Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Written on the Side in a Spaza

Recently I visited a tiny home shop (called 'spaza') in a township in South Africa. It was part of a fact-finding mission to see how the small business landscape changed in a particular informal settlement that we surveyed two years ago. I stopped by a local shop owner to get some cool drink. It was not the 'WHO'S NEXT?' signage above the counter that attracted my attention - but the two words scratched to the side of it on the frame: "WHY ME?"....

Those words kept me awake for a night or two as I pondered their meaning - the feeling behind them, and it also resonated: These days I often ask: Why me? The reasons are different, but I do ask the exact same question - especially when I wonder about being part of the development arena here in Africa and we get so frustrated with 'red tape' and political unwillingness. Just yesterday, it was another organisation that was jealous of our support in a community, and particularly "offended" by the local City of Cape Town Council for allocating a grant to our initiative - and they demanded promptly to "be part of the project" (read, share in funds that we acquired after 2 years of battling with Council) "or else"... which could mean anything from outright sabotage to creating destructive drama during the implementation. One of our Directors reflected yesterday in a public meeting: "It is no wonder that development is so slow in this community - there are way too many personal agendas". And she also asked me afterward: "Why (make it so difficult for) us?" A collective version of, "Why me?"

But if I think about it more clearly, it is the simple words scribbled on a wooden frame in a cold spazashop that hit harder and ring more true than my own frustrated thoughts as outsider development practitioner. It is after all the person standing behind the counter that has been asking this question for some time now - at least since our democratic election in 1994. Why do I still live like this? Why do I struggle still? Why is my income still below the poverty line? Why did my place burn down last year, and flooded this year? Why me? I also speculated that the graffiti possibly appeared as a disgruntled response from an impatient, waiting customer at the wooden-tin shack. (In our 2005 research of 3700 township customers we found that township residents often find shops locked up and people cue restlessly while the shopkeeper "feed babies at the back", "do not care about me". We have been told to shout for service...)

Until I asked the shop owner eventually: "Who wrote these words?" and the answer came: "I did. A long time ago. It is because I am blessed to have this shop. I remind myself everyday - Why me?" And I learn... never, ever assume anything in Africa. Ask, and Ask again. And I start to count my own blessings and think: "Why me?"
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Chestnut Rau September 15, 2008 at 2:38 PM  

I will ponder "why me" all day. This is a powerful post -- thank you for sharing your thoughts.

metaMeerkat™ September 15, 2008 at 5:20 PM  

Thank you Chestnut :) And thanks for visiting my blog!

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