Visitors – and Reflections on Dignity

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.

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