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Lake of Stars could be even better


I’ve dedicated two previous blog pieces to what was cool about the Lake of Stars experience. Now in this final instalment, I’ll dish out some constructive criticism.  Here are three ways it could be even be better:

#1 Make it easier to get there

The big problem here is that flights, much like bandwidth, are still too expensive across Africa. A flight from Johannesburg to Blantyre costs R5,100. You know where else you could fly with that money? Milan.

There is hope though. 1Time has announced that it will offer flights to Kenya this year at a cheap R1,619. SAA currently offers the same flight at the might-as-well-fly-to-New-York -and-back price of R8,338. Hopefully we’ll see cheaper flights to East and West Africa in the next few years.

At half the price of a plane ticket, the festival organised a special bus from Johannesburg, but only two festival-goers made use of this. I was one of them. It was a trip full of highlights and trouble, but never dull.

I hope they don’t cancel the bus this year. If organized and promoted properly, it could become a jolly, music-filled bus ride,  similar to the MK Avontoer.

On the local level, transport could also be easier between the resorts in Mangochi .  If your lodging wasn’t at the festival site, getting home at night was tricky and unreliable. An hourly shuttle service could solve this.


#2 Make it easier to spend money

If you’re running a business, one of the things you don’t want is a shortage of ATMs and credit card facilities. There was only one ATM at the festival and when it inevitably stopped working, the only other ATM for miles was in town. To get to town, you’d have to pay for a taxi. So if you happened to be broke, as most ATM-seekers are, you’d find yourself in a proper Catch-22.

The only place I could find where you could pay for food or drink with a credit card was the Nkopola restaurant.  And even they treated a credit card transaction like a strange and inconvenient custom. Paying took a long time, and you had to do it at the front desk. Once the payment went through, a letter, not a receipt, was printed out for you to formally sign. It ultimately became amusing, something to joke about with the receptionist.


#3 Make it like Ibiza

Wait, hear me out first. I’m not suggesting it should imitate Ibiza’s electronic dance music or its island-of-vice reputation.  Lake of Stars should strive to have the cultural significance of Ibiza. In the same way Ibiza incubated the Balearic Beat in the 80s, Malawi could be the playground of an emerging sound. It could be a place where musicians showcase new material, learn from one another and compete. Sometimes, isolation breeds innovation. We’ve seen influential music scenes develop in peripheral places like Seattle, Manchester and Bellville. Let Mangochi be the next.


Videos from Malawi


Earlier this week I shared the best moments of the trip to Lake of Stars with you. Here are some video clips I recorded there and on the way back.

At the start of the clip, you’ll see the nice breakfast I got every morning. One of the best aspects of the meals I got in Malawi is that it almost always included these round chips that look like banana slices. Unlike the starch-paste chips you’re served everywhere in South Africa except for Steers, these Malawi chips are made from potatoes, albeit small ones.

I was walking around town and came across this shop called Vampire Electronics. Most of the shop signs I saw were painted and included an extended list of every service they offer. While I was taking a clip of the sign, the owner called me inside. Here he explains why he called his shop Vampire Electronics. Warning: content on the small screen may offend sensitive viewers.

This girl, who said her name was Fanny, wanted to sing her Chichewa translation of the hit from The Bodyguard to me .

The Chinese Cultural Delegation’s performance was one of the pleasant surprises at Lake of Stars. It was interesting seeing these cultural ambassadors, considering China’s increasing involvement in Malawi. The impression that I got from speaking to Malawians is that cross-cultural relations between the two countries require some work. One guy in the crowd kept shouting “You’re bad in bed” in Chichewa during the performance. Others, who were more jovial, shouted “Fank you!”

After Lake of Stars was over, we needed to find a cheap way to get from Mangochi to Blantyre, a distance of approximately 200 km.  We took this minibus taxi, which played some good tunes.

On our way to Malawi, a Mozambican official stopped our bus right after we crossed the bridge over the Zambezi. He wanted to arrest one of the passengers for not wearing a shirt. On our way back we were stopped at the same spot. This time the official wanted to arrest a woman because she did not look enough like her passport photo. I sneaked a recording of it. You’ll see at the end of the clip that the bus driver manages to lure him away by promising to buy him a drink.


The video clips were recorded with the Nokia N8. I hadn’t used it much since I won it at TEDx Cape Town, but it became a trusted companion on this trip thanks to its Carl Zeiss lens and long battery life.

Trip to Lake of Stars

There’s this bit in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink where he talks about doctors who get sued for malpractice. You’d expect doctors who make the most mistakes to get sued the most, but a study found that that’s not the case. Some doctors who make lots of mistakes never get sued. The reason is that they spend more time talking to the patients, say things like “Go on, tell me more” and were more likely to be funny. So blundering doctors can avoid malpractice suits simply by being nice.

I think the same thing happened on my trip to Lake of Stars. Even though I got to the festival 12 hours late, had to find my own way from Mangochi to Blantyre and got home a day later than expected, it was never unpleasant. Malasha Bus Company were responsible for these hitches, attributable to teething problems and miscommunication with Jambo Africa. But because the Malasha staff, specifically Memory , was just so darn nice and helpful, I’d do it again.

I’m not going to recount the whole trip as a story. I’ll rather just give you the five best moments:


1) At the Malasha office, I befriended Chris. He cleans the busses but says he wants to become a driver. He accompanied me to the nearest shop to buy fruit and liquids. When we stepped out of the shop, Chris looked down the street and said the bus was gone. He told me we must make our way West to Park Station. I was skeptical. He seemed like the type of guy I could trust, but I was an out-of-towner that could easily be misled. He could see my doubt, and begged me to trust him.

