This is the last and hardest blog post I’m going to write. We are back from Cape Town just over two weeks now. It’s crazy to try to process how impactful that year has been for each of us individually and as a family. It’s also interesting to see how we are handling re-assimilation, both individually and as a family.
Speaking for myself, the re-entry process has been difficult. It is no secret among friends and family that I would have preferred to stay for another year. While we certainly had a wonderful quality of life in Tokai and spared nothing, we just take so much for granted here in the US. We have non-stop water, electricity, access to food, clothing, supplies, every convenience we can conceive. Our stores are mind-numbingly large, with 50 different colors, shape sizes, prices, and varieties of every product imaginable. I have had to evacuate several stores over the past 10 days, overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of choice. Our serving sizes are offensive; no wonder we have such high levels of obesity. Compared to Cape Town, our cost of living is ridiculous. Food and drinks – crazy.
And yet – and yet. We are so very lucky to be Americans. While at any point in time we might not like a sitting leader or agree with certain policies, we live in a society with rules and laws and forms of government deliberately intended to be cautious and slow moving, to include checks and balances, to allow for innovation at various levels (federal, state, local) and through various branches (judicial, executive, legislative) at any one time. From our upper white class perspective, we seem to have a functioning judiciary system (again, from our perspective only). We have a functioning middle class. For the most part, the people we know pay taxes and have faith in our government to do the right thing. Even as I write this, I know that these thoughts reflect my own experiences and bias, and not all would agree with these thoughts exactly. Our country is in turmoil, with more vitriol and negativity being spewed by our political levels than at any time in history.
We are grateful that Charlotte and Luke are both coming back to new experiences, in both high school and middle school. Both are excited and nervous, with some caution and anxiety thrown in for good measure. We are grateful that they can walk or bike ride or run alone within our neighborhood and community. We are grateful that we live in a relatively safe town and can leave our doors and windows unlocked on a regular basis (although perhaps we shouldn’t). We are so very grateful to be back among loved ones with whom we can pick up as if a year hadn’t gone by. We are grateful for running water and electricity.
One moment struck it home for me how lucky we are to live in the US: Charlotte was preparing for a run. She waved her swiss army knife at me and asked, “mom, do I need to bring this?” Wow. But being home also means a resumption of the constant barrage of negativity, of drop and roll drills at schools amidst a growing acceptance of school violence, of xenophobia, of misogynism. It means a ridiculously high cost of living. It means we’ll need to work a little harder to surround ourselves with the rich tapestry of cultures and ethnicities and races that we counted among our friends in Cape Town. And on and on. There’s no right answer, and there’s no right place. It will take us a while to process all of this – and hopefully, with continued travel and a commitment to service, the journey will never end.
As we prepared to come home, our church in Milton, St. Michaels Episcopal, offered up a prayer for us. I think it’s perfect – a perfect thought, and a perfect challenge to ourselves as we look forward. Thank you for reading about our learning journey this past year. With any luck, it has just begun.
On your travels, may they be safe and guarded. On your farewells, may they be brave and loving and grateful. On your readjustment, may you have patience and be filled with the hope of all that you have gathered that will show in your life and work ahead.
Thank you Cape Town. We are in our final hours. So much for which to be grateful. Hard to believe it’s over. So grateful for the incredible community of friends – both South Africans and other expats – we found here. As someone anticipated – you have gotten under our skin and we are leaving a piece of our hearts here.
Top things I have loved:
1) Nightime. The Moon cascading light all over our backyard, the Southern Cross which has been our (ironically) north star; the vast inky black blanket with millions of diamond-like stars twinkling throughout the night;
2) Trail running – anywhere, anytime, esp. with headlamps and, in the case of Groot Constantia, rewarded with lots of vino;
3) The notion that any proper south African child is born in a wetsuit (nod to Muizenberg and Llandudno) with a headlamp on his head;
4) The whole attitude of “get on with it.” You South Africans have an unfailing sense that one can do anything. Just stop complaining and do it. I LOVE this!
5) Complete and utter laissez-faire attitude: no liability, no indemnification. Sure, of course you should try to climb through that crevice in that million year old cave that you might or might not fit through;
6) Unfettered access to every outdoor pursuit we could imagine – running, biking, surfing, swimming, hiking – all in breathtakingly gorgeous settings about 10 minutes from our house.
7) The fact that every conversation, every meeting, has been an opportunity to learn about other cultures, perspectives, customs, ways of living
8) The feeling that we can truly make a difference in people’s lives. Yours is a small enough country that we have felt that we can really have an impact. I have learned so much from so many about the reality for young children in this country. We have so much to learn from you.
