Monday, July 23, 2007

What a Contrast

Some people think things through as they talk. You can see it happening. At first, their explanation or argument wanders here and there, and then, all of a sudden, they see the way forward. Their words gain momentum – sentences tumble out, the decibel-level increases – until suddenly everything is tied together and the meaning is clear. Such individuals can start talking with only a faint idea or glimmer of an opinion, and somehow end up with a cohesive, communicated thought.

If I attempt this feat, my words trail off into a sea of mumbles in the hope that no one notices I had begun speaking in the first place. Instead, when I want to express an idea or an opinion out loud, I need to think it out thoroughly beforehand; rarely by talking do I hit my stride.

With writing it is very different. I can start with just the sketchiest outline of a thought, rest my fingers on the keyboard, and, as I type, figure out where that little idea was headed, and why it might have nibbled at me in the first place.

Today, I sat down to write about the idea of contrast. The nibble stems back to last December when, within a month, I visited two dramatically different places. First, I visited a rural area of Zimbabwe, where I stayed in a cement-block room which featured a faucet that occasionally dribbled water. The nearby “growth point” consisted of three dusty roads which merged around two blocks of shops, including a whopping three nightclubs. My colleagues and I bought bread, peanut butter, and bananas at the shops every morning, and, after several hours sitting on the ground talking to villagers, ate our lunch by the side of the dirt road under whatever tree we could find.

At the end of the very same month, for New Years’, some friends and I rented The Castle in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe – an actual castle, complete with dust and damp – perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the border with Mozambique. It was built by Italian prisoners of war held in the area during World War II. On New Years’ Eve Day we stopped at a nearby coffee shop named Tony’s, where the menu is be-tassled and the desserts are to die for. Tony’s may be famous for its chocolate whiskey cake, but the main attraction is simply the sheer strangeness of it all. There you are in Zimbabwe – with all its flour shortages and sugar shortages and fuel shortages – eating cake off gold-foil-rimmed plates. I couldn’t have been farther from that growth point if I had been on the moon.

These sorts of contrasts make life interesting – in fact, we often seek them out. A good part of travel, for example, is about comparing and contrasting what you see with what you know. “Isn’t it funny, they also eat with their hands here.” “I love mangos, but never realized you could cook with the green ones.” By comparing and contrasting we are able to weave together the experiences of our lives: “This raspberry dressing reminds me of the one we ate at Manna Epicure in Cape Town.” “Ugali seems a bit stiffer than sadza, don’t you think?”

At the same time, stark contrasts can be disconcerting. Slums and mansions. Hunger and plenty. Community and isolation. It is difficult to make sense of how such difference can exist on one planet. In fact, “making sense” may not always be possible. Contrasts can illuminate the unjust and the unfair. That unsettling feeling in your stomach? It makes you human. My experiences in December were certainly interesting – should they have been disconcerting, too?

So, this is where my keyboard has taken me. Within this post, you’ll see pictures from the two contrasting extremes I mentioned. First, there is a woman I met during my trip to the rural area; she was selling an indigenous green vegetable called nyeve (a.k.a. spider flower/spider wisp). I bought some. Nyeve is quite bitter and must be boiled for hours, draining and replacing the water a couple times to further dampen the bitter taste. Then, in classic Zimbabwean style, it is sautéed with onion, tomatoes, and a dollop of peanut butter, as shown in photo number two. I’ve been told you can also cook nyeve with lacto – a type of sour milk that is popular in Zimbabwe (and that I need to write about one of these days!). Third, as you may have guessed, is that very cake from Tony’s. And, below, the view from The Castle’s top floor. Quite a few contrasts, don’t you think?

Note: Top photo copyright Leslie Tuttle. Used with permission.


Emily said...

Yes, remarkable contrasts and beautiful writing. Thank you.

Anita said...

Modern-day version of - in the scarcity of bread there being cake! Interesting questions you pose there - yes, not all contrasts are for better...

Jeanne said...

Excellent post, Carolyn. I think that's one of the things that makes Africa both such an exciting and a frustrating place. Once you have lived in Europe, you realise how "vanilla" the whole place is - there really aren't any stark contrasts of the sort you mention. But Africa is one big contrast, and apart from making it an exhilarating place, it is also Africa's biggest failing. If we could go even halfway to diminishing the rich/poor divide in some sustainable way (i.e. not just taking half of every affluent person's wealth and giving it to poor people, which will ultimately make the righ man poor and the poor man dependent on handouts), Africa would be unstoppable.

Btw, I've tagged you for a meme if you're interested:

Anonymous said...

Carolyn, your writing is beautiful and your posts continue to impress - thanks for the smile with my afternoon tea!

Bodmas said...

Contrast is one of those thigs that make life interesting,just visit two restaurants serving different cuisine. Some people never bother to explore different contrasts-sad.