Monday, December 1, 2008

Time? Events.

In a previous entry, as I tried to piece together the mental contents of an unreported week or two in Gabs, I referred to the state of my mind as 'clutter.' If I were to do a similar thing right now, as I try to sort through the haze of the month that I've been absent on this blog, I'd have to describe it as a maelstrom. Emotions of every shape, color and size have met in the recesses of my skull and fought, embraced, torn each other into pieces and built new towering edifices of chaotic contentment, entropic ecstasy from the wreckage. I'll try my best to make my way through this built up, swirling whirlpool and capture and relate some of these elusive memories. Some will no doubt escape, but I can at least hope some will make it on to this page, with sense and organization as well. It could be an unrealistic hope, but here goes. I'm not even going to try and throw proper chronology into the mix - it would be futile. As a professor here said, "Botswana is not a place of time, it's a place of events."

I Shout From Southern Africa: "Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU America!"

It's great to say that for the first time in my politically conscious life, I am proud to be an American citizen. After eight years of disappointment, disenchantment and political depression the injection of optimism that was this year's election results, feels like a sip of water after weeks stranded in the desert (I imagine). For the people now saying that we've put too many expectations on Obama and he's only going to disappoint, I have two responses for you. One, a little optimism can go a really long way - let's keep the momentum of the campaign going into the "real world" and see where it can take us. "Yes we can," may be overused, may be cliche, but it is not wrong and we, the world, not just the United States, should carry that message forward regardless of politics or allegiances. God knows we need it right now. All I can do for now is be happy with the box I checked on my absentee ballot and hope and work towards repairing the devastation of the last eight years.

Anticipations for the elections were high here, not just among the American exchange students but also the Europeans and Batswana. In the weeks leading up to November 4th, a conversation could be struck up with any passerby with just three vowel-dominated syllables. Obama t-shirts were on sale (we got a glittery WWF-style one of Biden and Obama under the glowing banner of 'CHANGE' for Daniel's birthday) and the buzz for the elections was surely humming zzzz's all over Gaborone. We booked the TV room for Tuesday night, the election results starting to come in at 3 AM Gabs time, and started the night at Khwest. After some poetry, some drinks and a sprinkle of Russian ranting courtesy of Walter we headed back to campus, wound down and wound right back up again around 3. The TV room was packed with the exchange students and some local and international grad students. Cheers rebounded off the walls and drinks were drained as the election veered towards Bams. When the final results were called at around 8 in the morning, a contingent of us, me included, ran through campus cheering and singing, quickly joined by undergraduates from their windows. I kind of wish I was in the States for the elections... But I'm also kind of glad I was in Botswana.

Art, Art, Art:

Art continues to whisper, tickle and tease its wide, sticky web around me and it's beautiful. While I'm not as active musically as I was at the beginning of the semester, somehow in someway I still manage to remain stuck fast to the comforting cob webs of the alive but ethereal air here. An exchange student from Germany, studying in the Netherlands, Sabine, collaborated with a UB drama group, Afro-Western Theatre, by writing and directing a beautiful production for them, "Black and White." She asked me to get on board as a drummer for the singing and dancing involved in the third act, and as I'm used to the low-level commitment levels of university musicals as a drummer, I agreed. It's always six or seven laid-back practices total and you're set. While it was similar here, the frustration level was, well, frustrating. Yes, severe meta-frustration was what the experience amounted to - besides the gratification of the final performance of course. The actors just didn't seem to care about the art they were producing as they would often not show up for rehearsals and demand to end early - eish, can't imagine what poor Sabine was feeling. Every time they got on stage it was magic though. They easily slipped into their roles of slave or slavemaster and with dynamic passion brought a dramatic vision to vivid life. The highlight of the experience, despite the sleep-deprived, hungover state I was in (the day after the elections) was when we took an early morning bus to Lobatse to play at a school for kids. Over some pulled chicken and some Liqua-Fruit juice, I enjoyed the dance troupes of the local middle schoolers - once again I'm utterly stunned by the level of inherent rhythm in the people here, it's as if the lower body can move to one beat while the upper body grooves to some overlapping polyrhythm. The kids' enthusiasm for the play was out of control. They frowned when the slaver abused his slaves and screamed in delight when the slaves succesfully rebelled. The main performance at UB was a great success too and I'm happy for Sabine for the massive amount of work she tirelessly put into it, and proud of the result. I also managed to slip in a shout out for ZimFest at the end of the show. What's ZimFest you ask? Read on.

