes, that is it’, and then we crack up laughing. You see, Dug thinks it is funny, but I think it is apt- for he is a man with a big heart, big laugh, big spirit and big ideas.

The ideas? Well, there are lots of them. Essentially though, through his company, Sunstyle, he is spurring the economic development of townships by promoting and supporting local entrepreneurs. To do so he has a hand in many different businesses and his back garden is a shrine to his inventive approaches. There is an up-turned satellite dish which has been converted into a solar oven, and a refrigerator which has been made out of oil barrels. There is also a large sign for ‘The African Burger’- something Dug and Sunstyle designed to market a type of burger which is popular in the townships- a sort of pitta bread, meat and mango chutney combo.

To Dug, this township ‘third sector’ economy is an essential driving component in the overall economy- but all to often is overlooked. The townships are treated as dumping ground defunct goods, or the guinea pigs of product development, seen as the tail end of the economy. But who is waging who? To Dug, the systems within the township are complex and many. Product marketing means knowing the local slant or environment to promote business in the area.

Dug tries to explain what he does in language I can access. Currently, he describes, 1 rand passes once or twice between hands in the townships. The money leaves the place quickly. However in the Indian or Jewish communities, business stays within the communities and so has a knock on economic benefit for the community as a whole. What Sunstyle tries to do is keep that 1 rand passing hands more times in the township, thus creating a market, jobs and an economy. But much of the success of the business lies in marketing. So Sunstyle teaches local entrepreneurs how to do it and helps them launch.

That is at one level. At the other, Sunstyle works at the corporate end of the market- as a knowledge bank of how to do business in the townships; but in a manner beyond dumping ground territory.

Alongside all of that, Dug is working to promote a mechanism of accountancy known as full cost accountancy, which makes businesses account for their full economic, social and environmental impact. It is a way of calculating the real costs of business. Through such ways some huge corporations who would ordinarily be seen as operating multi million dollar (or rand, or yen, or yuan) businesses would be operating at a loss, whereas social organisations would be operating at net profit.
I never thought that accountancy could be so radical.

Dug keeps a blog in which he outlines there ideas and more. He is also a cartoonist, and I didn’t escape the pen. He gave me some cartooning lessons too!

(Thanks to Dug, Andy, Benjamin and Katie for putting me up, and for putting up with me while in Pretoria!)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Chasing Opportunities, Fulfillings Needs

Still on the theme of HIV orphans, I met with Kim Feinburg in Johannesburg who is the founder of The Tomorrow Trust.

Like Veronica Khosa (see below), Kim started asking herself some questions about children orphaned through HIV/ Aids, and particularly about their educational opportunities.

She saw that when reaching young adulthood, many of these children were left to fend for themselves, unable to afford tertiary education. The Tomorrow Trust was set up to assist them through higher education; providing schooling fees and provisions, and creating a support community for these individuals as they venture out into the world. The trust also runs ‘holiday schools’ for secondary school pupils, providing extra tuition classes, and again increasing chances that they will have a chance to continue with their education.

Kim has been juggling continents and careers for much of her life. Growing up in South Africa, she was originally trained in the performing arts, and then went on to work as a dancer in the States. Things started to shift following a period of work in Hospice, where she started to question the impact which she wanted to have on this planet. There followed a period of time where she worked for Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, for which she documented the oral history of South African Holocaust survivors. That led on to her setting up the Foundation for Tolerance Education, which promoted cultural understanding among South African schools. Then that led to involvement in setting up the Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg, then a role on the Human Rights Commission.. and now, the Tomorrow Trust.

There has indeed been a lot of activity, but what I find interesting about Kim is that she lets opportunity and need direct her. She admits that she does not have all the answers nor a grand map to where she will end up- but she works to find them. It is not an easy journey- there is risk and a huge amount of uncertainty, but overall the impetus to address the need is the overriding drive, and onwards she pushes.

Still going strong!

At 79, Veronica Khosa is still pioneering change.

I first came across her work in a book entitled, ‘How to Change the World’, written by David Bornstein, which documents her first organisation, Tateni, a home based nursing care model. Veronica worked for over ten years on the approach, and after proving her methodology, the model was accepted by the Gauteng province in South Africa (the province with encompasses Jo’berg and Pretoria). Once she knew that the model was working she started to see to the Aids crisis in a new light.

