This summer a group of students, teachers and I travelled to South Africa to engage in some volunteer work. The work was to comprise of a mixture of teaching and building. On Sunday the 19th of July, after 34 hours travel, we arrived at our destination of Matatiele, Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. The group was divided into two sub groups of nine, each of which worked independently on different sites. In Ntabeni the objective was to further the building of a four classroom complex, in St Matthews the construction of a private toilet building was the aim.
To put into perspective the poverty of the area the background in which it was set must first be understood. The life expectancy at birth for a man in this province is 44 years, neither electricity nor running water are available to the majority of houses we passed each day or to the school sites in which we operated. AIDS prevalence is estimated at 60% in the black population. Many children, some of whom walked up to 15 kilometres to school, had no footwear. Food is at a premium and the children on site would receive government aided lunch that comprised of a piece of loaf and water sourced from a nearby stagnant pond. The local workers, who were paid 5-10 euro per day, would not eat anything from 8 in the morning to 6 in the evening. The toilets were no more than corrugated out-houses without running water or privacy.
This demonstrates the reality in which we found ourselves and in which the locals live every day. Yet there seemed to be something of a paradox apparent. Even though they had nothing, they had something that a lot of Irish people have long since lost, happiness and contentment with their situation. People there seemed to take a huge amount from their sense of community-a sense of community that has long since disappeared from the social landscape of modern day Ireland. Furthermore, relationships define their lives and it is into these they place much of their time. Neighbours see and talk to each other many times daily and are bonded by the common purpose of survival. Collecting food and water are community activities. Any excess is shared, any hardships are halved and any good fortune divided out. In a sense, time over there is relationship whereas time here is money. The pursuit of material things is not an issue…having enough to survive is. The scenario in Ireland rightly or wrongly is to get better clothes, car, job or house and the pursuit of happiness seems to be interlinked and dependent on the pursuit of these things. We have experienced a different culture and way of life which may not be too far away from the lives our parents and certainly our grandparents lived. How often have you heard it uttered by an older generation that, ‘we were a lot happier when we had nothing’. The case witnessed seems to back this up. They want what they need and need to have enough, we need what we want and we want more than we need. The group learned a lot from this, particularly in terms of humility and an appreciation of the lives and comforts we take for granted every day.
Throughout our stay we developed our relationships with the local site and school workers, the children and indeed with each other. One of the first things that struck us was that when we were greeted each morning or bided farewell each evening it was done with vigour and in a way that meant something. There wasn’t a quick hello as they walked by but a concerned how are you accompanied by a handshake, smile and open body language. It came across that they really cared and this relates back to their prioritisation of relationships in their lives. It also came in stark contrast to the way we greet each other in Ireland often with a blank stare, a mutter or a rushed hello, the answer to which is unimportant and merely courtesy.
One of the greatest rewards of the whole trip was in the getting to know and becoming friends with the other members of the group. Former students who by trip’s end had developed into close friends. It was a unifying experience in that we travelled from a common background and starting place to a similar end. Bonded by a common purpose and linked by a shared experience along the way. Not only did we have common experiences but we shared or perspectives on them with each other in reflective exercises that were most rewarding. These people will remain in my life and it makes me think were it not for the trip would I have ever talked to them again? …Probably not. A harsh yet truthful realisation that we don’t pay attention to, or take an interest in the people, who are around us every day. Perhaps a product of the environment in which we live that all that is thought about is the next item on the agenda of life rather than life itself.
Another theme that ran through the trip for me was that of trust. It has to be considered that fifteen short years ago an Apartheid rule was in place throughout South Africa. This consisted of the continuance of white supremacy and maintenance of the unequal status quo that was in operation. Discrimination and prejudice were the order of the day. For example, blacks were not allowed to work in or frequent the towns. The poorest quality land areas were selected to house the blacks evoking a pointed resonance of Cromwell’s attitude to Connacht. College attendance was off limits and school educations were designed to channel the blacks into lower order jobs. As with any political set up of this nature unequal governing and law enforcement was apparent, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela the best known example of this. Furthermore, political democracy was only eventually forced through social unrest and violence a memory still in the consciousness of all those who lived through this time period. Inevitably this has lead to much interracial anger and mistrust. Our group were in a position that we were working with locals both on the site and in the school as well as teaching children as old as nineteen in the classrooms. Furthermore, we were driving through exclusively black villages to and from work. With this in mind it was astounding the welcome and acceptance we were met with. It was unconditional and all the more amazing given the recent history. The welcomes were as many as there were people by the roadside as young and old never failed to wave as we passed by.
