It's been six months since I arrived in South Africa. The time has both flown by and crept at a snail's pace, depending on which aspect you're looking from. I think, therefore (I am?), it's time for some introspection.
A lot of people I meet here, basically everyone who's not a black South African, ask me why I came to Cape Town. Most people assume I'm here on a religious mission of some sort, or through some international non-profit group. When I tell them I came on my own for a year, that I was tired of the corporate rat race so I quit my job, left my family and came just to do something meaningful for other people, I usually get about a second of stunned silence. Then I get the standard comments like “That's so great” or “Wow, good for you.” And then they're on to something else, like they quite can't understand me.
(I also remember being asked by someone at home if I was that dedicated to “the cause,” meaning HIV/AIDS, or if it was something else. I hadn't considered helping people with HIV/AIDS as a cause, just the right thing to do. I still think that way.)
So, why did I come? Well, the initial idea came from Open Arms of Minnesota's desire to have a local representative in Cape Town, someone who could bring some organizational oversight to their programs in Gugulethu and look for other areas where we could help. I sit on the Board of OAM and on their South Africa program committee and was at the meeting where this was first discussed. Originally, the idea was to find a person just out of college who wanted some international program development experience. When the idea was raised, though, I thought it was a unique chance to come back to a country I liked and do something really different.
But that's only half the story. I was going through a rough time at my job and the future didn't look so bright. I needed to find something else but had no clue what that might be. South Africa was a chance to run away for a while, to escape the shackles of real life and find out what I really wanted to do with my life. It was also a good time from the family perspective – Cindy and I were in a really good place, our parents were healthy, and we were set up well financially. (To her credit, Cindy never said no, never raised any huge concerns about my being gone for so long. I think she knows me better than I know myself most of the time, and she knew that I needed to “find myself” again.)
Now, there were a lot of people who thought I was crazy for even thinking about going. Many people, including my parents and my in-laws, couldn't understand giving up a well-paying job and relatively easy life to live by myself in a far-away place for a year. I think they thought I had really lost it. I had a hard time explaining what I'd be doing; in fact, I had no clue as to what I'd be doing once I got here. I knew Spiwo was looking forward to help with his programs and that Zethu wanted a pharamcist at the clinic. That was it. But, I had two advantages:
I knew Spiwo, at least a little bit, and trusted he would work with me to make it a good experience
If things didn't work out, I'd simply pack up and come home, get a pharmacist posting somewhere, and get back into my old routine
My worst case scenario was actually pretty good. I'd spend some time in a lovely city, get some nice photos, and have some sort of experience I could tell people about. To me, there was very little downside to the move and the upside was unlimited.
So, did I have any doubts? Well, there was one night I still remember. It was a Thursday night. I had been in South Africa for a week and my apartment for three days. I was living behind a double-locked door and a security gate. The only possessions I had fit into two large suitcases. Kevin Winge and some people from and associated with Open Arms were here and they were leaving three nights later. I hadn't really started with JL Zwane or at the clinic yet, since it was Easter week and Spiwo and Zethu were away. I laid in bed for much of that night asking myself what the Hell I was doing. If I hadn't signed a lease on the apartment, I may well have gone home.
But that night turned into Friday, and then the weekend came and went, and I started my jobs. I began running every morning, and my days slipped into a certain routine. Pretty soon it was the next weekend, and then the next, and April slowly turned into May. By that time I had seen and met children living on their own and talked with adults struggling to survive with HIV and TB. I had learned the process at the clinic and actually talked with some of the patients. Both the staff at JL Zwane and the clinic figured out I wasn't leaving anytime soon and became friendlier. And, as you may have read, I've been busy with many projects since then and have made this my home away from home.
Have I met my goals? Really, the only goals I had in coming here were:
Learn about life in the townships and help people back home understand it
See if I could scale back my life and live simply again
I think I've met all of these goals with flying colors. Well, maybe except for number 3. I have scaled back a bit, but I haven't exactly given up my comfortable life. I have a nice apartment with satellite TV and a decent Internet connection. I live two blocks from the ocean and can walk along the promenade for miles. I live above a shopping mall so I never have to walk more than 100 yards to buy groceries, a newspaper, or a cup of tea. I have hot water and an indoor toilet, and a bed with sheets and pillows. The only simplicity I've really had to contend with is doing my own ironing. And that's only because I've been too cheap to hire a domestic servant or use the laundry service downstairs in the mall.
And what have I learned? One thing: I really like being a pharmacist. I haven't actually practiced in about 15 years, and working at the clinic has reaffirmed my satisfaction with it. I have a lot of relearning and updating to do, but I could see myself working in a pharmacy again when I come home. Of course, getting the right kind of office job wouldn't be bad either, as long as it has some kind of meaning behind it.The second thing, which is the whole thing, is that the vast majority of people are decent and hard-working with a desire to improve their situation. I've met many people here who have every right to be bitter and disillusioned, to complain and protest or just give up. However, every one of them continues to scrape and struggle and fight to move ahead. They look for work when prospects are few, they scrounge for things to improve their homes, and they ask for help to make sure their families are taken care of. Many are also helping others in whatever way they can, including visiting people in hospital or helping sick folks with housework. The spirit of ubuntu (what it means to be human, or becoming a person through other people) is not just a concept here, it is a reality. I didn't have a word for it before I came here, but I was raised around that concept and have tried to practice it throughout my life. It's one thing I hope to bring home and spread around.
Do I have any regrets? At this point, no. I have wondered what it would have been like to live in Gugulethu, but I don't think the experience would have overcome the security risk. I've also wanted to get closer to some of the people at the Centre, but I'm a little too old to be part of the In Crowd (only Spiwo is older than me, and only by two years). But, those are really minor points. I've had fantastic opportunities and I've taken advantage of each one as they've come. I know there will be more coming, like going with Spiwo to the Eastern Cape in two weeks, coaching baseball and working on a U.S. tour for Siyaya.
So, it's six months down and five to go. I have set my return date for March 4th and already bought my ticket. But I'm in no hurry to leave and am looking forward to what comes next.
More to come.