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.

Love, Marla

12 Comments on “I’m Not Filthy Rich, But I Play One in South Africa

  1. This is why I love your blog, Marla! I have worked with a few elders, some of whom were dealing with dementia. When I was younger, I was a member of the Women’s Institute. One of the things we supported was the Queen Alexandra Hospital for Children.

    The kids who lived there were unable to live with their families, mostly due to extreme medical and physical challenges. When we went for a tour, to see what was done with the money we raised, some of our members refused to go, saying it was too hard for them to look at a child with a disability. One member suggested they also think about how hard it would be to be one of those kids and have no-one willing to look at you, visit you, talk to you, etc.

    I have found the same thing with elders in many cases, and especially when they are challenged by dementia. It’s uncomfortable; we have to learn new ways of interacting, of listening, of talking and sharing. But the rewards are well worth it (although I do think that, for their sake, we should do it even if we received no rewards).

    I saw a show on NBC last week that has taken me a big step further down this path. It was about the book “Redefining Beauty” by well-known photographer Rick Guidotti. He was photographing people with disabilities so the photos could be used to illustrate medical textbooks. He began taking pictures of them that looked like the photos in a fashion shoot (which is what he is known for); suddenly, people you’d normally feel pity for and then avoid began looking ‘human’ (i.e., like you and me) and also very attractive; he brought out their inner spirit, their joy, personality, whatever you want to call it. The photos are incredibly vibrant.

    You may want to check this out at these two links:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/nyregion/at-nj-school-learning-not-to-look-away-from-the-disabled.html?_r=0

    The Pearls Project
    http://positiveexposure.org/

    I hope you, or your readers, find something helpful there.

    Like most people, as a child I was taught not to ‘stare’ at anyone ‘different’; ultimately, that translates to ‘not looking’ at them. Now I think how it feels to go through life not being looked at, not ‘seen’ for who and what we are. Worth thinking about, I think. I don’t usually leave such long comments, but you touched me with your honesty and emotions. ~ Linne

  2. Beautiful, heartfelt words. Rick has been and his thoughts mirror yours. You will help others in you own way Miss Marla.

  3. I think it’s borderline criminal to be apathetic and “get used to it”! I’m sorry if anyone is offended by that, but it’s true. If your heart is being torn open, it’s to spread the love you have inside it to those who need to be shown love and kindness. I love you and know you to be one of the most loving, selfless people and know you will make such a difference while you’re there, as you do everywhere you go. Being giving is truly such a gift!

  4. I love you Marla. What a wonderful journey you’re embarking on. I’m picturing a heart stitched together like a pretty quilt with threads that have millions of tiny memories hidden inside them. ❤

  5. “Choose to be the difference you wish to see in the world” ,Ghandi.
    You, dear sister, are one person in this world, but your words and deeds touch many! ,brudder.

  6. I have so many things racing through my head I dont quite know which I need to grasp (if any, maybe older -sister -Wendy should keep her mouth shut?) . But that would be out of character.

    I was young for those trips to Haiti, but I still remember the feelings you are describing. Marla, you live in the world as a very giving person. With each greeting to those whom others look through you contribute to this world. I am confident you will find something (or something will find you) that will allow you to give more directly and in measurable amounts.

    I wonder, though, if you might reconsider your choice to avoid children. You have such a loving way of encouraging the laughter in children, and children should laugh. You cannot save them from their lives, which is probably part of what makes you cry…the other more private pain notwithstandig)… but you can help them find the joy that lies in their lives everyday, as joy lies in all of our lives everyday, no matter who we are. Becoming people who see the joy rather than the sorrow provides the path out of the circumstances, the way to rise above the pain and sorrow …the hope. Your opinionated older sister encourages you to not deny them – nor yourself the laughter and hope you can share with children.

    I am looking forward to following your philaanthropic exploits, dear sister.

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