April 20, 2008

“You don’t travel South Africa. South Africa travels you.”

The quote comes from the cover of a beautiful coffee table book on South African fashion titled “Well-Souled.” Lately, through work, I’ve had the opportunity to travel around SA quite a bit, and nearly every moment reminds me of the truth in that quote.

Quick stories from some of the places I’ve been:

Orange Farm, Alexandria, and Langa
Whereas Soweto includes a burgeoning Black middle class, Orange Farm and Alexandria are Johannesburg’s “ghetto.” Alexandria (or Alex as it’s called here) is located literally next door to the super rich Sandton suburb. Orange Farm is about 40 minutes outside of the city. Langa is Cape Town’s equivalent.

Corrugated steel barely held together make up many of the “homes.” Violent crime is rampant. Unemployment is upwards of 60%. And HIV/AIDS is a very serious, very present issue.

Each of these regions are Black townships created by South Africa’s apartheid government, placed close enough to the cities to provide cheap labor, but far enough away so the people could not benefit. Today, the kids born in these townships are able to go into the cities without the previous regime’s pass laws and entry requirements, but there is still no effective system to help them benefit from the financial hubs so close by.

Interesting story: When I was in Orange Farm, I spent the day at the loveLife Y-Centre focus-grouping our mobile social network. The kids are all on MXit (SA’s mobile chat application), ao I asked them what they would want if they could create their own MXit. They didn’t tell me they wanted games, music, pictures or other prizes like I thought they would. They literally asked me for inspiration. “We need role models. Inspirational quotes. Maybe even the Bible.”

Ethenbeni and Port Shepstone
Ethenbeni is about an hour outside of East London in the Eastern Cape. Port Shepstone is about and hour and a half south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Both villages are pilot sites for loveLife’s gogoGetters program, which is working to organize the already mobilized grandmothers of South Africa who are raising many of SA’s 1 million AIDS orphaned children. (Gogo means grannie in Xhosa.) Here’s the PSA:

All of the Gogos I met in Ethenbeni and Port Shepstone were as beautiful and vibrant as depicted in the PSA. Passionate, energetic, and full of life, they are very serious when they assert that they have watched their children die of AIDS; they won’t stand by and watch their grandchildren die too.

Painful story: The gogoGetter program is designed to help the Gogos achieve five things. (1) Make sure the orphans and vulnerable children feel like part of the community. (2) Keep the kids in school. (3) Help the children access government grants. (4) Ensure food security. (5) Work to stop sexual abuse.

When the loveLife program development team was discussing the final point with the Gogos, they asked who was the most likely perpetrator of sexual abuse? The uncle? The neighbor?

The Gogos responded that it was actually the younger men in the community. And that they would come to the Gogos’ houses in particular to rape both the children and the grandmother, because they knew no male figure would be around. As I looked around the room, my heart sank as I realized many of our beautiful Gogos had likely been victims.

Whereas Jo’burg feels like Los Angeles and Cape Town is like the south of France, Nongoma is National Geographic’s version of Africa – stunningly beautiful, pristinely natural, and heartbreakingly poor.

The poverty, however, is only one piece of Nongoma’s story. Located in Zululand in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, the beauty of Nongoma’s people is further enriched by the beauty of the land - green, lush, rolling hills for miles, complemented at random by circles of traditional, brightly-colored, clay homes with thatched roofs.

The people of Nongoma face difficult circumstances: Gender equity is incredibly tough to accomplish as many traditional rules still apply (the Zulu King still rules the area). Unemployment sits at above 80%. And the region has one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world, reaching upwards of 50% in certain cases, such as mother-to-child transmission.

But Nongoma’s people have tremendous amounts of faith and hope, and those who can are doing what they can to give themselves and their families a better life.

Inspiring story: The young people we met at the Nongoma Y-Centre were like many of loveLife’s youth – hip, happening, passionate and on it. It didn’t matter that they were from one of the most remote parts of SA; they all had this immense sense of passion & style combined with a deep desire to succeed beyond their circumstances.

One particularly inspiring young woman had recently moved 60 km from her home in order to be able to simply volunteer at the loveLife Y-Centre. Just the travel alone would have been quite a feat for her in rural SA, but she made it to Nongoma and was able to organize a place for her to stay while away from home. She went to all of this effort because for her, like for so many of SA’s youth, loveLife’s Y-Centre is the only place even remotely nearby where she can learn computer skills, debate skills, motivation, or quite frankly, gain any form of skills development. And she was determined to get the skills she needed in order to get a scholarship to go to university to make her dreams come true.

1 comment:

eirishis said...

It's interesting that you mention Longa - I toured around there when I was in SA. And I literally mean "toured" - the township was a tourist location. I went because it was an anthropology class assignment, but I felt terribly uncomfortable - not at being surrounded by poverty (after all, I had already been to Saigon and Madras at this point, so it wasn't foreign to me) but rather that the poverty was somehow an object for tourist observation.

Apparently, some of the residents felt the same way - one man accosted our group and yelled at us for taking advantage of their poverty for our own purposes. Myself and a few others engaged him in a fascinating back and forth, explaining that we really were just trying to learn about it so we could help. He seemed to accept that and apologized for blowing up. I'm wondering, looking back seven years, who was actually right in that debate.

That said, we also saw some fascinating developments in the townships - the cottage industries being started by residents precisely because of the mobility problems you describe. They had economic freedom but no means to get to the center of town, so they had to make their own employment opportunities.

One last anecdote and I'll stop - your story about the gogoGetters reminded me of the first headline I read in SA; that day's Cape Argus led with an awful story of a house in outer Cape province in which two five year old girls had been savagely raped. Apparently, their perpetrators were HIV-positive and subscribed to the myth popular at that time in rural SA that sex with a virgin was the cure. They figured children were the best way to assure virginity. I remember putting the paper down and going for a long walk before getting to the rest of my day.