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African Memories

Yesterday, as I write this, I took a boat ride on Lake Washington around Mercer Island. On the boat I meant a woman who, as it turns out, attends my wife’s church. She asked me which African countries I had visited in my work (at the time I didn’t know she was from South Africa). I rattled them off: South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Ghana, and Mali (with stopovers in Kenya and Nigeria). It was a short conversation but it got me thinking about my numerous visits to Africa. That night in my study I spent some time looking at various items from Africa that I cherish, partly because of the items themselves and partly because of the memories associated with the items. Here are a few...

I made several trips to Zimbabwe during its times of greatest difficulty. Things got so bad that One Hundred Trillion Dollar bills were circulating. I bought my friend Wilbert a beer one day and two beers cost me over ten thousand Zim dollars. It is difficult seeing a government openly harming its people. As I wrote in book Notes from 39,000 Feet:

"Operation Murambatsvina[1], which began on 25 May 2005, Africa Day, was officially known as Operation Restore Order. It was a Mugabe and Zanu-PF government programme to forcibly “clear the slums” in Zimbabwe. It is estimated that when the campaign had finished at least 2.4 million people had been affected. The operation virtually touched every town and city in Zimbabwe.

Given the high rate of unemployment in Zimbabwe many thousands of people support themselves through informal employment, which provides food for the family, school fees for the children, and a bare subsistence level of existence. During Operation Murambatsvina approximately 200,000 vendors were arrested, their kiosks and vending sites destroyed, their wares confiscated.

Small farms and city gardens were destroyed, thus denying people a means of feeding themselves and their children. Small and large houses were bulldozed to the ground. People were then ordered to remove the remains of their homes and with nowhere to take the ruins, they simply buried their homes."

The next photo to your left includes four wood carvings, two wooden mugs, a candle, and a photo from South Africa. If you look closely you will see I am in the photo, a much younger me on the right in clothes I would not normally wear. The photo was taken in a Durban night club. The man next to me is Peter. He introduced me to South Africa and the Southern Cross. I was there to witness the first truly democratic election in the country in April 1994. Again from Notes:

"I went with Peter as he voted. He chose to vote at the Afrikaans school. The queue was quite long and twisted back on itself, so I could watch the people fairly closely. Peter, always very talkative, was almost completely silent for the one and a half hours we stood in line. White faces were mostly sober. Black people were very quiet towards the back of the line and more animated, indeed, celebrative as they approached entering the school. Personally, I felt privileged to stand with Peter during this time. As he went in to vote, I sat under an African tree and simply waited and watched. When Peter came out, he was genuinely moved that at least official apartheid had come to an end, and yet he still had fears of what the next few days would bring, as well as the next few years."

The night before I left for the UK, a person asked me what I would like to take home as a remembrance. Joking I said an election ballot. The next morning she slipped me a folded ballot in a handshake saying, “Good luck.” Luck was with me and it now hangs on my study wall. The ballot has the name of the parties and pictures of their leaders. The buzz in Durban was that the African National Congress (ANC) was telling people in the townships that if they wanted to vote for Mandela and the ANC they should put a big X next to Mandela's picture, but if they did not want to vote for the ANC they should put a small x next to his picture.

What you see to the left is a pipe from Lusaka, Zambia, or at least I was told it was a pipe. To this day I can’t figure out how you get tobacco into it. Never mind. I had a short visit in Lusaka and driving down one of the main roads I say a huge billboard with this message:

A Roof Without Harvey Tiles
is Like Being in Hell Without Your Saviour

And then only a few minutes down the road:

There Should be Nothing Between You and Heaven
Except Harvey Tiles

The next picture immediately below and to the left is of a special quilt Janet, my wife’s mother, made for me. When your work takes you to various countries it is common for people to give you gifts. In most of the countries I visited in Africa people gave me gifts of material, sometimes small pieces and sometimes large. I have saved many such gifts, but knowing Janet is a keen and talented quilter I gave her a number of pieces. Then one day the quilt you see arrived in the mail. I can’t tell you where each swatch came from, but the large batique of one person standing and the other bending over is from Maputo, Mozambique, a city and country I loved. The quilt was an utter surprise and wonderful gift.

And I guess it’s a good place to end, the quilt, which now hangs in our new Seattle home. While many countries are represented in the quilt, its overall impact is of Africa the continent. As I sit here now, two “African headlines” come to mind. The first from Harare, Zimbabwe. While discussing which forces create more madness and which bring sanity and light, my host said:

“Where two elephants fight, the grass will suffer."

The second is an actual headline. On April 27, 1994 the South African Sowetan headline, in huge black letters, was simply:

“Freedom in our lifetime”


Copyright © 2015 Dale Rominger

[1] The English translation of Murambatsvina is Operation Drive Out Trash or Operation Drive Out Filth.

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