After spending three months in Alaska in 2006, I became aware of how emotionally taxing it is when you live in the threat of constant danger.
I lived and worked in Alaska’s Chugach State Park and before my arrival, I had asked my supervisor-to-be: “Will I see a bear?” And she replied, “Oh yes! You will have a bear encounter.”
I thought she was kidding, but I did indeed have a bear encounter. In fact, I had several bear encounters.
I was lucky enough during my time in Alaska to find myself hiking—a lot. While hiking in Alaska, you must be vigilant—always—against startling wildlife generally and bears specifically.
I made lots of noise while hiking and remained safe from bears during my time in Alaska, but I realized that it takes a huge amount of emotional energy to be on such high alert at all times. I remember thinking, on my return to the “lower 48,” that Louisville has its own version of bears: criminals walking the streets and that I was ready to return home and to deal with my more familiar version of “bear” back home.
When I mentioned to friends and family that I was invited to serve Peace Corps in South Africa, the news was, for the most part, welcome and everyone was very excited for me.
There were, however, a couple of things that gave me pause about my decision to serve in South Africa. Looking back now, and in hindsight (always 20/20), I wish I had paused a bit longer, researched more thoroughly, and thought more carefully.
As I gathered information informally, I was told that most South Africans “secure” their property and yards with some type of fencing. I remember wondering why.
I’ve since learned that fencing is indeed the standard “landscaping” in South Africa, and type of fencing seems in-line with the property owner’s income level: on the lower-income end, people with fence with razor wire; on the higher-income end, people will use electrical fencing. But all fence, regardless of income.
When we first arrived in South Africa, the group was accommodated on a college campus and I couldn’t help but notice that the campus was gated and had security guards posted around the clock for every day of the week.
On one of my strolls about campus, I came upon a vegetable garden. I was thrilled, as you can imagine, to find a vegetable garden, but I noticed right away that it was fenced, at least 15-feet high, with razor wire. I was puzzled at such a fence and wondered, “Does it take razor wire to keep the animals out?”
Since the end of Apartheid—1994—South Africans have lived in fear of violence, and with just cause. The discrepancy between the “haves” and “have nots” is huge. We see the well-to-do people in the villages living right next door to a tin shack housing orphans. We see this over and over again.
And the mentality of the criminals has been explained to me in these terms: People from poverty see the “haves” as those who can “lose, but simply get more.” So the crime rate: theft, robbery, breaking/entering, etc. is astronomical.
I hadn’t realized how severe the problem was for South Africans until I read a piece on William Kentridge in the January 18, 2010 edition of the New Yorker. In it, Kentridge speaks to how South Africans have felt living in post-apartheid South Africa:
“In many parts of the country, it hasn’t changed at all. Children in poor rural schools still get a miserable education. It’s also true that the main beneficiaries since the ending of apartheid are white South Africans. No one’s lost their beautiful house. There’s lots of violence around, but you had that before—now you have more of it. That’s the price of extreme inequality. . . In South Africa, there is never an assumption that a calm and gentle death is one’s birthright. September 11th in America had an interesting effect here. It helped lots of us understand that living in a dangerous, unstable world was not only a South African phenomenon, and that made people here less anxious to leave.” (Profiles: Lines of Resistance: William Kentridges Rough Magic 59).
As Peace Corps volunteers, we’re warned to be careful in travel, especially when traveling to our nearest shopping towns. In the taxi ranks, it is often very clear that I’m the only American in a huge crowd.
Just as I was on the alert when hiking in bear country of Alaska, I’m on just as heightened alert when negotiating my way around my shopping town. All of the adrenaline is very taxing on me and I’m exhausted by the time I return home.
There is a good-natured type of banter I encounter when boarding a taxi for my return to my village. It involves the “money collector” bantering with me in Setswana with the whole purpose of whether or not I can pass the “language test” or not. If I’m calm, reserved, and not alarmed, I can hold my own and my Setswana seems to satisfy (and often even please) the money collector and the whole “audience” of everyone on the taxi.
If I’ve been negotiating my way through the taxi rank and feel threatened, my system is flooded with adrenaline and I can’t think straight and can’t seem to locate the Setswana-speaking area in my brain. On these occasions, of course I fail my test and performance altogether.
And it’s on these occasions that I think about that missed chance to “pause” and returning to my own “bears” at home.
image of the bear: www.virtualindian.org/xmas04/durablereliable.html