Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 16, 2004. Kruger staff.

Lucy is the director of tourism for Kruger. So excited about her park! She fumed and ranted and sputtered about how everything had to be up to standard, the visitors to the transfrontier park must not find anything that didnít live up to the Kruger name. She charms and flirts and smiles and all but stamps her feet in indignation at the thought that anyone else might do something that would make her park look bad. And her elephants, she was so sad to see them be taken across the border to Mozambique, even though she knew it had to happen and it would all work out for the best. Like a mother sending her child off to school for the first time, or seeing him leave for college. She knew it was good for the park for her elephants to go to Mozambique, but the grin on her face when she told me that they all returned the next day lit up the room. She schemes and plots to bring people to her park, has plans for a Cairo-Kruger connection, and worries that Mozambique wonít keep Limpopo up to her standards. Toilets, thatís the key thing. They must be clean, must not get clogged, plenty of toilet paper, trash where it belongs, soap by the sinks. The tourists wonít come back if the toilets arenít as clean in Limpopo as they are in Kruger. Everyone I mentioned that to in the other countries nodded sagely in agreement. Toilets are very important for national parks.

Absen is the director of finance and administration for the southern region of Kruger. He told me how the regions work, about cost centers and staff and finances. But then he told me about South Africa. He spoke of teen-aged life in his rural village, fathers working in Johannesburg, children left to grow up in the streets, protesting, being tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets and sent to jail. That was their life, not school or dates or fights with parents. He was 18 at the first elections, he could vote for Mandela and the ANC. He spoke of Mandela with awe and reverence. In Zimbabwe someone said ďthe South Africans, they act like Mandela is a god.Ē It's true. Absen asked who had that stature among blacks in the United States. No one. Not black or white or any other color, not male or female. Mandela is in a class by himself.

Absen asked whether life in the US is like what he sees on television Ė mostly on music videos. So I told him about the United States. About race relations, at least what I see of them, about social class, and about embittered black people for whom doing well in school and getting ahead and improving their lives means acting white and is a betrayal of their own culture. He talked about black empowerment and training and systems for recognizing skills that have not been acknowledged in the past. He said South African blacks want to get ahead, and the problem is creating the opportunity. He didnít quite understand the resentment that characterizes racial tension in the United States, nor why things would be so difficult when US laws have never been as restrictive as they were in South Africa. His phone kept ringing, he kept telling people he had a visitor and would call them back in half an hour. At half past six I finally took my leave, already he had to phone the Skukuza gate so they would let me back into camp. It was an unexpected pleasure to be able to ask all those questions so freely. I wish I had asked more Ė whether blacks in South Africa think things are working, whether the country will blow up over land reform, whether they risk falling into the different dilemmas of the US or Zimbabwe. So many things to understand, so little opportunity.

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