Tuesday, 18 August 2009

USA: A Nation In Transition (2)

ONE of the highlights of my two sojourn to the United States was the visit to University of California, Irvine Campus, a suburb of Los Angeles.
After few days in Amarillo, I headed for the airport to catch a plane to Orange Country Airport near Los Angeles. At Amarillo airport, officials of American Airlines, politely, informed me that I could not travel because of poor weather conditions at Dallas International Airport. I was obviously not happy. On the other hand, I was happy that American airport officials place serious emphasis on the security of air travelers. In this country, weather reports are taken seriously. On my way back home, I looked with admiration at the statute of Rick Husband, one of the brilliant astronauts who, few years ago, lost his life in a space shuttle. He is a native of Amarillo. He was born in this small American town on July 12 1957. He was the commander of a space shuttle who died on February 1, 2003 when the space vehicle disintegrated. And all the seven astronauts perished. What a pity. May his soul rest in peace. The next day, the positive weather conditions allowed our plane to fly safely to Dallas International Airport where I had to catch a connecting flight to Orange County airport. Before I forget, I remembered that the former American President, George Bush, is a native of Texas. I shall come to the Bush phenomenon in this second and last segment of my travelogue. After about two and half hour of smooth flight, the plane touched down at Orange Country Airport, near Los Angeles. The main purpose of this trip is to attend a graduation ceremony of someone at the University of California, Irvine Campus. Beauty campus. The various faculties are built in conformity with the natural topography of the environment. Irvine campus is recognized as one of the best centers for biological sciences in United States. On this campus, there was a cultural send-off ceremony organised by the small African and African American student community for graduating students. It was a night of solidarity between students from the two continents. One could see strong feelings of cultural and historical ties amongst these young boys and girls who were reminded by various speakers that they face strong challenges because of economic recession sweeping across the country. Many of the speakers talked about the significance of Barack Obama as America’s first African American President. THE next day, I attended two important graduation ceremonies: a ceremony for honors students and that of all graduands of the department of biological sciences. America has developed a sophisticated culture for graduation ceremonies: from kindergarten school, passing through primary and secondary levels and the university level. Parents, well wishers, friends and relatives take time to attend there ceremonies. As a graduate from University of Bordeaux in France, there was no graduation ceremony. French people do not accord any significance to graduation ceremony. Different countries, different graduation cultures. I was particularly interested in the honors’ list of Biological Sciences department. There were about eighty students who made the honors list for this academic session. To make the honors’ list, a student must consistently score very high marks right from his or her first year. This year’s honors list for this academic department was dominated by Asian students from China, India, Japan and South Korean. Some white American students also featured in the honors list. However, only one student from the African and African American communities was on the honors list. She is a Nigerian! She had four distinctions. For each distinction, her citation was read. She stood out distinctly amongst Asian and white American graduating students. One of the professors recommended her to apply for post graduate studies in environmental biology. She politely declined the offer. Instead, she accepted to read medicine in one of the prestigious universities in America. She was offered admission by seven medical schools. She symbolizes the culture of resilience, hardwork and determination amongst Nigerian students in American universities. After the graduation ceremony, I decided to back to Amarillo, by road. It took me two days. There was a need to break the journey of 15 hours transcending the states of Arizona, New Mexico and part of Texas. It game me an opportunity to get a first hard knowledge of part of America’s countryside. The countryside was peaceful and all green. Cattles were grazing and walking leisurely without any disruption. ALONG the road, something caught my attention. An entirely new phenomenon: the emergence of windmill farms. I saw several windmill farms dotting the countryside. In each windmill farm, there were hundreds of white painted windmills. The blade of each windmill was turning clockwise according to the speed of surrounding wind. Linked to each windmill was a pipe conveying energy to a central power station. America has, at last, accepted the fact that she can produce several thousands of megawatts of electricity by tapping the wind. In a flat and plain region without many trees, it is possible to transform wind into energy. My mind went back to an article I read on alternatives source of energy in American desert region. Obama administration