Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas in Africa

Christmas is celebrated throughout the African continent by Christian communities large and small. There are approximately 350 million Christians in Africa. On Christmas day carols are sung from Ghana on down to South Africa. Meats are roasted, gifts are exchanged and family visits made. The Coptic Christians in Ethiopia and Egypt celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December in their calendar, which is the 7th of January for most of the rest of us. Kwanzaa is not celebrated in Africa, as it's an African-American holiday. And unless you're in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, there's little chance of anyone enjoying a white Christmas in Africa. Even in some of Africa's predominantly Muslim countries, Christmas is still marked for celebration. In Dakar, Senegal's capital, hawkers are happy to sell plastic trees and inflatable santas. "While secularism may mean elsewhere that each person is free to celebrate his or her own holidays, many in Senegal have interpreted it to mean they should celebrate all holidays."

Those who can afford it will generally give gifts at Christmas but the holiday is not nearly as commercial as it is in Europe or the Americas. The emphasis is more on the religious aspect of celebrating the birth of Jesus and singing in church, than it is on gift giving. The most common thing bought at Christmas is a new set of clothes to be worn to the church service. Many Africans are too poor to be able to afford presents for their kids and there aren't too many toy stores in rural Africa to shop at anyway. If gifts are exchanged in poorer communities they usually come in the form of school books, soap, cloth, candles and other practical goods.

As in most Christian cultures, celebrating Christmas dinner with friends and family tops the list after attending church. In most countries Christmas is a public holiday and people take the opportunity to visit friends and family. In East Africa goats are quickly snapped up at the local markets and roasted on Christmas day. In South Africa the sun is hot and the beaches are full of families enjoying braais (bbq's) or traditional Christmas dinners with paper hats, mince pies, turkey and plum pudding (a vestige of the British colonial legacy.) In Ghana Christmas dinner is not complete without fufu and okra soup and in Liberia rice, beef and biscuits are the order of the day. Zimbabweans make sure there's plenty of bread, jam and tea to eat along with their goat meat.

Decorating shop fronts, mango trees, churches and homes is common throughout African Christian communities. You may see fake snow decorating store fronts in Nairobi, palm trees laden with candles in Ghana, or oil palms loaded with bells in Liberia.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Etiquette while on Safari

In the middle of Africa, things run very differently from at home. It’s very important to be sensitive to your surroundings, both cultural and environmental – not only will it make your safari experience more enjoyable, but it will also have substantially less impact on the animals you’re viewing and your hosts.

Here are some tips for anyone going on safari:

  • Be as quiet possible at all times (this is extra important if you’re considering taking small children on safari). Avoid making any noise that will attract or frighten wildlife.
  • Be as unobtrusive as possible: wear the neutral coloured clothing (khaki, white, light brown) while walking in the bush.
  • Dress and behave respectfully to avoid offending local people.
  • Do not litter – everything you carry in you must carry out. Aside from the environmental damage, litter can be harmful to the wildlife. Waste disposal can be difficult in remote areas – remove all unnecessary packaging before you travel.
  • Don’t encourage your guide to take you too close to the animals or to change the driving route; they will feel pressured. Remember that they are the professionals and know best.
  • Never pick plants and flowers.
  • Obey all game laws and regulations, and respect the fact that your guide must also obey these rules.
  • Do not buy or trade for any articles covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). These include ivory, turtle products, rhino horn, furs, butterflies and many plant species.

  • Support the community by buying locally crafted souvenirs. Haggling is expected, but be aware that what may seem to be a very small sum to you can make a big difference to a local, so don’t force them into reducing their prices too drastically.
  • If you wish to make a charitable donation – such as writing equipment for students – it’s better to give through a local organisation or school, as handing things out on the street encourages begging.
  • As a courtesy, ask before you take a picture of someone, but think twice if they request payment.
  • Be aware that water is a scarce resource in many places, so use it very sparingly. Sign up to Tourism Concern’s WET pledge to support the organisation’s campaign to ensure water rights are protected.

By observing these suggestions (many of which are simply common sense), you’ll find yourself at ease with locals and your surroundings. Avoiding tension or embarrassment with the locals, and respecting the animals and their habitat will mean that your safari holiday is a better experience for all involved.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mopane Worms - Nutritious and Delicious?

The Boma restaurant is a classic tourist venue set in the lovely grounds of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Dinner at the Boma is a legendary affair, with what looks like literally hundreds of local dishes served in buffet style, including impala terrine and sadza. A witchdoctor is available to tell your fortune by throwing his bones; dancers entertain with Shona and Ndebele acts; and then ... there's the vat of Mopane worms.

Most people who enjoy Mopane worms obviously do not get certificates when they eat a solitary grub. Normally, you'll see huge bags of dried and/or smoked Mopane worms in local markets throughout rural Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia. They're greyish looking when dried (after their green guts have been squeezed out) and at first glance you might think they're a bean of some kind.

