October 2005


One of those days consumed by travel. I got up, did a few housekeeping things, and set off for the airport. I chatted with the driver a bit (both of them, because we stopped at the city centre and switched) about the difficulties of finding employment. I told both of them my story about finding a job, but felt hopelessly Pollyannish in the face of South Africa’s unemployment crisis (around 40% I think?). There are times I feel terribly American and like I should keep my mouth shut and this was one of them.

My plane was delayed it turned out so I spent the rest of the time shopping like a mad woman, I am ashamed to say (my bout of feeling overprivileged clearly did not last long enough). I then went to the gate to find Gracian and Vimbai waiting for me which was a surprise since I hadn’t checked me email and didn’t know they were going to be connecting in Jo’burg. It was great to see them and we caught up a little bit before we got on the plane. Then it was off to Addis—five hour flight. I know our the flight attendant must have been amused when he got to our row. It was me—all laryngitical if that’s a word—and then the guy beside me was deaf mute I think. All kinds of fun taking orders.

We got into the sparkling new Addis airport around 11 PM at the same time as this musical group. I found out later form Gracian that they’re a pretty famous Congolese group based in Paris. All I could tell was that they were stylin’—clearly on a whole ‘nother level. There were about 8-10 guys. The manager or arranger or whoever reminded me a little of Samuel L. Jackson in that film where he’s a drug dealer who wears a kilt. It was like Yohji Yamamoto or one of those crazy Japanese designers got a hold of the outfit from that film and had fun with it. Yellow knit golf cap, yellow pullover, grey checked widelegged pants, and yellow shoes. Then there was the guy in th modern day zoot suit with the neckless guitar (you know, the kind you used to see in 80s videos) who was playing it and singing in the terminal. And the rest of th guys in very sober dark suits but some of them handpainted, some of them with watch chains, cool shoes, the whole nine. And later came the backup singers/dancers—these women in fitted white striped suits, patent leather white platform boots and club shoes, and colored thread in their braids. It was awesome, esp.after a long flight ad stepping back into that surreal terminal space.

So after that and the customs and luggage dance, the ILRI driver picked us up and packed us into the truck (reminder-less luggage next time) and we headed off to the ILRI compound which is really a compound (gate, security, the whole nine) and managed to settle in after a it of a mix up on rooms (nice accommodations though—I have a sitting room, bedroom and bathroom) and crashed for the night.

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I woke up feeling better and cheered by the view out my window, which was this amazing view out over the city. The hostel was doing a tour of Soweto and then dropped us off at the Apartheid Museum. A woman at the hostel is doing her thesis on tourism in places like Soweto and asked to interview me about it. More on all this later because it could be its own volume.

That night I got back, wrote up my earlier blog entries but couldn’t get to email, decided I was again too tired to paint the town red (and needed to rest my voice). So I popped down to this Italian place down the road, the kind of place that makes homemade thin crust pizza and had a feta, avocado and rocket (a kind of herb) pizza with a glass of wine while playing with the owner’s little daughter (kids are amazingly open with strangers and she was just what I needed) and listening to this album he was playing (John Blount—very soulful) and then went to bed.

So Beulah was kind enough to pick me up from my B&B where I said goodbye to my landlady (who had been really nice and whose guest cottages were great. Her own house where we had breakfast every morning was immaculate–one of those Better Homes and Gardens kinds of places–and she’d serve us coffee and fruit and homemade bread, all while ABBA played in the background.)

Beulah herself was so sweet to me. She not only gave me a ride to the station despite being ill, she also gave me a bar of nougat (soft not the hard turron kind I got in Spain and artisinal for South Africa) and a Zulu wire basket. I hugged her goodbye and got on the bus for Jo’burg.

