Tuesday, October 03, 2006

... South Africa - The Africans

This final post regarding my trip to South Africa has been on my mind for a while. While the sea and the game were lovely, I would be remiss if I neglected to attempt to convey some sort of picture of what the rest of the country looks like.... of what is really going on in the majority of South Africa.

Crime is prevalent. When showing up for dinner reservations my first night in town, we had to be buzzed into the restaurant. They keep the door locked for safety. When we left the restaurant, we paid the man who was standing by the car. The money was for keeping our car intact while we enjoyed our meal. I would soon find out that it was necessary to keep loose change on us, as anytime we parked our car- or went for a walk- it would become necessary to pay random men to keep our cars- or us- safe.

A day didn't go by when crime wasn't mentioned. People live in fear. In fact, Catherine's mothers vacation home was broken into two weekends in a row. (The two weekends prior to our arrival and our staying there). It's common for homes to be connected to security systems but not common for this to deter crime or give the police the edge they need to catch the thieves. Some say the authorities don't even try to catch them. Partially because it would be impossible, partially because it is seen as a redistribution of wealth. An African Robin Hood if you will-- robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Though South Africa is the wealthiest country in Africa, there are plenty of poor to give to. The wealth, it seems, is held by a specific type of South African... White Africa ranks #18 on the human development scale while black Africa ranks #118.

Still recovering from Apartheid, miles and miles of shacks made of random pieces of tin, cardboard, and wood spot the land. They are virtual cities... and giving birth to second and third generations. In the shanty towns where the government has put up a light or two to pierce the darkness, you see hundreds of spliced wires providing each hut with it's own make shift electricity. I asked if it were possible for us to visit these towns but the impression I received was that the color of our skin made us unwelcome. The question was whether the police even enter or it is self policed.

Even the rural bush is affected. When Cath and I went into town to pick up food, her father yelled out "Don't get hijacked!". Not the typical fatherly warning. When it came time for us to use the ATM, Cathy would hand me her phone, recite the emergency #, and tell me where to run if anyone approached her. It was broad day in the middle of town.

Unemployment is currently at 70%. I can't help but wonder if those people we were paying to keep our cars safe were the same people that would be breaking into our cars had we not provided some sort of job for them. It is seen as the responsibility of those that have income to provide jobs for others... To help put food in the mouths of as many families as possible. High unemployment, cheap labor, & job creation all come together to help create the cleanest country I've even seen. Every restroom- including remote gas stations- had sparkley clean bathrooms because there was an employee standing there with the sole responsibility of keeping it clean.

Unlike the average American, the average African- in fact, every African I came across- was quite cheerfully employed. They appreciated the opportunity to work. They were so kind, smiley, friendly. When we'd pull into a fuel station, there would be an attendant at each pump jumping up and down, doing tricks, trying to get us to pull into their pump... Vying for the opportunity to wait on us. Happy to chat, work hard, earn tips, they were sooo friendly. Even warning us - two young white girls - to be careful one night as it was getting late.

It was very easy to feel an affinity for the locals. Our bush camp was staffed with the Shangan tribe. I got to learn their names and stories after time. Cathy was already familiar with them as they have staffed the lodge for generations. I was sad to find out that most of them are interrelated and HIV positive.

Much of Africa is HIV positive. I learned that there are drugs that prevent HIV from turning into AIDS-- so that a person with HIV has the ability to live a healthy full life... but I also learned that it is uncommon to be prescribed these drugs. Pierre and Mia (Cathy's brother and sister in law) are both doctors practicing at Tintswalo, the local hospital. Even though they are only a few years past residency, and have only been on employed at Tintswalo a matter of months, they are senior physicians. The hospital is severely understaffed. Most of the staff are Christians- seeing this as their mission.

