Category Archives: Pictures

Thoughts About the Politics of Zimbabwe Over Pictures of Its Scenery

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I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.

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I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.

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Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.

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But so is visiting its capital.

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I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.

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Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

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Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.

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The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.

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In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.

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Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.

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The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.

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There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.

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I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.

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He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.

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You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.

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And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.

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I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.

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‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’

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‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’

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‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’

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‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’

 

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Being American Makes me Bad at Visiting Other Countries

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Sometimes I think growing up in America makes me incapable of understanding the mentalities and challenges of other countries.
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This is Armenia.
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This is too, only zoomed out a little more.
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I used to think that Poland was the most geographically unfortunate country in the world, but now I think Armenia takes the crown.
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Before it was a country, Armenia was a group of people, a cluster of Christians on a small, jagged patch of the South Caucasus.
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Stuck between the Persian, Ottoman and Russian empires, the land under them got passed back and forth, conquered and divided, burned down, built up, bargained for, traded, given away. Always the subject of history, never its designer.
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Most of us know ‘Armenian’ as the word you hear before ‘Genocide’ every once in awhile, but we’re less familiar with why so many Armenians were living in the Ottoman Empire in the first place, how the lines on the map hopscotched under them dozens of times as the great powers traded their territory back and forth.
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Armenia’s national symbol, Mount Ararat, isn’t even in Armenia. It’s in Turkey, across a border Armenians aren’t allowed to cross.
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After World War II, Armenia was unified, but under the control of the USSR. In 1991, it finally got independent, became its own master for the first time in 70 years. These days it’s no longer a client state, just a poor, landlocked country that has closed borders with two of its four neighbors.
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To the right, Azerbaijan is pissed at Armenia over an ongoing border dispute from the early ’90s. The two countries don’t even have embassies in each other’s countries, no trade or cultural exchange whatsoever. They communicate through intermediaries, like a couple going through an ugly divorce.
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To the left, Turkey not only supports Azerbaijan, but still refuses to admit to the aforementioned genocide. Borders are closed there too.
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So Armenia can only trade to the top (Georgia) and bottom (Iran).
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But in the middle, away from all the economics and the politics, you don’t see any of that. All you can tell about Armenia is that it is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
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You get the feeling the Lord of the Rings movies were actually shot here, and that New Zealand is just faking it for the tourism.
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The country is also, considering all the factors stacked against it, doing OK economically as well.
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A per capita GDP of $6,300 ain’t Belgium, but it ain’t Burundi either. The infrastructure is good, and since 2008, the country has grown at around 5 percent a year.
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On the overall tale of the tape, though, Armenia’s biggest advantage is probably its diaspora.
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Only 3 million Armenians live in Armenia, but an estimated 8 million live outside of it.
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Every year remittances, tourism and investment come home from the US, Lebanon, Australia, Italy. The joke here is that Armenians are successful everywhere except Armenia.
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The population is still shrinking. All those Armenians living abroad, everyone’s got a friend or a cousin or a company that can give them a reason to leave.
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The countryside is dotted with half-empty villages,
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factories someone switched off when the USSR abandoned them and never switched on again.
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Maybe it’s because I’m American and maybe it’s not, but I find it difficult to process the sheer depth of Armenia’s roots–and its conflicts.
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I think of the citizens of my country as a ‘people’, I guess, but not in the ethnic or religious or historical sense, not the way Armenians feel connected to their past.
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The idea that the land where I grew up, where my grandparents come from, could be taken by another country and locked to me, is utterly unfathomable.
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This, I think, is why I struggle to understand conflicted parts of the world like the South Caucasus or the Balkans: Nothing here reflects the relationship I have to my own country, nothing reminds me of myself. There’s this part of me that hears about the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and thinks ‘Why don’t they just get over it and move on?’
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Which is shitty and myopic. And maybe why I like visiting this part of the world so much, why I’m so keen to come back, why I find the reasons to ignore that question in my head so fascinating.
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It’s like reading fiction. I’m entering this world that my imagination doesn’t permit me to invent, but doesn’t want me to leave.
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Not until I can see myself in it.

