I Live Amid South Africa’s Tremendous Needs

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last Monday, my friend Nomkita called to tell me that her sister Ntshumi had been in a bad car accident. Ntshumi had been pinned underneath a truck and both her legs had been crushed. She was taken to a hospital ninety minutes away, and I offered to drive Nomkita there to find her sister. Before I knew it, her mother, another sister, a friend and a neighbor were also climbing into my bakkie*. Shortly after we arrived in Mthatha, Ntshumi was transferred to the orthopedic hospital. We were told to follow the ambulance there, but I followed the wrong ambulance and got thoroughly lost. Getting lost in Mthatha* at night is not a pleasant experience, but finally arriving at the orthopedic hospital was even worse. Patients recovering from operations were left unattended on beds in the foyer, there were no doctors on call, and Ntshumi was not given any pain medication for almost 24 hours.

Let me back up for a moment. My father is an inveterate traveler. My parents lived in London and Vancouver, and I spent my childhood being trekked around the globe from Cape Town to New York and Melbourne, and back to Cape Town again. As I moved into high school, my dad started a new business, South Africa ushered in a new democracy, and we all settled into life in one place for a while.

When my siblings and I graduated from university a decade or so later, my parents encouraged us to follow in their globe-trotting footsteps and explore the world. We all spent a few months or years here and there, but despite the advantages of having multiple passports, we found ourselves gravitating back to South Africa pretty soon. Lots of people ask us why we’ve chosen to live in a country with one of the worst crime rates in the world, a plethora of complicated social problems, and an unruly teenage democracy.

Well, on the upside there is South Africa's natural beauty. In Cape Town we have spectacular mountains, incredible beaches and vineyards that produce wines to rival the best that California and France can offer. I can’t say I don't enjoy these things. Nor can I discount the pull of friends and family that make South Africa home to me. But there’s something else that draws me back here: in this place you can never close your eyes to need. No matter how settled you get in your middle-class lifestyle, you’re always aware that your reality isn’t the reality of the vast majority of your fellow human beings.

For the last two years I’ve been living in a rural area where the differences are even starker than in the cities. Local families, living entirely on small government grants, subsist in huts beside the SUVs and satellite-dished brick houses of the doctors and other professionals who work at the local hospital and nonprofits. An uncomfortable quandary for all of us who fall into the latter category is how to keep our eyes open to the need around us without being overwhelmed by it. What does it look like to help our neighbors and to provide for our own needs at the same time? We debate it endlessly, and each finds their own answers (or not).

Back to last Monday’s horrible experience. I hope not to repeat it anytime soon. However, that kind of emergency is common for people around the world—most of whom do not have access to a car and GPS. And it makes it more real when it’s your friend’s sister lying in pain in the hospital bed. You can’t just close your eyes to it, and so you are forced to ask what you can do to bring change.

But there are times when the glare of reality seems too blinding to confront. Take my friend Jenny for example. Jenny decided to do life a little differently from the rest of the professionals in our village of Zithulele. Instead of living alongside most of us in one of the newly-built electrified houses, she asked a local family if she could rent a room in their homestead. For two years, she immersed herself in the life of the family, learnt to speak isiXhosa*, ate pap* and vegetables, and sought to learn all she could from them. Her time with them was rich and meaningful, but also really hard. It was not just the lack of electricity and running water that was challenging. It was also very lonely—every interaction was cross-cultural, outside of her usual frame of reference—and by the end of two years she was burnt out and moved back to the city.

A part of me was relieved that her social experiment seemed to have failed. I felt like it excused me from ever having to contemplate a lifestyle quite so radical. Possibly as you read this, you’re breathing a sigh of relief with me. But talk to Jenny, and you’ll hear something else entirely. Yes, she hasn’t quite figured out how to walk the tightrope of the tension between self-preservation and losing herself entirely. But she hasn’t given up, either. And she believes that figuring this tension out—finding a way to embrace it but not be crushed by it—is a life-long journey that’s too meaningful to miss.

Whether we like it or not, each of us living in the Western world faces a similar tightrope walk. (In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, wealth inequality in the United States is at a 30-year high.) Mostly it’s easiest to shut our eyes, insulate ourselves, and never set foot on the rope at all. But it’s there nonetheless. Living in South Africa has helped me keep my eyes open. And, yes, sometimes it’s a pretty scary view. But I’d rather be here than anywhere else.

You might ask if I am just another white South African whose guilt has driven me to a life-long penance of charity work. But my experience is that addressing the appalling need I see around me somehow actually feeds my spirit. The danger in saying this is that it can sound as if the injustices others face are somehow the cause of my happiness. That is not the case, but being able to do something about those injustices does bring me joy. There's no doubt: I feel alive when I'm here, as if I'm being and doing exactly what I should. And this feeling makes me want to invite others to come and join me—not necessarily in this geographic location, but here in this space where I can keep my eyes open to the horrible effects of poverty while working for change.

Maybe you also can find meaning and purpose where you live by simply opening your eyes to the world around you and seeing the things that are hard to see.

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*Mthatha—The closest city to us (about an hour-and-a-half drive). Referred to as “Mordor” by most of my colleagues.

*bakkie—A South-African word for a small truck.

*isiXhosa—One of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and the home language of most people living in the rural Eastern Cape.

*pap—A traditional porridge staple made from maize meal.

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