I just returned from a two week trip to South Africa. Glen Retief, my partner, and I took a group of Susquehanna University students on a cultural immersion tour of South Africa in Kwazulu Natal, Mpumalanga, Venda, and Gauteng provinces. We mostly did home stays in rural villages and in the township of Alexandra where we lived with families, hung out, and got to know them.
It was part of the course Travel Writing in South Africa, and was made all the richer because Glen is from South Africa and has spent a lot of time researching and writing about his experiences and South African history.
Because of the deep community ties they have from their work in South Africa, our tour organizers, Nettie and Cedric de la Harpe, helped us to get beyond simply being tourists to enter a real world of travel and immersion. The local communities received the money we would have spent at backpackers and restaurants, and the cultural exchanges seemed to flow back and forth in both directions. At many points both the South Africans and our students took out their cell phones and took selfies with each other or got up to swap dance moves.
For those two weeks we lived simply–sleeping on dung floors, taking baths in little basins, taking care of our business in a bucket or a field or a “long drop” outhouse, and living off the grid without electricity and internet for days at a time. We settled into a place of being present–sitting, talking, listening, feeling.
We talked a lot about weather. Mpumalanga Province recently experienced severe flooding like they never encountered before. Major roads were wiped out, which forced us to take a longer, pothole ridden route north through Swaziland. When we drove through Kruger Park on our way to Venda Province, we learned that thousands of trees and important scrubs along rivers had been washed away leaving a barrenness that has driven animals to other parts of the park to seek food and shelter. At the villages where we stayed, the farmers I spoke with raised concerns about how the climate is changing.
Like most places in the world, Southern Africa is expected to face more extreme weather, longer summers, along with water and food scarcity. With these changes come increased pain and suffering for the people living there. I imagine they also will continue to demonstrate ingenuity and determination in facing their challenges.
The changes are not all about the science of climate change; on the ground changes mean harder lives for subsistent farmers–often women, and for women and children who collect water. Our friends and host families will face an increase of pests and diseases, and more demand for limited resources with a growing influx of immigrants that may lead to conflict.
Throughout our trip I was continually reminded of oppression that people experience based on class often along race lines. The rich will fair better as the climate changes–both rich nations and rich individuals have more resources to adapt and protect their lifestyles. Like the many posh dwellings we passed in Pretoria and the suburbs of Johannesburg, fortified with high walls and razor wire, the rich will barricaded themselves and protect their stores as the climate and civilization changes all around them.
I wonder about the many ways my head and heart are fortified from seeing and feeling the disparity in the world, the growing risks, and my role on this changing planet. It helps to live simply for a time, to live off the grid, and sit with folks whose lives are very different from mine but who share many of the same values, hopes, fears, and desires.