Friday, January 28, 2011


Two of the biggest issues that face rural South Africa (and one of them South Africa in general) are strikingly similar to those facing rural America.

The first is the brain drain. Because of the lack of jobs in rural villages, people leave all the time to go to cities and towns. In the weeks leading up to our last camp, we lost one of the organizers to a job at a nearby casino. We haven’t seen her since but don’t blame her for taking the job. Why would you stay and volunteer your time to help at a camp when you don’t have any money to feed yourself and your child? But the problem is bigger than just jobs, and it starts much earlier.

The way that schools are funded in South Africa is very different from that of America. They are divided into quintiles based on the income of the families attending the school. Schools in quintiles one, two, and three can be classified as no-fee schools. These schools get more money from the government per student because the students are not paying school fees. In our community, the schools (which are in quintile three, the least poor of the no-fee schools) actually do charge school fees. These are very low – between R50 ($7) and R100 ($14) a year – and learners can be made exempt. But once you get into schools with school fees, every school is like a private school even though they may be receiving some money from the government. School fees can be very high at these schools, and they decide their own school fees. In some ways, it mirrors the way that communities in America who higher valued property have a higher tax base in turn providing more money to the schools. Here, though it’s just charged directly to the parents in the form of school fees.

So the school a child attends depends on how much the family can pay and instead of working to improve schools in the communities, the usual plan of attack is to take the child to the best school they can afford especially if they see the child having some academic potential. Even in our village and the neighboring village, there is a hierarchy of schools. One primary school is considered better than the rest (and has a higher fee). The middle school in the next village is considered better than ours. Children from the best primary school in our village either go to the middle school in the next village or to Brits, Jo’burg, or Pretoria. Those few of them who stay here are the ones who could just afford the best primary school, but can’t afford the better middle school.

This means that by the time they reach high school, those kids who were considered to have the most potential or at least who have parents with more money are no longer attending school in our village. This is facilitated by the fact that often their parents don’t live in our village either. In primary school, they stayed with their grandparents and now they are staying with their parents or aunts and uncles closer to Pretoria or Jo’burg. Why would they come back to a place that really isn’t their home anyway where there are no jobs?

The brain drain makes sense. You need to go where the jobs and money are to survive, but the question remains – what will become of rural South Africa? You cannot expect villages to develop when most young people are leaving them. And as I explained with the example of our friend, it’s not something that happens all at once. People are always trying to get out. I can think of very few people I know here who did not apply for at least one job within the last year. In many places, rural villages are already only home to the elderly and children. Our village still has some young people mostly because they were not well educated and do not have the skills they need to get a job. Should we work to develop villages in South Africa at all? Or are they a thing of the past?

The second issue is that of nutrition. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are wrecking havoc among rural (and other, but I don’t think to the same extent) South Africans. I recently read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and though most of his arguments were not new to me, it really drove home the similarities in destructive eating habits between South Africans and Americans. Like Americans, South Africans eat a large amount of refined carbohydrates. Here it is mostly in the form of fortified corn meal, rice, and sugar. Sorghum, the traditional staple grain, is considered poor people’s food, and so it is much less frequently consumed. I have not seen anyone grinding their own corn meal even though most people grow some corn in their yards (they eat it corn on the cob style and never seem to eat it all).

Soda is very popular, and the sugar industry is very powerful here. Though soda tends to be a bit more expensive than in America (because sugar is more expensive than high fructose corn syrup which has only made it’s way into a few products), people still might drink a liter or so a day. Processed foods such as juice blends that are maybe 3% juice and soup packets with who knows what inside are essential to the South African kitchen.

There have been some efforts by the South African government to promote healthy eating. Wheat bread is always cheaper than white bread, and school lunches must follow a certain menu, but in general the shift is towards eating more and more processed foods, particularly those that are high in refined carbohydrates. Diabetes is already killing lots of people, and most people I know have been told to cut down on eating something or another because of high cholesterol or high blood pressure or whatever it may be. In fact, I have been asked multiple times for vegetarian recipes because people have heard that being vegetarian is healthier.

What’s scary though is how the foods that are responsible for these problems have institutionalized themselves into the food culture. Drinking soda is an important social ritual for the teachers at school. Every afternoon, they buy a few bottles of soda to share. When people ask if I’ve had anything to drink, and I say water, they laugh because water is not a drink like soda, juice, coffee, or tea is.

Like in rural America, being fat in rural South Africa does not have the same degree of stigma that it does in the urban and suburban areas, and that goes not just for black South Africans, but for white South Africans as well. Gaining weight is a sign that you are well fed, happy, and economically secure. And sugar is addictive. Eating processed foods and foods high in refined carbohydrates is easy, and it tastes good. But in many ways this epidemic is affecting a greater number of people than HIV which is pretty scary.

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