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Kansas City fountains and the people they memorialize

I was perusing the University of the Western Cape Library when I discovered a pair of books celebrating the architecture and arts of my home town, Kansas City. I felt so fortunate to have a taste of home, half a world away! I wanted to share a bit of what I learned from Fountains of Kansas City: a History and Love Affair, by Sherry Piland and Ellen J. Ugoccioni. Specifically, who are the Kansas Citians we celebrate with our most elaborate fountains?

Thomas H. Swope (1827-1909) and Alfred Benjamin (1859-1923)

The grounds of Swope Park were donated to the city in 1896. This 1911 map from the Kansas City Public Library illustrates the original size of the park.

I decided to group together Swope and Benjamin to reflect their shared resting place. When Swope Park was first dedicated as a public park in 1896, the land was four miles south of the city limits. Today, the park falls within the I-435 loop that surrounds the Kansas City Metroplex. The park has gradually gained more amenities over time. It is home to Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Zoo, and the Lakeside Nature Center.
The area had only been a park for thirteen years, though, when the donor of the lands passed.

Thomas Swope came to Kansas City in his 30th year. He proved to be a very shrewd land investor. On April 16, 1857, Swope re-sold a valuable tract of land to the city (near 10th Street and Grand Avenue), one of the early expansions of the city’s original boundaries. Despite Swope’s involvement in large-scale land investment, he remained a very private man, eventually moving to occupy a room in a family mansion at Independence, Missouri. I am sure he would have been mortified that his death in 1909 became such a public scandal. Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, the husband of his niece, had served as Swope’s doctor in his final illness, and the man was brought to trial for the murder of Thomas Swope. Three trials for Thomas Swope’s murder followed. Thomas Swope’s body only arrived at its memorial in Swope Park in 1918, and the memorial construction continued in three different phases of construction until 1931. It incorporates a mausoleum and colonnade (begun in 1917), a fountain and balustrade (begun in 1922), and a gate and stairway (begun in 1930). Rob Scott‘s photograph of the memorial appears at the top of this post.

This statue at the center of the Alfred Benjamin Memorial celebrates his generosity. Photo from

Alfred Benjamin came to Kansas City with his family in 1880 to launch a branch of the Abernathy Furniture Company. Benjamin rose to prominence, serving as vice-president of the company, and in 1905 he became president of the United Jewish Charities. Benjamin demonstrated a clear desire to help those in poverty, regardless of religion or race, and he donated a substantial portion of his own income to the cause. At his death in 1923, both Catholic and Jewish leaders spoke in his memory. Four years after his death, the memorial beside the road to Starlight Theatre was completed. The statue and fountain illustrate the principle he lived by, that those with much should contribute to the welfare of those who don’t have as much.

James F. Pendergast (1856-1911)

The Pendergast Machine dominated Kansas City politics for the first four decades of the twentieth century. “Alderman Jim” set the stage for his brother Tom’s domination, serving nine terms as alderman on the city council. His populist political style won him praise from the Kansas City Times obituary writer: “his generosity, his big-heartedness, his readiness to do favors for the ‘boys’…” By the time his memorial was dedicated in 1913, however, Prohibition had changed the appraisal of Jim Pendergast; his ownership of a saloon made him a participant in “an unnecessary business and a bad one” (Kansas City Journal-Post).

This image of the James Pendergast Memorial in its contemporary location comes from Flatland KC, the digital magazine of KCPT.

It may be unsurprising, then, that his memorial has had a checkered history. The monument shows him seated in a throne-like chair with flanking statues of youths with animals. The memorial started life in Mulkey Square Park, south of W. Twelfth Street, but the 1965 Crosstown Freeway project put it in storage for a while before it was replaced in the reshaped park. Whether James Pendergast was confused with his brother Tom or for another reason, the memorial has been a frequent target of vandals and thieves. Within a few years of its 1913 dedication, people had swiped the two flanking youthful figures (recast in 1916). In March 1933, the arms of the flanking figures were cut away. More damage followed, so that even the bronze panels showing the accomplishments of Pendergast were removed. Despite these challenges, the James Pendergast Memorial has been reconstituted. In 1990, the memorial was shifted to its current location at W. Ninth and Jefferson.

William Volker (1859-1947)

The vocation of William Volker would not seem hugely profitable, but his business in wholesaling picture frames led to a business selling window shades and soon other home furnishings. The Volker company eventually was able to open branches throughout most Western cities. Holding aside one million dollars for his wife’s benefit, he otherwise contributed tremendous sums of money to philanthropy on the large scale and to individuals. William Volker granted the land on which the main campus of University of Missouri– Kansas City was constructed, and he also launched the Research Medical Center.

This statue of the William Volker Memorial Fountain celebrates St. Martin of Tours. Photograph by Donald L. Smith

Piland and Uggucioni spend twelve pages of their book describing the development of the ambitious fountain celebrating William Volker. The puzzling character of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles delighted me. The principal subject of the fountain is Martin of Tours on horseback; the saint is known for having sliced his cloak in half to help a destitute person. Milles’ sense of whimsy really comes through in his sculpting a wristwatch on one of the angels! Carl Milles died in 1955, so he was present only in spirit for the fountain to be inaugurated at Theis Park in 1958. I have frequently driven past this enormous fountain in its second location on the south bank of Brush Creek. You can be sure I will stop to get a closer look the next time I visit my home town!

J.C. Nichols (1880-1950)

I could have sworn that the last fountain in this post was simply “the Kansas City Fountain” or “the Plaza Fountain,” but this probably reflects just how important J.C. Nichols was to the development of our city’s design. Many architects in our area were influenced by the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and 1900s. J.C. Nichols was a pioneer in designing urban projects that make room for automobiles. In 1908, the Kansas City Star gave a useful summary of his intent with what became the Country Club Plaza:

A general plan has been adopted by which boulevards, winding roads, stone walls, rustic bridges and circular drives, shelter houses, systematic planting of trees and shrubs, the creation of private parks, the treatment of running streams, work out into a harmonious whole. The old method of laying out in squares regardless of topography is abandoned and the property is so divided as to permit intelligent treatment of hillside or lowland, thus escaping any ugly unsightly cuts or fills.

Kansas City Star, April 28, 1908, quoted in G. Ehrlich, KCMO: An Architectural History 1826-1990

The Plaza is an obvious place to visit for almost anyone who comes to Kansas City for the first time. Unlike most parts of the city, the Plaza has a very unified Spanish architectural style, taking its pattern from architect Edward Delk. The 1923 Tower and Mill Creek buildings set the stamp that would influence the design of all other commercial buildings nearby. By 1967, Kansas City had become “sister city” to Seville, and it constructed a small replica of the Giralda tower at the Plaza.

This image of the J.C. Nichols fountain, featuring the Giralda replica, was made available through Wikimedia Commons.

I was quite surprised, then, to discover that the iconic Plaza fountain celebrating the life of J.C. Nichols was in fact created for the Mackay “Harbor Hill” Estate in New York by Henri Greber in 1910! The vandalized and dismantled fountain was purchased by the Nichols family in 1952, just two years after the death of J.C. Nichols. A local sculptor, Herman Frederick Simon, created plaster models to replace the heads of the two children riding dolphins. A monument for the Daughters of the Confederacy was moved from the Plaza site to make room for the new fountain. Construction could only begin once the necessary funds had been raised, and so dedication of the fountain could not take place until May of 1960. In 2014-2015, the fountain was refurbished at the cost of a quarter million dollars. Two months after this blog was originally posted, the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Perry Floyd, Jr.’s death elevated public awareness of J.C. Nichols’ efforts to segregate neighborhoods, making his homes available only to white families. In June of 2020, the mayor of Kansas City and its Parks and Recreation committees were debating plans to rename this fountain!


Naturally, these are just a few of the 200+ fountains offered by the City of Fountains. I love that some of the people who shaped Kansas City have been memorialized in this way. I feel some embarrassment that I haven’t also highlighted memorials remembering women, such as the American War Mothers Memorial,the Women’s Leadership Fountain, the Jane Hemingway Gordon Fountain, or the Mary Fraser Memorial Fountain. Our city was shaped by many people, and the joyful splash of running water can help us to celebrate all!

Kansas City origins: the bend in the river

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the area of the United States. Settlers were soon on their way west to claim farms and trading sites throughout the Purchase, often using the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to speed their travel. This blog post will examine the settlements near the bend of the Missouri River to answer a basic question: why did Kansas City become the largest city in Missouri?

Missouri as a launching pad

Today, we have any number of options for long-distance travel. It would seem no remarkable feat to travel to a city many states away by jet, and reaching another city in the same state is generally a simple matter of driving a car for several hours. In the days before railroads, however, rivers were necessary for speedy bulk transport. The pioneers who established trade routes to Spanish / Mexican territory, Mormons who sought a place to practice their religion in peace, French fur traders who needed to ship their goods east, gold miners bound for California, and others saw the Missouri River as the natural route. The National Park Service illustrates this neatly with their map of the National Trails System.

Zoom into NPS National Trails System Map. Mormon trail (yellow), California Trail (red), Oregon Trail (brown), and Pony Express (blue) overlap through Nebraska and Wyoming.

In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase, the federal government sent cavalry from St. Charles to construct Fort Osage near the Missouri River to extend its reach into the vast region and to protect a “factory” for the fur trade. The Osage Indians conducted an active trade with the fort, and they were willing to host missionaries from the United Foreign Missionary Society, which operated the Harmony Mission until 1837. The factory at Fort Osage, however, competed with the private fur trade, and it shut its doors in 1827. While Fort Osage was the first American outpost in the area, it did not nucleate a city.

This view of the rebuilt Fort Osage is from the riverside, courtesy of

The French fur traders had established networks across the Purchase in advance of its sale to the United States, and they continued their activities after its annexation. The Chouteau family ran the American Fur Company from St. Louis, Missouri. The family used formal marriages to solidify their grip on the trade, and they frequently established common-law marriages with women from native American groups to solidify trust relationships with them. Francois Gesseau and Bereniece Chouteau may reasonably be called the first settlers of what is now Kansas City, arriving in 1821. After his initial fur trading camp was washed away in the floods of 1826, Francois established a home and warehouse on higher ground at the Randolph Bluffs. “Chouteau’s Warehouse” became a key depot and boat-to-wagon transition site. While a dozen other families joined in the settlement, it remained largely a commercial site, growing in value especially after the Fort Osage factory was discontinued.

Five early settlements each contributed to forming the Kansas City Metro.

For the first few decades, Independence, Missouri looked like it would be the dominant city of the region. As the eastern terminus of the lucrative Santa Fe Trail, Independence was just six miles from the Blue Mills landing on the Missouri River. The trail continued past Santa Fe to the south to reach Chihuahua, Mexico, allowing traders to circumvent the high taxes of naval trade at the port of Veracruz. Samuel C. Owens and others recognized that “traders needed a town where supplies and livestock could be purchased and freight could be transferred to and from St. Louis by river, a town where they might finalize legal transactions and assemble goods for freighting to Mexico, and where they could monitor each other’s business interests” [O’Brien p. 34]. Three factors interfered with the continuing growth of Independence. Their interaction with Mormon immigrants from the east rapidly became disastrous (1827-1833). The Mormons fled across the Missouri River to Liberty in Clay County, where the refugees found less-than-hospitable hosts. The primary school that I attended in Liberty was named for Alexander Doniphan, a lawyer, soldier, and legislator who agreed to represent the Mormons in court. The disputes with Spain and the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 compromised the value the Santa Fe trail represented. The Bleeding Kansas Border War between 1854 and 1861 had a heavy toll on the region, to say nothing of the American Civil War. Today, Independence has become the fourth largest city in the state rather than the first.

In many respects, Westport was an attempt to swipe Independence’s role as the trail head for Santa Fe. If one could unload steamers even closer to the bend of the Missouri River than at Independence, a couple of days could be cut from the wagon travel time. In 1833, John C. McCoy decided to divide the lands around his trading post into lots for sale. The site, approximately four miles south of Chouteau’s Warehouse, lay along the trail from Independence to the southwest. Growth at Westport was sluggish at first, but then the 1837 Platte Purchase altered the Missouri state line to follow the Missouri River rather than head directly north; previously, this wedge of land had been used to re-home Native Americans from the east, and now they were being removed again.

1865 etching of City of Kansas, soon after its incorporation. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gabriel Prudhomme, one of the settlers at Chouteau’s Warehouse, had acquired some premium property at the site including a rocky landing on the riverside. His untimely death in 1831 resulted in a sale of his lands, and the buyers were fourteen investors who bought it to create the “Town of Kansas” (among them was John McCoy). In effect, the Prudhomme estate purchase made it possible to link Chouteau’s Warehouse with Westport. An 1838 survey established a set of lots for the expanded city, but a variety of mistakes led to contested claims. After a powerful flood of the Missouri River in 1844, the first brick buildings in the city were constructed in 1845, with the last of the initial lots selling in 1847. In 1850, the Town of Kansas was finally incorporated. Only three years later, it was renamed the City of Kansas. By contrast, nearly forty years had passed before the name was changed to “Kansas City!”

How do we test for the virus that causes COVID-19?

Since flu season can last until May in the Northern Hemisphere, a person appearing in the emergency department with nonstop coughing and labored breathing could represent influenza or COVID-19. Given that we have now confirmed that more than 100,000 people have a case of COVID-19, it is clear that we need clinical tests to find the people carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus (you may also see the name “2019-nCoV” used). This blog post is intended to explain the “real time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction” used to confirm that SARS-CoV-2 has infected a patient.

Johns Hopkins keeps us abreast of the current status of the outbreak.

As a starting point, I would note that real time RT-PCR is a mainstay in humanity’s battle against coronaviruses. In 2003, a team at University of Hong Kong published an optimized method of this type for recognizing the earlier SARS virus. Since the 2019 SARS-CoV-2 virus is a close relative of SARS-CoV-1, it makes sense that we would adapt the tools from our earlier epidemic to the current one.

How real time RT-PCR works

In my earlier post, I noted that the genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is a positive-sense single-stranded RNA. To use a technical term, RNA is twitchy; if a newcomer tries to work with it in the lab, we frequently find that the molecule degrades due to pH changes or RNAse enzymes that chop it up. One of our first moves, then, is to make a DNA molecule that is the complement (opposite strand) of the virus RNA genome. This requires an RNA-dependent DNA polymerase (also called a “reverse transcriptase”), an enzyme used by retroviruses like HIV to manufacture DNA from an RNA template. Making cDNA from the RNA in a sample makes a stable copy for what comes next.

Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons poshul

Polymerase Chain Reaction (“PCR”) is a technique that is absolutely indispensable to modern molecular biology. Ideally, each cycle of PCR doubles the number of copies of a targeted piece of DNA. Even if one is starting with a modest number of DNA molecules, a few cycles can boost those numbers considerably. Ten cycles at perfect efficiency, for example, should “amplify” each starting molecule into 1024 copies. One of the protocols created in Germany to detect SARS-CoV-2 allows for up to 45 cycles of PCR, meaning each starting molecule would become 35,184,372,088,832 copies (again, assuming perfect efficiency)! Amplifying with PCR is essential in the clinical test because we need enough copies of the genome to be able to detect them.

Polymerase Chain Reaction, as visualized at Wikimedia Commons

The last aspect I want to explain is the first part of the name, “real time.” In the bad old days, researchers would radioactively label probe DNA to determine whether or not it had annealed in a particular spot. If photographic film became dark in that spot after a long exposure, we knew that that our probe DNA annealed. We are much happier today that we can use fluorescent reporter dyes for instant feedback. Ideally, we want a fluorescent system in place that will tell us how many copies of our target DNA are present in the sample so that this is a quantitative assay (Often you will see this written as “qRT-PCR” to reflect that goal). We check fluorescence after every cycle of PCR. When we detect a sure fluorescence signal (one higher than a pre-specified threshold), we write down the cycle number as the “Ct” value for this sample.

Fluorescence measurements for each cycle of a PCR amplification via Wikimedia Commons

It’s all about the primers

Since real time RT-PCR is such an established method for virus screening, one might wonder why many patients in the United States have found it difficult to get themselves tested. The journal Science and the Washington Post have both recently published on the mistakes that prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from mass-producing a test for use throughout the United States. For the U.S., the usual sequence of events for a new disease test looks like this:

Typically, there are few confirmed viral samples from patients at the outset, which researchers need to validate their tests, and CDC has the capability to grow the virus for this critical quality assurance step. Once the agency has a working test, that goes out to state labs. Then, in a third phase, commercial labs take over and either produce their own tests or scale-up the CDC one.

Jon Cohen, Science 10.1126/science.abb5152

China developed an qRT-PCR test at a very early stage, publishing their test on January 21, 2020. Germany was also out of the gate early, publishing their test on January 17, 2020 (their approach was adopted by the World Health Organization). The CDC’s own test was made public on January 24, 2020. If you are interested, you can even review the step-by-step directions for conducting the test. I was proud of my alma matter, the University of Washington, for creating their own assay to detect this virus because of the outbreak in the city of Seattle.

A diagram showing the primers used in the German test for SARS-CoV-2

These assays all use different primers, the DNA guides that specify which pieces of DNA are amplified in PCR. The primers need to be designed to match parts of the viral genome that are conserved (unchanging among all circulating viruses). The sequence chosen for the primer is also important because it must be very specific to the virus to be detected. If the primers were picked for an area that is common to all coronaviruses, we could determine that one of these viruses were present (SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, or MERS-CoV) but not which one is present.

If primers are chosen inconsistently, it is possible that a sample could appear positive on one test (because its viral sequence matched the test 1 primers) while appearing negative on another test (because its viral sequence did not match the test 2 primers). Naturally, we’d like all the tests for COVID-19 to agree perfectly. At present, NCBI Virus shows 108 different virus sequences for SARS-CoV-2. The China National Center for Bioinformation, on the other hand, has released 380 virus genome sequences! Our ability to discern good places and poor places to align our primers is getting better with each new sequence.

Putting the tests to work

From what I’ve written above, it would seem that the CDC was ready to start wide screening for SARS-CoV-2 in late January. Two big barriers, however, stood in the way.

First, when CDC released the test for use in state laboratories on February 5th, several of the laboratories reported getting a positive result on the negative control that was distributed with the test. Naturally, we want to avoid two types of error with any clinical test: we do not want to claim healthy people are sick, and we do not want to claim sick people are healthy. We include negative controls in our COVID-19 tests so that samples known to lack the virus are tested alongside “unknowns.” If we see a positive result for a control known to lack the virus, something is wrong with the test. Multiple states reported that the tests they received from the CDC produced positive results for the negative control. As a result, they were allowed only to forward their samples to CDC for centralized testing.