in close collaboration with the private sector is investing a lot of money to convert the sun into energy in the desert regions of the country. Indeed, the slogan “Yes we can” is being translated into reality . This is a country where the intellectual and business elite is constantly using their thinking cap, trying to adapt to realities of 12st Century. All countries are in transition in this century. After two days of interesting journey by road, I arrived in Amarillo. I spent most of the time at home watching the television. So many programmes. I was interested in knowing how Americans views of the current economic recession. In virtually all the debates about the recession, many of the speakers did not give reasons for the recession. They described the symptoms and not the causes. Only one speaker analyzed the origin of what is now known as economic and financial meltdown. A jargon for closure of factories, lose of jobs and several thousands of families sleeping at parks and charity homes because they can no longer pay for their mortgage. This speaker is a Professor of economics and international relations in an American University. I did not get her name. I wish I had. I would have sent her an e-mail to further explain certain economic issues. She is very brilliant and articulate speaker. Let me summative her thoughts on the current economic crisis facing America. According to her, recession takes place in a war situation. She was referring to the economic crisis of Europe between the First and Second World Wars when factories were damaged, and millions of workers lost their jobs. It took the American government to put in place an economic stimulus called “Marshall Plan” before Western Europe could recover from the recession. She affirmed that the current recession is fundamentally different from the 20th Century recession. How? According to her, the current recession is taking place when there is global peace. No major world war. Factories are not destroyed. In fact, factories are overproducing, but no sale of produced goods. Why? Because credit facilities have dried up. The modern capitalist economy thrives on credit facilities i.e. purchase now and pay bit by bit. Why did the credit facilities dry up? I adjusted my seat with a view to listening to her brilliant explanations. The banks manage credit facilities, which are revolving loans, for consumers and industrialists. She suggested that the credit facilities were mopped up by American arms merchants who produced arms used in Iraq by American soldiers. She added that George Bush Jnr. administration has hoped that the war and restoration of peace would take place within a space of nine months; so that these arm merchants would return the money borrowed from the credit facilities. They has also hoped that they would recoup their arms investment through the purchase of cheap crude oil from Iraq, the second largest producer of oil after Saudi Arabia. Their calculation did not materialise. The war is still on. And they are yet to repay the money borrowed from the credit facilities. Meanwhile, other sectors of the American economy to wit, housing, automobile industry, building etc cannot properly function because the credit facilities have been exhausted in Iraq. “This is the major cause of the recession”, she said. THE other root cause of the recession is massive corruption in New York Stock Exchange. “Barnard Madoff defrauded, for 10 years, investors to the tune of about US 60 billion. He is not alone. There are many similar cases of massive fraud in America’s stock exchange. We shall know more about these fraudulent cases at the end of the current investigations undertaken by Obama Administration”, she affirmed. While listening to this interesting debate, there was a newsbreak. A 88-year-old while American racist supremacist, James Von Brunn shot and killed a 24-year-old African American security guard, Stehpen Tyrone at the famous Holocaust Museum in Washington D. C. This museum is not too far from the White House where Barack Obama and his family live. Several interpretations were given to this incident. I can only highlight two: racism still exists in America and, second white American supremacists do not accept the fact that an African-American is the President of the most powerful nation of earth. Racism is one of major problems facing America and the rest of the world as we all transit towards the 21st Century, which is nine years old! My two-week stay in America has come to an end. I must return to my motherland popularly known as Naija. I flew from Amarillo to Dallas. After a brief stop over in Dallas, I flew to Atlanta City and took a connecting flight to Paris, capital of France on my way to Lagos. One thing that struck me is that in all the flights I took, the travellers and members of the crew are made up of different nationalities, different cultures and religions moving peacefully(?) towards a given destination. One world, different cultures. The message is clear: America and the world are in transition in this century. No one can predict the outcome of this transition. There are issues that can unite or destroy the world. So, I concluded as I landed at Muritala Mohammed International Airport, Ikeja, economic capital of my dear Naija! Fatunde is a professor of Francophone studies, Lagos State University, Lagos, Nigeria.

