Josh Keyser, GESI 2011 South Africa student, reflects on his first few weeks in the rural village of Clare, South Africa, which is GESI’s newest site managed in-country by ThinkImpact. ThinkImpact is a global social enterprise that trains the next generation of social entrepreneurs and provides opportunities for students interested in social enterprise development. Click here to view his post directly on ThinkImpact’s blog, Big Think.
July 20, 2011
Over the last week, our group took a step back from the details of our project and community engagement and took a closer look at ourselves, which led me into reflecting on my initial motivation for coming to South Africa. The prospect of a more challenging study abroad is what drew me to ThinkImpact’s program, and I have indeed found myself confronted by unexpected challenges. The principle of “shared austerity” means that we must deal with a taste of adversity: the absence of running water, limited food variety, waking to roosters calling at dawn. It was jarring to find how many basic comforts Americans take for granted, but it has also been rewarding. I’ve developed a strong respect for people who live in this community, particularly due to their overwhelming positivity about their community. People of Clare simply don’t complain.
Seeing images of Sub-Saharan poverty in American media prepared me for a very different experience. Sub-Saharan Africa appears on American TV with images of fly-covered, stick-thin children. I found that I associated misery with poverty, but the face of poverty is drastically different. The people are warm, welcoming, and inviting, and no one can live their lives in abject misery. Indeed, their ingenuity in dealing with the challenges of life in rural Mpumalanga is exactly what we are here to build upon.
In the last two weeks, I’ve found myself excited by the opportunities for development in Clare, rather than depressed by its deficiencies. The level of existent development is surprising: between the positive outlook of the people and the level of access to electricity, water, and television, it’s tempting to forget how poor most of the village is. Poverty is most painfully manifested in the opportunities that people cannot pursue. They see a better life on TV and have many of the same dreams we do, and it’s heartbreaking how far a college education or a paying job can be from hardworking, talented individuals.
It’s striking, however, how quickly we’ve connected with people who live ten thousand miles away, in drastically different circumstances. I’ve been told that people will be what you expect them to be, no matter where you are, but I couldn’t have expected such warmth. The family from my home stay quickly welcomed my roommates and I as if we were family in truth, and they have gone to great lengths to make us feel at home. Our community partners have been very enthusiastic, and have been willing to answer all of our questions, even after two weeks.
The most striking difference one notices here is the sheer number of stars. “Tinyaleti” is the Xitsonga word for a multitude of stars, and it applies: they do blanket the sky here. Even the moon waxing the Milky Way cuts a faint line along the south, while the Southern Cross and the Centaur glow brightly. It’s comforting to think that under these unfamiliar stars, so many miles from my home, the people who live beneath them have such familiar hopes.