Venturing Down Under

I recently traveled to Australia for a short and expansive trip to several of the continent’s more populated cities (Sydney and Melbourne) as well as several sites that are less populated, yet infamous for natural wonders. While my second or third trip to several of these places, I was struck by the antiquated nature of the buildings, the fashion and the mindsets of Australians. I could not help but gawk at the neck tattoos and the overly muscular, weight obsessed men who seemed to want nothing more than drive their large trucks and brag about how large they were (both the truck and their muscles).

This was especially apparent in Fraser island, a gorgeous island off of fullsizerenderQueensland where I could not help but compare the sand, unpaved roads, to roads I have traveled on in West Africa. While in Fraser, going on these roads seemed to be the epitome of a adventurous vacation get away, a fake land un-developed for the pleasure of these seemingly misogynistic men, in West Africa going on these roads is norm. It is a product of a lack of government funding. The unpaved and sandy roads becomes the reality that people have to deal with- and do so expertly without bragging about their 4 wheel drive.

I was enchanted by Sydney and struck by how suburbs of cities (especially in Brisbane and Melbourne) seemed to resemble California- in the 1990s. Not only the tub tops and the short shorts but the one story strip malls, mini golf and strange architecture of buildings with neon bordering windows and terraces.

img_0121

Most of the continent is flat, arid and not too visually appealing or all that different from portions of the Midwest. Cradle Mountain National Park in Tasmania is a spectacular site. The moss ground juxtaposed with grey rock, small lakes, crater lakes, ponds and wombats make every turn you take on the well managed paths of the park a joy. I was utterly astonished by how well labeled, preserved and maintained the paths of the park were. While I did not have time to make it to the mountain’s summit, the wooden stairs and paths going up make the journey a much easier trek. Largely untrue in the US, the Australian government has clearly invested well in preserving its natural treasures, as well as providing universal health care to its citizens.

My final day was passed in Melbourne, an energetic, artsy and colonial city. The parks of the city are decorated with marble statues, old school greenhouses with hydrangeas and  fountains that gives the green grass and nicely cobbled walkways a very 19th century British appeal. The contemporary art pieces seem a strange addition to this formal, colonial style but I found them to be a pleasant and modern surprise.

img_0142Another colonial legacy left by the British is cricket. I had the pleasure of attending a few hours on the second day of a match between Australia and Pakistan that was intended to run nine days. As this long running, infamously boring game is as confusing as it has sounded, I paid little attention to the actual functions of the game but was more curious to observe those in attendance. Seated right above the field, I was astonished at how cheap my ticket was for such a popular event (about 20 dollars USD). Additionally, I was surprised to learn that a weak beer only cost 7 dollars, in comparison to the 15 dollar beer at Dodgers stadium. I quickly learned that the price of the beverage was necessary to keep everyone entertained during the game- and seemed to be the real reason that the crowd was in attendance. While doing the wave and occasionally yelling chants at the players like the crowd does at a sports event in the US, no one really seemed to care how the game went. First this was due to the fact that the game still went on another 7 days, but additionally, most of the young fans surrounding my seat admitted that Australia was not very good. Lastly, they seemed more interested in who was ‘skulling’ a beer, who was getting kicked out of the stands for making a ruckus after drinking and the face paint of someone on the crowd cam.

I left Australia for Hong Kong, recollecting my experiences with Australians in Africa. Most Austrialians I have encountered there were working in or for various mines in West Africa. The majority have been rambunctious, inconsiderate of the Africans who work with or for them and rather uninterested in making sure those living in Africa receive a fair share of the profits from the mines. Simultaneously, they are aware that without their technical and financial support, these natural resources would be left untouched and extracted as the local governments and institutions do not yet have the local capacity to access these resources. Thus, they validate their work because of this necessity.

Mines are similarly growing in Australia, land is plentiful and the continent is said to have more millionaires than anywhere else, it is clear that Australians are finding new frontiers and moving from their island to recolonize spaces and places. I could not help but think that the education, cultural sensitivity and economic priorities of this increasingly powerful continent need to be re-examined, similar to my own home.

The Baha’i Faith in Uganda

In the outskirts of Kampala, on top of one of the city’s many hills, rests a Baha’i temple. Peacefully perched with the luxury of not being crowded by tin roofs and half built hotels, the temple’s nine sides stands amongst lovely acacia and palm trees with a sloping landscape of well groomed gardens. I arrived at 11:07 Sunday morning after a long goose chase with the taxi trying to locate the temple (like men in America, Ugandan men dislike asking for directions).
I expected the 10:30 service to have started according to ‘African time’ but was

IMG_2689.jpg
View from the top

disappointed to see a stream of Ugandans, whites, and people of unknown colors and nationalities coming out of the sanctuary. As I stepped through the crowd I shook hands and was greeted by an overwhelming number of individuals. Many asked if this was my first time, apologies for my missing the service, and assurance I could still go in and pray.

More interested to learn about the history of Baha’i in Uganda, I was directed to one of the oldest members, a man with severe burn scars all over his face and neck. He has been Baha’i since 1965, and like many Ugandan Baha’i was raised Christian. With 22 other Ugandan Baha’i he traveled to Israel in 2014 on a pilgrimage to Haifa. He spoke of his journey there with such pride and longing, recounting the open gardens and inclusion he felt with the community there.

IMG_2685.jpg

Baha’i first came to Uganda in 1952 and slowly found a following with at the place of worship pictured, completed in 1958. It is one of only seven similar temples in the world, and the first in Africa. There are Baha’i in many other cities but not a center of worship such as in Kampala. According to my Baha’i historian, the goal is to build a school, library, university, hospital and house of worship all in one. Additionally, this center was forcibly closed from 1977-1979 because the president wanted to make Uganda a Muslim nation. He claims they did not fight this but he accepted the closure as a path from G-d, praying at home during this time.

I spent over an hour talking to a Congolese Baha’i- evidently the country with the 3rd largest Baha’i following. He spoke strongly about his religious beliefs, saying that he supports the religious choice of all individuals. Even his children he allows a freedom of choice, but all he can do is show them a way. He emphasized the power of g-d, saying that “perfect things only g-d can do”. I kept inquiring into the religious tensions he has experienced, wanting to know more about what other Ugandans and Congolese think of the Baha’i. He insisted that he holds no prejudice and has felt none towards him. Honestly, most people even living close to the temple are unaware of its religious affiliation. I have heard other speak negatively towards Muslims, making reference to recent attacks in the US and globally, but he intelligently stated that this could have been from a Christian, Jew or Hindu, it is not the religion but the person.

All of the people I spoke to were kind, open and welcoming, excited to tell me about their beliefs and the oneness of humanity. The basic testament being that they share a love of G-d, peace and unity. The program for the service had passages from the Qur’an, new and old Testament as well as the Baha’u’llah and was in English and Luganda. While it is clear that there is a slowly growing following of Baha’i in Uganda, most of the attendants were like me, merely excited to sit in a peaceful part of the city, away from the traffic and smog. The space is open daily from 8 to 5pm and is well visited as there are no public gardens in the city that are open to people of all socio-economic levels, at least from what I can find. Several couples were sitting picnicking on the grass, a Middle Eastern family came to take photos in front of the flowers and a High School aged boy sat studying his books.

IMG_2675.jpg