9) Yours is a melting pot of cultures, languages, nationalities – both the south African population itself (stemming from British, Dutch, Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese influences) and other more recent immigrants – Zimbabwean, Malawian. It has been a fascinating thing to observe.
10) Thank you for exposing us and forcing us to deal with such inequity that tends to be more hidden in our (sheltered) life at home.
11) We are humbled by your connection to the earth, and the ancientness of your ancestors/heritage. We have so much to learn from you in “the developing world.”
12)Thank you for exposing us to scarcity – both in terms of water and electricity. It is really important to feel need – esp for those of us from a land of plenty
13) Wine. Wine. Wine. Wine.
14) Sunshine. Sunshine. Sunshine.
15) Mountains! Sea! Mountains! Sea! Everywhere you turn, it gets more beautiful!
Thank you Cape Town, and all of our friends (you know who you are) for welcoming us during our sabbatical year. Thank you for showing us a different perspective on a sense of place within a broader global community. We will miss you and cannot wait to come back.
Wow oh wow oh wow. Namibia. A vast land of endless hues, windswept dunes, semi-arid deserts, remarkable rock formations, amazing and in some cases severely endangered wildlife, incredible opportunities for outdoor adventure, endless blackness lit up by millions of stars twinkling at night, and, among its few inhabitants, ancestors of some of the most ancient forms of homo sapiens on the planet – the San Bushmen from the Kalahari Desert. Featuring just 3 people per kilometer, Nambia is the second least populated country on the planet, behind only Mongolia. Of more than 40,000 kilometers of road, only 5,000 are paved, most in and around the largest tourist attraction, Ethosa National Park, and the capital, Windhoek. While growing and an important segment of the economy, tourism, to our western eyes still seems nascent; over the last week, as we have driven from adventure to adventure, we often are the only car on the road – for hours at a time. However, as a wise friend in South Africa once said, don’t judge only based on the ultimate goal, but also on how much progress has been made. We understand current tourism levels are significantly higher than they were 10 years ago.
It strikes me that countries like Namibia and South Africa, like many sub-Saharan African countries, are comprised of some of the oldest populations/ethnic groups on the planet – some of the original inhabitants of earth – the San, the Khoi. Yet their governments are mere babies compared to the US – after the tumultuous years of Apartheid, South Africa just celebrated 28 years of independence, while Namibia only became independent from South Africa in 1990. Yet the earth of Southwestern Africa is so very very old.
We started this two week “let’s cap off our year in Cape Town” trip with very few expectations. I had always wanted to experience Namibia, having heard about the vast dunes of Soussevlei in the south. Yet because the lead up to the trip was filled with end of school year celebrations, tearful goodbyes to our Cape town friends and a visit with our amazing friend Jane Mingey from the US, we had little time to research and less time to develop expectations for our forthcoming adventure. We relied on the expert advice of our friend Janine (highly highly recommended). However, I suspect even if we did have high expectations, they would have been blown out of the water – this place is remarkable, and unlike anywhere we’ve been in the world.
Our journey started on a promising note. Because our Cape Town to Namibia flight had been cancelled, we had to scramble a bit, scheduling accommodation for an additional night (since we now had to fly the day before originally planned). The airline did its part, putting us on another flight – in full first class style! And our Windhoek hotel was straight out of a Kimpton catalogue – very stylish and, in Luke’s terms, “fancy.” While not at all what we had expected, it was a comfortable and familiar start to the trip.
From Windhoek we travelled about 5 ½ hours on one of Namibia’s major highways to the southwest, to experience the Namib Desert, the world’s oldest desert (80 million years young) and the incredible dunes of Soussevlei, one of Namibia’s two world heritage sites. 5 hours of that major highway journey was on an unpaved road – our first experience with the Namibian highway system.
We were up in the wee hours of the morning to drive about 90 minutes – all on dirt roads – to view the sunrise from Soussevlei and accompanying Deadvlei. These incredible red dunes, stretching as far as the eye can see, are among the tallest in the world. Luke was in heaven, ditching his shoes early on and venturing forth wherever his feet took him. Trudging up them was hard! Sliding down much easier. Watching the sun rise over distant hills and highlighting vibrant pinks and reds of the dunes as far as the eye could see, I had an overwhelming sense of calm and gratitude that God created such a miracle – and some quick prayers to mom up above to protect Luke from falling off a dune! We next visited the nearby Sesriem Canyon, shaped by the Tsauchab River over millions of years. A deep canyon etched into the earth, this allowed for more rock climbing and scrambling. The Canyon itself reminded me of the southwestern US, but I’ve never before seen dunes like that.
