Where ‘insurance’ is 10 planks of wood

[An abridged version of this column appeared in the Concord Monitor on Feb. 26, 2012]


When houses burn in the world from which I (Dan) come – Concord, New Hampshire to be precise – it’s a tragedy attended by fire engines, ambulances, and police. Loss of life is mercifully rare, and rarely does the fire consume the entire house or spread to homes next door. The displaced family may head for a hotel or be invited into friends’ and neighbors’ homes while they sort out their next move. As for the insurance, it’s usually a bit of patience and paperwork before their home is repaired and any lost goods restored.

Not so in the sprawling Cape Town flats (“The Flats”), home to a few million of South Africa’s urban poor and near to where my wife and I recently moved from Concord.

Walking through part of Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township with local social justice campaigners the other day, we came across a group of residents rebuilding from a fire. In an area not much bigger than our living room, nine shacks and their belongings had been reduced to bits of charcoal and blackened metal in the sand. The shacks had been home to roughly 50 people. Two or three had died.

The residents didn’t have much to say when we inquired. An older “Gogo” (grandmother) frowned and gave us her report, translated from isiXhosa by our guide: a parrafin cook stove had caught fire in one of the shacks and soon the lot of them went up in flames. How had they put the fire out? The answer wasn’t clear–some sand and water and blankets perhaps–but no mention of fire trucks was made. And what about relief? The Gogo explained that ten planks of wood and five sections of corrugated zinc were standard issue after a fire, along with a parcel of food. So far, only the wood had been delivered.

Khayelitsha (“new home” in isiXhosa) takes its name from its creation by the white apartheid state as the destination for Cape Town’s ‘legal’ blacks after their forced removal from other townships in the city. ‘Illegal’ blacks, meanwhile, were deported to rural ‘homelands’ in the Transkei, far to the East. That was in the early 1980s, a decade before apartheid’s bitter end.

Today, Khayelitsha alone is home to half a million people by government estimates, or twice that number according to academics. Most of them (est. 70%) live in informal shacks fashioned from a mix of wood, cardboard, and corrugated metal. While robust data are scarce, unemployment is estimated at over 60% and average income at somewhere between one and three US dollars a day. A total nine public clinics, poorly stocked and in general disrepair, are home to three full-time doctors, 50-60 nurses, and a few more part-time docs.

Water comes in buckets from communal taps, electricity hook-ups are scarce, and toilets are a schlep, when they work at all. When it rains it floods, and with flooding comes disease. The garbage can sit uncollected for a month or more in the street and is an eternal blight in the alleyways. Little wonder then that the rats grow as big and bold as your shoe–except that the kids and many of the adults we saw do not wear shoes.

What struck me even more than the fire, the rats, and other conditions of life was the matter-of-fact way that the residents spoke about these things. Their words and their demeanor said resignation. Not even the kids asked for money from us white folks in their midst. Nor did our group get worked up by the news: it was just another day in the township. In fact, fatal fires are frequent in these parts on account of the stoves, the overcrowding, the lack of sound construction, and the makeshift tapping of power lines overhead by local syndicates. A single Cape Town headline this week reported twenty dead and hundreds homeless from a range of fires across four local townships, including Khayelitsha.

Why dwell on such unhappy things as this in my new home? My answer is circuitous but sincere. I was raised with a healthy New Hampshire dose of rugged individualism. My favorite pastime on a summer’s afternoon was to disappear into the Monadnock woods for hours at a time in the imagined company of my childhood heroes, Tom Sawyer and Paul Bunyan.

With finances tight, my dad had us kids pick up jobs mowing lawns and mucking stalls at nearby farms when chores at home were done. I learned to work hard and take pride in what I earned. In school, my decent grades and decent ball won me the refrain, “You did it!” and by the time I got accepted into a college with a fancy name, I figured I really had.

But meeting and falling in love with a black South African woman some years later and then moving from idyllic Concord to Cape Town last fall has challenged my happy sense of self-reliance.

You see, my wife was born in a time and place (Johannesburg 1980) where the single biggest factor in how far you got in life was the color of your skin. Like America’s troubled past, South Africa had constructed a bitter system of segregation called apartheid, in which 80 percent of the people – black Africans – were legally confined to just 7 percent of the land and were limited to menial jobs in mines, on farms, as maids. Inter-racial marriage was not only unthinkable, it was against the law.

By accident of birth, my wife came of school age just as legal restrictions on blacks attending white schools were lifted, and so became the first black girl to start Grade One in her all-white private school. By the sacrifice of her parents, who drove three hours a day from the black township of Soweto to school and back, and by the kindness of her teachers, who believed that she could succeed despite her black skin, she made it through school and went on to earn a PhD at Oxford, where we met.

Although we arrived at the same place, I have found myself repeatedly challenged by the realization that my road was a lot less bumpy than hers. I can’t tell you how many generations of my family have been to college since the time of Plymouth Rock; her forbears were legally forbidden from the same. Although times are tough back home, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate of around 5 percent pales in comparison to the more than 50 percent of her black countrymen who are jobless here. Half the population here lives in poverty, compared to less than 10 percent back home. I may have worked hard when I was young, but the opportunities to learn and work that defined my growing up are hardly the norm in this country, where half the children are born into degrading poverty. The contrasts go on and on.

Thus, to say I earned my way and nothing more does not take into account the complex factors outside of my control that contributed to the privileged life I lead. Nor does it do justice to my homeless neighbors in Khayelitsha or my wife. As we face unsettling facts of life, wherever we may be, let us remember that individual effort counts but so too does institutional opportunity or the lack thereof. In this land of painful paradox, I am reminded of the many blessings I have received, sobered by the inequalities and injustices I see, and challenged to try and do my part in their alleviation.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Claudia Damon says:

    Great and thoughtful piece of writing–loved it in the Monitor, love reading more of it here!

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