BOTSWANA – Who’s the biggest celebrity fundraiser in Africa? Is it Bono, Madonna, Angelina Jolie or Alicia Keys?
Nope. The answer is: Paul Newman.
This is unofficial, of course. But during my two weeks in Africa, from where I just returned, one thing is clear. All those celebrities who keep asking us for money or enthusiastically espousing their views of the Dark Continent aren’t making much of an impact there with the local constituency.
But one man whose name came right to the lips of our guides on the Kwando River in Botswana was Paul Newman.
"The Hole in the Wall Gang comes here once a year," one guide alerted us. "They put on a whole lot of activities for underprivileged children. I participate in it, as do others. It’s very exciting."
The guide continued: "Who is Paul Newman? I don’t really know. He’s a movie star, yes?"
Neither "The Sting" nor "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" registered with either of the guides who sang the praises of Hole in the Wall. They didn’t know Joanne Woodward’s name, either, or anything about salad dressing, popcorn or lemonade — the products Newman’s Own sells to raise money for its causes. You see, it doesn’t matter. What mattered was Hole in the Wall had resonated by actually helping where it was needed.
A Malawai businessman on his way from Zambia to Botswana for a retreat was even more elucidating. What did he know about Madonna, Kabblah and their newish charity, Raising Malawi?
"I’ve never heard of it. Of course, we know about Madonna trying to adopt the baby." He laughed. "It’s ridiculous."
Malawi, mind you, is a small, impoverished nation. If anything is having an effect, this man would know it. "The Clinton Foundation we know about," he said. "They’re very good. And Bill Gates. We know about him."
Nearly all Africans polled in Botswana and Zambia seemed mystified in regard to Jolie and Pitt, and others. If these people are doing something, it hasn’t traveled to these provinces. In both countries we visited villages that lack electricity of any kind, have little access to water and are absent of schools.
There is no Habitat for Humanity, the organization that builds homes in the U.S. and has been so effective on the Gulf Coast helping victims of Katrina. The houses we saw were huts made of sand and termite spit — literally. This recipe uses empty soda cans for joists.
Despite an effort by the Botswana government to empty bushmen from the remote villages of the Kalahari desert, thousands of people are still living like this. We met them in Khwai village, on the river that shares its name, and in Noga on the Okavunga Delta near Orient Express’ amiable Eagle Island camp.
Those who live in the Delta have two choices if they need supplies such as clothes or food: either travel by light plane — which is expensive — or by mocorro, a canoe made from a hollowed-out tree — to Maun, the nearest big city. The mocorro trip takes three days and involves paddling along side channels to avoid hippos and crocodiles.
The irony, of course, is that several local safari camps for Westerners offer mock mocorro rides in fiberglass versions that are set up like gondolas. One camp up river actually bans speedboat tours from its riverfront so guests can feel like they’re still in a historic time.
Neither of the Botswanan villages is living in the 21st, 20th or even 19th centuries. One local guide who lives in Maun — a city composed of tiny homes that look like Monopoly houses—joked: "Khwai is like New York city compared to Noga."
The reason is that Khwai, which only recently registered as a village, has a general store, a liquor store-bar, and a couple of abandoned newer constructions that are supposed to be part of its development. The windows in those buildings are broken and the rooms are empty.
In Khwai, they knew the name Paul Newman. In the vaguely unpronounceable Noga, it was a different story. In both villages, located at different ends of the Moremi Game reserve, there are plenty of children and babies but no schools or playgrounds.
In the dry season, which is coming, it will take walks of three miles or more to fetch jugs of the clear, drinkable channel water and bring it home. There is no electricity.
In neighboring Zambia, there are similar problems. Mfuwe, on the South Luangwa River, is a prosperous village by comparison to its Botswanan neighbors. They have a functioning airport and several little stores (really sheds) on a "main drag" with clever names and signs like "Mr. Frog," a local watering hole.
Mfuwe, like the other villages, is overrun by wildlife, especially at night. Elephants and hippos are regularly seen. But the village also is known for its arts collective, Tribal Textiles, a remarkable factory that helps support the population. They even have a Web site: www.tribaltextiles.co.zm.
Still, don’t be fooled: Mfuwe also lacks electricity and running water. The residents don’t have access to the solar power or electrical generators owned by nearby safari camps. Working at a camp is like reaching Valhalla for many townies who return to life in huts during breaks. As on the delta, there is no cell service, no Blackberry, no Internet. Just satellite phones and the grunting of hippos.
Women still carry parcels on their heads. There are few cars and many bicycles, but we’re told that the locally made types are too expensive. Chinese-made bikes, like clothes, are favored and sold in sheds.
There would be no way, for example, to explain to the people of Mfuwe this morning that Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams have parted ways. They have bigger to fish to catch, if they want to eat dinner.