We spent two nights at the Namib Desert Lodge, and then totally switched gears by driving (4 ½ hours) to the seaside town of Swakopmund, where the vast dunes of the Namib Desert intersect with the Atlantic ocean. Where the Desert had been hot hot hot, the seaside town was enveloped in fog and felt downright chilly (at least by Cape Town standards, certainly not by Boston’s). Where we had stayed at a typical desert lodge, surrounded by red cliffs, in the south, our lodging in Swakop harkened again to a Kimpton: the Delight Hotel was filled with bright and whimsical colors and décor and seemed straight out of LA. We were a bit apprehensive at first in Swakop, not sure of the town or how we would spend our time. After viewing our first real Namibian sunset over the Atlantic Ocean, that apprehension turned to “delight” the next day as we went quadding and sand boarding on endless dunes at the intersection of desert and ocean.
The quadding definitely makes the top ten list of our most fabulous adventures this year. After getting his feet wet, Luke became group leader, following the Namibian guide Miles closely and becoming more and more adventurous every meter. Our three hour tour allowed ample time to skid and speed across dunes that average 200 meters in heights. A huge adrenaline rush and terrific time had by all. We also spent a bit of time sand boarding which is basically a summer-climate version of snow sledding. With an initial push by Martin, we screamed downhill on pieces of polished polyeurathane, trying to keep the sand out of our mouths and eyes and keep our legs and arms elevated so as not to get sand burns. Chris and I chose to do it only once, but our daredevil Charlotte, no surprise, kept trudging to ever higher heights from which to launch her missile. Luke boarded down once and morphed into a sand creature for an hour. 🙂
Perhaps the most unexpected and utter surprise was our next destination, the Mowane (“Place of God”) Mountain Camp in Damaraland. When we first reached the camp, hidden deep in rocky cliffs formed by eons of wind and geological evolution, we couldn’t see the reception, so artfully constructed to blend into the actual rocks. Our stay at this amazing eco-friendly lodge was as glamorous a rural stay as any of us will probably experience in our lifetimes, complete with luxury tents, candlelight dinners around a roaring fire and a daily “sundowner” up at the top of a cliff that felt like the top of the world.
While at Mowane we signed up to track the elusive Namibian desert elephant (a phrase we must have said 100 times over the course of the day; saying merely “elephant” or “desert elephant” was simply not acceptable!) Our guide was the irrepressible Rosie, a 50-something powerhouse of a woman, who was the first black Namibian female guide in the country. She so inspired us with her tenacity in tracking the elephants who had retreated deep into the mountains to find respite from a 3 year drought. We were not as inspired by the lack of progress after Rosie’s incredible battle to become the first female guide 20 years ago; today there are only 4, including Rosie. Girl power!
Inside of our Tent
Upon leaving that heaven of a camp, we drove 4 hours – all on dirt roads – to reach the outskirts of Etosha National Park. As we got closer to the park we realized that every few miles or so there were rough wooden shacks erected by the side of the road, with Namibian tribespeople dressed in traditional clothes (meaning nothing on top for men and women, and modest covering over their private parts) hawking handmade wares and frantically trying to wave passing cars down. After hesitating to stop at the first few, we finally pulled into one “village” consisting of perhaps 20 men, women and children, each manning their own “shop.” They were led by one young man, speaking impeccable English, who served as our negotiator. While they assured us photographs were welcome, we felt uncomfortable with that dynamic, so after some minor bartering (by Charlotte, Luke and I; Chris just flat out paid a widely overly inflated asking price for a small wooden rhino!) and trying not to stare at these folks so different from us, we headed on.
The next morning, we entered Etosha bright and early. Over the course of two full days we were BLOWN AWAY by the wildlife we encountered – millions of zebra, giraffe, kudo, gembok, guinea fowl and ostrich (Luke’s favorites), the evil honey badger, elephant, a lion, and – highlight of the week – 4 cheetah that we were able to track down all by ourselves, not with a guide. (We knew in general they were in a particular area and when we saw zebra running Charlotte used her expert eyes to identify them. Wow!) On our way in we saw three white, ancient elephants the size of apartment buildings trudging right along ahead of us WOW! In Etosha we stayed at one of our two favorite places of our trip – the amazing Mushara Bush Camp. While Mushara is billed as an affordable option for families and independent travelers (thus avoiding the busloads of Germans we had encountered at two larger lodges along the way), we found it unbelievably wonderful and completely fabulous! It is impossible to verbalize how amazing Etosha was – and how different from Kruger National Park. Far more open, with vast “pans” of salt and clay sand. No one gets out of cars; there is far more animal tracking on foot and off road in Kruger. And in Etosha, we met the other side of Rosie’s coin: our indefatigable guide Ute, a 76 year old take no prisoners chain smoking white Namibian of German descent, was proud to claim that she is the only white guide in Etosha, but all the black guides accept her. Ute was delighted that we experienced a kill by a small cat named a caracal – in her 30 years guiding she’d only seen three or four of them. VERY interesting!