The number of orphans in Africa is huge. And growing. Kim Feinberg, who runs the Tomorrow Trust, told me some shocking figures. By 2010, it is estimated that there will be 25 million orphans on the continent, and 40 million by 2020.

Social entrepreneurs are by nature entrepreneurial; looking for new ways, new opportunities and new approaches, and Veronica is no different. During her previous work, when she would be tending to parents in a palliative care capacity, she started asking herself some questions. What will happen to the children when their parents die? Who will support them? What future will they have? Through the realisation that not much was being done, Afrenaus Life Skills was born.

The organisation aims to equip orphaned children with the basis life skills which they would ordinarily acquire through the home.

There are other orphan organisations in the region, but in the townships around Mamelodi, where Veronica lives, the scale of the problem is vast, and not enough was being done to help the orphans out of the poverty cycle. ‘Yes, funders were helping’ said Veronica’, ‘but it was the way they were helping. They all wanted to give food or clothing, but there was a gap. These children are always alone’. To Veronica, the lack of a parental figure means that the children are not being taught basic life skills, and she started to question, ‘How do we bridge the gap of giving them the skills that will help them to get out of the cycle’.
‘What skills do you think are necessary’, I asked,
‘As many as I could say’, she joked, and then elaborated. ‘We give them short courses on HIV/ Aids, because I think that is a must for every child. And other skills, normal skills. Like teaching them how to hold a needle’.

In addition to this, Afrenaus also select peer counsellors from among the children, train them and support them to coach other children, so that the impact of their work can increase. To Veronica, it is about widening the ripping effect.

One thing is clear from Veronica, that so long as there is need, she will find it hard to rest and sit still. I think there will always be need- so it is going to be busy days for Veronica!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Hip, Hop and Happening

Last Wednesday was Women’s day in South Africa, commemorating the 50th Anniversary of a march to Union Buildings in Pretoria, when 30,000 women stood up to demand an end to the ‘Pass Laws’, the laws that built apartheid.

Fifty years on, it was a day of celebrating the achievements of women. I got to tag along with a group that were going to celebrate it on the walls of Jo’burg, literally.

'Dug' Racionzer,(pictured above) a cartoonist and Ashoka Fellow, was asked by Ashoka, to facilitate a graffiti art workshop, on the theme of women, with a group of local hipsters! Arriving at ‘Horror Café’, a hip hop haven, it felt more like the Bronx than anything remotely African; the street lingo, the incredible variety of dreadlocks, the layers of fashion, the beats, the poses, the moves. But this, I realised, is the new Africa, the Jo’burg street culture- alive with energy and personality.

A breakdancing workshop was taking place with one of the best dancers in the country demonstrating his techniques. I stared on in amazement, not daring to join in my clumsy hiking boots and distinctly uncool attire!

The graffiti artists gathered in front of the 20m wall they had to work on. The aim was to create a mural, or series of images, to depict the positive contribution of women to society. I was incredibly impressed with the speed of the process. Two groups were formed and words about women were brainstormed’; ‘revolution’, ‘power’, ‘cleavage’, ‘shoes’, ‘intellect’, ‘mama’, ‘love’… 15 minutes later each group had a concept for their mural ready, and a template or ‘rush’ was drawn. These are fast, effective and efficient workers! Once the groups got going, Dug, myself and the rest of us left the gang to get on with it…

I did not get a photo of the end result, but it was as good as this..

The Mozambican Princess

On the bus from Maputo to Pretoria (about ten hours), I was kept company by a lovely little girl, Princessa, who came and sat on my lap. She did not speak English, and I have practically no Portugese- but it did not seem to matter, kids always seem to find ways of communicating. To me she was exactly what her name suggests, a princess!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Maputo Musings

Maputo is a city built on revolutionaries and military men. Its socialist history is marked on its maps. Mau Tse Tung Avenue intersects with Kim Il Sung Avenue. Vladimir Lenine Avenida runs to Ho Chi Min Avenida. There is a Robert Mugabe roundabout. Mozambique’s own Samora Machel takes pride of place, as the avenue running to the port.

