Thursday, March 31, 2011

Leaving home for home

    I am departing Africa, in love, in awe, in confusion, in inspiration, in happiness, in sadness and with a great sense of something. I am not leaving Africa, surely, this would be impossible, for a part of me will remain here forever. I have left a part of myself along the journey through times and places and peoples, across an entire country that I still barely understand. A part of my heart lives in a thatch-roofed rondeval in the Transkei, along the Wild Coast of the RSA. A part of me floats effortlessly in the seas of the Indian ocean, in the quiet forests of Dwessa, across the immense expanses of Mkhambathi. I have left a part of my soul in rural schools in the Eastern Cape, in Cwebe and Hobeni, and with the many other people we have met along the way. There is a saying among the Xhosa people, ‘If you meet someone for the first time, they are a stranger. But if you seen them again, they are a friend’. So many new and beautiful people have become friends and and entirely new place has become a new home. A part of me has returned to mother Africa, the place from where we have all come. A part of me is now more complete.
    My experiences here cannot be described adequately or conveyed properly. Hell, I, myself, cannot even begin fully comprehend everything that has happened in the past 2 and a half months. Processing is taking place and my mind has slowly begun to make sense of life in the South Africa. Leaving is bittersweet. Many more adventures still await me. I am now a college graduate. Life is changing. I am changing. The way I view and understand the world is changing. I grasp tightly to very little. I am floating through a beautiful world and I am at the mercy of its waves. There are forces far greater than me. I am stronger than I once thought. People are beautiful, so beautiful. The world is tremendous and unbelievably huge and wild and so worth saving. There are so many things worth fighting for. There are so many things worth living for.
    In the beginning of the trip a friend asked my why my blog was titled ‘Tones of Home’. At the time, I didn’t really have an answer, but now I do. This is a travel blog, of course, to document my life and journeys over the next few years of my life. But it is also a blog about home, finding it elsewhere, in the strangest of places with the strangest of people at the strangest of times. For a number of reasons, I have felt my notion of “home” gradually changing since I began in college 4 years ago. I have reached a point in my life where “home” is no longer defined, it is nebulous and shifting and it assumes many forms. In this sense, my home is where I am, with whomever I am there with. With strangers and friends and by myself. As I wander, home wanders with me. As I seek home, my home seeks with me. It is a strange feeling, but one that I am eager to embrace.
    At the end of this journey, I tip my hat and raise my glass to the beauty of South Africa and its people. I cannot wait for the next great adventure. Thank you for all that supported me in this endeavor and shared in it with me. And so now, I am leaving home for home and yet, I remain here forever. So it goes, life is good.

from home,
little hupo

Sabonana Transkei

     This last week passed slowly and heavily with the weight of this morning’s departure ever present in my mind. We left the Haven, our home for the past 2 and a half months, in the early African dawn that peeked shyly through the trailing rain clouds. Our journey from this point will take us back along the coastal route of the N2, through the folded mountains and the tumultuous landscape, through the profound scenery and mosaic terrain that is South Africa, all the way back to Cape Town. This is not a journey out of Africa, however, and certainly not a trip back to the US only to leave this place behind. At this point, such a feat would be impossible. Instead, this is a progression (not a regression) throughout the continually unfolding contingency of my life. I cannot leave this place behind--parts of myself are held in the waters and soils and the woods and the people that I have seen and known and made a home with for the past months of my life. Regardless, the upcoming week still holds many adventures before we actually leave and many more stories to be told.
    Before leaving the Wild Coast and bidding a final goodbye to the Transkei, we made a serious point of making our farewell fittingly epic. After a few nights of “borrowing” canoes for nighttime river adventures and failed ocean excursions, after morning sunrises from the lighthouse, after bonfires and music and singing Xhosa songs on the beach, after fishing and tagging sharks in a storm, after crossing shark and crocodile infested rivers, after rum and local brews and dancing, we drove out through the same rolling hills and along the same dirt roads that had once taken us to this unfamiliar place. We now leave it as a home away from home, sometimes maybe even a home in its own right, with friends and people and stories and memories that will stay with us forever. To my new friends, I wish you all the love and happiness in the world. See you in time, surely, but not soon enough.
    This afternoon, we arrived just outside Ado Elephant Park, a national park on the southern coast that prides itself on housing the “Big 5” (that is white rhino, lion, jaguar, cape buffalo and of course, elephant) as well as a coastline with great whites and whales. Tomorrow, it is early morning and late night game drives through the park and relaxing in the beautiful aura of nature that has, at this point in human history, become exclusively confined to demarcated areas and national parks.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Contract Killing the Animal Kingdom: The Un-natural Nature of Modern Poaching

