In those first few days, I wasn’t sure what to make of Madagascar. At the onset of my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer there, I had been dropped in a small village outside of the capital, its lake and pine trees far too similar to the Washington wilderness I’d left behind for me to believe I’d just traveled to the other end of the world.
Hery Zo Rakotondramanana/flickr
But then, I traveled north. Our little bus vibrated from the loud bass in songs by Black Nadia and Tense Mena, and a few hours north of Antananarivo (Tana for short) the country seemed to open up, revealing a vast and dramatic vista of red rolling hills, the pines eventually giving way to palms.
Traveling into a scene that truly felt unfamiliar, I began to fall in love with how dramatically the landscape, people, and nature in Madagascar could change if you just sat on the bus for enough hours. It looks deceptively small on a map next to the enormous continent of Africa, but within its borders, I’d soon discover an infinite amount of adventures.
Meandering up towards Mahajunga, a vibrant coastal town north on the country’s main highway from Tana, we stopped to explore tsingy forests — think of 30-meter-high, grey, porous, rock spikes instead of trees — before ending our trip at a white-sand beach near Diego, eating fresh grilled fish and mangoes while looking out over calm turquoise waters.
Frank Vassen/Wikimedia Commons
To the east, we got lost in lush rain forests filled with a dozen different types of lemurs, miniature chameleons, and delicious tropical fruits. In the west, we wiped the dust off our faces while driving through baobab-dotted deserts, and finally retreated to the cool, rolling hills of the highlands outside Antsirabe — a pleasant, smallish city perfect for discovering traditional Malagasy culture.
But among all of Madagascar’s natural beauty, it was Andringitra, the rugged, lesser-traveled sister park to nearby Isalo, that really captured my heart. It was here that Liz, another volunteer who lived there, and I sat on her porch watching shooting stars fall in front of a shadow of the nearby mountains. It was here that we climbed up a tall rock face, as a playful lemur ran up ahead of us. And here that we hiked to the tallest point on the island, Pic Boby, before returning to our campsite where we would celebrate our accomplishment by drinking moonshine made from sugar cane with our guides.
It’s true that the first thing I loved about Madagascar was its varied, beautiful, and at times otherworldly nature — perhaps the one thing the island is best known for — but it was the people who made me slowly come to feel like the island was home.
It was the petite, motherly juice vendor who lit up every time I came by to buy a bottle of fresh tamarind or guava juice, genuinely curious to hear how I’d been. It was the market women with their colorful lambas wrapped around their waists, haggling over neatly stacked pyramids of tomatoes. They’d warmly laughing when I asked “do you have a gift for me?” then hand over an extra tomato or two. More than anything, there was the notion of “mandrosoa”, a word that translates both as “welcome” and “come join us/me,” that I always loved. Walking down a dirt path, someone would call from their house, or a basketball game, or from their own walk “mandrosoa!” Stranger or friend, I was always welcome, made to feel welcome, among locals — though usually not without a few curious stares and whispers of “vahaza” — a term meaning (white) foreigner.
Of course, Madagascar, like most developing nations, isn’t without its problems. Forbes declared it the worst economy in the world in 2011. Floods recently destroyed parts of Tana. Roads are in various states of decay, teachers are underpaid, and some areas have nothing more than cassava to eat for months on end. Foreign men openly indulge in prostitution, sometimes with underage boys and girls. Chinese corporations illegally harvest rosewood, disrupting natural wildlife habitats, and bandits in the sparsely populated west cause trouble and steal cows — like something out of an old western movie.
Regardless, I never met a Malagasy person who couldn’t rattle off a list of things they loved about their country; things — however simple — they were proud of: organic vegetables, the delicious zebu (a humped cow found throughout the island), music, lambas, the people themselves. Whenever I sat next to a stranger on yet another long and bumpy bus ride, they’d inevitably ask “Mahafinaratra ve i Madagasikara?” (Madagascar’s wonderful, yes?). They seemed hopeful that I, a vahaza, would appreciate their country as they did.
“Mahafinaratra be i Madagasikara,” I would reply. Because that’s the truth: Madagascar is wonderful.
As travel surprises go, you can’t beat Cape Town. Tourists touch down at the airport, clutching their valuables and expecting a wild slice of Africa. The start of the journey into town doesn’t exactly shatter this preconception, as the N2 highway passes the townships of the Cape Flats, with their jumble of shacks, bungalows and state-subsidised ‘Mandela houses’. Groups of scantily clad boys happily kick a football or splash in a rainwater pool, as six lanes of cars surge past – a good example of the rainbow nation’s contrasts between African and Western lifestyles.
Cape Town (Shutterstock)
Then you enter the city proper, perhaps on the mountainside rollercoaster of De Waal Drive, which crosses the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak with Table Bay and the harbour below. Finally, you round a corner and there it is, one of the world’s most iconic sights: Table Mountain. Beneath the cable car climbing to the 1000m-high plateau, well-to-do neighbourhoods pour into the aptly named City Bowl, sloshing up the sides of the sphinx-like Lion’s Head and Signal Hill. As the buildings run towards the sea, they become the towers of the CBD and the market complexes and museums of the V&A Waterfront precinct.