This image from the February 1, 2020 version of the CDC’s Health Alert Network restricted testing to too small a population. It has been superseded by two later revisions to this policy, at the time of writing.

The second chief problem came from CDC’s guidance on who could be tested for the virus behind COVID-19. Only patients who had recently traveled to Mainland China or who had been exposed to a person known to have been infected by the virus could be tested. As a result, we neglected to test people we later realized were carrying the virus to others in the community. As of this writing, the guidance on testing has been expanded:

Priorities for testing may include:
1) Hospitalized patients who have signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 in order to inform decisions related to infection control.
2) Other symptomatic individuals such as, older adults (age ≥ 65 years) and individuals with chronic medical conditions and/or an immunocompromised state that may put them at higher risk for poor outcomes (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, receiving immunosuppressive medications, chronic lung disease, chronic kidney disease).
3) Any persons including healthcare personnel, who within 14 days of symptom onset had close contact with a suspect or laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 patient, or who have a history of travel from affected geographic areas within 14 days of their symptom onset.

Updated Guidance on Evaluating and Testing Persons for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) March 8, 2020

The upshot

A look at the current map of worldwide COVID-19 cases is haunting. More than 4000 people have died, and 114,000 people have been diagnosed with the disease (and those numbers will be out of date by the time you read this). The most recent situation report from the WHO, however, shows some really good news that I want to highlight (numbers come from report 49):

As the nation where this virus was first observed, China has borne the brunt of COVID-19 disease, with more than 3000 of the deaths taking place there. It may surprise you to learn that China diagnosed only 105 people with the disease in the last 24 hours (45 confirmed, 60 suspected). During that same period, an additional 23 people died of COVID-19. These losses are tragic, but they also represent a huge drop versus what China was facing on Valentine’s Day. This epidemic can be beaten, and the measures China has taken have been effective.

The Republic of Korea has a different governmental system than China, of course, and that made some differences in what policies could be used to limit spread of the disease. Korea opted to make widespread testing its mechanism to ensure that people with the virus spread it no further. They even created “drive-through” testing centers (an idea later adopted at the University of Washington). Their surveillance was able to detect cases as soon as possible, cutting into the hidden transmission of the virus. In Situation Report 49, we see that Korea has diagnosed a total of 7382 cases of COVID-19, with only 248 added in the last 24 hours. They are beating this disease because they are screening for it.

As countries all over the world are detecting the arrival of COVID-19 on their shores or are detecting growing numbers of cases each day, it is worth remembering that public health officials are doing their best to get ahead of this virus. We have many miles left to go, but I imagine that two or three months from now, the initial panic will have given way to determination. We will drive the new infection rate for SARS-CoV-2 to zero!

I would like to thank Dr. Marisa Klopper and Dr. Melanie Grobbelaar for checking my discussion of RT-PCR. The remaining mistsakes are my fault!

Who are the heroes among Namibia’s Herero?

I grappled with Marion Wallace’s A History of Namibia, but I kept feeling like I was getting lost. Natasha suggested that I try to focus on a more narrow topic than an nation’s complete history, and Jan-Bart Gewald‘s Herero Heroes seemed a great place to start. At first I tried reading a scanned PDF available on the net, but I quickly shifted to reading a print copy from my university library. One might guess from the title that it would be a laudatory paean to remarkable men and women among the Herero, but instead the title kept taunting me as I read about the profound challenges the Herero faced during the lifetime of Samuel Maherero (1856-1923). Who are the heroes Gewald wants to celebrate?

Introducing three populations of Namibia

This 1876 map from UCT Digital Africana shows the Ovambo, Damara (Herero), and Namaqua regions from North to South in the region that became Namibia. The Namib Desert lines the coast, while the Kalahari is further inland.

A bit of orientation will help for those who have never visited Namibia. Gewald’s book centers upon the Herero people of central Namibia (the green box above labeled “Damara Pasture” from Windhoek northward) who speak dialects of Otjiherero, including the Ovaherero, Ovambanderu, and Ovahimba. The Herero also go under the name “Damara,” which is confusing because the Berg Damara are an entirely different population. The Herero were largely pastoralists, traveling with their herds among permanent and transitory water sources as heavy rains alternated with droughts.

The Ovambo, by contrast, customarily lived much further north in a region straddling what is now the Namibia / Angola border; this map notes that they live in the best agricultural land of the region (green crescent at map top). The Ovambo barely take part in Gewald’s book. In effect, Ovamboland functions as a separate country until a Portuguese attack combined with a drought sent refugees streaming south in 1912-1915. I believe the 1992 dissertation from PM Hayes would be informative for this group.

The Nama people of Greater Namaqualand, however, play a major role, particularly in the earliest part of the book. I would definitely recommend a look at Brigitte Lau’s 1982 UCT dissertation for the emergence of these groups at the start of the 19th century. The Nama people incorporated a fair number of groups named for major family heads, such as the Red Nation, the Bondelswarts, or the Swartboois. By contrast, the Oorlam people were migrants who had come north from the Cape Colony. Both Nama and Oorlam groups gave rise to two early candidates for Gewald’s “Heroes,” though neither came from the Herero population.

Leaders from the South

Jonker Afrikaner (1785-1861) is the emblematic Oorlam. His grandfather Klaas Afrikaner led the Oorlam’s invasion into the southern part of Greater Namaqualand during the first decades of the 19th century. Jonker Afrikaner established a strong relationship with the most senior Nama chief to dominate trade relationships with the Cape Colony to the south. Together, they built the system of “kommando politics” that provided Brigitte Lau the title for her dissertation. In many respects, the city of Windhoek owes its founding to his son, Jan Jonker Afrikaner. For all that he accomplished, though, Jonker Afrikaner was something of a warlord, and he was Oorlam rather than Herero. He is not the hero of Gewald’s book.

Hendrik Witbooi adopts a very similar mien among his photographs. This one, by Lange, appeared in Laura Konrad’s “Die Macht des Visuellen.”

Hendrik Witbooi (1830-1905) has almost legendary status in Namibia; his statue stands before the Parliament building, and his resolute face looks back from its currency. This Nama leader was a committed Christian, and he believed he had divine instructions to move his people to the north. He was a devoted letter-writer and diarist, with almost the status of prophet for his writings against imperialism. His charisma drew together a powerful band of fighters who caused any amount of trouble for the Herero to the north as well as for the first German attempts to establish colonies. Given that he is not Herero, though, Witbooi cannot be the title character for Gewald.

The problematic Samuel Maherero

Samuel Maharero, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Samuel Maharero (1856-1923) would seem an obvious pick for Gewald’s “Hero,” given that the book is framed to the period of his lifetime. Becoming the first paramount chief of all Herero is quite an accomplishment, no? Is Samuel Maharero the equivalent of George Washington for central Namibians? For many reasons, I must give an emphatic “no!”

An empire seeking to establish a colony is always going to seek ways to divide the population of that area, and the 1890 death of Chief Maharero Tjamuaha (Samuel’s father) was the perfect crack in central Namibia for Germany to exploit. Although Chief Maharero held a prominent position among Herero at his capital of Okahandja, recent attacks by Hendrik Witbooi had destroyed much of the wealth of that city. The Herero used bidirectional inheritance, along patrilineal (Oruzuo) and matrilineal (Eanda) lines. Samuel Maharero was in competition with his cousin Nicodemus Kavikunua and his father’s half-brother Riarua for the chieftancy in the patrilineal inheritance. Over the four years of the succession dispute, however, Samuel Maharero “alone successfully solicited the support and power of Germany, the new player on the ballfield” [Gewald p. 41]. The moves he made to secure chieftancy and paramount chieftancy were divisive and destructive to groups of the Herero:

  1. Samuel Maherero sold large tracts of land that he didn’t actually control to the German colony (he was not alone in this).
  2. Although Samuel Maharero formed an alliance with Hendrik Witbooi against the German incursion in early 1893, he returned to beg for German military support against his father’s half-brother Riarua in 1894. Riarua was compelled to give Samuel tremendous wealth he had inherited from Samuel’s father. The Germans installed a garrison at Okahandja.
  3. When the Germans browbeat Manasse Tjisiseta into accepting a garrison at the wealthy settlement of Omaruru and losing its valuable lands during 1894, Samuel Maharero agreed to accompany the Germans to play the role of paramount chief over Manasse Tjisiseta.
  4. In 1895, Samuel Maharero and his allies forced removals of Herero from lands he had signed over to the Germans. He used the threat of war with Germany as a club to subjugate his cousins Nicodemus Kavikunua and Tjetjo Kandji to his own rule and take their wealth.
  5. Samuel Maharero captured and coerced people from the Berg Damara villages to sell into labor contracts in the German colony and in the Cape Colony (he was not alone in this).

I have less to say about Samuel Maharero’s conduct during the rinderpest plague and during the German-Herero conflict of 1904-1907 (it may be appropriate to call it an attempted genocide rather than a war). Whenever Samuel Maharero appears in those two chapters, he seems to be passenger rather than a driver of events. After the war, he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, though Gewald paints a remarkable picture of his burial at Okahandja. In brief, it seems unlikely that Samuel Maharero is intended as the hero of this book.

