It can be a bit hard sometimes to verbalize all that I’m thinking about and seeing and hearing here. To some extent, it’s very easy to disconnect from the reality of South Africa—I can walk to and from work through a very attractive part of town, shop in a supermarket that has almost everything that I want, and get into a taxi to reach a nice restaurant or mall. It’s very easy to feel uncomfortably separate, as a foreigner, a white person, and someone with enough money to get by. For example, there is currently a huge strike on across the country, with 17% of the workforce on the streets or staying home, and if I didn’t watch the news in the morning, I’d have no idea.
My previous experience of “Africa” (I'm not tryin to generalize, sorry) is in nations where the poverty is right there alongside the wealth—in Dakar, I’d catch an expensive meal and maybe an event at the Institut Française downtown, and then I’d pass a row of beggars with limbs twisted by polio around the corner before hopping onto a decrepit, though brightly colored, car rapide on my way back to my host family’s house in a neighborhood that was neither cripplingly poor nor wealthy. In Bo, Sierra Leone, I might be getting to the hospital everyday in a white NGO Land Cruiser, but once I got there, there would be no light or no water or women outside with malnourished babies or young girls and sometimes even staff members who would see me and follow me into the office to ask for money for their brother’s medicine (usually $2-$5). Furthermore, in both places, I stood out very starkly as a foreigner--most of the time, I'd be the only white person in a room or on a bus. Cape Town is very, very different.
South Africa is one of the most economically disparate nations in the world, and I’ve already written about that. But another aspect that is strange to me is that because things are so familiar, it’s easy to forget where I am, to remember that I want to learn more about the cultures here, and that I have to actively pursue educating myself about this country. A few nights ago I met a young Afrikaans woman, and beyond the language differences, the cultural divide was so great—everything she talked about was alien to me, from “windsurfing” (not the sport but rather the English translation of Afrikaans swing-type dancing), to the singers of Afrikaans music (it ranges from poppy, with heavy parallels to cheesy American country music I am told, to a genre called “fuckoff” that is more like punk rock), to the difference between the traditional “Boer” mentality and the new “almost 1960s-like” counterculture that is moving towards artistic expression and long and unwashed hair. All of this was beyond new.
I don’t even know most of the slang terms yet—hectic seems common enough but I can’t tell even if it’s negative or positive or both yet—and the regular language confusions that one gets in the range of ex-British colonies and holdings—from Sierra Leone to the US to Australia to South Africa. Take away and not take out or to go, toilet or cloakroom and not bathroom or restroom, flat and lift, boot and bonnet.
All the same, I think it would be very, very easy to be here and remain divorced from most of the culture, to stay out of the townships, to maybe go on a safari, but to spend a lot of time at the mall or the movies or at home. And sometimes those things are very necessary, and more often that not it is very, very hard to find ways to delve into the cultures that exist here. It has been the small things that have brought me back, that have reminded me of where I am—riding a minibus built for 11 that ended up with 19 passengers while deafening music blared overhead, helping my desk neighbor format fliers for her church in the Khayelitsha township, chatting up locals as we cross paths hiking up Table Mountain. Baby steps that will hopefully gain ground as time goes on.