The week before last was taken as an opportunity to head off around the world again and it was a chance to do some things I never had done before; a venture to the unique surroundings of Southern Africa. 

By Jonathan Foley 

Within a timeframe of eight days, four countries were visited. Starting off with South Africa itself and then on up into Botswana, Namibia (briefly) and then finally Zimbabwe to see the splendor of Victoria Falls.

It began in Africa-ka-ka!

Arguably the two biggest highlights of the trip were the spectacle of seeing wild animals such as lions, giraffes and hippos wander the plains in their own natural environment as well as learning, from the people themselves, about African attitudes towards things like history and society today. 

As a History teacher, I found the city of Johannesburg to be a very interesting place to learn about. Nowadays the city center is highly cosmopolitan and a trendy location with its glam restaurants and office blocks, yet on the outskirts in places like Soweto, evidence of a harsh past still remain.

The apartheid regime had forced all blacks to migrate into slum-like conditions and issues of discrimination over the right to education and use of language had come down heavy on them by the Afrikaans (white settlers). Among other reasons, this is what sparked the activities of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former President Nelson Mandela to rise in such notoriety. 

On a walk through Soweto, a young guide was someone I found to be very insightful yet also very entertaining as well. And as different as Soweto looks to a place like Ireland, I couldn’t help but make some striking connections between our place and theirs; some of which was uplifting but some of which was sobering. 

Out of respect, I chose to not photo the slums. These were people’s homes, not tourist attractions, after all. My guide, Taboo (19), showed me a lady preaching religion on a street corner so as to give the people hope and also about how, despite the deplorability of the place, the people still pursue a visible spirit of community in how they help one another with shared food and water provisions. 

Taboo regaled the story to me of when Prince Charles came to visit. It was back when he was a kid when he went to see the future king as he departed a nearby hotel. He told me that he didn’t know what Charles looked like back then and when he heard the word ‘Prince’, he was expecting a young, handsome and immaculately dressed figure. 

To see an elderly figure in a suit and tie was a bit of a let down to my young guide, to say the least, and I won’t even tell you what he said about Camilla!

Word got through from the Ulster Final.

Following that, Taboo explained why he enjoys doing these guided walks with tourists. Getting a few dollars as tips is a nice perk of course but he did have an underlying social value to his job too.

Pretty Fly …

Like me, he revels in reading up on his country’s history and also like me, wants to see it have a positive future and acknowledge that the people have just as much a responsibility in that regard as the politicians do.

He spoke of how he wants the people of Soweto, and in particular, the children to become used to not seeing white people as an enemy. 

That’s why he happily encouraged them to share smiles and waves with them; he feared that older generations of their families would still harbour and pass on their hatred of whites to them – no matter what country they may come from. 

The rest of the time in South Africa was spent visiting the harrowing buildings such as the Apartheid museum and Hector Pieterson museum as well as the street where Tutu and Mandela once lived just a few hundred yards apart. 

As a teacher, the Hector Pieterson museum was a shocking but essential place to visit. 

In 1976, it was then a secondary school where the Africans (blacks) staged a peaceful protest about their right to learn English – instead of solely Afrikaan (akin to Dutch) – but they were tragically opened fire on by the police; a massacre that needlessly killed and injured so many innocent youngsters. 

Maybe there’s something in there that relates to some aspects of our own history? 

Moving on, the overland bus trips began as journeys were made into the remote and wild surroundings of Botswana. This was a very natural way to see Africa: camping by a fireside and trekking through the bush where you could see zebras and wildebeest roam freely on the plains.

Some neck!

Our camp was on an island that a group of indigenous locals ushered us to in small canoes. At night, they’d entertain us with some singing and dancing of African beats around the fire that would get the toes tapping and the hands clapping for anyone enjoying the show. ‘Yeeeoooww!’ 

Although the island had its tough aspects like digging a hole in the ground to use the toilet and maybe waking up suddenly to a weird noise from outside the tent in the middle of the night, it was still nothing short of brilliant and brought about a real feeling of serenity to the soul.

Our two main group leaders on the trip were Edison ‘the Medicine’ (driver) and a very attractive girl, about a year younger than me, named Maryke (CEO of G Adventures). Both of whom were natives of Cape Town who worked tirelessly yet with great enthusiasm for the traveling party. 

Over dinner one night, Edison opened up about how his job can often require up to 75 days in a row of working, without a day off. Due to the colour of his skin, he said people often doubted that he would be up to a workload like that. 

A horribly racist thing to suggest by, driven by the fact he has a young family at home, he broke the stereotype and is proving the doubters wrong.

Maryke and Edison.

For her part, the lovely Maryke, told that she was of a Dutch-French-Irish ancestry. A descendant of hers left here a few generations back to work as a teacher when she fell in love and married a settler from the Netherlands who, as we would often hear in the parts, had “loads of land and plenty of good acres!” 

A few days later and it was off to Cheobe where a boat trip and an early morning game drive showed Africa’s true wonder once again.

Somewhere over the Rainbow.

Getting to quietly observe an elephant splashing in the water, roaming giraffes, lions during a feed and a hippo giving a good big yawn as the sun sets is something that can make you realise that the world we live in does not belong purely to humans and that there’s more to this life than material gain.

Africa is truly wonderful place; made special by its people and it’s natural wonder.

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