Alan Duff: Culture's pervasive power

Young man was drawn home to poverty and death, despite success in New Zealand.
Turkana women carry home water taken from a borehole in a dry riverbed in northern Turkana, Kenya. Photo / AP
Turkana women carry home water taken from a borehole in a dry riverbed in northern Turkana, Kenya. Photo / AP

There was short article in the Herald about women in sub-Saharan Africa doing most of the water fetching, meaning carrying up to 18kg loads on their heads for quite some distance. We all know the sight. Where are the males? Preening, lolling about, but keeping an eye out that no woman water-carrier slackens. A case of "you work and we'll shout the orders at our women and children to do various village tasks beneath our dignity".

What a backward cultural outlook to be born into; dominant males lording it over women and children. Though, of course, it's a worldwide practice. Less so in our Western culture.

Some years ago, a few of us sponsored some Zulu kids to visit New Zealand. During a vist to South Africa, I'd given a talk in Durban to a class of high schoolers and thought, why not let actions do my talking? So we paid for three, plus their teacher, to travel from a shanty town just outside of Durban to New Zealand. The three teenagers - two boys, one girl - won everyone over.

A three-week stay was too short and we decided to bring them back, longer-term, for a tertiary education.

One day we took them to visit Hastings' "Soweto" in Flaxmere, dubbed so because it has been compared to the gritty Johannesburg suburb, which squeezes a population of more than 900,000 into an area the size of Napier and Hastings.

At the end of Flaxmere Ave, they looked at me, puzzled. I said, "We're here. This is it." They were silent for a moment, looked at each with funny grins and burst out laughing. "But it can't be," said Pretty - yes, that is her name. Marko cried out, "This is a poor area? But we just passed people eating a bucket of KFC."

They observed that every house was stand-alone, had a front lawn, a TV aerial or a satellite dish and cars in driveways.

Their jam-packed shanty village of 100,000-plus had no running water, no fridges, washing machines, no appliances of any sort, just a gas-stove, basic cots to sleep on, and sheebans that sold home-made beer at the main social gathering place - for males only, of course.

In answer to how the Flaxmere people lived, I said, "They have jobs, and those who don't, the Government pays a weekly amount considered sufficient to live on."

They were astonished. "How can this be!" More so at being told even gang members get the unemployment benefit.

Not even centuries of ever-growing modernity has broken the witch doctor/healer mentality.

We sat around that evening listening to horror stories of life in a Zulu shantytown; of people shot dead for their cellphone; gangs collecting pennies per person on a daily basis, which added up to a lot of money.

The overriding culture was violence, but music and dancing were almost as important as food. As to the likelihood of them staying in our Havelock North house with all its conveniences - they'd not even day-dreamed. As events would have it, only one passed the immigration requirements to stay on.

He studied computer science at a polytechnic. Two years later, Marko got a job in the IT department of a friend's large company in Auckland. He really flourished there.

A couple of years later he got sick, then sicker. He wanted to go back to South Africa to see a healer. I used the term "witch doctor". We begged him to stay in New Zealand and get proper treatment. But he could not be dissuaded.

The last sight we had of Marko was saluting us goodbye at Auckland Airport. A couple of months later he was dead of causes unknown.

He'd reverted, pulled by culture and tradition, even though he'd made a successful transition to Western society.

Cultural outlook is the hardest nut to crack. Not even centuries of ever-growing modernity has broken the witch doctor/healer mentality. Using a rusty razor blade to bleed someone of their ailment "works" in their eyes, even when it plainly does not. They ask: Do sick people die in Western society despite your superior medicines?

Catholics believe in miracles despite being surrounded, indeed near overwhelmed, by secular thinking; fanatical Muslims believe a murderous martyr has 72 virgins waiting for him in Heaven; astrologists can see entire human lives mapped out in the planets.

Faith healers and psychics, water diviners and fortune tellers: we're all stuck somewhere, each our versions of justifying not carrying the water.

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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