Africa from above

Soon after a visit to Malta, I flew to South Africa and what a contrast!

Looking out of the plane window, roughly two hours away from Johannesburg, the terrain was quite different to what I expected to see – it struck me that I must have been on the west side of Africa as I was flying with a different airline to the one I usually use. The patterns on the ground were striking and it looked empty, devoid of human life – or at least the signs of it. I thought I spotted a road – with perhaps a little settlement (3 shining spots – roofs?). It could only have been a road as it was so straight and long: a characteristic feature of African roads whether they be black, brown (red-brown) or yellow dependent on their location and content. This road was red-brown and was running perpendicular to the direction we were flying. I wondered where it started and where it would end, but knew I would remain ignorant as I refused to put the television screen on to look at the map. The changing landscape was far more fascinating and gave me food for thought especially as the intensely built-up sprawl of Johannesburg and the East Rand was not far away.

Malta is closer to Johannesburg – no, not in feel or in distance, but in how built up it was. It apparently has the highest population density in the world and it’s only an island 30km long!

Another road appeared outside the window – this one wound around a few obstacles but no obvious settlement could be seen.

Back to Malta … how do you fit so many people on so small a place? You build housing on top of housing and have very narrow streets. This reminded me of Zanzibar and the old “Arab Quarter” of Mombasa. This has often intrigued me as in South Africa and in some of East Africa houses or dwellings are generally more spread out and single storey. Cities are different with office blocks and apartments and in South Africa now there are housing villages where town-houses (1-up-1-down) are built attached and/or in close proximity to each other with walls encircling a number of them. But this is still nothing like Malta, Zanzibar or Mombasa.

Why is it that in such hot climates, people have chosen to build and live ‘on top of each other’? Is it to provide relief from the heat by creating shade patches? There do seem to be courtyards behind the doors to allow communal gathering and access to some sun for drying clothes and spices or vegetables etc. The girs in Mongolia spring to mind here too – a whole family and visiting friends all living in one closed tent in the middle of all that open space. I could cope with two of us living in a ger, but not more and especially not for a long winter! Each to his/her own…

I am clearly a girl of open spaces and although I enjoy exploring new environments and cultures, I was pleased that in Malta we had the space of the ocean to look over from our window.

With that, and as anticipated, the open land began to fill up and soon buildings became the dominant feature of the terrain below the plane. And, it struck me, in South Africa there are places where housing is built with very narrow streets and little space between buildings, some of which are more than one storey high: tucked between the mine-dumps (or where they used to be) were the squatter camps or as they now tend to be called, informal settlements … we’ll leave that for another day… it’s time to prepare for landing over the largest sprawled area of indoor shopping I’ve yet experienced and avoid…


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