(written February 22nd, posting delayed due to issues with press statements and media release of information regarding the following incident)

            I wore shoes today for the first time in a long time. You see, unless one is trudging through the curious and unpredictable Eastern Cape forest, there really is no need for footwear in these parts. Today, however, this was not the case--shoes were required. As of 9 this morning, we were informed that the CEO of the Eastern Cape Parks Board was flying in by chopper and we were to meet him. The reason for his visit was two-fold: (1) to briefly meet and greet with us students and officially welcome us to the Eastern Cape nature reserves and (2) to deal with the white rhino poaching that was discovered in Dwesa (just a stones throw across the Mbashe) earlier this weekend.
            As I discussed in an earlier post, the white rhino discovered in Dwesa last weekend had been poached some months before. But between the large area of the park, the thickness of the Wild Coast forests, the relative elusive nature of the rhino, their small numbers and the reasonable limitations of constant patrolling, the carcass had gone unnoticed until just this Saturday afternoon while we were doing our field work in Dwesa. A forensic specialist was immediately flown in from Jo-burg in order to try and piece together the puzzle of how exactly these poachers got into the park, dodged the radar of the park rangers, and managed to get back out of the park with a rhino horn that could fill the back of a bakkie (that’s Afrikaans for pick-up truck).
            From talking to Park Ranger Jan Venter, I gathered several reasons as to how something like this might happen. Essentially, it has a lot to do with how the nature of poaching has changed over the past few decades. Since the infamous poaching of the 1980’s that brought the white rhino to near extinction, poaching techniques have adapted. As conservation management quelled the rhino genocide of the 80’s and gradually improved their numbers across the African continent in the 90’s, poaching efforts became much more organized and much more sophisticated. Even despite the great overhead costs involved in a rhino poaching operations, the money in this market has become so good that larger, well-organized syndicates are taking up the torch and bringing illegal poaching of critically endangered animals into this new century.
            The problem is an economic one: as the supply of rhino horns on the black market decreases, largely due to improved conservation efforts, the demand, and therefor the price, for the animal increases as well. Often times, this increase occurs exponentially until the cost/benefit equilibrium is thrown into another functional scale, one where the potential for profits greatly exceeds even the strictest penalties for such activities. The horn poached from Dwesa last week from one of the 3 remaining female rhinos on the reserve is estimated to fetch R500,000 (or somewhere just under $100,000 USD) on the black market (likely in China or elsewhere in Asia).
            No longer is it local people hunting for small financial benefits (as was largely the case in the 1980’s). Instead, it is now international cartels of powerful individuals with inroads into illegal markets--there is no point in killing a rhino unless one can get it to a willing buyer. These people have the capital to front the funding for the new-age technologies required to poach and transport these items. The players have changed, but, ironically, the game remains the same (pun intended). The money is just too good. At times, it almost seems that strong conservation might even be the worst fate to befall these animals, as very strict limitations on “wild animal harvesting” create such a strong demand and such an intense market for their goods.
            And yet, the most disheartening part is this: the individual who pulled the trigger on this lone, docile rhino might have turned a profit of R3,000 (thats somewhere just over $400 USD). This individual was likely a local farmer trying to make some extra money to put his kids through school. The way the system works is as such: the large cartels often hire (for very little money, i.e. $400 USD) local people to stake out, gather intelligence and actually do the dirty work of poaching in the park. The operation itself probably lasts for several weeks or months even. It is well planned and executed, as the penalty for getting caught is becoming increasingly more severe. When the time is right, the cartel organizers give the go-ahead, the locals go into action, do as their told, and an endagered rhino gets killed. Big people make money, the locals think their getting a great deal and of this all happens within the context of a poverty ridden community sitting on the outskirts of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
            In a way, this entire system, in all its neo-liberal, top-down, hyper-capitalistic glory, is not only degrading to the environment but also to the livelihoods of people as well. The shortsightedness of poaching is this: a quick and big profit today looks great on the surface, but when considering how much revenue could be generated for a local community through a healthy rhino population within their community-owned nature reserve, it becomes evident that these people are getting exploited and robbed on a massive scale. This system circumvents local ownership of land resources and community investments into nature reserves in a very clever, extremely dastardly, but very clever way. Ultimately, it is only those already poor and marginalized populations that suffer.
            But this is not the only face of poaching--sometimes the facade is far more benign. For large, high-profile animals, poaching it is difficult. Often times, however, as with smaller animals (such as many antelope species), “poaching” is really just a conservationist word for “subsistence hunting” undertaken by local people to supplement their diet. One day, a person is a hunter on communal land. After the fences go up and the rangers come out, that same “hunter” has now become a “poacher”, but one with an absolute necessity to put food on the table for his family. The politics and intricacies of these issues are immense, and, unfortunately, it is often the local people that are caught in the cross-fire.
            The individuals involved in these problems--from the local people, to the cartel organizer, to the buyer, to the Parks Board, to the Parks Rangers, to all of us complicit in the same economic system--are extremely varied, making it so difficult, both legally and morally, to point the accusing finger. The tragedy is buried within the ambiguity, within the pervasive mentality of our profit-driven society (I don’t mean to sound so overtly like a Marxist, but the self-interests promoted by neo-liberalism might just be the root of the problem). In this situation, we are confronted by many issues: poverty, conservation, bureaucracy, equity, justice, and class-struggles, just to name a few.