German antagonist

In a book focused on the experience of the Herero, one might expect a very one-dimensional view of the Germans. Instead, Theodor Leutwein comes across as something of a Henry Kissinger-type, someone who will always seek the lowest-cost route to get what he wants. Leutwein’s arrival at Windhoek in 1894 was closely followed by an accelerating erosion of Herero property throughout the region. Contrary to Imperial German stereotype, however, Leutwein always seems more content for Samuel Maharero to pound the table than to do it himself. Whenever Leutwein sent troops to a place, he almost always sought a comparable number from Samuel Maharero; certainly, Leutwein strongly preferred that his soldiers display their weapons rather than fire them. What Gewald paints in his book is a partnership between Leutwein and Maharero, not between an imperial martinet and a flunky.

Theodor Leutwein with Zacharias Zeraua, Manasse Tjiseseta, and Samuel Maharero (1895) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gewald’s depictions of Lothar von Trotha and Ralph Zürn leave less room for subtlety. Their willingness to warfare is nothing to celebrate.

The unlikely heroes

When I read between the lines written by Gewald, I see three groups of Herero who stand for him as heroes. All three come together in the moving passages about the funeral of Samuel Maherero. First, throughout the book, Herero are compelled to take to their feet to avoid the encroaching German colonial forces. We learn of a substantial Herero exile community, some passing north to the Ovambo, some passing east to Botswana, and others making their way to the Cape. When Hebrews were forced into exile after the loss of Jerusalem, they responded by recording the Pentateuch; how would the Herero keep their cultural center in exile? I believe Gewald sees Samuel Maharero’s posthumous return to his homeland as a message of hope. I believe that Gewald had intended another chapter about the exiles for this book, but some of that material appeared later.

When Gewald first introduced the Truppenspieler Movement in his book, I worried that he was having some fun at the expense of “weekend warriors.” As I read further, though, I came to understand that the Herero that had served as part of the German colonial armies numbered in the tens of thousands, and they felt a strong sense of dislocation when the South African army boiled into Namibia during World War I. (If that invasion interests you, I strongly suggest you read Louis Botha’s War, by Adam Cruise.) Why not reassemble the brigade? I can imagine the bewilderment when clothing stores asked whether uniform clothing could be sold to Herero. Why not practice marching and drill with your friends, if that is the world you know? The Truppenspielers developed welfare funds to support their communities, much like the asafos who built posubans throughout Ghana.

Thousands of Herero survived the concentration camps that were run by the Rhenish Mission. As I passed through the final chapter of the book, I realized that Gewald was portraying a religious evolution on the part of camp survivors. The missionaries who sought to shape these Christians were discovering that their parishioners had ideas of their own. Europeans may have come to southern Africa to bring Christianity to the heathen, but in the end many of their converts came to embody Christian principles better than the Europeans who invaded their country.

At base, Herero Heroes makes agency its central tenet, quite the opposite of Scramble for Africa. We learn about the motivations of leaders among the Herero as they moved to manage the incursion of Germans into their homeland. We sense Hendrik Witbooi’s frustration that the Nama and Herero are fighting each other instead of the real invaders. We learn of a complex Samuel Maharero who may have lost sight of the good of his people as he scrambled for power of his own. I am convinced that the best history books are not those that “tell a good story” but rather those that help us understand the people of another time. Herero Heroes should definitely be included in that list.

Rinderpest virus, the scourge of Africa

In 1841, a ship docking at Alexandria unleashed a panzootic with dire consequences for Africa (a panzootic is the equivalent of pandemic, but for animals). Within two years, 665,000 cattle had died throughout Egypt [Cattle Plague Chapter 22]. Much worse was yet to come, though. During 1888-1896, the “rinderpest” plague blasted from the horn of Africa all the way South to the Cape Colony and all the way West to Senegal. The rinderpest caused over 90% mortality in the previously flourishing cattle populations of Africa. Wild herds of buffalo and wildebeests also suffered tremendous losses, sometimes acting as disease carriers between distant kraals of cattle.

This image from the AVIS consortium relates the symptoms of rinderpest.

Cattle have long held great socioeconomic significance in the traditional pastoral societies of Africa. Cattle’s role in these societies is not simply one of economics and survival because cattle play a key role in ritual and social definition. A person’s wealth and social importance could be shown in the size of herds; a man’s ability to accumulate and loan cattle defines the role he plays within his community. Even the spatial layout of villages is defined by cattle/male spaces and non-cattle/female spaces. The central kraal is where male elders would conduct their work. Cattle meat is exclusively reserved for the consumption of chiefs and for ritual practice. Dairy products, however, are a key part of the agro-pastoralist diet. Cow milk and blood from living animals may be mixed with millet to create a nutritious porridge. The fermentation of milk to produce amasi is commonplace. Cattle knit society together; for a leader to entrust part of the herd to a follower’s care could represent a statement of alliance. In some cultures, a young man cannot marry until he has acquired cattle. Wars have been initiated by ceremonially stealing a single animal from another group (such as the 1863 ovita vyongombongange described in Wallace, p.63). The great rinderpest plague destroyed far more than a food source; it undermined the fabric of traditional societies across Africa.

A general diagram of the central cattle pattern from Badenhorst (2009).

In 2011, the rinderpest virus was announced to be eradicated in the wild, only the second virus to reach this status (after smallpox in 1979). Today, laboratories that still house samples of this virus are being urged to “sequence and destroy” them to prevent their ever escaping into the wild. In this post, I’d like to detail the rinderpest virus and describe how we eradicated this threat.

An introduction to Rinderpest morbillivirus

Morbillivirus diagram from ViralZone

Rinderpest is an example of the morbillivirus genus within family Paramyxoviridae. This genus harbors some genuine killers. The one everybody cares about is rubeola, the virus that causes measles. Rubeola is one of the most contagious viruses in the world for person-to-person transmission, as summarized in the “R naught” metric of 12 or higher (rinderpest scores 4.6 on this scale). Until recently, almost every child was vaccinated against rubeola infection, typically in the “Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR)” vaccine. This vaccine definitely counts as one of the miracles of modern medicine, so I am frankly irritated that people make up nonsense to suggest that ordinary children should not receive this vaccine. Save a life, perhaps your own child’s, by ensuring your kids are vaccinated.

The CDC says so, and I agree!

Superficially, paramyxoviridae such as rinderpest seem quite similar to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Both are enveloped viruses of around 150 nm diameter that contain a single-stranded copy of the genome in RNA. Rinderpest, though, has a “negative sense” genome rather than the “positive sense” genome of SARS-CoV-2. The rinderpest genome is only about half the size, at 15.88 kb (thousands of nucleotide bases). The set of genes for paramyxoviridae is pretty different from those of SARS-CoV-2. Here’s how the changes play out:

Structure 1E8T illustrates the hemagglutinin-neuraminidase protein from the Newcastle Disease paramyxovirus. [Susan Crennell et al, Nature Structural Biology]

The grappling hook: Hemagglutinin, made famous by the influenza virus, is one of those proteins that makes me think “sinister!” Our cells frequently use sugar molecules on their exteriors as doorbells of a sort. Hemagglutinin attaches to sialic acid, triggering the cell to engulf the virus. While it’s ringing the doorbell, the Fusion protein causes the viral envelope and cell membrane to merge so that the viral contents can enter the cell. Nasty.

The production line: Negative-stranded RNA viruses need to send messenger-RNA to the cell’s ribosomes to produce viral proteins. It cannot use the cell’s transcription machinery to do that, though, so it must contribute its own RNA-dependent transcription equipment. We think of the Central Dogma of molecular biology allowing mRNA to be built from a dsDNA template, but viruses don’t really care about our “rulebook.”

An “antigenome” is a wrong-sense copy of an RNA genome. Figure 1 from Sarah Noton and Rachel Fearns.

The genome copier: Every virus wants to manufacture more viruses once it has sufficient control of cellular machinery. The same enzyme that built the transcripts for individual genes of the virus can switch to another mode that creates a complementary copy of the virus genome. “Not so fast,” you say, “the complement of a negative sense viral genome is a positive sense strand. You can’t ship that out and get a functional virus!” Here’s the tricky part: once the RNA-dependent RNA polymerase has made a full-length positive-sense complement to the genome (“antigenome”), it can build a complementary strand to the positive-sense genomic RNA that will then be a negative-sense genomic RNA, ready for packaging. One gene is capable of making 1) mRNAs from the viral genome, 2) full-length complementary RNA genome copies, and 3) a full-length negative-sense RNA genome ready for viral packaging. The virus has placed our Central Dogma in the trash and closed the lid!

How we beat the rinderpest

(1896, probably near Vryburg) Eradication teams slaughtered all livestock in areas expecting arrival of the rinderpest virus.

Initial efforts to prevent the spread of rinderpest into South Africa were reminiscent of zombie movies. A pair of massive fences along the border with Botswana was intended to prevent infected cattle from wandering from Matabele lands. The area near Mafeking was proclaimed a “cattle-free zone,” and many herds were shot and buried. Despite these efforts, rinderpest repeatedly appeared within South Africa. Any herd with a single infection reported was immediately slaughtered. Thousands of animals were destroyed to forestall the spread of the disease, but eventually a transport rider brought the disease to the Eastern Cape. An estimated 2.5 million cattle died in Southern Africa between 1896 and 1899.

The agro-pastoral communities understandably did not have a lot of trust for the white settlers’ claims about the best way to manage the spreading plague. The people of these communities didn’t generally appreciate the disinfection of their persons, particularly when it was used as retribution rather than a clinical necessity. The destruction of a cattle herd was eviscerating to people living in traditional communities in a way that it was not for white farmers. At a high level, the relationships among leaders were destroyed when the cattle that represented those links were dead. At the ground level, people were forced to eat “roots, grubs, locusts, and even decaying meat” to survive. Rinderpest played an out-of-scale role in the destruction of traditional society throughout sub-Saharan Africa, just as the Scramble for Africa was reaching full steam.