This town between mountains and ocean is unarguably one of the world’s most beautiful, from the fynbos growing on Table Mountain to the beaches fringing the Atlantic suburbs. And once visitors have gotten used to this jaw-dropping setting, they receive the next surprise. Cape Town is not an African city, but, true to its position on the maritime trade routes of yore, a cosmopolitan town with a European attitude. The average Capetonian would not be caught dead in khaki; the only wall-mounted antelope heads you will see are made of beads; and the local motorists charge around like hot-blooded Mediterranean taxi drivers.
Bo Kaap, Cape Town (Shutterstock)
Furthermore, the local lifestyle certainly gives the average European metropolis a run for its euros. In this sunny nirvana at the Cape of Good Hope, you can enjoy all the culture and entertainment of a Western city, for a fraction of the price and in the Cape’s Mediterranean climate. Local evenings and weekends are filled with markets serving the products of the fertile Cape countryside; tastings on wine estates in Constantia and the Cape Winelands; full-moon walks up Lion’s head, following a stream of head torches; surfing, kitesurfing, paragliding or hiking Table Mountain’s footpaths; hitting the bars, browsing Woodstock’s boutiques or touring the galleries; and picnics on the beach or at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens’ sunset concerts. No wonder Capetonians obsessively Instagram, post time-lapse clips and pay social-media homage to their beautiful home.
Constantia winelands, Cape Town (Shutterstock)
When I first visited Cape Town, I had already lived in Sydney and Vancouver, so I was a tough crowd to impress. I caught Shosholoza Meyl’s overnight tourist-class train from Johannesburg, breakfasting as we descended mountain passes and whooshed through the Winelands. For the final hour of the journey, we could clearly see Table Mountain ahead, a sight that had every last cooped-up passenger leaning from the carriage windows.
It was 2008. The rand was in freefall; a program of rolling blackouts, known as ‘load shedding’, had been implemented to resuscitate the national power grid; and speculation surrounded the likely performance of the 2010 World Cup. I checked into a backpacker hostel with Xhosa beadwork in reception and a vibrant mix of black, white and coloured Capetonian employees leading forays to Long Street’s bars. That night, I drank beer by the pool with the owner, gazing at the spot-lit Table Mountain and listening to her tales from the building’s previous incarnation as a squat. It was a classic introduction to the happy-go-lucky town that the rest of South Africa is ever-so-slightly jealous of.
The owner suggested I join the party and move here, an idea I quietly dismissed; I was trying to settle myself in London after a peripatetic period, and, besides, Africa was surely no place to live. Nonetheless, at a pedestrian crossing the following day, I watched a girl drive an old-school VW Golf up the steep street, and I fantasised about living a slacker existence in this laidback town – perhaps with that girl. One week and an international flight later, I bleakly waited for the bus outside my local tube station in North London, still clad in shorts and sandals. Two years after that, as the final vuvuzela blew in the World Cup, I was back in Cape Town for good.
Teens in Khayelitsha Township Cape Town (meunierd / Shutterstock.com)
Living here is, of course, very different to passing through wearing a traveller’s rosy spectacles. The rand is worse than ever; we had load shedding again this year; the optimism of the World Cup has faded; and Jacob Zuma’s ANC government is increasingly alarming. My story is less common than those of the South Africans who ‘pack for Perth’ and emigrate to Australia, New Zealand, the UK or Canada, driven by the high crime rate, economic uncertainty and the vagaries of life in a developing country. Certainly, living behind security gates, high fences and burglar bars takes some getting used to. But it is a trade-off with all those blue skies, beaches and wine estates on your doorstep. Even on a pragmatic level, the existence of a professional population with middle-class expectations in an African country has led to excellent, relatively affordable private healthcare and education. For all these reasons, Cape Town has a sizeable expat community; I know several Brits, continental Europeans and Americans who are here for the long haul.
A tourist walking in Cape Town (Magdalena Paluchowska/Shutterstock)
Another aspect of Cape Town that takes some getting used to is its social makeup. As in every corner of this rainbow nation with its 11 official languages, the city’s different racial groups do not always coexist easily. Cape Town, with its European flavour and its history as a Dutch maritime refreshment station and British colonial capital, is oft-criticised for failing to embrace the new South Africa. Black critics say they feel uncomfortable and excluded in the city and university campus, but their views are a little partisan. Not only has Cape Town long been one of South Africa’s most liberal enclaves, under apartheid and into the present, but it has a unique demographic mix. The Western Cape is one of only two provinces where coloured people, rather than black people, are in the majority. Given that coloured people have risen to the top throughout Cape Town – not least the city’s mayor, Patricia de Lille – accusations of a lack of progress post-1994 are unfair.
