by Eddie Cross
Africa has a bug. It’s never been identified, has no name but all who have lived in Africa know it exists and that they might have it. Somehow it never leaves you once you're infected and no matter where you go - it never lets you go altogether. At this time of the year I just love the wild open spaces that are called the bushveld. It is difficult to describe to someone who has never seen it, but all who have can instantly recall what it is like. It’s October - yesterday it was 40 degrees Celsius in the shade and everything is dry and bleached. The tall grass is either burnt or white and the trees are either carrying a full flush of new leaves or are bare and still. Arriving at the edge of an escarpment, you crest a rise and there it is - stretching out to the horizon. Grey, harsh, beautiful! It is not an easy land - it's full of strong contrasts and it is not forgiving. The soils are varied and are both rich and poor; rainfall is limited and then only for about 4 or 5 months a year. Nights are cool, early mornings fresh and crisp and the days hot with deep blue skies stretching as far as the eye can see. The long dry winter is followed by the violent storms of summer, rain on parched ground, that smell of the first rains on the dry earth, the flights of flying ants.
The nights are very special - the Milky Way blazing across the sky lit by millions of stars. The yellow moon rising above the Earth and the springtime roar of the frogs, crickets and night birds. The flowering trees - the Knob Thorn with its mop of dense yellow flowers and thick scent. The new leaves of the Mountain Acacia and Msasa colored from deep burgundy to light green, the splash of green as the wild figs and the Pod Mahogany comes out. The cicada beetles in the Mopani veld.
The anticipation of the rains and with it new life makes this landscape very special as it teems with all sorts of life. Hundreds of different species of trees and shrubs, birds and animals - not forgetting the insect life. The spectacles we often see - millions of Rose Beetles coming out at night. The splashes of red from the many varieties of aloes and the Erythrina. By comparison, the countryside in more gentle climes may be green and lush, but they have little of the character and lure of the African Bushveld. The rivers, raging torrents in the summer, slow hot streams in the winter on wide beds of sand and stone. The long deep pools that hold all sort of threats - crocodiles, hippo and disease. The splash of the many varieties of fish from the famous Tiger to the grey Vundu.
Such country also breeds different kinds of people; perhaps Namibia is the best example of this with the proud Herero, the tall German/Afrikaners, the Sen and the people of the Namib. But in Zimbabwe we have the Tonga, wonderful people who have lived on the flood plains of the Zambezi for centuries, The Venda of the Limpopo Valley - gentle people with great wisdom and a penchant for laughter. I have a special place for the older people in the Bushveld, the deep furrows of time and the wisdom and humor in their eyes. Somehow the cynicism and shallowness of the modern world has missed them. They are deeply embedded in their land - unlike many of us who are just tourists and bystanders. To be among them is to be instantly at home, welcome and free and respected, always to come away with a small gift - no matter how poor your hosts might be. Their dignity in rags, the hats with no crowns, the rough hands callused by years of hard manual work. The clinking of the cow bells on the oxen and donkeys as they forage for something to eat.
Some years ago I visited a Zimbabwean, who had reached the pinnacle of success in Germany, married a German girl and had settled in Munich. He told me that he had been to see the film "Jock of the Bushveld" and had felt deep emotions when he had heard the call of the Emerald-spotted Dove and had seen the dust rising from the feet of the cattle in the film. He said, after 20 years in Europe he could still smell the Lowveld and many times longed to feel the hot African sun on his arms and head.
Many look at us and ask why we stay? No fuel, high prices, corrupt government, no freedom of speech and a daily diet of racism directed at all who are not drawn from the ruling elite and the tribe. Why do we battle on - fighting a cause which many say is not ours? Are we not aliens in a hostile world? Then we travel to Europe and we discover that that is in fact where we are alien, to the US and find that we are strangers. We come home and find that we have more affinity to the people here than anywhere else. This is our home in every way and we are right to fight for a better life for all the people who live here. Africa is only the "hopeless continent" because of leadership. We can help change that and so we fight on. This week we see that Blair's "African Commission" is meeting in Ethiopia. I sigh with despair as I hear them talk about debt relief and aid. These are not solutions - they may in fact simply make the situation worse.
Do you want to know why we Africans are poorer than we were 25 years ago? Just look at Zimbabwe. Give us aid – you might as well pour water on the desert sand. Erase our debt – you achieve little except to secure the balance sheets of the multilateral institutions that in many respects are partially responsible for our troubles and then invite a fresh round of State borrowing for all the wrong things.
No, what we need is real democracy. The freedom to vote for whom we think will solve our problems best and if they don't – freedom to throw them out when they fail. What we need is responsible and accountable leadership – in our villages, towns and cities and in our State House. We look at the failure this week of the Asian countries to agree on a plan of action to force the Military Junta in Burma to give the people their rights and we sigh with frustration. How long must we wait for the world to wake up to the real nature of such regimes and the plight of those who live under such dictatorships?
But for those of us who live under Mugabe - we have the Bushveld into which we flee when the atmosphere in the political jungle becomes just too oppressive or the problems in our factories cloud our horizons. After a week on the Zambezi river or the lake, or a few days of hunting or simply a break away to a national park, we come back refreshed and with a renewed determination to see that we eventually win this war and see our beloved country given a fresh start.