Sawubona, cyber world! I just got back from an amazing weekend trip to Durban – several PCVs met up to attend a soccer game…South Africa is hosting the AFCON (Africa Cup of Nations) this year and we decided it’d be plumb silly if we didn’t go. Oh, the cultural obligations we must endure. Tickets were purchased a while before the teams were determined but it ended up that we got to see our South African boys play – Bafana Bafana! It was such a fun experience. I wore Zulu beads that Ma’am Khumalo made me, hung out with friends as well as an ex-Bafana Bafana player and his dad (they’re from Greece!), and we’re all probably still a little deaf from the innumerable vuvuzela horns that were blown all game long. Although we lost to Mali in penalty kicks, we all had such an incredible time. There’s something about huge stadium sporting events where attendants are all hyped up on pride, adrenaline, and beer that just screams unity. I wish I had a better segue into what I want to write about today, but I just can’t seem to find a pertinent connection or pun. Regardless, here we go!
Something I’ve been observing and mulling over for a while over here is the idea of comfort and discomfort. Because we’re all humans, I’ve noticed many similarities between the American and South African definition of “comfort” but, because our cultures vary quite a bit, I’ve also noticed quite a few differences. I think the main distinction is that, because day-to-day priorities, agendas, and goals between my
upbringing in suburban America and my current lifestyle in a rural village are poles apart, the definition of what is and isn’t comfortable will, naturally, be modified. That said, there is quite a large spectrum of living styles both in America and South Africa. In downtown Atlanta, you’ll find people who have to sleep in the metro station during the dead of winter while, right down the road, others will be sending back their steaks that aren’t cooked quite right. In South Africa, you’ll find families of eight living off a government grant of R800 (~$100) per month while, right down the road, others are staying at resorts or going for surfing lessons. Stark contrasts are worldwide and sometimes I wonder if these contrasts ever won’t be present…
Since integrating into my site, the transport system, learning to maneuver my shopping town, and seeing what a “typical day” is in a rural village, observations and analysis have been churning in the back of my mind. I’m absolutely not claiming my thoughts and (ever-changing) conclusions to be the unbiased truth, but just what I’m thinking at the current moment. I can only compare my life now to my years in middle-class America, so perhaps other PCVs or people living abroad from differing socioeconomic strata will see things differently. What I see: life in a rural South African village is more physically gruelling and adversity seems to be more accepted because “it’s just the way it is” and because the people generally don’t have anything with which to compare it. Girls begin twala-ing 20 litre buckets of water from the moment they’re able to fit them on their heads (age ten or so – they are tiny), caring for younger children as soon as they’re big enough to carry them, and have mastered cooking, cleaning, and washing before primary school; boys aid in washing (until a certain age and it becomes a female-only task), head up household projects from very young ages, wake
up early to milk the cows and herd them in every evening; children start walking kilometres to and from school at age 4; women wash, clean, cook, and garden literally all day long (from about 05:00 to 20:00); men do construction, walk long distances for meetings, and drink quite a bit; and gogos (grandmothers) do much of the upbringing of children and the shopping trips to town. I’ve also noticed, though, that physical hardships are so widely accepted that not much is done to abate them. I’ve been in several taxis (mind you, these are positively crammed with people and goods) where a gogo has to climb over people who are by the door because they don’t bother to get out. But she remains unfazed because, as previously stated, “it’s just the way it is” and she’s probably been through much worse in her life than hurdling over people in a taxi. At the end of every month, people stand in line literally all day for their pension money but it’s not too much of a hindrance because it’s “just what happens” every thirty days and because they can’t afford to go home empty-handed. Other times, you’ll be walking and people will see your trajectory, move into your path, and just stand there. Things like this don’t seem to bother anyone but myself and other PCVs. It has to be because we have prior knowledge of and living experience in a completely different culture; I can’t think of another reason. All I know is that if someone ran into me in Atlanta, I’d more often than not get an apology and a questioning to see if I was alright.
So, naturally, there are two sides to each coin. While over here, I’ve seen people look out for one another in ways that I haven’t seen in America. During PST we learned that South Africans place more emphasis on people and relationships than the clock or schedule. One of our leaders, a native South African, said that if he was late to a meeting and crossed paths with his neighbour, they would enter into a conversation that would leave them both up to date on each family member, the weather, conditions of the livestock, etc. Personally, in America, I rarely saw my neighbours nor did I know many of their names. Sometimes we would wave to each other and write it off as making a connection. In my village and in my current culture, people in general seem to be more in tune with concern and giving. The scales of what I think to be considerate and inconsiderate are tipped in different ways. Perhaps halting in my path or not getting out of the taxi isn’t thought to be inconsiderate here but perhaps not greeting everyone you see or offering half of your meal to someone is thought to be so. Here, I would never leave someone’s home without being fed, given a parcel of food and/or gifts to take, or without undergoing the third degree on how I’m really doing. The Zulus seem to have this extra sense about when something’s “not right” with someone – and, by golly, they’ll call you out on it. Numerous times in America I can recall someone tossing out a formality “How are you?” and then being out of earshot before I can reply…and vice-versa as well; I’m guilty of that too.
None of what I’ve said can be a blanket statement, though; I’ve seen exceptions to everything…I’ve witnessed South Africans going out of their way to help others and I’ve seen them blow past others without greeting them; in America I’ve seen people, including myself, not help others because they were late for something (I remember thinking that I was justified since tardiness in America is simply unacceptable and because I figured “someone else will help”) and I’ve also seen Americans stop everything
they’re doing to fully listen to a stranger’s story. It’s arduous, and perhaps unfair, to compare a middle-class American life to an impoverished South African one and expect the same bottom line. Culture and people’s actions and priorities can never be put into boxes, so I’m just trying to outline commonalities I have seen and endured over here, at this stage in my two-year cultural shake up. I bet I’ll re-read this post in a couple months and have altered opinions. And I think that’s a good thing – it means I’m continuously learning and having my beliefs tested…the epitome of growth, I’d say.
On my way home from Durban yesterday, I was talking to a fellow PCV and we both commented on how it’s sometimes difficult to compose a correspondence to friends and family back home. The things that were once foreign to us over here have quickly become second nature so, in sending updates and blog posts, we sometimes don’t know what topics you all want to know about or would like us to expand on. So, please shoot me an email or a comment on here if you have any questions or want to know about anything regarding my current life. To me, this blog is more than just a regurgitation of my thoughts; it’s to connect with you all and your thoughts as well. Shout me a holler! Much love.