Local researchers Dr. Arnold Theiler and Dr. Herbert Watkins-Pitchford banded together to fight rinderpest, but the government wasted their time by compelling them to test the spurious “remedies” put forward by farmers such as water deprivation and snake venom. European expertise was recruited at substantial expense. German Scientist Dr. Robert Koch resided in Kimberley from 1886 to 1897 working this problem, and a team of French scientists from the Pasteur Institute came to South Africa near the end of Koch’s period in country.

Dr. Koch, already famous for his work in anthrax and in enunciating “Koch’s Posulates,” arrived with considerable star-power. He brought Dr. Paul M.J. Kohlstock to assist him. Koch was initially skeptical of Russian Professor Eugene Semmer‘s findings that fluids removed from infected animals could evoke a protective response if injected into an animal that had not yet developed illness. When Koch announced in February, 1897 a treatment based on this strategy, using 5 mL of bile from sick animals, he was celebrated as a hero. Kohlstock accepted an invitation to German Southwest Africa (the colony that later became Namibia) to introduce a refined technique there.

Robert Koch was widely considered a great man by the time of this 1897 photograph from the Wellcome Collection.

In practice, the Koch “Bile Method” was nearly as problematic as the absence of a cure. The death rate of treated cattle was approximately half; the protective benefits only began days after treatment and lasted less than half a year. In German Southwest Africa, some indigenous farmers objected when they saw that cows were repeatedly taken from their farms for bile production to save cattle at other farms (this process was, of course, painfully fatal for the cow). The French team of Mr. Jean Danysz and Dr. Jules Bordet built upon experiments by Theiler and Watkins-Pitchford to develop the “Serum Method,” which soon bore the moniker the “French Method.” It was announced just six months after the Bile Method and soon came to supplant it. When war was declared at the start of the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1898, the panzootic was nearly under control within South Africa.

The modern world was not freed of rinderpest by these early strategies. A tissue culture-based vaccine was created by English Research Veterinarian Walter Plowright at Kenya in 1960. I feel a sense of kinship with him because he also left his homeland to join in the amazing story of Africa! His vaccine was applied aggressively in cattle throughout Africa by Joint Project 15 project to reduce the rinderpest pockets to just the Niger Inland Delta and an area of southern Sudan. A renewed effort by the Pan-African Rinderpest Campaign in the late 1980s followed another wave of the disease out of these pockets. A 1992 effort created a thermostable vaccine that could be used even if left unrefrigerated for a week!

Stamping out rinderpest took a worldwide effort over decades (from Our World in Data).

As detailed in Mariner et al, rinderpest eradication required much more than just a viable vaccine. Teams of “local intermediaries called community-based animal health care workers” were recruited and trained, though some locals perceived this effort as competition for their jobs. Eradication was not a strictly top-down effort. Instead, community knowledge of herds and migration schedules and made a significant difference in handling local outbreaks quickly. The network created by the PARC effort may be useful in controlling other diseases such as “peste des petits ruminants,” bird flu, Rift Valley fever, and foot and mouth disease.

Rinderpest posed a tremendous challenge to African communities in the late nineteenth century, but the rapidly evolving field of veterinary medicine was able to control it long enough that it could be eradicated by modern techniques. When the chips are down, it’s a good idea to have some scientists on call!

[I want to offer a special thank you to Natasha for helping me understand the importance of cattle in indigenous societies.]

On the trail of COVID-19: new virus, familiar family

As the world learned that the USA had assassinated Qasem Soleimani during the first week of 2020, doctors in China were coming to grips with a new viral infection that was spreading rapidly through the population of Wuhan. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, with a metro population above 19 million. Coincidentally, I had visited Hangzhou, China (800 km / 500 miles distant) just two months before!

This photograph comes from Felix Wong in the South China Morning Post / Getty.

The first hospitalization of a patient diagnosed with the COVID-19 disease took place on December 12th, 2019. The initial spread apparently took place in the Huanan Seafood Market, a “wet market” in the city. As the severity of the new virus became apparent, the market was closed on January 1, 2020. These markets generally feature both live animals and meat, and yet Huanan was quite close to the center of the city. The proximity of animals particularly matters in this case, because COVID-19 is a “zoonotic” disease. In other words, this virus didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere; instead, it is believed to have jumped the species boundary to enter human populations from an animal population. It’s quite possible that the virus jumped from a wildlife population (likely bats, in this case) to a domesticated animal population to humans. This property is not particularly unusual; we frequently see strains of influenza jump from other species, and we believe that HIV derived from Simian Immunodeficiency Virus.

A molecular view of COVID-19

I am stunned to learn how much information has been produced in just two months for COVID-19. The World Health Organization settled on a name for the disease during the last week; it appears that the virus will be called SARS-CoV-2, replacing the temporary name 2019-nCoV. For information about the disease, I suggest a visit to websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. I was also impressed by what I found at the famed journal Lancet. For my part, I was glad to see the volume of molecular information already available at NCBI and particularly the Protein Data Bank. To have seen this virus for the first time only a month and a half ago, scientists have clearly been putting in overtime hours!

At left, T4 bacteriophage by Adenosine at Wikimedia Commons. At right, a SARS coronavirus invades, by David S. Goodsell of RCSB Protein Data Bank.

When people envision the word “virus,” they might think of an icosahedral bacteriophage like the left part of the image above; these complexes of protein and nucleic acid are indeed viruses. Frequently the viruses that infect humans have a rather more complex structure. Coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19 are large, enveloped, positive-sense single-stranded RNA genome viruses with a strong penchant for recombination. They have been studied extensively since their discovery in the late 1960s. I’ll try to explain that description here.

Let’s start with “large.” Each coronavirus is fairly bulky, with a size between 80-160 nm. Quite a few of the media stories about the virus show people wearing disposable breath masks. Even the best of those masks are designed to filter particulates of 0.6 microns, or 600 nm. When doctors work with nasty respiratory diseases like multiply drug-resistant tuberculosis, they generally wear an N95 respirator. Those are intended to block 95% of particulates of 300 nm size. I was surprised to learn that N95 masks are not as effective for people who wear beards!

The term enveloped is used to describe a virus that is surrounded by a membrane. You can see electron micrograph images of the virus causing COVID-19 at Flickr (including the one at the top of this post). Coronaviruses still contain many proteins and copies of a genome, but they are surrounded by a lipid bilayer, just like human cells. When human cells are hijacked to manufacture many copies of the virus, the mature virions “bud” from the cell surface, surrounding themselves with a bubble of the cell’s own membrane. This membrane is also important in their invasion of new cells. The virus initiates a membrane fusion to merge its envelope with the target cell, releasing the virus contents into the new cell.

To say a virus employs a “positive-sense single-stranded RNA genome” will bewilder most people, so let’s visit each word. Human genomes are made of double-stranded DNA, the familiar “double helix.” Our 23 pairs of chromosomes amount to a total of roughly three billion nucleotides, with just over 20,000 protein-coding genes. Bacterial genomes are also double-stranded DNA, but they are far more compact. Our intestinal friend E. coli, for example, has a genome size of 4.7 million nucleotides (0.15% the size of human genome), coding for around 4,400 protein-coding genes (22% the size of the human proteome, discounting variable splicing etc.). The virus that causes COVID-19 has a genome around 29,900 nucleotides in length (0.64% the size of the E. coli genome). Counting its proteins is a little challenging since many viruses produce “polyproteins” that are translated in one long polypeptide and then cleaved to functional proteins via proteases. Instead of being stored as double-stranded DNA, though, each virus contains the genome in a single RNA molecule that is not base-paired (rather than a twisted ladder, the RNA strand can adopt a complicated shape on its own). We describe it as “positive-sense” because once the RNA genome has been released from the virus, it can immediately be translated by the cell’s ribosomes to produce protein!

Genome annotation for SARS-CoV-2 genome from NCBI

What does this molecular information tell us?

We have seen viruses like this before. As of Valentine’s Day, scientists had sequenced 78 different SARS-CoV-2 viruses, giving us a reliable look at its “wild type” sequence. In this case, the name indicates a strong similarity to SARS-CoV, a virus resulting in the SARS outbreak of 2002. COVID-19 appears to spread a bit more easily because people in the earliest stage of the disease are more able to walk around than people in the earliest stages of 2002 SARS.

PDB structure 3DDK is an example of an RNA-Dependent RNA Polymerase from Coxsackievirus.

This virus sequence can change rapidly. One of the reasons cells store their genomes in DNA is that DNA is more resistant to mutation than is RNA. Positive-sense RNA viruses employ RNA-dependent RNA polymerase to manufacture new viral genomes, and this enzyme makes proofreading mistakes in about one of every 10,000 nucleotides added to the sequence. Since the sequence of the viral genome is roughly 30,000 nucleotides in length, that means we expect three “letters” to be wrong every time a new genome copy is made. In addition, coronaviruses are noted for their ability to “mix it up” through recombination, a process where different genomes swap segments. Recombination is a mechanism by which a virus can undergo “antigenic shift,” drawing together the worst of multiple strains in a single virus.

Rhinolophus sinicus, the Chinese horseshoe bat, is common in China and as far west as Nepal.