(Anastasia Zhebyuk/Wikimedia Commons)
Nonetheless, the issue remains a hot potato. In April, the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protesters managed to get a statue of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes removed from a prominent position at the University of Cape Town. For incomers, the accepted norms of day-to-day life in this multicultural but fragmented society can also be jarring. For example, while they live on the African continent, the only contact the average white housewife in the leafy southern suburbs has with black Africans may be their maid or nanny, and petrol-pump attendants.
Courtesy of tsn92/Flickr
Given the troubling aspects of life in an African country, Capetonians are always ready to carpe diem to the max and make the most of their sublime city. Hike up that mountain after work, Instagram it later and tomorrow be damned. Who cares if the economy crumbles, if you can spend the next few hours drinking a chilled bottle of white on a Cape Dutch wine estate. Capetonians deeply appreciate the sights, sounds and quality of life in their city, and it is hard not to be swept up in that enthusiasm. The singular mix of the uncertainty of South African life and the wonderful lifestyle enjoyed by many here, set against such dramatic scenery, somehow brings everything into focus and creates a unique intensity. So get ready for Cape Town to take you by surprise: with its African joie de vivre and European pizazz, it’s the historic Mother City at the end of the world and a place that everyone falls in love with.
Sex work is hidden, but far from invisible in Busia. Photo: International Organisation for Migration/The Guardian
Sub-Saharan Africa has become a destination for Chinese sex workers as China cracks down on organized crime and African purchasing power grows, according to a new Princeton University study of migration trends, Quartz reported.
Basile Ndjio, an anthropology professor at the University of Douala in Cameroon, may be the only academic studying the phenomenon.
He’s on a research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, tracking migration trends of prostitutes from China in countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana.
In an upcoming paper for the academic journal Urban Studies, Ndjio describes Africa as the “new El Dorado for the prostitution business” and claims that there is an estimated 13,500 to 18,500 Chinese sex workers on the continent, according to Quartz.
It’s uncertain whether Chinese sex labor migration to Africa is forced or voluntary.
Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, 2013 marked a turning point in Cbina’s battle against criminal networks, Forbes reported. The central government sees organized crime as a national security threat, said Sonny Lo, a professor at the Hong Kong Institute of Education.
China has as many as 10 million sex workers working in massage parlors, bathhouses and karaoke bars, according to Quartz.
“Throughout 2014, anti-crime campaigns were very prominent ranging from anti-drugs, anti-prostitution to anti-triads and anti-terrorism,” Lo told Forbes. “Xi is very keen to mop up everything in China.”
A major problem in Beijing’s fight against organized crime is the difficultly to control it at local and provincial levels.
The influx of Chinese prostitutes is a continent-wide phenomenon, Ndjio said, according to Quartz.
Ndjio’s research in Cameroon found that most Chinese sex workers are rural women that move abroad to work as waitresses and secretaries, only to be trafficked on their arrival by pimps demanding sex work to repay plane tickets and visas.
In Kampala, locals point to Chinese brothels and massage parlors popping up across the city.
Ndjio told Quartz he became aware of the phenomenon of prostitutes migrating from China to Africa while working as a casino dealer to put himself through school in Cameroon. Dealing blackjack and poker to Chinese expats, he was able to penetrate the cliquish, guarded world of Chinese living in Africa and go behind the curtain. He learned that “Shanghai beauties” – as they are known in Cameroon – congregated in the back rooms of Chinese hotels, restaurants and lounges.
ChartBin lists the legal status of prostitution by country. Prostitution is legal in 77 countries globally and illegal in 109, with five countries having no laws for prostitution, according to Chartbin.
In Africa, prostitution is legal in eight countries including Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, Mali, Namibia, Senegal and Zambia. It’s illegal but tolerated or rarely enforced in DRC, Malawi and Tunisia.
Chinese prostitutes first arrived in sub-Saharan Africa during the Cold War period (1947 to 1991), according to Ndjio. They served migrant workers almost exclusively who were working on China-funded construction projects.
The current phase starting in the early 2000s saw migrant sex workers arriving with the influx of cheap Chinese goods and services into Africa. Their service began to extend to locals.
In Cameroon, Chinese prostitutes compete with local women, Quartz reported.
Just as Zambian chicken farmers and clothing retailers in Lesotho resent the 1 million Chinese who have relocated to Africa since 2001, Nadjio says, so too do local prostitutes balk at Chinese women selling sexual exoticism at cut rates.
In several highly publicized cases, Chinese sex workers refused to be rescued from prostitution, choosing instead to stay in Africa, according to some accounts. Some sex workers moved to wealthier countries such as Nigeria and Ghana to earn more.
In China’s first operation to rescue women trafficked to Africa, Chinese police flew to DRC where they found 11 Chinese women who had been promised decent jobs in Paris by traffickers. The women ended up working in a Chinese-owned karaoke bar in Kinshasa, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, TimesLive reported in 2011.
After a joint raid by Chinese and Congolese police, the women decided to stay in the country, saying the money was better than in China.
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