But there are ironies too. Between Karl Marx and Lenin Avenues, a huge church stands, carving out at bit of the Portuguese religious legacy. At weekends, Fredrick Engles Avenue becomes a capitalist’s catwalk, as BMWs and Mercedes swarm, drop-off high fashion 14 years olds to their dates at the gelateria. High-healed ladies walk their poodles and carry bouquets of freshly cut flowers.
Across the city, in the bit on my map which has no names, kids continue to sell just plastic bags, or just sunglasses. There, the pavement looks like the site of an earthquake. The further away from the wealthy part of the city you get, the less manholes covers there are, and the less pavements.

There are times in the city when you think you have stepped into Portugal. Little pavement cafes, wide tree-lined streets, pastry shops and bakeries. There is prosperity and wealth. Sitting in the cafes, it would be easy to forget that you are in one of the poorest countries in the world. Maputo, in that sense, seemed very distant from the rest of the country.

Being in Mozambique raised many questions for me; about change, about social entrepreneurship and about the political climate which must be in place for that change to take place. It is clear to me that an enabling environment, politically, must exist and encourage the change (one only has to look across the border to Zimbabwe to see what can happen in a politically curtailed hotspot). In Mozambique, I heard story after story of the endemic corruption and bureaucratic warrens which must be navigated to make anything happen. Those who manage to do business here with honesty and integrity are stalwarts. The system does not make honesty easy. Back in Ireland, I for one take the democratic process for granted. I take the political lobby and freedom of speech almost as a given. I assume, as default, that the police are a generally benevolent force. I trust that when I dial the emergency services someone will at least answer the phone. Not so here. As default, the government is viewed as corrupt and the police as law breakers. I never had to dial the emergency services, thankfully. The fact that there are only 800 doctors in the whole country, and 600 of them around the Maputo area (and this is a HUGE country, with some 801, 590 sq km)- I am very glad that I did not have to.

Leaving Mozambique, I am convinced that this a country with significant potential. However, I feel that the window to protect what is already there, particularly when it comes to protecting the environment, is already closing. Leaving the country, I do not know what all the solutions are, I do not know whether it is too late, but I do know that it is worth trying, and there are at least some people who are indeed trying.

Market Wanderings

A wander around the Municiple Market, Maputo, introducted me to some colourful scenes..

Warning, cute alert...

Doing the deal...

The Elephant Surprise

A visit to the Natural History Museum in Maputo filled me with surprise. The taxidermist must have been perpetually drunk, given the state of some of the mounting- but that said, on the ground floor was a stuffed safari! Lions hunting down zebras, water buffalo at war with each other, elephants calling out to their young, crocodiles on the prowl, hippos doing whatever hippos do, impalas looking at risk. What came as the biggest surprise however were the 14 elephant embryos preserved in formaldehyde. There are the result a mass elephant hunt, apparently done to make room for Maputo.

Elephant embryos, both strange and beautiful, and something I never thought I would ever see.

Ship Wreck

Look what gets washed ashore!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Market View Mozambique


I have been having difficulties with email and technology here! Patience is called for. Photos for the preceeding posts will be uploaded as soon as possible. Thanks for waiting!

The Darker Side of Innocence

It is a harsh reality when you start to question the motivation of children. Walking around the market in Vilankulo, a costal town about 10 hours by bus south of Beira, I met a group of kids, and started chatting and joking. They loved my camera- particularly seeing their image on the screen. They started dancing and singing, and on the surface looked all sweet and innocent. However, it turned out that they were drunk, sharing beer between them. The oldest was no more than 12. Then one pinched my wallet!

I did not lose much money, but my trust in there been a chance for childhood here has been robbed. Kids have to be streetwise to survive. Petty crime must seem like an easy option. All across the country I have seen small kids selling everything from pineapples to plastic bags. In all of central Mozambique, I did not see one school. I know that there are some, but they are few and far between. I hear that functional literacy is at about 10%. Life expectancy averages around 30. About one in three are HIV positive.

This country is at the raw end of challenge. For these kids, what little future they have is uncertain. I will not condone what they did, but I have been trying to put myself in their shoes. Can I really be so self-righteous to say I would not do such a thing? No, I don’t think so.