This virus matches sequences we have seen in bats. The publication announcing the genome sequence of this virus noted a strong similarity with Bat-SL-CoVZC45 and Bat-SL-CoVZXC21. We are fortunate that researchers began looking at coronaviruses in wildlife populations in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak. Those carefully curated sequences, along with the information drawn from SARS-CoV itself, provided a base of information against which the SARS-CoV-2 could be compared including protein crystal structures. As we pursue vaccines and symptom-reducing drugs, this information, particularly concerning the cell surface receptor targeted by the virus, will be crucial in stopping its spread and relieving those who have been infected by SARS-CoV-2.

Protein Data Bank 2AJF shows the SARS coronavirus spike receptor-binding domain complexed with its receptor, ACE2.

The New York Times published an excellent guide to the proteins of SARS-CoV-2 in early April, 2020.

I would like to dedicate this post to Bentley Fane, the professor who first fascinated me with virology.

Rivers and Agency in Pakenham’s _Scramble for Africa_

[The map above comes from the Atlas of British Empire.]

If humanity first developed on the continent of Africa, why was the continent so vulnerable to the greed of European nations during the Victorian era? How did the life of David Livingstone, inveterate explorer and ardent opponent of slavery, inspire European commercial interests to exploit forced labor on an altogether massive scale throughout the continent? The Age of Imperialism destroyed indigenous governments throughout Africa. Despite European claims that they were bringing the “three Cs” to Africa (Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization), it now seems clear these claims were just euphemisms behind which they hid robbery, barbarity, and subjugation.

Thomas Pakenham has authored three books on African history (The Mountains of Rasselas, The Boer War, and The Scramble for Africa). While he doesn’t have graduate training in history, his books have dramatized history for popular audiences. Having recently read Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa (1991), I wanted to share some of my thoughts about the work.

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” from the French edition of Stanley’s book “How I Found Livingstone” (via Wikimedia Commons)

The book launches its story from the last years of David Livingstone, a missionary and explorer who developed a profound anger at the activities of slave traders. His 1857 speech at Cambridge resounded long after his death in 1873: “I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity; do you carry out the work which I have begun. I leave it with you!” His successors such as Henry Morton Stanley, however, drifted quite far from Livingstone’s humanism. Stanley was apparently born for confrontation, earning himself the nickname “Bula Matari” by his penchant to dynamite any rock in his way. This predilection extended to his treatment of human beings, too.

Image from Ernst Keil’s Die Gartenlaube, 1884 in Wikimedia Commons

Before reading the book, my vague understanding of the Scramble for Africa was that the “The Berlin Conference” (1884-1885) amounted to a conspiracy among European nations to parcel out the continent of Africa to zones where each had already established or intended to establish a colony. In the book, however, this conference is positioned in roughly the middle of the Scramble. The conference is cast as an effort to prevent tensions over acquisitions in Africa from boiling into European wars, with some nations playing their cards openly and others indulging in deceit. The book does a good job of illustrating why a crown domain (such as King Leopold’s special zone in the Congo Free State) was different from a federation (such as one where Britain handled international affairs for the Transvaal) or from the gradually solidifying trade relationships that predated the Scramble, such as between Britain and what is now the nation of Ghana.

The mighty rivers of Africa

The rivers of Africa were the points of entry for colonial powers. Created in R with Natural Earth and GGPlot

What I most needed to help my understanding of the Scramble was a proper river map of Africa. For a continent reputed to be dry, Africa has a considerable number of major water-courses, particularly in the sub-Saharan region. There’s a temptation for a modern reader of Pakenham’s book to ask, “in what modern country does this chapter take place?” Frequently, the place names are challenging to pin down to modern locations. I was confused for quite a lot of pages why British, French, and Belgian forces were all careening hell-for-leather to reach Fashoda, for example, when I could not place it on the map! Today it is the town of Kodok, in South Sudan. Its importance, however, stems from a marsh in the upper White Nile. Britain and France might easily have gone to war over its ownership, since Britain was determined no other nation would control the upper Niles while it controlled Egypt.

Image of Pool Malebo (sometimes called Stanley Pool) taken from the International Space Station

Americans are frequently taught that the Amazon River discharges more water to sea every second than any other on earth. The second-largest river on earth, however, is the Congo River. It was the site of a bitter rivalry between Henry Stanley and Pierre de Brazza, an explorer of Italian birth who worked for the French. Both were hoping to create a navigable channel from the “Stanley Pool” (now called Pool Malebo, with the capital cities Brazzaville and Kinshasa on opposite banks) to the Atlantic Ocean. True to his nickname, Stanley was blasting the lower cataracts of the Congo River with dynamite, while Brazza explored a route inland via the Ogooué River, flowing through what is now Gabon.

Dakar-Bamako railway map from Margaret O. McLane “Railways or Waterways: the Dakar Railway Network and the Senegal River

Before reading Scramble, I had never heard the name Gustave Borgnis-Desbordes, a French military commander tasked with establishing forts to connect the Senegal and Niger Rivers by railroad. (Awkwardly, Pakenham makes no mention of explorer Paul Soleillet, who had championed this railway.) The challenge of linking these two rivers fills me with awe. In the maps above, the Senegal and Niger Rivers appear quite close together, but of course river basins generally are separated from each other by high ground or even mountains. The French were making the best of their established position in Algeria and the Sahara; if they could link the two rivers by a railway across the desert, they would be able to reach any part of the Niger basin by navigating up the Senegal River instead. A route from the Atlantic Coast to the Niger River was actually completed, though not until 1923, running from Dakar, Senegal to Bamako, Mali on the Niger River; the finalized train route bypassed the Senegal River entirely! This theme of connecting river systems also explains why the Belgians (who eventually controlled the royal colony in the Congo) were interested in Fashoda on the Nile. If a reliable route could be found between the upper Congo and upper Nile, the interior of Africa would be ripe for exploitation.

This image from Wikimedia Commons illustrates the relationship between the Vaal and Orange Rivers.

If I may, I’ll highlight one more story about rivers, this time as borders. Sometimes South Africans will speak of the Boer South African Republic (1852-1902), but instead one generally hears the area called the “Transvaal.” This reflects that the Boers traveled across the Vaal River to reach an area beyond Britain’s claims at the Cape Colony. The Vaal River, in turn, is the northern tributary to the Orange River on the river map above. The Orange (or !Garib or Gariep) River is itself a national border between South Africa and Namibia. I had not realized just how suddenly Germany changed from its position that colonies were a distraction to claiming four areas of Africa as national colonies. Namibia and Tanzania are two that I have written about previously. Scramble had quite a lot to offer in explaining how the nations along the northern border of South Africa were established. Cecil Rhodes definitely comes across as a man who needed watching; his “adventures” launched any number of wars in Southern Africa.

Agency: Africans were not passive in the face of invasion

If one were to read Scramble for Africa inattentively, it would be easy to come away with the conclusion that Africans were bewildered and helpless in face of Europeans coming to plant a flag on a given riverbank. A closer look, though, shows many forms of effective resistance on display in even this Eurocentric account (many historians have commented on its weaknesses). I want to highlight a few of the African leaders that really stuck with me.

Cetshwayo spent 1879-1884 exiled from his Kingdom. British Library HMNTS 10097.df.8 via Wikimedia Commons

King Cetshwayo of the Zulu humiliated the British Army at Isandlwana in 1879. On many occasions, the armies of Europe failed to take seriously the African forces opposing them. To assume that African tactics were ineffective or that their warriors were cowards or fools was dangerous. To assume African soldiers were armed only with spears was foolish given that Europeans had been trading arms to Africans for more than a century. At Isandlwana, perhaps as many as 1500 British soldiers and support staff died because of the arrogance of Lord Chelmsford. Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa describes the Battle of Isandlwana almost entirely from the perspective of the British, doing little to let us understand the movements or motivations of the Zulu.

This 1896 image of Menelik II was cropped from an image in a 2016 Estelle Sohier paper from African Arts.

Emperor Menelik II of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) successfully defended his country from an army of Italians seeking to colonize Ethiopia from the neighboring Italian colony of Eritrea. The Italians under General Oreste Baratieri had attempted to bait the Ethiopians into attacking their well-prepared lines, but then the Italians attempted to advance toward the enemy in a mist-shrouded night, precipitating the Battle of Adwa. 4000 Italian soldiers and staff died, and another 1900 were captured. Ethiopia is right to feel pride in avoiding becoming a European colony during the Scramble! Sadly, Mussolini decided to send Italian forces into Ethiopia during World War II, using chemical weapons to break resistance. Italian forces occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941, as a result. Again, Pakenham’s treatment of the Battle of Adwa emphasizes the foul-ups of the Italian troops rather than the careful maneuvering and preparation of the Ethiopian forces facing them.

Muhammad Ahmad of Sudan (1844-1885) came to be seen as the Mahdi for many Muslims in that region. His followers, the “Mahdists,” challenged Egyptian forces (led by British officers) in much of the upper Niles. The city of Khartoum, Sudan, sits at the confluence of the White and Blue Niles, making it a key point for control of the river. As the Mahdists gained power, the British elected to withdraw many of their forces from the upper Nile, but Major General Charles Gordon refused to leave the colony he led there. The Mahdists laid siege to Khartoum, and British relief forces were unable to reach the city in time. Gordon’s death and beheading in 1885 represented a profound setback to British morale. For years, the Mahdists controlled the Sudan, though Khartoum itself was reclaimed by British / Egyptian forces under Kitchener fourteen years later. Pakenham makes clear that the Mahdist army was a substantial barrier to British consolidation of its Egyptian colony, but the only portrayal of events within the Mahdists comes from Rudolf Slatin, an Austrian soldier held captive by the Mahdists who had converted to Islam.

