The Play by Play and some Reflections….

What We’ve Been Up To:

Two weekends ago we participated in The Cape Town Fun “run” – a somewhat euphemistic notion. Concept was: thousands of people walk/try to run along the picturesque Atlantic seaboard – one of the most beautiful landscapes in Cape Town. Over the course of the 5 K run through four massive domes in which the runners are doused with dried paint – yellow, red, purple and blue. Followed by the largest party we’ve been to here. Really really fun – followed the next day by a rocking party at our home for 50 of our new friends- tons of families and kids! Really fun.

Fast forward four days….Six months ago we couldn’t imagine saying the words, “Charlotte is in Joburg for a swim meet” for the following reasons:
• Charlotte swim? Beyond a few classes at the Y and participation in some triathlons, not really. But yup, started on a “real team” in early October and has, not surprisingly, jumped enthusiastically and determinedly (to my chagrin sometimes) into 7 am and after school swim practices
• Charlotte travel to Joburg? Without me? Yup – happily!
• Charlotte travel to Joburg for a swim meet? Yup – this weekend she travelled there for a tournament, along with students from American International Schools across Africa. She came, very respectfully and as expected, in the middle of the pack on all her races, finishing second out of 7 on two relays. Very strong showing for someone really new to swimming!!!!

While Charlotte was in Jo-burg, the rest of us were busy. On Saturday I helped put on our school’s Thanksgiving Lunch and Gratitude Celebration. While last year it was squarely about Thanksgiving, this year my friend Kate and I expanded it, to maximize the value of the amazing diversity at the school and to minimize the (perhaps questionable and not entirely historically accurate) “celebration” between white pilgrims and indigenous Americans. While neither Kate nor I were eager to spend our first three months in South Africa organizing buffets and yard games, the day was an amazing success – over 400 folks joined in, contributing 27 turkeys, 15 chickens and 200 hot dogs – all of which were immediately inhaled! We worked with the ecd, elementary and middle school staff to incorporate expressions of gratitude into curriculum over the past few weeks – and were treated to amazing performances by the school’s marimba band, cheerleaders and other groups! The fact we had our local brewery on hand made it even better for the adults! It was a wonderful multi-cultural celebration of thanks and gratitude – and made us feel even better and more welcome into our school and community here in Cape Town.

And Now Some Reflections:  on inequity, from both the macro and the personal levels:

I went to a regional economic conference last week, stuffed to the gills with economists and government ministers. The focus was on inequalities within economies….and what to do about it. Biggest learning for me: poverty reduction strategies often exacerbate inequality…… makes sense: as policies help the rich to get richer, often times the poor get poorer. This chart was presented by a World Bank official. Not surprisingly, South Africa is ranked the most “polarized” country in the world. Most disturbingly, the US is ranked as 4th, with the UK right behind. !!!! (There are a few countries not on the list that I had thought would be; I need to do more research.)


On a micro level, inequality is unbelievably evident in the completely accepted practice of hiring “domestic (ie black) workers” among white South Africans. Housekeepers, gardeners, drivers, nannies – everyone seems to have domestic help. While we initially scoffed at the idea (yes, mom, I know you are likely shaking your head in heaven right now!) we have since learned that this form of employment, as distasteful as it might be to the morally righteous amongst us –- is actually a critical economic engine. A monthly wage for this domestic work might be R5000 – about $357. This money – which is all cash based – is used to fund entire extended families including children, parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc – living often in much poorer, rural provinces across the eastern part of the country or in other, poorer African countries. Every morning thousands of black or coloured folks (accepted terms here) travel far and sometimes dangerous distances from the townships in which they live to suburbs like mine. After hemming and hawing about the fact that we are quite equipped to do our own housework, we have retained a lovely young woman named Rea to come in every other week to clean the house. Rea, who looks 16 but is actually 32, works hard. For the embarrassing wage of R270 (we promoted her to R300 ($21) plus lunch, to her utter glee), Rea spends 8 hours cleaning, polishing, washing and ironing……and seems to get quite embarrassed when I offer to help, get the laundry started, rinse the dishes, etc.

Yet even these manual jobs are at risk, as the South African economy sputters its way through the legacy of the prior Presidential administration. A recent article in the Cape Town times states, “As households continue to chip away at their budgets to make ends meet, increasingly even employing a domestic worker can be counted as a luxury. Department of Labour Statistics reports that 30,000 jobs in private homes were lost in third quarter compared to second. Year over year 46,000 jobs have been lost.”

All I know is that Rea is a kind woman with two children and a husband who works as a gardener who is doing her best to provide for her children; she is dependable and keeps our house unbelievably spotless. She also desperately needs more work. So I ask you, the reader: should we have her come once/week, vs. every other? The cost to us – who, granted, are living on a tight sabbatical budget – is about $20 per week. We did not originally have this included in our budget – yet it’s such a small amount, and makes such a big difference in the life of a kind woman. We are constantly trying to figure out the appropriate ways to “give back:” through our work? Through donations to organizations? Through support for people like Rea? I’d love opinions.

Our other domestic worker is a gardener who has worked for the owner of our house, and her family, for over 25 years. Henrik is a delightful man who dresses with style, sporting a fedora perched every so elegantly on his well coiffed head, and whistles his way through the day. Hendrik takes pride in his work and is good at it. Unfortunately he has not been able to come the past few weeks, as his granddaughter, who tragically was born with severe birth defects, has been in the hospital in Joburg, with bleak prospects for improvement. The challenge: despite the longstanding loyalty to the family, Hendrik does not get paid when he doesn’t show up. The first few weeks Chris and I decided we would still pay him and told the landlord so; but at what point does that stop? Where does the landlord role stop and ours begin? Again, opinions please!

We are realizing that with everything going on here, each blog post takes many days to write. We are now facing Thanksgiving in two days, and packing our bags to celebrate it in a rural area about three hours from Cape Town that is quite similar to the US Southwest/Sedona. We are thankful for all of our beloved friends and family and will be back in touch once we are back in cell range!!!

3 thoughts on “The Play by Play and some Reflections….

  1. Happy Thanksgiving to you guys! Seems like just last year we were up in Boston celebrating with you all! Actually we were 🙂 Hope Sedona / South Africa style is exciting and peaceful. – Love – the Lyons


  2. Can you help subsidize any educational opportunities for your housekeeper in lieu of an additional day a week or is that just not practical? Maybe a Christmas bonus to both so they can use the funds as they see fit (a lesson learned from the Adopt A Grandmother efforts we tried in Zambia)


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