It’s funny how life turns out. South Africa was never on my travel hit list – there are a myriad of other destinations I’d much rather spend my tourist dollars on and the princess in me can lap up hours upon hours of beach side pampering before you can even utter the word boring. I’d never wanted to go to Africa, to go on safari. I was never that interested.

But right at this moment, there is nothing else I’d rather do than spend a few quiet days on an African game reserve, amongst the real kings of this world.

Being in South Africa (and here I talk like a veteran when I’m only on my second trip) has caused something in me to shift profoundly. I want it to be a permanent shift, but I know me. I know that though I’m a caring person by nature, I am also a child of an affluent first world country. I take my creature comforts for granted, I spend money like… well not like water exactly, but like a nice thick chocolate sauce, flowing just freely enough to satisfy my whims, anywhere, any time.

South Africa is a trickster country for an Australian to visit. Arriving at the airport, on the transfer (private transfer. You see? Chocolate sauce) hurtling towards the hotel, everything seems eerily familiar. The landscape, the climate, heck even the road signs. It all looks and feels just like home. But don’t be fooled. Scratch below surface and you are made of stone if your heart does not break from what you see.

On one hand you have the crazy rich Saffers, living in their own worlds, protected from the raw J’burg by ten-foot walls, secured further by electric fences. But not far down the road, you pass “townships”; acres upon acres of waterless, powerless shacks, some made of cardboard, some of wood, the lucky ones have a wall made of concrete. The people of these townships flock in from around Africa, hoping for a break in this great city of Johannesburg. They sleep in cramped quarters, they hike or catch the cheapest public transport to work – as cleaners or worse for the affluent – and at the end of the day, they spend half of what little they earn to catch public transport home, back to their lives in the township.

The township in the heart of Johannesburg houses 900,000 people. 900,000 people! And you know what? This is considered a small township. Another one in Soweto, just outside of J’burg has 4,000,000. I can’t even comprehend this.

To see this with my own eyes breaks my heart. To see them on the road side, trying to sell anything for a few Rand. My workmate tells me they often don’t make a profit in a day, but as long as it makes enough to buy some bread or potatoes, that to them is success. If they make a profit, they use that to buy more stock of cheap toys and plastic gadgets and hope that tomorrow, they make a bigger profit. It kills me that people live this way and I want to give them money, for 10 Rand to me (less than £1, just over AU$1) is a meal to them.

I don’t know where to start. But I do know that I want to do something.

Seeing all this ugliness in life conversely stirs in me the desire to find all that is also beautiful in life. And in Africa there is nothing more fundamentally beautiful than the creatures who roam free in the game reserves. Ok, they’re not 100% free, but having the run of more than 90,000 acres is free enough. There’s a certain peace in being in the wild with them, the savannah extending beyond the horizon and it’s just you (well, you and your group) and a family of elephants oblivious to the world they live in, foraging and playfully nudging each other as they trundle along. I could sit and watch for hours and the thought of poachers profiting by hideously hurting these magnificent creatures makes me ache to my very core.

When I’m in the wild like this, when I’m freshly stung by the reality of townships and ashamed of the creature comforts in which I swaddle myself, I almost want to throw it all in and live as basically as I can, and really really learn to appreciate life. This is a huge lesson in humility for me and to think it was taught by people who probably clean the sheets I’ve been sleeping on every night. If only they knew.

I’m really hoping this lesson sticks with me. I need to be reminded that I should not be upset that my purse broke on the weekend (which it did, and I am) because dammit, at least I have something to fill the purse with! But like I said, I know me too well. Without reminder, all this can too easily be forgotten as I return to my hotel room where, by the way I’ve just had hotel laundry done for the very first time in my life and OMG it rocks, I am warm, I sprawl on my queen sized bed and mindlessly flick through the tv channels irritated that there is nothing on. And I browse the room service menu and order myself a burger to satiate my mild hunger. So quickly forgetting those who are cold and eating nothing tonight.

I pledge on this post that I’m going to do something about this. To sponsor a child, or make a regular donation. It’s easy to think one person can’t make a difference but I think we need to believe otherwise.

Sorry to be all serious on y’all. The burger was actually very good… beef patty cooked a perfect medium rare, with lettuce, tomato, pickle and relish. Delicious.

5 Thoughts on “being in South Africa: the humbling and the delicious

  1. Thank you for this post Catty.

    This is something close to my heart as you know.

    South Africa has it’s problems, it’s poverty and it’s deep wounds but you know what? It’s a country that has also over come a lot and had come a long way. It still have far to go to but at the same it it can teach everyone a lesson or two no? I remember as a child, when my mum took in some fleeing Soweto freedom fighters. The tales they told have stuck with me all this time.

    It is a bitter pill to swallow but South Africa is one of the richest countries in Africa…..

  2. Great post Catty. It’s hard to compare our hardships to what they face, ours always seem to small in comparison. Well done for writing this, it sounds like a heartbreaking situation.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. I know next to nothing about S. Africa. so what our parents used to say to us about the poor starving children in Africa… really hits home when you see it in person hey.

  4. Worshipblues: I know, it’s insane to believe the richness of the country and yet the poverty. South Africa apparently has the lowest literacy level even compared to other poor African countries! Makes me sad 🙁

    Lorraine: We are too spoilt and it’s just too easy to forget, huh?

    mc: It sure does, and even though I remember back to our childhood and the mild second-worldness of bukit kecil, it’s still not the same.. I mean this is real REAL poor people and so hard to understand why it has to be like this.

  5. You shouldn’t be sorry, this is a great post. It’s important to really realise a lot of the things we moan about are pretty first world once in a while and do something.

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