Image from p.16 of Timothy J. Stapleton A Military History of Africa, Vol. 1

West Africa presents us with at least three different empires that resisted the incursions of the French and British. The Tukolor Empire under Ahmadu Seku pushed west as the French were pushing east on the Senegal River during the 1850s and 1860s. They were problematic enough for the French that they used treaties to buy time for building up their forces. The Tukolor held substantial power until 1890, when the French obliterated their capital Segu with artillery. Three years later, the last rump of the army was defeated by the French. Samori Toure had been developing the power of the Mandinka Empire by purchasing firearms from the British. By the 1880s, his army of 30,000 soldiers had become a substantial force in the area, resisting the French push southward to link up with the Ivory Coast. The 1883 French occupation of Bamako gave their colony access to the Niger River. The Mandinka counter-attacked in 1885 to destroy two French forts built too far forward, and a treaty was signed to pause hostilities. Despite the treaty, the French came after the Mandinka again in 1891; the Mandinka had prepared by acquiring repeating rifles. Samori Toure and the Mandinka were driven steadily further east until they came up against the Asante, whose military conflict with the British I have discussed before. While the Tukolors and Mandinkas account for quite a few pages between them, the Asante Kingdom barely rates a paragraph in Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa. Essentially his only mention is that the British were intent on taking down King Prempeh, whose “bloodthirstiness” is taken as a given.

My assessment

I am glad I took the time to read Scramble for Africa at last. To read academic papers about each of the different conflicts that the Scramble entailed would take quite a lot of time, and Pakenham generally keeps the narrative flowing through nearly 700 pages(!). I would certainly caution readers that this book reflects an older style of historical narrative that largely ignores the perspectives of “the other.” Since its 1991 publication, we’ve had three decades of scholarly soul-searching and reappraisal. The notion of Africa as the “dark continent” has been brightened considerably by subsequent research. This may be one reason why the (racist) original subtitle of the book (The White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912) has been omitted from later printings. Pakenham’s Scramble for Africa is a relatively easy way to get a grip on Europe’s sudden mania for colonies in Africa. Read it to understand the interplay of European interests. Read it to grasp the gestalt of “explorers” invading river systems across a continent. Do not expect, though, that this book will shed much light on the lives of the people most affected, the 19th century inhabitants of Africa.

Kimberley: visiting the McGregor Museum and the Big Hole

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 24, 2019

Natasha and I started our Christmas Eve by a bit of reorganization. Both of us like to travel, but both of us feel a strong impulse to return home from this three-week road trip. We decided to cancel our reservation at Beaufort West and drive the whole distance home on Christmas Day. Today’s visit to the McGregor Museum and the Big Hole Museum would finish off our tourism for this trip. I then marched off to shower for the day, only to discover that it was only able to produce a trickle of water. Natasha thought my expression was very funny as I sat wrapped in a towel with the handyman working on the valves.

McGregor Museum

The McGregor Museum makes use of an amazing building.

The McGregor Museum is the central organizing body for several museums and monuments throughout the Northern Cape Province. We had already seen one of its branches at Calvinia, for example. The curator is an excellent researcher, having created a book on the history of resistance in the Northern Cape and developing a rather comprehensive exhibit on the involvement of South African forces in World War I. I was grateful to visit with her again this morning; I thought the museum might be operating with a skeleton crew given that it was Christmas Eve! That said, the museum opened at 9AM and closed at 11AM, so Natasha and I were moving at a more-than-comfortable pace to see everything. The docent was switching the lights off in wings as soon as we were finished with them, so we definitely felt the push.

This 1963 convent chapel is now home to displays on world religion and religious institutions in Kimberley.

I was impressed by how many different topics the McGregor tries to cover. A 1963 Convent Chapel houses an interesting exhibit on world religions as well as the development of churches within Kimberley. A neighboring passage and set of rooms gives a rather all-encompassing timeline of the fight against Apartheid. Next to that, a natural history exhibit offers taxidermy animals for a variety of South African species. From there, one can move into anthropology / archaeology of hominid development up through rock art. There’s a substantial exhibit on different indigenous people of South Africa. Certainly there’s plenty about the history of Kimberley and of South Africa, too. The building served as Cecil Rhodes’ headquarters during the Siege of Kimberley in the Anglo-Boer War, and his rooms have been preserved. The Kimberley Regiment gets a room of its own upstairs, as does the history of the building and the history of the Convent that was based here. Nominally, the original building for the McGregor Museum, a couple miles away on Chapel Street, is its history museum, but there’s plenty to see on Atlas Street!

I cannot get enough of the grand stairway in the main entrance of the McGregor Museum.

The Big Hole

The model, constructed from historic photographs, shows the scramble as diamond miners worked their small plots by hand.

Natasha and I decided to press our museum luck and try for the “Big Hole” Museum, named after its most prominent exhibit. The Vooruitzicht farm of the De Beer family was changed forever after Esau Demoense found a diamond there in 1866. Previously, diamonds had only been discovered in India (in sediments throughout antiquity) and in Brazil (first in 1725). The small hill where diamonds were discovered was quickly turned into a pit by hopeful men with shovels. When those methods tapped out, powerful equipment such as the “head gear” was installed to allow miners to chase the “Kimberlite pipe” ever deeper. This feature was probably created by volcanic activity around 90 million years ago (for context, the dinosaurs died out roughly 65 millions years ago). The name Vooruitzicht quickly became “New Rush” to reflect the fervent activity, but a British administrator changed the city name to his own surname because he though that “New Rush” was unseemly.

The “head gear” was necessary to remove the loads of rock being cut from the hole as it became ever deeper.

We opted to take part in the guided tour since it would include an informative movie as well as a walk through their on-site museum featuring a vault of real diamonds. Even at the start, though, I found that being part of the large tour group was frustrating (I sometimes suffer from agoraphobia) for both photography and my hearing. The guide urged everybody to make kissy faces when being photographed in front of the massive hole. When he guided us underground for an area demonstrating the mining techniques, we were less than enthusiastic about their very loud sound track, emulating a dynamite blast to release the Kimberlite.

I kept up with the tour group for the diamond vault visit even though it meant being enclosed with a mass of people. The exhibits in there were a little hard for me to follow. They can show me a diamond and describe it as “yellow” or “green,” but I frequently didn’t see much hue difference. Some of the elongated and variant crystals were interesting.

The lighting in their mockup of the mines was likely better than the original.

From there I slowed my pace to enjoy the museum exhibits by myself. Natasha continued with the group to watch the video, but I learned more about five famous international diamonds: Koh-i-Noor, Florentine, Hope, Great Mogul, and (Natasha’s favorite) Dresden Green. Each was represented by a replica (some of these are lost, and others are part of crown jewels). The same was true for six domestic diamonds: Star of South Africa, Tiffany, Jubilee, Cullinan I, Premier Rose, and Centenary. I can certainly see that the production of diamonds at the Big Hole would introduce a big distortion in the world price of these gemstones!

I was happy to see that the McGregor Museum had contributed posters to commemorate seven individuals who had played big roles in the growth of Kimberley. David Harris was a triple-threat, with deep connections to diamond mining, serving for decades as a member of Parliament and as an officer in the military. His cousin Barney Barnato was a rival to Cecil Rhodes as the diamond industry consolidated in the last decade of the 19th century; he owned a beautiful town house just down the hill from Natasha’s parents in Cape Town. Basil Humphreys was profiled in large part because he was instrumental in getting the museum at Kimberley off the ground. I have already mentioned Esau Demoense for finding the first diamond at the Big Hole. Awayi Tyamzashe was an inspiring leader in the black community due to his role as one of the first ordained ministers in the growing city. Henry Tucker was a name I hadn’t heard before, but he seems to have had quite a colorful life, both in trading without a license and in fomenting the Black Flag Rebellion. It’s quite a roster of people.

This small shack saw considerable business in its original location!

I joined Natasha for a drink in the air-conditioned facility. The cafe owner tried very hard to persuade me to drink honeybush tea rather than green tea, but I resisted his multiple efforts. With that, Natasha and I took a lovely walk through the many historic buildings that have been relocated to make a little village outside. I was particularly happy to see the Wernher, Beit, and company diamond buying office. These two names are also associated with a building where I work at the medical school of the University of Cape Town on Tuesdays. It was a good reminder that the infrastructure for the early days of Kimberley was quite rugged. People had to be willing to put up with a lot of discomfort and a lot of work to create this industry. Today, the Big Hole is no longer “worked,” and ground water has re-filled much of the original excavation. Landslides are still quite common, making it a rather risky site for further exploitation. Just across town, north of the McGregor Museum, another mine is being worked by De Beers. Who knows what wonders they’ll find?

December 25, 2019

Our drive home over Christmas Day was mostly unremarkable. A squad of gas station attendants at Kimberley were hilarious as all four of them contributed to getting our car ready for the drive. The roads were nearly deserted, but we waved at every driver we passed. We were nearly home when we stopped at Worcester for gasoline. I loved this picture Natasha captured!

Worcester is the first city of note one enters after passing the Hugenot Tunnel from Cape Town.