Greyhound here has it hands down over the States—big double-decker luxury buses with tea, coffee and snack service; actual leg room; DVDs playing (even though it was A Knight’s Tale and Shall We Dance?—the one with J Lo and Richard Gere); and a complete lack of sketchy people or stations. I rode the 6 hours to Jo’burg in comfort and snapped many a (probably blurry) picture of the changing landscape. The guesthouse owner said that you could tell as soon as you left KwaZulu-Natal and she wasn’t kidding. We hit a point where all the misty green rolling hills disappeared and suddenly you were in the West—still rolling hills but much drier and browner with flattop mountains—then positively prairie-like. You’d see townships closer into the cities, a few round kraals off to the side of the road, people hitching and walking sometimes but mostly just a lot a lot of land. I took our one station stop as time to indulge my twin road trip loves—dodgy convenience store food (Cornish pastry, Fanta Orange, Aero (chocolate) bar, fried chicken flavored (!) chips, and biltong, the national South African snack, a version of jerky that comes in eland (I just tried “traditional;” not bad but perhaps an acquired taste even for a jerky-lover such as myself)) and trashy foreign magazines (SL (Student Life), which was the usual student irreverence; bleeding edge, hipper-than-thou music; career advice for the truly young; and nods toward a society whose youth are still integrating; and True Love—not what it sounds like, it seems to be sort of like Essence and Cosmo all smooshed together with a sprinkling of articles on the crash of Zimbabwe’s economy and spousal abuse (according to a report in the article, South Africa has the highest rate of women killed by their partners; for women in South Africa, violence against women and AIDS seem to be the two biggest problems (along with the crime and unemployment that are also major general concerns))

I hit Jo’burg which announced itself like any big city with increasing industrialization and snarling superhighway and the added feature of additional townships. I didn’t get to see a great deal of central Jo’burg just the approach to the bus station, which as any Greyhound rider knows, is nothing to judge a city by, though I did see the Nelson Mandela Bridge. I got out (reminder-less luggage next time) and got a taxi after considerable consultation amongst everyone at the stand who had no idea where my hostel was (the Backpacker’s Ritz—very recommended by both me and Lonely Planet). So I whipped out my Lonely Planet map finally and my cab driver and I started out with high hopes (after a brief stop for gas). So we made good time to Jan Smuts Avenue but then took a wrong turning or two, stopping to consult at least three people in what I assume was Zulu and then a bunch of kids who, as I thought, turned out to be backpackers. Along the way I saw more suburbs like the ones I had seen in Pietermaritzburg—immaculate, fairly upscale, lots of blooming jacarandas and high walls with security systems prominently advertised, all large private residences or offices. We ended up finally not so far from where I thought we should be at a large mansion turned hostel at the end of a cul-de-sac lined with gated apartments.

So I hopped out of the taxi as the backpackers we’d consulted were passing by and, being friendly backpacker types, they offered to help me with my luggage, which I’m sure they immediately regretted as they helped lug my humonstrous black suitcase and smaller bag up and down two short flights of stairs and through two security gates. I immediately felt old, since not only had nice young things uncomplainingly helped me with my luggage, it was clearly old people’s luggage and not the shiny nylon or whatever high-tech fabric backpack I would have had 10 years ago. I was now the Man, on a business trip, just pretending to backpacker vibey-ness. Such is life.

I felt even older when I came back from my excursion to the very swish Hyde Park Mall (in search of adapter and cell phone but netting only dinner and way too many books), called Rosa Stella to decline her offer of having a Jo’burg friend take me around (what was I thinking!), and eventually just crashed in spite of plans for dinner on the town and maybe dancing. I realized later I had come to that stage of traveling (esp. as an introvert) where I just needed to be alone and recharge. So I curled up in my bunk bed, commiserated with the German girl next to me who wasn’t feeling well (“I sound worse than I feel” I told her, my usual post-sinus infection laryngitis having set in. “I feel worse than I look,” said she.) and decided to hit Jo’burg the next day.

Hmmm, I think I might highlight Friday and from here on out because I’m running out of battery power on the laptop (forget writing this on an Internet-connected computer. I’m beginning to understand the difficulties that people have here with the Internet-either you don’t have access, you have to pay a lot for a few minutes and/or it’s extremely slow. Even at UKZN, in the short times I had between appointments I had time only to check and send a few e-mails because of the time it takes. And without a proper adapter for the electricity, battery power is an issue (and getting an adapter would have been a journey of Fee hadn’t located one I could use) So right now I’m in Jo’burg racing against battery failure)

So Friday we did a review of where we are and target setting for the future with Walter, another lecturer Rob, and Beulah. I think we all came to some agreements and I have a lot to bring back to Mann to talk about and hash out for the future. I also met with Sheryl Fredericks who runs the Food Security program. I showed her and John Derera AGORA and then Sheryl took me to lunch at a local café and discussed her program which trains Master’s students in food security (specifically all aspects of organic farming for three South African communities) and is looking to start a pan-African food security centre at the university (which, to the interest of anyone in the library and information field, may also include a subject-based repository for information on food security). We also talked about genealogy and our travels. She was also kind enough to drop me off at the clinic next door so I could get antibiotics and then get me back to the university.

