And now for something (almost) completely different.
A blogger friend, Deana (https://eatpraylovemom.wordpress.com/), recently hosted a question and answer session (https://eatpraylovemom.wordpress.com/2015/04/29/questions-and/) on her blog where she asked people to ask her questions that she would then answer. I asked her ‘what is the furthest from home you have ever traveled’ I then asked her how (if at all) the trip had changed her perspective on the world. I hope you do not mind Deana but I have been giving some thought to this question myself and I would like to answer it myself as well.
Firstly there are probably two ways to answer the first question. You can look at it figuratively or literally. What I mean by this is that you can literally go to Google Maps and work out how far it is in kilometers from your house to the furthest city you have visited and say ah-ha, that is how far from home I have been. Or you can take a more philosophical point of view and consider how far from your comfort zone you have ever traveled (physically, emotionally, psychologically, mentally etc). Once you have considered these points of view, then you can think about how these physical, mental and emotional journeys may have affected you. I will try to look at both sides of this coin.
At this point it may be useful to point out that I grew up in a suburb of Johannesburg in apartheid South Africa. My family was moderately politically active and opposed the apartheid system (albeit in a very moderate sort of way). We were thus the beneficiaries of the privilege bestowed on us by that evil system as a virtue of the accident of our births, yet had an idea of the inherent evil of the system. In short I never wanted for anything, I was well-educated and well cared for. We did however know that we were privileged and that this privilege was built on the back of the exploitation of others, based on no more than the colour of their skins. We understood that this was wrong and we also realised our own good fortune. With that context understood I can now move on to the crux of this essay.
I have undertaken many journeys in my life I have traveled far and wide for my own pleasure, on school trips, for sporting activities and for business. As I say I am the child of privilege and I acknowledge this fact. I cannot apologise for it as I did not choose the circumstances of my birth, but I can and do acknowledge the privileged position I have found myself in as a result of this accident of birth. In purely physical terms, I have undertaken some very long journeys. I have traveled from Johannesburg to Athens (7 158 km) Johannesburg to London (9 084 km), and from Johannesburg to New York (12 851 km), the single longest non stop flight I have undertaken. But in terms of sheer distance traveled, my longest trip was from Johannesburg to Toronto, via Frankfurt a trip of 13 350 kms.
These trips were definitely monumental in geographic terms and of course South Africa is a very different country to Canada, the United States, Germany or indeed the United Kingdom. However, every time I visited these countries I was struck by how similar we were to each other. Culturally English-speaking South Africans share a lot with both Americans and English people. Architecturally some of the places I have visited are quite similar. We have high-rise buildings in Johannesburg, obviously not on the same scale as in Manhattan, but we have them. Many churches (especially Anglican churches) in South Africa are modeled on English churches that were built in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The relatively large immigrant communities (German, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, English etc) in South Africa have brought with them suburban housing styles that would make many a Leipziger or Tuscan feel very much at home. Whilst there are certainly language barriers and places like Ukraine and Greece use different alphabets I am often more struck by how similar we are as people than by our differences. The suburbs of Toronto are much like many suburbs in Johannesburg. The people of New York are very much like the people of Johannesburg, heterogeneous, helpful, driven and above all active. Cape Town is the quintessential European city on the African continent. Leipzig and Pretoria even share very similar looking monuments to conflicts that helped shape each country’s sense of nationhood:
So these very long distance trips seem, for me at least, to have accentuated similarities rather than differences. They certainly had an effect on me but this effect was more limited than I expected.
I have also traveled (if not extensively) within my own region. I have traveled in my own country and I have also visited a few neighbouring countries as well. I have been to Harare (Zimbabwe), Maseru (Lesotho) and Mbabane (Swaziland). Each country is of course unique and they are not all the same but once again they felt a lot like home in many respects. Maseru is a tiny version of Johannesburg (the whole city is about a block or 2 by a block or 2) but the people are as full of energy as the people of Johannesburg. I think of Johannesburg as a miniature New York City and of Maseru as a miniaturised Johannesburg. Although you are less likely to see Johannesburgers or New Yorkers catching a taxi cab with a live sheep, which is not as an uncommon sight in Maseru as you may think, true story.
You may well ask how can it be that I see so much similarity with the western world and Africa when the western visitor to Africa is confronted by so much that is different. I think the reason is two-fold. On the one hand you see what you want to see it is a matter of perspective. If you want to see difference you will filter everything through that particular frame of reference and of course if you want to see similarity or if you prefer commonality, likewise, you will. Additionally, South Africa is a country of massive inequality. If you visit Sandton, Rosebank or Umhlanga Rocks and never go more than 5 kms from your hotel you will never see anything but a thriving (mostly) first world city with excellent infrastructure, amazing health care, schools that most children in the western world would love to attend and so forth.
Travel into rural South Africa (a mere 3 hours from most urban centres) and you will discover the Africa of your imagination. You will see small homesteads with farm land. You may come across road side markets and then you will find the game farms and reserves of the travel brochures. You will see the big five, the massive African sky and all that your imagination has conceived of your trip to Africa.
Both these experiences are the lived reality of some South Africans. We live in a very close approximation of the first world for much of our lives. When we choose to, we can go and visit the ‘Africa’ of the travel brochures and as such we can feel very much as at home in Marylebone and Manhattan as we can in Maseru.
