The first things you see when you drive in to one of the townships is the garbage that lays everywhere, stray dogs, shacks that are packed together like cans. Then you see the kids with torn clothes, and the stains that will show that it has covered the small bodies for at least two weeks. They are what we in the modern world would say the image of poor. You will immediately think to yourself that these people are miserable, they have nothing, and the smiling faces that are running to your car is because you can give them something. Your hands is holding tight to your purse or the pocket where you have secretly hid your money. You look sceptic around to who is taking a special notice of your movements. I was like that. Little did I then realize that my time spent with them would change my perspective of the world.
I have been volunteering at the school for disabled children at Da noon (one of Cape Town’s many townships) for 8 weeks now, and in strange ways I have got to know these people more than I thought was possible. In my tea break, I was talking to an American student that was there one week to volunteer with ISV (International Student Volunteering). She said to me that she had heard so much wonderful things about Norway, where I am from, and that this must be hard for me to witness. She mentioned things like that we have the best healthcare system. We have little to nothing unemployment as well as low crime rate along with other things. It sounds wonderful she said with a smile, and I caught myself in nodding in agreement. What she was saying, that is the same I see written in black and white in the newspaper back home, and I am after all a proud Norwegian. What I had witnessed in the past months bare witness of that, and I did consider myself lucky. When I looked around me, the township was a different world. Here they did not have a welfare system to catch them when things went wrong, and the biggest lesson the children learned here, was how to make it on their own. Then she with a smile said; “Norwegians is measured to be the happiest country. Is that true?” She looked at me for confirmation, and as I was about to answer I looked around me again. Had I not read something similar in the newspaper back home? I could not help but think back to one of my old posts. (You can find it here: https://oslogeek.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/do-you-complain-about-the-weather/)
My eyes followed the different scenery that the township was, and I compared it to Oslo, and then to where I grew up. My gaze stopped by two Xhosa ladies who was preparing their dinner on the street, and further to another woman who put up her laundry to the wired fence in front of her shack. They laughed and shouted comments to each other, before one of them reprimanded a random child for stepping to close to the open fire with a smack on the bum. I could not deny that it was different. However, what was it that could establish that Norwegians was happier then these people? My eyes continued and stopped by a group of children who drummed sticks to a barrel in synch with the vivid drums that floated from the many shacks. A group of youngsters passed us, and two girls giggled shy as I smiled and they measured me from top to toe. The smiles and openly curious looks I saw struck a nerve, because now I know. They look because I am different, and I stick out. It would be the same as someone is dressing up back home. We would look because he looks funny. I saw a boy carry his younger sister on his back, and then a new woman keeping an eye on a group of children who played between the rusty barrels that was on fire to keep the heat in the South African winter. For them this was normal, and my life back home was just different. For example, I love my younger brother, but I would never have carried him around, forced or voluntary.
One of the projects coordinators from the township cleared his throat and looked at me anticipating an answer, and it reminded me that I had to say something. I knew he had grown up in these townships, and I recognized the curios look in him, that I always saw around me. “I do not know what to answer to that,” I finally said and shrugged. “Because when I look around me now, and when I think back to the people in Norway, Norwegians do not seem happier than for example these people.”
The South African coordinator smiled wide. “I do not think happiness can be measured he said. Happiness for me will not mean the same as happiness for you, and for every person we meet happiness will mean something different.”
I could not help but smile. It was expressed with such humbleness, but for me, the lesson would last a lifetime. “So simple and so true” I replied. “If happiness could be measured in the smiles you gave away every day, the people in Da noon would be high up on the happiness barometer.”
When I got home to the volunteer house that day, what he had said lingered in my mind, and if I am lucky, I will never forget it. However, the people in Danoon thought me something else, and that is to always give a smile away. I might not be the happiest person in the world, but I might even fool myself in to think that by keep smiling.