And Rosa Stella, one of the 2004 cohort, generously took time out of her busy schedule f getting ready to go back to Namibia for fieldwork not only to get me the name of a walk-in clinic but also to track me down during my up-in-the-air wanderings and give me a tour of howick Falls and the surrounding countryside, along with her brother Paulus and her two adorable kids. With them I got to see the surrounding countryside and my first glimpse of the townships. I so wish I had brought my camera because it’s hard to describe unless you see the houses, basically shacks by the side of the road, with outhouses and extra shacks for rent in the back. There’s no infrastructure—no electricity, no plumbing, no roads even—and there isn’t likely to be for some time Rosa Stella says since the government can’t afford to install it all without charging fees to the residents who can’t pay them since unemployment is so high and wages are so low. General economic improvement is the only hope is what she said and is a theme I would continue to hear from many people throughout this trip.
There were other townships as well which were better off—solid construction rather than recycled metal and materials, solid outhouses, actual roads—and neighborhoods with the mod cons. But seeing those in relation to my lovely B&B in the neighborhood with the high walls, dogs, and security systems was quite a change.

We stopped a Howick a pretty little town with Howick Falls. Now, as an Ithacan, even a recent one, I’ve seen waterfalls before. But this one put all the ones I’ve seen before to shame. Imagine Taughannock but nestled in this wide Irish green swathe of land with cliffs rising in a valley bowl to each side and things in the distance fading to mist and clouds. It was quite beautiful.

We then went for tea at Rosa Stella’s and talked as we had the whole trip up about the black communities in S. Africa, Namibia and the US; the different histories but how similar some responses have been, about the persistence of racism and about changes for the future, about men the world over, and about kids (having them or not). It was a great visit and I really appreciated her kindness in taking me around.

In fact I appreciated the kindness fo everyone at ACCI—from Walter and Tongo who took me around, explained the program and took me out; to Beaulah John, who despite a hospitalizing bout of bronchopneumonia, helped plan my visit and came in while I was here to meet with me despite not being 100%; Fee de Stadler and Lesley Brown, who not only helped set up my visit but helped me so much logistically and personally while I was there. And this is not to mention Sheryl, Lindwe, Rob, Carol, Pravesh and all the others who took time out of their busy schedules to meet with me, shepherd me from here to there and generally made the experience such a positive one.

I had a final dinner with Walter and Tongo that helped cap off the good time I had had so far—good food, good drink and good conversation in good company. I will certainly look forward to returning to Maritzburg in the future and hope that others from Mann (and ACCI) get to go too.

I can’t believe I’ve let so much time pass without updating and now of course it’s playing catch up trying to remember everything that’s happened. So Thursday I met with the library folks as well as the 2005 cohort. Walter introduces me Lindiwe Soyozkapi and she took me on a tour of the Life Sciences Library. The have a sizeable collection and access to a number of databases (the standards like CAB and BIOSIS, PubMed and Medline, as well as some we don’t have (CSA’s Illumina collection and Sabinet, a collection of South African resources). I’m bringing back a list of the non-overlapping databases to see if we have coverage in a similar area. Also they have a sizeable collection of research (particularly theses and pamphlets) in African agricultural research (including beer brewing!), which may be interesting to Mann students. In talking Lindwe and I discovered a number of commonalities—rising costs of scientific journal literature, difficulties in getting students in the habit of database searching instead of just Googling it, making sure that they evaluate websites, the use of offsite storage and scanning, learning on the job as an “accidental” life sciences librarian and the fun of it, job shortages and lack of entry-level opportunities and the need for more diversity in librarianship among others. The differences—Dewey vs. LCSH, collection development primarily by department with subject librarians filling in rather than vice versa, lack of remote access (though this will change soon)—were not so much in comparison. It was great fun getting to talk to her and I learned a great deal.

