I traveled to the beautiful country of South Africa about 6 and a half years ago. Since the moment I departed the country to come back to America I have never been able to stop thinking of the time I spent there. The things and places I have seen will never escape my memory and I hope to be fortunate enough to take my family there one day, like my parents took me.
The differences between South Africa and America are endless. Cape Town and Cape of Good Hope were two of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen, however the poverty I witnessed will forever haunt me. Waking up before the sun for two weeks, I saw lions, elephants, giraffes, zebras, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, and monkeys etc. in their natural habitat. This was something my mind couldn’t even fathom, until day after day these animals kept reappearing right before my eyes. It was a weird concept to me, that the animals I grew up only seeing in movies like The Lion King actually existed and roamed free in South Africa. Of course I knew these animals ACTUALLY existed, but in the U.S. it’s not like we are accustomed to seeing elephants casually stroll down the streets of our neighborhoods.
However, the memory that sticks with me most, is of the children I spent time with in South Africa. I was a freshman in high school and currently teaching my first year of ski school at Waterville Valley Ski Resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Even at the young age of 14, I was clearly able to decipher the behavioral differences of children in the United States verses the children of a small South African village.
These children were babies, three or four years old, tops, coincidentally, the same age as the kids I was teaching how to ski in N.H. I was astonished to find that even though these two groups of children were the same age, they acted so differently. The South African children were so well-behaved and civilized, like tiny adults.
I remember being mind-blown by how they served themselves their own food at lunch-time and cleared their own plates from the table immediately, taking them to the sink to hand-wash and dry their bowls and plates. At the ski school I worked for in America, the children were served their food, made giant messes and somebody was always uncooperative during meals.
The children in the village did not have many toys, certainly nothing that lit-up or made sounds. I noticed the less toys they had, the more they took care of what they did have, and the more joy their toys brought to them. I reflected back to how it was at the ski school. The American children had more toys than they could possibly play with in a day, they were rough with the toys, threw them around the playroom and fought over them constantly. I can’t even begin to tell you how many “sharing” conversations I had, or how many times kids dumped giant boxes of figurines over just for the fun of making a mess.
The conditions of the South African village day-care were very poor. The outside where they played was a pit of rocky sand and I remember finding nails and dangerous objects within the sand. Nevertheless, the children were so happy and played as if they had the world’s largest jungle gym at their feet. I have never seen children be so gracious, kind and happy and I remember thinking that despite their living conditions they were truly the lucky ones to wear the smiles on their faces that they did each day.
At the end of the day I am an American and I love the the children of my country. However, when I saw babies that napped and played in card board boxes in South Africa that seemed genuinely happier, had less complaints, and rarely cried when they had almost nothing, I felt a greater appreciation for everything I had been given in my life. Those children will forever touch my heart.