Thursday, October 14, 2010

Introduction to South Africa

WARNING: This is NOT a warm, fuzzy post. Hang with me folks, I have a LOT to share over the next few weeks, but this files under "background".

Do you know all that "stuff" you think you need? You know, the iPod, the new laptop, the latest TV...Well, think again. You r
eally don't "need" any of it. Let me tell you a little bit about "need". I just visited an area of Africa where people live in one room cinder block "houses" the size of my bedroom. Most homes have electricity, but none have running water. There is barely room for a bed, let alone a refrigerator, stove, or any other comforts that we take for granted. Cooking is mostly done outside over an open fire, and bathrooms are non-existent. The more affluent people have the means to dig their own latrines, otherwise the only choice is the community "longdrop". No, these people did not make "poor choices" and end up this way as a result. Let's backtrack just a little.

In 1948 a government was elected in South Africa whose sole platform was Apartheid, which they promptly enacted. This enactment systematically separated three groups of people by skin color: White, colored, and black. Laws were passed implementing curfews, and if you were perceived as "bothering" a white person by merely walking with them, you could be arrested and thrown in jail. Black (tribal) Africans were "relocated" from prime grazing and farming land and forced into the bush. This is a mountainous area with little rainfall. Today, water is piped into the bush through community wells, which are controlled by the government. Apartheid is long over, and blacks are free to move about as they please, but they have little income, little education, and little means of achieving those moves. Those that do make it out of the rural villages often never look back. Meantime, those that remain would love to grow their own food to sell or feed their community, but that is tremendously hindered by the fact that their water is tightly controlled for "conservation" purposes. On any given day, when they visit the well, the water might not be flowing. Are you getting the picture?

yes this is a community well.

Only the very lucky have cars in the villages. Those who do, travel over extremely rough, rutted, poorly maintained dirt roads to get to the more affluent areas. The cars driving in and out kick up a tremendous amount of dust as they bounce up and down the primitive roads. There is a bus. I think it runs once a day, and if you want to get into the nearest city, you have to walk miles to the main road to catch it. There are also taxis that cruise up and down the main roads picking up as many people as they possibly can. It’s a great way to earn a living. Of course, if you can't afford the taxi or the bus, you are stuck walking. There just aren't many jobs out in the villages.

Add to all of this the issue of HIV/Aids. This is an extremely taboo subject. There is still a lot of superstition around the disease, and there are many people (understandably) distrustful of white men and their medicine. At one point rape was at an all time high (estimated 100%) because there was a belief circulating that if you had sex with a virgin, you would be cured. Those who have it guard their secret closely for fear of ostracism. Untreated HIV is leaving thousands of children without parents in a area where most of us could not survive. Look around your bedroom. Could YOU live in it with 12 other people? The lucky children might have a grandmother or an aunt to supervise them. The unlucky ones are scratching out an existence in child-led homes. With such hopeless conditions come hopeless addictions. There is no lack of bars in the communities. Children lucky enough to receive government stipends or food packages still may not have enough to eat if the stipends are used to fund their caregiver's needs or addictions.

At one point, orphanages began springing up all over South Africa to take care of these children. The government put a stop to it, decreeing that the communities must care for their own orphans. With very little resources available, the community does the best it can, but falls very short. Add to that a corrupt local government who literally steals food from the mouths of orphans. A shipment of 12 food packages will most likely be reduced to two as the food makes its way through the different levels of government on its way to be delivered to the children who need it.

Do you still think that you need that "stuff"?

Religion has taken root in a big way out in the bush. Of course, there are many different churches, with every one competing for the attention of the individuals. Several different denominations of Christianity exist (including Jehovah's Witness), along with Islam, traditional ancestral worship (witchcraft) and Zionists (a combination of Christianity and ancestral worship). Christianity has been undermined by several different philosophies that insist the people do as the government tells them and not fight back. One of the most fascinating exhibits in the Apartheid Museum goes into a great deal of detail about this issue. I'll sum it up this way: twisted Christianity is a tool used by whites to keep blacks under subjection.

There are beacons of hope. Over the next few weeks I will be focusing on the myriad of awesome stuff that happened on the trip, the wonderful people I met, and the many beautiful and gut-wrenching stories from South Africa. This trip was very intense, which makes it hard to write about. But it was completely worth it. And yes, I DO want to go back next year.



  1. What an opener to a great epic to come. You write very well Gillian! I'm at the edge of my seat, waiting for the next installment. The background is always necessary for the reader to understand the full impact of your thoughts and compassion and you expressed it very well.

    Keep up the good work, and know there will be many waiting to hear from you

  2. Ancestral worship is not "witchcraft", as westerners like to label it. Ancestral worship is simply following the spirits and guidance of our ancestors. Dont most americans follow in the spirit and guidance of their ancestors? The only difference is there is no spiritual ceremony to accompany it. I dig your blog. Just please choose your terminology carefully. Ancestor worship has a lot to do with believing in spirits and other beings that we cant see.

  3. Break down the word "apartheid" you get "APART,HIDE". You can take this 2 ways and still come to the same conclusion.

    1)white folks separated themselves from non-white folks, thus, APART. Then they hid themselves behind the govt and its laws, thus, HIDE.

    2)Keep non-white HIDES (skins) APART from white hides.

    The written law of APART,HIDE may be abolished, but the idea of the law of APART,HIDE still exists. In fact, it exists still in many parts of the world and no money ,govt, or religion can heal those wounds. Africans and europeans world-wide need to realize the reality of Racism/APART,HIDE, and make ourselves VISIBLE TOGETHER and expose the world wide regime responsible for the inception of the phenomenon of RACISM/APART,HIDE.

  4. Here's more information for those interested in reading about South Africa...

  5. Very good, Gillian. There's no experience like "going." Nothing we read can come close to what our eyes see and our hands touch. Thanks, nonetheless, for helping us all to understand better and hopefully care more.

    Your Susie