We went back for tea and talked to Walter and Tongo about complementarities with the library and I also had another good talk with Beulah John about student support and literature reviews. Then I gave a presentation to the students in the 2005 cohort which went off OK despite my technical difficulties with help from Beulah and Fee,

Lindiwe then took me to the main library in the afternoon where I met Carol Brammage and Pravesh who direct the Main Library. We talked about similar issues as well as the move toward remote access and the work toward an interuniversity consortium between and their move to a new catalog. I’m planning to keep in touch about our plans for reaching the distance education students (they are hampered by the same concerns and difficulties with Internet and e-mail access and the unreliability of the postal system as well and haven’t really reached out to distance students much). Lindwe took me on a tour of the main library as well which was packed with students (it’s exam time) and she pointed out the shrinking study space. I told her about the info commons concept and the replacement of books in the UT undergrad library, which blew her mind.

I did a little shopping at the Scottsville Mall since it was clear that something I had eaten really didn’t agree with me and that an unfortunate side effect of the summer weather and blooming jacarandas was a sinus infection. I also needed to look for an adapter that worked for my electronic equipment (mine was just a hair too small) as well as a cell hone since the one I borrowed wasn’t working.

Later that evening, Tongo and John Derera took me out to Spurs, a steakhouse in Liberty Mall in the suburbs. It was trippy to go to a mall bigger than Pyramid in Ithaca with shops that had different names but sold the same things and more and eat in a steakhouse which, though it served gammon steak and burgers with monkey gland sauce (a kind of chutney, not what it sounds like), also did that chanting happy birthday thing and played Evanescence.

John and Tongo talked plant breeding (which was interesting, but like the Far Side cartoon with the dog listening to his masters, went “wah wah Camille wah wah hybrid wah wah wah Camille wah wah wah corn and disease resistance” for me) and they told me about the current situation in Zimbabwe (grim). Apparently you can get foreign currency in and change it to ZAR, but there is no official trading so there’s a huge black market. It’s a crazy situation. We also talked about the differences between what I was seeing in South Africa and what was going on in the rest of black Africa, which is great. It’s hard for me to grasp but I think I’m starting to get an idea. After all of this talk of leadership in Africa and plant breeding, they took me on a short tour of the city and then John and I went back to the hostel and had coffee and talked about TEEAL and AGORA and his thesis. He’s an absolutely brilliant student, extremely focused, motivated and organized. He’s finishing his Ph.D. a year early and in the midst of it, giving a presentation at a conference in Uganda. And by all reports from Tongo and Walter his research is outstanding. It was a pleasure to get to talk to him.

So I have passed my first day and half in Pietermaritzburg (PMB) and have learned more than I could in a month of explanations. There really is nothing like being onsite to see things and see how they go. Walter (Prof. de Milliano) picked me up yesterday and took me to the Golden Dragon for supper after a quick stop by UKZN to meet some of the staff (Fee de Stadler and Lesley Brown who had helped set up my visit). We had a good long talk over dinner about the difference between help and empowerment, which totally harked back to my Training and Development in Sustainable Agriculture class (thanks Margaret Kroma) and the idea that development has to be driven from the goals and the needs of the participants to be useful, not just coming into help by giving inputs of money, equipment and the like that aren’t sustainable and that don’t empower people to act for their own contexts. More on this later but I’ll just point to my previous blog entries on Edutaining Myself to Death at some point. And hearing the conditions that people are actually working under, it’s amazing what they have accomplished. In one or two years the students in the ACCI program have learned and brought themselves to a level that people in the field 20 years have accomplished and held their own. By all accounts the students are succeeding brilliantly and are prepared with the best of the best. One student from the first cohort is finishing a year early. Others have compared well against people who have been in the field for years. Most all of them are doing cutting edge research in the sense that though it is not new in some parts of the world it has not been done in Africa with traditional crops or in the sense that it deals with biotechnology applications for better disease resistance, food security, combination of locally desirable traits with better nutrition and the like. It’s research that will make a practical difference in people’s lives.

And we’re a part of it, can contribute to it, and especially can learn from it. This has been a good lesson in partnership, in what we can learn from our partners as well as what we can contribute.

Wednsday began my first whole day at ACCI. I managed to get lost in the short distance from the UKZN gate and the ag building but a very nice young man who had studied abroad in Michigan helped me out (and I do believe that he called me ma’am which in addition to the getting lost made me feel about a zillion years older instantly but that’s neither here nor there).

I first met with Tongo (Prof. Pangirayi Tongoona) who took me on a tour of the building and the greenhouses which was very enlightenting. I now know what things look like when they are talking about pearl millet and finger millet and the whole greenhouse set up is just ingenious. They’ve got a greenhouse that is heated by water coming from sunwarmed tanks—the whole thing is very efficient. And Tongo is clearly a man who know his plant breeding as well as his students, as his tour and later conversation proved.

