Monday, October 28, 2013

The Myth about Wilderness

The Myth about Wilderness?
A Treatise on the Notion of Wilderness: a Canadian perspective.
By Emerson Grossmith (1988)

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself”.

So says Edward Abbey in his 1970 book—Desert Solitaire.
Wilderness, what is it and does it still exists? This is a question that I have been dwelling upon lately, especially since I am back to working for the summer as a ‘bridge builder’ for Parks Canada in the backcountry of the Rocky Mountains.[1]  There has been a preponderance of literature on this subject and many of these authors share some of the same views that I do. This idea of wilderness was brought to my attention by my good Jordanian friend Mu’qaddam As’ad who asked me in innocence—“What is a wilderness?” Mu’qaddam and I are teachers in UAE where we shared an office. I am constantly being asked where I live in Canada and what is it like. The Levantines have trouble envisioning what a ‘green country’ with fresh flowing waters is like. I paused before answering his question, as English is not his mother tongue and I feared I would have quite a bit of explaining to do regarding the subtleties of ‘wilderness’. In my mind, I immediately thought of the Canadian Rockies where I have spent most of the past 20 years exploring. It is true that, in the beginning I did hike mostly groomed trails, but it was after that I found freedom in off-trail hiking, esp. above treeline. To go boldly where no one has gone before—well, but it did feel a tad more adventurous than your weekend hiker. Bushwhacking is one of the rewards for committing oneself to off-trail hiking and quite often this includes shortcuts. But, it would be foolish to assume that I had or my friends had hiked where no one else had gone.

Since coming to Banff in 1978, I have worked on ‘trail crew’ building new trails, maintaining old ones or constructing bridges for backpackers. In most respects, it is hardly a wilderness, but once you are off the main highways you are on your own, or at least that is what most people would like to believe—one individual against the elements. But, over the years, we have become complacent and we do not wish to live so close to the edge. For many of us, who want excitement, we can go to the Banff Mountain Film Festival or read about it in Outside Magazine. We can get our dose of excitement from being at these venues, actually living vicariously through someone else’s dangers. To paraphrase Kris Kristofferson—wilderness has just become another word for something left to lose.
During the last great gold rush to the frontier in the Yukon, Robert Service summed it up best—
“I’ve clinched and closed with the naked north,
  I’ve learned to defy and defend.
  Shoulder to shoulder we have fought it out,
  Yet, the wild must win in the end.”

The wild is not winning anymore. It is being ploughed under, cemented over, and turned into parking malls for shopping centres, plundered for minerals, oil extraction and clear cut for its lumber. There isn’t any place on the planet that hasn’t been mapped by a satellite. There is no ‘terra incognita’. The planet is getting smaller and population is becoming larger and larger. This myth about wilderness is just becoming wistful thinking.

What is wilderness? According to Webster’s Dictionary:
1. an uncultivated, uninhabited region; waste; wild 2. any barren, empty, or open area, as of ocean 3. a large confused mass or tangle 4. a wild condition or quality

‘Wilderness’ has been mentioned in the Bible and many think that this was the Sinai. Also, there is mention of a ‘Wilderness of Sin’ which might well be in Arabia. I suppose at some point, medieval Europeans considered the New World as a wilderness. Many modern Europeans still regard Canada and parts of America with that romantic notion of the “last great frontier”. Europeans have never had a wilderness of their own so how could one expect them to have the slightest idea of what a wilderness could be. To them, any land that is uninhabited or lacking culture might well be described as a ‘wilderness’. This view still prevails today and I quote from a recent article in The Globe and Mail from a London correspondent:
“We are, after all, a country that has tamed the wilderness… many of us are descendants of rugged adventurers who left the civilized Old World for the great unknown”.

This is a Eurocentric view that Canada is a big wasteland and not civilized. Perhaps, these Europhobes confuse wide-open spaces and big sky country with their idea of wilderness. There are those, south of the 49th parallel who still regard Canada as something of a “frontier”. In his 1998 book, An Empire Wilderness, Robert Kaplan refers to the area just east of the city of Vancouver as “a magical frontier, breathtaking even when seen from the air”.  I think many people confuse forested areas and mountains with the eternal misnomer- frontier or wilderness, as the title of his book implies. What a myopic view of Canada, but it does not seem out of line with the world’s general view of western Canada, if not, Canada in general. Basically, it is a fundamental error if not downright insulting!

At any rate, I had to give Mu’qaddam a definitive description of what I thought was a ‘wilderness’. He assumed that Canada was all a wilderness and to a certain degree he was right—there is a large expanse of uninhabited land. But, I also pointed out that much of the Middle East is a ‘wilderness’: great tracts of land and sand where no one lives or could live. You could live in the northern tundra as there is wood for shelter, wild game, fish and berries to eat, fresh water to drink and solitude. However, in the Middle Eastern desert, water is a premium and difficult to find. As a Near Eastern archaeologist, there are not too many places in the Middle East where one can walk without finding visible remains of “lost cultures or civilizations”. As such, it is difficult for my friend Mu’qaddam to appreciate what Canada looks like without conjuring up visions of a wilderness. For him, if there is no visible evidence of past civilizations then the land must indeed be a wilderness, no less a cultural wilderness.

