IN Zimbabwe’s confused and confusing political environment, who doesn’t need a break?
So it was that I took a three-week break from May 19 to June 13 which I spent on a hectic investigative journalism programme courtesy of the World Learning Visitor Exchange Programme of the US’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural affairs.
It was the most exhilarating experience of my life, covering the length and breadth of such a vast country from the Federal capital, Washington, DC to San Francisco on the West coast, to Louisiana in the south, and to New York up north in a space of three weeks.
I was among a group of 23 journalists from developing countries, five of them from Africa. In Washington we visited Capitol Hill, the seat of Congress, the memorials of those great American leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, the Pentagon and the White House. Of course we didn’t get into the White House but could freely view it from Pennsylvania Avenue which has now been blocked on both ends since the September 11 terror attacks.
I had the honour to stand on the spot at the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963. We also visited the Washington Post, Reuters and the CNN offices. I met several Zimbabwean journalists working for Studio 7. We also visited the poor black neighbourhood of Anacostia where by the age of 18 years many black girls are mothers of three or more kids and boys of the same age have become jailbirds because of violent crime and drugs. Here, the famous educationalist Frederick Douglas’s estate has been turned into a tourism site.
DC is a major US cultural centre dominated by the Smithsonian Institution which includes a number of museums such as that of Asian and African Art, American history and the US Holocaust Memorial. One of the outstanding aspects of Washington DC is that it is the only state represented by an unelected delegate in Congress, hence the ubiquitous “Taxation without representation” protest statement on registration plates of vehicles in the district.
The concept of “no taxation without representation” was one of the clarion calls of the American revolution for those who recall the “Boston Tea Party”.
Locals call Washington DC the “floating city” because it thrives largely on tourism and service industry as there is no manufacturing carried out.
From there we went on to San Francisco, the country’s shipping capital in California. Outside the upmarket Hotel Nikko where we were staying I saw the first concentration of street people. That was a foretaste of what we witnessed on the city’s Market Street, the equivalent of Harare’s First St Mall in its heyday. The street teems with youths evidently high on drugs. It was not long before we witnessed police arresting a number of them and suddenly the street was littered with a confetti of unnamed tablets.
We also toured San Francisco’s most famous landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge (painted in red), and the city’s highest point above sea level, the Twin Peaks.
Pursuant to our mission, we visited the Centre for Investigative Journalism and the offices of the Oakland Tribune newspaper in the Bay Area. Oakland is rated the fourth most violent city in the US due to drugs and gang warfare. Needless to say we were warned by our English Language Officers about what areas to avoid at odd hours.
San Francisco too prematurely sent us packing to a city hundreds of kilometres to the southwest – New Orleans in Louisiana, which was inundated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Residents are still seething with anger at what they agree was a “man-made disaster” when Portchartrain Lake flooded New Orleans on August 29 2005. Evidence of the scale of the disaster is still there – wrecked or washed away houses, vacant foundations where homes once stood or voluntary building brigades of students erecting structures for poor residents trying to rebuild their lives.
The “rebuild New Orleans” initiative is spearheaded by a group of women under an organisation portentously named “Beacon of Hope”.
Since Katrina struck three years ago, they have been working together to help the homeless or those trying to return to New Orleans. Much of their funding is from private institutions and individuals.
The women have no kind words for the state bureaucracy which they accuse of corruption and holding up the rebuilding process by “delaying” the release of funds provided by the Federal government.
At the heart of downtown New Orleans is the upmarket French Quarter which is dominated by Bourbon Street which takes in one embrace elegant jazz music, hard rock and uninhibited sensuality as part of its red light district cultural offering.
We then moved on to Miami, Florida. Miami Beach has seen a huge expansion in tourism as people flock to the beautifully restored Art Deco district and Latin ambience which percolates through this Cuban city. The Miami Herald Spanish edition is the largest circulating paper in Central and South America.
The trip ended in New York, minus the famous Twin Towers and the World Trade Centre since September 11. The narrow skyline is once again dominated by the Empire State Building, completed in 1931. It was a bit of an anticlimax. The city was hot, dirty and felt jaded. Almost 95% of the buildings are being renovated with scaffolding on virtually every block. This sombreness was only partly relieved by a visit to the United Nations headquarters which ended with a sumptuous lunch.
It is important to point out that finding one’s way around, especially in Washington DC, was a headache for me during the first few days. Now I understand why most European tourists who come to Africa trust a map. The big plus was that members of the public went out of their way to help if you asked for a particular place, that is once it was clear that you were a visitor, not a troublesome African American!
Interestingly, discrimination assumed a new dimension, especially in San Francisco and New York. Here you learn quickly that the person of colour is not always your brother or sister as we tend to assume in this part of the world. Many people look at you suspiciously, keeping their distance even if you want to ask for directions, to show you that they have better things to do.
The one who comes closest to you often is the beggar. He can easily tell a brother from other races!
Then of course there is the big disconnect between the Administration and ordinary Americans. As every journalist and presenter made clear, ordinary Americans have neither interest nor any idea of what the Federal government does outside America, that is until there is a major catastrophe which takes away their children – like what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which is why George W Bush is so unpopular now.