Having worked quite extensively with the Kola Foundation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, I naively thought that poverty would be similar irrespective of location. However, after touring a local township and speaking with some of the indigenous people of South Africa, I realized just how wrong I had been.
First of all, it is important to note that the culture of the Lakota People adds a degree of difficulty to their situation. Having once roamed and lived off the land, the reservation, in a way, forces them to choose between their traditional culture and assimilation. This difficulty is reduced with the South Africans, as they are able to adapt to the modern world and uphold their traditional practices.
However, at a glance, many parallels can be drawn between these two groups. Both have experienced segregation or confinement to a territory based on boundaries established by their respective governments. Although those boundaries no longer require the indigenous people to remain there, many do. I’m sure there are several different reasons why they choose to do so, many of which we can probably not understand as outsiders. The fact is that something is keeping them there.
Additionally, the conditions are quite similar. Running water and electricity are a luxury, shelters are inadequate, and disease and crime run rampant. But the indigenous South Africans have something that I found very inspiring: something that is hard to come by in Pine Ridge, and that’s hope. Hope that the government with follow through on their promises, hope that their fellow citizens will treat them as equals, hope that things are going to get better. And not just hope, but also self-awareness. On multiple occasions we heard the South Africans speak about the importance of education and getting a job; about taking their futures into their own hands rather than blaming someone else, no matter how terrible they’ve been to you.
Then I had to take a step back and ask myself how? How are these people able to forgive those who treated them so badly? How are they able to move forward? How are they able to be so positive when they’re living in conditions like this? Of course, I was not able to answer these questions as these topics are very complex. Maybe it’s a difference in culture, or maybe it’s a difference in the amount of time that has passed since some sort of resolution was made. I can only hope that the indigenous people of South Africa continue to remain optimistic as change does not happen overnight, and that the Lakota may rediscover this spirit that they seem to have lost.