Being back in North America and particularly in Canada, I realize that this notion of ‘wilderness’ is being assailed from all sides: mining, logging, commercialization, ecotourism and Parks Canada. Moreover, the idea of ‘wilderness’ is rapidly becoming an obsolete word in English. What brought this to a head was a recent trip to the ‘wilderness’ at Helmet Creek cabin. My crew and I were sent in to work on a bridge in the backcountry of Kootenay National Park. We were flown in by helicopter to carry out this mission. We were linked to the outside world by radio and instructed to leave the radio on from 7:00am--7:30am and again in the evening from 5:00pm–5:30pm. It was as if we had big brother looking over our shoulder all the time. So much for the ‘wilderness experience’. To compound matters further, Lake Louise/Yoho/Kootenay Unit (LLYKU) policy stated that we had to call in to the Warden Dispatch out of Banff. This seemed a little much as we worked for LLYKU and not Banff Park. We had to do this everyday we were in a cabin or camp at 8am and again at 8pm—a bit much! My supervisor told me that if we didn’t report in everyday that Warden Dispatch would assume that we were in trouble and that they would dispatch a helicopter to our cabin for a rescue. I felt like a teenager who had gone away on a trip and had to check in with parent’s everynight. How patronizing Banff Park has become. How obsessive they have become over a territory that they have no authority over. My supervisor explained that the reason we had to check in could be traced to an incident that involved a solitary backcountry warden. Apparently, the warden was alone in the backcountry where his horse accidentally kicked him in the head. Perhaps he died but the outcome is that everyone who goes into the backcountry for an extended time must now do these daily reporting. This kind of protocol might well be appropriate for a solitary warden in the backcountry but it is entirely unnecessary for a three man crew to adhere to. The prospect of three trail workers being involved in an accident in a backcountry cabin is highly remote. This is just another example of Banff Park’s control of the Four Mountain Parks system. Moreover, what does it say about our qualifications to handle difficult situations in the backcountry. Have we become so inept in our wilderness skills that we need to report in on a daily basis? This is just another shrinking of the wilderness on a personal level. Helicopters, GIS, cell phones and highways have all helped to shrink the physical and mental boundaries of what once constituted a wilderness. Everybody wants to give the impression that they are going on a wilderness trip but when things go wrong, they want all the modern conveniences to get them out of a jam.

This Orwellian 1984 spectre of radio contact obscures the idea of a wilderness tradition. The idea of going into the backcountry is to get away from modern conveniences and enjoy the natural beauty of the land. In the future, I can envision video cameras in the backcountry cabins and trails that will monitor your every mood. Almost like a scene from the latest film- Truman’s World. It’s an apocalyptic vision if ever there was one. I thought it was bad enough that there are mountain climbers with cellular phones for quick rescue—what an adventure. Also, the advent of GPS gadgets is really making a mockery of the whole backcountry experience and the ability to read topographical maps. Where’s the adventure in knowing exactly where you are? Don’t hike off the main trail or you might find an adventure. Who needs an adventure when you can read about somebody else’s harrowing escape from misfortune or misadventure? Moreover, you can never get lost anymore; as help is just a coordinate and a phone call away. Why not just stay at home and play this on a computer game. Experience the dangers of ‘the wilderness’ without leaving the comfort of your ergonometric mouse. You can peruse the ‘virtual wilderness’, get lost, thwart a bear attack, cross a dangerous current, climb an unclimbable peak, weather a freak snow storm, bivouac at 9,000ft and identify wild ungulates as you sup your cup of designer coffee.

In conclusion, it would appear that Parks Canada wants total control of the Four Mountain Parks and everything inside it whether it is the whereabouts of a trail crew, hiker or even the wild animals—everything is tagged and monitored. I can’t wait until they issue hikers with a computer chip that will act as a homing device that will allow Parks Canada to monitor our every movement in the backcountry. Also, we have been instructed to get rid of all fire grills in the backcountry and not provide firewood. What is more natural than to have a fire in the backcountry especially when you are cold and damp? Parks Canada doesn’t see it that way. There is always a risk of a forest fire eventhough it is pissing down with rain. However, the Warden’s cabins (which are strategically located next to campgrounds) are outfitted with wood burning stoves in case of cold or rainy weather. I can’t help but feel sorry for those campers who huddle under their tarps during a downpour whilst smoke from our wood stove drifts slowly across the river. If I were in their boots, I would be pissed off. I may even start my own fire—which would, no doubt, bring a heavy fine. When I am out hiking (and depending upon the circumstances), I like to have a small fire for warmth. I do bring a gas stove and have done this since I first started hiking in the Rockies but in certain situations-- a warm fire is most welcome.

A friend in describing Edward Abbey recalls that:
“He believes in wilderness first of all for its own sake and secondly, because it allows human beings to have feelings of danger and freedom which are too often removed from modern life.”

Which brings us back to this notion of wilderness? If Parks Canada does consider these backcountry areas as ‘wilderness’ then why can’t hikers have fires. In the past, hikers were allowed to have controlled fires but now this appears to be outmoded.

I suppose I am an adherent to the philosophy of the Earth First group who is practicing “deep ecology”. “Preservationism—or “deep ecology,” as it is sometimes known—calls for a fundamental revaluation of our attitudes toward the hierarchies of nature, of our place in the global ecosystem.” Moreover, we are not masters of the universe but merely wards or caretakers of the planet earth. I don’t know if we are either or that we could be responsible caretakers of the planet. So far our record is quite dismal. We are managing to deplete our natural resources; fish, fresh water, oil, gas, leach minerals from the earth, not to mention environmental and human pollution.
I also consider myself as the antithesis to most humanoids that are homocentric. They believe that man is wonderful and isn’t it great that people can travel into outer space. Great, we’ve fucked up this planet now let’s go to another one to corrupt. I was very influenced by the writings of Harkin in his book The Spaceship Beagle.  Philip Caputo’s recent article Alone mentions that:
“It seems that the more we despoil the land and divorce ourselves from the rhythms, cycles, and beauty of the material world, the less civilized we become.”

The synopsis of the Harkin’s book basically states that the earth is the Spaceship Beagle, and we are responsible for what goes on inside the spaceship. So, the idea of hiding or shipping uranium waste or garbage to landfill sites in other countries will come back to haunt us, because like a spaceship—there’s nowhere to hide!

[1] I have just come back to Canada for the summer from the sparse, sandy ‘wilderness’ of the Arabian Peninsula. I have
  been teaching English in the ‘wilderness’ of the United Arab Emirates for the past year.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Now for the rest of the story

