Where Dreams Are Swept Up with the Dust

Sweeping up dust from the dirt floor home. Photography: Pam Harrell
















I don’t understand some of the sights I saw in South Africa, but I admire the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the natives.

For example, several times I saw women sweeping the dirt in their front yards.  Did they admire the patterns the broom made as they swept?  I don’t get it but it is a common practice as most yards are devoid of grass.  Lush green lawns might grow in limited areas within an upscale resort, but otherwise grass is not common.  Perhaps sweeping dirt gives some sense of order and care.

Most natives need wood for cooking and heating their homes.  But the only abundance of wood is cultivated for the lumber mills.  While hundreds of thousands of acres are lined in neat rows of trees that grow over rolling mountains, scarcely a glimpse of a tree limb is visible in villages.  Occasionally up in the hills we passed a car with the trunk lid up while the driver and a mate pitched as much wood as they could gather into the trunk.  Small bundles of wood are available for purchase but it is expensive.

When we visited this area of South Africa less than two years ago, we were impressed with the number of talented wood carvers whose studios were nothing more than four poles holding up a ragged piece of cloth to shield against the heat of the sun.  Quite common were life sized carvings of giraffes, leopards, lions, and zebras.  I wanted one of everything.  This past summer we saw one wood carver and his creations along the same road where we had seen at least a dozen less than a couple of years ago.  We wondered had the shortage of wood driven the carvers out of business.

Unemployment is high.  We think it’s high in the U.S. but thousands of young men walk the highways and linger in busy areas of towns.  Talk is that whites are robbed and killed at alarming rates in South Africa.  Life means nothing.  Whites live in walled compounds topped with electrified wire.  While Americans appear foolish and gullible in the eyes of white South Africans, we quickly learned to tip parking lot guards to watch our car while we shopped.  This is a job not taken lightly as most of the guards carry guns.  Arnold, a parking lot attendent we tried to find whenever we shopped, told us that he had finished high school and had received his diploma, but the only job he could find was guarding a parking lot.  Unemployment rates give credence to robbery statistics.

Natives use every scrap of anything in their daily lives.  It’s quite common to see a tin roof held down with an old tire, pieces of concrete blocks, and heavy rocks.  The sides of a hut can be made of a few planks and a car fender.  Absolutely nothing goes to waste.  A road side stand is often held together with the barest of staves on which bags of oranges, tomatoes, cabbage, or avocados hang.  But we were happy to see some new home construction in some of the villages.

To earn a driving license is a coveted education.  But driving classes are not offered in school so to pay for this education is another expensive struggle.  Of course, truck driving jobs are not a possibility unless one has a license.  The irony of a driving school and a funeral home in the same building was not lost on us.

No prams, strollers, or expensive mommy packs for carrying children appear along the roadways.  Mamas tie their children to their backs with towels or blankets.  We didn’t see one child squirming or whining to be let down rather they seemed completely secure bundled in a tied-on carrier.

Another common sight is to see women carrying all kinds of bundles, loaded baskets, and boxes on their heads.  Rarely do they hold these loads with their hands.  They walked along the side of the road over rocky terrain with the balance of a debutante.

Native South Africans love color; only uniforms are drab.  Shirts, skirts, pants are often red, orange, or purple.  Azaleas, birds of paradise, and blooming cacti bring life and beauty to areas that otherwise would be blindingly depressive.

Years of tyranny and oppression have resulted in poverty and crime that will take several generations to overcome.  Apartheid may be a thing of the past, but the time it will take to educate, to learn to govern, and to create better standards of living are all movements I hope to witness in the years I intend to return to South Africa.

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