By this point, ten days into the trip, we were all a little tired, dirty, and perhaps ready to go home. We also knew that Janine would not disappoint…..and she didn’t. Our final destination – the Na’ankuse Animal Sanctuary – completely and utterly blew us away. All we knew was that we had a full day drive to get there. The kids kept asking about our accommodation; I thought it might be a tent but wasn’t too sure. Imagine our surprise when we realized we were staying in one of several villas located on a 33,000 hecter sanctuary established to provide a home for animals who otherwise could not survive – because they are orphaned, abandoned, or habituated to humans (and thus unable to cope in nature). In addition to supporting wildlife, Na’ankuse works to support the San people, establishing the area’s first hospital, ensuring educational opportunities from pre-school up, and creating employment opportunities in an area with very few jobs. Na’ankuse is similar to the Bulungula Incubator in SA’s Eastern Cape in that its founders seem very strategic, well funded, and connected. Na’ankuse’s founder is close with Angelina Jolie, whose daughter Shiloh was born in Namibia and who apparently has a house on the property. Similar to Mowani, N/a’an ku sê is a Juǀ’hoan word that means “God will protect us”, or “God watches over us.”
Na’ankuse bar photo
Na’ankuse’s “carnivorous feeding” tour allowed us to watch a well-trained guide feed wild dogs, caracals, baboons, leopards, cheetahs, and lions. It was awesome to finally understand the difference between a cheetah (faster, taller, skinnier) and a leopard (completely stunning, stockier, tougher), to get a better understanding of animal rehabilitation and preservation (most of these animals have no chance of being set free and thus are being taken care of), and, perhaps not as awesome, to be within 5 feet of a roaring, angry lion. (That was scary.) We were thankful for the electric fence separating us!
Na’ankuse also provided us with a chance to interact with local people, for which I was particularly grateful, since to that point we hadn’t visited any schools or gotten off the tourist circuit. We spent a morning and an evening with an extended family of about 20 San Bushman, led by Rebe, a very articulate English speaking young man whose formal education stopped in 8th grade. In the morning, they gave us a tour of their village (a few huts and a fire ring) and showed us how they use indigeneous plants for healing, medicine and nutrition. In the evening, we joined for storytelling around the fire, and listened raptly (thanks to Rebe) as they laughed and shared centuries old tales about the connection between mankind and nature. The lead storyteller was a sinewy, hilarious and incredibly fit 77 year old who has experienced untold stories in his lifetime. It’s too bad we didn’t video him – he was a great example of an excellent public speaker! We didn’t understand a word he said (he spoke in his native tongue featuring upteen klicks and klocks!) but were riveted by his presentation.
It was amazing and humbling – these people have such wisdom, peace, experience and a connection to the earth that in our modern frantic world we are sorely missing. Many of the medicines we so rely on are originally from the very plants the men pointed out. Originally we were uncomfortable that we might be exploiting them; but it became crystal clear to us that this is one of several strategies Na’ankuse is implementing to expose indigenous Africans to foreigners for income creation and culture sharing, and to provide us with cultural and education experiences. Of course we purchased several of the handicrafts they had painstakingly created (like a bracelet of ostrich shell which must have take hours to create); we are assured 100% of the proceeds goes directly to the family, which will divvy it up amongst themselves. I could write a book on reflections from this experience, but for now I know the memories we have of our time with this family will provide solace and peace as we find ourselves back in our busy, sometimes stressed out, overloaded world. Surrounded by their love and warmth, listening to the klicks and klocks of the Bushman language, and gazing up at the universe of stars twinkling in the Namibian desert which we know we will not see again anytime soon – we could not have had a better ending to our Namibian adventure, and for Chris, for his South African year. #grateful #amazed #humbled #reflective #thisplace
(Editorial Comment: This blog post is rife with unadulterated bragging regarding our children. If this is in any way offensive stop reading NOW!)