So my wife hired a bouncer.
Fair enough, this does not seem outrageous if were running a bar or disco but for a take away food café—come on!
That’s how bad things had degenerated at our new locale, a 24/7 café, well sort of, especially in the evenings.
It did not help matters that our new locale is underneath the boombox of a very popular and supposedly famous nightclub called Black Diamond in one of Nairobi’s busier suburbs called Westlands. We had moved our business there from the downtown area where business was less than good but our new venue was about a third the size as the old. Who needs tables and chairs when you are plastered?
At any rate, compared to our old third floor restaurant, this smaller place was quite busy between the hours of 1-4am, particularly on Thursday-Saturday evenings.
You can imagine the wobbly clientele who inhabit our café: scantily clad ‘ladies of the night’ (some without panties—how could they?), some pissed mzungus (white guys), a few drugged-up Indians and our friendly staff who had to put up with the offtimes belligerent nightfolk. Nevertheless, these patrons are our bread and butter so to say, feasting themselves on a variety of deep-friend delicacies: half-chicken with cheeps, veggie and fiery meat samozas, bhaji, grilled sausages, mandazis (donuts), freshly-made pizzas, and array of sodas, water and a few other goodies.
But I digress.
We had a had a few bust-ups between patrons, mostly the men fighting over the ladies but occasionally a few of the ‘ladies’ taking matters into their own hands especially over territorial rights. Nothing new in that respect—just as long as they pay up!
Normally, my wife turns off here phone at night to avoid the café phoning her at some ungodly hour but this night she didn’t. You can imagine our surprise when we were awoken from our slumbers by a call at 3am. Apparently some burly brute of a man, with an air of confidence (don’t fuck with me), walked though our door at around 2am. He ordered one of the pizzas and the chef prepared it for him and handed it over on a plate as the guy was going to eat in the café.
That’s 450 shillings,” said the chef.
The guy got agitated. ‘The sign says 350.”
Sorry but that’s the old price,” added the chef, innocently.
The café hadn’t been in operation for the past two years and we were in such a hurry to move from our old location that we hadn’t yet changed the prices on the overhead menu. Once our waiters, chef or manager explained this to our customers they understood. However, we were now dealing with a rough, tough, heavily- liquoured security man.
Are you bastards trying to rob me?” He bellowed.
The chef’s grasp of English was weak and he was unable to convince this guy of the changes in price.
I’m from INTERPOL so don’t fuck with me,” he said as he let the plate and pizza crash on our marble floor.
Gracie’s uncle was on duty, he was sitting in the corner of the café watching this unfold. He tried to calm the man down but by now the ten other customers who were there had left, some without paying fearing a donnybrook.
Please sah,” her Uncle continued, “this café is under new management and you know Kenya. The prices are changing all the time...”
But before Uncle could finish, the man threw an empty soda bottle at him. It sailed over Uncle’s head and smashed on the wall behind him.
Then the INTERPOL guy grabbed the slightly built chef and pinned his arms against our freezer yelling more invective at the hapless guy.
You know I’m trained to kill people.” He yelled at the chef.
The guy was a brute plus he may have been armed.
Upon hearing all this commotion, one of the askari (security guards) showed up and tried his best to intervene but the INTERPOL guy, trained in karate and self-defence, took to beating the askari.
The early morning excitement had also brought a crowd of mostly taxi drivers who were waiting to drive drunken nightclubbers home. The drivers tried to stop the guy outside, ripping off his shirt but he fought them off. Then he threatened to beat them up as well but the drivers picked up whatever they could, with one guy throwing a rock at the INTERPOL guy’s chest. The guy retreated and quickly got into his car and took off a high speed in this busy area.
Things seem to return to normal only to find that 10 minutes later this guy came roaring back baying for blood. He came out of his car, bare-chested, brazen by alcohol, brandishing a nightstick or a length of pipe, threatening to pulverize someone with it. By now the cabbies had had enough and they managed to drive him off again.
I don’t know if this INTERPOL guy was on drugs but from what I heard, he was sure acting strange. I told Gracie to tell her uncle and the chef to go immediately to the police station and make a report and if necessary, file a claim.
The loss of revenue for this night was considerable but we were just thankful that there was not any loss of life. We did not want this type of thing to become regular.
Gracie’s brother and sister were supposed to have been working this night but they changed their shift at the last moment. We were thankful of their decision.
After hearing this report from uncle in the morning, talking amongst ourselves, my wife decided to hire a bouncer, a big bouncer! We’ve had no problem since then and our staff has had peace of mind.

Now for the rest of the story. 
However, just a week ago, the bouncer got a little over-zealous in his duties. This was the time of the year when rowdy university students come back for the start of their academic year and to re-visit their local watering holes. One uni chap unwisely decided to test our bouncers metal, so to say. Things got out of hand with the varsity lad getting the worse of it and to add salt to his wounds--his expensive Blackberry phone was taken during the scuffle with our bouncer. Why a uni kid was out making merry and showing off his phone was beyond me especially in Nairobbery where anything goes at nighttime. The uni kid accused our bouncer of nicking it, so he went to report this to the local constabulary. The bouncer had already buggered off with his latest acquisition, be it ill-gotten. 
At 3am on Saturday morning, my wife got a phone call from her brother, who happened to be working this evening shift for a little extra cash for his own studies, saying that he and the uncle were in the police station, in a cell no less. Because the bouncer had fled, the police naturally wanted to have some kind of collateral and jailed the only other employees available. I told Gracie that the police should be after the bouncer and not jail two innocent guys, but such is life in Kenya--the land of impunity!
Gracie had to go and bail out the brother and uncle, then agreed to settle the phone matter out of court, 2000 UAE dirhams worth to replace the stolen phone. She will pay the cops a weekly amount to include our cafe as part of their nightly/weekend beat and be on notice should anymore shenanigans avail themselves.
The bouncer was last seen trotting down Wiayaki Way, bound for nowhere.
Stay tuned!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What lurks behind the veil? RAK 1999, UAE

