Thoughts on Africa…

About a week and a half ago I returned home from a family vacation to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia and I am finally getting around to writing up a few words about the trip.  A vacation like this was, for me, one of those once in a lifetime vacations… Having the opportunity to travel with my family, (mom, dad, and sister) at the ages we are, and with all the things we have going on in our lives, was a blessing that most families will never have.  For a photographer this trip was a dream come true… I mean, what other vacation would my entire family get up at sunrise, hop in a 4 wheel drive truck, and look for animals eating other animals when the light is just perfect?!?!  Africa is one of those surreal places… its one of those places you sort of imagine what it would be like, and then you get there and it is everything you had pictured in your head (thanks to movies like Madagascar and the Lion King, duhh!!!) and yet vastly different at the same time.  There are cultural, economic, and social differences that could not be more contrasting to what we experience here in the states.

In South Africa, remnants  of the aparthide era (legal racial segregation) still run quietly through the social structure.  Learning about the transformation Nelson Mandela created for the people, and the impossible kindness he demonstrated towards his enemies, for me, seemed to relate so closely to the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. but only 15-20 years ago.  Consistently we heard direct and personal accounts of how he had brought a sense of hope, pride, and empowerment to the black population that had previously been so limited by white governments.  The experience of talking to these people who had so recently endured these historical moments was a funny position to be in… I could only listen and try to appreciate and understand something that I could in no way relate to.  There was never a moment where I could say, “Ohh yeah, I totally know what you are talking about.”

Later in our travels we came up to a border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe… as we hopped back into our cars after getting through customs, a local man cam up and was flashing a Zimbabwe dollar bill that read 100 TRILLION dollars, yes, a one followed by  14 zeros or, $100,000,000,000,000.  He was selling this 100 trillion dollar bill for $5 US which was good for a laugh.  “Souvenir, Souvenir!!!” he said, trying to coax us to purchase the bill from him.  Only later did I understand how sad this actually was.  In Zimbabwe over the last 20 years they have experienced one of the worst economic collapses in the world, under the rule of a tyrannical dictator, Robert Mugabe.  The people of Zimbabwe experienced inflation of their currency in the BIlLIONS of % in less than a few years.  People who were millionaires, were almost instantly penniless as the value of the Zimbabwe currency dropped like a rock.  Political corruption, massacres of populations, control of the media, and falsified elections run through the veins of everyday life in Zimbabwe, and this is not 50 years ago, this is now… this is today that these things are going on.  For us Americans, we are pretty much in the dark about the whole thing.  I had never heard of Mugabe.  Had no idea.

So, while I had a great time traveling Africa, and seeing the exotic offerings of a totally different and unique landscape… it was sobering to learn of the realities that exist in the cultures of these countries.  Many of the residens of Africa live off less than $2/day.  When a server, who is considered to have a very high end job, would ask, “What can I get for you sir?” I could not help but want to ask him or her to sit down, take a break, and let me go get something for them.  As Americans we have so much at our disposal… knowledge, money, power, food, access to health care, you name it… and to not share it with those in need was somewhat discomforting.  Consistently having black locals, waiting on rich white people with new safari shirts from REI and hiking boots with the taggs still on, kept me thinking this is what it must have been like in the South 50 years ago.

If I were to do it again, I would want to get involved in some sort of project where I could give back, and actively participate in something that might educate, inspire, or enable the local people towards a better life.  Coming as a tourist, and looking through a pair of binoculars at a struggling population and not actually getting my hands dirty just seemed somewhat unfulfilling.  Please dont get me wrong… it was an amazing trip, but in terms of having a fulfilling experience, I think there is room to do it differently.

So… that was my honest experience… and like any photographer would do, I took a ton of photos, and had some totally unique encounters with prides of lions, herds of elephants, troops of Baboons, and Towers of Giraffe.  Those stories will have to be told in person, but in the mean time… here are a few of my favorite pics of what makes Africa a beautiful place to visit.

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