I’m Not Filthy Rich, But I Play One in South Africa
This country is splitting my heart wide open. It’s hard to understand how it’s both filling it and breaking it at the same time, but I’m just going to ride this rollercoaster for awhile and see where it goes.
When Kurt signed the letter of “emotional support” for his wife, one of the many documents required before moving here with his company, I thought my biggest difficulty would be loneliness, but so far the largest hurdle is adjusting to the guilt of living as one of the “wealthy”.
On evenings when we go out to eat, after dark, we leave the comfort of our posh suburb of Pretoria, through our security gates, with their fingerprint id and armed guards, exiting our high-walled communities with electric wire around the perimeter. We drive past people sleeping on the side of the road, or sitting around makeshift campfires along the highway, staving off the cold of these clear, winter nights.
The houses in the communities where we live are large, and having a “domestic” and a gardener, and a pool person (often the gardener) isn’t just a “way of life”, it’s a way of supporting one or two of the numerous people living at the other end of this vast economic divide.
I know that the answer for me lies in charity. Not just giving safely from a distance (athough we will be donating as well) but I need to participate in hands-on relief.
Before we came here, I thought I would work in animal welfare, because I know how easily I break under the weight of human suffering (I know, how ego-centric, right? After all, I’m not the one suffering). Even if I might manage adults, working with children is never an option. After one tour of an orphanage in Viet Nam, I couldn’t return with my friends to interact. I spent the rest of the day in fetal position on the hotel bed. I’m considering returning to that position now just writing about it. I think that children will need to remain off limits for me.
I might still work with wildlife, but I also need to work with people. It’s time to stop just feeling the guilt and steer into it. Kurt has several co-workers who build houses in local communities. If I had inherited the skilled carpentry from my dad’s side of the family, I would join them. And I’m sure if asked I’ll be happy to carry wood or whatever labor they need.
But I need something of my choosing, to do alone on a regular basis. I’m looking at humanitarian organizations around Pretoria and will update you when I make my decision.
In the meantime, about that guilt… I’ve been told I’ll “get used to it” but the fact is, I don’t want to.
Because when I stop feeling conflicted, I’ll know I’ve become a person different from the one I try every day to be. I like that it breaks my heart. I like that I can’t sit comfortably with luxuries without imagining a life without enough food or water in a given day.
Will I learn to relax enough to have a massage, or have the experience of a lifetime while living in “the cradle of life”? I have been reminded of the economy I support when buying those services or being a “tourist.” Will I learn to stop being guilty? I don’t know.
I guess I hope so. Because guilt isn’t productive. Productivity comes through appreciation, giving back, and writing hard to try to relay this experience to you and anyone else who might listen.
Go ahead, Africa. Break my heart. I know you’ll put it together again, maybe stronger than before.