Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Guest Post On South Africa: Trust, Guidance & Bridging The Cultural Chasm

David Ngethu introduces emus to a new pasture
EASTERN CAPE, South Africa -- So we live in a good news-bad news time. The police commissioner is corrupt but finally gets exposed and hauled into court. The health minister is an idiot who finally gets replaced. The devastatingly cruel Department of Home Affairs is exposed by a still-free media, but a media that is either going bankrupt or becoming more and more corporate and profit oriented in structure.

The now-thinking tendency of the culture, along with limited exposure to machinery limits
understanding of preventive maintenance. On the bigger scale, that makes the electricity crisis in which ESKOM, the state power institution, did not plan for expansion to cover the massive extension of electricity to communities more understandable. The result was a traumatic year of blackouts and now spiralling increases in charges for power that promise to cripple businesses and households alike.

We all learn how to survive without adequate police protection but some fall through the cracks and that's more of a crap shoot -- being in the wrong place at the wrong time -- than anything else. The same friendly local police who make regular visits to my farm to support security managed to lose valuable evidence needed to prosecute the perpetrators of a break-in.

We accept the roadblocks set up during holidays to staunch the bloody mayhem on the roads caused by bad driving but also understand that most of these drivers are operating on purchased licenses or the taxis and buses are not properly inspected because the Department of Motor Vehicles is so corrupt.

I am saddened when I attend an African event in which the canned music comes from blaring loudspeakers instead of the voices of the women. When the rendition of Nkosi Si'sikelele by a group of children is limp, when the people on the streets of a squatter community do not even tap their toes to the music being produced by a band of aspiring musicians. But the music still survives in churches and funerals, and Lord knows, we have enough of them these days. I attended a funeral recently where there were two services side by side in the church, and there were our burials happening simultaneously in the cemetery.

I watch the grannies struggle to raise the children orphaned by AIDS or opportunity, aggrieved by the tragedy and at the same time I am humbled by their diligence.

That the wages of all earners in a family are pooled and accessed by all drives those who are successful in the modern urban existence to either shy away from their extended family or else find themselves overextended as they attempt to support both lifestyles.

That most families still reel under the burden of school fees for their children for increasingly inadequate education, creating a new form of illiteracy.

For every four location homes I pass that are already crumbling from poor construction because corruption in the system that was designed to provide solid dwellings for all, there is the next one nicely painted with a flourishing vegetable garden at the side. At the same time many households sag under the burden of indebtedness to the furniture stores that charge outrageous rates for slippery credit.

My heart dances and weeps daily, right in step with the schizophrenia. That the man walking down the road past my farm sings at the top of his lungs as he walks, that the man who appears at the gate is hungry, desperately looking for work. That I understand the danger involved in meeting that stranger at the gate (one reason for four large and barky dogs) but also keep parcels of food in my cupboard for the desperate.

That David Ngethu, who was forced to leave school after the second grade but can fix anything with a stick and piece of wire, and spent 10 years working in the mines and then worked in an agriculture project that failed, now has his own 25-acre farm, a pick-up truck, electricity, 15 cows, an interest-bearing savings account and cell phone. That he most likely would not enjoy these improvements without my intervention, that the Department of Land Affairs made the transfer of a piece of my land to him possible and the Department of Agriculture supports his farming. As a skilled hardworking farmer he should be able to support his family by his labor but suffers from a burden of unanticipated costs for higher education for his daughters, a cycle of indebtedness for purchases, and his concern for a son who has been released after two years in prison for armed robbery and struggles to reintegrate into a society in which the temptations of alcohol and crime run strong. David, who is a deeply religious man and a minister in his church, could guide the young man through his frequent visits to him in prison but finds he is near helpless to protect him from more trouble that he is on the outside of prison walls.

That David depleted his water supply from his dam with irrigation for his crops of cabbage without much concern that the summer rains may fall, which they have. His cows now use my dam until God and the ancestors decide to provide.

That David and I can stand side by side and trust in each others' guidance, bridging the chasm between our cultures, his quiet patience balancing my American demand for now. That's when I share the seven-day weather forecast I find on the Internet and he looks at the sky and confirms the bad news that the rain will not arrive today.

Susan Winters Cook is a photojournalist and humanitarian who has lived in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa since 1997. She previously was a staff photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News, where I was her editor when she made several trips to South Africa to chronicle the enormous changes in that country after Nelson Mandela's release from prison.

Cook's profile of a regional African National Congress leader's struggle to survive transitional political violence won the prestigious 1994 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.
From 1997 to 2003, Cook produced an AIDS education periodical for the province, has produced documentaries for the provincial premier, and most recently produced a documentary about a Cape Town squatter community building its own housing.

Cook lives with her husband, anthropologist Cecil Cook, on a farm where she raises emus.

All photographs copyright Susan Winters Cook

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