It’s a strange situation, one that I’ve also been on the other side of. You know you’re trustworthy, but you realise the other person sees you differently because they don’t know you. My belongings got stolen one night in Stellenbosch and a number of people I went to for help thought I was a con artist. It’s tricky and unpleasant because the more you insist the more suspicious they become.

Luckily someone from the Malasha office phoned and told us the bus just went to the petrol station and that I should return. So Chris made the wrong assumption but I felt bad for distrusting him.


2) The most unpleasant parts of the trips were the borders. The first one was the Zimbabwean border at Beitbridge which we reached after sunset. In one of the queues where we had to get our passports stamped it was going slow-dull as usual. Then, a passport flew across the table with cash falling from it. I realised that a woman behind me tried to bribe her way in and that the official tossed it in anger. She stood there awkwardly not knowing what to do. It was the first of many border fiascos.


3) The long stretch to Harare was done during the night, so most of us slept through it. But there was a moment at around 2am when the bus swerved rapidly and most of us got shook awake. I woke up and assumed I was about to die. I uttered the same “woaaaah!” that I do involuntarily when I’m on the Cobra. The bus stabilized, but I spent the next few hours thinking about whether busses flip and to which side.


4) While Zimbabwe was green and pretty, it felt like Mozambique was all about corruption and extortion. At each border post a passenger was targeted and held until a bribe was paid. It was absurd at times. Right after we crossed the bridge over the Zambezi, an official jumped on board and wanted to arrest a passenger for being without a shirt. The official had to shout and act like a grievous crime had been committed in order to ultimately get his bribe. I realised he was, in a sense, a performer who had to act for money. On the way back we were stopped at the same spot by an official who tried to extort a bribe from a woman who he claimed didn’t resemble her passport photo.


5) Once inside Malawi, we passed through a town that was experiencing a power failure. As either a coincidence or a gesture of solidarity, all the lights in the bus went off. We drifted through the town and passed a night market where people were playing pool by candlelight.


Somalis in Bellville

If boerewors, Afrikaans, Ford Cortinas and bad taste come to mind when I say “Bellville”, you might be surprised to hear that that an estimated 5000 Somalis now live in its downtown area. The Bellville CBD at the bottom end of Durban Road is home to the largest Somali refugee community in South Africa.

Not much has been written about this cluster of traders that settled here over the last ten years. The few news stories that have appeared this year depict them in different ways.  This Rapport article lists the reasons why local homeowners want to take the municipality to court. The city council, they say, need to apply laws to the Somalis to stop their illegal mosque, the encroachment on residential areas and the rise in crime. It’s a bleak picture, wherein the Somalis are the cause of Bellville’s degeneration.

This article portrays Bellville as a sanctuary for Somalis after the xenophobic attacks that caused many to flee the townships. Shop owners enjoy business freedom here and one young man is quoted saying “it’s better than anywhere else in Cape Town”.

The best reporting on the issue I’ve seen so far is this Die Burger article by Jackie Pienaar-Brink. It uses the personal history of one refugee, Yusuf Omar Achmed, to show how and why Somalis come here. Achmed explains that he was a school principal back in Mogadishu, studying for a degree in business administration when Ethiopian troops invaded his country in 2006.

The journalist also speaks to locals who say that some of the recent arrivals are ill-mannered but that most of the Somalis traders are peaceful entrepreneurs and good costumers. One local woman goes so far as to say that the Somalis are like “boeremense”.

Our distrust of outsiders blinds us to the valuable contribution that refugees can make to the local economy. People seem to forget that the French Huguenots, the ancestors of Afrikaans families like the Coetzees, De Villiers, Nels, Marais, Le Rouxs and Jouberts also came to the Cape as refugees. They fled religious persecution in Europe and settled here where they could practice their faith without fear.  By 1730 they were known as the most hard-working community at the Cape.

New York was built by immigrants. Italians Jews came to America to make a better life for themselves, faced hardship and discrimination but came to play an important part in the country’s development in the 20th century. If you want to know more about the contribution immigrants make to America’s economy as a key source of entrepreneurs and graduates, read this article.

Of course, the reason why immigrants are so successful isn’t because people from other countries are inherently superior. The immigration process seems to act as a filter. Getting to another country by foot or scholarship is difficult. It’s like a sieve that only lets driven and resourceful people through.


A city like Bellville, perceived to be boringly monocultural, could benefit from such immigrants. I recently spoke to a young architect who grew up in downtown Bellville but now lives in Cape Town. His parents still stay in the area and though he has fond memories of walking along Voortrekker Road to the public swimming pool, he says he wouldn’t live there now because it’s just too dull.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida argues that cities that want to succeed in the information age need to appeal to the young, bright and creative rather than large companies. When Florida says “creative” he doesn’t mean “artistic”. His definition of the creative class includes scientists, writers, engineers, entertainers, opinion-makers and designers. To attract these people, says Florida, a city has to display an openness to different kinds of people and ideas.

Bellville’s problem is that its cultural capital is draining away. It’s aging. If it wants to curb this trend it could take a cue from cities like Austin, Texas and aim to become a multicultural, high tech city.

Until then, it can start by figuring out how to manage and include its Somali community. Minneapolis, whose Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood is known as “Little Somalia” provides an example. The ADC initiates social ventures in that city like this deli that serves Somali foods like sambusas, spicy Afrosteak and chicken fantastic.  I’d like to see businesses like that in Voortrekker Road. A Somali festival in the tradition of kerkbasaars could be held in the Danie Uys Park. It might just get a few Capetonians to drive up the N1 and change those outdated stereotypes.