I’ve just returned from a two-week trip to South Africa. Beautiful, intriguing and, unexpectedly, saddening.
Of all the things I thought about: Would it be safe? Would it be cold? Would it be tiring to drive so much (as we traversed the Western to Eastern Cape in a whirlwind)? Of all these pre-travel concerns, I did not once give thought to the culture of post-Apartheid. It just wasn’t on my radar.
I did not immediately feel how xenophobia was a topic of daily conversation. I did not expect the palpable economic divide. I was not prepared for the sharp contrast of beauty and struggle, of a country so bountiful in natural richness and yet so starved for a way to improve its future. There is still much I do not know or understand–but it left me grateful for the freedom and opportunity I enjoy and saddened at the idea of millions of South Africans just trying to live a basic life without much mobility or resources.
Though Apartheid has officially ended, every town or city has a township in the shadows. Township–a place where blacks, coloureds (a race, not an adjective) and poor were “shipped” away to separate them from the ruling white European (Dutch) class. Even in the most rural of areas, like Rhodes (population 26,) the system of Apartheid persists. Separate from the town of Rhodes, is the township of roughly 300 blacks living in mostly tin shacks with their own school, church and impoverished way of life that is so far removed from the quaint, little mountain town meters next door. My friend and I asked ourselves, how do 300 (black) people work for a town made up of 26 (whites)? How do they get food without access to modern transport and with harsh winters that make farming difficult for these months. How do they build community where there is little opportunity? We talked to the locals–the white business owners and black workers, alike. They all seem to make it “work.” One post office, one police department and a few farms–even a craft brewery that produces 226 bottles of beer per month. They have soccer games and marching bands. They have cell phones and wear hoodies that say things like “Dope Shit.” They survive.
And then there’s Joburg. Johannesburg–home to 12 million. Four million of which live in the township of Soweto, made famous by it’s one-time resident, Nelson Mandela. Soweto is so big that, even as a township, it has a lower, middle and upper class peppered with government housing projects and squatter camps off the electric grid. The people here must live on roughly the equivalent of UD$1.25 per day. Even if some get educated–as our Uber driver explained–the opportunity for work is so difficult to find that schooling doesn’t necessarily open any doors. With a degree in Accounting, he was more than willing to consider jobs as a cleaner, driver, and cruiseship staff member with the lure of access to other countries with better possibilities than home. Any job sounds better than none.
But there is still hope in education. In Lesotho, (an enclave within South Africa,) a hotel worker at our lodge sent her 13 year-old son to the capital of Maseru to live alone in an apartment while he studied at a more rigorous school than this more rural, agrarian community of Semongkong had. It was a familiar story–a mother struggling to give her children a better future through a better education–at any cost, including separating the family at long distance for a long time.
Educated or not, in many rural towns or urban townships, there is literally nowhere to go. Not that they’d necessarily want to leave as many South Africans and Basothos (people of Lesotho) are proud of their land and culture, happy to live and work in the place of their birth. But without jobs and economics resources, the idea of travel is unheard of. Many had never left their home towns or ventured further than a car ride or more commonly, horseride, away. Our hotel manager in Paterson where we went on safari had never even made a phone call outside of her country.
In America where we travelers frown upon others who have no curiosity to see the world, it’s different here. Economic hardships limit the imagination. You cannot dream of globe trotting if you cannot envision a life outside of your village.
As I travel around the world as a luxury of experience, I feel a twinge of guilt. I have paid for the insight into third-world living. I wanted to be taught about a way of life I doubt I’ll ever have to face. I walked through the simple stone and mud houses wondering how they stayed warm in the winter, where their produce came from in times of drought or bad weather, whether their traditional boiled wool blankets worn like cloaks was enough protection from the elements like my REI primaloft jacket and North Face water and wind proof shell.
Then I went back to my own mud hut rondavel, outfitted with a modern fireplace and comfy beds for tourists with hot water and electricity I didn’t have to worry about paying for. I could eat when I wanted from a menu of options. I drank wine and ate dessert–not far from homes not even equipped with running clean water…
I wanted to learn more. But felt then as I do now–helpless.
When I spent money on a tour ticket to see Soweto, I felt conflicted at the idea of commericializing poverty and the history thereof. I got on a tour bus because traveling alongside the locals didn’t feel safe. I was entertained with stories and jokes by the guide who grew up in the township. He taught us words in Sesotho, Zulu and a street language only spoken in the township that blended at least seven different Bantu dialects. This was a presentation his life, received through the lens of a tourist. He lifted the shades and cracked open dark doors to help people from around the world see his reality and hopefully feel touched enough to do something, say something, change something. Even if it’s just in themselves.
I’ve returned happy to be home in my own bed, to make meals from a big trip to the grocery store stocked with everything I need and to spend the holiday weekend resettling into my first-world life.
Travel should change you. Challenge you. Open your eyes to things you couldn’t imagine. And when it does, it’s up to you to do something meaningful with that privilege. I’m thinking of you South Africa. Just figuring out where to go from here.