Had not met people along the way on this journey who are working to change the system, working on the solutions, then I would be in a sorry state by this stage of the journey. The problems are vast; but there are people working on the solutions. I do still think that change is possible here, but it requires more people, with more commitment, who are willing to challenge the way things work. This particularly means local people, who understand the system and will not tolerate the corruption which is rife in Mozambique. Do they exist? Well, let me continue to try to find out…

The Forest Sustainer- Meet Allan Schwarz

Thirty years ago much of Mozambique was heavily forested. Today, little of it remains. Slash and burn agriculture has been the ruination of the land- a short term means to grow a season or two of crops. In some places only a few tall trees still stand, marking what once was the forest canopy- the rest is just bush. Chinese traders are here too, exporting vast amounts of timber, which leaves Beira port by the truckload.

Allan Schwarz however is trying to reverse the trend. Taking a large piece of slash and burn land, Allan has shown that indigenous forest can be regenerated in a commercially viable way. With the Mezimbite Sustainable Forestry Programme, 25,000 indigenous trees are planted each year, making the programme the largest nursery in Mozambique (Allan jokes that his is a sad reflection of the state of the national forestry programme rather than a indicator of his achievements). Alongside this he has set up a high-end carpentry business, on location, creating quality furniture and jewellery- the latter becoming highly sought after items at the Paris Fashion Fair each year.

Allan adopts the philosophy that if a tree takes 500 years to grow, you better make something that will last from it. So the pieces which are produced at his workshop are designed to be heirlooms, to be passed on from one generation to the next.

Alongside the carpentry, his business also has an oil pressing side to it. Lemongrass, tea tree and marula oils are produced, and Allan is working with the Flora foundation to investigate bio-fuel production. Vegetable crops are also introduced among the trees, which, by creating space for food production, acts as an incentive for forest protection.

‘The whole idea is to look at how you incentive forest conservation creating viable economic alternatives to the activities which are destroying the forest’, said Allan. ‘It is to start creating a culture which consists of give and receive on the basis of doing a fair deal with people and also doing a fair deal with your environment’.

His workers are trained, and their skills are rewarded with much higher than average salaries. Their employment means the survival of the local community.

Allan, who grew up in South Africa, was initially trained as a carpenter. He then went on to study architecture, later teaching it at MIT in the States. Allan admitted that the academic life at MIT was very was appealing, but his passion for the environment brought him back to Africa. To be able to authentically teach about sustainable forestry, he wanted to prove that it could be done. After ten years he has shown it can be achieved, but he did so with huge personal sacrifice. Allan currently lives on a camp within the forest- a far cry from the physical and financial comforts of his architecture days.

It is a simply principle that keeps him there. ‘If you are going to take from your environment, you should give back’, and then jokes, ‘Which makes me kind of a revolutionary, because most people don’t put back’.

I stayed out with him in his camp for about a week, and experienced just some of the challenges of the local bureaucracy and the slow pace of getting even basic things done. Given the context, I’d say his commitment to the environment is quite revolutionary. The crafts are not bad either!

Dolls with a Difference

Amy Gillespie is jokingly referred to as ‘sex toy woman’. All very amusing , but her anatomical dolls, (complete with appropriate appendages!), are being used to tackle the HIV crisis in new, culturally appropriate ways.

Amy teaches HIV prevention and basic life skills to teenagers and adults in Chimoio- a town on the main road leading from Zimbabwe to Beira port, a trade route with a higher than average HIV prevalence rate.

Her classes use humour and visual aids as a means to generate discussion and get health messages across. She has also started a survival skills course for orphaned children- teaching everything from basic first aid to road safety. The dolls she used in the classes are produced locally, thus generating jobs and income. She is also branching into producing other survival skills materials such as natural insect repellents and first aid educational posters.

HIV/ Aids is certainly at crisis level here. But so too is basic survival. Children are not taught how to cross a road properly, and there are many road accidents as a result. Malaria is commonplace, but using mosquito nets as a preventative measure, is not. This is something Amy refuses to accept. ‘So many of these deaths are preventable and avoidable’, she said, ‘and there are simple interventions which can be used, which do not cost much’.

When I visited Amy in Chimoio, she was in the process of renovating an old premises, which she will use as training school. She was busy marking out where power sockets are to be located, and told me how the ceiling had to be demolished due to damage by bats. It was a reminder that in this work all types of skills are required. To me, she is Amy ‘jack of all trades’ Gillespie. A brave woman, with enormous amounts of determination. She frequently laughs at her dolls too!