Afro-Western Theatre at the school in Lobatse


So in October, after Elles and Maaike, two other exchange students here, went to Zimbabwe over the short break they decided they needed to do something about the desperate situation they witnessed there. A place where people have to go to the ATMs at around 4 in the morning, because they are out of money by noon and the maximum withdrawal amount is less than a dollar. A place where credit cards cannot be used, because the exchange rate is in constant fluctuation, hovering at an inflation rate of (officially) 231 million percent. A place where friends of mine have traded their shoes, or thermoses, or half smoked cigarettes for arts and crafts in the markets. A place in a political deadlock that seems unresolvable as the poor keep getting poorer and the hungry, hungrier and the sick, sicker. In response Elles and Maaike started an on-campus group ultimately named "Zim I Am!" It was to be a collaborative effort among exchange students as well as local students at UB in conjunction with an NGO (we ultimately chose the World Food Programme) to raise money for the countless people who have been trampled by the hooves of the oppressive, the greedy and the apathetic in Zim. We decided that a good way to raise money would be a fundraiser of some sort and I volunteered, due to my experience in concert organization as well as the great connections I've made in the GC music scene, to organize a concert-festival for charity. It was to be named ZimFest, and while I am so glad I took on the responsibility of organizing the beast, a beast it was - one I had to wrestle and spar with until it finally decided to cooperate.

The Zim-Fest poster. Daniel's design was so good, I caught numerous people peeling the posters off walls to take home and put up on their walls.

I immediately set to work on finding artists who were willing to play at this show for no money at all and a cap of one free drink an hour (which, unsurprisingly, didn't work). I'm so glad I have a friend like Mex, owner of Mexyland Studios, and without him we could not have made the event possible. He supplied an extensive group of artists, including some that I have recorded with like P.O.R.N. but also Fishmaan, DJ Onkz, a couple of other DJs, Dolly, Skibumba and a lot more. I also managed to reel in a few poets, some Zimbabweans who wanted to speak about the situation there and my friends, Berman and KK. There were a few scares along the way, like when Mex came over to UB to tell me half of his sound system had blown up the night before when some obnoxious MCs kept turning themselves up despite Mex's (subdued, I imagine) warnings. We had to rent a studio system, which turned out great because it was a pretty beastly PA. The set list morphed and remorphed a few times in the days leading up to the event and it was a good thing none of the poets that I had scheduled for the first two hours showed up - because neither did a crowd for the first three. The day of the show, I was a mess. Jistock, Monsters of Rock, or any of the other shows I've been part of organizing have NOTHING on ZimFest. With very little sleep under my belt - the elections, again - I walked under the sneering eyes of the merciless African sun, back and forth, up, down, around, in, out for hours without taking even a second to breathe. My lunch was a package of Topper cookies that I acquired in a quick relay-type exchange with the Mma by the North Gate. Mex only arrived with the equipment about thirty minutes before the supposed starting time of 3pm (to go on until midnight) and when I saw the amount of drinks that had been donated to us I freaked out thinking about the wasted time, wasted booze and pissed off artists I'd have to deal with if 1) Mex didn't show up and 2) no one showed up. Luckily, once it started rolling after sunset, things picked up. While the crowd wasn't as big as I would have liked, they spent a lot of money on booze - getting sauced for a good cause - and were a really responsive crowd. The performers were all top-notch, sound quality was great, and I think everyone had a good time. For a Thursday night large-scale event put on in two weeks I was pleased with the way it unraveled. It received decent publicity and while we missed our target, we raised a good deal of money. Starting from bout two hours into the show when I finally started breathing and sat down for a second I really started enjoying it. I hope it made a difference and I really really really hope the world (like South Africa for instance) can take its hands out of its pockets and do something about the heart wrenching state of affairs in Zimbabwe.

jivin with (from left: KK, Rebo, Berman). one of the best jam sessions I've ever been in, I think.

the modest but wild crowd.

