by Gqibelo Dandala, Executive Director, One to One Africa
There exist many versions of idioms and sayings about walking in someone else’s shoes. But none hit home recently as this “Always put yourself in the other’s shoes, if it hurts you, it probably hurts the other too.”
I myself come from rural Eastern Cape. My childhood is peppered with endless memories from annual December holiday visits. From spilling half the bucket of water carried on my head on the way back from the local river to getting in the way of my cousins while ploughing my grandparents’ fields to playing countless rounds of Crazy-8 card game huddled around a single candle.
This past December of 2021, I decided to spend almost a month in rural Eastern Cape, unlike the usual 7-day visits. I knew what I was getting myself into, I knew the place and its challenges, I knew the people and how things were. Or so I thought. Visiting for a very limited period tends to somewhat cloud the true reality of the place, adding an almost quaint halo to the experience. To truly know and understand another’s shoes, one must not only walk in someone else’s shoes, but be present, aware and awake to the journey, able to focus without hurry or distraction. That is what I did for the first time in my life, and with it, the tint of my glasses lost their hue.
During visits to the One To One Africa project site in rural areas, there are many discomforts made bearable by the short period. These discomforts became my reality during the December holiday; from pit toilets, lack of water, lack of internet connectivity, very limited electricity provision to gravel roads with pot holes and queues around bank buildings to access ATMs. Oh reader, please indulge my musings for a second… while a single flush of the toilet uses 6 litres of water, I ‘bathed’ or more accurately cleansed myself, in 3 litres every day. I delayed my first visit to the outside pit toilet by 5 days, but was forced to succumb when it became clear I was unnecessarily risking my digestive health.
I witnessed neighbours discussing how they would improve the “road” (I secretly called it a mud trap) which ran between their houses, so that their vehicles would no longer be stuck in mud on the way to their homes. I encountered cows, sheep and horses outside my doorstep, happily grazing on the grass (hence no needs for mowers). I witnessed blistering hot summer days when staying indoors was the coolest option. I experienced wet, chilly (summer?) days where children walked peacefully in rain and mud. I saw children as young as 5 being sent to stores to buy bread and milk, and upon seeing the horror on my face, locals told me to relax because theirs was a safe community. I saw neighbours coming to ask for water when the local community taps ran dry, as they intermittently did for 24-48 hours at a time. I didn’t watch a second of television nor Netflix, Amazon or any other local or paid television subscription. Instead, I watched and heard the local people.
Thankfully I had no need to access medical facilities, but I watched those who did leave their homes at 6am to ensure that they receive medical attention at local clinics. I witnessed a woman, whose only source of income was a shop selling sweets and chips. I saw local children, borrowing and paying R3500 (£175) to transport her badly wounded son from a local hospital to a facility 100km away where he would receive better medical attention. She then had to (again, first borrow and) pay an additional R180 (£9) to return home. A single return trip R360 (£18) costs over 18% of her monthly income. Yet I also witnessed neighbours pitching in to lend her money because there are no banks, ATMs or such services within the village.
And it led me to realise that there exists a community ebb and flow that one doesn’t see and understand until one lives in that community; being present and without underlying objective to the visit. I got to realise that while many challenges exist for these communities, there also exists great joy, peace and harmony. I realised that often when one comes to such village, rural communities we are so focused on our ‘service’ or ‘mission’ that we often forget to take a moment to truly walk and experience life in their shoes, thus ensuring that the services / good we bring does indeed speak to the needs and priorities of the people we seek to serve. And this realisation made me proud, yet again, to be a member of the One to One Africa team and journey to serving last mile rural communities, because our “localisation” approach by which we recruit, upskill and train local ordinary people to staff our teams ensures that our (team) people ARE in fact the very people our work aims to serve! Join us on the journey to bringing critical primary health care and assistance to the least served rural communities in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.