Living Here

Two friends of mine from America, Ben and Liz, stopped by to visit for a few hours over the weekend. When they called last weekend to say they’d be visiting on their way from vacation back home to Joburg (Johannesburg), I was worried I would have absolutely nothing of substance to show them.

On Friday, that all changed. Over the course of 24 hours, I went from feeling like a sort of long-term guest to feeling like someone settling into a new place.

It started Friday morning, when a colleague took me on a little drive outside of the township to conduct some business at a nearby primary school. The school, however, was technically in a “rural area” right outside the township (it’s really a suburb, and not very rural). This suburb had been mentioned to me before as a place that’s rough. Regardless, I was glad to finally see something outside my township. It felt good to know this mysterious suburb was just over a hill I’ve run past many times.

On our way back from the suburb, we stopped to grab a quick bite at a small restaurant quite close to where I live. We had the best chips (french fries) I’ve had since I left the US. Usually the chips here are soggy and undercooked–they don’t get the oil hot enough. These chips were not only actually crispy, but were served with really delicious hot peppers (peri-peri). I was impressed. I’d finally located (with some help) a place that felt like a local secret.

That afternoon, another foreigner appeared at my secondary school. She was a volunteer/missionary from Canada currently volunteering with a nearby network of orphan homes. I spoke at length with her about her experiences as a volunteer here, and I found out that she stays about 20k away “in town”–town being a full-on city with malls, high-rises, and white people.

Talking with her made me realize how lucky I am to live in the township, and how much different my volunteering experience is because of it. I don’t mean to criticize volunteers who don’t live exactly where they serve, but rather I just feel lucky to be able to get deeper into the culture in my time off. It makes facing the challenges easier knowing this is not a place I commute to, but a place where I live. I don’t think my patience would last if I lived 20k away, and I admire that some volunteers can make living apart work. I understand why living in the community you work in is so fundamental to the Peace Corps way of placing volunteers.

But that’s not the whole story. Friday after school, I had plans to visit a learner at his home and see his neighborhood. Coincidentally, he lived in the very same suburb I had visited earlier. We hopped into a taxi (not a taxi in the American sense, but an SUV that moves groups of people at a time) and off we were, past the primary school and deeper into the suburb. I got to meet his friends, his family–who did not believe him when he said a white guy was coming to visit–and some other people in the neighborhood. It was nice. We walked around, saw some cows, ate some chips (notice a pattern?), and chilled out.

His mother and sister really wanted me to spend the night. They were so incredibly excited to have me in their home. The warmth was amazing, but I really couldn’t stay because I had to clean for Ben and Liz’s arrival the following day. I think I might have committed a cultural faux-pas, but I will definitely return to spend a night sometime soon. We compromised on dinner. The food was delicious, and I left just in time to beat the sunset. They said it was not safe to travel in the suburb after dark.

His mother said that she never had a white person in her house before, and that I might bring them luck (there's a long standing belief in southern Africa that white people are somehow "lucky"). And his sister was pumped to meet me–we talked at length about American history, and about how she’s written a 300 page movie with her friends (a very ambitious 7th grader!). She also offered to make my girlfriend a wedding dress and plan our wedding. It was really an amazing visit. I felt so incredibly touched, and I could tell they were really glad to have me in their home.

On one hand, I feel like the recipient of false credit. People are excited to see me solely because of the color of my skin and the country of my birth, and not because of any value I have as an individual. But this is a high-quality problem. I was reminded of something that’s been said before about being a Peace Corps Volunteer: even if you formally accomplish nothing–no computer lab, no soccer field, etc.–you do something important just by living somewhere an outsider normally would not live. By living in a place where outsiders do not live, you send an important message. People in the township keep telling me I’m crazy (even more now that I tell them I’ve been spending time in the suburb), and that there are criminals, etc. But I feel they are glad when I tell them I stay here, ignore what they say about my eminent mugging, and go about living something resembling a normal life in their presence. I don’t make a big deal about the fact I live in the township–everyone around me is too busy doing that for me.

I felt even more at home when I returned back to the township at sunset, and spent some time having a few beers with my neighbors. They taught me how to vuma. I’m not very good at it yet, but people of America, when I return in 23 months I will look this awesome:

On Saturday, Ben and Liz came. It was nice to see them for a few hours. I took them to the restaurant for chips, introduced them to my cool neighbors, and drove out with them to the suburb to check it out. Suddenly, I had things to show them and people to introduce them to. If they had come a few days earlier, I would have had no idea what to do–we would have ended up at the complex (mini-mall) eating chain fast food and watching cars crash in the parking lot. Not exactly a bad time, but it felt really good to have a smidgen of local knowledge.

On our way to get chips, we got a little lost. But I discovered this view of the river, on top of a rocky hill covered with informal settlements:

A view of the river

Yeah…this is the township in live in. Could it be better? I think not.

It’s good to have a life. At some point during training, we were warned that we’d have way more free time than we knew how to use, and that all our friends would be children and grandmothers. That’s turning out not to be my experience, and I feel very lucky.


Liz says:

Thanks for being such a gracious host, Mike! I was so impressed with how comfortable and happy you are! You are doing great!!

26 Oct 10 @ 11am

Liz says:

Oh yeah, and you’ve gotta work on the leg part of the vuma. Head side to side, not back and forth! xo :)

26 Oct 10 @ 11am