Body in Motion

Heartbreak and Hardship
May 16, 2009, 11:46 am
Filed under: africa, development

I was in South Africa recently, preparing for a site visit to a school for disadvantaged children. We were warned ahead of time that the school was heart-breaking. The group going to the site was from across Africa with a few Asians thrown in for good measure.

When we arrived at the site, we were stunned. We found ourselves at a rural school, K through 9, occupying an old house. There were a few containers for overflow classes, and literate but unqualified teachers. The children were fed lunch each day and sat for their national exams at the end of the school year.

Heart-break? We looked at one another. The children before us all wore shoes, there were no distended bellies or hair singed orange from lack of nutrients.

We shrugged. This school looked no worse than what we saw in the places we had come from – even those from outside of the continent.

As I looked at the school children who walked a dusty hour to school in the cold South African winter and probably had little at home to keep them warm, I wondered if our collection definition of heartbreak had become so inured to hardship. We were a group of development workers who considered hardship and marginalization to be the norm.

Two days later, we drove through Mamelodi, Pretoria – a township for poor blacks in the apartheid era, now a mixture of up-and-coming neighborhoods mixed in with shantytowns that stood blatantly in the face of economic development.

On the left, the road was lined with small sturdy middle class homes, clothes lines hung heavy in the morning sun. Garages and staff quarters behind, paved driveways leading behind their modest brick compound walls.

On the right, clothes dried against the tin walls of shacks that looked as though they would survive a serious wind gust but for the shack next door propping each one up like a line of dominoes. Only there weren’t lines, there were muddles of shacks built illegally on the dry South African dust.

The Gini Index ranks South Africa as one of the most disparate countries in the world and it isn’t hard to see the contrast for yourself. The South African malls peddle designer clothes, shiny housewares and bold cinemas just 20 minutes from landfills where shantytown residents comb their neighbors’ trash, looking for anything that might be worth a few rand.

It is still difficult for me to call that rural school heartbreaking. There are reasons that school had children from Malawi and Zim and other countries throughout the region: South Africa has an economy which trundles along fairly well in comparison to its neighbors; and that is why people come to SA. To find opportunity which eludes them in their homelands. Despite South Africa’s race riots last year, the influx continues.

What I find heartbreaking is that native South Africans live in dust and squalor across the road from their compatriots with a house, a car and a holiday once a year.

Perhaps us development workers aren’t as jaded as we think – but it’s not so much an absolute that rattles us – rather it’s the contrast of desperation in a middle income country where the tax-collecting government promises so much more than it delivers.

Comments Off on Heartbreak and Hardship

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: