Great Zimbabwe

I could have backtracked thru Mozambique to get back to South Africa, but that didn’t sound nearly as fun as cutting thru Zimbabwe and having the chance to visit the county’s medieval namesake. Great Zimbabwe is thought to be one of the most advanced civilizations in Africa during the middle ages, and it was continually inhabited until the 15th century with as many as 18,000 residents. Today you can walk around the ruins, the hill top fortress, and wonder what it must have been like to live there in its heyday.

Tess and I in Great Zimbabwe

I was in near the Zim border on the Mozambique side in Chimoio with a Dutch backpacker named Tess, and we wanted to make the 350*km trip in one day. It was a Sunday, which means fewer ‘chapas’ (buses) that don’t fill early, but we were lucky enough to be on the road shortly after 7. The bus we were on said it was going to the border, but stopped one village short of it and shyly asked us to take another bus.

We met an American doctor at our hostel in Chimoio who had been through the same border a handful of times. She had no idea how much the visa would cost, since it ranged from $30 to $80 depending on when and who crossed, but once she got thrown into jail for under-staying her visa. She said she would stay the weekend in Zim, but came back a day early, and they charged her with ‘fraud.’ 20-some odd days later, she bought her freedom from a guard for $5, who simply left her door open and she walked back to Mozambique, without any belongings, or a passport. I’m still not sure how or why something like that happened, or how she got back into Mozambique, but I intended on buying my visa on arrival for the exact amount of days I needed.

sunset from the top of the Great Zimbabwe fortress

We crossed the border 3 hours later, with a $30 visa, and had to make 2 more connections. First we went to the bus station at the border town Mutare, and bought our $8 tickets to Masvingo. It’s strange how much more expensive Zimbabwe is than Mozambique, especially since its one of, if not the poorest countries in Africa (according to the Africa Wealth Report and Global Wealth Report in 2015-2017). Zimbabwe used to be one of the richest countries in Africa, as recently as the year 2000, with tons of gold reserves still unexploited, but after a whole lot of corruption and inflation, the local Zimbabwean money in million and billion dollar notes had to be traded out for the US dollar. They have print money and coins that are different, but it’s the same value, and even the locals don’t trust them so they prefer US bills.

From Masvingo, we took a shared taxi the last 25 km to Great Zimbabwe, and though we didn’t expect great things for accommodation, the so-called ‘hostel’ they had there resembled more closely a prison bunk. The bathrooms were fitting to the theme; the toilet stalls had no doors, but I did walk thru a spiderweb to get to it, and the showers were simply pipes that opened from above. I couldn’t brush my teeth in the sink because 3 massive bugs that looked like a hybrid of queen bees and swollen termites were still scrambling for their lives to get out of the slippery basin.

the secret passage

Great Zimbabwe itself was, to my relief, still worth the trip, even with the shanty accommodation. Tess and I watched the sunset from the fortress, shared with a group of animated baboons, and got back up at sunrise to explore the various ruins and relics many-hundreds of years old. I remember going through the secret passage in the Great Enclosure and wondering out loud, ‘if only walls could speak,’ then all the gaps of time and decay could be filled with stories of what Great Zimbabwe once was.

Icelandic Studies

When I didn’t get funding granted for doing my Phd in forest ecotourism, I pulled a 360`turn and decided to enroll at the University of Iceland to study Icelandic History and Literature. It’s a program officially called “Medieval Icelandic Studies” and focuses on the sagas and manuscripts orally transmitted and eventually written in the 10th-13th centuries, but we spend almost all our time reading the secondary literature written on it by Medieval Icelandic specialists from all over the world. Some of the most highly regarded academics in this field come from the UK, the US, and even Australia, and have no connection to Iceland except their obsessive fascination, so it seems an honour to be able to study these topics in the homeland, as a native Icelander.

the codex regius

The classes are held at the Árni Magnússon Institute, a building on campus that holds manuscripts dating as far back as the 12th century. They have, what some consider to be the single most important man-made item in Icelandic history and culture (see, the Codex Regius, a book that tells of Kings Sagas, Nordic Mythology and epic poetry. We got to meet the book, a small, wooden-bound book of thin, fragile pages, and I remember wondering if or when I would ever get to touch something so hold ever again. The text was still legible, in beautiful script, and many words still comprehensible to the speaker of modern Icelandic. Some letters and words were strange, but familiar names like Loki and Freya had their names written their some 900 years ago for me to read today.

The courses we take are based on the Icelandic Medieval manuscripts, discussing all the stories therein and wondering how fact or fictional some of these records can be to represent the daily life and culture of Icelanders in those times. We dissect the poetry and kennings, all the foreign words and heitis used to rhyme, and compare different transcriptions of the same story. We read  secondary literature on how the laws were used, first in oral tradition, and then how written law changed the administration and legistlation of courts. We discuss the Christianization of Iceland, and how the Christianized scribes may have altered manuscripts they copied. We look at archeological evidence of Paganism and Christianity, and the influence of latin on our written culture and diction.

We take a mandatory course in Old Icelandic, which feels somehow like a course in Proto-Old-Norse, and may be what Italian or Spanish speakers feel like learning Latin… I dunno. I worry I´ll be better at reading, writing and even speaking Old Icelandic by the time I finish this program, since its an extremely strict, regimented and dense way of teaching students to be able to read and translate the sagas from the original sources.

Then you can take courses on Modern Icelandic literature, divulge in some Laxness and Sjón, modern Icelandic language, Icelandic Culture, and the history of Medieval Scandinavia. Whenever I´m sitting in class, I look around at the other students – males and females, age 20-50, from Hungary, Poland, Germany, England, Colombia, the States, and very few from Iceland or other Scandinavian countries – and wonder what the initial appeal is to start such a program. Is it the glorified viking? Is it the Old-Norse-Icelandic literary corpus that rivals all other historical literary works in Europe? Is it the sagas and Nordic mythology of Thor’s hammer and Sif’s golden hair? I’m not sure, but I somehow felt obligated to take the program and learn this for the sake of being Icelandic, but now I’m realizing that this may be one of the most interesting fields of academic study any linguist or historian could ever take, and I’m glad I fell into it without knowing what a pleasant surprise it could be.

Now, if only I’d stop blogging and be able to keep up with my readings, papers and exams… I had no idea it could be this much work to become a Master in Icelandic studies, especially since I thought I somehow had an advantage by being Icelandic (which isn’t the case, since I know much less than the Danish guy sitting beside me describing why Odin is depicted with 2 dragons in a 14th century manuscript I’d never heard of til now).