Sunday, January 16, 2011

A New Normal

As I told a classroom full of 10 year old Americans the other day, Africa is a pretty dangerous place to live. For as long as there has been life on this continent it has been a brutal and violent place where survival depended on constant vigilance and even then there was never much of a guarantee that it wouldn’t all be over in the blink of an eye. It has always been that way, it’s that way now and it’s a fair bet that it’s going to be that way for the foreseeable future. The weather can be harsh, the diseases are terrible and the only thing that is more dangerous than the many carnivorous predators are the herbivores*. Then there are the bugs. Good Lord, don’t even get me started on the bugs! Not only do they kill more people than anything else, they’re annoying as hell.
Everything else however pales in comparison to the people of this land. Much like the land they can be great and breathtakingly amazing but some unfortunately mirror its brutality instead. Don’t get me wrong, in Africa you will find some of the finest people you will ever have the privilege to meet. It is a hard and dangerous place and that brings out the best in some people. Some, but unfortunately not all. Some people on this continent do things that will make you yearn for the soft, warm comfort of a SAW movie instead.
The thing is though, that if you grew up here then this becomes normal. You either accept it or you leave. For those of us who call this place home it becomes a way of life. You prepare for the worst, living with the constant reminder that you could become a victim at any time. So you turn your home into a fortress, you remain constantly vigilant because you know that those who forget where they are for even a moment tend to end up in the newspaper.
My old idea of normal: Walls, Burglar bars and pallisade fencing

Because of this, going to the US was a shock to my system. During my stay, four (unrelated) armed robberies (where no one was injured) in four weeks made headline news in Reno. Over here I doubt such a non event wouldn’t even make page 3 of the local paper. I remember walking around the neighborhood thinking to myself that I could break into any house on the street with minimal effort. It felt so surreal to live in a house with no fence, barb wire or burglar bars. Driving around without constantly being on the lookout for hijackers or walking around the inner city without a care in the world took a lot of getting used to. Being able to walk around in a mall without security guards checking and sealing your shopping bags felt almost wrong. In fact, it really did bother me. I worried that this soft and easy life in the US would make me soft, dull my edge, make me an easy target once I got back home. For instance in Reno, cars stop for you at a pedestrian crossing (that took a lot of getting used to!) – here you take your best shot, dodge traffic and gratefully thank the occasional motorist who obeys the law. Getting used to the safety of Reno would be hazardous to my health!

My new normal: A neighborhood where your house doesn't resemble a prison

I needn’t have worried though, once I got off the plane it all came back like it never left. Something was different though. The other night, as I was coming back to bed after checking out a suspicious noise outside it hit me – this is not how people are supposed to live. Back when it was the only way of living I knew it didn’t seem so bad. In fact I could even rationalize that it somehow made life more exciting, that less safe meant more adventurous. I can’t do that anymore. What I’ve come to realize is that wasn’t the American way of life that was weird, it was mine. People aren’t meant to live like this, it is the constant fear and paranoia and violence that should be foreign to me. Being safe inside your own home, being able to walk fearlessly down your own street, that is what’s supposed to be normal. Traffic signs warning you of hijacking hotspots and endless messages to be on the lookout for thieves at every ATM is not normal. We just got so used to it that we forgot just how abnormal it really is.
Now I don’t really know how to conclude this blog. I mean I made this realization but now what? This is my reality and realizing just how insane it really is, is not going to change it. I can’t leave here but for the first time in my life I actually want to.
*Hippo’s kill more people than crocodiles every year and I would keep my distance from Elephants, Rhino’s and Ostriches as well. Especially Ostriches. Damn birds freak me the hell out.


Tania said...

So sad, but unfortunately true. Every time I travel overseas I am struck by the locals' trust of people. I remember thinking (in Spain) that we could rob anyone on the bus of their bags without them even noticing... Go Africa! :-)

Plucky said...

Wow Eugene that was some good writing . . . I really enjoy your introspection . . . I am also curious as to where all this is going to lead . . .

I fell very optimistic about your future . . . So there . . .

GumbyTheCat said...

Not much to say but "great post Eugene".

It's all relative. There are plenty of neighborhoods in the US that are as bad as what you describe of your area to be. And there are undoubtedly many people in this world that would gladly trade up to live in your neighborhood.

I would love to hear the full story of your talk to the classroom of 10 year old kids. That must have been a neat experience for you.

Eugene said...

Just to be clear, I'm not trying to make the USA out to be some kind of crime free utopia. The difference is that over here it's not limited to certain bad neighbourhoods - whether you are living in the inner city, in a gated community or a rural farm, the odds are pretty much the same that you will end up murdered in your bed. Furthermore, it's not simply the crime, it is the excessive brutality with which it is committed that sets it apart. For example, recently robbers beat up a one year old baby to within an inch of her life (as I recall she survived but is now blind). How often does that happen in the US?

Having said that though, you are right, it certainly seems that most of Africa would gladly trade up to live in my neigbourhood though I think that says more about Africa than it does about my neighbourhood!