Margo Fermiano-Garcia:: South Africa
Here I am, sitting in my queen size bed, completely distracted by the breathtaking view of Cape Town’s renowned Table Mountain that sits right outside of my apartment window, with a bowl of chocolate ice cream on my lap. I have been in Cape Town, South Africa for almost one month and I still constantly have to remind myself that I am in Africa, not Florida.
Most days I wake up at 7:45, connect to my fairly reliable wireless internet—to quickly assure my parents that I’m alive— take a warm shower in my private bathroom, eat a bowl of rice crisbees, lather on sunscreen and head down to the lobby where a taxi is promptly waiting for me (and the three other interns I work with who also live in the Perspectives building complex) at 9:15. Within 15 minutes I arrive at PlaNet Finance, where only two of the eight full-time employees are African. I then proceed to work on the development and implementation of an awesome microfranchising project, directly from my computer in a Western oriented office, with other western-foreign people.
The people at PlaNet Finance are great, the organization is very effective and they have lots of consulting expertise, as properly accredited. But, as a technical advisory organization for micro finance institutions (MFIs) the organization is quite removed from the ground, leaving me to feel completely disconnected to the people I am actually working for. This combined with the fact that I room with two Americans (who I love) and live in an area inhabited with wealthy white people, has failed to provide me true access and exposure to the real reasons why I am here.
To some extent, prior to my arrival, I knew that Cape Town was a very sophisticated city, with lots of tourism (especially during the summer- Seattle’s winter). Judging from what I heard, the photographs I saw and books I read, I gathered that it was a relatively wealthy city with a very European vibe. Of course, due to the nature of IDIP, I was also aware that within parts of Cape Town, and immediately outside of the city (peri-urban townships), desperate intervention is needed to alleviate massive amounts of poverty.
But no amount of research on South Africa could have prepared me for experiencing the vestiges of apartheid that still shape society, and the frustration that accompanies it.
It has been so heartbreaking to see the repelling standards of living, income disparity and the cultural differences that co-exist yet have no interaction. In this respect, South Africa is nothing like I have ever experienced before, despite the fact that my comfortable life style here closely mirrors the one I live at home.
From what I’ve observed, Cape Town and the neighboring Cape Flats (home to numerous Townships) most clearly exemplify the wide spread gab between rich and poor, although it is also visible directly within the city-center. I have such a hard time understanding how the elite crowd goes about their day driving their BMWs, wearing fancy designer clothes, drop their children off preparatory schools and return home to Hampton’s style houses, yet are completely aware of what lies just 20 miles down the road.
At first I was frustrated and confused, but now I don’t know what to think. I want to believe that these people do have some compassion and decency in their hearts, but the more time I spend here the more I lose hope, as new expensive bars and shops seem to open everyday and nothing changes in the Townships.
Just the other day I was sitting on the beach, trying to absorb the surreal aesthetic beauty of the mountains reflecting in the Atlantic Ocean—but I could not bring myself to appreciate it. I was so distraught over why I, and everyone else on the beach (white, middle-class South Africans) have the privilege to sit on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches yet thousands of people living just twenty minutes from the coast have never even seen the ocean.
Unlike my previous travels abroad, Cape Town does not make it easy to experience the amazing authentic, rich, beautiful culture that I know is here and I’m sure not living with a host family only makes it harder. There are just so many ways to distract oneself (as I’m sure the wealthy do) with materials possessions and recreational activities, and being part of that has given me a better insight on why development work here seems to have little progress.
If it hadn’t taken me three days to travel here, and I wasn’t part of IDIP, I could be easily convinced that I hopped on the wrong plane and landed in Miami. However, that is not the case and I know I owe it to myself to refrain from simply submitting to such mindset.
As I sit here, once again in my bed, I am still completely
shocked at the mere idea of the fact that I am in Africa. This is Africa. I
have been in Africa for three months.
Not only am I still having a hard time accepting the fact that I have spent nearly twelve weeks
in a developing country, but I also remain in utter shock over the stark
contrasts that are so deeply embedded throughout the South Africa, as noted in
my first reflection.
Although many of the social components I immediately
observed have not changed, since my last reflection, my scope of work has
shifted as I have begun working part-time for an environmental NGO, Abalimi
Bezekhaya (http://www.abalimi.org.za/). Alablimi, or ‘planters’ in the local
Xhosa language, seeks to alleviate poverty through urban, organic, agriculture.
It has been a much better fit for me (and the nature of IDIP) as it operates
directly in the townships, employees and integrates local Xhosa people, and has
a much larger concentration on the environment than my previous work with
PlaNet Finance (PF). Though, I have continued to commit two days a week with PF
working solely on the development side (researching potential funders and
partners, and drafting proposals) of the EE&RE project.
Since 1982, Abalimi has been the leading agency responsible
for launching a micro-farming movement among the poor in Cape Town,
specifically the socio-economically neglected townships of Khayelitsha,
Phillipi and Nyanga. Today, Abalimi works with 60 community gardens, and
countless home-gardens, to support sustainable gardening, providing healthy
food and jobs to members within poverty-stricken areas. Additionally, through
practicing and promoting safe, organic gardening, Abalimi is helping to
preserve some of the most threatened floral species within the neighboring
unique Cape Floral Kingdom, a World Heritage Biome.
When I first arrived at Abalimi a long-term volunteer, with
a focus on monitoring and evaluation, was in the process of collecting data to
assess the sustainability of the community gardens. For the first two weeks I
was able to assist her with her research, providing me with a valuable insight
to her work, Abalimi’s work, and the life of the many gardeners.
Though while she went on leave for holiday, I began working
with a sister project of Abalimi, Harvest of Hope (HOH). HOH is a social and
environmental business that provides access to markets to those who
traditionally have little or no access to formal economies, serving as a tool
to stimulating economic growth for the many farmers Abalmi works with.
HOH works much like the many Direct Trade coffee projects
that have sprouted throughout Seattle in the past decade, though instead of
coffee beans the commodity is fresh, organic, locally produced vegetables. HOH
sells and distributes boxes of the surplus produce throughout the suburbs of
Cape Town, enabling poor urban micro-farmers in townships to receive a secure
and fair income, for their top quality products. Abalimi has credited their Harvest of Hope
program to be one of the first successful job creation schemes for urban, micro
farmers among the poor in the history of South Africa.
With my new part-time internship with Abalimi and Harvest of
Hope I have been exposed to even more of the reality that too many Capetonian
choose to ignore; a reality that not only inhabits the 25 million South
Africans living below the poverty line (CIA World Factbook), but one that also
emulates an abyss between two different worlds.
This reality of inequality and inhumanity among citizens of
the same country has made me further question the role of an outsider engaging
in development work, as well as the true purpose of development work. If
reconciliation among community members does not take place, even if poverty is
alleviated, the larger goal of egalitarianism will never be met. Until there is
a foundation of trust between South Africa’s whites and blacks, can an outside
international organization like PlaNet Finance, truly make a contribution to
the eradication of their poverty?