What lurks behind the veil? (Only her hairdresser knows) 1999 UAE
My dear friends,
I have been unceremoniously dropped from the starting rotation of the Women’s College in RAK. Yes, it came to a shock to me as well!
I went in to teach today and I saw a note from my advisor (Jude) instructing “that we need to meet”. As I turned a corner, I saw Jude down the corridor and she was trying to get my attention. She came by and said, ‘we needed to talk’.
OK, but then she motioned me towards a glass office whereupon she shut the door so that no one else could hear.
Hmm, I thought, this must be serious. Little did I know how serious it was to be? Jude spoke in a very grave tone and having just studied stress and intonation, I realized an axe was about to fall and it looked like my head was the only obstacle.
OK, give it to me straight with no candy coating.
‘Many students have been the counselor’s office and her phone has been ringing off its hook,’ she added.
Apparently, there had been a stampede to the student counselor’s office after my class last week.
Uh, huh I thought. It was that dreadful lesson I gave on the Dog Palace that had upset some students. This is a ‘true story’ in a series of English reading comprehensive books called—Even More True Stories. The story is about rich, Americans who go on holidays and have to put their pet dogs in hotels. This story talks about dogs in hotels, dogs sitting in hot tubs, dogs watching TV…etc.
Naturally, there are reading comprehension questions and other such things that follow the text. Questions like—
‘Would you let a dog sleep in bed with you?’ (Depends what he looks like?)
‘Would you let a dog lick your face?’
‘Would you kiss a dog?’
And equally, other harmless questions that I guess insulted some of the Revolutionary Guard students, those covered girls who sit quietly at the back of the class. The class is divided between the chatty, talkative girls who sit at the front and the more somber, straight-faced mob at the back. Yet, during the course of the class no one protested.
I explained to Jude, ‘I thought afterwards that I shouldn’t have taught that lesson’
‘Maybe it was culturally insensitive’. 
‘Yes it was,’ she said.
‘But Unit 12, the one on Dog Palace,’ I said, ‘had been included in a course outline of materials that were supposed to be covered in the course.’
 So, I reckoned that some one else had previously covered this topic and that it was OK for the women—perhaps not.
‘I am sorry but I have to let you go.’
 She told me that parents had phoned the office and that this was gravely looked upon by HCT.
‘If the parents were involved then they had signed my death warrant,’ I added, ‘but I wanted to know exactly what I had done wrong.’
But, there was more.
Jude decided to meet with the Arabic-speaking student counsellors who had felt the full force of my student’s indignations.
OK, so off across the campus we go in search of Amal Qasimi, another female counselor and some mysterious character called Nasser. Jude, Amal and I sat around and Jude acted as the go-between. Last Wednesday, my female students came into the office after the “Dog Palace” lesson. It came to light that I had used “language that was inappropriate for the students”. In fact, I had used inappropriate Arabic language.
I had to think back and I told Amal, ‘I have taught some of the girl’s brothers and some of the brother’s friends.’
I also knew their full names as well as their nicknames. I told Amal that a number of girls had asked me if I knew Toto, Nimla and Bish”. To which I answered “Yes”, as I had taught them at Digdaga Secondary School. Perhaps, I should not have allowed this as the Revolutionary Guard may have been offended that these girls were asking me about boys (which is haram=forbidden) and that I had acknowledged them. No doubt, these offended girls went home and said that Hanan and Samira were talking about Toto and this may have horrified the parents. But is that my problem? Yes, I should have gone onto the present tense but I was only trying to do the Communicative Approach--wasn’t I? Apparently, this wasn’t harmless.
Next, I was using “inappropriate” language when addressing the girls. The word “habibti (darling)” came up.
I told Amal, ‘but that’s what the girls were calling each other’ and that I addressed them by their rather long, paternal name—Fatema Murad Ahmed Eissa Murad al-Belooshi. I was finished with Amal.
Next came another Arabic-speaking counsellor (Aisha) who took me into a side room to have a head to head.
She was quite serious. We talked in generalities about teaching the girls and how some things were forbidden and that “part-time” teachers need to have a crash course on Islamic culture. I told her in no uncertain terms that I had taught women before for 4 months at an evening course in Digdaga and that there hadn’t been any problems. Moreover, I had a spotless record of teaching at RAK Men’s College for more than a year and that, indeed, I had been studying both Islamic culture and religion academically since 1990—hence, a BA in Middle East Studies and an MA likewise!

Aisha mentioned that there was an ongoing change with some of the women who wanted to be more liberal and casual than the Revolutionary Guard. I told Aisha, that in fact, 2 girls had told me in class that they wanted to come and visit my home. I told the girls that this was haram and to forget it. But, you can well imagine that when the Revolutionary Guard got home that they blabbered this to their parents that so and so had talked to Mr. Emerson about visiting his home... 
Aisha’s jaw dropped and she said that I should have told her this straight off as this is unacceptable for Muslims. I then proceeded to tell her that these same 2 girls continued their exploits and at a later class, told me that they had got their father’s permission to come and visit me. Again, I protested and told them, in front of the class, that this is haram and their brothers and uncles would come after me—this all met with murmurs of glee. However, there was no protestation of a religious variety from the Revolutionary Guard.
Next point, I had made lewd suggestions to ‘body parts’. My mind swirled back to my lesson on “Prepositions of Place”: on, in, at, beside, next to, in front of, behind-ah, that’s it, that’s where I fucked up. Pretty harmless stuff, but lurking underneath is the very smut of western civilization! (How could they?)
Yes, I told her. I had talked about “the front part of your body as your front and something at your back as behind you or your behind”. Sounds pretty evocative to me, especially my big fanny.
Then I remembered that I had also talked about top/bottom and that I had made a passing remark about a baby’s bum being called it’s bottom and motioned how you burp a baby and pad it’s bottom. MIGAWD, BUT THIS IS GETTING RACEY, ISN’T IT? I can barely get a hold of myself, er, I mean control myself. It’s a wonder this will get by the ‘thought police’? It’s a wonder I didn’t lose it in her office. I mean this is so fucking pathetic.
OK, so if I was offending some one at some point—why the hell didn’t they or them speak up earlier? I think it was the “Dog’s Palace” that put them over the edge—the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Bottom line—you never know what is lurking under the veil. I thought the girl’s enjoyed the loose banter that went on in class but I was clearly offending those girls from the more conservative families and I guess they were in the majority.
Aisha explained to me that there are undercurrents who are trying to liberalise things but there is still a strong backlash against it from within the women. These sisters better get their act together as the millennium is upon us or maybe they just want to be repressed and dominated. There’s no glass ceiling over here—just a glass floor and the women are tripping over it trying to reach the ladder.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On the borderlands.