When we first conceived of a sabbatical year, I had visions of plopping my family in some very rural impoverished village and being one with the peeps. Thankfully, my brother Andy who has significant experience working and living in sub-Saharan Africa (beyond Peace Corps stints in the Gambia and Zambia and a PHD focused on modeling animal populations in African national parks, he is married to Zilose, who is from Lusaka, Zambia), set us straight. Andy’s direct advice: think about the goal of this year abroad for our children and ourselves. Really, we hoped to instill empathy and awareness in them about other cultures and perspectives, to expose them to other languages and ways of thinking and living. Andy advised us to find a school which would serve as the kids’ home-base, a community in which they could fit in and feel comfortable. From that base we could organize trips and experiences that would expose us to the reality of the “peeps,” but we could always come back to “our community.”
The best thing we did was to follow Andy’s advice, enrolling Charlotte and Luke in the American International School of Cape Town. We have LOVED this school, its approach to learning, and the overall the sense of community it instills – a difficult task with a student population representing more than 50 countries and with constant student transitions, as kids enter and exit the school. While not as academically rigorous or as sports-focused as MPS, AISCT has inspired our kids to try new things (like field hockey, which seems to be Lukey’s thing, and swimming, which Charlotte had never done competitively before), to think differently about the world, and to learn how peers their age approach life.
As we think back to that original goal Andy helped us identify, we can say, Mission Accomplished. Our kids have grown so much. They have friends from all over the world. They have seen poverty and had a chance to reflect upon it. They have been able to see past the color of people’s skin or the challenges some might have in speaking English to begin to appreciate true diversity. (A lifelong challenge for most of us.) Already sensitive and empathetic, both have been recognized as amazingly kind leaders of their peers. Amazingly for someone at the school for just one year, Charlotte was awarded the AISCT Middle School Global Citizenship award (acknowledging the student most likely to become a global citizen) and the Swim Team Sportsmanship award. Luke was recognized as the most Effective Communicator of his class, always ready with a smile and a kind word for others. This recognition is far more important to us than any academic achievements – but we were happy that Charlotte also was recognized as one of four Academic Excellence students in the 8th grade and Luke’s progress and efforts have been celebrated by his teachers. Our kitchen wall is plastered with recognition certificates and awards but by far the biggest rewards are the smiles on our childrens’ faces and the kindness with which they treat those around them – no matter the color skin, home language, country of origin, etc.
As the end of our amazing year draws close (boo hoo; I am having a very hard time accepting that reality and am ignoring it for as long as I possibly can!) we are starting to think about what we have learned here, what we’ve been surprised by, how we’ve grown. There’s so much to reflect and write about, but here are some initial thoughts about what we’ve been surprised by.
Coming in, since I’d spent time here, I was somewhat familiar with the jarring poverty and inequality. Driving in from the airport, it’s hard to miss the miles and miles of township shacks that line both sides of the major highway (think I95 on the East Coast). What I didn’t fully grasp was how obvious the racial inequality would be along not just that road but along all roads every day. Folks selling all manner of plastic flamingos and lawn chairs and hats and sofas and magazines, folks begging, folks crossing the road casually as cars whiz by , folks getting in and out of “taxis” – big white vans – driving sometimes 2 hours to get to their job as a domestic worker or gardener, folks trudging along after the taxis drop them off – those folks are all black, or colored. The folks driving in their own cars, usually completely ignoring the beggars and the walkers and the hawkers – all white.
We were surprised by the ubiquity of the Afrikaner – the ancestors of the Boers which inhabited South Africa in the 1800s and 1900s and fought the British in the Boer Wars for supremacy. Afrikans culture – proud, big, hearty farmers of and from this land – and the Afrikans language are everywhere. Originally known as the “language of the oppressor” (in 1976 schoolchildren who were peacefully protesting against the use of Afrikans – vs. English – as the primary language of education were slaughtered in the Johannesburg section of Soweto, leading to increased anger against the Apartheid government), Afrikans is now the only language that millions of colored South Africans know. Their primary language. Hard to balance that with the oppressor visual. We have several friends whose parents spoke Afrikans at home, and have been to villages where it is still the primary language spoken in shops, markets, schools, churches. Fascinating and, we wonder, is its usage still charged with the racial history of South Africa, as all the inequities have persisted?
I have been blown away by the very visible role of religion. Two weeks ago I attended several meetings with government officials in Mpumalanga, up by the Mozambican border. Every meeting began with a prayer led by one or several officials. I was stunned, coming from our “separation of church and stage” mentality. Recently, I have begun to visit various churches/ministries on Sunday mornings, just to get a feel for the variety of faiths and customs. Last week I attended the Commongood Church, an Anglican-type spinoff which is extremely popular among young white South Africans (it seemed). With the rock band and large screen scrolling musical lyrics, it reminded me very much of a southern Christian rock service – people were clapping and singing and engaged. However, make no mistake, the sermon itself reflected a very conservative theology, steeped in a literal interpretation of the Bible (particularly regarding marriage). It was fascinating, but after 90 minutes I slipped quietly out the back door (before they attempted to “save” me!)
