National Geographic News
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Jason Carter spoke with National Geographic News about his experiences in rural South Africa on a Peace Corps project to reform the educational system in predominantly black areas. His two years in the Peace Corps are the subject of his new book, Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa's Borders.
NG: Did being an American give you any additional perspective, or any additional difficulties, in understanding the situation in South Africa?
JC: The perspective that I had on South Africa as an outsider was unique. We went in there and were put in black South Africa first. Most foreigners who go live in Johannesburg or Pretoria or some of those other parts of South Africathe developed parts. And even if they're journalists, they go to what we call "black South Africa" to do stories, but they come home and live in the first-world parts of South Africa.
What we did, as outsiders, was come into the third-world parts of South Africa, and live there first, and sort of made forays into white South Africa. I think that perspective definitely colors the book, and it's one of the first times that foreigners have really done that.
What it allowed me to do, because I spoke the language and immersed myself in the culture of the black community, and I wasn't a part of the white community, it allowed me to see both of those communities as an outsider, and hopefully with a unique perspective on it.
Has your experience in Africa helped you gain a new perspective on America?
The reason that I wrote Power Lines, and the reason that I called the book "Power Lines," is that there are these power lines that run through the town where I lived, and there's no electricity, because the power lines are in first-world South Africa, and the town is not. The only connection is this pole. So in that regard, the physical parts are reminiscent of the United States, and the segregation times we had here.
The other thing that really opened doors in my mind was the psychological residue of apartheid, that is really similar, I think, to what we're still dealing with in the United States. There are self-confidence issues in the black community, and powerlessness and fear in the white community. And they don't know how to reach out to the black communitythe whites don'tand the black community is still developing enough self-confidence to take on, and to participate in, discussions with the white community in the way that they will someday.
That's so much, that's almost exactly, like what we're doing in the United States, still. In Georgia we've been done with segregation officially for 35 years, and we're still dealing with it. South Africa is just starting on that process.