Book Review: Jason Carter "Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa's Borders"
In Gogo's mind, she translated the word "hope" to the zulu word themba. "Themba" means not only "hope" but also "believe." For Gogo, "hope" is not a possibility but a certainty.
Too often, perhaps, we lose hope because we fail to look for it where we least expect it - among poor black people in a South African homeland or an American inner city, or poor white farmers in clapboard shaks in south Georgia. But there it is.
Hope and believe, or "themba," that's what it is ultimately all about. Jason Carter, the son of last year's Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Jack Carter and brother of blogger Sarah Carter, comes to this conclusion at the end of his book, at the end of two years in South Africa.
Jason arrived in Lochiel, a little settlement on South Africa's border to Swaziland, on April 8, 1998 - nine years ago yesterday. Lochiel is really just that, a settlement, people were forced to move there when the South African government in the 1970s decided to establish "homelands" for South Africa's different tribes. The Swazi people in townships outside Johannesburg, Pretoria and other places were rounded up and brought to KaNgwane. However, none of the homeland gained real independence or autonomy. People had to commute outside of their homelands if they wanted to find work and survive. Each night they had to go back to their homelands to sleep without any rights, much less any comfort:
[T]he trucks dropped people off in the middle of nowhere, and the government was not going to provide much assistance. There are famous pictures of the "houses" that the government provided in the "relocation camps." They look like rows and rows of outhouses, or cube-shaped pens, with sides of corrugated iron and a dirt floor.
In Lochiel, Jason was the only white person among the 200 families living there. At first, the locals were apprehensive but soon got used to his presence. He worked in the local schools helping to implement the government's new education program.
In post-Apartheid South Africa, Jason was in a unique position. As a white American he had few difficulties blending in the industrialized, rich and white South Africa. Though, oftentimes he felt more than uncomfortable, not only because of the abundant luxury so few miles away from the poor townships and settlements like Lochiel where he spend most of his time, but also, or maybe even more so, because of the blatant racism by many.
One would think that a white American would have a tougher time in a black South African community than a black American. Surprisingly, this was not really the case. South Africa, because of Apartheid, is a very complicated country. Jason soon discovered a tool that put black South Africans more at ease with the presence of a white man - their language. He soon picked up enough quite a bit of Siswati and Zulu to easily communicate with people in Lochiel and elsewhere.
While there were many uncomfortable situations for Jason, he had less trouble than some of his fellow Peace Corps volunteers from the US. African-American men had to endure the racism and frequent bad treatment by white South Africans just like black South Africans did. African-American women had to cope with the extreme macho attidudes against women in South Africa's black society on top of that.
Yet, these few paragraphs don't begin to grasp the complexity of the situation in South Africa as Jason also discovered a willingness among both black and white South Africans to cross the racial divide, to overcome fear and prejudice. However, looking at race relations in America more than 140 years after the end of slavery and more than 40 years after the civil rights legislation one has to wonder how long it will take South Africans to overcome Apartheid.
30 years prior to Jason joining the Peace Corps in South Africa, his great-grandmother Lillian Carter, at the age of 70, went with the Peace Corps to India. Her experience there is wonderfully described by former President Jimmy Carter, Lillian's son and Jason's grandfather, in the introduction to Power Lines. However, compared to Lillian Carter's life outside of Bombay, Jason's was quite different. The so-called first and third world were just a few miles apart. The first world actually drives by Lochiel on a daily basis, as it is situated on Highway 17, connecting Johannesburg and Swaziland's capital Mbabane, where luxury hotels and casinos lure many white South Africans.
Jason Carter easily manages to capture the readers attention by not just describing his two years in South Africa, but rather by drafting a story and taking the reader along for the ride. By doing so, he takes the reader beyond the usual image of black Africa portrayed in the media - poverty, despair, war and AIDS. He takes us inside the daily lives of the family he stays with, goes along on a trip for a family wedding, treats us to scenes in the family kitchen and takes us to a funeral, and another one, and yet more funerals. For that is the reality of South Africa. The country has to battle with HIV/AIDS and in no other place does the utter despair of this situation become more visible than in the current of funerals:
Saturday, umbgcibelo, is the day of burial. Death became a part of my life to a greater extent than I had ever experienced. In my two years in Lochiel, I went to more than 30 funerals.
However, just as many as died from AIDS-related illnesses, "died from sicknesses and a lack of health care, in addition to car accidents." And all that in a country where first rate health care is available. But only for those who can afford it.
And yet, there is hope and believe - themba. In this short book review I was only able to capture a fraction of what Jason wrote in Power Lines. I'll therefore leave the closing remarks to Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his praise for the book:
In Power Lines, Jason Carter writes insightfully of strength, commitment, and idealism, his own as well as that of the many South Africans whose stories he tells.
Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa's Borders
By Jason Carter
National Geographic Society
Washington D.C., 2002
Power Lines is availabe at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and Powell's.
Jason Carter has not only written this book about his time in South Africa. He has come back from South Africa with a set of ideals, a willingness to get involved and themba. He has recently co-founded "Democrats Work" with Thomas Bates. The motto of Democrats Work is "putting our values into action." Check out their website and find out how you can put your values into action.