The biggest surprise is how much we have loved living here. Enrolling in the American International School was the smartest thing we did. We are part of a global community, and have learned so very much about humanity and our society. In addition, through very dear South African friends, we have gotten just a little taste of what it is look to grow up in such a complex, vibrant, complicated country, so steeped in the earth and in eons and eons of human development. we feel so lucky.
Over the last two months we have hosted several groups of visitors, before and after our excursion to the Eastern Cape described in my last post. It was wonderful sharing our lives with family members who braved hours and hours of airplane food and to experience the gorgeous Cape Town fall sunshine in the midst of East Coast soggy spring. Thank you to Jeanne and Barb, Evan, Mary K and Earl, and Colin, Pam, Hannah, Ethan and Jacob. While we were a little tired and marveled at the silence after your departure, we had fabulous times with you and look forward to catching up back stateside soon!
Pictures from various adventures with our visitors are below and can be seen in earlier blog posts.
(stay tuned for more photos being processed).
On to another topic. Over the last several months I have thought a lot about dignity – what it means, what it looks like, how empowering it can be, how its absence can completely degrade and denigrate a person. Mostly the issue has come up because I see far too many people here who are not treated with dignity.
Before we came to South Africa, I’m not sure how I would have defined “dignity.” I now see it from a diverse perspective: the dignity of being able to read and write, to understand forms and documents and to represent oneself; the dignity of having sanitation and clean accessible water; the dignity of knowing your children will have access to a quality education and healthcare; the dignity of knowing that as a mother (or father) you are able to economically provide for your children and for yourself; the dignity of growing to be a 20 year old woman without becoming pregnant – of knowing there’s a different future out there; the dignity of knowing that you are valued because you have quality infrastructure in your community (paved roads, functioning electric systems, etc); the dignity of living in a community in which HIV is not ravaging – still – the population.
One incident has seared itself into my mind. Over the course of 4 hours, I saw a gentleman on crutches, with one leg, struggle to “walk” probably a four mile stretch in a very wealthy residential area. I passed him perhaps 4 times as I drove by conducting various errands. The 3rd and 4th time I stopped and, not knowing what else to do, offered him R100 (equivalent of about $6) each time. I couldn’t give him food, as he had no way to hold it, and I didn’t feel comfortable picking him up and driving him anywhere. I stopped out of my own guilt and empathy, but no one else did over that entire time period. I have to believe that in the states someone – the church, a non-profit – would have been available to assist him, to help with transport or food or lodging. There is no similar social services infrastructure here.
And on our recent trip to the Eastern Cape, dignity from this broad-based perspective seemed severely lacking. The province has the highest illiteracy rate in the country among youth. Its average annual household income is about $1000. Only 50% of households have access to a flush toilet, and 6% have no access to any toilet. It is estimated that HIV impacts 50% of the population. On a national level, the New Yorker recently quoted an outstanding and horrifying stat: only 13% of the population makes more than $6000 (US) per year. Think about that.
And yet – when we speak with people who have lived in the Eastern Cape, they say the current infrastructure situation is significantly better than it was; that at least there ARE roads (where before there were none), and water lines are being installed. The people we passed seemed like people everywhere – children laughing and playing and mothers working (hard hard hard and all the time). There were smiles and there was laughter and there was naughtiness and there was weariness – the same rainbow of emotions you see everywhere. What was striking in the Eastern Cape was the lack of grown men; most move to townships ringing SA’s major cities (Cape Town, Joburg) in search of employment. Leaving the women to do everything on the home front themselves.
I have no answers. Just reflections and questions.
I am writing this after a somewhat ethereal, pinch-ourselves type experience we had recently over ten days in the former Transkei, a large region on the south eastern coast (bordering the Indian Ocean) of South Africa. The Transkei is one of the tribal “homelands” of the Xhosa people. During South Africa’s apartheid government, the then-government fully endorsed the notion of the Transkei as its own sovereign nation – part of the broader effort to push black people out of South Africa at the time. The experiment lasted only until 1994, when Mandela assumed leadership and Transkei was reabsorbed into the country.