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Flematic

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I was randomly in Antwerp last weekend.
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There is in fact no other way to be in Antwerp.
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I have this weird fascination with places that are local tourist attractions, but not quite stellar enough to attract international visitors.
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Antwerp is firmly within that genre. Lovely, but like 53rd on most peoples’ ‘Must See in Europe’ list.
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Not that it matters. I was in a trying-to-finish-an-essay fugue state, and I barely did anything I couldn’t have done at home.
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I got up at five every morning, wrote for like seven hours, then ventured out, ravenous for breakfast and scenery.
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Antwerp has a surplus of both, though if you bike far enough in any direction, it starts to look like True Detective.
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But I sort of like that, how Antwerp goes all ugly at the edges.
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It’s a reminder that European cities, no matter how pretty they are in the center, need cranes and shipping containers and rusty train tracks to keep them that way.
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Antwerp got rich after WWII, it was one of the only ports unbombed during the war. This is where a lot of the Marshall Plan donkeys came in.
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Now the port host a different kind of donkey, tourists like me, our dangling cameras, our insipid questions, our temporary interest.
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I realized as I was on my way to the airport that chatting with my AirBnB host was the longest conversation I had all weekend.
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‘What are you doing here in Antwerp?’ she asked. ‘As little as possible,’ I replied.
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‘Well you’re in the right place,’ she said, and handed me the keys.

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Doing Development in Dhaka

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There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
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Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
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I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
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Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
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I always go jogging when I travel for work.
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Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
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There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
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Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
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No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
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Like, we all know how the post office works.
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And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
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But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
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What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
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Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
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Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
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The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
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I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
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Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
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I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
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This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
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Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
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Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
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I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
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One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
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Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
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That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
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And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
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Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
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Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
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Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
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And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
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Brand new tomorrow.

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Things I’ll Never Understand

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One of the reasons I think I’m not ready to have kids is that I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions about life basics.
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Why is the sky blue, where do mountains come from, etc.
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I don’t know why I know so little about this stuff. I went to high school, college, grad school (twice!). I have read books, sometimes even for fun.
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But when confronted with nature, the real kind, still and un-narrated, I can’t explain any of the whys or hows.
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I spent Christmas this year in Madeira.
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It’s island off the coast of Morocco that, for random historical reasons, is an autonomous region of Portugal, like a little European Hawaii.
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I knew very little about it before I visited. But now, because I have been there, I am interested in it.
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It was discovered in the early 1400s, uninhabited, a spike of volcano that wriggled up out of the Atlantic, then spend the next 5 million years getting ground back down to sea level.
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This process is apparently ongoing. Most of what’s sticking out of the water is hills. The old joke among the locals is ‘The only flat surfaces on Madeira are vertical.’
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The climate is perfect for growing sugarcane, so the early years were spent terracing the hills, creating stairstep cropland, cultivating it one stripe at a time. All the agriculture is still done by hand. 
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Sugar crashed when Europe discovered Brazil, the Caribbean, slavery. Madeira converted its little sugar plots into little vineyards. 
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That worked til the 1890s, when a disease wiped out all the grapes (think Irish potato famine, but this time the victims were warm-weather alcoholics). 
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The economy crashed, most of the island emigrated.
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Nowadays they still grow crops—those are banana trees down there—but mostly they cultivate tourists, people like me who fly all the way here for the weather and the pictures and the differences.
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This narrative, the path Madeira took  here, it makes sense to me, it’s full of people and businesses and a big economy that goes boom one century and pfffft the next. 
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That’s the story of everywhere, basically.
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But then I bike to the top of a mountain on this very same boom-and-pffft island and I am holding my boyfriend’s hand and we are looking together at a bunch of lava rocks sticking out through a beach and I realize that I have no idea why some rocks get ground into sand and others don’t.
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And then I’m thinking that if I was at the top of this same mountain, holding my son’s hand instead of my boyfriend’s, this is the shit he would ask me about, the rocks and the sun and why is the water that shade of blue and how many stars are there in the sky and I have no idea how to answer.
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Or maybe he won’t ask me, maybe we’re not the kind of society where we do that anymore. Maybe he’ll stand on that mountain and look at that beach and use his free hand to whip out his little tablet or whatever and he’ll read the Wikipedia entry about lava and we’ll stand there and neither of us will say anything.
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And maybe that’s better for both of us. I can’t explain how anything works when it’s really small or really big or made of rocks, when it can’t tell me how it works itself.
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But hey, if he ever wants to know how the island’s GDP is calculated, I’m right next to him.