We took a trip to the hospital one day. About a mile or so out I started noticing people lining the roads, walking into town. Come to find out they were walking to the hospital, their feet the only form of transportation- sick or not. After dodging a few goats and getting past security, we entered the hospital grounds. People everywhere. Sitting, staring, walking slowly. Pierre explains they have been waiting for hours, if not days, to be seen. In the ER entrance I see pamphlets and posters on HIV/AIDS education and encouraging free testing. Competing feelings of guilt and gratitude toggled as we continued on with the tour of the facilities. The buildings were quite worn down but all I heard was gratefulness for the new blankets they had recently received.

I think I remember an audible gasp when Cath and I first entered the children's ward. Sweet little things with casts on, blank stares on their faces.... I wondered if they had parents or what they were going home to. Was this as good as it was going to get for them? There were signs lining the walls reminding the staff to smile. I complied. I did my best to give each little child as genuine a smile as I could manage. I tried to convey kindness through my eyes, to express love as best I could in a two second glimpse into the room. I wanted to spend more time there but felt it would be some sort of arrogant intrusion.

Overall, my trip to South Africa was an amazing experience that I will cherish. I was blessed to be able to see a wild Elephant within arms reach.... but I feel just as blessed to have had an opportunity see very real need with my own eyes. I remain grateful that it has altered my view of my life and my call as a Christian. Cathy felt it would be good to send toys to Tintswalo this Christmas and I'm excited to participate in her venture. I will also continue to pray for opportunity to serve God's people in new ways.


Anonymous said...

What a great post Michelle. It is so good to travel out of our country and see how the rest of the world lives. Makes us truly grateful for what we have here.

Ashleigh said...

I agree with Bethany. Great post. When I was working at Regent my boss there made a trip to South Africa every year. I remember him talking about the crime there.

Zoanna said...

Found my way to your blog via Bethany's. You have painted a memorable picture for me of daily life in a country I know little about. I was thinking the same about whether the guys you paid to protect your car were the same ones who'd steal it if you hadn't hired them. Sad. And the hospital! And the gratefulness and cheerful workers! That amazes me and it's not the first time I've heard that. I would LOVE to participate in your toy drive. Wondering, though, about the security of things being sent. How confident are you that they would get to the kids and not into bad hands?

Michelle said...

I'm glad you were touched by my story. About the toy drive-- I believe Cathy will be sending the toys directly to her brother. He is one of the doctors at the hospital and can hand deliver the toys. So I'm pretty confident they will actually get to them.
Let me know if you want my personal email address so we can discuss addresses to send your donations too and such. :-)

Jessica said...

Hi there, I can pretty much confirm that you were paying the boys to 'protect' your vehicle and/or selves from both other people and also themselves as that's how it is here in Romania in some parts and I've noticed it in other parts of Europe too...seems to be par for the course in certain areas! It is quite an eye opening experience to travel (and live..hee hee) in a foreign country...can I just say that it is even harder to live in one as your heart breaks for people...yet there are times that you cannot do anything to ease their living conditions both in their homes and in their spirits...such things are left to the Lord and his soveriegnty. I have grown a lot since we've moved here in learning how to not only be moved and work in a compassionate way, but also to lay down that burdened heart and turn the children back over to God...reminding myself that He holds them in his hands...my job is to be ever listening for his voice as he leads my steps day by day and to walk in obedience before him...that obedience includes laying them at the cross and trusting God to care for the very little ones that He created for his glory. ps...I showed your post to a friend of mine who has spent quite a bit of time in Africa and it gave her the itch to go back...she says we have a church there and connections...I think it started her thinking again...we'll see what God does! Your post could be a tool to guide her back there!!! :) Jessica

Charissa said...

Thank you for sharing so honestly. I definitely want to help with the toys, so let me know. Blessings, friend!

anne said...

I found you via Bethany too.

Thanks for sharing your journey. We so often forget how difficult things really could be, how good we do have it. Thanks for the reminder.
Glad you were able to go to Africa and have the experience and see what life truly was like, even though it was hard. The signs on the wall reminding you to smile. So sad because it was I am sure so hard to see those children, but I am sure they were glad to see you. TO have visitors.
Praying for those children with you.