Elephants in the Room
I’m sitting at dinner with Connie, the wife of my husband’s business associate, Sam, and we’re talking about her work; she has a small midwife/doula enterprise. After years as a trauma nurse, she had her own two children (just about the ages of mine: 5 and almost 2) and decided to change the trajectory of her career to center on children; she helps women prepare and give birth, then administers vaccinations and provides general healthcare to the babies. We could be sitting at Toast, a cafe in West Hollywood, but we’re not … we’re in Africa.
My husband, Robert, has a production company in LA and this is his third trip to South Africa in a year, producing comedy tours and developing a number of television projects. I’m tagging along this time to see the lay of the land and lay the groundwork for some symphony concerts I’ll be doing here next year. Along with his LA business partner and his family, we are also taking three days “off” to go on safari – truly a trip of a lifetime. Without exception, those I have talked to who have done this kind of trip have said it is life changing and I can see why.
As I write, I’m on a 19-seat plane heading to Mala Mala – a private game reserve where (because it’s winter here and watering holes are few) we are guaranteed to see every kind of marvelous beast Africa has to offer. I can’t wait. This is glamour. But for the last six days I’ve spent time in both Cape Town and Johannesburg, and those wild lands may be even more foreign and nearly indescribable to people who have not experienced them firsthand.
I am no expert, but I made sure to read a brief history of South Africa before arriving – exigent for this sheltered American. I had a vague understanding of the politics and social injustices in South Africa’s past, but vague is the operative word there. The development and institutionalization of apartheid in the 1950’s, just as the US was on the brink of the Civil Rights movement, seems unthinkable to me. The Group Areas Act, for example, which literally placed borders on the city blocks where blacks, coloureds (a South African distinction for the Indian or any mixed-race population – Obama is not considered black here), and whites could go, is astounding. The fact that this – and the countless other policies of apartheid – were only repealed during the early 1990’s shocks me. 1990 marks the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years and became the figurehead who negotiated the repeal of the apartheid laws – a daunting task completed in 1992. A few years later, he became the first elected president of apartheid-free South Africa. That this history-altering achievement occurred in April of 1994, the month and year I have ever only thought of as Beauty and the Beast’s opening on Broadway, puts a great deal in perspective. I am naïve as hell.
South Africa now, from my perspective, is a dichotomy of realities. Though opportunity now exists for those who were denied it under apartheid, there is a vast chasm between the haves and have-nots. Our driver (we have a driver) is of Indian descent and very politically minded. He states that South Africa has the best constitution in the world, written primarily by Mandela himself. “The best constitution,” he repeats, “on paper.” In practice, little has really changed, but the reality of why is very complicated. It is a multi-racial, freely-elected government; civil rights have been implemented, what is the deal? I’m not sure as an American I can ever fully understand South Africa, or Africa as a whole, but I am observing.
What I see: I am staying in four-star hotels, after driving past seemingly endless shanty developments called townships. Poverty, then boom, opulence. No middle ground.
Among the many things I do in Cape Town is visiting one such township, Khayelitsha [kai-lee-chay] – 27 square kilometers of dirt-floor dwellings, built of tin siding and random pieces of hardware, which is home to 2.3 million people. It spreads as far as the eye can see. But the poverty is confusing – and books have been written on the subject. The dwellings have no bathrooms (they use outhouses) but most have satellite dishes – some even have a Mercedes parked alongside. About a third of the township has been converted somewhat, as the government has built small, clean, well-constructed permanent houses to replace the tin ones. But more often than not, the family then simply moves the tin shack to the back for their living quarters and rents out the new house to newcomers. So, the government builds another house for them, and the process repeats, and in this way the township spreads across the distance. I shake my head, trying to understand why this isn’t “fixable.” Yet even without full comprehension of every underlying aspect, my eyes have been opened. Let’s be clear; whatever the culture and choices the people are making within their township, this is poverty.
The ride into Khayelitsha is an education. Among the shack homes are small businesses (also in tin shacks): hairstylists, food markets, carwashes, cell phone stores. The two-story shack, we are told, is where the mayor of the township lives. There is even a newly constructed (and beautiful) college – a government project to give the citizens further opportunities. We stop at a particularly unexpected dwelling, a bed-and-breakfast, where people like me can stay overnight, or a week, to really immerse them in the township. Is this something I should do next year? I can’t even form opinions yet.
The people are lovely, welcoming, hospitable – and we make sure to buy crafts from a market run by HIV-positive women. I want to fix everything about this place, but can’t, so I opt to simply buy something from each woman there. Everyone is kind at every stop. But I’m there with a guide. Just a few hours later, back at the hotel, I’ll be told by security not to leave the premises alone, or at night, because the chances of being mugged are … 100%. South Africa is fascinating, heartwrenching and difficult to reconcile with my socio-liberal American mindset. I don’t know where to file this place in my head and heart.
At the same time, everything is familiar – people are people. In the township I also meet a group of children who are attracted by the music coming from the two older men who, upon our arrival at the craft market, bring out some xylophones/vibes to play and sing for us. I understand that the children come to hear the music and also to hopefully receive a coin or two from us, and we comply, happily. They are poor, but still, they are kids: laughing, mugging, completely authentic. The music itself (beautifully played) makes me laugh, too – it’s everything from Billy Joel to Celine Dion – boy, do they see Americans from a mile away, or what? Then again, you do realize here that American music and culture is our biggest influence on the planet – we should remember that.
The last stop on our way out of the township is the preschool, a converted shipping container, which teaches children from 2-5, and is a daycare for babies from 6 months up. A shipping container – the kind that offloads goods at Long Beach Harbor. But it is painted as any preschool would be, with colorful animals on the wall. The children’s names are written and posted in the classroom, their crafts – handprints on paper echo the one my daughter made at her school in Newport Beach. We meet the principal, who is lovely, and we leave some money. I exit knowing that next year I’m bringing 100 coloring books, story books, crayons, pencils … I have a need to do something …
My 45-minute flight is on its descent, I need to wrap this up, though there is no way at all to wrap my head around it. It’s glamour and goop and glamour and goop and glamour and goop … everything here is both.
Addendum: The plane has touched down on a dirt runway in the middle of nowhere. I lift my head to look out the window and immediately see four elephants not three yards off the airstrip. How does one reconcile all of this? Africa.