Jo’burg Blues

SOUTH Africa held a kind of awe to me because of the diverging stories I had heard about the country.
The insecurity in the land was a legend that inspired fear to the first time visitor, who had been inundated with stories of the hatred the people had of Nigerians.
So, going to Johannesburg for the Confederations Cup presented a number of questions: What kind of people will one see in Mandela country? How would one go about covering the Confederations Cup when he had been warned that he could be killed for just for the shirt on his body if he ventured into certain parts of the country? Being a Nigerian he is the first target of armed gangs who still see Nigerians as part of the problems of their country?
Armed with safety tips and prayers from family members, I was ready for the worst in the former apartheid enclave. But I never bargained for what I saw on entering the county.
The first thing that strikes a first time visitor from a hot clime like Nigeria is how cold the weather in South Africa.
We arrived the country in the early hours of the day to the unwelcome embrace of winter. Not being prepared for the searing cold that greeted us at the OR Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg, the first instinct was to run back into the South African Airlines craft that brought us from Lagos.
But my colleague on the trip, Ogbeni Tope Awe of South African Tourism assured me that things would get better once I get used to the weather. But it never got better throughout my one-week stay in the country.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by the other truths about South Africa, one of which is that it is one of the best countries in the world. The trip was as mind-blowing as it was quite revealing.
I was shocked at the developed state of the country’s infrastructure. I could nit imagine that a country in Africa could be as developed and beautiful as what I saw in Johannesburg. I make bold to say that South Africa has about the best roads in Africa, with streetlights that work to boot.
Still with the fear of the unknown my first instinct was to stick to taxis, which I had been advised was the safest way to travel in South Africa.
But my tour guide, Philemon Makola of Kgolare Tours, allayed such fears in me. He informed me that South Africa was gradually moving away from the violence that enveloped the country shortly after the end of the Apartheid era.
According to Makola, “I read about violence in South Africa and other crimes from the media because those who control the media has not come to terms with the fat that blacks are leading this country.
“They exaggerate the rate of crime and other bad things that happen in South Africa to portray blacks as incapable of ruling the country. The press is owned by the whites, so what we do is tell our guests to go out there and experience the country first hand and determine how violent this country is.”
So, with Sandton, which is like the Ikoyi of Johannesburg, as my base I went about exploring this beautiful city.

THE first place I went to was the Maropeng caves in Gauteng, an unbelievable store of history of the evolution of humankind.
The Maropeng caves are about a 50-minute drive from the centre of Johannesburg.
The Maropeng caves, also known as the Sterkfontein Caves, are world famous for their fossil finds.
According to one of the literatures on the caves, the monuments were given extensive face-lift in 2005, to scientifically showcase a reconstruction of a mined cave – versus a pristine cave – cave formations and geology, early life forms, mammals and hominid fossils, among other topics.
“It describes in detail important finds such as “Mrs. Ples”, the “Taung Child” and “Little Foot”, as well as providing information about fossilisation, palaeobotany and landscapes.