This however is not the full story of South Africa. There is a third side of our country that is less pleasant on the eye. One that is far more disturbing and this bring me to the journey that had the most profound effect on me. As a final year university student studying English I had the opportunity to work in an underprivileged high school, giving grade 10 students a refresher course in the basics of English in an attempt to help them improve their performance in final year examinations two years from then. We traveled all of 15 kms once or twice a week (I do not recall exactly) to give a few hours support to these students. These 15 kms were a very short geographic distance but we may as well have been visiting a different world.
This was less than 5 years after our first democratic elections but the school I visited bore the scars of the low intensity civil war that had been fought in the townships of South Africa for so many years but that had barely touched so many of my generation (we did not as a rule get conscripted into the SA Army to fight our fellow South Africans, many of us were not aware of the mass protests or the police brutality that accompanied them: we lived a cloistered existence in our suburbs). The school I arrived at lacked a library as it had been petrol bombed during a battle with the SA Police during the troubles of the late 1980s and had never been replaced. Some classrooms lacked doors and roofs as the materials had been used to make shields during this time or else had been stolen to make houses for migrants who lacked formal housing. These roofs and doors were simply not replaced. Only some of the buildings had electricity and water was only being piped to a few of the taps on the property. Finding one that worked was a great adventure. Toilet facilities were shall we say rudimentary. All of this was evidence of the lack of care given to the black population by the white minority government during apartheid as well as a testament to the very real problems confronting the post democracy South African state.
Coming from a very well resourced academic background this was a terrible shock. This was exacerbated by my experience in the classroom. The classes were all of approximately 60 students. Many of them were unable to understand what I was saying and a teacher had to be present in the classroom to translate my English lesson into isiZulu. Some of the students in the grade 10 class were older than I was. More than a few were parents already. This brought home, in a very real and immediate way, the challenges facing our country. It also showed me in a very personal way the major advantages that I had enjoyed by the accident of my birth. I had been born into immense privilege. I had been given opportunities that had been denied to others. Certainly I had to work for what I enjoyed and there were others who had enjoyed similarly advantaged starts to their lives but who had not achieved what I had achieved. Additionally some of the privileges I enjoyed were the result of hard work, sacrifice and the foresight of my parents and their parents. But it became clear to me that I had a much easier ride than the students I was working with had for familial, social and political reasons.
I was struck with the enormity of the task before me. How do you teach someone English literature when they have no access to the texts? The school had no library the nearest functional public library was over 20 kms away and the nearest book shop may have been 10kms away but it may as well have been on the moon as none of them could afford to buy a book anyway. How do you teach comprehension when some of the students were functionally illiterate in English? The text had to be translated into isiZulu, then the comprehension questions had to be translated into isiZulu, then answered and then the answers translated into English. Talk about getting lost in translation, I was simply lost. The education system had failed these students and their futures were dismal. I, with no training in education, no idea of the syllabus and only an academic basis in English was being asked to help save these students and give them hope for the future.
The situation was made worse when you looked at the environment the school was in. Many of the students and teachers were doing their best. The school lacked basic facilities but it was generally clean and what could be maintained by the staff and students was maintained. Obviously roof building is a slightly bigger task than basic gardening and cleaning. The external environment was however challenging. Literally over the road from the school there were no less than three shebeens (a shebeen is an unlicensed bar or tavern and a centre of social life in the township). Alcohol was freely available and the students were clearly prime targets for the shebeen owners. To make matters worse there were billboards advertising the top selling beer brands in South Africa on the approaches to the school. These billboards clearly targeted youth with images of sports and youth socialising. In this context creating a culture of learning was practically impossible. This needs to be contrasted with my schooling experience. No alcohol advertising was allowed near schools and certainly alcohol could not be sold near a school. If a school wanted to have a social evening for parents or run a fund-raiser where alcohol would be available they would have to apply for a special and temporary licence. By contrast the school in the township seemed to be seen as a viable and preferred market for the sale of alcohol.
The area around the school was clearly impoverished. The roads were seldom cleaned, let alone maintained. Dirt and filth built up and rubbish was scattered across the landscape. I felt that anyone living in this environment was either going to fight tooth and nail to escape it or lose all hope of ever escaping. It was at this time that I realised that we had massive potential within our communities but that the challenge was to unlock this potential. I also realised that I had an ethical duty to use the privilege I was born into to try to help our country normalise. To acknowledge the difficulties and the inequality but nonetheless strive to improve society. The path is never easy and I still question what are the best ways of doing so, but this experience changed my views in a very profound way and I am grateful for having had the opportunity. I was saddened to see how few of my fellow white students took the opportunity. Most of my colleagues were black students who had themselves escaped the township and been given an education. They wanted to help their fellows in the township. It seemed to me that many of my (white) friends would rather not have seen the real challenges that face us as a society.
Sadly some 15 years later we still have serious problems with our education system. We still have a very divided and unequal society. These divisions are still largely predicated on race. We still have much to do…
I have often wondered how different my life would have been had I been born just 10 to 15 kms to the west in that township called Soweto. I am eternally grateful for the accident of my birth.
Apologies for the references to race, but in a society like South Africa, it is very hard to escape race. It has had (and continues to have) a very real effect on our society, politics and economy.
I have of course undertaken other journeys (real and metaphysical) of huge significance (my first journey en femme, or a short journey from ICU to an operating theatre for life-saving, emergency surgery for example), and these have also had massive influences on me, but at over 2 500 words, this piece is long enough for now. I may well write something else on this theme some other time though.