As the trust developed between us and the local workers throughout this stay it showed me the values of these people; acceptance, trust, unselfishness, patience, appreciation and cooperation. It struck me that perhaps one our greatest achievements over the course of the trip was to foster and develop trust between black and white at this local scale and perhaps to initiate a ripple effect into the wider community. It is not an exaggeration that after ten minutes of our 100 minute journey in the morning we didn’t encounter another white person for the rest of the day. So uncommon are whites here that on shaking hands many of the younger children were observed to be checking their hands to see if any white had come off. With this in mind, for the locals to sit and eat with us, ask our opinions about the project and tell us about their hopes and plans for life and beyond was amazing. They truly shared their innermost feelings and concerns…sharing at this level showed how far their trust had developed.
Another aspect that ran through the trip and that was evident every day was the spirituality of the local people. This was not least exemplified by the three and three quarter hour mass we attended on the middle Sunday of the trip. This was not a chore or something that guilt would make them attend but a social occasion and the highlight of their week. It was a celebration not only of their faith but, on reflection, of all things that are good in their lives. Furthermore, it is celebrated with the rest of the congregation which again showed the level of community evident. Music and dance more than punctuated the ceremony but moreover was a huge part of the ceremony itself. The celebrant spoke with enthusiasm and fervour that one could not but be drawn to and even though the majority of the mass was said through the African dialect of Khosa understanding could be garnered from the gesture and intermittent English explanations. The message was simple ‘the people must share’.
Though the mass celebration was a most obvious symbol of the spirituality, it was also evidenced throughout daily activities. Living and acting in a Christian way is the most spiritual thing of all. I have alluded to multiple examples of this and it struck me that it is in your actions every day that your spirituality is tested. (How much they cared for their fellow man being the most basic and yet intrinsic expression of this of all.) This experience led to something of a spiritual awakening in some members of the group, catalysed perhaps by a realisation of where they came from and where they were going as well as a cognisance of the importance of the journey in getting there. Also, in seeing the happiness and contentment of the locals with so little resources couldn’t but make you think. Reflection is a process so rarely engaged in our society but it was something we practiced daily in Africa. The slower and more relaxed lifestyle lending itself readily to this. Personally speaking I took a lot from not only reflecting on the lives of the people here but also in comparing it with my own life at home.
Things I had taken for granted I now appreciate. I have tried to put more time into the relationships that make my life what it is and to see the value in the greatest resource of all at my disposal- the people who make the places in which I live. I have introduced a greater amount of reflection on how I am and propose to live my life. Rather than rushing to and wishing for a future moment, trying to live to the fullest in the moment itself. Moreover the single most striking element I have taken from the experience is that the pursuit of happiness should not lead you to the next thing which can be purchased but to the next person with whom you can strike a relationship, and the exploration that awaits me is in the development of this and of myself. Places do not make places, people make places and the relationships and bonds you form there decorate the space.
In writing this piece it was not my intention to present an idyllic world but to give a look into the culture of a different people. The truth is it is far from idyllic, as previously mentioned there is a 60% HIV prevalence among the black population, most either cannot afford or gain access to treatment and some do not get tested for fear of finding out. The education levels are such that the disease is not fully understood and also the witch doctors add to misunderstanding by presenting their warped views as a means to a cure. These factors combine to result in the spread of the disease, which remains unchecked and as a huge barrier to development. Many of the infected younger people did nothing to contract the virus outside of being born- that was the starting point for their lives- a life, which they were soon to struggle for without a living parent. Medical centres cannot cope with the ever increasing numbers and it looks like a battle that may never be won. Crime is rampant and the police service unable to cope with its magnitude. The Apartheid regime, though no longer in existence, still pervades the psyche and mistrust remains. Whites still retain the majority of the wealth and this situation will take generations if ever to equalise.
I have tried to draw links between the existing society out there and that of an Ireland fifty years ago. Definite similarities exist. The sense of community best exampled when villages worked together through meitheal at harvest time was a hallmark of rural Ireland not too long ago. It is now absent from the cultural landscape of Ireland and neighbours may not talk to each other for the best part of a year. The spirituality so strong in Africa was once a leading thread of Irish daily life, you need but look to your grandparents for evidence of this. The pursuit of material things is at the top of the agenda for most people in Ireland today but this was not always the be all and end all in times gone by. Survival and having enough was the order of the day and sharing was a much more frequent exercise. This is the case in South Africa’s rural townships today…a not too distant Irish past.
For the record our group contributed handsomely to the buildings that were built over the 10 week project (see photos accompanied). We were also quite active within the classroom and cumulatively over 120 hours of teaching was completed. The experience is something that will stay with me and I am devoted to doing another stint in the near future. I want to thank wholeheartedly all contributors who made this trip possible.