Can You Take It To Cape Town?

First say that four times in rhythm...funky?
Now, I give you my answer. Yes. Yes we can take it to Cape Town and yes we did. Smack in the middle of our exams, Anna, Hannah, Brianna, Daniel and I decided we needed to collectively take our minds and lose our minds in Cape Town before using our minds for the finals. I am so glad we did. My finals went smoothly and Cape Town was one of the best weekends to ever end my week. We took an early morning bus down to Joburg, got mildly perturbed at cheeky taxi meters, got onto our plane and by the late afternoon I was looking out the window of the plane, my lower jaw comfortably rested against my belt buckle. Geographically, which is just the beginning, Cape Town is an absolute wonder. Surrounded by vast plateaus and gaping valleys, the city is nestled against the ocean. Skyscrapers are scattered across the city but the majority of the horizon is dominated by a vast amalgamation of sea, land and sky all seemingly blurring into a single explosive, layered wall of color. A crisp, brisk breeze tunnels through the city offering relief from the vengeful sun while teasing you to reach for a sweater as the sun makes it's descent.

Thanks to Anna's sweet hook up, we were staying in a nice house in Mawbray, a subtly vivacious neighborhood a ten minute metro ride from downtown. With a theatre, Indian take away, internet cafe, and a few happening bars on the same street it seemed like an ideal spot. NJ, the permanent resident of the place, works for Anna's study abroad program, Interstudy, in Cape Town and had empty rooms in the house which we graciously filled. He was a hugely generous host and we spent most of the rest of the weekend with him in our presence. A play by play would be overdoing it, but I'll offer some highlights.

The waterfront in Cape Town is something. Full of life, with the ocean air only adding to the vibrant aura of the place, we spent a lot of time peering into the shops, bars, and tour offices of the boardwalk. Unfortunately we were barred from the main tourist attractions of Cape Town - Robben Island because it was fully booked and climbing Table Mountain because of winds. We still managed to get to the foot of the mountain and look over the beautiful city. We also explored a decent chunk of the city by foot. Early afternoon on Saturday we were taken, by another Penn student who was studying in Cape Town, to Old Biscuit Mill, a Saturday morning fresh produce and food market. After Gabs, it was total overstimulation of the sensea. I floated around the warehouse, bloody mary in hand, trying my best to decide between the pesto stand, crepes, burritos, Indian food, pomegranate products in every shape and size you can think of, myriad quiches, three different coffee stands...need I go on? I ended up trying a vast array of condiments, eating three pieces of quiche, a simple and sensible sugar, cinnamon and lemon crepe, something in tsitziki sauce and two cups of REAL coffee - not the instant chickory tainted Ricoffy junk we get "this side." It was probably about an hour before I had gained enough self-control and figured out my bearings enough to start eating, but once I started it took discipline to stop.

Cape Town waterfront

why we couldn't climb table mountain.

clouds sit on the mountain and salivate at the delicious array of treats at the old biscuit mill.

"where am i?"

The night life in Cape Town is pretty out of control and, well, awesome. Kind of like the rest of the city. That's the extent of what I will say about it. Good stuff.

at table mountain

view from the foot of table mountain

I made some (obvious) simultaneously intriguing and disturbing observations as well. While more integrated than pre-1994 Cape Town, racial divisions that don't exist to the same extent in Botswana were clearly present. Besides the bar we went to in Mawbray the first night, all the other nightspots, especially on Long Street were mainly white-dominated as was the Old Biscuit Mill and the waterfront. The city in general seems to be fairly segregated, with most residencies in city center belonging to whites with blacks living in the surrounding townships only going into the city to work. South Africa is such a fast moving country, with political, social and economic maturation all occuring at the same time, all working towards a new South Africa where race is evercloser to irrelevance. Or at least we can hope that's the trend.

But - what a trip! Cape Town, I'm living in you soon. Once again the people are just as important as the place and I would be hard-pressed trying to find better travel companions than Daniel, Hannah, Anna and Brianna. Oh wait. I think I could think of one person that could have pushed things up a 5'1 notch...

