April 12, 2008

The Accident of Birth

There are several people I see regularly around Itipini who are about my age. It is impossible to look at them and not think about the wildly divergent paths our lives have taken since 1982. Often they have a child (or children), many have HIV, virtually none has a high school diploma, none has a formal job, and all live in tumbling-down shanties that barely deserve the word. As I’ve gotten to know them over the months, I’ve realized many of them are also quite talented, funny, intelligent, and hard-working, and, really, not all that different from me.

The vast chasm of differences between our relative positions in this world cannot be due to personal characteristics; there’s nothing innately superior about me that has allowed me to get this economically- and educationally-privileged state. What’s been different, of course, is the opportunities available to us by virtue of where we were born and where and how we were raised. I had access to supportive parents, good schools, and an economy that produced opportunities like this one, among a whole host of other advantages. My peers in Itipini had almost none of that.

Many of the people with HIV I’ve seen decline and die in my time here have been very close to my age. In fact, one woman – whose story is forever imprinted on my mind – was only three weeks younger than me. When I think about these people and see them struggling with their myriad health-related problems, I think about how fortunate I’ve been with my health and how good the medical care I’ve received has been and how good it would be (I hope!) if anything happened to me here. It just doesn’t seem fair. But I guess the world isn’t.

A few weeks back, I was driving Mkuseli and his family over to my house to meet my parents. I took a route I frequently take that bypasses a lot of traffic in town and as we turned onto the road, he said, “In all my life, I’ve never been on this road.” This is a road that is no more than four miles from where he lives and well within the city limits of the town in which he has spent his entire adult life. I was astounded. But as I thought about it, I realized it made sense: taxis didn’t drive down this road so the only reason I was able to drive it is I am able to afford to keep a car and grew up in a culture that made it relatively easy for young people to get driver’s licenses. One of the reasons I frequently drive this road is I love the sweeping views it provides of the region and I thought about how many people who live in Mthatha might never be able to enjoy those same views.

“Accident of birth” is a phrase I had heard many times before arriving in Mthatha but it is only now that I’ve been here that it has been made real for me. For that I am thankful.


Naoko said...

If only more middle-class white men realized this =).

löki gale said...


This has nothing to do with your post, but my dad and I received your card in the mail. Thank you!

Many of the church folks and community members of Nome stay updated as to your adventures through your blog. Each update gets printed out and posted on the church's bulletin board on Sundays.

It is great to hear the exciting things that are happening and to know that exchanging a western lifestyle for another is not as scary as I might think (although, I am not sure I will ever adapt to the no deodorant thing) :)


Anonymous said...


Your words remind me of similar experiences here. This last week at Hogsback I just sat watching the kids wanting to do so much for them. I had this mixed sense of gratitude, pain, and overflowing joy that I had the opportunity to be a part of the lives of these people. It sounds so cliche and yet the cliche fits that in thirsting for christ we can be filled to the brim with contentedness. To be privileged to give in the capacity we can is so fulfilling.


Heidi said...

Great post, Jesse.

Elizabeth said...

I think about this a lot too. But, with God there are no accidents!

red said...

Thank you very much for this information.