How to describe it? Unbelievable, breathtaking natural beauty – rolling, verdant hills and streams as far as the eye can see, dotted throughout with quaint looking rondavels – colorfully painted round huts that are home to millions of Xhosa people. The roads, with the exception of major highways, are bad – unpaved with huge ruts and stones and potholes for miles on end. When we weren’t dodging cattle and dogs and sheep and goats and pigs which constantly seemed to meander their way in front of our car, we were avoiding potholes and simultaneously oohing and aahhing at the rainbow of colors of the rondavels. The animals had us asking the question – where are we? Ireland? New Zealand? The houses left no doubt – South Africa! Pink houses, teal houses, yellow houses, blue houses, orange houses – all perched with like color groups, beautifully juxtaposed amidst and between hills and valleys. We couldn’t refrain from comparisons with the land of the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz. Only when we drove by closely did it become apparent that these were not homes with means, featuring dung floors, perhaps only a bed and a table, often times with no electricity or indoor plumbing. One stretch of about 50 miles had been without water for five days – courtesy of the government.
Children – babies – were everywhere, walking along the road, crossing the road, waving gleefully to us, playing with each other. People were joyous and friendly, which led us to a lot of debate: are they happy because they don’t know what they are missing? What right do we have to impose our values on them, to pity or feel badly for them? They seem happy so they must be, right? Happiness and Dignity – these will be the subject of a future post.
At one very remote lodge located in a nature reserve, we were advised to keep our hut doors and windows closed so playful monkeys didn’t pop in and rip off a sock or anything else that happened to be lying around. Luke focused a lot on that advice, asking frequently if we were protecting our belongings (read hockey cards and small candies) sufficiently. And there were animals EVERYWHERE! On my first beach run on the most remote and beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited, I was wowed – and intimidated – by the herds of cattle that roamed freely. We made wide circles around them and avoided eye contact. By the 10th day and probably 1000th animal, we did no such thing. Sheep, pigs, horses, cows – this was their land, and they didn’t care at all about us. On foot and in the car, we spent the week dodging and honking and clapping to get through the masses. We even hosted happy hour outside our rondavel hut one day!!!
As has been the case throughout our time in South Africa, we had many “didn’t expect that!” type of moments in the Transkei. One was the “ferry” that helped transport us to our first lodge. While we knew it wasn’t going to by Steamboat Authority or HyLine a la Hyannis-Nantucket, we didn’t expect this!!!! Of course the entrepreneurial local people took advantage of a captive audience (there was no where else we could go), showing their wares in little baskets on the side of the float, so we were able to do some shopping.
As the week progressed, we jumped off cliffs, trudged across hills reminiscent of the moors of Scotland and Ireland, kayaked on an ancient misty river replete with fish eagles and jumping fish, walked remote beaches and collected beautiful Indian ocean shells, played cricket with local children, and tried to soak in the natural beauty and kindness of the Xhosa people. A very different language from English, we each knew only the basic phrases, but that was enough to inspire gleeful smiles and laughs. Our trusty 4×4 Toyota did its job; for the most part we drove on dirt paths (which in some cases could hardly be called roads) filled with ruts and gullies and large rocks we were forced to navigate. On the last day, we had to navigate 30 miles of wet muddy road; we very nearly got stuck and would never have made our flight without chris’s suberb driving skills!!!
Not as easy as it looks- AND she had a hat on!
Our favorite experiences were visits to three early childhood centers, where local cuties laughed and clapped and danced and listened and played and argued just like kids in Milton and across the world. We were in awe of their teachers, who managed to create such colorful, gleeful, informative, and fun learning environments in the poorest, most rural region in South Africa. These women were amazing – working with extremely limited resources and serving children who are among the poorest of the poorest, often times from single parent households and neglected in the delivery of most common services we expect at home – water, electricity, quality education, health care, roads, infrastructure, etc. The programs were cheerful, loud, and happy – exactly what quality early childhood centers should be. To learn more please visit https://www.wildcoast.co.za/ncinci-ones-montessori, http://www.sustainablecoffeebay.org.za/projects/ikhaya-labantwana-montessori/ and https://bulungulaincubator.org/centre-based-ecd/
We are so grateful for our trip to the Transkei, and we were grateful to come home to the comfort of our home in Cape Town. Talk about two worlds – wow. Trying to comprehend the challenges of poverty and culture at times seems overwhelming. So much more to try to digest and reflect upon during our time here.
Gathering, transporting and selling mussels – such hard work!
