Monday, January 28, 2013

The Walls of Africa

This is my city.  A strange configuration of walls, potholes, and pedestrians.  I have tried for almost six months to get my brain around the walls, and I am still struggling.  As I discussed with a friend here recently (a friend who was just telling me how safe he feels here), there is a strange dichotomy that happens somewhere between feeling safe because you have walls, and feeling unsafe because you need to have walls.

Everyone has different things that make them feel safe; I have never felt safer than living in NYC among the masses.  Even when I'd return home to the Bronx by myself at 3 or 4 am, I felt secure in knowing that human life constantly surrounded me.  But when we moved to what suddenly felt like rural Connecticut (actually a small city, but just a stark shift from NYC), I was sure I was about to be abducted by aliens or a serial killer at any moment. I've come to learn that safety in numbers works for me, though not for all people.

I am coming to realize the walls of my new African city do not work for me.  I should feel safe.  There are millions of people, surely sharing the same kind qualities I have found in many strangers here.  But they are all hiding behind the isolation of walls.  And the walls speak clearly in the place of missing people.  To some they say "I'll protect you." But to not quite settled foreigners like me they often say, "Be afraid.  There are things you need protection from." The walls leave me with an uneasy feeling that I need to be on guard.

The walls add an extra element in getting to know, and feeling like one should trust, people in this country. It's also fascinating to see that many people here happily live their lives like, what I consider, caged animals.  Many local friends drive their SUVs in and out of walls, but otherwise rarely leave their comforts.  They go from gate to gate, wall to wall, never quite at ease beyond them, and they live life with that as a normality.

This is not intended to be commentary on the racial complexities of a place like Africa. Just a this-has-been-my-experience moment... I cannot tell you how often I have been walking my baby among the likes of fifteen Shona pedestrians, only to have an SUV driven by a white person pull up beside me and ask if everything is okay, and if we need a ride.  I recognize the friendliness in this gesture. But the experience also gives me a strange impression of who feels safe beyond walls, or rather maybe, of who has the option of being behind walls. Like I said, I'm not making commentary, so please, no angry emails! Just trying to still wrap my head around what the walls mean to me, and what they mean to others.  Six months here and still uneasy...

Meet the walls of my neighborhood. 

 Though every household has different looking walls, there are a number of common features. Most wallls are 6 to 12 feet tall. These concrete walls pictured above are common, with (hard to see) electric fencing running across the top of the fence line and across the black moving gate. Most gates have security signs indicating which security team responds to security breaches.  The one above, Safeguard, is one of the most common.

Most often gates over a driveway are solid so outsiders cannot see in, so the two pictured above are a little less common in that way. (I have pictured a lot with see-through gates just for the purpose of showing what's on the other side.) The white box in front of the 41 is a floating buzzer.  Cars drive up, open their window and ring the buzzer. Most people have a control panel inside of a communal room in their home that they can push a button on to open the gate.  We also have remote control key-chains to open the gate from outside of the walls.

The walls surround a property, not just border the front of it. Between neighbors walls almost always butt up to each other, but there is usually a good amount of space between the walls and the roads outside of them. Many walls, like above, are overgrown with ivy.

Here the walls still exist, this time within overgrown shrubbery surrounding it.  This is done often to prevent painting maintenance.

Dogs in this country are most often used as security.  (Even when we have walked around with a small cocker spaniel puppy, we find people were afraid.)  Dogs are not cute cuddly things as often here.  It is hard to see, but on the top of the green wall, above the security sign are broken glass bottles that have been glued along the top of the wall.  Very popular.

Here is another example in which the wall goes up about 6 feet, then iron bars with spikes on the top finish it off.  The neighbor has razor wire running around the perimeter of their property. 

Ditches for water drainage during the rainy season are almost always found in front of walls.  You can see the driveway (far left) is a little raised with a pipe running under it.

The hole in the wall is a mailbox.  Mailboxes are made of small holes in the wall that are big enough for a rolled-up paper to go inside, but not large enough for hands to fit through.  You must be on the inside of the wall to open the mailbox... so be sure before you put that love letter in your neighbor's box!

Some entry ways are very unique. Pegs (pictured left) or large rocks (pictured right) are often put along the front edge of properties to deter foot traffic and car-parking.  This makes pushing a stroller doubley hard!

When walls break apart, if the owner cannot immediately get it fixed, they are often secured with over-night guards, or shored-up with random objects until a permanent fix can be made.

Many walls have businesses behind them, too.  These are often hard to find, unless they are nursery schools. Almost all nursery schools have paintings on the walls to designate themselves.

Guard huts just outside the walls can be found in some neighborhoods.  In these neighborhoods, houses each pay a monthly rate (our friends' is $15 a month) and pool to get a night guard on the street. Night guards sit in these huts, watching for anything dangerous. What they are supposed to do then is a bit of a mystery, as most are not paid well enough to risk their lives, and there are few people to call for help.  The guard booth above is on a street close to ours... It used to be a normal three sided shed, but this past month someone took it over and made it into a 3' x 3' home by putting up bamboo posts and something over the hole in the side.  Whatever works for shelter.

More examples...