First Impressions

Welcome to South Africa


February 23, 2016

“This is scary, and I am scared. But I can do this.”

I woke up in the middle of the night with this phrasing in my head. In the midst of a fitful, post-flight sleep I decided that this would be my new mantra. Sure, this new adventure is scary, but I have done lots of scarycool things before and have loved all of my adventures.

Only now that I’m fully awake and can hear the sounds of the morning, the unfamiliar birds chirping and the traffic roaring past on the highway – commuters on their way into their jobs in the city – I’m not sure that this is scary. I’m taking very seriously the warnings to not walk alone at night, to exercise caution around ATMs, and to ensure that the burglar bars are locked tight at all times. However, this part of the country, this town, this neighbourhood feels more like a cross between Beverly Hills and the Okanagan Valley than like any part of Africa I have ever been to before.IMG_2771

The highway that the taxi took from the airport last night is a beautiful 4-lane road complete with streetlights and overpasses and nary a pothole to be seen. The other cars on the highway all appeared to be Mercedes’ and Land Rovers and Toyota Highlanders, all shiny and new. There was one beat up looking pickup on the side of the road, possibly a farm truck, but apart from that there was no evidence of battered cars or even crappy public transit buses crammed to the rafters with people on their way home from work. I saw one public transit bus on the highway – it was nicer than the city buses in Guelph.

I picked up my apartment keys at a private college, a beautiful old colonial building on a leafy tree-lined boulevard. Once settled in my short-term AirBNB apartment, I went and picked up some groceries from the supermarket in the plaza around the corner, which also features a fish mart, an organic health spa, and a wood oven pizza bistro.IMG_20160302_191941810_HDR

The shopping plaza

What does it say about me that I’m disappointed in this state of affairs? That despite the fact that I was not looking forward to again facing the challenges of what I have come to associate with living in Africa, that I’m just a little let down with how easy yesterday’s travel and set up was. What does it say about me as a poverty advocate and researcher that I am disappointed to find my own living conditions well beyond anything I have ever before experienced?


My garden

To be fair, I think I could have chosen to live this sort of life in Dar es Salaam, to live behind high walls and never have encountered local people apart from cashiers and cab drivers. The fact that I chose not to live that way (and I probably couldn’t have afforded it anyway, let’s be honest) probably exposed me to more daily ‘challenges’ than I would have faced otherwise, but it also allowed me to live IN the city, and not in a fishbowl.

I could be wrong about this, but I feel like the difference might be that in Dar the white communities were the enclaves, and that as soon as you emerged you were in the bustling, chaotic metropolis with all of the noisiness, pollution, industry, and poverty that that implies. Maybe that’s why Dar doesn’t have any ‘reality’ tours – the whole city is reminiscent of a slum (I mean that in the nicest way possible). Maybe that’s why tourists don’t like to stay in Dar.

This town (based on my vast experience of having been driven through in a taxi from the airport yesterday afternoon) feels almost like the polar opposite: it is the Black Africans who are living in the fishbowl, allowed to emerge to go to work, but otherwise relegated to behind the fences that have been built. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fence around my house too – only mine is to keep people out, not to keep them in. At any rate, there may not even be any fence, but I think the metaphor holds. The Black people are kept in and the White people and the tourists will occasionally choose to wander through their neighbourhoods to marvel at the ‘reality’ of life in this city.


My big electric fence

None of this is news of course, and none of it is based on my actual experiences here yet, just the early morning musings of someone who has done too much reading on the subject. I worry that I’m sounding a little bit like the American blogger of whom I was so critical a few years back, who wrote that she needed to ‘check her privilege’ after a luxurious vacation at the Kloof, and so went on a Township tour to get a dose of ‘reality.’ I’m worried that I can have little integrity and rapport with the people that I hope to work with if I choose to live behind walls designed to keep them out. How do I balance my (perceived) safety with my (perceived) integrity, or is that a really stupid question to even be pondering? I worry about being a good poverty researcher when I live in wealth and privilege. I worry about how the community will appear to my eyes when I live so far removed from it. And I worry that people in the community will never come to trust me in any small measure – and why should they?

I got a glimpse of the sprawling Township near the airport yesterday. From the highway I could only see the rooftops and the tangle of electrical wires and TV antennae, although occasionally some houses had been built on a rise so I could see their facades. The community was bordered by a high coral-pink wall, which in Canada would have been considered a noise barricade from the highway, and may also serve the same purpose here. There were some small red-roofed houses within that I could tell were government-built homes, but overwhelmingly the roofs were of corrugated tin. What struck me the most was the imponderable size of the community – it seemed to go on for miles along the side of the highway – although this tells me nothing about how far it stretched in the other direction. I think I read somewhere that 1 million people live there, and having now seen its boundary I don’t doubt that estimate.


I also saw some small jumbles of homes outside the walls of the Township that looked like truly wretched abodes – tiny little hovels of patched together tin and canvas sacking. What must these residents think of all the shiny cars that race past them everyday?


It is really nice to be able to drink the tap water.

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