Thursday, October 28, 2010

Adapting to Change

Transitions are formidable because the rules change from place to place. How one operates, interacts; what is acceptable, what not. For the most part, the rules are not written, so one sails uncharted seas for a while.

Quelimane didn’t boast a single traffic light.

Harare has a plethora of traffic lights, about half of which don’t have electricity at any given moment. When the energy is off the challenge begins. The four-way-stop is unknown here, so each motorist develops a style. Some are inchers, some are blusterers, and some just figure they have the right of way and everyone had better stop for them. Some have accidents. I catch myself trying to route my trip where the electricity might be on.

Intersections provide another risk: blind begging must be profitable at the busiest corners because blind people led by small children walk up and down the white dashes between cars when the light is red. When it is green, they just stop between lanes (not on the median strip) and wait. Crossroads are also popular vending places and one can buy cell phone credit, newspapers and blow up beach toys at most busy lights. If a transaction hasn’t been completed, the entire line of cars waits while the vendor fiddles for change.

Quelimane is not blessed with parking lots, as the Portuguese pretty much built everything very close together. So parking is done on the street and people weave among parked cars. Harare has parking lots wherever there are stores. And vendors populate most parking lots. One hot afternoon while I waited for Phil to find a saw in a hardware store I was approached by vendors to buy: strawberries, brooms, a reflective triangle, steering wheel covers, window awnings, fly swatters, electric fans, knife sets, and spray bottles. All in only 15 minutes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the market for any of these items but the strawberries.

Let me not forget the policemen. They are ubiquitous on Zimbabwean roads, but especially in the city. On a 10-minute trip to drop Phil off, I passed three police roadblocks. They are particularly interested in the stickers on the windshield, reflective triangles (hence the vendors), reflective vests, and fire extinguishers: all required by Zimbabwean law.

Such are the vagaries of crossing a simple African border.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Culture Shock

Tremors deep under the surface send shock waves through solid rock and the earth quakes. Buildings sway, shelves teeter, books and living paraphernalia scatter everywhere. Things disconnect, solid things seem liquid, nothing is where it was.

No matter how many years you live overseas, culture shock can creep up and blindside you. The more “acclimated” you are, the less likely you are to beware. We knew that life was different in Zim, but we thought we were used to “Africa.” That big, dark continent that confounds aid and relief organizations and has absorbed countless missionaries.

Moving to Zimbabwe has been a “step up.” Although we read tragic stories of deterioration since 1980 (independence), Zimbabwe still has vestiges of being a developed country: supermarkets, used car lots, hospitals and clinics, schools with pools and immense sports grounds, hardware stores with hardware, roads in pretty good condition, traffic signals (which work when electricity is on), internet cafes (ditto), landscaped parks, lovely homes with pools and gardens.

There are elements which reflect years of neglect and deliberate exploitation: erratic power because the bills are not paid to countries of production, use of the US dollar and SA rand because the Zim dollar could not survive the inflation it generated, prices 5 to 10 times the value of the items, police randomly pulling drivers over for imagined offenses.

We have the added mix of moving to a city probably five times larger than Quelimane. A new language (Shona), a new culture (not all African cultures are alike), a new map, new transport (our bikes are out of the question for “getting” there), new people to get to know, a new ministry. It gets a bit overwhelming at times. But it’s part of the price you pay to be where you believe you should be, doing what you trust you should be doing.