This summer, Ph.D./MSW student Sara Pilgreen shares postcards from Johannesburg, where she is living and working.
The other weekend I joined up with the Boksburg Rotaract and we travelled out to HaMakuya Village. Based in the Limpopo Province (one of nine provinces that comprise South Africa), it is in the greater Venda area, while HaMakuya Village is about 20 miles from the Zimbabwe border. This trip, which began as a light-hearted weekend road trip to deliver much needed school supplies to very rural crèches (early childhood development centers), became a humbling reminder of what exactly the Gini Coefficient means in reality and not just on paper, when one sees the extremes of the haves and have nots in a middle income country.
Rotaract is a young adult (18-30) program sponsored by Rotary International. There is an active club based in Boksburg (one of the many suburbs of Johannesburg) and I was invited to join for this trip, as there happened to be an open seat. The trip began early, 6:30 a.m. on a Friday morning. Nine of us made the weekend caravan composed of two trucks, one trailer, and one car, all fully loaded with donated supplies. As with any road trip anywhere in the world, when traveling with five females, we made numerous stops along the 350 mile drive for bathroom breaks, snack breaks, sightseeing ventures (ex. passing the Tropic of Capricorn), picture opportunities, etc. I must admit that what is equivalent to our freeways, South African roads are in tiptop shape when compared to Los Angeles. Much of the roadwork was completed for the World Cup in 2010. However, once we made it to Venda and near HaMakuya Village the roads became dirt and 4-wheel drive was essential. We arrived around 7 p.m. on Friday night to baboons howling, monkeys playing, and fortunately (or not, for the truly adventurous) we did not see any of the crocodiles in the river near us. It was an absolutely stunning picturesque moment as the sun set. We stayed in the research center of Tshulu Trust, two covered tent areas with the capacity of 6 beds and one flush toilet and a hot shower in each. This converted campsite was overlooking the crocodile infested river, a ridge on the west side of the river where the baboons stayed, and one dirt road leading back to the main village.
Saturday was a very full day, beginning at 6 a.m. with our group breakfast and the day's briefing. The group went to three different crèches, leaving behind volunteers and school supplies, toys, tables and chairs at each. I spent time at two of the crèches before I went with one other university student who was finishing his master's in fashion design and was developing an income-generating womens co-op sewing initiative in Venda. Mid-day we all were picked up from a backie (pick-up truck) from our various areas (all within a range of 10 miles). Along the way we also picked up about 15 secondary students along the roadside and brought these students back to the camp. Riding in the back of pick-up trucks on dirt roads became quite the thrill for the rest of us staying in Jo’burg while all the students were elated that they would not be walking in the hot sun.
Back at the camp, the cooks had prepared for us a traditional African meal of mealie pap, chakalaka, morogo and stewed meat. After our meal, we divided the students into groups of three and taught them about the concept of debate. This was a time for the students to not only learn about debating, but more so to practice their English, critical thinking skills and the like. After the ground rules were set, the debates became quite heated and interesting for all involved (are girls better than boys, should the government continue to provide social grants for teenage pregnant mothers). Just before sunset, the members of Rotaract had set aside gifts (t-shirts, beanies, mugs, pens, pencils, paper and sweets) for all of the students who had taken time away from their Saturday to spend with us. I think that the students as well as all of the volunteers thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. In our unique ways we each gained different perspectives of our vastly different lives through this shared experience, and most of all learned from one another.
Once the students were taken back to their respective villages we managed to buy a few beers from the local store (10 rand = ~$1.25/liter), hired the local guitar players (100 rand = ~$12.50), and had a braii (BBQ) to close out the day well into the night. The weekend was not only a time for all of us to see the countryside of the beautiful Limpopo Province and visit the rural village of HaMakuya, but also to experience life in what most would call abject poverty. Although at times it is easy to get lost in the concrete jungle of the big city, and to get caught up in the formality of “The Council” at the City of Johannesburg, the reality of the difficulties associated with the complex issues of poverty facing the poor in South Africa are nothing short of “it’s complicated.”
More pictures from the trip: