The doors opened and the kids poured in. The five and six-year olds stood there staring at the menacing metal jaws, grinding up and down. The crowd of kids behind them pushed them closer to the unknown danger. Their teachers grew impatient and urged them to move forward. The kids at the front started crying, turned around, and tried to run away.
It was quite a spectacle. What else could these kids do when faced with something so fiercely huge and monstrous, something so foreign and fearsome, something so innocent and efficient as an escalator at a shopping mall?
Last year when one of our schools took their “Foundation Phase” learners (students between kindergarten and third grade) to the “big city” just two hours away, it was the first time most of them had ever seen an escalator. It was the first time many of them had ever seen a flush toilet, and most still didn’t get the chance to use it. It was probably the first time they’d seen automatic doors, but since young children are used to adults doing everything for them, they probably didn’t even notice that the doors had opened on their own.
I can’t remember the first time I saw or used an escalator, but I do remember playing on them as much as I could when I was a young kid. It was always a delightful occasion.
I’m not really sure what it must’ve felt like for these kids to be confronted by one as soon as they stepped into the mall, but it must’ve been terrifyingly bizarre and most of the kids weren’t nearly brave enough to approach it. Most of these kids have probably never even seen a staircase leading up to a second-story, let alone a moving metal one. So, I don’t blame them for crying or for being too scared to try it out.
Eventually, Lora and I, along with a few of the teachers, were able to get some of them to ride up the escalator holding our hands. But many were even too scared for that, and I guess the elevator seemed to be the lesser of two evils.
It was quite an experience accompanying children from our village on their first trip to the city, to see the prison, the hospital, and the shopping mall. The hospital tour wound up falling through, but the kids were very impressed at the large pieces of bread the prisoners received at every tea break and they were even more impressed at the water running through the toilets… some kids even got to try using them.
But the shopping mall was more of a sensory overload. The kids flowed through the mall, streaming past other mall-goers like a rushing river, excitedly filling up any open space in the hall while holding hands and always making sure not to fall away from the group in such a huge and unknown place. Their destination was the arcade, where they were each able to play a few fleeting games before returning to the bus and to the village.
The thing is, South Africa has two large extremes, both first-world development and luxury, and third-world subsistence and poverty. Both are often found in very close proximity to each other, sometimes mere minutes apart.
On the one hand, you can find some of the fanciest shopping malls I’ve ever visited, enjoy high-speed internet access in an air-conditioned room, or drink an expensive martini at a high-class bar overlooking the beachfront. You can even shop around for $4 million+ luxury beach condos and have plenty to choose from.
On the other hand, you have rural villages without plumbing or electricity where people rely on yearly maize harvests and $100 monthly government pensions to provide for families of children and their grandchildren. You have squatter camps of tens of thousands of filthy tin shacks crammed next to each other just thirty minutes away from the skyscrapers and beautiful landscaping of a well-developed downtown city center.
I suppose it’s both a blessing and a curse that South Africa has (in places) one of the most well-developed infrastructures in all of Africa. It’s definitely a land of contrasts, economically more than anything else. And where contrast meets, you’re sure to find conflict. Johannesburg, the country’s capital, is said to have the highest crime rate of any city in the world. It’s where hundreds of foreigners from other African countries were killed in riots last year because residents were afraid they were “taking” too many jobs.
The conflict is not only in crime and violence though; it weighs on people’s hearts and minds. Everyone takes it differently. Some people’s only goal is to get out of the village and rarely return. Even for weddings and funerals, many urban family members avoid coming back, and they never stay for long when they do.
Many rural South Africans see themselves as helpless victims of an unjust system. Some people resign themselves to the bottom of the social hierarchy, assuming there’s only one way to get ahead and that that way is closed off to them. Some kids watch TV and dream of a nice job, but have no idea what are the steps in-between, or even where the nearest college is. Too many men, young and old, just spend their days drinking… a LOT. And many girls offer sex in exchange for a cell phone or some nice clothes. It may not be quite as crude as prostitution, usually they’ll have the same “sugar daddy” for a while. But it works out about the same in the end.
Even as Peace Corps Volunteers, the two colliding worlds of South Africa can be difficult. We supposedly have one of the highest “early termination” rates of any Peace Corps post in the world. And yes, most of us, even those of us stationed in rural villages, can often take a few mini-bus taxis far enough to go to a movie theater and come back in the same day, or find a pizza restaurant or coffee shop. But we’re always going and coming back; we’re always seeing what some people have, what others want, and what most will never have.
Many South Africans thought that abolishing Apartheid would magically redistribute wealth, but it hasn’t happened yet. The end of Apartheid has opened up previously unavailable opportunities for some, but the rural areas are still by far the furthest behind.
The main difference now is that if any person wants to, they can easily go and see what others have, what they’ll probably never have. And because traditional African culture doesn’t inspire much long-term vision, many of them don’t often think about creating opportunities for their children to have what they couldn’t. As far as they’re concerned, what happens this week, this month, and this year, is what’ll happen every week, month, and year to come. And with that way of thinking, it’s usually true.
That’s why we’re glad to be serving in the education projects here. Most international development groups have found that just giving money or food to people usually doesn’t last long and sometimes they even stop their own farming or self-provision because of it. Sometimes even digging wells or building water pumps is a failure because of people’s differing expectations compared with their existing methods of getting water.
But education, we teachers hope, is a way of laying opportunities before people, letting them know that they can do almost anything they’re determined to do and that life is mostly what they make of it, not what it makes of them.
It’s unfortunate that the rural areas of South Africa usually have the poorest educated people in the country, often even including many of the teachers and staff. It’s hard for a teacher to pass on what they never had to begin with. Apartheid’s legacy of mis-education will take at least a few generations to be erased in South Africa’s rural areas. But it’s also where we can be of the most service. Our project is to help build the capacity of teachers so they can do their jobs better, so their learners can benefit throughout the school, and so the teachers can (hopefully) continue doing a good job even after Lora and I are gone.
If South Africa has a hope of righting some of the wrongs of its past, of truly making its riches (economic and otherwise) available to all, it’ll have to happen through education. So we’re glad to be working here as we are, learning and teaching.