            On a similarly sad note, this morning, just after the Parks Board CEO left Cwebe for Dwesa, we were informed of another tragic loss. Zebbie the trademark Zebra from the Haven (in Cwebe) was shot and killed somewhere in the local community. As the last of three Zebra that had integrated themselves into the horse herds here at the park, Zebbie had become the unofficial mascot of the reserve. He drank from the pool, grazed among his distantly related equestrian brethren and between the cotteges, and just last week, took a shit on the stoop in front of my rondevall. He had escaped several days ago through some holes in the fences of the reserve.
            The Haven staff, quite keen on Zebbie, sent out a call to the Parks Board for help in getting Zebbie back into the park. The Parks Board, already dealing with the rhino issue and with limited funds and resources, could not oblige. Zebbie was shot dead yesterday, the second casualty we have witnessed since we arrived here. Sobering, yet again, is perhaps the best word. So it goes.

            *Just as a final note, with the smoke clearing and the actual events of the poaching unfolding, the final death toll is as follows: all five remaining rhinos in Dwesa have been poached, sometime in the past year or so. It is not clear how this all happened, but somehow the remaining herd of these beautiful and endangered animals was systematically slaughtered without the Parks Board or the rangers having known. Also, Zebbie the zebra, as mentioned, was also killed. This is a truly unfortunate tragedy, that is striking very close to home for many people here at the reserve.

            These are the issues that modern conservation and development face. It is not as if these are solely animal issues or human issues, environmental or anthropocentric. They are inseparably both and undeniably intertwined. As humans on this planet, our fates are intimately interwoven within the fabric of the natural world. The future for our world is written in both tongues and we must learn to meander in both realms if we hope to thrive or even survive.

with love and hope from the still Wild, wild Coast,
-little hupo

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bulungula, Place of Hope and a river overflowing