From power plants to metal mines

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 23, 2019

Today represented the last really long driving day of our road trip. We started in Witbank / eMalahleni in Mpumalanga Province, crossed Gauteng Province through southern Johannesburg, passed through Potchefstroom in the Northwest Province, brushed the Free State due to a caprice of Google Maps, and then concluded our day in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. We drove through more than half the provinces of South Africa in one day!

The big dip after Potchefstroom took us through perilous potholes.

Mining SA

The colonies and Boer Republics of southern Africa might have remained somewhat obscure if it were not for the discovery of vast underground riches in the late 19th century. Gold, copper, diamonds, platinum, palladium, chromium, vanadium, manganese, uranium, and coal have all become major mining industries in the country. Our long drive today took us through the heartlands of almost all of these industries!

This image comes from a website concerned with the ecological damage of coal mining in Mpumalanga.

Even a short drive in Mpumalanga province will establish its dominance in power production. We would still have a multi-tower power plant in our rear view mirror when the next came into sight on the horizon. Natasha noted that it makes a lot of sense to generate power as close as possible to the coal mines that fuel the plant. One by one, the coal-fired plants in Cape Town have closed, while nuclear and hydroelectric plants have remained live. A drive along the N12 in Mpumalanga will show both the coal mines and the plants they drive.

This image of the Majuba plant comes from a post about reducing damage from coal-fired power plants.

I knew very little about the mining industry before coming to South Africa. One word that has new significance for me is “tailings.” When a miner ships a cart to the surface, only part of its contents will be of use. Certainly, a diamond miner wants to avoid re-examining the dirt that has been separated from precious stones. The waste dirt doesn’t go back into the mine but is rather mounded into piles of tailings. As we drove around Johannesburg, we saw yellowish hills formed from the ejecta of gold mines. In Mpumalanga, black plateaus have been formed of coal mine tailings. These mounds speak to the amount of toil that has taken place beneath the surface.

This photo has been cropped from one appearing in a post concerned with the health hazards of “tailings.”

Our N12 traversal of Johannesburg was somewhat improved by the fact we weren’t stopping. On the other hand, our crossing took a long time because we were entering from the NE and exiting by the SW. I thought were were nearly through but was surprised to see a sign marking the exit for the Apartheid Museum; we still had plenty of city to go! We were still in the area of Eldorado Park when Natasha mentioned a bathroom stop would be welcome. We were truly in the sticks before we found a likely-looking gas station. I only wish the bathrooms had been as clean as the station exterior!

We encountered a series of big-name mines as we passed west on the N12. One even advertised itself as the deepest mine in the world (currently at a depth of 4 km)! I was really surprised to see just how far apart the different shafts associated with a given mine could be on the surface. Certainly the galleries below ground cover a lot of horizontal space, too.

A few moments at “Potch”

I had been curious about Potchefstroom since I learned it housed one of the premiere centers in metabolomics for South Africa. At one point, I even planned a research visit of three months to learn how our work could fit together! Since our route from eMalahleni to Kimberley ran directly through the city, I asked Natasha if we could stop to see some of its historic buildings.

The Potchefstroom city hall, opened in 1909

We made our stop at its town hall, completed in 1909. At first, I was tempted to compare “Potch” to Kirksville, the town surrounding Truman State University (where I received my first research experience). Natasha corrected my impression by noting that Potch would still be needed to support the mining and agricultural sectors of the Northwest Province even if University of the Northwest didn’t exist.

Natasha boldly volunteered to handle the remaining leg from Potch to Kimberley (estimated at 3.5 hours). For some reason, Google Maps led us on a merry chase down the R501 to the R59 (a route parallel to the N12, lying to its southeast). The route quickly took us into the fringe of the Free State. We tried to follow its instructions, but we soon found that we couldn’t drive at 120 kph or even 80 kph without being battered to smithereens by potholes. Even the “patched” ones were frequently quite jarring. By the time we reached Bothaville, we were both done. We turned west on the R504 and didn’t stop until we had rejoined the N12.

Those clouds rolled into a thunderhead around the time we reached Kimberley.

The remainder of the route down wasn’t particularly exciting, but a smooth drive was entirely worth it. Near the small town of Britten, I saw a dry salt pan to the right. I took a photo of the lovely cloud formations that were rolling together in the skies. As we drew nearer to Kimberley, though, those clouds were a distinct threat. We could see huge showers all around us, and some of the first sprinkles landed on us as we drove into our AirBNB near the Honoured Dead Memorial. We were fortunate to avoid much rain as we dashed off to the Northern Cape Mall for a run to the Woolworth’s grocery. Natasha and I both decided we felt too worn to sit down for the new Star Wars movie. I am sure that we will find the time to see it, though!

A Solstice drive to Witbank

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 22, 2019

Travelling to Witbank was an easy stage toward home.

After a week in Kruger National Park, we found transitioning back the “real world” quite jarring. We had crossed into Mpumalanga province from Limpopo province when we came south to Satara, but there was very little to differentiate the two from inside the park. Our travel west on the N4 would be menaced by semi truck drivers, shuttlebus taxi drivers, and intercity bus drivers. We saw many, many overloaded bakkies headed east to Mozambique for Christmas, and we saw four (!) different police roadblocks intercepting these vehicles. From a top speed of 50 kph in the park, we shifted to limits of 120 kph. Both Natasha and I felt dangerously unstable at that speed, at first!

A glimpse of Mbombela / Nelspruit

We soon encountered Mbombela / Nelspruit, though we could only see it at a distance; the N4 doesn’t pass through the city proper. It seemed a pleasant, small city. I learned from Natasha that the city was founded on a spring that is the source of the Nels River. I entertained myself by calling out every time we crossed the Crocodile River (many, many times).

Nelspruit now goes by the name Mbombela. [image from

I continued west for another hour, and then we stopped at a farm store to stretch our legs and change drivers. One of the store owners started a sprawling conversation on comparative world religion. The limitations of his research rapidly became apparent. We returned to the car, with Natasha in the driver’s seat! She was locked in battle with two intercity bus drivers over thirty minutes of driving. When two beetles smacked our windshield in rapid succession, Natasha suddenly shouted, “Death to all beetles!” and laughed maniacally. We had been so careful of the dung beetles in the park that this represented an abrupt turn!

This iridescent dung beetle made an appearance at Vredefort Dome.

The drive to eMalahleni / Witbank had a few surprises in store for us. Our three hours on the N4 took us through three toll plazas charging R70, R93, and R62 (totaling around $15 USD). I liked the rocket-like monument to the Anglo-Boer War battle at Berg-En-Dal Farm. I learned from a paper about the centenary of this war that this is no “rocket!”

This image of the Berg-En-Dal monument comes from

The latter memorial was designed by a Pretoria architect, J.I. Bosman, and was almost replicated in his Berg-en-Dal monument at Dalmanthu, unveiled in 1970: ‘four legs, one for each province… shoot out of the soil around the sarcophagus and slope upwards towards a central point. Gradually they become sturdier until they join together in the central pillar, which thrusts to the highest and most triumphant point, as bearer of a grateful posterity’s appreciation to the Supreme Being.’

No end of a [History] Lesson: Preparations for the Anglo-Boer War centenary commemoration” by Leslie Witz, Gary Minkley, and Ciraj Rassool

Between Mbombella and eMakhazeni / Belfast, we were passing by quite the succession of ridges and hills, the northern tail of the Drakensberg Mountains. At Waterval Onder, we wound through an amazing canyon that terminated in a quick tunnel. The red rock walls were very distinctive. I learned later that the Elands River Falls might have been an excellent place to pause our journey; the area offers a number of attractions.

This picture of the Elands River Falls comes from

A surprise appearance from the elusive rhino!

Not much later we reached the gently rolling hills of the highveld. Our stop at a Alzu One-Stop equidistant from Belfast and Middelburg gave me quite the surprise. The “gas station” was loaded with shops and restaurants, and when we came inside to find the bathrooms, we saw a massive pasture behind the station that was loaded with wildlife. I saw emus and zebras, and then we realized that some of the antelopes were eland, a species we had missed seeing in Kruger (they are considered sacred by the San people of southern Africa). My mind was blown when I saw five rhinos emerge to feed at the trough. Natasha spotted that their horns had been surgically removed to protect them from poachers. It was a lovely note to conclude our animal-spotting!

You can search all week for a rhino sighting in Kruger, or you can stop for gas in the Middleburg.

I am glad to see that Mpumalanga is advertising its “Cultural Heartland” sites. This region really does have a lot to offer. At present, the N4 signs don’t give a lot of information about which cultural sites are nearby. It seems that they draw pretty strongly upon the Ndebele culture that has long thrived in the region.

Arriving at Witbank

Our engagement with the city of eMalahleni / Witbank has been pretty limited. We found our room at Isle La Breeze Guest House without much of a problem. We contemplated a run to the Highveld Mall and Casino for the Woolworth’s, but they were closing early this Sunday afternoon. The Highveld Mall, by the way, is the only attraction listed for this city by TripAdvisor, which strikes me as a bit incomplete. Isn’t a visit to the nearby Duvha Power Station worthwhile?

This image shows what the mid-town shopping centre for Witbank will eventually look like.

For dinner, we ran down to the major intersection of Mandela St. and OR Tambo Rd. We were really impressed by the SuperSpar grocery; it seemed considerably more upmarket than we’ve seen in Cape Town. We struggled to find the Ocean Basket restaurant at the “HUB” market centre, but then Natasha realized that it was upstairs rather than on the ground level. With that, we retired to our room for an early bedtime! The thundershower that had begun during our dinner caused a neighborhood-wide blackout as we relaxed.