The contrasts that we experience on a daily basis here sometimes defy what our brains can absorb. Our trash cans are our enemy and amazing family-friendly celebrations at world class wine farms are aplenty. Widespread conviction that Africans must solve African problems – not Westerners – but one tweet from our President can send the South African economy into a tailspin. Successful execution of the world’s largest time cycle race (see below), but three days before reports of tacks intentionally placed on the course (to cause blowouts) and muggings of riders on a particularly remote part of the course. One of the two most powerful politicians in the country speaking most eloquently and without notes about the need to support children and families from birth, yet her track record indicates nothing but corruption and fraud that has resulted in an economy teetering on the brink, an electricity grid unable to manage its capacity, and continued gross economic and racial inequity. The recognition that while there is amazing support for poor children and families being delivered mostly through the NPO sector, none of it is scalable because the government just doesn’t have the capacity – or the will –to help. Conversations of sophisticated language at the YPO organization convening (which included 2500 under-40-year old presidents of businesses from across the world) in 5 star hotels with similar conversations – with less sophisticated language but similar impact and intensity and purpose – taking place among passionate entrepreneurs in townships just a few miles from the fancy hotels.
We have continued to enjoy each and every day, with small hiccups and sighs, mostly resulting from not being able to attend Bruins games (Luke and Chris are up early every morning to see if that 19 game winning streak can continue) and missing families and friends. (We are SO glad we are expecting many visitors over the next few weeks!) Our experiences over the past couple weeks included – for Chris and me – the amazing Cape Town Cycle Tour, a 110 kilometer race, the largest timed cycled race in the world, around the Cape peninsula in the face of 40 mile per hour headwinds and rain. It was absolutely amazing, stunningly beautiful, and really challenging. Only in South Africa – a land well behind America in terms of its litigious proclivities – would a race carry on in such conditions. Not for the faint of heart – two years ago it was cancelled and last year four people died. We loved it.
The kids have carried on with their school-work and their friendships, doing what kids do in Cape Town and Milton and all over the world – playdates, sleep overs, arguments over screen time and eating their vegetables, procrastinating over homework and projects (Luke, not Charlotte), sighs over “too much” family togetherness. While at times it feels like a lot, we are so very grateful for this time together, for all the adventures we are having, and for the memories we are making.
I’m sure it’s obvious from our blog by now that, because of the nature of our experience here, as long-term visitors (but still visitors), we constantly are in a whirlwind of learning – every conversation is an opportunity to learn, a different perspective to understand, everyday a new experience to learn from and (for the most part) enjoy. We know that time is speeding by and that we are incredibly blessed to be able to have this whirlwind opportunity – and we are milking it.
Last weekend was a terrific example. Friday night we joined friends (who grew up here) at a local beach for a weekly “surf ski” (skinny racing kayak type things) competition. The whole scene was incredibly casual – while the competitors paddled and sweated furiously as they powered through multiple circuitous laps around the harbor, we adults who were not paddling and sweating instead were enjoying cold beer and burgers – each of which cost about $1.50, while the kids played gleefully in the water in front of us. We did break to applaud the skiers as they crossed the finish line. Apparently there were both national champions (those tended to be the fit ones in speedos) and normal Joes (not in speedos) participating. Overall there was a very friendly, community, beachy vibe.
Friday night beach joy
Saturday morning dawned and Chris and I took advantage of the beautiful weather to do a quick hike up and around our local reservoir. Huge benefit beyond the exercise: the amazing views of the Atlantic Ocean over Hout Bay – just 15 minutes from our house. That afternoon was the biggest community event of the year at Charlotte and Luke’s school – International Day. It was a celebration of culture, featuring food, music, costumes and performances from the many countries represented through the American School’s student body. It was a remarkable day, during which we met even more interesting folks – including a whole group from Holland uniformly wearing, in patriotic fashion, bright orange. The experience re-affirmed that AISCT is a wonderful, global community of which we are lucky to be a part.
A motley crew
performance by AISCT marimba band
Sunday we joined other friends for brunch at a yacht club* at another beach, also within 20 minutes of us. (*note yacht club in this instance bears absolutely no resemblance to the Thurston Howe/Lovey vibe of similarly named establishments in Nantucket or Osterville!) It was phenomenal to feel the sun on our faces as we discussed – as always – the state of the nation, the future facing its children, the quality of life, the challenges, the beauty, the sports, etc. etc. To cap the weekend off, Sunday evening we joined other good friends for an outdoor picnic and the lovely sounds of the Cape Philharmonic Symphony in the botanical gardens of Kirstenbosch, at the foot of Table Mountain one of the most stunning concert venues in the world.
Whew!! We were all happy and exhausted after those experiences, but Monday morning we all went back to our individual roles: kids to school, science projects, math problems and after school sports; Chris helping teachers think about student-centered learning and students consider cross-cultural issues; and I jetted off to the Lego / Unicef concert in Pretoria. More on that later!!!