Sunday, August 19, 2007

POSTCARDS FROM AFRICA - #3 of Michealene Risley's live-blogs from Zimbabwe

Ed. Note: Sincere apologies for the delay in posting this. These blogs were written during the production/filming of TAPESTRIES OF HOPE in Zimbabwe. Between sporadic electricity in Africa and getting to blogs back in California, we lost a couple of days. Afterwards, the crew was arrested and interrogated by the Zimbabwe Police, and the blogs were temporarily taken down out of concern for their safety.

Johannesburg Airport was a wild cornucopia of bright colors and an assortment of people from all over the world. This airport is one of the major hubs on the continent; there was an electric, contagious energy about it. A woman’s voice with a British accent continued talking intermittently on the loudspeakers. “Frankfurt passengers Rigell please report to your departure gate, Paris flight arriving at Gate 75”. The sounds, the languages, and the colors of the native dress were almost overwhelming.

Headscarves, native drums, books on Nelson Mandela were everywhere. A collective pride echoed through the terminals. You could not walk ten feet within the airport without an employee that was ready to help you. The airport staff wore these vests over their clothing, with a faint glow from the yellow reflection tape; the kind of vests we might see on traffic workers in the United States.

Everywhere I walked, people actively asked where you were going. Two women had just come back from a Safari in Zimbabwe. They had hand-carved walking canes, with the signature of their maker, Jobu, at the end of the stick. There were lion teeth marks, as well! Both women lifted the sticks to show me the teeth marks. Apparently, the lions liked to chew on the sticks when people would take their walks. I could not imagine how that actually worked, but nonetheless it fueled my imagination.

One tall young man asked me if I was to go hunting in Zimbabwe. No, I nodded, surprised that I could consider this option. I asked, “What would they do with the carcass after it is shot?” He shrugged, “I do not know, but after you shoot the lion, you take a picture.”

After almost two days of traveling, we finally boarded the last plane for Harare. The plane was small and somewhat empty. I immediately noticed the difference in the atmosphere on the plane as we prepared for landing. As we descended, I looked out the window of the plane and noticed barely any lights; no skyline, not even a sunset. Compared to the tall skyscrapers and the “scene” of Johannesburg, this was quite a shift. It felt like we had just left Downtown Oz, and slid into a bad B-movie. I could physically feel the change as well.

My assistant Lauren and I looked at each other a bit nervously. When we departed the plane, again there were many airport employees in yellow traffic vests, but no one was smiling. Each of them lined up against the wall - suspicion their only form of greeting. At this point, I began to question my own sanity. Of course, I would not go to a country that was not safe...I thought.

When I went through immigration the woman asked me “whom are you visiting.” I quietly said “Betty.” The worker looked up, “Betty Who?” I said “Betty Makoni,” hesitantly, not sure if that response would land me in jail. She said, “The one that does the Girl Child Network?” “Yes” I nodded solemnly. She nodded and let me through.

After discovering one bag of luggage was missing we filed a claim, and immediately went out to meet Betty. She had her hair curled up, looking quite glamorous, and beside her was her husband, Ivan. Ivan loaded the luggage in their car. Like England, we left the airport driving on the left side of the road, something that always takes getting use to. The streets were deserted. Betty said, “It is like a graveyard here; no one is about because of the fear. It was more than deserted; there was a palpable damper in the air.

Betty reiterated that we are safe. She has constant protection with her, probably the best in the country. “I have been under surveillance from the government for at least three years”, she said. I anxiously look back over my shoulder.

Investigative reporter, I am not.

More soon...

Michealene Risley


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