This is Africa

And such was the mantra repeatedly to me by so many people there: when the power went in the middle of the day for hours at a time in the township I was working in my last week there, Henry (my host, the medical clinic’s only real IT staff, who was used to such things) simply said “Yes, I mean, this is Africa” when I asked if this happened regularly. And when the young Afrikaner males explained one or other of the crazier facets of South African culture (get caught drunk driving? Just bribe the cop. Are car-jackings really a big threat? Yes, Hendrik was hijacked not three weeks ago) my incredulity was always met with: “Yes, but the thing you must remember is, this is Africa”. The rigid South African driver’s license exams: “Yes well in America I’m sure it’s fine to have an easy test because everyone is well-educated, but here, this is Africa — you need to test just to make sure someone’s intelligent enough to be on the road.” And even then, when we would see some reckless driver: “Well, this is Africa”. The cheap prices of the drugs the Afrikaner males consumed in quantity: “This is Africa.” The phrase showed up everywhere, in explanations to things, as if some innate quality of the land itself had forced itself on all the continent’s inhabitents and culture. I adopted it, and began to mentally apply it to things I witnessed myself that I’d never expect to see elsewhere: The doubly-electrically-fenced villa homes of the security villages, one of which I was living in, and through whose fences I crossed every day — well, “This is Africa.” The salamander I found in the bathroom the last night I was in Pretoria: “This is Africa.” The constant threat of a smash-and-grab; the cars that narrowly avoided clipping me as I biked to work; the service culture that abundant cheap labor produces (an improbably smiling HIV-positive single mother from Zimbabwe named Marci who made my breakfast every morning — your country is ablaze and yet you smile!); the constant construction, everywhere, tearing up highways and sidewalks, leaving enormous mounds of dirt on the side of the road blocking my way and sending choking clouds of dust into the air; the general lack of sidewalks; the lack of public transportation (beyond the ubiquitous minibus); the ants that crawled across the floor of every bedroom I stayed in; the mounds of trash burning on the outskirts of Mamelodi; the flames of a “controlled” burn on the side of the highway, not a soul in sight and the outline of the blaze licking like tired wild dogs at the dried grass, lighting the night with orange and umbre and smoke: this is Africa, light seeping from where the tissue scars across its enormous beating heart.

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