            The Mbashe is overflowing. This morning, we woke to another beautiful Wild Coast sunrise, except instead of being greeted by the normal crisp, blue wave breaks of the Indian ocean, we awoke to a turgid, dirt-brown sea-scape. The past week has been a week of heavy rains and thunderstorms and, at last, the river banks have forsaken their solemn duty, letting millions of gallons of Africa-stained waters spill into the ocean. Last night, we ate diner on the Mbashe shore, near the river mouth about a kilometer from the Haven. The walk along the beach toward the pre-set diner tables was ominous, thick fog setting in, black clouds slowly creeping over the sand dunes, distant thunder grumbling through the river valley. As we ate, another typical Transkei storm set in. Streaks of lightning, either speared into the rolling hills or spider-webbed across the endless sky, heavy rain like marbles falling from gluttonous clouds, winds from the south pushing moist air up the coast, only to be caught in the labyrinth topography, tossed about, and dumped right on our heads. The thunder rang constantly, circumventing my body's autonomous controls and dictating the inflation and deflation of my lungs through  its powerful, sound-induced pressure changes. An entire landscape, the entire world it seemed, was left muted and stunned after each epic charge. Even the bugs and moths sought shelter inside our small, thatch-roofed rondeval--we slept through the night cozily and calmly to the soundtrack of rain, thunder and the beating of small, furry wings.

            The past week was a trip. While not drug-induced, it was certainly people- and landscape- and life-induced. Everything kind of came to a head last night during the storm. We started the week on a 12 kilometer trek to Bulungula, a backpackers eco-lodge down the coast. After another extraordinary adventure down the mosaic that is the Wild Coast, we arrived at what appeared to be a glorified hippie commune. But as they say, never, ever, ever judge a book by its cover.
            Settling into Bulungula seemed a bit odd at first. It is entirely different from everywhere I have ever seen, let alone lived before, but within the last week, it became so much like another home to me. To start, the facility is almost completely self-sustaining--wind-turbine powered groundwater pumps, super-efficient (and eco-friendly) rocket showers (paraffin powered), artificially planted wetlands and banana tree circles for natural sewage and water treatment and purification, and an entire village to provide fresh grown veggies, fishes and meats. There are no locks on doors here, and everything (short of the shitters) are communal--showers are big enough for a few people (maybe you and a few very close friends), open-air lounge areas, honor-system run bar, restaurant and library, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. The local villagers mingle freely with the visitors (referred to not as “tourists” but as “trekkers” instead), giving the place a much different vibe than the normally ‘fortress tourism’ that is so typical of most of your usual resorts. There are no gates, no entrance fees, no requirements to be at Bulungula (you really don’t even need to pay to stay, its just the nice thing to do) except for being a human. It really is a special place.
            What makes Bulungula so special is, believe it or not, its business model. It is meant to be an eco-tourist sight run through a process of co-management--the founder, the one and only David, owns 60% of the lodge while the local community owns 40% (that means, 40% of all profits go directly back into the community). In some of the most impoverished and rural communities in all of South Africa, he has managed to develop a business that directly incorporates, educates, provides economic relief and empowerment to an otherwise terribly marginalized people. Locals run programs and tours, taking all the money they earn from these endeavors for personal income. The staff is all local people, much needed employment in a country with unemployment rates at almost 50%. David started this project as somewhat of an experiment to see what he could do, what tourism could do, to help alleviate the struggles of these villages. Five years later, he is still going strong with plans to eventually turn over the entire business to the communities, giving them 100% ownership and the long-deprived self-determination to succeed and thrive on their own terms.
            Not only is Bulungula an awesome eco-lodge (voted in the top 25 most ethical tourist destinations in the world), but it is also associated with another one of David’s side projects--the Bulungula Incubator, an NGO developed in concurrence with the business. So far, the Bulungula NGO, in association with several other international NGO’s, has built a beautiful pre-school for students in the middle of the Eastern Cape educational system, which is otherwise lacking in both resources and efficacy. So far, the pre-schoolers that are being turned out since the opening 2 years ago have exceeded the oldest, standard 9 students from the public schools in reading/writing comprehension (in English), creative thinking and other areas as well. This is a major step for this one small school in a poor community in a forgotten area of South Africa.
            In addition to the school, David and his staff use the Bulungula Incubator to provide micro-finance loans to local community members, to develop nutrition programs for children, and to begin getting clean water to the area. On top of it all, David also provides rides to the nearest hospital for the sick and pregnant community members who would otherwise need to travel 2 hours or more by foot or ox in order to receive any type of medical attention. Bulungula, an experiment though it may be, is an outright success on many, many levels. It is a model for poverty relief, ethical tourism and the human capacity to make change. David himself is an indescribable individual, passionate and open, loving and giving to an extent that is so rare in this world.
            After a week at the eco-lodge, after a pancake breakfast and sunrise on the sand dunes, after drum circles with local people with whom I could not speak, after eating raw shrimp and berries caught straight off the shores of the Bulungula estuary, after hiking the rocky coast, after riding dead logs down the river at high tide, after carrying water and firewood on my head, after just one week in the middle of Bulungula, I am a much different and better person.
            In addition to David and Bulungula, there are others doing wonderful work in these impoverished communities. Michael and Alex, a local German couple, moved to the village of Hobeni several years ago to open a facility called “Place of Hope” a eco-friendly, self-sustaining home for the mentally disabled. We met them the day before we left for Bulungula and were welcomed warmly into their amazing world situated in the rolling hills of the Transkei. Again, I was honored to be graced by such wonderful and compassionate people, seeing the time, effort and love that they have poured into their project. No one forced them to do this, no one even asked them--they could be living comfortable lives right now in their hometown in Germany. Instead, they are here, doing the work that they chose to do because they felt that the suffering and injustice in the world was not something to ignore, disregard or feel complacent about. I hope that one day, I may have the heart and mind to be able to do anything like the work being done by Michael and Alex and David.