                            In the middle of Africa, somewhere!
We had already walked 45 kilometers since leaving Malawi's northern borderpost with Zambia yesterday. Where were we? Oh yeah, in the middle of Africa, somewhere. Our mission—to march to the Zambian town of Tunduma where we hoped to catch the TAZARA (Tanzania Zambian Railway) to Dar es-Salaam but that was still another grueling 45 kilometers walk from here.
This morning it was still raining when we got up at 4 am. We were a grim-looking lot of mzungus (whiteys), grubby to be sure from lack of a shower or running water for that matter. Michael Collins and his buddy Phil Macken, both from Australia, diminutive California beach gal, Loy Sheflott, the lanky lad from Zambia cum erstwhile guide on this sortie, Peter, and yours truly, from the wilds of the Canadian Rockies. 
We did not have time to doddle for breakfast, we set out at first light at around 5:30 am. As we walked out of the hut we had crashed in for the night, we talked amongst ourselves wondering how the locals managed to eke out a living on these borderlands without electricity. Somehow they seemed to survive with virtually next to nothing for subsistence or sustenance.
As was to become routine during this trek, we got caught in a few downpours along the way. We had no umbrellas but a few of us had hats. Michael had a huge floppy white hat that made him look more like a grumpy cricket umpire than a hiker. 
Depending where we were, the track was either tree-lined or had been cut down for farming. We did not have time to doddle. We were on a schedule. Besides we were on a mission of sorts—to get to Tunduma come hell or high water, and judging from the deluge we had experienced in the past few day—perhaps the latter.
After a two-hour march, we came to a short-cut that supposedly would take us to the main road between Lusaka and Tunduma. Our trek changed direction again as this short cut would save us time, something we were short of. Instead of boarding TAZARA at Tunduma as originally planned, we could get on at the Nkonde station, which was closer. Peter had been told that we could catch a lift from here and it would be only 30 kilometers to Nkonde rather than the 50 kilometers we had been walking to Tunduma. This time, I did not pull out my Michelin map, we just trusted Peter—besides, and he was from here. After a brief discussion amongst ourselves, we chose the short cut as we were running out of time. The next TAZARA train was tomorrow!

