Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Country Part I

About six hours outside of Johannesburg, I found myself here, where the smooth roads of the city gave way to potholes and dirt roads. For hundreds of miles, there was nothing but dry fields, hills, and the occasional settlement of mud huts. Aside from the huts, the landscape reminded me of Silicon Valley. As usual, I slept the majority of the way, while my boss drove and the NGO's economist and another intern rode along.

If you squint, you can just make out a few mud huts in the center right of the picture.
The NGO I worked for was conducting a project on the effects of coal mining in rural areas. They had done a few studies in other parts of South Africa, but never in a place so remote.

An abandoned "farm school"
We were in the county known as KwaZulu-Natal* not too far from the tiny nation of Lesotho. KZN is one of the poorer counties of South Africa, but is rich with minerals such as coal. As a result, many large (mostly foreign) coal companies have moved in to extract the coal through mining. While coal companies bring relatively high-paying jobs, roads, and schools for the mostly unskilled population, they also tend to leave behind a mess. Past trips had revealed polluted rivers and land, and a general distaste for coal mining. This trip was going to be interesting because coal companies were prospecting in the area, but had not yet started mining. We were curious to see what people's impressions of coal were.

The new school, with a water tower
When the schoolkids turn the wheel, it pumps water into the water tower. Pictured is the NGO's (former) economist.

They use controlled fires to prevent wildfires.


The farmhouse where we stayed
We were hosted by a farmer and his wife, who ran a bed and breakfast. They were of German ancestry, but their families had been in South Africa for many generations. The farmer said that five generations of his family had lived on that farm ("I'm not German," he said, "I'm South African"). There were many farmers of German and Dutch descent in the area. It was surreal to hear German and Dutch being spoken in the South African countryside.

While the vast majority of farmers were White (they didn't like being called "European"), all of their laborers were Black. An unfortunate consequence of the laws during apartheid, the greatest inequality was not in the cities, where affluence and poverty were both so abundant, but out in the country. While the White farmers paid for private schools for their children (whose principal language of instruction was German), the Black farmworkers' children, who often spoke only Zulu, walked up to 20 kilometers to their local farm schools (whose principal language of instruction was English). The language and cost barriers for Zulu children meant that segregation was inevitable. A few glimmers of hope existed: hostel schools, sort of like boarding schools, were being used as a substitute for farm schools to some success; and bicycles were given to secondary school students to give them greater mobility. 

A completely modern farmhouse. Pictured are our farmer host and my boss.
We aimed to fill out thirty-two surveys, with equal representation from White and Black participants. Our host drove us from farmhouse to farmhouse where we spoke first with the farmer and his family, and then with his farmworkers. (Our host was fluent in four languages: German, Afrikaans, English, and Zulu, and often acted as a translator for us.) I was shocked at the modernity of the farmhouses. Hundreds of kilometers from the nearest towns, they nonetheless had all the features of modern living: satellite dishes, internet, and central heating (which most people in Johannesburg didn't even have).

The farmhouse's front yard.

One of the most interesting things about rural South Africa was the widespread use of renewable resources. I suppose when your livelihood depends on the land, you have a huge incentive to take care of it. It was no surprise that solar panels were very popular, but we also saw vermiculture and sustainable forestry.
Vermiculture, mounds of composting worms, in the foreground, and sustainable forests in the background

Sustainable forests are used to make paper and charcoal.

Because the farmworkers were busy working during the day and because the sun set so early during those mid-Winter days, we often had to interview people at night by the light of our cell phones.**

We met a lot of fascinating individuals. Everywhere we went, we met young people who could speak multiple languages fluently who translated for us. The woman in the striped sweater was our translator for these two older women. These grandmothers were funny, and were the only ones to give us sass over our (poorly worded) survey questions. In response to my question "How old are you?" one replied that she'd never learned how to count so she couldn't tell me.

I also met a fascinating woman who talked to me at length about the value of education. She worked in vermiculture, but also had a side business of collecting garbage from the side of the street and making it into handicrafts. She stressed to me the important of keeping the environment clean. Her handicrafts were awesome and the most inspiring thing I saw in South Africa:

Using the money from her job and business, she was able to put her daughter through college.

The trip to rural South Africa was fascinating and beautiful. Our hosts were warm and welcoming, and we met a range of interesting people. For more about my trip to KZN, click here.

The farmhouse in the morning

* "KwaZulu" means "place of the Zulu" and was the name given by the ethnic Zulus for the area. "Natal" means "Christmas", which was the name the Portuguese gave to the area when they discovered it on Christmas. During apartheid, the area was called Natal, but in 1994 it was renamed KwaZulu-Natal, or KZN (pronounced "kay zed en" because of the British English influence).

** Cell phones frequently come with built-in flashlights in South Africa.

1 comment:

  1. I really liked this post. Also the pictures are preeeetty.