Lots of Questions

Change is in the air in Pietermaritzburg: the sun is setting even earlier, the leaves are falling, the warm afternoons have given way to cool air and rain, and we are getting ready to say goodbye to our home for the past three and a half weeks. I do have to say that I am finding the way South Africans deal with the cold quite amusing—at a gas station near by the pump attendants are all bundled up in heavy winter jackets, winter hats, and gloves when the temperature is only around 55 degrees. After spending a Buffalo winter working outside at a carwash (facing snow, wind, and negative temperatures), I couldn’t help but laugh at the many layers the South Africans donned.

As my time at PACSA has begun to wind down, I’ve concentrated my efforts on finishing the design of their website. We are making good progress, and we will hopefully be finished by Thursday. I think that our work on the site will be very useful for the organization, but, at the same time, we need to be sure to train the staff to be able to update it and post events, documents, etc so that our work isn’t in vain.

I think that my experience at PACSA so far highlights one of the ironies of the Duke Engage program. While I enjoy working on the website because I know that I am helping out PACSA is a very tangible way, I definitely preferred attending meetings, workshops, and conferences because it allowed me to meet with people and begin to engage with them. On the flipside, however, shadowing and attending meetings really doesn’t benefit PACSA at all—it only helps me out. It’s a tenuous line to balance (allowing the student to learn while having them make a contribution), but I think that I have been able to accomplish both during my time in Pietermaritzburg.

This past Friday, we ventured north to Zululand, the original land of the Zulu tribe. At dinner, we were treated to a tribal dance performance by a local Zulu dance troop (it was VERY impressive). The next day, we met up with a Zulu princess at her house (she is a professor and went to graduate school in Toronto…and she’s been to Buffalo!) for the day to learn more about the culture and the history of the Zulu nation. We ate a traditional Zulu lunch of tripe, jeqe (a bread), mutton curry, chicken, and sweet potatoes sitting on grass mats and using only our hands. Afterwards, in accordance with Zulu tradition, we all passed around and drank from a huge pot of homemade sordum beer. We capped the day off with another dance performance. Before coming to South Africa, I knew very little about the Zulu nation or its culture. The experience in Zululand allowed me to really appreciate Zulu culture and its impact on the KwaZulu Natal province.

What really was moving for me about the day in Zululand was our excursion outside of the princess’s house. First, we went to a hilltop peek to see the memorial dedicated to the first South African Christian and martyr. The views of the surrounding hills and valleys were breathtaking. (It’s really hard to describe just how beautiful the landscapes here are.) Next, we ventured to a nearby township where Africans were forced to live during the apartheid regime. The princess is relatively well known by the area’s residents, so she was able to obtain permission for us to visit one family’s home. I couldn’t believe that, in 2008, the family was still living in the same 4 room house (without a bathroom) that families were herded into during the apartheid era.

While I though that the living conditions in the township very shocking, just minutes later I would experience something far worse. Driving back from the township, the princess puller her car into a gas station lot. We got out to see what was going on, and she told us to follow her. Behind the woods of the gas station, she said, was a squatter village were displaced refugees and those without jobs set up their homes. About twenty feet into the woods, we spotted the first shacks of the village. The princess approached the several men outside of the house, and they willingly allowed us to go forward.

It’s hard to describe what happened over the next fifteen minutes. First, a young woman invited us into her house. She was proud to show off her one room shack made of mud, sticks, and tins. All of the sudden, another family appeared and beckoned us to visit their home. Made out of similar building materials, they had one room for the mother, father, and three children. Children and adults gathered around, warmly greeting us and asking us to take pictures of them. They were fascinated by our cameras and were amazed to be able to see the picture of their family (on the screens of our digital cameras) after we took them. I am sure that, for many of the people, they have never been photographed in their life.

I have never felt so out of place in my life than I did in the squatter camp. Here I was—a white, wealthy, American male in the middle of a bunch of tin, mud, and paper huts in a town in South Africa. Not only could I not interact with the residents (because they only spoke Zulu), I didn’t know how to behave. They were eagerly inviting us and greeting us with smiles as they welcomed us into their homes. I felt like I was intruding on their lives; I felt like I had no place sharing in their homes. I tried to keep smiling to show my gratitude for their hospitality, but on the inside, I couldn’t take it. How could I keep a smile on my face when I was surrounded by such injustice and such poverty—the house made out of sticks, the child with no shoes and dirt on his face, the one room house for five people with no beds, the trash and litter all around? No one else knew what to say; the car ride back to the princess’ house was silent.

Today, we took a trip out to Edendale, one of the townships of Pietermaritzburg. Edendale is located a little over five minutes away from where we were staying, and it was home to the violent Seven Days War between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party in 1990. Hundreds of people were killed, and many innocent people were victims of the political turmoil.

Driving through the hills of Edendale reminds you of the deep, deep wounds ravaged against this country by the apartheid regime. For miles and miles stretch houses builti during the apartheid era when colored Africans were forced to live in isolation away from the city. I found it so hard to wrap my mind around such visible reminders of the legacy of apartheid. Today, 14 years into democracy, hundreds of thousands of Africans—in this township alone—are still terribly segregated and resources are unfairly distributed.

All of this begs the question: What can be done? Edendale is home to half a million people. How do you give them a better life? Even with all the money in the world, I would have no clue what to do. Do you just knock down all the apartheid houses and build new ones? But that would destroy the culture of the areas—where many families have lived for generations—and it would do nothing to combat the existing racial housing segregation. How can the legacy of apartheid be undone? Is it only time that can heal the wounds? I have no clue.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve got lots of questions…and very, very few answers.


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