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.