Goodbyes, See You Laters, or Just Sighs of "Eiiiiish...."

Eish! Bye... No, see you later. Despite its order in the subtitle, this is the more common progression of thoughts during these fare thee wells. It all started with the abrupt and tragic "see ya later" to Ilana after we came back from Namibia. If you recall, I mentioned Ilana was not feeling well at the end of our return journey from Namibia. Daniel took her straight to the hospital from the bus rank and it turned out her kidneys weren't in the best of moods. I blinked and she was being med-evaced to Johannesburg, I blinked again and she was being brought back to the States. I'm happy to say she's happy and healthily shivering away that dauntingly frigid Philly winter, but damn do I miss her. My attendance rate to my 7 AM class (Ilana was in every one of my classes) dropped a little bit as I had no one to call me multiple times in the morning to make sure I was out of bed, and it sort of felt like an appendage of my Botswana experience had been brutally ripped off. I can't wait to see her back at Penn and relive the countless memories we still have.

The goodbyes picked up again in the last week or so as I prepare myself for the biggest one of all - saying "sala sentle" to Africa. But first, the people. I don't know if it is because there were so few of us exchange students here or if it's just something - here I go again - in the air, but in the past four months I've grown so close to many of the transient residents of Block 417. I've forged some relationships that will never be forgotten and surely will continue to be forged as I couchsurf across the United States, into Europe and back around the world. It would be a drastically different experience without the great company I've had here and it's pretty surreal to be in a group of thirty-odd people all being changed drastically in drastically different ways, whether they like it or not.

Outside of the exchange student group though, I revert to Ilana's timeless quote - "the people you can't imagine." I have met some of the most beautiful, most ugly, most insane, most reasonable, most creative, most boring, most irritating, most positive, most negative, most wonderful people I have ever been acquainted with. In particular I will be forever in debt to Mexyland Studios. If I had to say one thing made my experience here - it was Mex and the crew. As they helped me understand my new home and make it a home, they also helped me understand more about music and me. Which brings me to my next and most devastating "See ya."

Gabs, Bots, Africa... I shouldn't realize it at this point, I think, but the fact that I do shows how significant it is. Being in Botswana for around four months has really changed me as a person. It's taught me about Africa, but more importantly it's taught me a great deal about myself, other people, and what the web of relationships with people and places that I create do, should and should not mean to me. It's taken the open perspectives I've always held, and with outstretched, strained fingers stretched them further and further until there's nothing left but an infinite sky. There were countless frustrations along the way, even times when I considered regretting my choice but as I near the end, all I can think is positive, positive, positive. Even if I could, I wouldn't change a thing. I'd keep every decision, every event exactly the way it was just so this very experience could be perfectly recreated - complete, only with every imperfection. Forget this goodbye nonsense. I'll see Botswana soon.


Forgive the melodrama, but its hard - impossible - not to overdo it as I sit here in my sweltering, packed-up, sheetless room counting down the hours I have left in Botswana. Tomorrow morning Daniel and I go for a luxury, Penn-sponsored (gracias) honeymoon up to Chobe National Park and then to hop the border for a day into Zimbabwe to gape at Victoria Falls. We'll be back on Friday, in Botswana for one more night, say our goodbyes to the now comforting aridity and flatness of this land through an Intercape bus window, and then off to Malawi for two weeks. You'll certainly be hearing from me about that trip, probably from India.

Until then, keep being.


Pierre Guillaume said...


This is Pierre, from the World Food Programme. A heartfelt thank you from us for what you have done. It's grea to see people caring. Keep it up and good luck.

Lady Writer said...


When you write well, you write amazingly well. Can I use amazing again so soon? - An amazing roller coaster of events, told with a story teller's prose, and journalistic precision.

"It took me years to understand that words are as often as important as experience, because words make experience last."
- William Morris

Take care, and travel safely.

Anna said...

My bitter sweet jealousy that you are still that side makes me sadistically want you here where you can experience the torment, agony and despair of being back and being gone. But as your friend, I wish you the most amazing, wonderful, relaxing, and German-giggling time in Malawi.

See you soon