Having arrived in Johannesburg after the sun had gone down, I didn’t get to see much of the B&B and the neighborhood we’re staying in. The attorneys and the evening students are all staying at the same B&B with me, while the day students are staying at another B&B down the street. The first time we all had the chance to meet each other was when the University of Witwatersrand law school threw us abraai(traditional barbecue) at the University’s newly remodeled club.
It was a lovely white building at the bottom of a beautifully terraced garden-like area, with fountains and sculpted planters. The barbecue wasn’t the rustic “grilling out” I was used to in the states (nothing like my favorite Oklahoma Joe’s), and instead was an incredibly buffet of fresh salads and fruits and delicately seasoned meats. But I noticed another difference – all but one of the University program faculty was white, as was our group, but all of the serving staff were black. They were so overly polite and apologetic, I almost felt like I should jump up and help, or do something more than give a smile and say thank you.
On the bus ride back from the braai, my group started looking out the windows at the neighborhoods we were passing. From our viewpoint high up in the bus, we could see all of the adorable houses looking like smaller versions of those you would see in the older parts of San Diego, California. Stucco with almost a craftsman style wood door. Well-maintained tropical gardens and usually at least one or two European looking cars parked on top of brick drives. What caught all of our attention the most was the 10 foot high concrete walls topped with razor wire, barbed wire, or electric wire surrounding each and every house we passed.
“How can they even know their neighbors?” one student asked rhetorically. Someone in the back quietly replied, “It doesn’t look like they really want to…”
It was a similar picture in Liberia – homes and communities surrounded with walls so high you couldn’t see the roofs on 1-story homes, topped with coils and coils of razor wire. It was the constant reminder of the war-torn history that we expats had the luxury of stepping into, and then out of. But it was different in South Africa. The homes were well maintained, the cars were often made by BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguar. While most buildings and areas of Monrovia, Liberia still looked bombed out, the streets of Johannesburg were clean and the overhanging tropical trees gave it almost an upscale neighborly feel…almost. That stark contrast between what I identify as very third world security surrounding very first world belongings gave me more than a little pause.
Later that night, a group of us sat outside on the brick patio outside our rooms. The patio was lined with petit-rose bushes in three different shades of pink. We opened some bottles of South African wine one student had picked up at the grocery store the day before, and chatted over a few glasses. It felt like we were really on a patio in Tuscany or the South of France. And then, once again, the electric wire that on the walls beside us became the topic of our conversation, reminding us all of the complexity of the country surrounding us…and putting my own existence in Des Moines, Iowa into perspective.