The thing that always surprises me about Africa is not that people die from hunger, poverty, war, diseases, etc, but that so few die when compared to the struggle to survive. I mean really. Have you seen the hellholes in the DRC? Or in the Niger Delta area? Or Sudan?
And those are just the extremes. For many the daily life in Africa is one tough and stretched out battle. Getting the next meal. Staying warm in the shack during winter. Running out of medicine. It comes down to the basics of survival. Not everything in Africa looks like the Kenyan Serengeti. Trust me…
Still. Put a few umlungus in those same circumstances and you’ll have people dying like flies.
But even in this struggle Africans manage to create businesses by selling fruits and other goods next to the road. And they do this and continue to remain proud people. They maintain hope even in the worst of circumstances. Okay, not in places like Rwanda back then, but I mean in the “everyday” world of poverty, hunger, corruption and warlords. How come they can maintain their will to fight, stay strong and proud, live a life worth living, breathe in their ubuntu – while others in Western countries don’t?
Okay, I don’t know how this fits in here but I have this story I always tell to people looking at the charity pictures of Africa. You know, the one with the woman carrying the water bucket on her head or the poor hungry kid with tears in his eyes. Anyway, you look at those women of Africa and you feel sorry for them. Sorry for them? Pity? Puh-leeze! Think Bill Gates. You see those women of Africa selling their goods next to the road. Fruits and vegetables being standard issue. Here you have an African woman with most likely no schooling, definitely no business training, not a smell of financing in a 1,000 mile radius, and struggling to sell her goods next to the side of the road. With a hundred or more competitors each side of her. And she supports an extended family with her daily takings. And you want to feel sorry for her? You should sit down at her feet and learn from the master. Bill-Bloody-Gates I tell you. She is running a business where most of us won’t even be able to survive for a week. And she makes it each and every single day. By the skin of her teeth on most days – but she still makes it. Applaud her. Learn from her. But never feel sorry for her. She is strong. She is Mama Africa! Listen to her instead of telling her what she needs. She knows what she needs. Just be quiet and listen for a little bit. Shhh… L.i.s.t.e.n…
The point I am trying to make is that the greatness of Africa is not defined by the crap going on each day. Warlords? We’ll survive them. Hunger? We’ll share our last meal. Poverty? Of money but not the soul. Diseases? Okay, that one we can’t beat…
I don’t want to romanticize life in Africa. There are too many bad people living amongst my beautiful people. Too many people dying of war or hunger or senseless diseases. Or from a simple thing like dirty water. It is tough out there. It is tougher than you can imagine. But it doesn’t define Africa. And it doesn’t define Africans. Look past all that and you just see people. Proud people. Friendly people. Ready for a laugh. And ready to share their last bit of food with you. With a sparkle in their eyes. Proud and strong.
I am always surprised how few people in Africa look for excuses. You great them with a “howzit” or “how are you doing” and all you get is a smile and a wave of the hand to sit down and share a beer. Talk about Kaizer Chiefs or Pirates (I was a Seven Stars fan so in a bit of a limbo. Maybe Santos if pushed. Ajax on a good day.) Tell a joke or two. At my expense of course… But it’s not just in South Africa. You can go from Zambia to Mali and get the same response. “Sit down brother. Have a drink. So, what do you think of the time Senegal beat the French hey?” Never an excuse of why life isn’t as great as on the telly.
Maybe it is because we don’t define our lives by the material things we don’t have or even the hunger pains. It’s defined by… I don’t know. Something inside telling us that life is okay. As long as we have a little love in our lives and good friends to share anything with. Beer, food or even just a story. The meaning of life takes on many masks in Africa. We make life worthwhile instead of seeking reasons to give up. We just have to look around us to see a reason to moan and bitch. That part is easy. It’s easy to find a reason to curl up and die. But we don’t. We look at the little things that makes it all worthwhile. The little treasures of life – love, family, friends, beer, soccer, meat, putu, and… hum… more beer.
But back to my question: How come they can maintain their will to fight, stay strong and proud, live a life worth living and breathe in their ubuntu while others in Western countries don’t?
You know when I was shocked by poverty for the first time in my life? San Francisco. Yes. The City of Angels. I saw a homeless person in the streets. Nothing new. I’ve seen street kids all over Africa. High on glue or selling their souls on the corner. But it’s the eyes…
I’ve almost always seen hope in the eyes of my fellow Africans. Sometimes it is just a little sliver. A dying flicker of light. But it is there. You have to dig really deep sometimes. You can just make it out in the darkness surrounding it. But you can crack it open a little. Make it a bit stronger. Just by smiling or winking or making a joke or a hug or a shared moment or… the little things.
But in those eyes of the homeless guy in San Francisco? Empty. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Not a flicker of hope. It was the eyes of defeat. Of death just waiting to happen. Nothing left to live for. No reason or meaning anymore. Just dead lifeless eyes.
Why? Why do people give up? I know we have problems in this world. I know I am damn lucky. But do we have to stop trying to live when trying to survive to the next meal is tough enough?
Maybe the lesson from Africa is that things can always be worse. Can always get worse. And you can let that define you in two ways – give up and slowly die or stay strong and have the will to keep on fighting and keep on living. Just to live a life worth living for.
I don’t have a clear picture on this. I really don’t know why some people give up and some people somehow find a life amongst the dead and the buried lives and ruined land around them. But what I do know is that I have always been amazed that everywhere I have been in Africa – the slums, townships, war, poverty, dying kids etc – those things hardly ever actually defined the people I met and worked with. It was there but it wasn’t who they were. They were so much more than that in their own eyes.
They are alive in their own eyes. Even when they are dying.
And that make me live life.
From the Loose Ends files…