Friday, July 30, 2010

Last Post from Africa

Another set of apologies are probably in order. Between the World Cup ending and then trying to tie up loose ends in Mtuba and Cape Town, things have just been wildly crazy and I haven't put up a decent post in months. But I am now in Cape Town, getting a chance to reflect a little bit on the past year, meet with my superiors at GRS, and try to shave weight off my baggage, which is currently bursting at the seams.

Here is a quick bit of reflection, as I sit in Cape Town one day before heading to the airport and flying back to the United States.

South Africa is a ridiculously cool country: jaw-droppingly beautiful natural features (this is coming from a Pacific NW kid...just come to Cape Town to understand this fully within one second), a fascinating diversity of cultures and peoples trying to live together after decades of institutionalized racial oppression that only ended 16 years ago (16 years!), amazing warmth shown by the vast majority of people you'd ever meet. And plenty more.

South Africa's complex greatness is, for me, encapsulated by a real Wild West-y atmosphere of freewheeling adventure that you don't really feel in the United States. Don't want to drive on the road? You don't really have to. Need to get across the country for a new project? Just drive 13 hours through the middle of the desert. Did my bank branch's row of ATMs just blow up in the middle of the night? Yes, it did. Is that a rhino on the side of the highway? Yes, it is. Why does that taxi have 15 people in it? Can it fit one more? Yeah, it can. Sir, are you sure these plastic zipline straps are safe, and can I please have another helmet? Was that a 6-foot snake regularly voted Africa's deadliest that just slithered in front of our car?

Yes, it was.

The whole "This place is crazy" and "This would never happen in the United States" and "Whoa...we could have just died there" train of thought is all well and good and fun when you're sitting around back home regaling your friends and family with wild stories, but if I just ended the post there and called it good I'd be completely misrepresenting my time here and the country itself.

Because for all the times that I've almost been run over or bitten by a monster snake or plummeted from my harness because people aren't following safety regulations to the T - and laughed about it afterwards over a couple of beers - I can think of plenty of examples in which South Africa's freewheeling, wild atmosphere cuts the other way.

Are those three uniformed policemen drunk on the job? Yeah, looks like. Does that school have 1 teacher for every 100 kids? Does that town have water? Does that kid have food at home? Why don't the Zulu rugby players come into the bar with the rest of the team for a drink after practice? Why does that house have more electric fencing protecting it than Guantanamo? Why are black South Africans always going to funerals on the weekends?

And that's what makes South Africa so difficult. Usually we use the word "awesome" in a purely positive sense, but this country can be awesomely frustrating and saddening and confusing as often as it is awesomely good.

I have had a great experience in South Africa, from Richmond to Mtubatuba and all places in between. Through GRS, I've been given the chance to work on exciting and important projects, with amazing people, in places that really needed it. I've made some really, really great friends. I have truly loved my entire year here. With that said, it feels like the right time to get back home and open up the next chapter, trying my hand at teaching history out in Boston.

Best to leave the last word to my favorite author, Roald Dahl. A quote from his autobiography Going Solo (which details his time and adventures in the 1930s working for Shell in Tanzania and then fighting for the British in Tanzania, Libya and Greece during World War II) has permanently been at the top of this blog from the very beginning. I think it makes sense that another eerily fitting quote from the same great book finishes things off.

Roald Dahl, Going Solo:

"The [British] District Officers in Tanzania were a breed I admired. Admittedly they were sunburnt and sinewy, but they were not gophers. They were all university graduates with good degrees, and in their lonely outposts they had to be all things to all men. They were the judges whose decisions settled both tribal and personal disputes. They were the advisers to tribal chiefs. They were often the givers of medicines and the saviours of the sick. They administered their own vast districts by keeping law and order under the most difficult circumstances."

Thanks for reading this year!

July 30 2010

1 comment:

  1. Chris, it has been so interesting to watch you grow this year. I still remember the student from 7th and 8th grade, you have come a long ways! Congratulations on this endeavor! You have made a difference!

    Mark Ellis