Life is good, and there are so many bright and beautiful
people with whom we share this world.

with love and hope from Bulungula,
-little hupo

Saturday, March 5, 2011

An Afternoon in the Cwebe JSS

The same dusty roads we’ve driven before; winding through the same scattered fields of sorghum and maize, past the same patched rondevalls, the same paste-covered, local faces, and up to the same gate that leads through the same thick forests back to our home at the Haven. Dust is kicked up by the bakkie in front of us as the AC on the Land Rover spews clouds of dirt instead of cool air--windows up or down, it doesn’t really matter, there are tiny particles of Africa settling gently onto the beads of sweat that collect on my face. My foot aches and I can feel the swelling slowly surpassing the size of my shoe. My fingers are blistered, not from the usual steel strings I am used to, but instead, from otherwise soft nylon strings--this is either a testament to my fading calluses or to a day of constant music and guitar playing. The current comings-and-goings of my spent voice seem to favor the latter and I sit, squashed in that bumpy Land Rover with a smile on my face. Life is good.

            Today, for the first time since we arrived in Africa, I finally felt as if our presence here became truly meaningful for the local people we are living just down the road from. To this point, we have been engaged fully with academic material, conservation field work, personal reflection and understanding the complex lay of the social, political and physical landscape here in the Eastern Cape. Now, under the new and refreshing guise of a brilliant professor (Dr. Petra Tschakert), we will attempt to bridge the gap between the nature reserve and the local people, thereby living up to the second (and arguably, more important) half of our program title (South Africa: Parks and People).
            As I may or may not have discussed before, the dynamic that exists between the Dwesa-Cwebe nature reserve and the local communities is tense and highly political. Several years ago, after the fall of the apartheid administration of South Africa in 1994, a policy of land restitution began that allowed displaced people to file land claims for rights to their traditional homelands. This was accomplished successfully in several cases, some of which removed legal control of nature reserves from the hands of the government and instead, put it in the hands of local people. So was the case here in Dwesa-Cwebe, one of the largest and last remaining patches of indigenous forests on the entire eastern coast of South Africa. Through negotiations and the development of a land trust, the government was able to convince the surrounding 7 communities that it was in their best interest to leave the area as a nature reserve--in return, they would receive compensation and a portion of the revenues derived from the tourism.
            Several aspects of this negotiation were successful, others not at all and the result is a tense relationship on both ends. Local people are no longer allowed to use the desperately needed natural resources that are available in the park, although, according to the law and to the history, these lands belong to them. The situation is not quite so cut and dry, as the potential for this area to generate tourism (and therefor, economic stimulus to the communities) is immense and largely untapped.  However, such is the situation we have come to South Africa to study. Having covered all other bases (the politics, the park and the conservation), it is now time to turn our focus onto the people and deliver something tangible to this extremely marginalized and impoverished population. That is what we did yesterday.