                                                         *            *            *

There were no trappings of modernity here. Despite the dire poverty that existed, we were amazed to find the occasional plots for subsistence plantings of sorghum, bananas and maize. It was quite verdant. It was here that we came upon a village at 8am. We had not taken any breakfast so we were starved after hiking since dawn. Peter acted as our intermediary and asked a village lady if we could get some food and boil us some water. She obliged and cooked us delicious fresh cobs of maize from her garden, plus boiled water for some much needed tea. We all gave her some kwacha (Zambian money) as we still had some in our food kitty, plus the Aussies gave her some Air Qantas lapel badges for her kids.
After this brief repast, we headed back out on our lonely trek. Fortunately, it was not raining and we enjoyed cool and cloudy weather for our continuing march in the bundu. Phil reckoned we were doing 6 kms/hr and after another two hours of marching, we took a well-deserved breather. With no place to sit down or catch our breath, we would simply just slump down on the sodden earth, drink some boiled water and chat with each other during our short breaks between marches. I think we were delirious.
The bottom photo was taken many days earlier when we stayed with the South
Africans at Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi. This was before our Nyika Plateau safari.
All photos courtesy of traveling companion Phil Macken.
Phil took a picture of us at one of our rest stops. I had collapsed at the side of the track. I laid against my pack, stretched out on the road. My yellow Banff Centre t-shirt with bandages on my toes. Michael, complete with white umpire's hat sat contently a few feet away from Loy who was busy writing up her journal, and both of them sat on the dirt track. Peter seemed oblivious to fatigue and was just as happy to stand. Loy shared some hard candies she had tucked away in her pack. That really picked up our spirits and we set off again until lunchtime.
Phil and Michael were usually ahead of me as if they were late for something—they always set the pace. Diminutive Loy was often engaged in some long-winded conversation with long-legs Peter but she was a real trooper. Even the macho Aussies warmed up to her company and to be truthful, there could not have been a better group of travellers to do this arduous trek with.
As was my wont, I often lagged slightly behind the two Aussies who set a hard pace. Just ahead of me on the track, a mother stood off to one side. She had walked from her hut to see these strange talking mzungus who were walking to Nkonde. What a commotion. With her back to me yet cradling her baby, she was too busy watching Phil and Michael who were just ahead of me. As I approached them, I greeted them in ChiChewa, the local language. This startled both her and the baby. As they swung around to see me, the baby let out a horrific scream. The mother also shrieked then turned and ran back to their hut. This just supports my theory that they had never seen a mzungu up close and personal before, especially a bearded one.
To be fair, we must have made a quite a spectacle with our grimey shorts and t-shirts on, muddy running shoes, strange packs and equally strange foreign speech. I looked down the dirt track that led to her hut where she was standing. I smiled and waved at her hoping I hadn’t traumatized them. My fear was ill founded as she just laughed and smiled back but the baby continued to howl well out of my earshot. A line by legendary Nigerian jazz musician Fela Kuti came to mind—‘I waka many village and we are in A-fri-ka’.
So I waka, waka, waka,
I go many places, I see my people
Dem dey cry, cry, cry,
How many, how many, how many
I go many places, I see my people,
Dem dey cry, cry, cry,
I waka many village and we are in A-fri-ka
Around noon, we came to another small village where Peter talked to a woman who offered us her hut, plus some boiled maize and water for tea. As per this trek, we would ask our women hosts to boil drinking water for us as a precaution against catching typhoid or cholera. We enjoyed a short break, rekindled our sagging spirits, filled our belly and hit the road again.
Perhaps we were entering the area where the Wankonde tribe lived. ‘Nkonde’ means ‘banana’ and in the olden days, the locals used the banana tree for roofing, fuel and the fiber for weaving their blankets. There were certainly bananas available but we saw mainly maize and sorghum.
At about 4pm, we could not believe our eyes. Coming towards us was a truck. That picked our spirits up. We stopped the driver momentarily to find out where he was going. He said he was going to pick up some villagers back where we had just come from, then he would return and pick us up.
We could not believe our luck. We all collapsed in a heap, under a tree on the side of the muddy track until he returned. Between stops, we had walked for seven and a half hours or roughly 40 or more kilometers since dawn. All in all, Phil calculated that we had walked approximately 90 kilometers since leaving the guesthouse in Chitipa yesterday morning.
About 45 minutes later, the truck returned. It was already crammed but we did not care and were ever thankful of a ride, albeit a crowded one. He drove us to the turn-off. We were now standing on the highway that connected Zambia’s capital Lusaka to its most northerly border post, Tunduma. However, we had already decided earlier that we would catch the TAZARA train at Nkonde station. It was a mere 45 kilometers away. We were so close we could smell it!
We were already planning what we would do once we got to Nkonde. We had not had a proper shower since leaving Chitipa guesthouse. We also wanted a decent meal, some real cold drinks and our own room. We waited at the turn-off thinking we could catch a lift to Nkonde in no time. Well, we waited and waited but no lifts were forthcoming. A few vehicles went by but they were full and they could not take any more passengers. Then it started to pour on us. We sought shelter under a tin roof but still no lift. It was 6:45pm, pitch black and the rain still coming down in buckets—we’d had enough and called it quits for this day. As my mother would say, ‘tomorrow was another day’. The day our train would come!
Peter managed to find us another hut to stay in for the night. Despite just falling short of our goal, we still had done pretty damn well considering what we had been through in the last few days. We found solace and comfort in our group that had become tight-knit since forming back at Nkhata Beach. We joked amongst ourselves and realized how we had endured everything that nature and travelling had thrown at us. We also counted our blessings having affable Peter as our guide and intermediary—not sure where we would have been without him. Who knew what tomorrow would bring— just another adventure?
In the shelter of this small hut, we brewed some tea, boiled some maize and Loy cooked up our meal with what was left from the food kitty: some rice, some soup mix, and some tinned corned beef.
Top picture: My only time fly fishing, in Malawi no less, and a lot skinnier in 1984. This was taken earlier on our safari of the Nyika Plateau National Park.
Lower picture: Loy getting ready to start our trek through northern Zambia. The African woman was our gracious host for the night in her hut. Photos courtesy of Phil Macken.
After a hot day of tramping in the wild, I never imagined how a cup of hot water could taste so good. We were so thirsty we could not even wait for the hot water to cool before drinking it. Mostly single moms inhabited most of the huts we ate or stayed in. Where the men folk were is open to speculation. The moms were left to fend for themselves: tending their fields, washing their clothes and cooking meals for their kids who, for the most part, sat around in stunned silence, watching four mzungus and Peter eating meals with their fingers and sleeping in their hut.
Mothers might be lucky to have a paraffin hurricane lamp to provide light to do their cooking by. Nevertheless, the walls of the hut and the roof were blackened with the soot from the fire and the cloying haze caused by the foul-smelling paraffin lamp. Out here, wood was at a premium and we did not want to burden our hosts anymore than need be. They were grateful for the few kwacha that we gave them.
Depending on the size of the hut, the moms and their children would sometimes sleep in their own hut and leave us to sleep in the cooking one. Moreover, our sleeping with the family might have caused embarrassment for the mom as these were traditional African villages. A mother sleeping in a hut with three mzungu men and an African would set tongues a wagging. Most likely our presence was already a topic of conversation in every hut.
Nevertheless, tonight we were all crammed in close hot quarters, sleeping fully clothed, but were too knackered to complain about body heat, odour, and snoring. On this night, we shared the hut with the family, and a chicken with her half a dozen chicks. My main concern was catching malaria, as there was no place to hang my mosquito net at night. We all slept soundly nonetheless.
Under these grueling conditions, I could easily imagine what the great Victorian explorers—Livingstone, Burton and Speke—had encountered during their expeditions into the African continent. Albeit on a lesser scale, we were ourselves undertaking a journey into the unknown. Except for the kindness that Peter bestowed on us poor mzungus, we were on our own, against the elements and against time. Likely without Peter, we would not have made it to here on time.
We were all a bit grotty from the trip but what could you do. The only chance of a shower was a meager pail of bracing cold water to wash with. Our shower stall was a couple of huge yellowing banana leaves stretched over a lower limb of a tree where we could slosh water on our dirty bodies. We used the same shower pail to wash our sweat-stained clothes.
It did not help matters that it was the rainy season, so there were occasional cloudbursts, which soaked us through to the skin. At times, that felt refreshing but I wondered if these sudden cloudbursts, that had completely soaked my camera case, might cause my camera to rust.
We did appreciate the rare cool breeze but it only heralded the onset of yet another cloudburst. For the most part, the track was dry and the heat unending. I did not realize until later on while washing my sweat-soaked clothes that, to my horror, my rugby shirt and matching shorts had faded from where I had been carrying the pack. It made the back of my shirt look like it had a bull’s-eye on it. The Aussies had the same designs on their clothes. We must have looked a sight! I can’t blame the villagers for being suspicious of us.. They may even have thought at first that we were mercenaries. At best, we were most definitely a motley crew.
During our trek, we had passed several villages where the locals likely had not witnessed mzungus walking about in their bundu. Any mzungus they might have seen were probably ‘whiteys’, or rich expat NGOs driving by in their new 4X4 Land Rovers, but never on foot. News of our appearance most likely spread from hut to hut, village to village, and may have been the topic of conversation for quite some time. In our haste, we were oblivious to all of this.
One might assume that the villagers here in this part of Malawi/Zambia, or in any part of Africa for that matter, have done the same type of long-distance travelling that we were doing—walking, the most basic form of locomotion. The truth is that many locals may have not ventured even to the next village, much less to Nkonde. A Kenyan Luo, for example, from Homa Bay on Lake Victoria may go to Nairobi for schooling or for business, but not for the sheer pleasure of travelling. Not that you could say what we were doing was ‘pleasure’. Many other locals may of course not feel safe or have absolutely no reason to venture beyond their own thorn tree boma (hut). This may have been true for most of Africa in 1984. 
More to the point, trekking across this lonely part of northern Zambia, which was really off the tourist track then, was in many ways, uncharted land. For the local villagers who viewed this area as their bailiwick, our casual walking by their front door was perhaps almost tantamount to someone sauntering through your living room to get to the house next door. In a way, it was an invasion of their property and their communal way of life. No wonder they walked down their short pathway to catch a glimpse of us four strange mzungus talking and laughing in a strange tongue on their home turf.

