Often, we all take for granted the basic promise of America: If you work hard and play by the rules,you can earn a comfortable living and ensure you and your family can get ahead.
It is more than just the American Dream - it really is the compact that comes with American birthright. Sure, it isn't perfect, and for some, the mountain is a lot steeper than for others, but at its core, the pathway exists for all. Look no further than our current President as living proof. All partisanship and ideology aside, his success in life is testament of the greatness of America.
It is easy to view everything through that lens. Just work hard, get a good education, live by the Golden Rule, etc., and all will be fine. It is the universal promise, right?
Then you go to Africa.
As my friends and followers of this blog know, I just returned from nearly three weeks in sub Saharan Africa. It was a trip that I've dreamed of going back to my earliest memories, and one I've actively thought about for almost two decades. Now that I've been home for a week, I've spent a lot of time thinking about what the experience.
And the best I can do is parrot the words of a friend, who said to me during the trip: "there is an old saying the longer you are in Africa, the less you know and can say for sure."
There are a lot of people who will stay in my memories for a long time, the little girl in a Botswana village who was dreaming of being President, the city manager in Windhoek who taught me how he learned to forgive after apartheid, the local tribesman who was a server at our bush hotel - who spoke at least four languages fluently, or the baggage valet in Johannesburg who had to quit school and abandon dreams of being a lawyer because of the wars in the Congo. Everywhere you turned, there was a story - a story of struggle, perseverance, and survival. But more than that, these were people largely stuck in place.
The one person who probably encapsulated the experience as well as any was the last person I really met, Xolsia, the head bellman at our last hotel in Cape Town. He was a big, happy man, the kind you'd see at most upscale hotels. He was quick with names, and always happy to help - the classic 'just get shit done' kind of guy, I think we were about the same age and I liked him almost immediately,
Under apartheid, his tribe was limited to a specific area of South Africa - some two days away by bus. Like many, he had come to Cape Town in search of a better life - and also like so many people there, he was multi-lingual, spoke Africaans, English, as well as Xhosa, his native language (its the clicking language). He tried to teach me a bit of it, which was frustrating for me, and probably entertaining for him. He's one of those guys for whom in the US, the American Dream is designed for.
But when he told me where he lived - the almost soul crushing slum/township that you try to ignore when you leave the airport in Cape Town, it was like getting kicked in the stomach.
You can do everything right there - you can go to school and get a good education, you can learn a skill, you can speak multiple languages, you can move hundreds of miles away from your family in search of work, and when you do all that, often times good work is working in a hotel, or driving a cab. and living in substandard housing. The promise which is at the foundation of our country is only a hope in the places I visited in Africa.
On our last full day in South Africa, we took the boat to Robbin Island. Seeing Mandela's prison was one of those things I've just needed to do in this lifetime. When you go to the prison, you are guided by former political prisoners of Robbin Island. Touring Robbin Island isn't a quick trip - it takes 45 minutes by boat to get there, often in pretty choppy seas, another 45 minutes to an hour by bus to tour the island, and another 30 minutes or so to tour the prison. The guides were invaluable to providing context to the life on Robbin Island. We had two - one who was in the first wave of political prisoners on the island, the other who was one of the last to leave.
Prison life on Robbin Island was miserable. It's has a beautiful view of Cape Town, but otherwise is a cold, nasty, windswept place, The cell that Nelson Mandela called home for 18 years is maybe 2 meters by 3 meters. It had no bed - just a mat on the floor, and no toilet - just a bucket in the corner. Many of the men who work as guides endured the same hardship, locked away for the crime of wanting the basic God-given freedoms that we enjoy here.
At the end of both tours (the bus, and the prison), the guides took questions, and most were about life there, what was Mandela like, etc. When the Q&A ended, both answered the question that no one asked - but that we all thought about - "So why do you do this? Why do you come back to this horrible place and back to these memories, every single day, to give tours to people like us?" Get ready for another kick in the gut --
Because it was the only job they could get. Basically, these men were still in prison.
The longer you are there, the less you can say for sure.
So on this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for a lot. I am grateful for family, for friends, for good health, for the opportunity to work and grow, and for the privilege to travel, but maybe more than anything - and probably the one thing that makes all of the previous possible, for the blessing of American birthright. More than anything, that is what I learned after almost three weeks in Africa.