            We arrived at the Cwebe JSS (a secondary school for students between ages of 5 and 18) around 9 am. Curious little faces poked out windows and around door frames as our dusty convoy arrived in the middle of their small courtyard. As we got out of the vehicles and approached the principals office for our initial meeting with the teachers, I am sure that not a single one of us had any idea what to expect. What we had planned were several well-thought-out lessons on climate change and global weather, primarily directed toward the older students. There were a few such activities on the drawing board, but all notions of premeditation and control soon flew swiftly out the window of those small, sun-lit classrooms.

One lesson to take away from Africa = go with the flow.

            It became quickly evident that, despite the fact that students in standards 8 and 9 were supposed to have a firm grasp on the English language, that this was not at all the case; my very limited ability to employ any relevant words in Xhosa only compounded the communication issues. It is not as if the concepts we were attempting to convey were overtly complicated, and surely, these students can (and did, to a large extent) understand the main ideas, but the language barrier was extremely challenging. Improvisation became the name of the game and my pride (rarely ever intact, as is) soon became an unnecessary restraint--so I did away with it along with my shame. The results were wonderful.
            Teaching about the greenhouse gas effect through such a pervasive language barrier was best accomplished with an animated persona, jumping about the room, making weird noises, speaking slowly, and yet super loudly. I started to act as if the students in front of me simultaneously understood everything and yet nothing I was saying. A translator was helpful, when available, but the shortage of teachers meant that there was also shortage of translators. It was me and two other fellow students in a room full of anywhere from 15-40 other students from the JSS, ranging in ages, in comprehension of language and vastly in personality.
            There were so many characters among these kids, so many smiling faces, so many funny moments--moments when I realized that we were communicating, but on a completely different and unimaginable level. We taught these students, without a doubt, but probably not everything we intended and probably many unintended things as well. And they taught us so much, about ourselves and about the world--the one we came from, the one we were now in, and the one which we were all a part of. I felt so at home, so in my element, wandering from class to class, trying to talk about greenhouse gasses with some of the older kids, teaching the young kids to sing “Old McDonald had a farm”, acting like a kid myself.
            At one point in the day, I pulled out my guitar and things changed entirely. Children swarmed, left their respective classrooms and congregated in whichever room I was in. Hundreds of little smiling faces packed into a small room with me in the middle, standing on a desk, playing the same chords over and over, singing made up lyrics and dancing around. I could barely hear myself over the yelps and excitement of these kids as they danced along and sang along with me. At points, I would place my fingers on chords and hold out the guitar to let them strum, a gesture that they loved entirely. This was probably the first such instrument they had ever touched.
            I soon made my way out to the courtyard where the crowd simply increased in size and excitement. It wasn’t long before I stumbled over a made up a song using three chords (G maj, C maj, D maj.) which I played over and over again, along with an easy to learn chorus (Lalalalala, Lala) that everyone caught on and sang along with me. Here I sat, in the middle of rural South Africa, singing a made up song in unison with hundreds of young students. Language barriers were broken. We sang and danced and I have never felt so alive, so at home, so right in the world.
            After this part of the day, we proceeded to play a pickup soccer game with the school soccer team. Needless to say, we lost pretty badly. In the end, as I decided to play barefoot like the rest of the students, I ended up with an accidental kick to my face and a broken toe--both of which were accepted with the wonderful territory and as well-earned trophies from such an amazing day.
            In the Xhosa language, when someone asks ‘unJani’ or ‘how are you?’ , you respond with ‘ntiphilile’. The phrase is meant to respond ‘I am fine’, but its literal translation is ‘I am alive’. And so, on a Tuesday afternoon during my final semester of college, just months before shipping out with the Peace Corps for 2 years, in the middle of an isolated and oftenwise disregarded community in South Africa, I can say that I truly felt ‘ntiphilile’.