                                                       *            *            *

After a restless night wondering if we would indeed make it to the train on time, we woke up at 5:30am on this, hopefully, our final day. Peter had been assured that there would be a bus leaving this morning. If we missed this bus to Nkonde, then we would miss the TAZARA train, and we would be stuck there until the next train came four days hence. We said our goodbyes and were on the road by 6am.
As usual, we were the centre of attention for the townsfolk as we stood around waiting for the bus. I suppose haggard-looking mzungus carrying their own backpacks out here in the bundu shocked the locals. We certainly were the ones out of the ordinary. Again, we talked amongst ourselves about what would be the first thing we would do when we got to Nkonde.
Wonder of wonders as our bus finally arrived at 8am as Peter had foretold. We quickly boarded and found some seats. We slumped in our seats, we didn't care what we looked like, we were bone-tired and just happy to be sitting down on seats for once. 
Even though it was a bitumen road, the road's many potholes caused us to take two and a half hours to cover a mere 45 kilometers. The potholes kept waking us while we tried to grab a few winks along the way. You can imagine our joy when we finally saw the sign—Welcome to Nkonde.

Harare Nightlife in 1984

The Queen’s Hotel (1984)

We were a hodgepodge of nationalities at the rundown Harare Youth Hostel but two blokes stood out—Ian, an English South African, and Graham a supposed ‘Rhodie’, both were long-term residents. Ian, with his many suits, ties, and coifed hair looked like a businessman whereas Graham with his long hair, tie dye shirts and groovy potato sack pants looked like a hippie. I found it remarkable that they were both allegedly doing business in Harare. I had a sneaky suspicion that what they were really doing was trying to avoid being conscripted for the South African Defense Forces (the SADF). I think they were draft dodgers, maybe to their credit.
In conversations with these two chaps, I casually mentioned that I was interested in the music of a native son named Thomas Mapfumo. He was still one of the top singers in Zimbabwe at that time and founder of a style of music peculiar to the Shona tribe called Chimurenga. His music represented the struggle for liberty that had taken place earlier in Rhodesia and in the guerilla camps of neighbouring Frontline States. At the core of this music was the traditional Shona instrument—the mbira (thumb piano) that Mapfumo incorporated into the heart of his music—chimurenga.
The mbira was a hand-held slab of hardwood, sometimes with a resonator, and usually with six to ten pieces of metal that looked like the handles of spoons on which the thumbs plucked. The other end of these metal pieces were narrow and pointed and they all went over one cross bar that acted as a fret and under another one that was fixed to the base. The differing lengths of each tine produced different notes and the musician would need to tune the instrument before performing. The wooden base often had four bottle tops loosely nailed onto it to give it a rattling sound. In concert, the mbira, which did not produce a great sound, was mounted inside a huge gourd with a mike shoved inside. Mapfumo complemented the traditional mbira sounds with drums, bass, rattles, and introduced guitarists who tried to imitate the mbira’s sound.
The music and messages of Chimurenga were highly political and after Rhodesia declared UDI, Mapfumo’s music landed him in prison. For the most part, the mbira plays the same arrangement of sounds, which have a trance-inducing feel to it, hypnotic perhaps. I found his music particularly addictive. I could care less what Mapfumo was ranting on about or for that matter, what any of the Zimbabwean musicians were singing about—it just sounded right and this sound was my rhythm for travelling through Zimbabwe.

*            *            *

 ‘So you like African music, hey,’ chided Ian, the smartly dressed business guy.
Ian and Graham probably thought I had gone native or potty or both. I could imagine them laughing amongst—Why would a ‘whitey’ like anything African, hey? My answer caught Graham off guard, ‘Yes, I like it very much.' 
I had not grown up in Africa and I did not share their hesitations or presumptions about ‘black Africa’—I was open to anything and anyone (or at least I thought I was).
‘Where did you hear about Mapfumo?’ Ian asked in his eloquent Rhodie accent.
‘I just bought a cassette of his—Mr. Music
Jah man,’ Graham said, ‘he plays every night at the Queen’s Hotel, hey.’
‘Where’s that?’ I asked, thinking I might get a chance to see him live.
Ach man! It’s far from here,’ he answered quickly as if to put me off.
‘Can I go there?’ I asked.
Ach sus man—are you penga?’ Graham asked.
Ian just laughed.
‘What did he just call me?’
‘He thinks you’re mad,’ replied Ian.
‘It’s in a rough part of town.’ Graham warned. ‘Full of munts.’
'I don't give a toss what its full of,' I added.
‘If we go,’ Ian added, ‘a few of us will have to go with you.’
‘Because you can’t go by yourself, you puss,’ squawked Graham. ‘Besides, it might be too dangerous, hey.’
‘What’s dangerous?’ I added. ‘I walk around here all day.’
Jah maneer but that is during the day,’ Graham pointed out. ‘It’s a different country here at night, hey.’
Struze bob,’ Ian chimed in. ‘It’s in a rough neighbourhood and ‘whites’ don’t go there that’s why.’ As an afterthought, he added, ‘Besides, if the Africans are on the piss, there may be trouble.’
‘Hmm, I see,’ I said. ‘You might have a point.’
The hippie Graham then conferred briefly with Ian.
‘Look here man,’ said Ian, ‘if we go, you have to promise me one thing.’
‘What’s that?’
‘If a fight breaks out—we have to leave.’
‘Why would there be a fight?’ I asked innocently, ‘Because we are white?’
Then Ian rolled his eyes and exhaled deeply on his cigarette.
‘Who knows man?’ He said, ‘If they are on the piss, anything can happen with these feckin’ munts.’
Struze bob,’ nodded Graham.
I had not heard the word munt in a while and I thought I had just left South Africa—maybe he was a racialist or maybe he was just telling the truth. Munt was a derogatory term for an African. They eyed each other then caught my eye. They probably wondered what the hell was wrong with me.
‘Look,’ said Ian. ‘If a fight starts, for whatever reason, and they see a whitey in the crowd,’ He punctuated his statement between dramatic drags on his cigarette, ‘they’ll pick on you and for no reason at all except that you’re a whitey.’
I was still keen on the venue but now I was feeling a bit of trepidation.
‘Would it be alright to take my tape recorder with me?’
‘Are you feckin’ crazy man?’ Graham yelled. ‘They’ll steal it from you, hey.’
‘And for god sakes don’t carry any extra cash,’ added Ian.
‘Don’t even carry your passport,’ Graham said. ‘Just in case you get rolled.’
I guess this was going to be another of my little adventures in Africa. This was all part of my 'African experience'—never a dull moment.
Originally, the Queen’s Hotel had been a hangout for the coloureds, a place where ‘Rhodies’ and blacks used to go to pick up girls. But after independence, it became a blacks only hangout with blacks only prostitutes. 
Anyways, we threw caution to the wind and went to the Queen’s Hotel one night. We looked a scary lot: the Rhodesian hippie in his batik cotton baggy pants, the Canadian freak who liked African music, the South African businessman in a suit, and another burly-looking Yank from the hostel with mango fly blisters all over his face. I did not think we would have any trouble, as Graham and Ian spoke some of the local lingo.
What struck me as odd was that we took a taxi to the far side of downtown then walked through the Kopje area to the Queen’s Hotel. I confess, it did feel eerie as we were the only ‘whites’ out at this time of night in this rough area. It did not help matters that there was a blackout in this area and the only light came from a few roadside kiosk guys with candles burning in the kiosk and on the curb.
Ian had been right—the area was a bit rundown, with drunken Zimbabweans by the side of the road—probably from the cheap local brew of chibuku. Chibuku was a drinking yogurt-type of beverage with a thick grainy texture that you needed to sieve through your front teeth, but it did have a pleasant taste and a powerful kick. It was sold in half litre and one-litre milk cartons. After frequent visits to Zimbabwe, I acquired a taste for it.
We finally got to the infamous Queen’s Hotel and it still looked quite nice in spite of its proximity to the rough neighbourhood. It must have been a fancy place for the ‘whites’ during Rhodesia’s former heyday. There was a minimal entrance fee as Mapfumo and The Blacks Unlimited would be the only band and would play all night. I was glad I had remembered one piece of advice Ian had given me beforehand: ‘Make sure you don’t wear your bloody sandals.’
‘Why? Is it far to walk?’
‘No,’ Graham said. ‘Because of the broken glass, hey.’
I never gave it another thought as we had walked through the night. However, once inside the notorious hotel, it was another story. We walked down a dark corridor, past a chicken scratch wire fence on our right where they sold quart bottles of ice cold Castle beer. As in other places of ill-repute like the infamous Green Hotel in Nairobi, the wire protected the bartender from wayward empties that might be hurled his way whilst serving customers. Past the barman, we walked out into an open area at the back of which was a small makeshift stage.
As we had walked in, we crunched on broken glass underfoot. I looked around the dancing area; broken glass was everywhere. It was as if the Africans went out of their way to break their beer bottles. Perhaps they used the other ends for fighting. I was indeed glad I was wearing my covered shoes or my feet would have been cut to shreds in sandals.