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Zimbabwe: Where US Dollars Go To Die

 

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I am not curious or intelligent enough to know why this is the case, but the dollar bills in Zimbabwe are fucking filthy.

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The official currency here is the US dollar, the Zimbabwe dollar doesn’t even exist anymore. The stores don’t carry change, they just round up to the next dollar with lollipops, chocolate bars or mobile phone credit.

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Some of the bills you get are barely readable, and they all have that leathery, grandpa texture of something that’s been wrinkled and stroked a thousand times too many. I went to the cash machine yesterday and got a wad of twenties that ran the whole filthiness rainbow.

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Also, there are $2 bills everywhere here. I thought those were a myth.

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Next time anyone talks about ‘dirty money’, this is the first thing I’m going to think of.

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Wall, Street: Walking in African Cities

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For me, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ used to conjure up images of thatched huts and dust roads, but in the last few years most of the time I’ve spent here has been in cities.

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This, for example, is Harare, Zimbabwe. From above it is basically Tulsa.

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Condos, fast food, bad traffic, cute cafes, fratty sports bars.

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See? Just a government building. Other than the dudes out front selling fish, this could be anywhere

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When you get to the suburbs, though, is when you’re like ‘oh huh this is a hella different country’.

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Everything is designed for cars, that’s nothing new, but it’s also designed for protection. All the streets look like this: Wall, street, wall. The only variety is whether they are tipped with barbed wire, electric wires or broken glass.

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I know we all hate on LA for being pedestrian-unfriendly, but compared to here, it’s Venice.

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Without a car, walking through Harare is like reading a book of blank pages.

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Whatever might be happening here, it’s doing so behind walls. Restaurants, hotels, nightclubs, apartment buildings, as boring as they look looking in, it’s no better looking out.

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I never thought of window shopping and personal safety as mutually exclusive, but here, it’s one or the other.

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So far Zimbabwean billboards

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are even better than Zambian ones

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Your Lion Eyes

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Today I went on a safari!

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Which, as it turns out, is basically Jurassic Park, but the animals are younger and it doesn’t all go horribly wrong.

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The look on its face is ‘argh I can’t eat you’. This is the same face I have when I walk past bakeries.

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It looks disappointed to be the only animal in this park that can’t kill you.

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They purr when you pet them! For an extra 100 bucks, you can cuddle with them for an hour. This is 50 percent more than I usually pay for simulated intimacy, so I passed.

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I did not know this, but our guide told us ostriches are extinct in the wild, they can only be found in captivity. And, if Berlin is any indication, the frozen aisle.

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These looked majestic and powerful until our guide told us the car behind us had paid extra to hunt them.

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They seem to not like engine noise, so about 80 percent of my photos are of antelope butts.

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‘Are you done shooting?’ the guide asked. ‘The other car is about to start shooting.’ I hope it cost more than the cuddles.

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I’m Not Here: The Billboards of Zambia

I’m in Kitwe, Zambia, this week, and one of the constant sources of bafflement and entertainment is the billboards. They’re everywhere, but mostly vacant, and mostly advertising themselves.
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‘Advertise here’ billboards are nothing new, of course, but what amazes me about these is that each one is different.

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On the way from Kitwe to the Ndola airport, an hour’s drive, you see about 65 of them, and they never repeat. Each one has a different message, a different photo, a different font, even though they’re all advertising the exact same thing.

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I keep trying to think of an economic explanation for this, a reason why they wouldn’t be at least partially standardized. It seems like a lot of extra work to design and print 65 billboards one time each, at least as compared to one billboard 65 times.

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But the world is full of mysteries! Maybe they want to show off their range, maybe they want to try to catch your eye in as many ways possible, maybe they have a bored PR intern. Or maybe they just want to increase the world’s supply of stock photos of adorable children. As corporate responsibility goes, they could do worse.

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