Quite often it can feel like I am leading a double life here in Grabouw. At 4pm, I can be out in the community, where people live in shacks and struggle to feed their family. At 6pm, I can be sitting by the beautiful country club lake, eating a meal which although inexpensive, will come to a total higher than the average family in the community I just left will have to feed their entire family off for the week. Because it is so easy for me to arrive and leave, it sometimes become surreal, and there have been times when I’ve caught myself getting less and less shocked and affected by the poverty I see on a daily basis. I guess that when it’s not you personally living in a shack, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, you can get to the worrying position of under-appreciating what people who don’t have the option of leaving have to cope with, day in, day out.
“You’ll need to bring your own bedding, toiletries, training clothes, and things to eat with and off…” Our mentors immediately started laughing and looked at each other. Next week, 10 of them are off on a week long course in Cape Town, where they’ll get accredited training, accommodation and food for free. An amazing opportunity for the guys. But, being as we are, not completely in their world and from a Western background where we have wanted for nothing, we simply assumed that bringing their own bedding and toiletries, even training clothes, wouldn’t be an issue. That laughter gave away our oversight. Realising we may have made a mistake, we probed them for what was so funny. “Nothing, nothing…” It was only after some persuasion that one quietly told us, “I can’t bring my blanket, it’s too dirty”. Another one of our most dedicated mentors told us he wasn’t able to come. Again, after some persuasion, we found out it was because he “doesn’t have any training clothes”.
Somewhere along the line, we’d merged our Western world into theirs. We’d assumed that our mentors would have sheets, duvet covers, pillows. Actually, the harsh reality is many of them don’t have proper beds. We’d assumed that bringing toiletries for the shower, a toothbrush and toothpaste wouldn’t be a problem – after all, everyone has a toothbrush, right? But no, shacks don’t come with running water, let alone a shower, and not everyone here has a toothbrush or toothpaste.
I’ve been questioning myself over why we made that oversight. For me personally, I think it comes down to the fact that actually, life here in South Africa is very separate. Here at Village of Hope, we live on a hillside literally opposite Iraq, one of the most impoverished communities of Grabouw. Even though we could (provided you cut a few trees down) sit and look at each other, unless you made the effort to go there, it would be extremely easy to co-exist without actual interaction. There’s a reason why it is such a big deal with kids to see us “umulungus” driving or walking through their community. They don’t see that many.
In fact, that’s the case, from my perspective at least, in many other places here in South Africa; in very few places do the two extremes of life collide. Even then, the collisions are subtle. The guy in the car park who watches your car, standing in the rain while you eat at a restaurant across the road, all for R5 (30p) tip at the end of the night. The kid that asks for R1 as you walk across the beach to buy an ice cream. The guys who stand at almost every set of traffic lights, trying to sell the people in cars anything from feather dusters, to tax discs, to fruit. More often than not ignored and seen as a nuisance.
Truth is, it’s all too easy to put your blinkers on and forget about the people that live on that opposite hillside. It’s too easy to get caught up in our own ‘first world problems’, like is Spar going to have my favourite dip in this week?
Even though we’re out in the communities pretty much every day, clearly we are not immune to the perhaps unconscious “put-your-blinkers-on” condition. The past few days has really awakened me to actually how little I know about the lives of our mentors, away from the sports clubs. Quite frankly, I don’t understand half, or even a fraction, of what their lives are actually like. I can’t understand because I’ve never known what it’s like to live in a shack when the rain in pouring down and the roof sounds like it’s about to be blown away. I can’t remember the last time I went to bed hungry. I’ve always had more than enough clothing for every season, every occasion. And as much as I shiver to think about it, the mentors know that. Their laughter showed it – they know that we live in another world on an opposite hillside. As much as we are their friends, and there is a lot we share and have mutual understandings over, there is a lot of their lives that we will never be able to fully appreciate.
Today, we went about correcting our mistake. We have gathered toothpaste, toothbrushes, shower gel, water bottles and deodorant for the mentors. We’re tracking down blankets and bedding for those who don’t have, and from the bursting sports cupboard have training clothes for the mentor embarrassed to admit he had none. A small gesture, and no it won’t change the homes they have to go back to at the end of the week. But at least they go not feeling embarrassed at not being able to bring what little is on the ‘kit list’.
Recently, we have also been able to “pay” the mentors in the form of a small food parcel each week for the invaluable work they do running the sports clubs. We would not be able to run the clubs without them, and the thriving numbers demonstrate what a great job they are doing. Again, it won’t make a massive difference in the grand scheme of things, but it is at least something to bless them and their families.
We still live on opposite hillsides, but this week has really shown me how important it is not to sink into that mentality. The more you get used to something being the way it is, and it even becoming “normal”, the less you question why it is that way in the first place. That’s a dangerous place to be.