*          *            *

Mapfumo’s bands, “The Blacks Unlimited”, were all from the Shona tribe. The first was a tall guy who walked out from the back of the stage, sat down and started playing his mbira inside a gourd that was amplified. It sounded amazing. He played solo for ten minutes, then one by one other musicians came out to join him: a drummer, another guy shaking a rattle for rhythm, some guy banging a steel bar with a spike keeping the beat, a guitarist, a bass player, and two well endowed female dancers who were shaking their thing.
Whilst this hypnotic music was playing, the dance floor—if that is what you can call it— quickly filled up with drunken couples holding each other up much like they used to do in dance marathons from the 1930s. Some single African guys danced alone while holding their beer bottle by its neck, and some hip-shaking office girls were feigning disinterest. Mapfumo soon stumbled out on stage to a big hurrah. He looked plastered but I think he had been smoking dagga, the local weed. He looked like he was already in a trance from his own hypnotic music. His huge dreadlocks covering his face bounced and swayed as he sang and danced. The audience erupted and the night took off. It was unforgettable and worth both the walk and the wait.
Mapfumo’s songs go on forever and I like them just the same: quite repetitive with African polyrhythms to keep you entranced. The mbira starts the sound going with the guitarist trying his best to imitate or mimic it and with the bass player doing his best to keep up. The drummer has a steady beat going and the dancers supply the vocal backing to Mapfumo’s throaty wailing.
While I was dancing and drinking, out of the corner of my eye I caught movement from an upstairs window of the hotel, which faced the patio. Through the window frame, I saw the nude upper body of a fit African guy, moving in time with the music. At first, I thought he was getting off on the music but then realized that he was having sex in syncopation with it. Mapfumo’s music seemed to hit the spot for me and I suppose for his lady friend too. I hoped she enjoyed both performances.
Many of songs he played were from his chimurenga period, revolutionary songs that rallied the insurgent forces during the ‘Bush War’ against the Rhodesian army. Considering what the Africans in Zimbabwe had been put through in Rhodesia’s former police state, I was amazed at the music they had created out of all that untold suffering. Although it could be argued that they have suffered more under Mugabe’s subsequent insufferable rule rule.

*          *            *

Blaring music, raunchy sex, day old sweat, the smell of stale beer, glass shards underfoot combined to create the unique ambience of the Queen’s Hotel and heightened yet another ‘African experience’. I think the other guys in our troupe just came for the beers as they eventually tired and wanted to leave. It was probably the first and last time that Ian and Graham would ever go to an African concert—a Zimbabwean musician no less.
However, the night was still young. I was on holiday, and the other guys had to get up early for work the following morning. I wanted to stay but then, as predicted, a fight broke out and Ian and Graham grabbed me.
Manji-manji! Graham yelled waving his hands at me.
‘Let’s get the fuck out of here now!’ Ian yelled.
I did not put up any argument.
‘Why is there a fight?’ I asked as we moved gingerly over the broken shards of Castle beer bottles.
‘Who cares?’ said Ian tugging at my arm.
‘Probably over a feckin’ mawhori (prostitute) swore Graham, gritting his teeth.
Sure enough, as we stumbled down the corridor I passed two Africans who were bleeding, one guy profusely from a head gash. There was blood all over the floor and it looked like it was from a broken bottle slash. Luckily, the Africans did not pick on us poor ‘whiteys’ and we got the hell out of there in the nick of time.
We walked through the darkness back to our shabby hostel. Being a dumb Canuck I had no fear, as I had not grown up in this tense racial atmosphere but perhaps if I was a ‘Rhodie’ or South African I would have had a different, if not, more appreciative perspective. Just the same, it was too dangerous to be walking around a poor ‘black’ neighbourhood at one in the morning. We laughed at our folly on the way home but it was a bit of a harrowing experience—be it a dangerous ‘African experience’. Just the same, I would not have missed it for anything. It was magic!