Still Processing My Trip to South Africa

Another blog on my trip to South Africa, but this one was published on Yahoo. Please check it out.



South Africa: Far from My Kids

I have been away from my three boys for five days now. It is the longest we have been apart, and there are still six days before I see them back home in Colorado.

When three giraffes run alongside our Land Rover, I wish they were here. They would love that. Or the baby baboon riding on its mother’s back. Or the herd of elephants playing in the water. Two tons of animal swimming gracefully, nearly disappearing under the water’s surface. A male supervises the water fight from the land. They would love racing around in the darkness searching for lions while dodging giant spider webs.

We will have to come back one day so they can experience what it feels like to finally discover where the rhino has been hiding for three days.

I hear their voices on the phone. I know my five year old is going to look taller after eleven days. I hear how much my ten year old misses his parents. I wonder if my nine year old is still misbehaving at school. Or if the talk we had before I left was enough.

I tell them about how close we were to the lions, and feel the urge to cry. Is it in the retelling of the drama of that moment? Or that I wish they’d experienced it with me?

The leopard remains in hiding, maybe saving himself for discovery by three boys on our return.

South Africa: The World is Small, and Yet…

On the third day, I slept. But not for long. There are too many “firsts” to experience. And this is a country so complex that I know I cannot ask enough questions to understand it. I will only be here for 11 days.

I am on the African continent for the first time. South Africa. I see the Southern Cross for the first time in the night sky, near Orion’s belt. A baboon crossing the street. Shining a flashlight into the darkness, face to face with a tired giraffe, who rolls her eyes like a teenager before rising out of the grass for a quieter spot. Ducking below the roll-bar on a Land Rover tipping dangerously only feet from a curious male lion. Sitting in a pool with a cold glass of chardonnay, watching a family of warthogs at a watering hole below in the brush. Then a family of moneys. A wildebeest. They seem to have a schedule by species.

We are on safari near Kruger National Park. Driving along the highway from Johannesburg to the Lodge, I feel tricked into thinking South Africa is just like home. The acres of cornfields could be Nebraska. Cows. A McDonalds near the highway. Lays Salt and Vinegar potato chips at the rest stop. Sprite.

And when we ask our driver about life in South Africa, his words could be those of someone in the U.S. He is patriotic. His country is a melting pot of colors and 17 languages. He feels conflicted about Affirmative Action. He talks about failing schools that are overcrowded with too many kids who are not learning to read. He complains about the unions. He worries about the growing gap between the rich and poor. He claims that South Africa’s reputation for crime is overblown. He is concerned about a constant flow of immigrants looking for jobs where the unemployment rate is already nearly 30 percent.

Yet he wouldn’t live anywhere else. He says the people are leaving the horrors of Apartheid behind. It is a beautiful country. There is forgiveness.

But he is too young to remember Apartheid. He is white.

You drive past the townships with closet-size shacks made of scrap metal clustered together in a field of dirt. You hear later about HIV rates of 70 percent, 50 percent of the school children. Many have to choose between food and uniforms, because while the government will waive school fees, it will not cover the cost of required school uniforms.

If I asked the barber braiding hair in the township to describe his life in this country, would he speak of patriotism and the beauty of the countryside? Or the grandmother who opens her home to “29 or 35” children in need of a safe haven? Or the couples who disappear, abandoning their children, when the signs of AIDS first appear because the stigma is still so great? Have they climbed to the top of Table Mountain and seen how the cliffs meet the ocean? Have they witnessed the ostriches at the Cape of Good Hope?

Nearly 20 years after Apartheid, I realize that I was only a few years younger than our driver when the U.S. was at a similar point in its history post-desegregation. And I will never comprehend fully what that time was like in my country. The extreme poverty and contrast in communities here remind me how close they are to their past.

Then as I try to understand something I cannot, because I am only a tourist, a rhino with no horn steps out from the brush.

I am a long way from home.

Learning Universal Kindness from My Friends

A few weeks ago, two friends of mine were talking about how on the way home from a restaurant, they will often stop to give their doggie bag to someone begging for money. They even allow their young children to be the ones to hand the food to the person in need.

The conversation has bothered me since.

About a year ago, my son asked me why I never stop to give anyone anything. “They need it,” he said then. “His sign said anything helps!”

I told my friends how terrible that made me feel. I also told them what I said to my son.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and in eighth grade, our school participated in a program to learn about the city. We were each assigned a topic, and though I do not recall them all, mine was housing. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about low-income housing and to explore parts of the city I had never seen. As we walked through D.C., one of the lessons of the city administrators and teachers was never to give money to someone begging for it. It wasn’t safe.

We also did community service. By the time I was done with high school, I had served food in soup kitchens, participated in numerous drives, performed scenes from “Annie Get Your Gun” in a retirement home, and volunteered Wednesday nights with Special Olympics. Engaging us in community service was part of the school’s mission.

But I also took a self-defense elective in eighth grade. While none of the cool moves stayed with me, something the teacher said stuck, probably because it was a repetition of what I’d already heard in the City Program. “You should never give money to someone begging.” He said that we were not trained to identify someone on narcotics. We had no way of knowing whether this person was decent or planning to rob or hurt us. He said we had no idea what the person would do with the money.

Which is why my friends give their doggie bags instead. Or drop off full Easter baskets for the kids who stay at a neighboring shelter. Or keep a collection of toiletries for their next run.

Still, the thought of letting my kids get close to someone begging scares me. And when I admitted that to my friends, at least one seemed to momentarily reassess her acts of generosity.

And that’s what keeps nagging at me.

I admire both women because they are more generous than I am. I respect them because it is their nature to trust and to give without having to sign up, join, bring along friends or receive recognition. Sometimes their acts are large, sometimes very small like handing a hungry man their doggie bag. What stands out is that it is a constant in their lives.

My friend has said that she is driven by the idea that one should be universally kind.

I want to keep my children safe. But I also want them to learn the importance of giving to those in need and that lesson of universal kindness that she has so successfully passed along to her daughter. For now, while they are young, we sometimes talk about global issues related to poverty, they make loans on online giving sites, and they participate in philanthropic projects at school. And my way to give is through more formal, behind-the-scenes, organized routes.

The problem is, I do not think you can be universally kind if you are also afraid. And I can still hear my son’s “You never give anything to anybody!” It is not true, but it is his perception.

I am going to South Africa next week, where another friend works with orphans and vulnerable children. I am looking forward to seeing her at work. I am eager to meet the kids she talks about. I know I will see housing and neighborhoods in much worse shape than anything I saw in eighth grade in Washington, D.C. My son wants to go too. But as someone said to me yesterday, I need to know that I can be strong in the midst of all I witness before I pass it along to him.

I wish I were more like my friends.

Be the One: Changing Lives in South Africa

I have a friend in Cape Town, South Africa. She runs a volunteer organization that recruits and places volunteer professionals who want to work with South Africa’s orphans and vulnerable children, many made so by the HIV epidemic there. The work that went into getting this organization running successfully – with multiple volunteers making an impact on the children’s lives in diverse ways – impressed me. Tremendous Hearts is doing great work and always looking for professionals to join its team of volunteers on the ground in South Africa and in its fundraising efforts here in the U.S. Please read about some of their achievements, as published by Yahoo Contributors.