Wednesday, July 9, 2008

On This Day Last Year...

After quiet, beautiful Malawi where I slept in towns with no electricity and swam in one of the cleanest lakes in the world, I dropped into Johannesburg to see Matthias where he was speaking at a conference. I was again put through the culture shock of adjusting to hot running water, strip malls, and new cars on the streets. I had been told while traveling that Johannesburg was like Europe but I found it to be much more like America - Dallas, TX specifically. Vast dry spaces cut through by four lane roadways and McDonald's restaurants. I felt as though I had left Africa, or at least that this was unlike the Africa I had spent the past eight months traveling through.

At the airport, I found a taxi driver to take me to a hotel. Each hotel name I gave him he refused to take me to. "Not safe," he would say each time. I ended up at a swanky hotel with only white guests, spending far too much money. He too charged me far too much money for the trip.
The conference, Global Studio, was a gathering of architecture students from around the world, set to the challenge of applying their design skills to problems on the ground in Johannesburg. Many of the students had never been out of the westernized world and for the first time faced communities without running water, living without jobs, with a brutal and oppressed history.
Throughout my travels I had had the opportunity to see loads of aid money squandered on unnecessary but well-meant projects. South Africa had its share of good ideas gone unused. Like Rwanda, big international news means an influx of big international money, most often greatly welcomed but uncoordinated by the local government. This kind of attention can lead to some great waste and inefficiencies, most obvious in places where want is so great.
Grand scale redevelopments of market places, for instance, were never accepted by locals and sat empty. Flush toilets were installed throughout townships (the segregated slums that millions of black South Africans still live in) but remained locked or unusable because of neglect and poor drainage.
One of the promises of the new black government in South Africa at the end of Apartheid was that each family would receive a house of their own and yet, the slums house millions of people still waiting for their promise to be fulfilled. The government is building houses as fast as they can but using a model of urban sprawl that is impractical and ecologically unsound.
I had come to think that all foreign aid should just get out of Africa. With the exception of crisis prevention and medical efforts (trying to stop the system of rape in the Congo for instance) I couldn't see many benefits on the ground. In Rwanda, aid money went to those locals who worked for the aid groups and only exacerbated the tribal divide (some say so much that the influx of aid in Rwanda was the prime cause of the genocide). In Kenya, agricultural practices were introduced by aid organizations and never adopted. Eighty percent of any aid effort goes to administration and there is seldom an organizing body in any country that works to eliminate inefficient expenditures or coordinate efforts. Its really a free for all.
An aside: I don't think that the tribal violence recently experienced in Kenya was due to tribal hatred but to economic strains that were acted out along tribal lines. There was little disunity among the three tribes in Rwanda until an influx of foreign money, education and power elevated one above the other. The Belgians and other outsiders made more of the differences between the tribes than Rwandans did initially. In Kenya, the fighting was over power and wealth. No African government gets into power with equality for the people in mind and if they do, they quickly realize that, as the major employer in most countries, they're sitting on a shit load of loot. A government job is the only way to move up in Africa. Or employment with an aid organization. Or having family members living over seas who will send you money.
Apartheid ended because of violence. While Nelson Mandela spent his early years of imprisonment with Ghandi and his later writing about passive resistance, his wife was out raising hell. Only when the white government was unable to rule the black population with their armored vehicles, rampant arrests, and roving spotlight searches, did they crumble. Yet the real violence didn't begin until after the fall of the white government. Mass robbery and killings swept the country. So many years of oppression had bred a lasting anger. Even today, whites and upper class blacks live in gated homes with electric fences and attack dogs. Matthias and I stayed in Pretoria with friends and I was humbled and shaken by the amount of security on their house. (Fearing for your life is humbling. Being ignorant of how to stay safe will shake you.) Two gates, opening in sequence, protected their drive. Car jackings in driveways are common. Our friends didn't know their white neighbors. Yet a few miles away, black children played and laughed on dirt streets while their mother's dumped chamberpots into the gutters.
The contrast in wealth was staggering, not unlike what I experienced in Rwanda, with the aid workers from Australia or America or Europe driving around in new white four wheel drives, spending their evenings at parties and sleeping in vast houses with 24 hour guards. Only in South Africa, the wealth line is still along the racial line, local whites and local blacks.
And yet, I watched the Global Studio students learn and grow in their few short weeks in Johannesburg. If even a small objective of the aid structure is to expose westerners to the ways in which a majority of the world's population lives, to remove us from our unknown and unacknowledged sense of entitlement, to send us back to our wealthy home countries with a greater sense of the human condition and spirit, Global Studio's process was working. The students who did complete plans for solutions to housing and design problems in Johannesburg were able to approach the local government with their suggestions.
This month, many of the original students returned to Johannesburg to continue their work. I can't imagine more practical training for young architects.



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