Mopane worms get their English name from hanging out on Mopane trees which are prevalent in Southern Africa. And they are not worms, but caterpillars, the larvae of the Emperor Moth. The best time to harvest them is when they are at maximum plumpness, late in their larval stage and before they bury themselves in order to re-appear as an Emperor moth. The Mopane worms like the Mopane tree, but they also feed off mango trees and other bushes. They are a seasonal delicacy, but you can also buy cans of Mopane worms soaked in brine in some local supermarkets. I looked around in vain for them at local Spars and Shoprites -- but failed to find them on my last trip to the area. Great souvenir idea I thought.

Mopane (sometimes spelled Mopani) worms are called phane in Botswana, mashonja in Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa, and omangungu in Namibia. Nutritionally they pack a punch consisting of 60% protein along with good amounts of iron and calcium. Since they require little input in the way of resources, it has become a valuable and profitable source of food and income. In South Africa it is a muli-million Rand industry. I heard complaints about the smaller size of mopane in a rural market in Livingstone, Zambia. Most likely a case of harvesting them too soon. Deforestation and over-harvesting are both issues that are affecting the supply of mopane worms.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Weather in Africa

When you're planning a trip to Africa, knowing when the rainy season or wet season and the dry season falls, helps determine the best time to go. In general, the best time to go on safari is during the dry season because water is scarce and animals will congregate around existing water holes. The grass is lower affording better visibility and the dirt roads are navigable. All of these factors help you enjoy a successful safari. But the heat can be intense depending on where and when you plan to travel. So while cold temperatures are not a huge issue in Africa (although it does snow in some parts), hot weather can make or break your trip.

In some regions the heat during the rainy season is worse than during the dry season because of the added discomfort of humidity. This is especially the case as you get closer to the coast. The weather is unpredictable of course, and rains do fail causing untold hardship to millions of subsistence farmers in Africa. Some years too much rain falls on the parched soil, and floods cause huge damage. In general, the "wet season" means buckets of rain fall from sky for a few hours a day, and then it will go back to being nice and sunny. If you're looking to save some money, traveling during the wet season is the way to go. It's also the best time to see birds and baby animals.

The Rainy and Dry Season in East Africa - The hottest time of year in East Africa is during the dry season from December to March. Northern Tanzania and Kenya experience two rainy seasons, the long rains from April to June and a shorter rain from November to December.

The Rainy and Dry Season in Southern Africa - The dry season in southern Africa is during the cooler months from May - August. The rainy (wet) season is also the hottest time of year in southern Africa, and generally runs from November to March.

Winter and Summer in North Africa - North Africa generally has mild winters (December - February), perfect for visiting tombs and monuments in hot deserts or taking a camel safari in the Sahara. The summer months in North Africa (June - September) are blazing hot. Head to the beaches or mountains if you plan to visit during this time, or make sure your hotel has a pool to cool off in the heat of the day. Summers are usually bone dry.

Winter and Summer in South Africa - South Africa is far south enough from the equator to enjoy a somewhat traditional summer and winter season (although its geography doesn't make this quite so simple). South Africa's summers (November to March) are generally warm with average temperatures around 77 Fahrenheit (25 C).

If you are traveling to the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Madagascar or Reunion, avoid the rainy season January - March because it is also "cyclone" season. Cyclones and hurricanes are extremely rare in The Seychelles.

Friday, October 4, 2013

How to Travel Through Africa?

Africa is the second largest continent, just after Asia. Africa is three times larger than Europe and twice as big as South America. It also has the most border crossings, with 53 countries within its territory. With so much land to cover, traveling through Africa is not an easy endeavor. Although you need to think about convenience and distances to cover, you also have to worry about safety, as many countries in Africa are in turmoil.

Step 1 - Make a list of the places you want to visit beforehand. Some countries require visas in advance, while others will give you a visa when you cross the border, either by land or via an airport. This will affect the way you travel, as you'll need to adapt to the visa regulations.

Step 2 - Fly whenever possible, especially if you need to cover long distances. Carjacking is a common problem in South Africa and other African countries. You also need to worry about bad roads, rebel attacks and other dangers, especially if you're traveling in Central Africa. Flights inside Africa are not expensive, especially if you stick to local airlines.

Step 3 - Hire a car with driver if possible. This is common in East Africa, where the economy is slightly better and private cars are available. Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and other countries are ideal places to have a driver. The roads can be dangerous, and a local driver will know what areas to avoid and the best routes to take.

Step 4 - Use the mini-vans and small buses for local city travel. They're common all over Africa. They might not be the most comfortable or safe for long-distance travel, but they're fine for exploring the city. You'll need to check information on the specific country you're visiting. For example, Ethiopia's public transportation is safe and in better shape than buses in West Africa.

Step 5 - Skip the dangerous countries. You don't want to travel through Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Sudan or Cote d'Ivoire. These countries have had problems with civil wars, rebel fights and violent conflict since the 1980s. If you need to get from Zambia to Uganda, for example, either fly or drive through Tanzania. A drive through Congo might be faster but also much more dangerous.