Tales from abroad: Durban

“What is privilege but multiple choices?” — Zed McGladdery, School for International Training community health program director

I’ve been in Durban for two months now, just past the halfway point of my study abroad program in which I learn about community health. South Africa is a country of intense contradictions.

It seems like there are two worlds — the legacy left behind by apartheid. The privileged live in comfort, similar to Europe or the United States. The impoverished, who are by far the majority, are living in a developing country where access to health care is not guaranteed, food for children is not always sufficient, and unemployment is an always-looming shadow.

During my home stay, a six-week period that served as my introduction to South Africa, I plunged into the uncomfortable but eye-opening differences poverty presented me with. The following words were written about two weeks into my home stay, as I grappled with my circumstances:

I’m staying in a lower-class area, Cato Manor, called a township, which consists of all black, government-owned projects. Staying here has made me realize the incredible privileges I have been raised with and the powerful circumstances everyone in America lives in. Even the color of my skin means that, because of the history of this country, I am granted more reverence and more respect, whether or not I ask for it.

This weekend, on the phone, my mother asked me how it felt to be a minority. She was surprised when I answered, “Guilty.” When I got to my home stay, my bag took up the entire path on one side of the bed. “So much stuff!” my new African mama said. I unpacked, placing my branded shampoo and face wash on the tub, which had socks drying on the washtub inside it. I placed my soap, the exfoliating kind with a small dove carved in the surface, beside their generic green bar. I was so thankful that at least their toothpaste was branded, and this eased my mounting guilt.

Before I left home, my sister and I had been whining that the hot water heater was not working properly and only provided hot water for the first five minutes of a shower. On arriving in Cato Manor, I did not have a shower at all, much less hot water.

My family and I don’t even use half of my house in the United States, whereas the living room here is used for everything, and is, well, small, at least by my previously held standards.

Dinner is very heavy in starches and fats — fruit and vegetables are sparse, and the ones that are around are typically only served to me. The food that is cooked is eaten for every meal of the day (though a smaller portion is provided at lunch) until it is finished several days later.

I am served cornflakes and specially prepared jam and butter sandwiches. Even within my home, my family treats me as a special guest.

I now realize how much stuff I have. I thought I had only brought my essentials with me: A week’s worth of clothes, three pairs of shoes, various cosmetics and toiletries, two cameras (one is for my photo essay later on), an iPod, three books, two journals, and some outdoor things.

Granted, I have made use of most of these things, but I realize that I could also live without a majority of them. They are comforts that I have learned to see as necessities, but many of them, such as books — never mind the cameras or the iPod — are things people in Cato Manor have never had.

On my first night, my mama mentioned that I could watch TV after she went to bed. When I replied that I would rather read instead, she said, “Oh, always good to keep learning.” Education is held in high esteem, but books are too expensive to afford.

The fact that we have the choice to educate ourselves and our children — and at the university level — is remarkable. Most of us, at least in the middle and upper classes, can choose to study without worrying about having to send money home to support our families.

I know only two people my age in America with a child, whereas women of the same age in most parts of the world, definitely in South Africa, have at least one child.

The fact that I can pick up and leave the United States and have the money and the freedom to just wander the globe speaks to my incredible privilege.

Mama has no choice but to work, and even she still couldn’t afford a gift for her daughter’s 13th birthday last week.

Though I am living within a lower-class home-stay environment, every day I leave for some time for my community health classes, which are situated in a higher-income area. I, along with 22 other students, have classes in a house that is located in an area that was classified as “white” under times of apartheid.

We have showering facilities, fruits, vegetables, air conditioning, and a pool. All of us type away on our laptops, and we have this space to be “rich.” I’m still wrestling with the ethics of this situation. Should we have fruits, cameras, laptops, a spacious area, and time to debate health policy, when the average resident of Cato Manor does not?

Of course it’s impossible to totally balance the playing field, but there are some steps we can take to not be so spoiled, as well as some things we can do to improve the situation of people like our home stay families; for example, we can increase their access to health care.

In the meantime, people on both ends of the wealth spectrum are taking time to appreciate and learn from one another.

Since I’ve written this, I’ve more or less come to terms with my wealth. I can’t change my background, nor can I change the background of the families I stay with. I’ve also realized that it’s not expected of me to do either of those in order to stay with and learn from these local families.

I bonded with my home stay mother as if she were my own blood. Last week, we moved out of my home stay, a place where we watched back-to-back soap operas, lived with no ceilings, and woke up at 5 a.m. to the sound of roosters crowing.

I’m now staying in a gorgeous beachfront apartment where I have a balcony to watch surfers and waves instead of house music to rock me to sleep. But guess where I’d rather be staying?