Jason Carter Discusses South Africa

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They've got a sense of purpose there. I got to meet with [former South African president Nelson] Mandela one day, and I also spent months in these villages with people, and the sense of purpose, the fact that they've devoted their entire culture over to learning to live together, is really cool. I think that sense of purpose may have dulled in the last 35 years in the United States, but in South Africa, it's still very vibrant.

One thing that's sort of a joke is that they have this chicken restaurant—it'd be like Popeye's in the United States—just a chain restraurant. It's called Nando's Chicken, and their slogan is "One Nation. One Chicken. Nando's." It's so pervasive, this idea that they're going to learn to live together, that it manifests itself on napkins in restaurants. And we don't have that anymore in the United States.

Most of the news that we hear from Africa seems to be bad news—natural disasters, wars, AIDS, and so forth. Is there good news that we're not hearing from Africa? Can you give an example that would help us get a more balanced view of the situation?

That's a great question, and when people don't ask that, I try to talk about it. The way that I look at the news out of Africa is, there are those stories. There is the reality of AIDS, and disease, and war, and famine, but the other side of that reality is that everyday people in Africa wake up, and they go to work, or they laugh and love and their children play, and people try to make a better life for themselves and their kids. And every day they do that in the face of these daunting odds and in the face of all the challenges that you do hear about.

In my mind, the real story of Africa doesn't end with the stories of disease and war, but the flip side of that is the triumph, that every day these people go on with their lives, and they live them just like we do, in the face of all these ridiculously difficult circumstances.

For example, I lived with a family in South Africa. The community where I stayed carried their water from the river, they built their houses out of sticks and mud, and they bathed in a bucket, they were ten miles from a phone line. The woman that was the matriarch of this family—we called her Gogo, which is the Zulu word for "grandmother"—she grew up during apartheid.

She worked at a sweater factory in Johannesburg sewing for years, and then she was a maid for a white family in Pretoria, and then in 1975, they sent her, with all of these other people, in forced removals to this homeland where she'd never been, in a rural part of South Africa. The homelands had 13 percent of the land allocated to 75 percent of the people, and it was the least productive, least arable land in South Africa. And then it was overpopulated.

By the time I got there, which was 25 years later, she was the postmaster, the head of the Methodist church, she was chairperson of the school governing body, she was the principal of her own preschool that she had started. After I left she built a building for it, she has 45 kids in it, she hired a new teacher, and she has a women's gardening project that she does. She's the landlord of this establishment that has a gas station and a store—she's just incredible. She's not well-educated at all, but she's the kind of person who's going to be a leader, and is going to triumph no matter what you put in front of her.

In your book, in one of the later chapters, you raise some important questions about the Peace Corps and its mission, for example that what the Peace Corps is doing is colonization of these other cultures. Then you end the book with a very positive view of the project you were involved in. What is the main concern you have now about the Peace Corps, and what do you suggest can be done to improve it?

I think the Peace Corps as an organization has as good a chance as anything to be a really successful development project. The reason is that my biggest fear, and the one that I discussed in those chapters you referred to, is that people think that they're just giving from the United States—giving knowledge or ideas to the poor African people.

In reality what has to happen, in my opinion, is that we have to figure out in the West what it is that we can learn from these communities. My fear is that we press on people so much that we have the answers that we don't stop and listen to their ideas. The other side of that, and what the result of that is, is that folks in these countries like South Africa stop believing that what they have is valuable. So that's when we start to really lose the valuable parts of the culture.

I think that folks in South Africa, on the receiving end, let's say, of the Peace Corps, need to be encouraged by the Peace Corps to respect what it is that they have and the solutions that they come up with, and the great ways that they organize their communities—which are, in a lot of ways, better than the way we organize our communities in the United States.

I ended the book on a positive note and it's because I think that people in these communities do respect ubuntu, which is their idea of how to define a human being, and I think that they're never going to give that up, no matter how much they listen to American R&B.

What kind of lessons do you think your experience has for those of us who will likely never go to South Africa, or anywhere else on a Peace Corps mission?

I hope it's about leaving your comfort zone anywhere. I went to a place that was radically, starkly different from the place I was used to, and I was the only white person for 40 miles, and they spoke a different language and all of that.

But you can have a similar experience down the road. There are places where people might be uncomfortable, where they might not know what the lifestyle is like, 20 blocks from here. Hopefully people can see, if they read the book and are excited by it, and inspired by having those kind of experiences, then they can seek them out at home.

In South Africa they have these communities that are alienated from each other, and I don't think there's any doubt that we have communities in the United States that are alienated from each other. Crossing back and forth on those borders is what the subject of the book is as far as my experiences in South Africa, but I'm a lot better at doing it there than I am here. So now that I'm home I have to keep trying to go into communities that are different than mine, and participate in them, and find out what it is that they have to offer to me and my perspective. You can definitely find those places if you look for them.

Based on what you've heard since you left the Peace Corps in South Africa, have you seen a lasting positive impact from the project you were working on there?

I had a chance to go back to South Africa last week—so, two years after I had left almost exactly. My grandparents were there doing a different project and they invited me to go, and so I went. And I went up to the little town where I had stayed, and Gogo, that matriarch of the community that I talked about before, who had started this preschool, after I left she had gone and raised some more money, and started and finished construction on a new building for her preschool. It had facilities—and when I say facilities, I mean pit latrines—but they had dug them and built the little shacks around them, and they put a fence around this entire place where they had the preschool.

The number of children in the preschool doubled to 46 children, she hired a new teacher, she's going through the government, she's a class B—a higher class of preschool—so she has more money from the government. She charges the kids 33 rand, which is [U.S.] $3 a month, she feeds them twice a day at this preschool. It's totally amazing, and all of that was done after I left. She had the preschool, and I worked with her on the preschool, but they continued that after I left.

When you're in the Peace Corps, your biggest fear is that when you leave, they're going to say "OK, now that he's gone, we can quit all this crap. Thank goodness he's gone so that we can go back to the way we were living before." But I was really heartened by the extent to which folks had continued on with what we had been doing.

Several of the teachers I had worked with had gone on to become heads of departments at different schools, and had gotten promotions, and they were still pressing on with this new educational curriculum, and the new methodology, and all the things that we had started. And that's the government's work, so we were just helping them. I was really happy about it.

What are your future plans? Do you intend to carry on with volunteer or relief work in Africa, or somewhere else?

I'm in law school right now. I can't imagine turning my back on these things, because they did mean so much to me and the do mean so much to me, so I'll continue in that regard, but I'm not 100 percent sure what form that's going to take.

I'm still very interested in the political and legal puzzle of how to prosecute corruption in the third world, in the developing world, because I think that's the largest hindrance to development in the developing world. It's also just a really interesting political problem, and I think I would enjoy that aspect of it, and the legal questions are really, really interesting too. That's definitely one way I see this crystallizing in the future. But we'll see.

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