March 03, 2008
there are many experiences and emotions of daily life that i think are interesting, teaching me a spectrum of reality that is new and working itself on my inner thoughts and feelings. i struggle with the extremes of wealth and poverty, finding myself in the middle of institutionalized racism, seen easily by shacks on one side and fine homes with every sign of privilege on the other. i wake up and face the world with this consciousness and realize it affects every decision i’m making - my whole life is one sense of consciousness toward justice. i break it down in my mind with every human interaction, in the spirit of upholding each man’s dignity and restoring each man’s pride. it makes me reflect on how america might have been in most areas in the 1950’s when the consciousness about race was prevalent, not hidden or thought of as ‘progress has been made’. no, not here, not now, the effects of apartheid are so raw and real that i hear every kind of person talking about it…. the white school teacher, the Xhosa concierge in the building, the ‘colored’ cleaner…everyone. i bring this into the prologue of any writing because it’s really the root from which all else proceeds. as complex as the issues are that effect millions of people here, there is also that layer of sub-community life that is rich in culture, tradition and contentment which enables joy to be experienced. for example, within the Xhosa townships there are community centers, shops, schools and churches - it’s a world unto itself, taking care of itself with meager resources. i am learning that there are many sub-cultures within this land, based on where the apartheid government settled people (just like the american gov’t did with the indiginous peoples, giving them arbitrary land areas that were inhospitable for agriculture or without any assistance to enable them to become economically sustainable) -- so there are indian, colored, Xhosa and white areas, each with their own culture and support system, schools and community events.
now that it’s been almost 14 years since mandela first became president and changes began to readjust opportunities and settle retributions, a few areas have people renting or buying homes and creating a diverse population. then there are a few locations, like where we live, where the population is very diverse due to more businesses and therefore, work opportunities, as well as apartment complexes inexpensive enough to enable Xhosa, colored, and indian populations to live there. there is wealth amongst these 3 populations (including muslim, hindu and christian faiths); most choose to still stay in their communities rather than settling where whites live because cultural support and community life is more important to them than having a special house, view or amount of land. we seem to be in a unique setting and are grateful for this to be our first experience in south africa -- it’s not a gated community; it’s not a township of one kind where we are the only foreigner; and it’s not dominated by one faith community (each of the 3 main religions are represented, especially noticeable at the school in terms of holidays). we are surrounded by many kinds of people, including families and individuals from many other african nations.
i feel like i had to put all of that into the mix before sharing stories because this is the reality. if i am having a relaxful moment at a beach, i am aware of and thinking about all of this and how it’s a part of the scene. if i am talking on a bench with the Xhosa mother who still has land far away on the eastern cape, i am constantly reminded that millions have come here for ‘opportunity’ only to be trapped into a system of poor housing or none at all; they then realize the expenses of life are drastically different from their way of life - yet hope and patience keep many here on the western cape despite the fact that most wish they could return ‘home’ to the villages (even if they have lived and worked here for 10 or so years).
the stories that break my heart are the ones where people live where they work and the ones about a broken spirit as a result of displacement and crushed sense of self-worth. in only 1 ½ months i have met and listened to dozens of stories of how life is the way it is. for example, there is a colored couple who live where we live; they work and live in the building, but if you saw how they lived and how hard they work you would feel a sense of rage because it’s simply unjust. they have one room to share, to cook, sleep and live in, with a narrow place to walk in between the bed and stuff all around; they have to walk across a public pathway to enter the area where they can shower and go to the bathroom - there is almost no privacy because they have to share it with another worker who has a room next to the bathroom. i try to imagine having to walk past residents who are arriving or leaving while wearing my robe and slippers on my way to the shower. their living space is so small and dark that it gives me a glimpse into what the informal settlement life might be like -- instead of complaining they are grateful; they grumble a bit about waiting 14 years here for housing but they radiate joy while working long and hard hours, without any right to own their own key to enter on their own, or any right to have any family come and stay over night, and little pay for the important work they provide. another reality exists for the 100,000's of Xhosa individuals who live here like a local, but they also don't have their own place: they live with families or managers of businesses to do the cleaning work. they only get to go home, back to the Eastern Cape, which is 14 hours away, once a year; they can only stay for 2-4 weeks before needing to return to make a living. they miss their way of life and families deeply, yet they sacrifice and do what they feel is necessary to provide economic support for their families.
my mind then switches over to 100,000’s if not over a million people in the informal settlements, without any proper floor, sometimes no window, no plumbing, public toilets that are intolerable for anyone to manage without losing a sense of dignity -- despite this reality, and the reality that for 6 months when it rains they are flooded out of their homes, people do uphold a sense of self-dignity for the most part, holding on to who they are as a people, hopeful of change, determined to persevere through these times of transition. many people who are reflecting on the vision of south africa wonder how long the masses will be patient -- the unmet promises of having land, housing and opportunities restored to them remains to be fulfilled. when i see the richness and resourcefulness of the people, i feel humbled by their resilience and inner strength, as well as their cultural contributions to a land which has a great destiny.