Saturday, February 27, 2010

Faces of Africa

Africa has many faces.  It is a place of exquisite beauty and of horrific ugliness.  The two contrasting faces of Janus are everywhere – enormous wealth and poverty more squalid than anything you can imagine.  People with hope and those who know that nothing will ever change.

In South Africa, there have been changes, but not enough.  The book club read Cry, the Beloved Country, a book published in 1948 and set in 1946, shortly before apartheid, which was basically in place already, became law.  The book does a masterful job of showing the comingling of joy and desperation that represents the contrasting faces of life in this country.  All lives, I suppose, contain these different faces, but in South Africa they are forced into stark contrast, light and shadow as harsh as the difference between a desert’s night and day.

The book is amazing in its prescience.  The upheavals and cracks in community and larger society are still present in the 62 years since it was published.  Given the understanding that men like Alan Paton, its author, and many others had at that time of the country’s wounds and what was needed to heal them, it is unutterably sad that things are not as different as they’d hoped.  And, to highlight this tragedy, the one place the book fails in its predictions of the future is the optimism with which it ends, an optimism that now seems naïve.

Not everything now is gloomy.  Apartheid has long been gone from the law books.  The soccer World Cup will be played here later in the year, and this has meant new jobs as stadiums are built, and will mean a huge inflow of tourists and money.  Talk of the event, and energetic discussions of which team is likely to win the cup are common, and everyone has an opinion.  Most of the locals, though, cannot afford to buy tickets to the games.

One friend here visited a township she last saw seven years ago when she lived in Africa, and said that while it is still a shanty town, without services North Americans take for granted, there is joy and optimism there.  Another face is shown, though, by another friend’s visit to one of Port Elizabeth’s townships.  He was horrified.  The people there, blacks who were moved out of the city during apartheid, and their descendants, still have no real building materials and so their homes are slapped together with whatever they can find.  There is no garbage pickup, and garbage is everywhere.  Water is communal, and has to be fetched in whatever containers are available.  One man in my friend’s group started taking pictures, and my friend had to bite his tongue not to ask how such poverty and suffering could be seen as grist for a tourist’s mill, something to be shown at home and tut-tutted over.

I’ve visited two towns in Namibia and three cities in South Africa.  I realize I’ve spent far too little time here to claim any sort of understanding of this complex area.  But I have been affected by its beauty and by its sadness, and am struggling, as so many have and will, to understand.

The ports the ship has stopped in are constantly busy.  Everywhere you look, there are huge containers piled on top of each other.  Most of them are the usual container size, which is one railway car or semi load.  Huge cranes, looking like George Lucas’ inspiration for some of the mechanical war machines in his Star Wars movies, squat along each area where concrete meets water.  Ships as long as the cruise ship line up along the walls, waiting to have containers taken off or put on.  It’s meticulous work, as containers are loaded or unloaded one at a time.

There is commerce, obviously, which is good for the country.  This activity makes it dangerous to walk from the ship to the port’s gates, so shuttle buses are available to take passengers to a selected area of the city in protected safety.  The area is usually a luxurious shopping area, often set along beaches or other waterfront property.  Those passengers who wish it will be able to think that everything in Africa is comfortable and safe.

Those who wish to look further, though, soon realize it isn’t.  Half a block away from expensive clothing boutiques are signs of decay.  People, mostly young men, stand around idly, dressed in torn jeans and ratty t-shirts.  Buildings are falling apart, paint peels from those still in use, windows are broken or boarded over.  The unemployment rate in the cities is unthinkably, to North Americans, high.  In Durban, I was told by one person that the unemployment rate overall is 68%.  I don’t know if this is correct, but it would help explain the number of young black men standing around on almost every corner.

Crime, too, is sky high.  Barbed wire atop high walls is common, as are cars and trucks bearing various logos that all say, “Armed Response.”  People live in fear here.  We are warned not to wear any jewelry when we go into town, to hang on to cameras and purses, to wear backpacks backwards, so the pack is on your chest , not your back. We are told stories of watches ripped from wrists, earrings torn off leaving bloody earlobes, purse and backpack straps cut.  If we are this afraid during our one or two day visit, how much worse must it be for those who live here?  Gated communities, armed watchmen, and multiple locks can offer only facades of protection.

But mixed in with the desperation is the joy, too.  Market places are crowded and busy.  People talk to each other, and laugh together.  Children run and shout and play just as they do everywhere.

And yet, everywhere I’ve been, businesses have small signs in their windows, that say, “We reserve the right to refuse admittance.”  And ‘we’, the other ‘we’, the visitors, know as well as anyone living here who the ones are who will be refused entry.

Africa is achingly beautiful.  Why is it that an overwhelming beauty can make your chest hurt?  My heart aches when I see the sweep of sand dunes in the desert, or watch two baby giraffes run together.  Acacia tress stand along a ridge, silhouetted against a sky so much bigger than any in North America, bigger even than in Saskatchewan, that land of living skies.

Beauty makes the heart hurt.  As anyone who’s been to a wedding knows, we are moved to tears during moments of joy.  But as the two faces of Janus remind us, there is always another side, another view, another face to see, and it will also cause the heart to break.

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