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Under the Big African Sky, part 1

I love to travel, to see how others live. How they are the same, how they are different. How they eat, not least of all. I’m thrilled by names, places, people, animals, transportation. A tiny international airport in Zambia where they hand-write the tickets and cats wander the waiting area.

I spent four days roughing it in the five-million-acre Kruger National Park in the province of Mpumalanga, “the place where the sun comes out.” It’s fun just to SAY Mpumalanga.

And our guide, Nick–probably worried when he saw two blonde American women–warned us that his motto is, “TIA.” Or, THIS IS AFRICA. Rough translation, don’t even think about whining. My own version of it, when I’d see something crazy, was, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”

We met lots of Africans, and not one who had ever been off the continent. Their mouths would gape open with astonishment when I described to them that the week before I got to 95-degree Africa, I was skiing in snow waist-deep. I told them it’s so cold where I live that the hairs in your nose freeze, so you have to wiggle your nose to break up the ice. And your breath makes a frozen vapor cloud. They can’t imagine it.

One asked me, incredulously, “How can the children write in school? Aren’t their fingers stiff?” Central heat (or AC), of course, is something they’ve never experienced.

In the village of Muukuni, 7,000 people live, the vast majority without jobs. No electricity, no running water, no internet. The women carry water in pots on their head. The only junk food I saw was a little hanging stand at the entrance to the village–but only the occasional tourist who visits buys it–and apparently not much, since the vendor’s bags of potato chips were sun-faded.

In my world travels (23 countries on 4 continents the past 4 years), I’ve found few places untainted by Western culture. Even rural Vietnam and China had far too much processed food. The ONLY places on Earth that don’t have processed foods are the places where the people have virtually no access to cash.

Muukuni Village is one of those rarities. The vast majority of families have zero income, and there is no government aid. Unfortunately, they also have leprosy, extreme poverty, and a high mortality rate. The chief can be put to death if the Council decrees so, and once they decided to poison the chief. When he didn’t die, they buried him alive.

My guide, Lumba Simulube, told me her large family was orphaned in 1996 when her father died of a nosebleed. Since you don’t generally die of that, they assume he died of a hex his brother put on him.

Only four in the village own a car–for commercial purposes.

There are things I like about village life. For instance, there is zero crime. Maybe that’s because everyone is poor (so who would you steal from?). But part of it has to be this: look at the photos of the community jail. While I was standing next to it, a couple of young men were escorted in by the village elders. They are questioned, and they are caned by an old woman, only if they refuse to be accountable for their actions. Look at all the kids gathering around–it’s rare that anyone needs discipline, so the kids were fascinated.

The crimes of these youth?

They are referred by parents if they use bad language, disrespecting elders, or refusing to do their jobs.

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