Archive for September, 2011

Being South African

Living in South Africa, for me, has become like living in the middle of two worlds. Like one foot is one one side of an ocean and the other is on the other side.

I’ve been in Sweden almost one month now and I’ve been wondering how to put this into words. How to describe exactly how I feel about being here.

Everything is structured. The structure is everywhere. Little children wear reflector jackets when they go outside the nursery school, so you often see rows of 3-5 year olds with their little yellow jackets on. There are trains and subways and busses everywhere. The distance between two bus stops is sometimes not more than a few metres. If you stand in a queue for something, you press a button on a machine and get a number, then stare at a large screen until your number comes up with the counter you have to go to. In some stores you can even scan your own purchases and pay at the card machine (they do random checks every now and then to prevent people from stealing.) Some trains and trams they never even check your ticket. People cross the street only at pedestrian crossings, where you press a button for the light to turn green  after a while. Sometimes I feel like I stepped into a bizarre never-never land where everything works in perfect synchronicity and there is a system and a rule for everything.

I am studying Global Health and we have had lectures in economics, health indicators, health determinants, climate change, gender equality and every other issue that could possible influence health and health policies. I am sometimes in awe of how radically health systems differ in western countries compared to South Africa.

And then there are the questions. One thing I learned is, to get help in Sweden, all you need to do is say “I’m from South Africa” and you will get some attention.  People ask about our language, gender issues, Apartheid comes up more often than I care for and even sometimes “Why are you white if you come from Africa?”

This got me thinking about South Africa. According to an expert on global health, Hans Rossling, South Africa is a middle-income country, with one of the highest GDP’s in Africa, only beat by Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Botswana. Oh, and Seychelles and Mauritius J

But then I think back to Mpumalanga. I think of the times I ran around literally now knowing what to do with a dying patient except “visit” her every day, hold her hand, feed her and pray with her. I remember how, after a year of working in a rural area, I became almost immune to the ragged coughs and wheezing as I entered the wards to give therapy to those who I could make a difference to. I remember Thandeka, who had to live her first 2-3 years (I could never figure out her real age) in a hospital with chronically sick children, even though she was healthy, because no one wanted her and no one cared. I remember crying to the physio to please see certain patients for whom I did not have the skills to treat. I remember their eyes, their breaths, the smell in the hallways, and the feelings of hopelessness which four years in university could never prepare you for.

Then I remember Cape Town. I think of my life there. How I could eat out almost three times a week, how if I needed something I could easily walk down the street or drive to one of the many malls in my area. I remember my standard of living, compared to the cape flats. I remember the frustrations of driver’s license applications and the endless calls to home affairs to get a passport on time. I remember the ease with which I could visit friends, cook meals, book tickets, draw money…

Being in Sweden, where everything is efficient and effective I realise even more what a contrasting country we live in. With eleven languages and many different races and cultures, I feel really proud of what we are and where we come from. I feel lucky to experience a part of Africa, to have friends who live in severe poverty and get the chance to connect with patients whose lives are a worlds of difference from mine. But I also feel lucky on knowing how to use a computer, how to type fast, how the internet works, how to drive and how to order from a restaurant menu without feeling self-conscious.

South Africa cannot be explained in words. How the past and the current political climate affects us cannot be conveyed by any means but to live there. The way we all need to fight for our country, whether it is in the time we give, the way we treat people around us, whether we help our domestic worker’s child through school or to chat to the car guard on your way home, is something inherent in all of us. Being here, I feel proud again to know this. To grow up with one foot in the “Developed” and one foot in “Developing”. Being South African affects every person who has lived their lives there. Who grew up there. Who reads the paper there. Who has to pay tax there. Who has to vote there. Who has to find a job there. Who has to survive there. Every day. In a way we cannot even explain, but we can only, inherently know.