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Our first two weeks in South Africa were spent traveling the northeast corner of the country, with Johannesburg acting as a sort of home base. During that time, the “rainbow nation” was on full display. The diversity of thought, culture, language, wealth, priorities, wildlife, and landscape were, at many points, overwhelming. Of course, the United States also prides itself (or used to) on being a “melting pot”, but the contrasts feel less stark at home. In the USA there is a buffer between the millionaires and the impoverished, the urban and the rural, the obligate anglophones and the polyglots, the wild and the cultivated, the antiquated and the modern.

Not here. Here, the boundaries are sharp.

The border between a rural clinic and the neighborhood it serves

The boundaries are walls, fences, gates. The boundaries are barbed wire, armed guards, razor wire, infrared motion detectors, electric fences, shards of glass embedded in concrete. The desperately poor rest against one side while the opulently affluent sleep on the other. The lions and leopards pace their untamed domain, meters from children walking to school. The Mustangs and Impalas honk impatiently as livestock and antelopes block the road. Shacks with no electricity or running water nevertheless have satellite TV. Ancient caves house not only the oldest human fossils ever unearthed but also detailed plaques and paved flights of well-lit stairs. Medical doctors coordinate with traditional sangomas to address public health concerns. A single street flaunts billboards in 2, 3, or 4 separate languages.

The entrance to South Africa’s Constitutional Court, titled in each of the country’s 11 official languages

Upon arriving in the Western Cape province, where we’ll be spending the remainder of the quarter, these boundaries once again became noticeably blurrier. In a way, I already miss the bright collisions in the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga, and Limpopo. At the same time, I certainly don’t miss the electric fences and razor wire.

metse e metle kantle

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