What Happened to the Handle?

While I spend a lot of my free-time reading, researching and writing online, I freely admit to one guilty pleasure: I enjoy curling up with a daily newspaper at the end of each day. There’s something about the feel of paper, the ease of use, and the depth of coverage that makes me happy.

I’m not the type of person who normally forwards cartoons or plaster them around the home or office, but every once in awhile one catches my eye. On Thursday while leafing through a printed tree carcass, I spotted one that lined up with the theme of Twelve Mile Circle. While I’m confident I could reproduce the cartoon here under the doctrine of "Fair Use," I’m sensitive to those things so I’ll request that you open a link to another tab or window if you want to view it — The strip is called "Close to Home" by John McPherson, and the cartoon appeared on January 8, 2009.

Here’s the setup: Four students walk along a school hallway. Each student wears a different mask in the shape of a country; Paraguay, Mongolia, Sudan and Namibia. The caption reads, "Concerned about the poor geography skills of U.S. students, Westfield School District found a creative way to address the problem."

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But take a look at poor Namibia. It’s missing it’s most interesting feature, the eastern panhandle. I contend the author did this on purpose. He’s working the joke on multiple levels, including a little tweak at the expense of those who were lucky enough to have received a quality education. The masses will chuckle at the perceived deficiencies of our educational system. The educated will delight in the irony of a cartography error. The all-knowingly self-righteous will billow and write nasty letters to the publisher about Mr. McPherson contribution to the problem. The rest of us will realize the joke’s on everyone else. It’s too obvious to be a mistake. It’s a cartoon.

I’ve wanted to talk about Namibia’s eastern panhandle, Caprivi, for quite awhile and this gives me a perfect introduction. It’s been sitting on that pile of topics waiting in reserve for just the right moment to jump onto the screen. Somehow, until this cartoon came along, I’d always found something else to feature.

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Caprivi is the common designation but it goes by others labels such as the Caprivi Strip, Okavango Strip and Itenge. It extends an amazing 450 kilometers (280 miles) from the northeast corner of Namibia to a point deep within the African interior, and owes its existence to the Zambezi River.

The Germans felt a continental route across southern Africa might benefit trade, communication or movement between colonial possessions, Deutsch-Südwestafrika (German South-West Africa, now Namibia) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania). It would provide a nice option to an ocean voyage. Caprivi was their ticket to the Zambezi River watershed, which in turn drained to the Indian Ocean on the eastern side of the continent.

West-East Corridors
SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zambezi_river_basin.jpg under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, 1.2+
Notice how the Zambezi watershed includes Caprivi as well as the western border of Tanzania

They simply traded for it with the United Kingdom in 1890. Things like that were possible under the cavalier attitudes of colonialism. It was a rather complicated arrangement called the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty that involved swapping territories, geographic interests, spheres of influence and all sorts of other things that I won’t bother to cover here except that it delivered Caprivi to German control. Funny thing, it turned out that the Zambezi River wasn’t navigable all the way down from Caprivi. It included a little thing called Victoria Falls, perhaps the largest set of falls on earth, as well as a number of other obstacles. The falls were known by Europeans decades before 1890 so I’m not sure what monumental feat of German engineering was envisioned to get around the problem.

Nonetheless the strip became a permanent part of the colony and it would be inherited by the modern nation of Namibia. It’s more than a curiosity. It actually important strategically both to Namibia and to the African continent. Through here runs the TransCaprivi Highway, connecting a huge swath of south-central Africa to Namibia’s port at Walvis Bay. It’s also a vital link in the northernmost paved road crossing Africa between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans (consider how far south this is and let that fact sink in for awhile). The Germans had the right idea but they were off by a full century. The TransCaprivi Highway wasn’t completed until 1999.

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If all that weren’t enough, let’s ponder one additional fascinating feature of Caprivi. Even this panhandle has a panhandle. The tip-of-the-tip narrows down to next to nothing. Only a kilometer separates it from a shared border with Zimbabwe, and had it extended just this small fraction further it would have created a Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana quadripoint!