August 28, 2007

My First South African Friend

While waiting for the bus the other day in East London, Lebo started talking to me... and talking and talking, no doubt egged on by my endless questions (once a reporter, always a reporter...). Lebo is from Jo-burg and has had a run of bad luck lately - she called this the "lowest point of her life" and said if she started telling me about her sorrows she would start crying "and would not stop." (She did tell me, she did cry, and she did stop.) She is convinced someone has put a witchcraft spell on her so she was visiting a town near East London to see a woman who could give her a "cleansing bath" to help the spell go away.

Lebo is articulate in a way she did not even know and I learned so much from her about life as a black person in South Africa, even now that apartheid is over. She has a degree in cosmotology but she cannot find a job because whenever she shows up for an interview and people see she is black, they tell her the position is filled. So she works at a bar, 7 days a week. Her parents died when she was 18. When a group of white men on motorcycles pulled into the parking lot where we were waiting, she said, "When whites ruled, you had to run when you saw a gang of motorcycles," as I guess they were known for their violence. She also said, "They are probably looking at you, saying, 'What is that white man doing with that black woman'." (We were the only inter-racial couple there.)

While she took her cigarette breaks, I frantically scribbled down some of what she had said so I could remember the experience. I don't take it as Gospel-truth but it is certainly interesting (and these snippets barely do justice to the five-plus hours we spent together):

  • "You have probably never starved but look at me. I am starving, I am freezing, and I can't pay the bills."
  • "If I wrote a book of my life, it would be full of sorrow. But someday I will come out of Egypt. I look at myself - I am smart, I have a degree, I am not ugly - sure I am fat - but why can't I drive a car, have a good job, you know?"
  • "I am complaining but there are people who have it worse than me. I may not know how I'm getting home but some people don't have a roof over their head, education, they're sleeping on the streets. I, at least, have hope." (She quoted Forrest Gump's, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get" several times.)
  • "On the day that man [Nelson Mandela] was released from prison, crime shot up in this country. I wish this was a 3rd-world country because that is how people are acting. Don't think because you see people driving cars and having nice things they are doing well. They are stealing, they are selling drugs."
  • "One thing about the previous government - yes, we were mistreated, we were disrespected, but we had jobs. Now we have a government that promises jobs - where are the jobs? Where are the houses?"

We only talked a little about HIV/AIDS but she is very clearly disappointed in the (controversial) response of the government.

When she found out I had left Alaska to move her, she said, "You quit your job to come to this country? You know what you have done? You have ruined your life.... but you might enjoy it because you are a visitor and you can leave anytime."

It was fascinating (on a theoretical level) and terrifying (on a practical level) to be confronted so openly by someone who was so honest about the disparities between the two of us. She openly said she did not have enough money for a ticket back to Jo-burg and was going to Durban to see if she could get some money for a friend. She only had a few rand in her pocket (less than a dollar) and had only eaten a bag of potato chips all day. I bought her dinner because a) $5 seemed like the least I could do for her; b) I wanted to keep talking to her; and c) I wanted the safety of numbers while we waited for the bus. But I didn't offer to give her money for the Durban to Jo-burg ticket - I can't say why - even though it was probably less than $30 U.S., though I did think about it.

I hate being on the upper end of the inequality equation!


Anonymous said...

What a joy to read all your thoughts re: "The Adventure"! Glad you made it there, safely.
You are a wonderful writer; I love how you express yourself and your choice of words.
Know that you are in our prayers daily,
Janet Coyne

Naoko said...

yes. this comment really struck me.

"You quit your job to come to this country? You know what you have done? You have ruined your life.... but you might enjoy it because you are a visitor and you can leave anytime."

Megan said...

I was struck by the same comment as Naoko... Very profound, very simple.

Jesse, I am so behind the times that I didn't know you had left the great land for the Great Land. Glad to hear you arrived safely. I'll check in from time to time.

I'm considering some major change like yours... My brand new consulting job didn't pan out. Apparently there wasn't enough work to hire a new employee, after all. So I'm doing some thinking, and giving back for a while sounds really good. Wish me luck in my- potential- new adventures. I'd like to stay in AK a while longer, but I know I can always come back...


Anonymous said...

You're always doing the best you can, so feel good about that.

Glad to hear you are doing well. I Jokingly thought of you during the various labor (labour)day events.
I always love to look and read all of the powerful words and great pictures you have posted.
Signed, A Friend