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Abeja Dispatch

Rural Traditions and European Legacies

The sun was just starting to melt away the mist that had settled on the craggy hills around Mutare, Zimbabwe, as our land rover set out from the city, towards the border of Mozambique and into the Bvumba Mountains. Higher and higher we drove, until we reached the "Prince of Wales" lookout. I jumped out, followed by Raj, a British PhD student from Cornell; Martin, a high school music teacher from Scotland; Archie, a young tourism student from the University of Zimbabwe; and Bernard, our trusty guide. The mountains continue towards the sea, granite slabs towering at the tops, the hillside and the valleys covered in yellow grass and spotted with green trees. "That is Mozambique," Bernard told us, pointing across the valley. "This spot was named the Prince of Wales lookout because Prince George and the Queen Mother came here on their honeymoon in 1923 and spent 20 minutes in this spot."

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Archer (left) and Raj look out towards Mozambique from the "Prince of Wales" lookout.
Directly below us lay a small farm with well tended fields of vegetables and two traditional round kitchen huts. The native bush of Southern Africa surrounded us with its vast, open grandeur. Bernard and Archie chatted in Shona. Yet, here we were, on this small piece of land, named after a long ago Prince from a far away country. That was the first but not the last time today that I was struck by the stark contrast between Africa and the British Empire that colonized here.

We continued on, winding through the Bvumba mountains, which, Bernard explained, had been spelled "Vumba" mountains by the British, since English has no equivalent to the sound used in Shona. Now, people spell it with the "Bv," even though that is still not quite right. The British called them the "Misty Mountains," but Bvumba, in Shona, translates better as "persistent drizzle." We were blessed by today's sunny skies.

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Hoop-rolling is serious business for Theofile
We turned down a rutted dirt road through the bush, and soon came upon a small square house and two round adobe huts with thatched roofs. A little barefoot boy about five years old came running up, rolling a hoop with a hooked wire. "Hello, Theofile!" Bernard smiled, as the boy came up to inspect the new visitors before running off again. "We targeted this family as in need. The husband has four wives--two here, and two in another area - and eighteen children."

"The wives will share a husband, but they will not share a kitchen," he laughed. "The round huts are kitchens. That is why there are two here. When we go inside, there is a bench. Only the men can sit on the bench. Sorry, Abeja, but that is our custom."

Two women and several more children emerged from the huts to greet us. They shook our hands with the traditional Bantu handshake that I described in a dispatch a few weeks ago and invited us into one of the kitchen huts. Before arriving, I feared that we would be intruding, but they seemed genuinely happy to have us, curious about us, and proud to show us their home. And, oddly enough for someone like me who is not accustomed to polygamy, the two wives seemed like good friends, not jealous competitors.

We entered through the low door into a windowless area much more spacious than it appeared from the outside. I didn't mind not sitting on the bench, because I got to sit on the mat by the fire with the women and children, who were much more fun than those boys! Behind us was a large wooden set of drawers, which, Bernard laughed, is definitely not traditional. To my left, directly across from the door, was a raised area, made of clay-like earth where all the cooking utensils used to be kept, before drawers found their way into the huts. Now all that was there was a clay pot of water.

We chatted for a while, while I made faces at the little one-year-old boy that could not quit staring at me! I could have stayed all day, but Bernard had other plans for us, so we bid our farewells, and off we drove, with Granny in the back, catching a lift down the road with a bag of maize. In countries where few people own personal vehicles, everyone hitchhikes, including grandmas, and everyone who has a car gives rides.

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The women dipped the bananas in copper before exporting.
After dropping Grandma up the road, we wound our way down into the fertile valley. When the Dutch settlers known as the Boers arrived in this area, they pushed the natives out of the fertile valleys and up into the hills. Still today, one Dutch family with a huge banana plantation owns most of this valley. There were banana trees as far as the eye could see. Then, we came to different trees -- granadillas (also known as passion fruit ) -- then fields of pineapple, tobacco, and coffee.

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Tons of tobacco!
We stopped in at a packaging plant where green bananas were being sorted, dipped in liquid copper to help them mature off the tree, and then crammed into crates that would be exported to South Africa. Then we visited a tobacco plant, where tobacco is dried, sorted by quality and type, and then packaged for cigarette makers. The smell of the tobacco leaves was so strong inside; I could hardly breathe, even though no one was smoking! I can't believe that people work in there all day!

The next stop was a special gift for me -- and for you! We went to visit Crakedale School, a rural elementary school, very different from the school we visited near Harare. As the young headmaster took us around from crowded classroom to crowded classroom, we could tell that our visit was as much a special event for the students as it was for us. As we entered the room, all eyes were on us, wide with surprise. Suddenly, everyone stood up and said, in unison, "Good morning. How are you?"

"We are fine, thank you," replied the headmaster, clearly proud of his well behaved students. "And how are you?"

"We are fine thank you!" They would say, and then wait to be given permission to sit back down.

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A Crakedale classroom.
This happened as we entered every classroom. By the last classroom, Raj, Martin, and I were also responding in unison, "Fine, thank you! And how are you?" As the grade got higher, the classes got smaller. In the first grade class, there were at least 60 students. By the time we got to the seventh grade, there were only about a dozen. The headmaster explained that some parents take their kids out of school to help at home, while other parents send their older kids to live with relatives in the cities so that they can attend schools with better resources. The children in the younger grades could barely understand English, even though that is supposedly the language in which they were being taught. But the older children spoke much more English, and told us that they were preparing to take the examinations that would allow them to go on to high school.

Dancing for rain at the Crakedale School.
"Now we are ready with a special show for you!" The headmaster said proudly. We were led to a bench outside, and a group of girls and boys, now in dance costumes and some with drums, performed some of their traditional Shona dances for us. It was amazing! "This dance," explained the headmaster, "is to bring rain." The pounding rhythm of the drums and the impassioned moves of the dance made me worry that I didn't bring my raincoat! No wonder Bvumba has "persistent drizzle," with dancers like that around!

Eventually, we had to say good-bye and let the children go back to their classes. They waved good-bye and made me promise to send them a copy of all the pictures I took. It will be a long time before these kids have electricity, much less access to the Internet, so I guess I'd better print them out on paper and send them snail mail!

From there, we wove our way up and up and up, through plantations, open views, and lush forests, until we arrived at the lodge where we would be having lunch. The British architecture, fancy paintings, and chandeliers shocked me out of Zimbabwe and back into old Southern Rhodesia. We sat in a fancy dining room, overlooking a swimming pool and well tended English gardens. The waiter was dressed in a fancy red dinner jacket, and the menu didn't have a single dish with sadza on it. The only thing that even hinted that we were in Africa was the ability to eat Kudu, which Martin did.

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Wined and dined at the Leopard Lodge.
I was experiencing culture shock, even though I'd only traveled a few short miles. Many of the children in the school I just visited couldn't even afford shoes to wear to school, and then, suddenly, I was sitting in a four star restaurant eating a fancy meal off expensive china with a silver fork. The only non-whites in the place were the waiters and Raj, whose family is from India. The near-by golf course brings visitors from around the world, I've been told. It was named Leopard Lodge, but, ironically, all the leopards were trapped and killed a long time ago so they wouldn't attack the guests!

We all enjoyed the fancy food, the beautiful setting, and the good service. Still, in the back of my head, the drumbeat resounded, the children danced. I am, after all, in Africa.


Kevin - The Bumpy Road from Training to Freedom
Kavitha - Homeless Youth - From the Cold Streets to Caring Arms
Monica - The DP Foundation: Two Ladies who Make a Difference
Monica - From Harare to Harvard: A Zimbabwean Student Comes to the United States
Making A Difference - What Rights Are Most Important to You?

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