WORLD-ACCLAIMED and award-winning palaeoartist, John Gurche, whose exhibits can be seen at the Smithsonian Institute, the Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York and who worked on the film Jurassic Park, has produced all the lifelike hominid illustrations, from the seven-million-year-old Toumai fossil from Chad, through to modern humans.”
Chris, a student of archaeology, who is also one of the tour guides at the caves, informed us that the Sterkfontein Caves are owned by his school, the University of the Witwatersrand, whose scientists have been responsible for the main excavations of the World Heritage Site.
Inside the caves are mind-blowing claims about the evolution of humanity.
Chris informed his enthralled guests that scientists have discovered many hominid and other animal fossils, dating back more than four million years, to the birth of humanity.
“The most important and most famous of these fossils are “Mrs. Ples”, a 2.1-million-year-old Australopithecus skull, and “Little Foot”, an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton that is more than three-million years old. These fossils, both found in the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind, tell us much about the precursors of modern humans, Homo sapiens.
He revealed that archaeological finds within the Cradle of Humankind also include two-million-year-old stone tools. “The oldest recorded, at Swartkrans, near the Sterkfontein Caves, is a collection of 270 burnt bones that reveals how our ancestors learned to master fire more than one-million years ago – a significant development and an early technological innovation.
“The ability to do this has taken us from the basic skills needed to keep ourselves warm and to cook our food, to being able to control and harness the power of fire to the extent that we can now create and burn rocket fuel to reach space and beyond,” he added.
Before entering the caves, the guide warned us to wear comfortable shoes, leave our handbags and other luggage behind to allow for easy movement.
There is also another caveat: “Because there are a number of tight spots and pathways to negotiate in the caves, it is not advisable to do the tour if you are claustrophobic. It is also not advisable for people who suffer from acute asthma or chest problems to do the tour as there are a lot of stairs to climb.”
Perhaps, the most fearsome part of the tour of the caves is the boat ride, which takes one through the streams to all the hidden parts of the place.
With so many different sounds emanating from unknown sources, the boat ride is not recommended for the faint-hearted. If what we saw in the caves were the truth about creation of humankind, it then explains why some of our compatriots look like apes.
The journey to caves was as educative as it was entertaining, but it has no place for the Biblical theory of creation.
One was left with the feeling that something is not right somewhere; either with the Biblical theory or the exhibits we encountered at the caves.
We wanted to see other parts of this beautiful country, especially the Kruger National Park, the Table Mountain and Robben Island, but time was not on our side.
But we visited the Mandela House in Soweto, one of the places every visitor to South Africa must see at least once.

LOCATED at 8115 Orlando West on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane Streets, Soweto, the Mandela House has become a tourist’s haven, which takes the visitor through the many turns in the life of a great African.
Visitors pay 40 rand, which is about N800, for the guided tour of the house built in 1945.
Explaining the history of the house, our guide revealed that Mandela moved into the building in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn Nkoto Mase.
As explained by the tour guide, inside the house are historical documents depicting Mandela’s story both in the context of his home and the context of his life as a whole, in a manner that promotes human rights, democracy, reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance among the peoples of South Africa.
Among the items on exhibition are gifts from people around the world in appreciation of the humanity of the great Mandela. There is a gift from Cross River State government, just as the retired boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard gave his WBC World Middleweight Boxing title to Mandela. All these items are in the main sitting room of the building.
A Nigerian’s journey to South Africa would be incomplete, if you have the heart, without a visit to Mariston Hotel, Johannesburg.
Located on Claim Street off Noord Road, Mariston Hotel is the den of Nigerian hustlers, who are in South Africa to make the fortune any which way.
The hotel, which also has a night club, is the meeting point of the harden, who spend much of their time playing snooker or drinking, while savouring the music from a giant speaker.
But that is as much as the eyes can see. A Nigerian, who took me to the hotel, explained that Mariston is haven for drug dealers and other type of fraudsters who come there to meet their clients.
“Half of the drugs that enter the streets emanate from this hotel, but you can hardly see it unless you know your way around. This guys here are survivors, whose contacts come from all over the country and even beyond,” he said.
The hotel is located at the Heabrow area, which is like Nigeria’s Warri. Only the brave dare to enter that part of town.
My contact warned me not to think of taking any pictures around the hotel because that could land me in trouble.
He also gave a little tip on how to survive in the country despite the ‘exaggerated’ crime rate.
The lesson: “Don’t walk around with lots of flashy jewellery on, or expensive camera, wristwatches and fancy cell phones.
“Try always to stick to together if you are tourists, if you must go somewhere on your own don’t go down small quiet side streets and try to let some one know where you are going and when you intend to get back.”

No comments:

Post a Comment