I also spoke with Ms. Beulah John today who has been teaching students reading and writing skills, some searching and literature review skills (along with the librarians whom I will met tomorrow). She has a sound grasp of educational theory and a love and support of the students that is truly remarkable. She not only teaches them the above skills but also grant and proposal writing, financial and project management and a host of other skills that I wish all of our graduates got. She and the folks at ACCI do not believe in sink or swim. They take into account language difficulties, personal problems, and disabilities. They do not excuse poor performance but nor do they cut people loose for not performing to an unsupported standard. They believe in empowering students to reach their goals and potential. It’s truly inspiring.

I also got to meet with the 2004 cohort who are a bright and ambitious group. They are about to go out for their field research and I talked to them about the services they have received—some of the have used our ILL. And I talked to them about what has and hasn’t worked well. They are a clear-eyed and ambitious group and they had excellent suggestions about our current and future plans (especially what might work on the SMS project) and were interested to hear about TEEAL and AGORA. I hope this will be the beginning of an ongoing conversation when they are out in the field.

Walter and I went to dinner at this excellent Italian place called Pesto, where I promptly threw out every food regulation I had been set and had melon delicatezza, beef carpaccio and an excellent butterfish with two glasses of wine. We talked about development, Walter’s study abroad experience, the program and a number of other things. A great time all in all. Our waitress cam up afterward and asked us if we were South African; we said no and she said she could tell by our attitude. Interesting.

Thanks to intestinal difficulties and insomnia, I spent most of the flight from London to Johannesburg awake and watching Mr. and Mrs. Smith (fun and cheesy), Batman Begins (fun and a little dark) and half of Kung Fu Hustle (totally fun and extremely cheesy, esp. if you like parodies and kung fu films as much as I do). So I set foot on African soil with that glazed surreality that comes from too many hours awake and stepped into the maw of customs lines. I had hooked up with a Scottish grandmother who was very nice and had the stamina of a mule. She shepherded me out of customs and through to the Durban flight with more pep than someone half her age (namely me), all the while texting her family (you’ll be happy to know Nan). I hit Durban and got a cab ride from a guy extolling the joys of long haul driving. I stayed at the Glenmore Pastoral Centre, which was pastoral in the sense of being a retreat for Christian meditation as well as a conference center and in the sense of being way out in the sticks, both of which senses I had somehow failed to grasp while I was booking it. It was very nice though and quiet (except for some animal that kept making a sound like hot water radiators make when they heat up or cool down—this intermittent ping-ping-ping sound). I crashed immediately, got up, showered, gave up any plans for a dinner out on the town and went back to sleep off and on until morning. When I finally levered myself out of bed and showered and repacked, it was a few hours until the bus so I got a cab into town with a guy who showed me why “yehbo” (sp?) was such a catchphrase, where I learned that it was not really stereotypical to see women carrying things on their heads (Larry!) and where I learned that life, though difficult, has certainly gotten better in South Africa and that there is a good deal of hope. As my second cab driver pointed out, black people all over (including those recovering from Katrina) know what it is to go through hard times and continue on with life, because that’s just what has to be done. I also managed to see a bit of the Old Courthouse Museum (with an odd assortment of vintage and traditional costumes, model cars and ships, and replicas of turn-of-the-century businesses) as well as the KwaMuhle Museum (which had excellent explanations of the apartheid era “Durban System” and those who fought against it, as well as information on places of historical note in Durban such as Grey Street). I nearly missed my bus because of the museum outing but managed to make it just in time, thanks to my cab driver. A quick trip through the green and misty countryside and I was in Pietermaritzburg, where I was collected by Prof. Walter deMilliano and got a lovely welcome by everyone, including Ms. Lesley Brown and Ms. Fee deStadler, two of the staff at ACCI who helped plan my visit. I was distressed to hear that Ms. Beulah John, the scientific information specialist at ACCI and another one of the primary planners of my visit, was still ill but I’m hoping that I’ll get a chance to talk with her at least before I go. The folks at ACCI have set out a great schedule, where I’ll get to meet with both the 2004 and 2005 cohorts of students as well as the staff at ACCI and in the university libraries.

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