Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Real World

For the past 24 hours I have been thinking about two things. First, the Mad Men series finale which Mr. Deep and I finally watched last night. Second, a township called Diepsloot which I had the opportunity to visit yesterday.

I'm not going to say much about the Mad Men finale other than we both really, really liked the way it ended and that I am going to miss that show. I have loved every episode. The clothes, the smoking, the drinking, the characters, the whole thing was fabulous. 

Instead, I'll share about Diepsloot which is not nearly as whimsical of a topic. So if you are in a bad mood or feeling down, you might want to skip this one.

Diepsloot is not a cute town with a clock shop like Dullstroom. It is a township located about 20 minutes from where I live. It is a slum that looks like a refugee camp that you would see on the news. It's not a refugee camp though, it's people's permanent home. 

First, I need to confess something that I haven't written about before that relates to my visit to Diepsloot. I have a maid that comes and cleans our house twice a week. I know that is completely and perfectly ridiculous. I don't have a job and I am able bodied. I should be able to clean my own house. I could tell you that having help at home is very common here, I could tell you that we were told when we moved here we would be helping a poor person by giving her a job as a maid. I could tell you that I really, really like my home as clean and organized as possible. All are true but you might still think it's total BS and I wouldn't blame you. 

The "domestic worker" as it is called here, I'll call her Mary, has been cleaning the house that we live in for years. The person who rented this house before we did emailed Mr. Deep to recommend Mary and ask if we would hire her. He said she was kind, trustworthy and did a great job in the years that she worked for him. The former tenant had her coming in three days a week. I reached out to Mary and told her that while I really couldn't have her come three days a week, I wanted to hire her to come in twice a week. I increased her salary a bit to try to offset the reduction in working days. 

The first day Mary came to our home she told me that she has four children and some grandchildren. I don't think she is any older than I am but it is hard to tell her exact age. She said she was the breadwinner for her family and that she had no other job other than working for us.  As I've mentioned before unemployment is very high here so while I know she would like to find work for the other days when she is not here, it is likely not possible. She shared that she was building a house in Limpopo, another province about four hours away from here. Limpopo is where she comes from but now she lives in Diepsloot with her kids and the rest of her family. She showed me some pictures of her under construction house in Limpopo and pictures of her kids. I guess I figured that if she was building a house that somehow she must be doing o.k. financially.

Fast forward to Tuesday morning, Mary told me there was a taxi strike (remember the mini bus taxis I wrote about) but that she was going to walk to work. I told her not to walk, that it was way too far (not knowing exactly where Diepsloot was but knowing it was definitely not walking distance) and that if the taxis were still on strike the next day (yesterday) that I would come and get her. Wednesday morning she was able to get a taxi, but there were fewer available than normal so yesterday afternoon I offered to drive her home so she wouldn't be stranded trying to get a ride.

The first thing I noticed about Diepsloot is that it is packed with people. You know how you read about New York City back in the day when it was overflowing with immigrants living in tenements? Well that's what this is like - people everywhere. There are several small stores, and a car wash which is a guy with a handwritten car wash sign and a bucket, and people selling fruit and vegetables from little stands. There is a primary school on the edge of the town and all over the place there are little kids running around. Some roads are paved and some are dirt. All of the houses are shacks. I am not just calling them shacks, Mary told me "this is my shack." She told me that four people live in her shack. It is probably about the size of my garage. I couldn't tell if there was plumbing, electricity or running water. I have read that the townships do have these things but I am not sure in this case. I should have asked her but I didn't because I was practically speechless.  She wanted me to meet her little granddaughter and while there, I also met her sister in law and one of her sons.  I didn't take any pictures because I didn't think of it until I was driving away.

It's not like I haven't noticed massive economic inequality in the time that I've been living in South Africa. I've driven by townships before, I see people begging in the street. But when I drive into a township and see the shack that someone I know lives in, that is a whole different ball game.

Of course I know there is financial disparity in the U.S. also, but I'll save that comparison for another time.

If you are wondering, I didn't feel scared when I was driving through Diepsloot even though I am sure the people from our relocation company, who helped us with our move and our acclimation would completely F-ing flip if they knew about it. At one point when Mary was directing me to drive through these twisty, narrow little dirt lanes I did wonder for a minute if it was a set up and if she was going to have a bunch of guys show up and rob me or kidnap me and hold me for ransom. I did wonder how much I am worth and if Mr. Deep would mind paying to get me back. I also wondered if maybe she wanted me to see the horrible conditions so I would pay her more, or bump her up to working three days a week. That may have been her goal but a shack is a shack so it really doesn't matter what her motivation was. And the truth is I offered to drive her and she took me up on my offer. 

So now that I have been to Diepsloot the question is what next? How do I reconcile this situation? Do I just tell myself the world is an imperfect place? That South Africa and Mary had problems long before I got here? Do I give her some cash on the side? Do I have her come three days a week and clean a house that is already clean so that I can pay her more? Do I give her a raise, or buy groceries every week for her and her family? No matter what I do she'll still have to live in Diepsloot, at least until she can afford to finish her house in Limpopo and move there.

Here's a photo of Diepsloot I found online. 


  1. What a tough situation but so enlightening. The best thing that's could happen to Mary is that she works for you. I have no doubt in the next few years that you are there things will improve. Maybe you can do a light the night type walk. 😉 either way Mary is lucky

  2. Wow, this is very powerful. Great questions. Maybe over time some answers will come. (We just saw the final episode too -- terrific!)

  3. Just came across this via your link from your latest post. This so reminded me of our situation and our domestic worker(s). Both lived in Cosmo City, not so different but more developed than Diepsloot. I do remember having those exact sentiments driving there the first time with her and her proudly showing me her house. And her "rooms" which turns out was an addition she was building which needed to be separate and not attached because some government regulation didn't allow attachments but didn't have a provision for separate "rooms." Eye opening. I've also been to Diepsloot several times ferrying random women I picked up along the road carrying firewood on their heads. Funny, my first thought the first time was also the relocation company and how they'd told us to "never set foot in a township."

    1. Yes, I loved your post about lending your domestic worker the money to finish her addition. I have been to Cosmo City so I know exactly what you are talking about. :)


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Hello and thank you for taking an interest in my blog. This blog tells the story of some big life changes. First, my husband and I have just moved to Geneva, Switzerland for a few months following a few years of living in Johannesburg, South Africa. The two places could not be more different. I'm excited to share our adventures, challenges and insights with you! My thoughts and opinions are my own.